Drawing/Magic: the astrological mandala

It’s possible that the wheel of the zodiac signs from astrology is the most important mandala in the Western philosophical tradition.  It’s a map of the sky, and it’s alleged that it’s a map of the human mind.

When the principal Behenian Stars are included, plus the Decans of the Zodiac, plus the Mansions of the Moon, and maybe even the Terms (looks like another poetic project is in the making), the mandala becomes a Palace of Memory like no other — twelve major ‘pavilions’ to the palace (the Signs), each divided into three wings (the Decans)  and five chambers (the Terms) and connected by loggias or courtyards (the Mansions).  There are thus twelve places, and then thirty-six, and then sixty, and then twenty-eight — more than enough room for quite a lot of information and thought processes.

I’ve said before that I think of Astrology as a kind of storytelling, a method of taking the computed positions of the planets against the background of the stars, and trying to tell stories about a person based on the way that these things were positioned at the moment of their birthday and time.  It’s a kind of algebra, if you will — a way of expressing the mathematical reality of planets and stars moving in time and space, first as variables, and then as words.

This means, of course, that one has to have the right words ‘slotted into’ the right frameworks — these word-lists for planets, these other word-lists for signs, still other lists for Mansions and Decans and Terms, still others for aspects between planets.  At their core, mandalas are aide-memoires for these sorts of word-lists; and it’s helpful that this mandala, in particular, consists of nested word-lists. Consider the way that the third decan of Pisces is supposed to convey a Mars-like idea nested within a Jupiter-like idea, within a Pisces-like idea.  So, a Mars-like idea associated with a Jupiter-like idea in a Pisces-like idea has to convey the depths of martial joviality in a Piscean depth and duality.  If it also conveys the lack of skill at communication suggested by the detriment and fall of Mercury in Pisces, so much the better.

“Napoleonic” comes to mind — he was, by many accounts, a genius at directing his soldiers at critical points during battles; and a logistical and political genius — but he had to be there, because he was a terrible explainer.  He would write orders to his generals, who would follow them but follow them incorrectly; but if he gave the order to the troops himself, it would always work.   He could lead his armies, but he couldn’t delegate; he understood deeply how firearms and artillery had changed the battlefield, and how the French Revolution had changed the political landscape — but he could not explain to others in a way that they understood.

But you can’t use the word “Napoleonic” every time.  Not every person will understand what that means. They will only think of a short, round general at the end of the French Revolution who conquered Europe and then lost.  The underlying story of that person isn’t known to a modern speaker — so it has to be further unpacked.  And it occurs to me that these stories must be periodically updated to reflect the knowledge and understanding of a present-day audience. Christian and Muslim speakers filled these palaces of memory with saints and angels, to replace the pagan gods of Greece, Egypt and Babylon… and we might today replace them with modern figures as varied as Napoleon and Martin Luther King, Jr., to help a modern person understand what we were talking about.  Nearly all of the ancient figures are gone, their meanings lost and adrift in time.  Perhaps in India in Rajasthan, these figures still mean something important — perhaps that’s what traditional kavads are for, recalling these ancient figures.

But even this perspective on astrology indicates that there are a minimum of (108 + 324 + 540 + 252) …. twelve hundred twenty-four (1224) short stories that can be packed into this kind of Palace of Memory —each of the nine planets (let Pluto be a planet, for this purpose) in each of the Signs; each of the nine planets in each of the Decans; each of the nine planets in each of the Terms; each of the nine planets in the twenty-eight Mansions.

And each story is a kind of moving picture or an Image.  I’ve been mightily interested in astrological image magic for a while. When we consider the possibility that an astrologer can look at someone’s chart, and see a planet in the fourth term and third decan of a particular sign, and say, “I have a story for you…” we begin to see the underpinnings of an oral tradition.

Yesterday night I was talking with a cousin of mine. She was talking about the freestyle tradition in rap, of asking an audience for a subject and then making up a rhyme or a story on the spot.  I’m reminded instantly of Parry Lord’s investigation of oral poetry in the Balkans in the interwar period in the early 20th century, too, where the poets sang-spoke of the good old days under the Ottoman Empire, mixing a combination of improvised lines and the tried-and-true classic lines of their predecessors, learned by heart and held in memory.  She agreed that this was a good model — oral poetry and historic lines memorized and interspersed, an underlying rhythmic and rhyming pattern agreed upon and accepted as the norm. Oral poetry makes a comeback.

The mandala of astrology holds more than a thousand stories in its simplest apartments and chambers — even without considering the threads that bind them together, like tightropes in the condo complex where all the trapeze artists live. I see within this work an elaborate course of meditation and study. Even allowing for twenty minutes of meditation a day on the meaning of each of these apartments and chambers, their traditional images, there is more than three years and three months of material to consider, even without walking all the tightropes and back stairs that connect these spaces together.  When I consider the way that the planets move against the night sky and the background of stars, and consider that those stars each had stories of their own, once upon a time… I find myself gaping and sorrowful at the recognition that we have forgotten more of our history than we have remembered.


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  1. 1. Yes, I believe that’s correct. 2. I believe it’s William Lilly’s list, which he says comes from Ptolemy, but I think he used a weird manuscript of Tetrabiblos — but I don’t know the story of that. 3. A list I found on the Internet. I’m not happy with its attestations though, so I didn’t link to it until I have a better list.

  2. 1. Are the inner rungs fall and detriment, going inside to out?
    2. The outermost decan rung–who’se decan list is that?
    3. What reference did you use for those star positions?

  3. The Zodiacal Wheel as a mandala and a palace of memory? I use the Tree of Life in those ways, but never the wheel. Very thought provoking sir, well done!

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