Hermetic Library Fellow John Michael Greer reviews Astrology and the Seventeenth Century Mind: William Lilly and the Language of the Stars by Ann Geneva in the archive of Caduceus: The Hermetic Quarterly.
The importance of astrology in the culture of the Renaissance has been recognized for some time now, but there is still plenty to be learned about its manifold roles in the interwoven realms of learning, politics and society in the years before the scientific revolution chased it into the back closets of our culture. This is particularly true when it is allowed to speak in its own terms, rather than being forced into the Procrustean bed of some modern intellectual category. Ann Geneva’s recent study of the English astrologer William Lilly does precisely this, and as a result casts an remarkably clear light not only on the work of the most brilliant astrologer of his time but also on a host of other aspects of late Renaissance cultural history.
William Lilly (1602–1691) rose from humble origins to become the most famous astrologer in England during the years of the English Civil War and the Commonwealth which followed it. An important factor in his rise was his unswerving devotion to the Parliamentary cause, a devotion which took the form of anti-Royalist predictions in his extremely popular annual almanacs and many of his other publications. At the same time, he was also an astrologer of genius, and his Christian Astrology — the first comprehensive manual of astrological practice to be published in English rather than Latin — is widely held to have ignited the English astrological renaissance of the seventeenth century, and to have played a critical part in handing down the astrological traditions of the past to future students of the art.
His astrological predictions of doom for the King and success for the Parliamentary cause, however, are the major focus of Geneva’s book. After efficiently clearing away much of the nonsense surrounding the historical study of astrology in a first chapter, she develops two themes through the rest of the book: first, the way that natural phenomena were understood as a language of portents and signs predicting events in the political world; and second, the way that discourse about these portents and signs could be used, and was used, as a tool of political communication and action. In the process, she gives a thorough and eye-opening look at the use of codes, anagrams and encryption in seventeenth-century England, and provides a valuable discussion of the ways in which certain astronomical and meteorological events — notably eclipses, comets, conjunctions of Jupiter and Saturn, and those remarkable refracted images of the Sun called parhelia or “sundogs” — were read as portents of coming woe in earlier traditions of astrology.
All of these were grist for Lilly’s mill, as he turned out almanacs and pamphlets predicting victory for Parliament and death for King Charles I. Geneva explores these latter prophecies of regicide in detail, showing how Lilly wove them into the fabric of his discourse, sometimes openly, sometimes under a protective screen of astrological jargon, at times making use of the king’s own natal horoscope to predict his fate and at other times drawing on broader traditions of the interpretation of omens as political signs. These prophecies played a significant role in Parliamentarian propaganda, just as the predictions of the Royalist astrologer George Wharton were used to good effect by the King’s adherents. At the same time, Geneva argues, Lilly’s carefully orchestrated predictions of Charles’ death may well have helped create a climate of thought in which the once-unthinkable idea of ending the monarchy with a headsman’s axe came to be seen as written in the stars.
As a work of intellectual history, then, Astrology and the Seventeenth Century Mind has a great deal to offer, not only to those specifically interested in the late English Renaissance but also to anyone seeking a clearer grasp of the complexities of the magical world view. In addition, some of the byways it opens up offer unexpected access to the more enigmatic parts of the Western magical tradition. The fusion of occult tradition with politics and concealed communication is an old one, and Lilly was far from the first person to work both sides of their interaction at the same time; one thinks of the Steganographia of Trithemius, at once a manual of ciphers and a textbook of angel-summoning, and of John Dee’s Enochian material, created by methods closely linked to the encryption techniques known and practiced at the time. For students of Hermetic magic, the insight provided by this book’s glimpse into one part of that shadowy underworld of hidden discourse may be its most useful feature.