Review: The Celestial Art

Reading Austin Coppock’s opening essay in The Celestial Art, (published by Three Hands Press this year), I was surprised to find my collection,  Poems for The Behenian Stars favorably if briefly mentioned — as a suitable tool for practitioners of stellar magic.

A favorable mention in an essay is not the only reason to read a book of essays, though. There’s plenty to unpack here. Austin Coppock and Daniel Schulke were the editors — and the contributors of the first and last essays — of this fine collection of books on astrological magic.  I heard Austin speak about the book at some length during an episode of Chris Brennan’s Astrology Podcastand I think Austin is right: astrological magic is having a moment.

Part of the reason for that moment, of course, is that astrology has always been a tool for predicting your fate.  Even in psychological-astrology circles, where the position of the stars at the moment of your birth is a formula for describing something of your character, the idea behind astrology is that the stars have something to say about who you are. Astrologers differ in opinion on why that is — some say that it’s the influences of the stars raining down on our heads that makes us who we are; some say that the positions of the stars and planets are merely the hands of a clock, and just because the planets ‘show’ that it’s a particular time, doesn’t mean that the planets cause it. There are deeper and more hidden sources of these influences than the vast spheres of the planets themselves.  I tend to fall into the second camp, myself, but not entirely — it’s hard not to notice that certain eras of time have their own character.

One of the essays that touched me deeply was John Michael Greer’s essay on sources of power in magic.  Greer does a masterful job of unpacking where magical power comes from in various systems of magic — in these from the natural qualities of the materials worked with; in these other systems from underworld spirits; in those systems over there, from the stars and planets; in these systems here from the human mind; and from this cluster from all things. It occurred to me, reading this essay, how much we’re being ‘trained’ for the first style of magic, the natural properties of materials, by our video game culture — in which the hunt for the rare materials often occupies the first half of game play, and the second half involves putting those materials to work in various enchantments.  Astrology provides a useful counter-balance to that culture, by attaching value to time as well, and not simply to forms of matter and energy.  (Fair warning: I’m a member of Greer’s order, the Druidical Order of the Golden Dawn)

From there, it’s a short hop-skip-jump to another essay by Freedom Cole, on how to understand the movements of the Sun, the Moon, and the Earth together.  While astrological in content, Cole’s goal in a sense seems to be largely about understanding this motion for ‘religious’ reasons — the timing of general rituals, perhaps in the context of Wicca.  By understanding this material, we have a greater likelihood of being deeply moved by the soli-lunar awesomeness on display.  This is far from the first time I’ve seen such a claim (nor even the first time I’ve agreed with the proponent), but the uniqueness here comes from the explanation being delivered in Sanskrit and Pali terminology and reasoning, from within the context of Vedic/Indian astrology.  It’s a useful reminder that astrology is not the West’s sole inheritance: that the tools, methodology, and rationales of astrology have been interpreted and used in many cultural frameworks.  More than that, Cole’s essay reminds me how important it is to track the progress of the moon across the night sky.  I know that, of course, and I have my own tools for doing it… but I can’t stop doing it, either.

Another essay that really resonated with me was Jason Miller’s piece, “When the Stars Aren’t Right.”  It was a reminder of something that Coppock has said a few times that has stuck with me.  Astrology is like weather: sometimes it’s bad, or at least threatening; you have to bring a raincoat and an umbrella at times, if you don’t want to get wet.  In the Astrology Podcast, Coppock said that at one point he had a fantastic talisman, but it didn’t fit well with his personal astrology.  Miller’s writing reminds of that problem of perfection — it’s often the case that the perfect moment isn’t going to fit well with our own big plans, and that we have to create both the mundane and magical actions that fit our overall strategy and trajectory. (I’ve taken Jason Miller’s Strategic Sorcery course.)

Eric Purdue, the new translator of Henry Cornelius Agrippa’s Three Books of Occult Philosophyhas a rather more math-and-geometry-heavy essay on calculating the names of a person’s genii, or helpful and malicious spirits.  This is a fairly elaborate process, but Purdue walks the reader through the various steps, what they mean, and how to calculate them.  It’s not exactly mathematics-heavy, in that you need to know calculus to find these results — but you do need to know a lot of pieces of information about the initial chart, and then know how to run the numbers on those pieces of information.

There are other essays in the collection as well, by Lee Lehman, Daniel Schulke, Benjamin Dykes, Demetra George, Al Cummins, Aaron Cheak, Mallorie Vaudoise, and of course Daniel Schulke.  I don’t want to say that I didn’t like those essays, too… but they spoke less directly to my interests and focus right now.  However, I think that there’s a lot of quality material here, all of it speaking to the long history of the intertwining of magic and astrology, and all of it pointing the way back toward a re-braiding of these threads.

The larger question is why? Why is Astrological Magic having a moment?  Why has this particular rough beast’s hour come round at last? This is a simple speculation — that is, a vision seen in a mirror dimly — but I think that there are three core reasons for the reunion of magic and astrology.

First of all, astrology and magic are disreputable. The magics of the moment, used to enforce a particular mindset and opinion in the world right now, are image-magic (thrown into living rooms and bars and coffee shops around the world by the technology of television), the law of attraction, and mindfulness meditation.  By and large, these magics are used to convince people that things are mostly-ok, that they are getting better (even if the present circumstances are arguably worse), and that there are stories worth telling.  These magics have the advantage of urging people to focus on the light within, rather than the light beyond; or on the light of a particular box found in households around the world.  To go outside, to look up, to see the stars and planets in the realm of the stories we call the “Night Sky” (the Moon has, as one of her many titles, “The Treasure House Of Images/Stories”), is by-and-large discouraged. Yet people know, or at least are waking up to the reality, that the world is not-OK.  The Law Of Attraction only convinces people who are already in a good spot that they deserve it; while it keeps down those who are already desperate.  Mindfulness meditation, while beautiful and lovely, can also lead to a certain amount of selfishness.  On the other hand, though, astrology and magic promise two possibilities — learning the right time to act, and the right action to perform, to get what you want.  In a world dominated by timeless images (reruns and non-local binge-watching), astrology promises to reconnect us to the true time.

Second, astrological magic promises a personal relationship with the heavens, and with time and space.  The Copernican Revolution, placing the Sun at the center of our Solar System, severed the close connections between religious institutions and the sky — where was heaven, now? Christianity, at least, did not manage this transition well; and it misstepped again with the emergence of the Darwinian theory a few hundred years later.  Stumbling badly in response to new knowledge usually casts a great deal of doubt on the accuracy of your own institutionalized old-knowledge, and so people (consciously or not) quite naturally begin casting around for alternatives.  Astrology, on the other hand, has very little to say about DNA or biology, and it has also managed the transition through the solar-centered universe quite well — it can be seen as a source of power, of insight, and of wisdom, precisely because even its ancient textual material can be used and understood in this context.

But third, and perhaps most importantly, astrology has always offered its practitioners and students the chance to understand their past and guess at their future as laid out by fate and fortune. When combined with magic, though, the guessed-at fate may be avoided, or experienced in a more positive way.  Things might be made better than they are, by hanging on certain qualities of the universe (or hanging those qualities on ourselves, as talismans). The nature of astrology encourages us to non-dualistic thinking. I think it was Blogos who introduced me to the concept of the fourteen minotaurs of our possible selves — we can be wise or idiotic, rich or poor, productive or idle, healthy or sick, slaves or free, at peace or at war, beautiful or ugly.  By virtue of our birth — our horoscope — we’re born into these sets of conditions… and astrological magic offers the possibility that we can shift one or more of these states toward more favorable conditions.  In the fight between dichotomy and continuum, dichotomy wins because it has to (Dave MacPherson, was this your quotation?), and most of the world operates on a dichotomous scale — either/or, X/not-X, off/on.  Astrology offers a more nuanced approach, and astrological magic offers the potential to tune the dials — not off/on, but a change of volume or a change of the station.  Fine-tuning our lives is possible, even if a radical shift from what fate decreed is not.

And so, the Celestial Art as presented in The Celestial Art appears to be well-served.  There’s a fine dose of history, to show that this inclusion of magic is not a new-fangled approach to astrology; there’s actual, practical advice on how to do that magic (Coppock’s essay on working with the stars), and how to use a person’s chart to generate magical names (Eric Purdue), and how to track the progress of the Moon for the timing of ritual (Freedom Cole). There are reminders that sometimes you can’t wait for the astrology to be perfect (Jason Miller), but also valuable guides to the continuity between ancient practices and modern talismanic work (Aaron Cheak).

By and large, a delightful and thought-provoking collection of words. Thank you, Austin and Daniel, for this marvelous addition to our libraries, and a wonderful new way to integrate the two great artistries of astrology and magic.

2 comments

  1. This was a wonderful review, thank you. I am waiting to purchase this after this month, it has been at the top of my list since Austin mentioned it in one of his interviews.

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