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From Sibly to Simmonite: Source texts of the 19th Century English Astrological Revival 1784-1854 Over 40 Period Volumes carefully reproduced in full color DVD

Book Review

From Sibly to Simmonite: Source texts of the 19th Century English Astrological Revival: 1784-1854

Over 40 Period Volumes carefully reproduced in full color

DVD, compiled by Philip M Graves; distributed by the AFA
RRP: £59.99 / US$ 99

Reviewed by Kirk Little

Revivals are hard things to pin down, but astrology's resuscitation from cultural oblivion took place in England sometime during the last quarter of the 18th century. Its death certificate had been all but signed, when a few astonished observers noted some barely detectable signs of life in the expiring patient: the unbidden appearance of the Conjuror's Magazine, the republication of a seminal text or two, and before long, some rather massive tomes on the stellar art were tumbling off the presses. Before the doctors could protest, the patient was kicking off the covers, stumbling out of her sick bed and boasting that she would once again regain her rightful place at the cultural table, commenting on the horoscopes of kings and commoners and weighing in on the important issues of the day.

As we modern astrologers know, the recovery was never complete; indeed, a few revivals later, serious astrology remains a marginal pursuit.1 Still, its modern formulation, at least in the West, may be traced to the work which appeared in England between its loss of the American colonies and its rise as a singular imperial power by the middle of the 19th century. Or the period roughly bounded by the discoveries of Herschel/Uranus and Neptune. Evidence for astrology's late 18th century revival is dramatically illustrated by the publication of Ebenezer Sibly's A New and Complete Illustration of the Celestial Science of Astrology, in four parts between 1784 and 1788; by 1817, it was in its twelfth edition.2 Philip Grave's remarkable DVD, From Sibly to Simmonite: Source Texts of the 19th Century English Astrological Revival, 1784-1854 makes their collective efforts widely available for the first time, by taking them from the dusty shelves of rare book shops and libraries and putting them into a modern, accessible format. This is a significant accomplishment and will put future historians and researchers in Mr. Graves' debt; for the rest of us, it makes for an economical way to own an important part of our history. According to Mr. Graves, 16 of the 42 titles are no longer available at any price; the remainder would conservatively cost the purchaser £7,200 or $12,473 (not counting shipping!). So, unless you are a serious book collector or a researcher attempting to update the work of Patrick Curry or Nick Campion, perhaps the best way to approach this work is to treat it like a late Georgian/Victorian blog and read a bit here and there to see what suits you. Before opening your revival blog, you may be wondering: what revived exactly?

Following its fall from grace in the late 17th century, astrology never entirely disappeared, but was "confined almost entirely to the semi-literate laboring class, in the form of popular beliefs concerning the phases of the Moon and other readily visible phenomena."3 Other than a few solitary practitioners scattered about, what remained was astrology's most popular 'vulgar' form, as found in Old Moore's Almanack or Vox Stellarum. What revived then, was a middling sort of judicial astrology, which had virtually disappeared by the middle of the 18th century. During that 'century of light', Voltaire, one of the chief exemplars of the Enlightenment had refused to even acknowledge the presence of astrology in his influential Philosophical Dictionary. Then too, that purveyor of magnetic cures, Anton Mesmer somehow neglected to describe himself as an astrologer, though he had produced a dissertation for his doctorate in 1766 entitled De Planetarum Influxu in Corpus Humanum. Mon Dieu! What had the world come to?

Well, for starters, pervasive rationalism and scientific explanations for pretty much everything. In other words, Mesmer was fine, as long as he substituted the force of invisible "fluids" for "the bonds of occult sympathy", according to Joscelyn Godwin.4 Fortunately for the astral arts, the age that produced Voltaire also brought us Jean-Jacques Rousseau and a romantic revolt against the excessive rationalizing of this orderly century. And why not? Rationalism had a lot to answer for. The age of Enlightenment had produced nearly an uninterrupted century of warfare among Europe's major powers, spawned two revolutions in America and France, and in the UK witnessed the beginnings of a massive social dislocation engendered by rapid industrialization in key sectors in Britain's economy. Though no one could know it, by 1784, England was on the cusp of a social, economic and industrial transformation that, by the time of the Crystal Palace exhibition of 1851, provided undisputable evidence of Britain's primacy over her Continental competitors in manufacturing, transport and commerce. Along with these glittering gains, nay, as their by-product, Britons also experienced increasing social distress, the widespread exploitation of wage earners by both landed and manufacturing interests, and an increasing gap between the needs of most and the wealth and power of the few at the top. Sound familiar? How was one to make sense of such inequities? A small, but increasing number turned away from the rationalizing tendencies of the age and towards esoteric or occult pursuits to seek some answers; a few even sought refuge in the perennial promise of astrology.

Rest assured that those who did help resuscitate astrology are contained in this DVD, along with some fellow travelers who provide some mediocre poetry and cracker barrel philosophizing. Nine of the works contained in this DVD predate the 19th century; the next eleven were produced in the first quarter of that century. Over half were produced in the last thirty years of this seventy year period. While some of these astrologers' names are familiar to us, most of their written work is not. Though Graves' DVD should help rectify that, some contemporary astrologers may need a more proper introduction to this motley group of individuals, since it has been a while. A number of recent histories provide the necessary context. Joscelyn Godwin's The Theosophical Enlightenment places the astrological revival in the broader context of the resurgence of occult and esoteric pursuits during the 19th century. Godwin blends an erudite exploration of a lengthy list of strange characters with wit and literary charm. Nick Campion provides a broad overview of this phase of astrological history in several chapters of his A History of Western Astrology, which is well worth reading.5 Those wanting more detailed information on some of the principals who helped bring about the English astrological revival, however, will need to turn elsewhere. Patrick Curry's A Confusion of Prophets: Victorian and Edwardian Astrology contains several finely etched character studies of some of these individuals, including Robert Cross Smith, the first Raphael, and Richard James Morrison, better known to us as Zadkiel, the first of several men to adopt that moniker.6 But for this reviewer, the first modern book to draw back the curtains on this historical era in astrology remains the most delectable: Ellic Howe's Urania's Children.7 In a lengthy chapter filled with fascinating detail, Howe introduces us to all the key figures of the UK revival that make an appearance in this DVD: Sibly, John Worsdale, Morrison, Cross, Thomas Oxley, and WJ Simmonite, along with the history of some of their publications. Astrologically literate, Howe adopts a warm, if sometimes skeptical stance toward his subjects. This single chapter serves as an ideal introduction to From Sibly to Simmonite.

Before discussing this DVD's contents, it is important to acknowledge some technical aspects of Grave's endeavor. According to the accompanying brochure, each DVD contains ten thousand "high colour scan-based photographic images" which are not to be confused with "the lower quality monochrome ones produced by other providers of scanned books, for example Early English Books Online and Google Books." I can vouch for their quality; one derives the same pleasure from viewing these images as you would from looking at the actual pages of an old and fragile book. Unlike perusing an old volume, here there is no worry of damaging it, no matter how quickly you flip through the pages. For scholars and other researchers "An invisible layer over the visible image file allows users to search the contents of each file for words and terms of interest". That is a good thing, when one considers this DVD is part of a series of four, with more potentially on the way. In short, the whole project is nothing less than a labour of love and it benefits immensely from Mr. Grave's evident bibliomania and Virgoan attention to detail. Any reader may find comfort that their reading pleasure will not be impaired by any technical oversights or limitations. They may, however, feel somewhat overwhelmed by the sheer amount of material at their fingertips. Sibly to Simmonite contains a veritable tsunami of astrological literature from the early days of its modern revival.

Who then are Grave's intended readers? Well, anyone who has always wanted to own Ebeneezer Sibly's A Complete Illustration of the Celestial Science of Astrology, (1784) or Worsdale's Celestial Philosophy or Genethliacal Astronomy (1828) , but couldn't justify selling the rights to their first born child in order to purchase them. Or perhaps someone who wonders what the Mountain Astrologer would have looked like had it been issued in 1824. With a few clicks of a mouse, they can turn to the pages of The Straggling Astrologer. There on page 10, they would learn the magazine "was launched under Mercury in his diurnal house, at a trine with Juno", since such news would "send all enlightened, intelligent, sharp sort of persons to stamp their approbation of the undertaking." One is almost jarred seeing the reference to Juno, which had been discovered only twenty years earlier. Which brings up a point: despite Juno's symbolic connotations, no one was suggesting this astrological journal was aimed at female readers. Indeed, a whiff of the gentleman's club hangs about the pages; straight off, we are informed that "the HEIROGLYPHICS are by the learned members of the Mercurii, whose deep researches into futurity have been assisted by the perusal of most erudite and valuable MSS in the British Museum", etc. etc. Lest one think it is written for the philosophically minded, we see listed in the table of contents: Celestial Omens, p. 93, Teeth, to make drop out, p. 261; Fatal Omen, p. 269; and Curious Nativity of a Child Burnt to Death, p.840. Yes, that last page number gives you some idea of the sheer size of this short lived journal. In this age of Twitter feeds and Facebook posts, it is important to remember the 19th century was a heroic age of prose.

This is where books like Ellic Howe's come in handy: they help the reader make sense of this astrological omnibus. In a paragraph from Urania's Children which could serve as a précis for the kinds of astrological material contained in this collection, Howe accurately notes:

The small scale astrological revival that began in the 1780's coincided with a new and in many respects antiquarian or romantic preoccupation with ancient Hermetic beliefs such as magic and alchemy. At the same time, there was another class of devotee for whom astrology represented, above all, a predictive science founded upon severely mathematical principles, hence without any occult or magical nimbus. From now on the astrologers can be divided into two camps: those for whom its appeal is Hermetic or esoteric (cf. the Theosophical astrologers after c. 1890) and those who regard it as a science. The man in the street has never been conscious of these fine distinctions.8

As astrologers, we should be aware of these distinctions. This DVD provides ample evidence of both the Hermetic and the scientific types of astrologer; naturally, given the spirit of the 19th century, the latter type predominates here. Still, something has shifted since Lilly confidently assured his mid 17th century Reader "there are in one of those epistles of mine, words significant…" One hundred and fifty years later, as this DVD makes clear, there is a defensive tone in the introductory remarks made by several of the authors, in justifying why they are publishing an astrology book in a modern era of steam engines and balloonists.

Take, for instance, James Wilson's considered response to a critic of his Dictionary of Astrology (1819). Wilson's critic, wielding a statistical cudgel, had noted with regard to the signs of astrology, that the same thing could be produced by "any other set of signs as marbles knocked against a wall, or cards dealt in a particular manner, which have predetermined qualities assigned to them." Being one of those "severely mathematical" types, Wilson responded by borrowing from Newton: "This incontrovertible truth that every animal is an integral part of the Mass or Globe, to which it belongs and adheres…(and) is subject to the laws by which such Mass is governed." That counter thrust is contained in Wilson's A New and Complete Set of Astrological Tables (London, 1820) also conveniently included in the DVD. In other words, the material collected on Graves' DVD enables anyone to reconstruct the intellectual milieu of this interesting group of astrologers. For this reader, while some of these grandiloquent "scientific" defenses make for amusing reading, it is a bit depressing to see that astrologers have been mounting pretty similar rhetorical strategies since the Enlightenment made anything else seem rather, well, unenlightened.

That said, regardless of their official explanations, the astrologers here do what astrologers have always done, which is to use the symbolic language of our art to comment on the world around them. And no matter the era, that can be fun to read. Finding the fun stuff takes some effort, and the process of leafing through the forty-two DVD files can be both exhilarating and a bit mind boggling. Let's be clear: No one is going to open this collection and read it from cover to cover. There is just too much and some of it isn't exactly light reading. Take Thomas Oxley's The Gem of the Astral Sciences or Mathematics of Celestial Philosophy (1848). It is a two hundred page technical treatise devoted to "illustrating the use and construction of the celestial planispheres". According to the accompanying notes provided with the DVD, this is a key text in bringing about the transition from square to round horoscopes. Though Oxley dutifully provides his version of Napoleon's chart (not surprisingly, the Emperor's horoscope makes its appearance in a number of the publications contained in the collection, naturally, they are all speculative maps), there are no interpretations or even anything suggesting the author had insights he was holding back for another publication. He was, after all, a civil engineer in London and clearly a brilliant guy (think an early 19th century version of Edward Johndro), but after a few pages of sines, tangents and finer points of spherical trigonometry, most readers will quietly move on to something else. But for anyone intent on tracing the development of astrology's technical side during the 19th century, this is an important text. Naturally, Mr. Graves also provides Oxley's The Celestial Planisphere (1830), for readers who wish to trace the development of his thinking.

Those who blanch at the thought of reading technical treatises should say a quick prayer of gratitude for our computer programmers and turn to something else. How about horary astrology? If you think it was revived in the 1980's for the first time since William Lilly stopped practicing, you may wish to reconsider; this DVD provides much evidence that that is not true. For those wishing to make that case, certainly Exhibit A would be Rupertus Stella's The Astrologian's Guide in Horary Astrology (London, 1832). The author's delightful nom de plume should both bring a smile and remind us that practicing astrology remained a crime in the UK under the Vagrancy Act of 1824. However, the frontispiece of a "Figure Erected" for 7 July 1832, 3 hours 15 min PM (London) lets us know we are in the hands of an experienced practitioner. Even more, we are reassured by the author's claim that this volume contains "the very marrow of those elaborate works by Bonatus, Haly, Lilly, Ball & c., which now have become so scarce as to be almost unattainable." (p. iv) It seems he could have used a 19th century Philip Graves!

If one wonders how Stella squares his horary practice with the "severely mathematical" principles of his early 19th century colleagues, you will be relieved to find out he doesn't. A few pages later, we read: "As to planetary influence, we consider it a doubtful point to establish, and are much inclined to give it as our opinion, that the Celestial Wanderers are more to be considered as Indicators than having a direct effect." (p. viii) His view contrasts strongly with Dr. Wilson, who assured his readers "What resemblance these (natal) doctrines can have to cards dealt out, or marbles knocked against a wall, I shall leave to others to decide; but I conceive you must by them allude to the horary department of the science, where planets are not considered as causes but as symbols for the purpose of divination." Well, paging Geoffrey Cornelius! Thus, the special case of horary has been "special" much longer than the modern revivalists would have us believe. What then, of other branches of our celestial art?

Mundane astrology makes an appearance in PJ Swift's Destiny of Europe!!! The Nativity of Napoleone Buonaparte, Emperor of France, (Sept. 21, 1812, London). Just months before it occurred, Swift made this accurate forecast for that great general's disastrous foray into Russia: "The war with Russia will be injurious to him, and ultimately unsuccessful, if Russia but perseveres in the contest, that he need not expect to be so fortunate as he has hitherto been." (p. 32) Most historians trace the beginning of Napoleon's ultimate downfall to this foolish invasion of Russia at the onset of winter, but of course, they are making post facto judgments. Swift's horoscope for his judgment indicated a nasty Saturn/Moon conjunction near Herschel (Uranus). It would seem that he interpreted Herschel's influence as one denoting an unexpected reversal or radical reaction, which is what Napoleon experienced at the hands of the enraged Russian populace. Swift had this to say about that newly discovered planet: "Herschel, bids fair in despite of Ignorance, Envy, and Illiberality to restore astrology to its wonted estimation and rank, and place it on the Pinnacle of universal favor." (p. ii) Okay, maybe his overuse of capital letters is a bit over the top, but he has a point.

There is more, much more. Need more horary? Turn to Dr. Simmonite's The Prognostic Astronomer, or Horary Astrology: Containing an Improved Method of Solving the Thousand Inquiries Relative to Futurity, (Leeds, 1851). More Mundane? Select Zadkiel's Legacy, Containing a Full and Particular Judgment on the Great Conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter on the 26th of January, 1842, or John Bowron's Observations on Planetary and Celestial Influences in the Production of Epidemics (New York, 1852). Ever wondered how the great astrological publishers of the mid 19th century defended their beliefs? Why simply crack open W. S. Cross's Reasons for Belief in Judicial Astrology; Comprising Some Advice to Students, and Remarks on the Dangerous Character of Popish Priestcraft, (London, 1849). But I think you get the idea. As the adverts might have it: There is something here for everyone! At least everyone who has more than a passing interest in the history of astrology, and if you have read this far, that most likely means you. So silence your phones and Facebook feeds and return to a time when Alan Leo wasn't even a gleam in his mother's eye. Just imagine you have taken shelter on a stormy evening in some London bookshop, only to discover the latest issue of the Straggling Astrologer has just hit the shelves….

Kirk Little (Goran, Maine, USA: December 2014)
Published online August, 2015

            Notes and References
  1 ] "Modern" is a relative term; Alan Leo, one of the key figures in the 20th century revival famously changed the title of his "The Astrologer's Magazine" to Modern Astrology in 1895; half a century later, Margaret Hone updated Leo's textbook series with her The Modern Textbook of Astrology, (L N Fowler, London, 1951). [Back to text]
  2 ] See Nick Campion, A History of Western Astrology, Volume II, (Continuum, London, 2009) p.205 and James Herschel Holden's Biographical Dictionary of Western Astrologers, (AFA, Tempe, AZ, 2013), pp. 657-8. [Back to text]
  3 ] Patrick Curry, A Confusion of Prophets: Victorian and Edwardian Astrology, (Collins and Brown, London, 1992) p. 10. [Back to text]
  4 ] The Theosophical Enlightenment, (State University of New York Press, Albany, 1994) p. 151. [Back to text]
  5 ] Op. cit. My review of this volume is contained in the pages Skyscript: [Back to text]
  6 ] Curiously, Curry discusses "the remarkable rebirth of judicial astrology…beginning in the 1830's" Confusion (op. cit.) p. 11; elsewhere, he noted "But Sibly and The Conjuror's Magazine freely mixed natural philosophy, natural magic, and populism…to all who want it, rather than restricted to a few who are qualified. Why was it possible at just this point -the end of the eighteenth century- to present this mixture? The short answer is that only now were the English middle classes beginning to break away from the social and intellectual dominance of their 'betters'". "Astrological Literature in Late Eighteenth Century England", History and Astrology: Clio and Urania Confer, edited by Annabella Kitson, (Mandala, London, 1989) p. 252. [Back to text]
  7 ] Reissued as Astrology: A Recent History Including the Untold Story of Its Role in World War II, ( Walker and Company, New York, 1967). [Back to text]
  8 ] Howe, op. cit., p. 23. [Back to text]