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Flirting with the Zodiac by Kim Farnell

Book Review

Flirting with the Zodiac by Kim Farnell

Published by Wessex Astrologer
ISBN: ISBN: 978-1-902405-23-0, 253 pages. £14.50

Reviewed by Philip Graves

On first seeing the title Flirting with the Zodiac, one could perhaps be forgiven for conjuring up in one’s imagination the idea of a popular astrology book offering tips for successful and creative interpersonal communication techniques having as their singular goal the playful attraction of the intended recipient of the communications concerned to their source, in the light of some elementary observations of the influences of the zodiacal signs featuring prominently in the nativities of either or both of the individuals involved. One might expect such a book prominently to feature a light-hearted variation on the sun-sign personality portraits and sun-sign synastry themes explored by a wealth of later 20th-century popular writers such as Linda Goodman. Indeed, I can readily envisage casual browsers in bookstores lifting this book from the shelves with precisely this kind of expectation in mind. I can equally imagine their surprise when they discover that it is nothing of the sort that they had expected from its title.

Those of a fundamentally impatient nature for whom any book promising historical revelations is an instant turn-off, and those seeking only practical relationship tips, might then swiftly replace Flirting with the Zodiac in the shelf where they found it, and start scanning their eyes elsewhere. But a significant number of others who picked up this book with simplistic expectations based upon its title alone are bound to find much fascinating and rewarding learning in its actual contents, for it concerns not how to use a basic knowledge of the zodiac to the advantage of one’s flirting techniques, but rather the entire history of contemporary popular astrology. By the latter epithet, I mean to imply astrology as known to the masses whose concept of the scope of the subject does not extend far beyond sun sign forecasts in newspapers and magazines, or at best a rough sense of the influence of the sun in the twelve signs of the tropical zodiac natally, and perhaps the conventionally understood mutual sympathies and antipathies of these signs.

Whether or not the choice of title was deliberately designed to lure the astrologically naive millions to this book, in order to enrich their minds with an understanding of the historical context of all they thought they knew about astrology, it is both easy and moreover, to any astrologer with a calling to spread astrological understanding beyond the elite circle of astrologers and into the wider consciences of ordinary lay-folk, appealing to imagine that this will indeed be a practical effect of the title decided upon for the book.

The more revealing subtitle, A True History of Sun-Sign Astrology, awaits the browser intrepid enough to open the book beyond its colourfully illustrated front cover. The concept of ‘flirting with the zodiac’ would seem now to relate to the relatively casual and light engagement with astrology’s many and varied facets that is embodied in sun sign astrology. As flirtation is to a fully committed relationship to another human being, so the practice of sun sign astrology is to that of astrology as a whole. The puzzle of the meaning of the title has perhaps thus been satisfactorily solved, but the reader’s sense of suspense and anticipation regarding the full contents of the book should be undiminished, and indeed furthered, by the presentation of this subtitle.

There has been a very substantial number of histories of astrology in all its ages previously published in English in the past century or so, in addition to numerous works specialising on particular periods in the history of astrology and their techniques. So what need is there for yet another history of astrology in the marketplace? Simply put, until now not one of them has devoted its entire focus to the history of the popular dimensions of astrology, by which is particularly implied the description of character and forecasting of life events from sun signs alone. The few that have given any significant attention to this area (notably True As the Stars Above by Neil Spencer) have still left vast areas of fertile research ground unfurrowed; and Kim Farnell’s new book sets out to provide the most thorough portrait to date of this oft-maligned yet culturally important area of astrological practice.

Veritably, upon arrival at the contents page, it will become apparent not only to casual browsers in general bookstores, but also to seasoned astrologers and astrological historians, that in its scope this book promises to go far beyond a lightweight discussion of the development of sun-sign-focused astrology in the 20th century as it has been generally understood hitherto, instead delving far back into centuries past, indeed all the way back to the origins of astrology in ancient Babylonia. At this stage, those of us who may have grown accustomed to believing that sun sign astrology is an entirely modern creation should be left in little doubt that this is a book that promises to challenge or at least moderate this received notion, and perhaps to shed new light upon the history of astrology in all its ages.

The introduction by the book’s author soon solidifies this promise, refuting the conventionally espoused belief that sun sign astrology began with R. H. Naylor’s forecast column in 1930 in a gripping argument that forcibly pulls the reluctant reader backwards to earlier eras of time in two great steps. The author firstly draws attention to sun sign-based character delineations published in the 19th century, and then points out that the ‘solar horoscope’ was noted by the first Raphael (i.e. Robert Cross Smith), writing in The Familiar Astrologer (first published in 1831), as being an astrological technique employed by Junctinus (i.e. Francesco Giuntini), Indagine and Agrippa, among others (v. pp xxiv-xxv of Flirting with the Zodiac) from centuries past. Thus she has demonstrated not only that sun-sign-based personality descriptions substantially predate Alan Leo's work at the turn of the 20th century, but also that the solar horoscope is a very long way indeed from being a device of modern invention for media-friendly generalised forecasting purposes, its history of use by astrologers dating back several centuries at least! With this latter revelation alone, the doors have been opened onto an historical mystery requiring resolution, one which surely no astrologer with a serious interest in astrological history could possibly resist investigating further!

The serious historical research credentials of the introduction might appear to some astrologers to belie the fact that the foreword immediately preceding this appetite-whetting introduction was commissioned to Shelley von Strunckel, of the foremost published sun sign forecasters and astrological columnists active in the UK press today. The choice of a well-known, currently active sun sign columnist to introduce this book is certainly an interesting one. And it is arguably also an enlightened one, seeming as though not only to break the astrologically naive reader into the subject with the support of a familiar and friendly voice from the popular media, but also, and perhaps more importantly, to challenge serious astrologers and astrological historians intent on reading this history to balance out their frequently expressed distaste for the more commercial and popular wings of astrological practice with the realisation that sun sign forecasting may be a vital part of the integral web of astrology today with a much deeper-rooted technical history than is widely acknowledged, and that perhaps therefore even sun sign forecasters deserve a full and fair appreciation as valuable members of the astrological community as a whole, as inheritors and proponents of valid parts of the time-honoured and varied traditions of astrological theory and observation. With these thoughts in mind, this book could be viewed secondarily as an attempt to bridge the gulf between astrologers of different persuasions and areas of practice, through the establishment of greater mutual respect and understanding, in addition to its undoubted primary function as a carefully researched purely historical narrative upon its chosen subject.

Moving beyond these first impressions, let us look at the particular topical areas upon which the book’s twenty-five chief chapters individually focus. Broadly speaking, the chapters are arranged in ascending chronological order of the historical epochs upon which their discussion is focused, with the first seven collectively covering the uses of sun sign-related methods in astrology up to and including the seventeenth century, the next four spanning the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and most of the remaining chapters dealing with popular astrology and notable astrologers in the twentieth century. The topical narrative in each of these chapters is contextualised by well-considered observations upon the broader astrological and sociological backgrounds of the times, which assist greatly in understanding why different astrological developments happened when they did, and thus bring the whole story to life on a human level.

There are also interludes diverting from the main theme in the forms of Chapter 14 discussing the history of the legal persecution of astrologers, and Chapter 22 upon the modern preoccupation with the astrological interpretation of the Great Ages, and especially the cultural history of the popular obsession with the Age of Aquarius. The narrative of the book closes out with two chapters focused respectively upon the increasing scientific backlash against popular astrology in the late 20th century, and the story of the ideas put forward in two controversial late 20th century publications that there should in fact be thirteen signs of the zodiac and not twelve. Finally, Chapter 26 takes the form of a compilation of briefer notes upon the lives and work of the most famous and influential sun-sign forecasters of the 20th century.

It should not be my prerogative as a reviewer of this book to elaborate upon the full details of every discovery that lies in wait for those who elect to delve into each chapter. But I shall gladly mention a few key themes; and as for the rest, I can assuredly remark that, though the book covers a lot of historical ground that should be to a greater or lesser extent familiar to the more widely-read contingent of studious astrological historians at Skyscript from their pre-existing knowledge of the subject, there is also plenty of detail here on a wide range of subjects that few if any of us are likely to have known before. This latter revelation should come as no surprise to those who have enjoyed the author’s previous biography of Sepharial, or indeed any of her historical articles on astrological themes. For she is an excellent and meticulous researcher who will nobly and fearlessly go to great lengths and obscure sources to unearth fascinating facts and details to present before her readers. And the inclusion of the more familiar historical ground is nonetheless essential to a full treatment of the subject of this book, and should be regarded as mandatory and welcome for the sake of its completeness, as well as for the enlightenment of the majority readership that is sure to come to this book much less well acquainted with such historical facts from prior learning than those of us who already possess a fair measure of sophisticated knowledge of the history of astrology.

Upon leafing through the chapters covering earlier centuries, it becomes apparent that sun-sign-based observations and prognostications have been made since ancient Babylonian times; and that, although in the so-called ‘Dark Ages’ and early medieval eras it has not proven easy to find surviving documentary evidence clearly detailing the use of sun signs, it seems highly likely from the available evidence in later medieval manuscripts which have survived that there has been an almost unbroken orally transmitted tradition of popular concepts of the influence of the sun in the twelve zodiacal signs since ancient times, a tradition which the author traces forward in time from those earliest medieval manuscripts through to the early twentieth century with increasing sure-footedness and conviction as the number of surviving sources of relevance increases.

It is only when the author’s commentary reaches the source texts for Raphael’s references which she previously presented in her introduction to ‘Flirting with the Zodiac’ that we encounter the earliest definite written record she has been able to discover of the use of solar horoscopes with twelve houses taken from the position of the Sun, as employed today by sun sign forecasters. It occurs in a text from the early 16th century. [For full details of this source and the other fruits of the author’s investigations into this time, please read Chapter Five.] But there are more numerous preserved records of the use of sun signs in character delineation throughout the ages.

Kim Farnell has done a splendid job of extracting evidence of the earlier history of sun-sign-based astrology from the literature that survives from ages where it is most sparse. But she does not stop there, continuing to approach the modern era, with its wealth of evidence for sun-sign-based astrology, with great thoroughness, throughout the rest of the book. She admirably shows just how the movement expanded and took off into full flight, step by step, under the successive influences of a host of key individuals and developments during the early 20th century. The narrative advances through history with sufficient rapidity for the broad historical trends to be very readily apparent to the reader; yet at the same time every stop along that journey is filled with such a wealth of vital, vivid detail that it completely absorbs one into the individual episodes concerned and the personalities involved. There is no filler or tedious meandering here. The pace is fast, the content is very solid, and the evolutionary progression of the narrative is both natural and suspenseful; and these qualities conspire to make the book very difficult to put down.

Among the protagonists responsible for the modern proliferation of sun-sign-based astrology upon which substantial whole chapters are focused is to be found Hiram E. Butler, noted for his astrological textbook ‘Solar Biology’, whose original publication date of 1887 places it at the vanguard of the modern rash of simplified astrology books filled with character delineations based on the natal positions of the Sun, Moon and planets in the signs of the tropical zodiac. Kim Farnell rightfully credits Butler with starting this trend ahead of Alan Leo, although it is Leo’s texts that have received the most enduringly widespread renown. The sketch of Butler’s life and many peculiar involvements makes for one of the more fascinating chapters of this book.

Further complete separate biographical chapters are devoted to both Alan Leo himself and each of several other famous and vibrant personalities from the 20th century world of popular astrology: the prominent American astrologer Evangeline Adams, the astrologer and palmist Cheiro, the successful media astrologer R. H. Naylor, and the best-selling writer of natal and synastric sun-sign literature Linda Goodman. Although it could be said that much has already been written about the lives of Leo and Adams elsewhere, the material selected by the author is relevant and important, while the portraits of Cheiro, Naylor and even Goodman offer plenty of revelations that are likely to be fresh and fascinating to almost everyone reading this book. Even the shorter summaries of the lives and work of other noted sun-sign astrologers of the 20th century in the final chapter are valuable as historical reference material.

By the time that the last of the twentieth century chapters has been finished, the reader will surely emerge from the book as I did, with a much enhanced view of the exciting and dynamic history of popular astrology in the 20th century as well as the surviving traces of its deeper and more ancient traditions.

Among the most interesting observations brought into focus by the later chapters of Flirting with the Zodiac covering the key developments of the early-to-mid 20th century is how both the astrological community at large, on the one hand, and the scientific community, on the other, responded and reacted to the increasing prevalence of simplified media-friendly forms of astrology. There was strong opposition from both quarters, and the author tellingly depicts the social and ideological tensions between the new breed of popular astrologers and the old guard of serious astrologers.

All in all, this is a most worthwhile book that is written in a highly readable, accessible style although based upon research of a scholarly standard, and which should appeal just as much to serious astrologers as to historians of popular culture and casual readers who enjoy a good real-life story or two. If this recommendation must come with one proviso, it would be that it is not the kind of book which is easy to put down once you have started reading it. I read it from cover to cover in a couple of lengthy sessions on successive days, although my early curiosity with regard to the ‘Thirteen Signs’ chapter (which appropriately demystifies an often-heard argument or two about the twelve-sign tropical zodiac by exposing the two key sources for the thirteen-sign myth for what they were) prevented me from reading the book strictly in the correct order.

Beyond the mere impartial absorption of historical facts afforded by the experience of reading Flirting with the Zodiac, if there is one abiding conclusion to be passively inferred from the author’s account, it would perhaps be that popular sun sign astrology is not necessarily the enemy of serious astrology, but rather its simplified counterpart that has its own astrological validity and long tradition as well as its own value in introducing astrology to those who otherwise might never brave to dive into the full depths of its advanced techniques. Just as some who are introduced to astrology through simplified media-friendly sun-sign forecasts will surely be driven by curiosity to investigate the subject further and more deeply, so some who have read this history of sun sign astrology may be prompted by curiosity to learn more about the history of astrology as a whole, and possibly even to investigate the literary sources referred to both in the main text of Kim Farnell's history and in the extensive bibliography provided at the back of the book.

Astrology surely needs to stretch itself out with at least one or two tentacles into popular culture at a level that popular culture as a whole can tolerate, in order to receive back into itself the seeds of its own renewal and replenishment by new generations of students and practitioners at every level up to and including the highest. For popular astrology to have replaced and superseded serious astrology wholesale was manifestly never the intention or necessary requirement of the movement of astrology into the mass media in the mid-20th century. Perhaps at times its very success at this mainstream level has selectively obscured the fuller picture of astrology as a whole. But equally, we would do well to note how the expansion of popular astrology in the mid-20th century has been followed closely by a wealth of new modern astrological ideas and studies, and more recently a revival in the study of traditional astrological texts and methodologies; and that many of those at the forefront of these twin tracks of ongoing astrological renaissance first cut their astrological teeth upon the simplified popular works of the mid-to-late 20th century.


Phillip Graves
April, 2007