First published in The Company of Astrologers
Bulletin no.40 Solar Eclipse 19 Gemini
11 June 2002
ANGELICAL CONSORTS: WILLIAM LILLY & THE MUNDUS IMAGINALIS
From a talk given at the Lilly 400 Astrologers’ Feast.
We honour William Lilly, but how are we to understand him? The answer to this question is not so obvious as it may seem. But let us start with the first step into Lilly for most of us – horary. Those of us who have tasted horary are likely to be completely swept away by the power of his craft as represented in Christian Astrology. We grab on to what we can see, we say great, this is what this guy did, let’s learn it, here are the rules. Horary astrology after the manner of Lilly is so tangible and earthy – look at the Taurus and Capricorn placings in his natal map. And that is how we frame him and see his astrology, earthy, practical, crafty, and applied decisively to the everyday realities of existence.
But look further and you soon will discover how narrow and small such a perspective would be. At this point I must acknowledge that this raises a bone of contention for certain of our traditionalists, who interpret their own astrology as well as that of Lilly, in an over-literal and deterministic way. If you just follow Lilly on the ‘rules’, and stay with a literal and simply predictive interpretation of the objective craft concerns of Christian Astrology, you do not see even a quarter of what he understood of astrology. I don’t mean by this his range of methods, and even less do I mean sheer quantity of judgment. I am referring to orders of experience. Only a fraction of the realm Lilly traversed is made explicit in his great textbook. To understand him we must enter a domain that has breath-taking implications for astrology – and for us – and it is a domain that we rarely seem able to talk about. The theme that I want to raise here, my suggestion of how we should understand and honour Lilly, is as a teacher of the mundus imaginalis, the imaginal world.
Lilly to Leo
There is in our astrology a hardly recognised and poorly understood tradition, one that is called by various names, but which falls in the broad categories of the hermetic, gnostic, and magical. It is a transmission that comes from remote antiquity and carries on its tide Pythagoras and the mystery schools. Plato knows its vision and range, and it flows through the neo-Platonists, on to the Sufi mystics and mystical astrologers of the 11th and 12th centuries. We find its imprint in Dante and in the whole undertow of Renaissance magical-religious understanding, with astrology its jewel and centre. That is where the astrology of Lilly roots, in the neo-Platonic, hermetic, magical tradition. The connection with Ashmole, his great friend and patron, is significant and revealing; Ashmole is the scholar, magician, restorer of English alchemy, and in his own right an astrologer. There is no doubt of Ashmole’s credentials in the magical-religious tradition.
So where has this transmission gone? It stumbles on past the scientific enlightenment with the Rosicrucians, with the Masons, and with Theosophy. Theosophy? Now here is a pause for thought and a turnaround of conventional notions – there is a greater similarity between Lilly and Alan Leo than there is between William Lilly and the 19th century buffs like Zadkiel, Raphael, and Sepharial. Equally certainly there is a unity of stance and spirit between Lilly and Leo that we would be hard-pressed to find between Lilly and the modern predictive traditionalists. The transmission lies in a stance or attitude that evokes the magical and the spiritual in astrology. That is where Lilly’s tradition lies.
Post scientific enlightenment, none of us can think straight. Our way of thought is formed in such a way that we are fractured, which is the loss of soul that Jung refers to. That fracture means that if I say to you that Lilly lived in an enchanted world, we form a sentimentalised or distorted vision of what that means. Yet I do not know how else to talk of his world. It is enchanted. We pick this up immediately in Lilly’s diaries, edited by Ashmole. When he was starting to study astrology in the 1630s, he was at the same time studying magic. He knew how to make and vivify sigils. He could teach the use of the dowsing rods, he understood scrying, and the invocation of spirits. He talks of the problems of calling the Queen of the fairies, and advises that “it’s not for every one, or every Person that these Angelical Creatures will appear unto, though they may say over the Call, over and over… the Fairies love the Southern Side of Hills, Mountains, Groves. – Neatness and Cleanliness in Apparel, a strict Diet, an upright Life, fervent Prayers unto God, conduce much to the Assistance of those who are curious in these ways”. Lilly is in the last age when it was possible for an educated person to have this understanding without it becoming absurd or splitting the soul dangerously into parts.
Astrology occupies a cardinal place in this world: “Who study the Curiosities before-named”, says Lilly, “if they are not very well versed in Astrology, they shall rarely attain their desired Ends” (Diaries ch 19). And as I have elsewhere argued, the unique power of Lilly’s craft astrology is equally a function of the gift of imagination, for which read also, participation in the world of magic.
It is no surprise, therefore, that Lilly practised electional astrology allied with magic, and he gives an account of several remarkable instances of the potency of his methods. But there is a serious warning to us here. We know that he became ill because of practices he was undertaking in the 1630’s, and that led him to abandon these ‘nigromantic’ forms and burn his books. This is not however an abandonment of magic, it is a raising of it. He tells us that he went on to some other ‘propheticall’ understanding which he mysteriously refers to in these words: “I had not that Learning from Books, or from any Manuscript I ever yet met withal, it is reduced from a Cabal lodging in Astrology”. This forms the basis for his hieroglyphics, the illustrative woodcut figures through which Lilly achieved considerable notoriety, as for instance in his prediction of the Fire of London. The only clue he allows concerning this cabal is that “the Asterisms and Signs and Constellations give greatest Light thereunto” (Diaries ch 15). This is highly suggestive of the ancient tradition of stellar magic, well known to the Arabs, involving images of the decanates.
Another significant dimension of Lilly’s occult studies is his work on the ancient system reworked by Trithemius and published in 1522. In this system, planetary angels rule over epochs of history. Lilly tells us that “multiplicity of employment” impeded his desire to continue with Trithemius; “the Study required, in that kind of Learning, must be sedentary, of great Reading, sound Judgment, which no Man can accomplish except he should wholly retire, use Prayer, and accompany himself with Angelical Consorts”.
The Country of Nonwhere
It is not easy in our fractured modern state to return to that enchantment. What was possible then is not necessarily possible in the same way now. I do not advocate that we honour Lilly by plunging into junky occultism. But there are moves we can make, and there exist for us in our times bridges for the imagination. One such bridge has been provided by Henry Corbin, in his naming of the mundus imaginalis. Corbin is a scholar of Sufism, and has brought before us the great mystic and astrologer Ibn Arabi. The phrase mundus imaginalis is Corbin’s translation of an Arabic term nâ-kojâ-abâd, the country of nonwhere. The nonwhere exists in the 8th clime above the last sphere, that of Saturn. The legends tell us that as the aspirant begins to seek, he will ascend through the spheres and then, at some point, he leaves the sensible world, and enters some other place, which is no-place, where he will see his spirit double, or angelic other. And the nonwhere is the place where all the creatures and types of our sensible world have their spirit-images. That is where they truly exist, and our sensory world is a reflection of the nonwhere. Where is the country of nonwhere? It is in the zodiac and the fixed stars, beyond the crystalline spheres of our Ptolemaic universe. Take note of that mysterious comment of Lilly’s about ‘asterisms, signs and constellations’. There live the angels, and that is where the angel figure comes to the one who seeks.
The nonwhere is the world of imagination. However, beware this word. Corbin says that our modern term ‘imagination’ is so corrupted, that when we say something is imaginary, we declare it to be untruth, fiction. For this reason he has authored the Latin term, mundus imaginalis, in order to carry over the meaning of the Sufi mystics.
The organ of imagination is the heart. It is heart-mind that sees the mundus imaginalis. This is where we arrive at a very significant Sufi interpretation of the work of symbolism, including astrology. All symbolic working ‘materialises the spiritual and spiritualises the material’. That’s the phrase they use. That is what you and I do when we make symbol and make astrology. As we make a symbolic interpretation, we materialise spirit things from the nonwhere and we spiritualise material things. That is where the mystery of astrology lies.
Now this work, the work of the astrologer, is a definite practice. Astrology is middle-spiritual work, working with the nonwhere, working with the symbolic forms. For the Sufis, in between the work of the material plane and the absolute spiritual, there is a realm where the imagination of the heart moves freely back and forth. That is how we make our path through the spiritual life. In this middle-spiritual we encounter a world of angelic beings, and the angelic image of our experienced world. We also seek our transcendent pole as the angel-other, known to the occultists as the guardian angel and to the hermetic tradition as the daemon.
You might think this is far indeed from anything in our modern astrology, but there is a mysterious transmission here, Rosicrucian, Masonic, Theosophical. It’s what Alan Leo is getting back to. I wonder if some of you know Charles Carter’s acerbic observation about Leo’s death in 1916 being “not altogether…untimely”. Carter says Leo was “threatened with a lapse into woolliness. He began to write a lot about ‘star angels’, for instance”. At the end of his life, Leo taught that “every human being belongs to a Father Star in heaven, or Star Angel…”, and that is what the horoscope is about. Well, I think Alan Leo is heading in the right direction. The phenomenon of Leo’s astrology began to uncover the mundus imaginalis. And Leo couldn’t therefore see astrology in its literalised form, he had to seek some other middle spiritual form to see it, and for him it is the vehicle of Theosophy.
We are all stumblers in this, and who knows the truth in such things, but think about it. I want to say this to the hard-line traditionalists, you guys have really got Lilly wrong if you think it’s just about following rules, if you think you can learn this as a practical craft for making objective predictions. This marvellous practice of astrology, the gift to us from William Lilly, depends on the imaginal and it implicates heart-mind in an act of imagination. To make a judgment in astrology is an act of symbolic imagination, it is to consort with angels in the country of nonwhere.
* * * * * Geoffrey Cornelius