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The Dawn of Astrology - A Cultural History of Western Astrology. Volume 1: The Ancient and Classical Worlds, by Nicholas Campion

Book Review

The Dawn of Astrology - A Cultural History of Western Astrology. Volume 1: The Ancient and Classical Worlds

by Nicholas Campion

Hambledon Continuum, (April 17, 2008)
ISBN: 9781847252142
388 pages; Hardback. RRP: £30.00/$29.95
Reviewed by Garry Phillipson

This is an immense work. In it, Nick Campion surveys the history of astrology in the west from as far back as it's possible to go (potentially as far back as 350,000 BCE with a carved animal bone that may have been used to keep track of lunar phases - p.7), through the formulation of horoscopic astrology as we know it after 500 BCE, and on to its decline in the Christian west around a thousand years later. As you might expect, Hellenistic culture is thoroughly covered here - not, though, as the beginning of civilisation and cosmological thought, but in a historical context which is shown to stretch back before the megalith builders, through Mesopotamia and Egypt, and on to the Roman empire and Christianity.

The book is immense, not so much because of its physical size - though it's not a slim volume - but because of the quantity of ideas that are packed into its pages. A (more or less random) quotation will illustrate this:

The adaptation of the Aristotelian scheme to astrology, though, has a major consequence in that astrology explicitly focuses on just one level of the hierarchy of descending Aristotelian influences. In Ptolemy's scheme the sub-lunar level was given greater emphasis, and climatic and cultural influences were considered crucial additions to the intelligent understanding of natal astrology. Quite simply, each individual could be understood within their culture, and that culture itself depending (sic - the proofing could be better!) on geography and weather. Thus, by implication, although Ptolemy did not spell this out, two people born with very similar horoscopes but in different locations would have different lives. Within such a scheme astrological truth claims are relative rather than absolute. (p.212)

There is a lot going on in that paragraph, both historical and philosophical. And this is quite representative - the facts just keep coming thick and fast throughout The Dawn of Astrology, to the point where its final size of 388 pages speaks of parsimony more than profligacy. Many writers would simply not be able to digest the huge fact-feast that we find here, but it seems to be the breakfast of Campions.

If you are an astrologer, you need this book and that's all there is to it. Even if you never get round to reading it from cover to cover, The Dawn of Astrology will repay the cost of purchase as a reference source. Incidentally - speaking of the cost of purchase - if anyone can explain why this book sells for £30.00 in the UK and less than half that in the USA, I would be interested to know. Brits need not despair, though; a quick squint at shows that you can currently get the book for £12.05 inc p&p, and at that price it is an absolute must-have.

I would say that the book is 'magisterial', but given modern usage it would be better to say that it defines what 'magisterial' should mean. For here there is no sense of a dogmatic teacher drumming tenuous certainties into recalcitrant students. Rather, there is an open-handed, frank appraisal of the material. Campion remains coherent in the face of known history's frequent incoherence and simply reports what we know. Where our knowledge stops, he says so. For instance, writing of the association of gods with planets in Mesopotamia:

With the exception of Marduk, a god who only rose to prominence under the first Babylonian Empire, after 1800 BCE, we have no idea when these associations were made, now whether they had evolved over thousands of years, or were a deliberate invention by an organized priesthood. (p.55)

Similarly, he reports astrology's pluralistic and messy course, without trying to force an unnatural clarity or unity upon it:

To talk about a either (sic) 'Hellenistic' or 'Greek' astrology as if there was a single set of ideological assumptions and techniques is misleading. There were multiple points of creation, which originated in fifth-century Mesopotamia, and extended the process of innovation. The most obvious feature that the different texts have in common is that they were written in Greek. Astrologers such as Ptolemy, Vettius Valens and Paulus Alexandrinus shared Platonic, Aristotelian and Stoic influences, though in different combination. The Corpus Hermeticum was concerned with the soul's ascent to the stars, Valens with the meticulous detail of daily life, Manilius with the inner divine, and Ptolemy with the natural world. If there is a common thread running through Greek astrology, which may distinguish it from its Babylonian origins, it is of the universe itself as an organizing principle. (p.223)

This is, therefore, an account which makes astrology's mongrel nature entirely clear, finding no point at which the subject was perfected or stopped changing. If I'm dwelling on a point here, it's because I think this is a singular strength of Campion's work which could easily be overlooked. What has tended to happen, when historians have looked at astrology, has been that they have served up a selection of events which underpin and illustrate whatever their pet thesis happens to be (typically, in modern times, the triumph of scientific rationalism over superstition). Thankfully, Campion does not see it as his place to sex-up the dossier of Life, and although it will never be described as 'a zesty romp', this book is quietly compelling by virtue of its honest depiction of a world in which all is mutable and mutating.

Another excellent quality of the book is the integration of modern scholarship. This is probably what you would expect from someone who has been at the forefront of astrology's return to academe in the way that Campion has, but the point is worth making. As you read this book, you aren't simply getting facts - though clearly there are plenty of those - but also, woven into the narrative, an account of how the ideas of scholars from different disciplines have impinged upon the subject matter and have, for better or worse, caused it to be interpreted. People as diverse as: James Frazer, E.B. Tylor, Bruno Latour, Clive Ruggles, Edward Said, David Pingree, Roy Rappaport… and at this point I realise how long the list could get and decide to quit while I'm ahead.

One thing which may need to be cleared up: some of you will be aware of a book entitled Cosmos - A Cultural History of Astrology by Campion which has been on its way for some time. The Amazon sites still list it as due in September 2006, and currently unavailable. That book has in fact morphed into two volumes, of which this is the first. The second volume, The Golden Age of Astrology, is promised for April 2009 and will bring the story up to date. Mankind's differing ideas about the cosmos still provide a theme through the present volume, for instance:

Kosmos can also be translated as 'order' or 'adornment', the root of the modern 'cosmetic'; the Pythagorean cosmos is, simply, beautiful. (p.144)

'Kosmos', we are told [in the Corpus Hermeticum], 'is one mass of evil, even as God is one mass of good'

What this means is that, although the book's subject is the history of western astrology, that account entails an informed analysis of this culture's attempts to characterise and understand the world in which we find ourselves. Campion does such a good job of this that The Dawn of Astrology really deserves to find a wide audience, and it is ironic that the presence of the A-word in its title will probably prevent the book from being read by people whose preconceptions of astrology most need to be challenged. In all events, Campion has certainly performed a service to astrology and astrologers by writing this book - by documenting and clarifying the philosophical and technical approaches which have shaped the craft, and showing how central a place it occupies in western culture.

Garry Phillipson
August, 2008