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Cosmologies: Proceedings of the Seventh Annual Sophia Centre Conference 2009

Sophia Centre Press

Book Review

Cosmologies: Proceedings of the Seventh Annual Sophia Centre Conference 2009 - Edited by Nicholas Campion

Reviewed by Garry Phillipson

The familiar and the new are mixed in this book - the third published volume of proceedings of a Sophia Centre conference, yet the first to be published by the Sophia Centre Press.[1] Following the demise of the MA programme on the Cultural Study of Cosmology and Divination at the University of Kent at Canterbury, it is good to see the academic study of astrology and related disciplines tenaciously persisting - even flourishing - within UK academia, as evidenced by the renaissance of the Sophia Centre at the University of Wales Trinity St David, and now the appearance of a dedicated publishing operation ( ).

It may be useful to quote a passage from Dr Campion's 'Introduction' to the present volume, both for its intrinsic interest and for the way in which it frames the remit of the Centre:

The purpose of the Sophia Centre, as is evident in its full title, is the 'study of cosmology in culture', that is, the manner in which human beings relate their cultures to their notions of the nature, order, function or meaning of the cosmos. Traditionally, everything is included in the cosmos, arguably a controversial notion in the context of modern scientific cosmology, but not to anyone schooled in certain of the world's philosophical conventions including, in the west, the Platonic.[2]

So the scope, both of the Sophia Centre itself and of the book under review, includes, but is not limited to, astrology as we know it. A summary of the essays in this volume will illustrate the point:

'Coves, Cosmology and Cultural Astronomy' - Lionel Sims

A discussion of 'coves' - small enclosures formed by several standing stones - attempts, with particular reference to Avebury, to decipher the purpose of such formations. On a broader level, the exercise is used to shed light on some methodological issues for cultural astronomy.

'Calendars and Divination in the Dead Sea Scrolls: the Case of 4Q318: 4QZodiac Calendar and Brontologion' - Helen R. Jacobus

Detailed discussion of a non-biblical text found with the Dead Sea Scrolls, which comprises a lunar zodiac calendar, and brontologion - 'thunder omen text'. Some parallels with Hellenistic texts are noted, as is the fact that "4Q318 demonstrates that the tropical zodiac was in use… some 150 years before Ptolemy". [3]

'Reshaping Karma: an Indic Metaphysical Paradigm in Traditional and Modern Astrology' - Martin Gansten

Surveys the role of karma in helping Indian culture assimilate astrology from Greece around 1,700 years ago, and the ways in which ideas of karma have changed - including the influence of Theosophy. Texts referred to range from ancient Hindu scriptures to more recent works from Alan Leo and Dane Rudhyar.

'Néladóracht: Druidic Cloud-Divination in Medieval Irish Literature' - Mark Williams

Discusses what is known of the druids, with particular reference to Irish literature from the Middle Ages which repeatedly mentions cloud divination as a druidic practice. The tentative conclusion is that 'cloud divination' in these contexts is most plausibly explained as astrological practice rather than nephelomancy.

'Astrology in the Seventeenth-Century Scottish Universities' - Jane Ridder-Patrick

Establishes, by reference to primary sources, that astrology was taught in Scottish universities until at least 1700. There is some discussion of the material that was taught, the range of attitudes that seem to have existed toward astrology amongst the authorities, and the eventual trend that saw astrology disappear from the syllabuses.

'Decoding the Inter-Textual Literary Strata of the Mummers' Play: Some Unexpected Astronomical Themes and a Pagan 'Fingerprint' - Continuity or Reconstruction?' - Glenford Bishop

A piece of detective work into the origin of a particular English folk play. Long assumed to be descended from a pagan original, modern scholarship has demonstrated that this is not possible. Close analysis of the play's text leads to suggestions about how the play came about.

'The Beltane Fire Festival: its Place in a Contemporary World' - Pauline Bambrey

Although it contains some historical perspective, this is primarily an account of the re-creation of a festival to celebrate Beltane in Edinburgh, in 1987.

'The Traditional Festivals of Northern Europe' - Ronald Hutton

As Hutton points out, this essay re-presents material from his The Stations of the Sun in a concise form. [4] The theme is "the shape of the ritual year across ancient Britain and Ireland", with considerable discussion of the ways in which traditional festivals have been misrepresented in modern times.[5]

'Cyberspace and the Sacred Sky' - Frances Clynes

Looks at a wealth of parallels in the way the sky and cyberspace have been conceptualised as (in one way or another) sacred. In doing so it ranges through sources from ancient Mesopotamia, via the inevitable Plato and Ptolemy, to the cyberpunk author William Gibson and contemporary thought on artificial intelligence.

Concluding Thoughts

Some readers of this review will already be inclined to get hold of this book. For you, all I have to say is that you should definitely buy a copy; it is a very good collection of pioneering essays from authorities in the respective fields. Donning my astrologer's hat for a moment, I'd pick out the essays by Martin Gansten and Jane Ridder-Patrick as of particular interest for anyone who wants to understand astrology better.

It isn't my intention, in this review, to attempt to critique these talks. The authors all know what they are doing, and do it very well after deep immersion in their subject-matter; end of story. What I think might be more useful is to proffer a few words for those less inclined to get the book. If you have been put off by the tendency of some academic writers to substitute convolution for profundity, resulting in texts which are unnecessarily dense and difficult to read, I would say that this is not a charge that could be levelled at any of the writers here. Though hardly an easy read, the talks here are all more or less as clearly expressed as the recondite subject matter allows. It may also weigh on your mind that only a few of these talks address areas of direct interest to you. On that point, I would argue that something subtle is gained in studying a broad cross-section of work of this kind. As one engages with these intelligent and academically credible analyses of topics within cultural astronomy, the approach taken by the writers to specific issues begins to pass, as if by osmosis, into the approach one brings to one's own work; an approach which questions cherished assumptions, attempts always to trace ideas back to substantial, credible sources, and to wield reason tempered by experience. And, in the bibliographies to the talks, one is introduced to a rich world of material for further study. So it seems to me that books like this one, and indeed the whole fraught drive to establish cultural astronomy and astrology within academia, benefit individual astrologers and the astrological community in ways which may not be immediately obvious, but are nonetheless profound and far-reaching.

Garry Phillipson
October, 2010

Notes & References:

  1] Previous volumes are: Nicholas Campion, Patrick Curry & Michael York (eds.), Astrology and the Academy, papers from the inaugural conference of the Sophia Centre, Bath Spa University College, 13 - 14 June 2003 (Bristol: Cinnabar Books, 2004); Nicholas Campion & Patrick Curry (eds.), Sky and Psyche: the Relationship between Cosmos and Consciousness (Edinburgh: Floris Books, 2006).
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  2] Cosmologies, p.1.
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  3] Cosmologies, p.46.
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  4] Ronald Hutton, The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain (Oxford: OUP, 1996). In his paper, Hutton points out the family resemblance in Cosmologies, n.6, p.124.
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  5] Cosmologies, p.123.
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