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Celestial Beings: The Birth of Astrology

Celestial Beings: The Birth of Astrology

“Look at the stars! look, look up at the skies!”

So entreats Gerard Hopkins, the great Victorian writer and author of many popular sonnets and songs in the late 19th century.

“O look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air! The bright boroughs, the circle-citadels there…” he continues, enticing the reader in poetic verse to consider the jewel-like web of bright, heavenly orbs as they burn, fire-like, above us.

It seems that the great creators of the time were delighted with Hopkins’ charge to look upward for inspiration, as examples of celestially inspired jewels were all the craze in Victorian and even Georgian times, and the signs of the Zodiac captured the imagination of such masters as Louis Comfort Tiffany at the turn of the 20th Century. Exploring the rich and rewarding history of the Zodiac signs and the 19th Century relationship with the stars has added greatly to our love of these remarkable objects, and so we endeavor to share it here, with you.

Tiffany Studios New York, "Zodiac" Table Lamp, ca. 1900, New York, Macklowe Gallery

Complex networks of celestial phenomena known as constellations, or “Mansions built by Nature’s hand,” per Wordsworth, are known to have been studied since the beginning of recorded history, though our current understanding of the Zodiac signs date back to the Babylonians in the 18th Century B.C. It was the Babylonians who established our Western understanding of the passage of time as dictated by the heavens, separated into 12 recognizable segments. Each segment was assigned a constellation that was most prominently visible during that span of time, and an animal form was associated with each constellation, making up what we now know as the Zodiac signs (Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo, Libra, Scorpio, Sagittarius, Capricorn, Aquarius, and Pisces.)

Separate ideologies of divining fortunes and godly interests from the stars developed worldwide, but many of these somewhat divergent theories met and melded when Alexander the Great conquered Europe and Northern Africa around 330 B.C. “We don’t really know who first came up with the idea for looking at things in nature and divining influence on humans,” says Sten Odenwald, Director of Citizen Science at the NASA Space Science Education Consortium, but, we do know that the term “Zodiac” itself came from the Greek (specifically the words Zodiakos Kyklos, meaning “Animal Circle” for the 12 animals signs associated with each of the 12 defining constellations.) The Greeks also added a previously unmatched reach and verve to the practice of astrology, which was, at this point in time, the same as the science of astronomy.

Nabataean, Roundel with Bust of Atargatis-Tyche and Zodiac, late 1st century A.D,
Cincinnati Art Museum, Ohio

The association between the stars, planets and Greek Gods meant that the Babylonian defined constellations were imbued with psychological meaning directly upon their introduction to Greek society. Further, the Greeks were instrumental in introducing this understanding of the stars and star signs to the ancient Roman Empire, where predictions based on the Zodiac signs began greatly influencing matters of state. Tiberius was the first emperor reported to have a court astrologer in the 1st Century C.E., and the practice became commonplace thereafter. At this time two versions of astrology were widely employed, one being the reading of horoscopes for information on the past, present and future, the other being “theurgic” astrology (literally “god work,”) concerned with the soul’s ascension to the stars.

Astrology, mistakenly taken for a science at the time, prevailed until the Holy Inquisition swept Europe, beginning in 12th Century France. Then, the Age of Enlightenment at the end of the 17th Century further dampened the desire for astrological readings as the science of astronomy was developed, much thanks to the physicist Sir Isaac Newton. Once Newton mathematized the motion of the planets, holy entities were largely divorced from their previous celestial associations, and interest in astronomy overtook that for astrology in this age of rationalism (although, a 2014 National Science Foundation poll found more than half of millenials think astrology is a science!)

Alan Leo, Natal Chart, Jupiter: the preserver, 1916, University of Illinois

Astrology as we know it today was created and defined largely by a single hand, that of a man named Alan Leo. Leo, who was born William Frederick Allan, was an author, publisher and traveling salesman who is known as the “Father of Modern Astrology.” Leo is credited with moving the practice of astrology away from daily predictions based upon the position of the stars and, instead, toward a more psychologically oriented horoscope analysis. He is largely believed to be the first astrologer to promote a lax interpretation of experiential trends rather than offering a specific prediction of concrete events. Thanks to Leo, astrological historian James Holden explains, “event oriented astrology gradually receded in favor of possible areas of psychological harmony or stress.”

James Basire III, Halley's Comet, 14 February 1836, The Royal Society, UK

Part of what fueled the renewed interest in astrology was the advancement of astronomy during the Victorian era, and the exceptional abundance of celestial phenomena that occurred during the later half of the nineteenth century. A number of notable comets, many of which are now nearly indiscernible against a modern, industrially lit sky, were first noticed and named during the later Victorian period, and before the advent of modern electricity they were recorded as astonishing in their brilliance. Halley’s comet is one remarkable example of such natural phenomena, and inspired during Georgian and then Edwardian or late Victorian time many, many brooches in what became a notable style. A Halley’s comet brooch will feature prominently a cluster of stones (or one large stone, in some instances) on one end of the horizontally oriented composition, connected by linear design to a smaller singular stone on the other end.

Another key factor in the revived fascination with the zodiac and the stars was the fledgling advancement of women’s rights at the time. A symbol of feminine spirit and female empowerment, the crescent moon became a very popular symbol for brooches and pendants in the Victorian era. A common wedding gift for a Victorian bride was a “honeymoon” brooch, or a brooch with a crescent moon and a star, which was supposed to mean “I love you to the moon and back.” Crescent moons could also symbolize the change of seasons in one’s life, again, making them an appropriate gift for a bride. Jeweled forms in the shape of stars or adorned with stars, when given as gifts, were meant to act as “guiding lights” to loved ones.

Collingwood & Co, English Victorian Turquoise Star and Crescent Moon Great Comet Brooch,
ca. 1880s, Macklowe Gallery

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