Tag Archives: astronomy

The Turning Sky | Lapham’s Quarterly

“The god Horus is a falcon (the word for which in hieroglyphs is qhr, the falcon’s cry). In the third surviving column of text, remarkably, the falcon is marked with a triangle, the hieroglyphic designation for the star Sirius. As if it were a mathematical proof unfolding before my eyes, I saw that if the falcon marked by the triangle is Sirius, the fire is the light of dawn in which the gods—the things marked holy by the hieroglyphic prayer flags—are stars. The baboon’s penis is in actuality a familiar sight: the Sword of Orion (the three stars under Orion’s belt), which rises directly before Sirius on the path of rising stars. The hieroglyphic lines on the wall express an immediate, visual moment in the physical world: the dawn rising of Sirius signaling the rising of the Nile, the key moment of the Egyptian agricultural year. The clear, repetitive, and simple hieroglyphic lines read not as a magic spell but as a finely machined poetic riddle: The Sword of Orion opens the doors of the sky. Before the doors close the gate to the path over the fire Beneath the holy ones as they grow dark, As a falcon flies, as a falcon flies, may Unis rise into this fire, Beneath the holy ones as they grow dark. They make a path for Unis. Unis takes the path. Unis becomes the falcon star, Sirius. That this was the case was borne out by the text as I translated further. Beautifully constructed verses presented one vivid astronomical reference after another: Taurus (“Would that the bull break the fingers of the horizon of earth with its horns. / Come out. Rise.”), the full moon (“the face, the head, the eye”), the North Star (“the axis at the center of the wheel”), the Dippers (“the arms of night”), the Milky Way (“the ladder to heaven”). The verses of the Pyramid Texts map the night sky as a detailed seasonal clock reliably predicting the most critical resource of all: water. Egyptian civilization came out of radical climate change—cattle herders whose grazing land was rapidly becoming desert as the water dried up in the climate shift of the Neolithic, much as is happening in Texas and around the world today.

The verses present a sequence of poetic images in which the human body is transformed back into its elements in the visible universe of the turning sky. The remnant essence of a human life rises as a star in the east: “moses” (the hieroglyphic word for infant) in “the field of rushes” (the eastern stars at dawn). The infant star is the child of “she who gave birth but did not know it” (the sky). The sky is a flood of cool darkness across which sail the stars: Sirius and its evil twin, “the detested wild dog Set,” the second brightest star in the sky, Canopus, the rising of which signals the autumn rains with their deadly flash floods and thunderstorms. Through this glittering wetland of stars wanders the golden calf, the golden crescent horns of the moon.

This extraordinary convergence of poetry, science, and religion resides not only in the writing but in the pictures within the words themselves. Osiris is a phonetic rendering of a hieroglyphic rebus: the seat of the eye, the universal corpse in which resurrection is not a religious mystery but an inevitability of nature. In the Pyramid Texts, hieroglyphic vocabulary is rich with images: The body is a tree. The snake is the life in it. The fruit of the tree is the eye. What is being expressed is the intelligence of nature itself in the ongoing process of creation: the death, decay, and rebirth of plant and animal life in the cyclical year. One familiar religious trope after another appears not as literal historical fact used to proscribe, threaten, and dictate the parameters of human life but as poetic imagery used to bring to life the awareness of our fragile and beautiful world. The richness of these images is echoed in the Book of Job: “As for the earth, out of it cometh bread, and under it is turned up as it were fire. The stones of it are the place of sapphires, and it hath dust of gold.” The Pyramid Texts are not magic spells or religious prescription any more than this. Instead, the text takes up a key question: Where shall wisdom be found?

…over the fire
Beneath the holy ones as they grow dark,

As a falcon flies, as a falcon flies, may Unis rise into this fire,

Beneath the holy ones as they grow dark.

They make a path for Unis. Unis takes the path.

Unis becomes the falcon star, Sirius.


Would that the bull break the fingers of the horizon of earth with its horns.

Come out. Rise.

Poetry and religion arise from the same source: the perception of the mystery of life. Early Egyptian writing belongs to this eternal language. The vehicle at work is associative thinking, in which metaphors act as keys to unlock a primeval human sense of the integrated living world. The meaning may not come across on the pedantic level, but on the poetic level it is transparent.”

Source: The Turning Sky | Lapham’s Quarterly

Susan Brind Morrow

Susan Brind Morrow’s translation and analysis of the Pyramid Texts, The Dawning Moon of the Mind: Unlocking the Pyramid Texts, was published in 2015. She received a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship in 2006.

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: http://clavisjournal.com/the-shadow-of-harran/

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.”