Category Archives: Astronomy

The Celestographs: August Strindberg’s Alchemical Shots of the Night Sky

The Celestographs: August Strindberg’s Alchemical Shots of the Night Sky

In the 1890s, Swedish playwright August Strindberg photographed the night sky without a camera or even a lens. These “Celestographs,” as he called them, were both a folly and an innovative work of experimental art. The National Library of Sweden has recently shared a selection of these photographs online, displaying the gritty textures of the strange images.

Sadly, the plates that Strindberg set out under the stars have been lost, but these well-worn prints remain. While Strindberg is celebrated for his dozens of modernist plays and other works of naturalist fiction, when he hit a creative block he turned to visual art. A friend of Edvard Munch, Strindberg produced paintings that are physical, almost aggressive, canvases marred with paint, jabbed and slashed with the palette knife and brush. His photographs are hands-off. As Douglas Feuk wrote in 2001 for Cabinet magazine:

“Strindberg distrusted camera lenses, since he considered them to give a distorted representation of reality. Over the years he built several simple lens-less cameras made from cigar boxes or similar containers with a cardboard front in which he had used a needle to prick a minute hole. But the celestographs were produced by an even more direct method using neither lens nor camera. The experiments involved quite simply placing his photographic plates on a window sill or perhaps directly on the ground (sometimes, he tells us, already lying in the developing bath) and letting them be exposed to the starry sky.”

via The Celestographs: August Strindberg’s Alchemical Shots of the Night Sky.

Harmonices Mundi (Harmony of the World) by Johannes Kepler, 1619


Nature, which is never not lavish of herself, after a lying-in of two thousand years, has finally brought you forth in these last generations, the first true images of the universe. By means of your concords of various voices, and through your ears, she has whispered to the human mind, the favorite daughter of God the Creator, how she exists in the innermost bosom

Johannes Kepler published Harmonies of the World in 1619. This was the summation of his theories about celestial correspondences, and ties together the ratios of the planetary orbits, musical theory, and the Platonic solids. Kepler’s speculations are long discredited. However, this work stands as a bridge between the Hermetic philosophy of the Renaissance, which sought systems of symbolic correspondences in the fabric of nature, and modern science. And today, we finally have heard the music of the spheres: data from outer system probes have been translated into acoustic form, and we can listen to strange clicks and moans from Jupiter’s magnetosphere.

Towards the end of Harmonies Kepler expressed a startling idea,–one which Giordiano Bruno had been persecuted for, two decades before–the plurality of inhabited worlds. He muses on the diversity of life on Earth, and how it was inconceivable that the other planets would be devoid of life, that God had “adorned[ed] the other globes too with their fitting creatures”. [pp. 10841085]

While medieval philosophers spoke metaphorically of the “music of the spheres“, Kepler discovered physical harmonies in planetary motion.

Kepler explains the reason for the Earth’s small harmonic range:

The Earth sings Mi, Fa, Mi: you may infer even from the syllables that in this our home misery and famine hold sway.

At very rare intervals all of the planets would sing together in “perfect concord”: Kepler proposed that this may have happened only once in history, perhaps at the time of creation.


The Beatus of Facundus, or Beatus of Liebana

Towards the end of the eighth century Beatus, a monk in the monastery of San Martin de Turieno, near present day Santander, compiled a Commentary on the Book of Revelation, or Apocalypse, from the writings dedicated to the topic by such patristic authors as Jerome, Augustine, Ambrose and Irenaeus. Recognition of Beatus of Liébana has survived to our time thanks to his decision to illustrate the sixty-eight sections into which he divided the text of the Book of Revelation. It was a decision that could not easily have been anticipated, for it is not at all clear that Beatus had ever seen an illustrated book, and it is almost certain these illustrations were invented by him or an assistant. The pictures would remain integral to the many – some twenty-six – copies of the Commentary that have survived.

Some have assumed that Beatus’s great work was linked to his campaign against “Adoptionism,” the heretical position on the nature of the Godhead espoused by the bishop of Toledo, but it antedated that campaign. More commonly the book has been linked to the fact that Christian Spain had been conquered and occupied by Muslims. Perhaps some monks, who expected to adopt an allegorical mode for much that they read, identified the assailants of the righteous in the Book of Revelation with their Andalusian neighbors, but the texts harvested by Beatus were all written before Muhammad’s time and can not explicitly target Islam. In fact, the few passages that can be attributed to Beatus himself, make it clear that he chose the Apocalypse, the last book of the Bible and the one that prophesies the future, because of the common belief that the world would end in A.D. 800 and usher in the Last Judgment. The fact that most copies date after the tenth century, when millennial expectations might have been revived, shows that the tradition had a life of its own. The illustrations must have played a major role in survival of the tradition.

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Kitab al-Bulhan, or the Book of Wonders

The Kitab al-Bulhan, or Book of Wonders, is an Arabic manuscript dating mainly from the late 14th century A.D. and probably bound together in Baghdad during the reign of Jalayirid Sultan Ahmad (1382-1410). The manuscript is made up of astrological, astronomical and geomantic texts compiled by Abd al-Hasan Al-Isfahani, as well as a dedicated section of full-page illustrations, with each plate titled with “A discourse on….”, followed by the subject of the discourse (a folktale, a sign of the zodiac, a prophet, etc.).

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There are approximately 80 illustrations among the astrological, astronomical and geomantic texts in the 180pp manuscript. Many of the pages without illustrations have patterned arrangements of the text.

The Sabians and their role in the development of astrological, alchemical and magical traditions

“In what is now southern Turkey stand the remnants of a city called Harran. Part of long ago Babylon, Harran was once the site of the Temple of the Moon god-Sin, one of seven temples in seven cities sacred to the seven classical planets.  Unlike the other great celestial temples, though, the Temple of the Moon in Harran continued to host astral rites long after the coming of Muhammed. From the 6th until the 11th centuries C.E., a wild Hermetic syncretism bloomed, tended carefully by a people who called Hermes their prophet, and themselves Sabians.”

“In alchemy, Jābir ibn Hayyān was known to have spent time among the Sabians, and his work displays the unique fusion of astrology, Neo-Platonism, Hermeticism, Aristotelianism and Galenic medicine developed in Harran.  Jabir’s work hugely influential work spawned a plague of pseudonymous books, and more than 3000 texts have come to be attributed to him.”

Jabir_ibn_HayyanJabir ibn Hayyan was a prominent polymath: a chemist and alchemist, astronomer and astrologer, engineer, geographer, philosopher, physicist, and pharmacist and physician. Born and educated in Tus, he later traveled to Kufa. Jābir is held to have been the first practical alchemist.

As early as the 10th century, the identity and exact corpus of works of Jābir was in dispute in Islamic circles. His name was Latinized as “Geber” in the Christian West and in 13th-century Europe an anonymous writer, usually referred to as Pseudo-Geber, produced alchemical and metallurgical writings under the pen-name Geber.

 “The Sabians of Harran played a crucial but often under-recognized role in the transmission and development of astrological, alchemical and magical traditions. Harran acted as a crucial bridge for the Hermetic arts and sciences, ferrying them from the decay of Byzantine Rome all the way to the shores of Medieval Europe half a millennia later.  Many all of the greatest Arabic astrologers, alchemists and magicians can be shown to have spent time in Harran.  Without them, astrology would not have survived the West’s dark ages, nor would the complexities of alchemy or the high cunning of astral sorceries have been passed on.


Harran hosted what were perhaps the sole inheritors and practitioners of Babylonian astral magic at a time when both the Christian and Islamic worlds were being steadily purged of them.  Yet the Sabians were not pagan fundamentalists.  Hellenistic influences abound in what record we have of the Sabians’ practice.  They embraced the metaphysics of Neo-Platonism, the experimental philosophy of Hermeticism and the science of Hellenistic astrology, forging a sophisticated framework for the Babylonian astral magick they inherited.  The Gayat Al Hakim, also called the Picatrix, a legendary planetary grimoire, emerged from this elegant syncretism, and may testify to its intricacies best.”

For full article at Clavis Journal, see here:

The Glass Bead Game

“Anyway, in the isolation of Castalia, a new art or science will be perfected. It will arise first in the music academies, where a system of glass beads of different sizes and colors, strung on a frame like an abacus, is used to represent musical themes and the rules of counterpoint, allowing themes to be reversed, transposed, and developed. Problems and challenges in music theory can be set and solved with the game in interesting ways. Soon other disciplines, philology, physics, begin to see ways to employ and expand the symbol sets. “Mathematicians in particular played it with a formal strictness at once athletic and aesthetic.” (“Strict” and “strictness” are ubiquitous words in the book.) From Chinese beliefs that music can model the structure of heaven and earth—and from the expressive possibilities inherent in Chinese ideograms—come further developments, until it will be possible for players of the evolved game to deploy a language of symbols (the glass beads themselves long since given up) to unveil the real relations among far-flung products of intellectual endeavor: perhaps a first theme of a Scarlatti sonata evoking an equation mentioned in an Arab manuscript, answered by an oddity of Latin grammar in one direction, a fragment of Parmenides, or a rule in Vitruvian architecture in another. When players begin to practice meditation techniques, games will become at once more personally expressive and more universal. Top players will introduce new symbol sets—alchemical emblems, the I-Ching; in weeks-long festivals their games induce in observers ineffable experiences of insight.”


Taken from

Herman Hesse’s Nobel Prize Winning Novel,

The Glass Bead Game

lays the foundations for an Artistic/Conceptual Game, which integrates all fields of Human and Cosmic Knowledge through forms of Organic Universal Symbolism, expressed by its players with the Dynamic Fluidity of Music. The Glass Bead Game is, in Reality, an Age Old metaphor for what has been called, the “Divine Lila” (Play or Game of Life). This metaphor has been expressed by every great Wisdom Tradition known to man, and its players, the Magister Ludi (Masters of the Game), use as their instruments Ancient and Modern modes of Symbolic Wisdom traditionally presented through Sacred Art, Philosophy, Magick and Cosmology. For a more detailed elaboration of our vision of the GBG, see:


David Bowie’s “Sunday” from the album Heathen with text from Hermann Hesse’s novel “The Glass Bead Game”

“Nothing remains
We could run when the rain slows
Look for the cars or signs of life
Where the heat goes

Look for the drifters
We should crawl under the bracken
Look for the shafts of light
On the road where the heat goes

Everything has changed

For in truth, it’s the beginning of nothing
And nothing has changed
Everything has changed

For in truth, it’s the beginning of an end
And nothing has changed
Everything has changed

In your fear
Of what we have become
Take to the fire
Now we must burn
All that we are
Rise together
Through these clouds
As on wings

In your fear
Seek only peace
In your fear
Seek only love
In your fear
Seek only peace
In your fear
Seek only love
In your fear
In your fear
As on wings

This is the trip
And this is the business we take
This is our number
All my trials
Lord, will be remembered

Everything has changed” – Bowie

Synesius – A letter to Hypatia: On Dreams

In a letter to Hypatia of Alexandria, of whom he was a student, Synesius of Cyrene wrote that his essay, or as he called it “book” was:

“[…] set up as a thank-offering to the imaginative faculties. It contains an inquiry into the whole imaginative soul, and into some other points which have not yet been handled by any Greek philosopher. But why should one dilate on this? This work was completed, the whole of it, in a single night, or rather, at the end of a night, one which also brought the vision enjoining me to write it. There are two or three passages in the book in which it seemed to me that I was some other person, and that I was one listening to myself amongst others who were present.

Even now this work, as often as I go over it, produces a marvelous effect upon me, and a certain divine voice envelops me as in poetry. Whether this my experience is not unique, or may happen to another, on all this you will enlighten me, for after myself you will be the first of the Greeks to have access to the work.”

An extract from On Dreams:

“[…] divinations are amongst the best vocations of man; and if all things are signs appearing through all things, inasmuch as they are brothers in a single living creature, the cosmos, so also they are written in characters of every kind, just as those in a book some are Phoenician, some Egyptian, and others Assyrian.[1]

The scholar reads these, and he is a scholar who learns by his natural bent. One reads some of them and another reads others, one reads more and another less. In the same way one reads them by syllables, another reads the complete phrase, another the whole story. In like manner do the learned see the future, some understanding stars, and of these, one the fixed stars, another those flames which shoot across the sky. Again, there are those who read it from the entrails, and from the cries of birds, and from their perches and flights. To others also what are termed omens are manifest, written indications these of things to be, and again voices and encounters otherwise intended, for all things have their significance for every one. [1285] In the same way, if birds had had wisdom, they would have compiled an art of divining the future from men, just as we have from them; for we are to them, just as they are to us, alike young and old, very old and very fortunate. It must needs be, I think, the parts of this great whole, since it all shares one feeling and one breath, belong to each other. They are, in fact, limbs of one entire body, and may not the spells of the magicians be even such as these? Obviously, for charms are cast from one part of it to another, as signals are given, and he is a sage who understands the relationship of the parts of the universe. One thing he attracts to himself through the agency of another thing, for he has present with him pledges of things which are for the most part far away, to wit, voices, substances, figures. And as when the bowel is in pain, another part suffers also with it, so a pain in the finger settles in the groin,[2] although there be many organs between these parts which feel nothing.

This is because they are both portions of one living organism, and there is that which binds them one to the other more than to other things. Even to some god, of those who dwell within the universe, a stone from hence and a herb is a befitting offering; for in sympathizing with these he is yielding to nature and is bewitched. Thus the harp-player who has sounded the highest note does not sound the sesquioctavus next, but rather strikes the epitrite and the nete, a heritage today from a more ancient state of harmony.

But there is in the cosmos, even as in human relationship, a certain discord also; for the universe is not one homogeneous thing but a unity formed of many. There are parts of it which agree and yet battle with other parts, and the struggle of these only contributes to a harmonious unity of the whole, just as the lyre is a system of responsive and harmonious notes.[3] The unity resulting from the opposites is the harmony of both the lyre and the cosmos. Archimedes the Sicilian asked for a point of support outside of the earth wherefrom he might prop himself against the whole earth, for he said that as long as he was himself upon the earth he had no power over it. But the man, howso great his knowledge of the nature of the universe may be, once placed outside of it, could no longer make any use of his wisdom. He uses the universe against itself; accordingly his touch with it once lost, he will watch it in vain, and the lifeless symbols only would then be recorded. And small wonder, for whatever of the divine elements is outside the cosmos can in no wise be moved by sorcery.

He sits apart and careth not. nor taketh any thought thereof.[4]

It is the nature of pure reason not to be deflected; it is only the emotional element which may be cajoled. Wherefore the multitude of things in the universe and their relationship furnish the bulk of the subject-matter in the initiations and prophecies. There is a multitude of the discordant elements, but a relationship is the unity of things existing. Now, as to initiations, let not our law-abiding discourse noise them abroad; there is no offense, however, in explaining divination.”

Letters of Synesius of Cyrene to Hypatia of Alexandria



Full text of Synesius On Dreams



W.B. Yeats, Magus – Lapham’s Quarterly

“Magic imbrued Yeats’ thinking so profoundly that it’s nearly impossible to disentangle the strands without rending the garment. Kathleen Raine, a poet deeply influenced by Yeats, offered a useful formula: “For Yeats magic was not so much a kind of poetry as poetry a kind of magic, and the object of both alike was evocation of energies and knowledge from beyond normal consciousness.” The salient word there is “evocation,” casting the poet as a magus conjuring verbal spirits, not from his imagination but from a higher, or a deeper, place.”

“The Rosicrucian societies that formed in Germany in the early seventeenth century were based upon this principle of the unbroken transmission of the prisca theologia—the one true faith of which all organized religions are but pale, debased reflections—by a succession of necromancers. Yeats would have known by heart the description of the magician’s powers from Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus:

These metaphysics of magicians, And necromantic books are heavenly; Lines, circles, signs, letters, and characters; Ay, these are those that Faustus most desires. O, what a world of profit and delight, Of power, of honor, of omnipotence, Is promised to the studious artisan!”

W.B. Yeats, Magus – Lapham’s Quarterly.

The Aquarium of Vulcan: Layer Monument

Excerpt from The Layer Monument – Aquarium of Vulcan Blog

“In essence the Renaissance world-view of astrological correspondences lay at the heart of much of Elizabethan art, including Edmund Spencer’s The Fairie Queene (1579). In Spencer’s epic poem the symbolism of  each respective planet and it’s ‘virtues’ shape each book of  poetry. Shakespeare’s plays  also frequently include an esoteric or magical theme, from the multiple transformations of men to beasts in ‘A Midsummer’s Night Dream‘ to the quite dark themes of witchcraft in Macbeth, the ghosts of Hamlet and the portrait of the magus-like figure of Prospero in ‘The Tempest‘. In an age which cultivated a sense of melancholia, the 1600’s decade is  typified best by the music of John Dowland’s Seven mournful Lachromosye (1604) and the solemn viol consort pavans of William Byrd.

During the reign of Queen Elizabeth (1558 -1603) court masques were performed in which the planets, elements, forces of nature and virtues were allegorized and personified. Elaborate  in costume, decor, music and allegory, masques were staged for Elizabeth by her court astrologer, the magus John Dee (1527 -1608). Dee immersed himself in the study of esoterica such as the Cabbala, the writings of the mythic sage Hermes Trismegistus and  Ficino’s translation of Plato’s  Timaeus. Plato’s Discourse the Timaeusin particular  wielded a particularly weighty influence upon the Renaissance  imagination with its concept of the ‘eternal forms’ or archetypes. Hermetically inclined thinkers such as  Dee endeavoured  to prove that the wisdom of ‘the divine Plato’, far from being opposed to Christianity was harmonious and compatible with Christian belief.

The Elizabethan imagination was fond of all manner of riddles, enigmas, puzzles and anagrams. Knowledge of such secretive forms of expression sometimes included a familiarity with the Neo-platonic and Hermetic tradition. Such secrets were not only highly advantageous to communicate beliefs which the Church discouraged the study of,  but even infiltrated Christian iconography, including symbolism on funerary monuments.
It is largely due to the historian Jean Seznec that its now recognised the Olympian gods did not die with the advent of Christianity, but lived on. They were transformed during Late Antiquity, sometimes embedded within history as transfigured former human beings, or given planetary roles as astral divinities in the world-view of astrology or allegorized as moral emblems. They surviving in pictorial and literary traditions, took on strange new guises and were transformed in various ways, their myths recast to suit some of the mythic saints of Late Antiquity.Greek and Roman deities captivated the European imagination throughout the Renaissance, often  taking their place side-by-side with Christian symbols and doctrines. Their imagery permeated Medieval intellectual life. The transformed mythology re-emerged in the iconography of the early Tuscan Renaissance, with new attributes that the ancients had never imagined, and enjoyed tremendous renewed popularity during the Renaissance.

Whoever commissioned  the  highly-skilled monument mason to  sculpt the four figurines of the Layer Monument was well-acquainted  with the Roman classical world. He was also surely aware that the ancient Romans had personified various deities in statues and upon elaborate marble sarcophagus; such symbolism often involved a complex  juxtaposition of gods and heroes. The Layer Monument in its depiction of Christ ‘the Prince of Peace’ and the Virgin Mary standing upon a lunar crescent, are in their attire distinctly modeled upon  the sculpture  of the Classical gods of Greek antiquity. Together they distinctly allude to the hieros gamos of alchemy, which in Greek mythology was represented by the pairing of Apollo and Diana, gods of the luminaries sun and respectively.
The strictly literal-mindedness of our age, combined with the Layer monument’s relative obscurity has prevented  it from being identified as an art-work which  utilizes esoteric symbolism. The literalism of our age, the narrow belief that words are fully-developed definitions have effectively blinded viewers from actually looking closely at each statuette.In brief, the symbolism of the Layer Monument statuettes alludes to  not only medieval notions of the four elements, but also to the time-honoured schemata of the Renaissance esoteric tradition involving astrological and alchemical symbolism; the Quarternio are also identifiable in the Jungian study of religious symbols as four quite distinct archetypes – ‘the wise ruler’ here portrayed aptly in super-human form, opposed to war, treading its weapons underfoot;  ‘the great mother’ standing upon a crescent moon, ‘the old man’, here complete with a gray beard engaged in hard manual labour digging the earth. The child/trickster, playfully blowing bubbles is none other than the guiding psychopomp of  the recently deceased and  the major ‘deity’ of alchemy, the elusive Mercurius.”