FO° Books

How Astrology Returned to Favor in the West

Heavens and Earth examines the history of astrology, its many different systems and its development as a modern cultural phenomenon. Deeply researched and expertly narrated, the book contextualises the role of astrology in the ever-evolving human perspective of the cosmos and in understanding our place in it. Chapter 10 examines how astrology has returned to the fore in Western societies and the vital role of Theosophy in the revival of this ancient discipline.

Heavens And Earth: The Story of Astrolog: The Story of Astrology through Ages and Cultures © /

May 06, 2023 02:05 EDT

Unless one is really into astrology, what most people today understand as astrology is really just their sun sign placement according to tropical astrology. How did we get here, considering the extraordinary labour of the many, many stargazers and thinkers before us?  It might have something to do with the disentanglement of astrology and astronomy post the Copernican revolution. 

While astrology never completely dropped off from the face of earth, it was decidedly out of favour with both science and religion by the early eighteenth century in Europe. As we have noted before, Western society was undergoing two radical changes at this time. In addition to the shift of the model of the Universe from a geocentric one to a heliocentric one, the rise of Roman Catholic Church had a part to play as well. Astrology threatened the Vatican’s authority to shape public discourse on God and the cosmos and so, astrology came to be regarded as not only technically unsound but also immoral. It didn’t help that the astrologers of the time had begun to venture out of their remit and would make increasingly bold and politically dangerous predictions. All in all, irrespective of Brahe and Kepler’s explorations of astrology, most of intellectual and polite society decided that it had to go. So, astrologers went underground. That is, for a century or so. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, astrology began to see a momentous revival. The stage for this was set up by four astrologers in particular, whose work would go on to change the very face of astrology.

The first of these was William Frederick Allan, who can be termed as the only salesman astrology has ever had. Born in 1860 in the United Kingdom, his upbringing was marked by his mother’s devout Anglican beliefs and a father who left the family when Allan was nine years old.  In his mid-twenties, he was managing a grocery store in Manchester when he fell ill. But instead of going to a regular doctor, he visited a Dr Richardson who was both an herbalist and an astrologer. The doctor not only cured him of his kidney ailment, but also set him on his life path by introducing him to astrology. After that, Allan studied astrology as an enthusiast for years and even wrote articles for the magazine of an occult society, Celestial Brotherhood, of which he was a member. His new-found beliefs were reflected in his identity when he changed his name to Alan Leo, as he is better known today, to correspond to his own astrological sun sign. 

He subscribed to many astrology-related journals and through one of those, The Astrologer, he met his future business partner Frederick Lacey who would further lead Leo to the biggest influence of his astrological journey, the Theosophists. Soon enough, he started spending a lot of time at the headquarters of the Theosophical Society in London while still working as a travelling salesman. 

Theosophy and Astrology

The story of Theosophy is vital to the revival of astrology as we know it today. Established by the Ukraine-born Helena Blavatsky as a society in New York City in 1875, it brought the ideas of Karma and Reincarnation to the West for the first time. Before she set up the society, Blavatsky had spent two decades travelling around the world, including India where she stayed for two years. But while her stay wasn’t all that remarkable, she would later meet a Hindu man named Morya in London in 1851. She claimed that she had had visions of him as a child and so when he instructed her to visit Tibet, she attempted to travel there, and there are reports that claim she did manage to make it out there even though it was virtually impossible for a woman to do so. In any case, by the end of her travels, she had developed Theosophy as a religion. It was a synthesis of Indian, Platonic, Hermetic and Kabbalistic thought. 

According to her, there was an absolute first cause in the Universe and the potential of that first cause made human life possible. The goal of life, then, was to realise that potential over a period of many lifetimes and unite the soul with the absolute. While this is in line with the Hindu view of soul’s ultimate aim of Moksha or liberation from the cycle of life and death, there is an offshoot to this that was proposed by Christianity-oriented Theosophists. For them, the realisation of potential or the awakening is really ‘Christ consciousness’ which would be felt by everyone living through the Age of Aquarius, which pointed to revolutions in the areas of government, technology, and industry,  in the twentieth century. But whatever view one subscribed to, the final aim was to achieve the unity of the individual soul with the absolute until the entire cosmos dissolves into the Pure Spirit. For this, every individual must do whatever it took to awaken their spiritual awareness, including astrology, yoga, and aromatherapy among other practices. At its peak, the society had 45,000 members with more than hundred lodges in the Indian subcontinent. In 1882, the society’s international headquarters shifted from New York City to Adyar in Madras (now Chennai). 

Theosophy gained relevance in the Western world because it emerged at a time when religion was becoming private and a lack of spiritual communion was felt in the public arena. Leo was highly impressed with Theosophical thought and would go on to form his own ideas about how astrology could help with the core mission as outlined by the religion. He became privy to Blavatsky’s inner circle through her astrologer and became a member of the society in 1890. In August that year, his business partner Lacey and he decided to launch a publication, The Astrologer’s Magazine

The magazine featured articles on astrology but it was the offer to readers to send in their birth details for a free reading that really changed it all.  People were soon writing to them with their time, date, and place of birth, for short, personalised horoscopes. In the next four years, the two sent out about four thousand such readings. While Lacey had to bow out of the venture, owing to other work commitments, another significant person entered Leo’s life at this time. This person was Ada Burch, often called Bessie, also a Theosophist. She had written in to ask for a reading and had found the final product to be impressive enough. The pair met in person in early 1893 and discovered that they enjoyed each other’s company. Burch was married at the time but her husband had been unable to keep up with her condition of a platonic relationship and the couple had separated. Leo, on the other hand, was happy to oblige. They married soon after and as practising Theosophists, the couple gave up meat, alcohol, and smoking. His marriage made his religious convictions even stronger and it reflected in his now renamed magazine, Modern Astrologer, which often carried articles written from a Theosophical perspective. The Theosophists too started publishing Leo’s articles and helped spread his astrological ideas through their lodges across the world.

In 1903, one of his employees suggested to Leo a way to organise his material in order to streamline the free readings. Doing that proved to be more than just efficient. Leo essentially assembled a production line for all possible placements of the Sun, Moon, and the planets in different signs and most of his written material was plagiarised from various astrological books. Kim Farnell, Leo’s biographer, quotes from the works of Edward Harold Bailey who was his staff member and was opposed to Leo’s approach towards astrology, ‘The whole of the mimeographed sheets comprising his test horoscopes were copies, in many cases verbatim, from Sepharial’s Prognostications from the Rising Sign and H.S. Green’s Planets in Signs and Houses, while the greater part of the other sheets of his system were copied and paraphrased from Butler’s Solar Biology.’

But he had no compunctions about this and filled up his office with hundreds of sheets of such written material. This was a newer and improved form of reading and so this was advertised as a ’test horoscope’ or a ’shilling horoscope’, since these horoscopes were priced at a shilling. The idea worked because in the next three years, Leo did over 20,000 such readings. For 25 pounds, readers could get an even more detailed analysis. An unintended and far-reaching consequence of this was that many copied this idea and soon enough, there were scores of opportunists giving out these readings to make a quick buck. Astrology was officially a business now. 

Leo’s test horoscopes, then, were quite the turning point as these would later come to define what most people would understand as astrology. However, astrology since it was ‘fortune-telling’ was illegal in the Christian world. By 1912, there were about six to seven hundred fortune-tellers in London and this was a cause for alarm. Astrologers, palmists, and clairvoyants, were all ordered to remove their signboards from place of work and halt advertisements. Questions had already been raised in House of Commons the previous year about the growing menace. 

So, when Leo was slapped with two cases, he had to pay a fine for one of them but managed to wriggle out of the another one on the basis of a legal technicality. However, the atmosphere around him was risky and he decided to make some changes. It was at this point that astrology began to metamorphose into a tool of psychological analysis. This would later become the basis of psychological astrology. 

But despite the controversial nature of his work, Leo left behind several enduring legacies. First, he domesticated astrology for the first time in human history by taking it to people’s homes. One didn’t have to seek out an astrologer in person any more for a basic reading and this helped make astrology far more accessible and widely known than it had ever been before. Second, he brought the placement of the Sun in a birth-chart to the centre stage. Explaining it in his book, Esoteric Astrology, he wrote, ‘In the physical man the Sun governs the vital energies and has much significance in connection with the father and the positive side of the nature generally.’ Third, he ushered in a New Age astrology which was greatly inspired by Theosophy and the Hindu concepts of Karma and reincarnation. His understanding of the latter was influenced by his own research and personal experiences, including two trips to India. Writing in the same book, he remarked, ‘On the surface, the Hindu astrologer is apparently a fatalist, but individually he had a firm belief in free will within certain well-defined limits. The very well-established belief in reincarnation and transmigration makes him a fatalist so far as the rewards and punishments of past lives are concerned, and it is to causes set in motion in a former birth that he traces the inevitable fate of the present life; for he has a wider comprehension of the laws of Karma than the Western astrologer.’ But while he realised that there was a specific cultural and philosophical context behind the idea of Karma, it didn’t stop him from propagating his version of it. Of all his books, Character is Destiny, which focuses on these ideas still remains his best-known work. This means that Karma, as it was and is perhaps still popularly understood, in the West is quite different than its intended Hindu interpretation. 

Leo, then, gave astrology a superficial sense of meaning and profundity that made it ripe for easy obfuscation and commercialisation. Besides Leo, there was also Evangeline Adams in the US. Born in 1868, she was introduced to astrology serendipitously by J. Heber Smith, a Sanskrit scholar and professor of medicine at Boston University. Smith used to employ astrological methods in his medical work and taught Adams much of what he knew. She had also been attracted to the Hindu Vedanta philosophy after Swami Vivekananda’s Chicago speech in 1893. The philosophy, among other things, was rooted in a belief of the cyclicity of life as well as an interconnectedness of life on earth with the cosmos. Three years later, she would start her life as an astrologer in New York City when she and her assistant put up at Manhattan’s Windsor Hotel under the patronage of its then proprietor, Warren Leland. That year, she predicted a terrible fire accident for the hotel and when it came true, it solidified her position as an astrologer. However, her biographer, Karen Christino, shows that it is possible that Adams never predicted it but was enterprising enough to claim that she had, immediately after the fire broke out. And so, like Leo, her legacy lay in showmanship rather than skill. But both of them were at the forefront of reviving astrology in the UK and in the US respectively. 

Working out of a studio she rented at the city’s Carnegie Hall, Adams often had high-profile and rich clients, including J.P. Morgan, Joseph Campbell, Charlie Chaplin and many others. In 1930, she became the first astrologer to host a radio show which was broadcast thrice a week, with listeners sending in requests for readings in huge numbers. In addition to that, Adams’ sponsors, at one point, would receive 4,000 reading requests a day and she employed over twenty-five assistants for her work. She also made predictions for public interest, including the election of Calvin Coolidge as US President in 1924. Like Leo, she too was slapped with cases for ’fortune-telling’ and even arrested thrice. But unlike Leo, instead of trying to escape, she fought the trial head on and won it. Bobrick Benson, in Fated Sky, notes that ‘she came to court armed with reference books, expounded the principles of astrology to the judge at some length, and illustrated its practice by reading a blind chart that turned out to be that of the judge’s son’. The reading proved to be correct and the judge ruled in her favour, remarking that ‘she had raised astrology to the dignity of an exact science’ by her work. 

Horoscopes Arrive on the Scene

The stage set by Leo and Adams was then occupied by R.H. Naylor and Dane Rudhyar in their respective countries. The former of these, Naylor, started out by accident. The Daily Express, one of the Britain’s most widely circulated newspapers at that time, wanted to do something new for the recently-born Princess Margaret, the daughter of King George VI. The editor, John Gordon, thought it might be a good idea to publish an interpretation of her birth chart and the paper sought to enlist the popular palmist and astrologer Cheiro for the job. But as it turned out, he was too busy and instead sent his employee, Naylor, for the job. 

The princess was born on 21 August 1930 and the newspaper’s sister publication, Sunday Express, carried the horoscope three days later. The feature was titled, ’What The Stars Foretell For The New Princess’, and predicted an ‘eventful’ life for the young royal. One specific prediction said that in her seventh year, the Royal family and the nation would be impacted by a significant event. That event came to pass when Edward VIII (later the Duke of Windsor), caused a crisis in the country by proposing marriage to an American divorcee. Eventually, he had to abdicate the throne and his 326-day-long reign came to an end in December 1936. 

However, the horoscope feature captivated the British audience right from day one. To capitalise on their readers’ interest, the newspaper decided to repeat it and carried interpretations for those born on each day of a particular week in September 1930 in this new feature.  Naylor followed this up with a prediction of a British aircraft accident in October and lo and behold, that came true and cemented his reputation as someone who knew what he was doing. The astrologer was then signed up as a regular and his column came to be known as ‘Your Stars’.  While he started out with predictions based on birth dates, he switched to the twelve sun signs in 1937. Such horoscopes were soon being published by many publications across Britain. 

Fleeing wartime Europe, Daniel Chennevière, who was born in Paris in 1895, arrived in the United States in 1917. He changed his last name to Rudhyar, fashioned out of Shiva’s Rudra form, because he was fascinated by the mythology of Rudra as the god of death, transformation, and rebirth. It was in tune with his personal inclination towards the idea of self-growth that comes from personal challenges. Perhaps he also knew of the Nakshatra of Ardra, which is ruled by Rudra and is indeed a marker of inner turmoil and the resultant emotional growth, as we read before. Like Leo, he also picked up astrology by his association with the Theosophists. By 1933, he was writing articles for the magazine American Astrology regularly. He suggested the twelve-paragraph daily horoscope version to his editor and the idea was well-received both by his editor as well as the American audience. In time, it became so popular that it was replicated by other publications across the country. 

But Rudhyar’s true legacy lies in the introduction to astrology the theory of depth psychology, which looks at the relationship between the conscious and the unconscious in our minds. He remains to date the most prolific astrologer who wrote about psychology and astrology. He was inspired by ideas of psychoanalyst Carl Gustave Jung in particular and his work revolved around bringing together Jungian psychology to astrology. It caught on well because his work coincided with the New Age movement in Western societies that needed something more than the capitalistic and atheistic way of life. One of his most prominent books, Practice of Astrology, was published by Penguin Books in 1970. Other book titles by him include Astrological Study of Psychological Complexes and Emotional Problems (1977) and Astrology of Personality: A Reformulation of Astrological Concepts and Ideals In Terms of Contemporary Psychology and Philosophy (1987) among others. 

By the mid-twentieth century, the face of astrology had changed in the Western world. Traditional Greek and Islamic astrology had been relegated as a relic of past. Astrologers did not focus on predictions and were not trying to understand the world around them through planetary movements like their predecessors. Instead, astrology was now about understanding the self and the personality, mostly at a superficial level. In his book Hindu Astrology and The West, the renowned Indian astrologer B.V. Raman, on his travels to the United States in 1959, noted that there were close to five thousand astrologers in the country by that time. He described a meeting with one who introduced himself as a psychologist, astrologer, and a thought-reader. Raman wrote, ‘(He) handed over to me a copy of Your Daily Astrological Guide (that) was brought out regularly by a publishing firm in the Midwest and (said) that he was connected with several such firms which manufacture such stuff as “Dream Interpretations”, “Hollywood Horoscopes”, “Stellar Dietetics”, and so on.” He further remarked that while the astrologer claimed he could cast birth-charts, his knowledge of predictive astrology was limited to sun-sign readings. When questioned, the astrologer defended himself by saying that “in order to create serious interest in astrology in the minds of the common public, it was necessary to give them something light and non-technical”. Another astrologer claimed that his investigation into planetary transits revealed how the “bell-shaped skirts used by women today would give place to a bustle type of skirts by 1970 or so”. According to him, the changes in fashion corresponded to a 36-year cycle of movements of Jupiter and moon’s nodes.’  

The Linda Goodman Phenomenon

This initial stage of popularisation of astrology was merely a preamble to Linda Goodman and her book, Sun Signs. Published in 1968 in Britain, it became the first ever astrology book to make the New York Times best-seller list. At the time of her death in 1995, her books had sold over 30 million copies in 15 languages, which was the highest for books on astrology. What she did with her books was nothing short of revolutionary because she personalised the zodiac in a way that had never been done before. 

In her introduction to the sun signs book, she wrote about the importance of analysing a birth-chart in entirety to get the full picture of an individual and pointed out how Sun’s transits into twelve zodiac signs were not as precise and orderly as most people believed. It was for clarity’s sake that even astrologers must pretend otherwise because laypeople cannot be expected to understand such intricacies. Despite this, she believed knowing a person’s sun sign was akin to understanding them more deeply.

The book expanded upon each zodiac sign, with prose that was engaging and fun. With about forty pages dedicated to each sign, it had verses from Lewis Carroll’s works introducing each portion. So, if she was writing about how to recognise an Aries person, she quoted Carroll, ’They would not remember the simple rules their friends had taught them, that a red-hot poker will burn you if you hold it too long; and that, if you cut your finger very deeply with a knife, it usually bleeds.’ This is followed by a lengthy description that feels like she knows what she’s talking about while also being easy to read. In similar fashion, she goes on about various ways in which one may encounter an Aries individual. 

The Aries man, then, is a ’natural rebel’ who thinks he was born smarter than rest of the world and for that reason, ’those in more powerful positions will teach him frequent lessons in humility’ and a woman who can handle his shattered ego with love and compassion gets to have him forever. The Aries woman, on the other hand, is likened to Gone With The Wind’s Scarlett O’Hara and like her, Mars women are ‘tough enough to defy convention, face an advancing army, or even shoot a man through the head with icy calmness, if he threatens her loved ones’.  In this way, the Aries child, employee, and boss are also described. The pattern is repeated for all the twelve signs, each of them treated with similar wit and prose.  

In her book Love Signs, published in 1978, every chapter was preceded by verses from J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, much like her previous book. The Aries Lover, then, was literally an infant in love as the first sign of the zodiac. This individual was here to teach his or her partner the innocence of love while they had to learn the lesson of trusting people. Goodman then explores compatibilities of an Aries lover with all the twelve zodiac signs. This incredibly detailed, creatively interpretative, and public-friendly way of looking at sun signs took off like nothing else before. This was also a decisive departure from astrology’s image as a tradition that, like all traditions, could be orthodox, ridiculous, and a superstition of the past. Her model of astrology, even more popular than what Leo, Naylor, and Rudhyar did, was replicated in publications across the world, and soon it would become impossible to find any newspaper or magazine that didn’t carry daily, weekly, and monthly predictions for sun signs. These predictions were not always based on regular inputs from actual astrologers and were more creative writing than astrology. 

But what made the system of ‘Sun Signs’ so enduring? For one, these were far easier to popularise than birth-chart astrology. One could now have an element of the spiritual or the psychological without getting their feet dirty. But more importantly, this was due to a phenomenon known as the Barnum Effect. The term was coined by Paul Meehl, an American psychologist, in the 1950s. According to him, vague personality descriptions or statements felt accurate to people because of what their brains did subconsciously—fill up the material with real details that only they are privy to. This, many believe, explain the popularity of sun sign horoscopes.  While reading about these sun signs were harmless fun most of the times, the mainstreaming of these ended up being counterproductive. Not only did a market emerge out of this, many ’believers’ also tend to excuse their bad or unhealthy behaviour by blaming it on their sun sign. This is akin to perpetuating ignorance over and over again because most people still do not understand the distinction between these sun signs and astrology. While this has prevented many from looking at astrology critically, there have been some in the past who have taken up that mantle.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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