Astrological References and Background


I have used the sources below for the astrological material on this website. This is not intended to be a complete bibliography or introduction to astrology - I am neither an astrologer nor an expert on the subject. Most of the material on the website is comprehensible without a knowledge of the technicalities of astrology, but it was an important part of Gilbert's thought so has to be tackled. Gilbert claimed to be a practitioner of what he called "macrocosmal astrology", which I take to mean the use of astrology more as a tool for "enlightenment" than for the purpose of practical prediction etc. Astrology is as important a cultural inheritance as the four humours, the four elements and alchemy, all of which are recognised as part of a rich symbolic language that underlies our imagination and has passed into art and literature.


Web sources: - a practitioner of a form of astrological magic that sounds very like William Gilbert's. In addition to generous online material the site sells facsimile editions and e-texts of many books (such as Lilly's Christian Astrology) that were still in use in the late 18th century, and there is a respect for these old texts and for historical accuracy that makes it a very useful resource. - can be used to get a chart (or figure) for any date time and place. I compared astronomical data for the 18th Century from this source with data from ephemeris tables published at that time such as John Partridge's Merlinus Liberatus, and Parker's Ephemeris and both with figures cast by Gilbert - e.g. Pitt's natal chart and the solar eclipse of 4 June 1788. They are close to within a degree or so. - provides ephemeris tables going back to 600 BCE. As above I have found the tables to be consistent with data used by astrologers in the18th century . Useful and comprehensive dictionary of astrological terms.




Modern introductions:


J C Eade The Forgotten Sky: a Guide to Astrology in English Literature, (Oxford Clarendon Press, 1984)

The first 103 pages provide a clear but comprehensive introduction to the technicalities of traditional astrology, with worked examples of how rules were applied . This is an excellent handbook but it needs to be supplemented with a book providing interpretational guidance on the significance of each sign of the zodiac and each planet.


Jeff Mayo, Teach Yourself Astrology (The English Universities Press Ltd, 1964)

This book has served me well as a basic primer, and seems to be available 2nd hand. I haven't seen the latest Teach Yourself Astrology by Lisa Tenzin-Dolma, but I imagine it will serve the same purpose. What must be borne in mind is that modern astrology differs from the astrology of the 18th century. It interprets planets as psychological drives, and thus Saturn for example would be seen as "challenging" rather than malefic. Traditional rules, such as planets' detriment, exaltation or fall when placed in specific signs, don't make sense within this psychological interpretation, and are consequently rejected as absurd.


Modern histories covering 18th century astrology in England:


Patrick Curry, Prophecy and Power: Astrology in Early Modern England, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1989)

An excellent historical survey. It is pitched politically and explores astrology as a cultural phenomenon, showing how interest peaked in England during the two revolutionary eras of the mid 17th and late 18th centuries. He covers the material well and with sympathy. 


Ellic Howe, Astrology and the 3rd Reich: A historical study of astrological beliefs in Western Europe since 1700 and in Hitler's Germany 1933-45 (Aquarian Press, 1984)

First published under the title Urania's Children. It's a lot better than the title suggests.




Primary astrological works:


Henry Cornelius Agrippa, Three Books of Occult Philosophy.

Quoted (from a Latin edition) as an astrological authority by Gilbert. See esoteric archives for an e-text.
For a well annotated modern edition see Tr. James Freake, Ed. Donald Tyson (Llewellyn's Sourcebook Series, 2005).


The Conjuror's Magazine - 'Directions in the pursuit of astrology'.

The reading list provided for would-be astrologers, is the best possible guide to late eighteenth century views of which authors were authoritative April 1792, p.368.


Ptolemy, Tetrabiblos [also known as Quadripartite] Tr. F. E. Robbins (Loeb Classical Library, 1940 repr. 1998)

CM (Dec 1791, p.161) in a short profile 'Claudius Ptolemy, a Greek Astronomer' describes him thus: "though the principles on which his system was founded, has been found to be erroneous, his works will always be valuable, on account of the number of ancient observations they obtain." Extracts from John Whalley's reviled 1701 translation were printed in CM starting January 1793.


Ebenezer Sibly, A New and Complete Illustration of the Celestial Science of Astrology (1784-1788)

This multi part bibliographer's nightmare - see English Short Title Catalogue (British Library)  - went through several editions and titles. A full and apparently consecutive 4 volume facsimile set An Illustration of the Celestial Science of Astrology [etc.], whose title pages range from 1798 to 1826, can be bought from Kessinger Publishing. (The volume in their catalogue which has no part number in the title is Part 2 of Part 2, and the final volume called Part 3 includes Part 4). I have compared this with the edition in the Wellcome Library, London. The page numbers remain consistent but the text has been amended in places. 

As an astrologer contemporary to Gilbert, Sibly's book is clearly important background, and the CM's disparagement of him and his book (see below) may not be objective. With great respect to Marsha Keith Schuchard, whose extensive knowledge of late 18th century masonry and occultism may have given her reasons for conclusions that have not been fully explained in her paper, I need more supporting information to be persuaded by her view of Sibly in 'Rediscovering William Gilbert'. I disagree on three points. In my view:

   1. There is not enough evidence to claim that Sibly and Gilbert were close associates.

The grounds for her view appear to be - they lived in Bristol at the same time and were both interested in occult freemasonry, therefore Sibly must have introduced Gilbert to the irregular freemasons there. The statement that they both travelled to London in 1788-89 links them by implication, a thread that leads on by suggestion to the CM in 1791.

   2. Sibly was not friendly with the owners of CM

The April 1792 editorial dismisses Sibly's Illustration: "We only esteem it a quack performance, very unequally executed, by a head incompetent to the task" (p.368); an article on Culpeper, 'English Astrological Physician' (March 1792, pp.363-4), announces that an "improved Edition of [Culpeper's] Astrological Physic and Herbal is now publishing in Numbers, in the House whence proceeds this Magazine". Sibly had published in 1789 an "improved" version of Culpeper's Herbal in numbers and perhaps this is behind Schuchard's association of Sibly and the CM. But the 1792 edition announced here was a rival version, in competition with Sibly, published by W Locke, the publisher of CM.

   3. Sibly was not the regular CM contributor called Mercurius.

Mercurius usually styled himself 'Mercurius of Bath', not a city associated with Sibly. In Vol. III Aug 1793 p.23 the editor annotated Mercurius' answer to a query pointing out an error on page 821of Sibly's Illustration which had caused the querist's misunderstanding (Vol III Aug 1793, p.23). A correspondent calling himself Mercurius presenting himself as a senior astrologer wrote in 1814 to the Monthly Correspondent a new astrological magazine that looked back to CM. 1814 was 14 years after Ebenezer Sibly's death. My view that Sibly was not Mercurius is supported by Philip Graves's view, which can be found on skyscript, "Having read numerous replies by Mercurius in the 1793-4 issues of the Astrologer's Magazine I find no particular sense in them of Ebenezer Sibly's personality coming out". His full posting (with threads) is worth reading for its discriminating look at the 1790s astrological background.


Updated 6 Oct 2011