History Pocket: Nineteenth Century Astrology

When I worked with the Caroline Myss book, Sacred Contracts, I was simultaneously annoyed and relieved to discover that one of my twelve archetypes is the scribe. The scribe can explain why I've spent the bulk of my life poring over things that other people have written and offering my own dry commentary, but come now, a scribe? It sounds crabbed, and peevish, pedantic and petulant. Decidedly not sexy.


(Fortunately I slotted some fun archetypes in there, like Anais Nin. Oh yes I did. No, she's not a goddess or a type but - oh well then, isn't she? I'd make the argument that she lived her life on the mythic level. Zora Neale Hurston is one of my twelve archetypes too. No, I didn't follow the rules. So sue me.)

For the scribe I had some cartoon version of Ebeneezer Scrooge in my head, crouched over a table and squinting under the light of a single candle, wrecking his hands with the repetitive motions writing involves (regrettably I resemble this image all too often - I'm currently folded up in my desk chair, squinting at my computer). Then my sub-conscious mind took over and intoned the epic word, THOTH. Oh yes, Thoth is a far-sight better than the impoverished Clerk of The Canterbury Tales.  The Greco-Roman (and Western astrological) archetype of writing, Mercury, didn't work for me as well as the ancient Egyptian scribe and god of magic. Mercury is too saucy and immature. He's also a thief. But Thoth is a Merlin. Or a Comte de Saint Germain.


And because I'm a Thoth, at least in part, I'm going to scribe for you, not minding that the old-timey font I've selected deploys backwards quotation marks (OK I mind a little). Someone needs to write a book about the history of American astrology. (Note to publishers: this person could be me). Astrologers in history are extraordinarily difficult to track down, not least because by-and-large their trades were illegal. Usually we know of their existence only because some unlucky few ran afoul of the law. Or because a prominent writer made fun of them; thus Ben Jonson immortalized the notorious career of the Elizabethan astrologer, Simon Magus. A 1767 play by Thomas Forrest, The Disappointment, narrowly missed becoming the first American theatrical production written by a native talent. And it tells us that eighteenth century Americans were conversant with the core language of astrology - if they hadn't been, no one would have gotten the play's jokes, which lambasted astrology by botching its esoteric terms.

Tonight I scribe for you the first entirely positive portrayal of astrology in early America that was not written by an astrologer. George Lippard was the best-selling American writer of the nineteenth century prior to Harriet Beecher Stowe's monumental success with Uncle Tom's Cabin (the only book more popular than this one in the entire century was the Bible). Lippard had an astrologer friend named Thomas Hague, and Lippard based a small but pivotal role in The Quaker City, his most popular book, on Hague. I'm not sure I've ever read anything like Lippard's portrait of the astrologer before. In his depiction, there is no mystery, no chicanery, only a plain, honest man who knows his craft. The astrologer also makes an uncannily accurate prediction which drives the entire novel. I read several of the passages excerpted below to a small group of astrologers at one point, and I do believe their eyes glazed over. But someone needs to do the painstaking work of collecting the physical traces of our psychic history, and weaving them into a coherent frame. Someone like me. A scribe.

From The Quaker City (1844-1845) by George Lippard, U-Mass edition, I give you-


The Astrologer

In a small room, remarkable for the air of comfort imparted by the effects of the neatly white-washed walls, the floor, plainly carpeted, and the snug little wood-stove roaring in front of the hearth, sat a man of some forty-five winters, bending over the table in the corner, covered with strange-looking books and loose manuscripts.

The light of the iron lamp which stood in the centre of the table, resting on a copy of Cornelius Agrippa, fell full and strongly over the face and form of the Astrologer ...

There was nothing in the dress of the man, or in the appearance of his room, that might realize the ideas commonly attached to the Astrologer and his den. Here were no melodramatic curtains swinging solemnly to and fro, brilliant and terrible with the emblazoned death's-head and cross-bones. Here were no blue lights imparting a lurid radiance to a row of grinning skeletons, here were no ghostly forms standing pale and erect, their glassy eyes freezing the spectator's blood with horror, here was neither goblin, devil, or mischievous ape, which, as every romance reader knows, have been the companions of the Astrologer from time immemorial; here was nothing but a plain man, seated in an old-fashioned arm chair, within the walls of a comfortable room, warmed by a roaring little stove.

No cap of sable relieved the Astrologer's brow, no gown of black velvet, tricked out with mysterious emblems in gold and precious stones, fell in sweeping folds around the outlines of his spare figure. A plain white overcoat, much worn and out at the elbows, a striped vest not remarkable for its shape or fashion, a cross-barred neckerchief, and a simple linen shirt collar completed the attire of the astrologer who sat reading at the table.

The walls of the room were hung with the Horoscopes of illustrious men, Washington, Byron, and Napoleon, delineated on large sheets of paper, and surrounded by plain frames of black wood; the table was piled with the works of Sibly, Lilly, Cornelius Agrippa and other masters in the mystic art; while at the feet of the Astrologer nestled a fine black cat, whose large whiskers and glossy fur, would seem to afford no arguments in favor of the supposition entertained by the neighbors, that she was a devil in disguise, a sort of familiar spirit on leave of absence from the infernal regions.


And thus turning from page to page, he disclosed the remarkable fact, that the great, the good, and the wise of the Quaker City, who met the mere name of astrology, when uttered in public, with a most withering sneer, still under the cover of night, were happy to steal to the astrologer's room, and obtain some glimpses of their future destiny through the oracle of the stars (26-27).