The Development of Modern Mundane Astrology

©2013 J. Lee Lehman, PhD
(Note: The material in this essay is covered in much greater detail in Chapter One of my book, Astrology of Sustainability,1)
Patrick Curry has provided a fascinating blueprint for us of the forces that shaped the development of early modern astrology, specifically through the trials (literally) and tribulations (figuratively) of Alan Leo (1860-1917).2 Briefly, Leo was the inventor of the “shilling horoscope.” Utilizing the mails through advertising in magazines, Leo created a very profitable enterprise for himself by allowing the public to send away for a horoscope, which was computed by one employee, and then fleshed out with a page on the Sun sign, a page on the Moon sign, and so forth. This style of working had both the advantage of allowing many people to explore astrology at a much reduced price, and it allowed Leo to become very wealthy through the low time commitment to each chart . Unfortunately, he ran afoul of the English fortune-telling laws. After he was indicted, and acquitted on a technicality, Leo asked his lawyer how he could prevent this in the future. His lawyer essentially said: don't tell fortunes! In an attempt to comply with at least the letter of the law, Leo removed the more predictive language of his shilling horoscopes, and changed the descriptions to character analysis: a more psycho-spiritual perspective. In the process, he also declared that this is what astrology does: its describes, not predicts. Ironically, he was then arraigned again for fortune-telling, and this time, he was convicted.
Leo's change in wording truly was a watershed moment in astrological interpretation. Leo's own private delineations showed a complete continuity with prior trends of astrological prediction. The 19th century had witnessed some simplification of astrological technique, compared to the more detailed classical methods in place through the end of the 17th century. There were the specific challenges of integrating Uranus and then Neptune into astrological usage. There were the continual questions raised by the differences between Western and Vedic astrology, a topic highlighted by the increasing interest in Indian religion by Westerners in general through the 19th century, and specifically in the Theosophical Society.
But Leo was not acting in a vacuum. The impact of these ideas hit other parts of astrology as well, not just natal interpretation. One of the easier ways to observe the change is in Leo's own astrological magazines. The ones before 1900 reflect the “old” ways, and in them, we see the earlier mix of different styles of astrology, but with a distinct predictive slant. These magazines, for example, have horary charts interpreted in a fairly conventional way. Leo's own horary examples were even collected together into a work on horary!3
But surely one of the major questions of the time would remain mundane astrology. The historical method of mundane astrology which had developed over centuries enunciated a hierarchy of charts and conjunctions to be observed: from the Great Mutation cycle of Jupiter and Saturn which lasted centuries, to the change of element (mutation) in that series of conjunctions, the individual Jupiter-Saturn conjunction, the Mars-Saturn and Jupiter-Saturn conjunctions, the Aries Ingress, and the other cardinal ingresses, lunations, and eclipses for a particular year. This series allowed the astrologer to talk about both long and short-term trends. The ancient authors had also noted the extreme difficulty in attempting to create a chart for the Jupiter-Saturn conjunctions, realizing that it was next to impossible to calculate the exact instant of the conjunction. The first time it was accepted as possible was the 17thcentury, with Kepler's and Heydon's direct observations of the Jupiter-Saturn conjunction. Even with direct observation in hand, contemporaries warned about the errors in such calculations, a worry that our modern equations confirm.4 As a result, the tendency was to delineate the Aries Ingress or lunation prior to the known conjunction, rather than the conjunctional chart itself. Astrologers living in the decades after Kepler and Heydon reverted to the ancient methods precisely because of these perceived methodological problems, which were discussed in the works of the day.
The astrologers of the 17th century were still integrating the “new” calculational advances of Kepler and the heliocentric theories, and there was serious astronomical knowledge and interest displayed by some of their numbers, such as Vincent Wing. What is hard for us to appreciate now is that their astronomical practices and equations lacked the precision that we have become accustomed to – and for good reason. Astronomical precision in observation was still a huge topic in the 17th century, following great advances by practitioners such as Tycho Brahe, and the instrument makers of Louvain. But they could still not approach the observational accuracy of mechanized instruments of both ground-based and satellite-based machines of the 20th century. But quite apart from this, different astronomical measurements have different accuracies associated with them: and any ephemeris is only as accurate as the equations used to generate it.5 One offshoot of this astronomical consideration – known, interestingly, to our 17th century forebears – is that we can obtain much more accurate results for the positions of a birth chart, than for the time of a planetary conjunction or station. In other words, the routine stuff of astrology – birth charts and horary charts – are reasonably accurate. But station times are not. It is unfortunate, but the knowledge of this simple fact is one of the things that was lost when astrology lost its university moorings at the end of the 17th century, and went largely underground for a century.
In the 19th century, astrology was dusted off, and challenged with the discovery of the outer planets. However, in mundane astrology, we can see that the job of rediscovery had worked rather well. During the U.S. Civil War, Luke Broughton (1828-1899) published the “Monthly Planetary Reader,” in which he did traditional mundane predictions of the course of the war. Broughton's method was traditionally classical, and his method seemed to work quite well, with Broughton even predicting Lincoln's assassination, and later, McKinley's.
But the 19th century also saw many astrologers experimenting with new methods. In mundane, this was partly justified by the greater globalization of the astrological enterprise. Unlike in the 17th century, the telegraph and faster ships brought news of foreign politics and wars more quickly to a public that became used to hearing of events on distant shores.
One of the astrologers who helped to pioneer this transition was Sepharial (1864-1929). In his columns on monthly events, he transformed mundane astrology in a number of ways. We can summarize his methodology as follows:
  • The sign placements of the planets have replaced any celestial conjunction as the top headline. This allowed him to predict that these planets would affect countries ruled that sign.
  • He reduced the Mars-Saturn conjunction to a mere transit, instead of an event worth analyzing in its own right.
  • He did discuss lunations, but his discussion was mainly of planetary conjunctions or aspects occurring in the chart, but these conjunctions are largely inferior conjunctions to superior planet configurations already in play.
Sepharial wrote specifically on the interpretation of the Jupiter-Saturn Conjunction in Transits and Planetary Periods. In fact, this work should be seen as the genesis of the methods of working with the Jupiter-Saturn conjunction still being used in the 1920s and 1930s. In this work, he developed a system for working with the conjunctional chart, and then following it through time with secondary progressions or directions. Sadly, this work showed no knowledge of the problems in calculation associated with attempting to arrive at a chart of this nature.6
One obvious change that had to be addressed in the modern period was the discovery of yet more superior planets, thereby adding more transits to the mix..
And I have to wonder whether the shift in Sepharial's interpretations to the use of signs as being part of an attempt to re-envision how to get the “where” right. This seems transitional to astrocartography, but unfortunately, the emphasis on sign seems to have stuck as much for its convenience in generating copy for monthly deadlines than for producing real predictive power.
The methods that Sepharial was beginning to experiment with for approaching mundane as a truly global art only needed reinforcing as time went on. World War I (the Great War, as it was styled before World War II imposed a numbering system) was fought globally. The emergence of new world powers continued to challenge capabilities of astrology to keep up with globalization.
Between the wars, we can use the Astrological Quarterly to understand these developments. The Editor, Charles Carter, wrote extensively on mundane, and there were contributions by others as well.
A good example was L. Protheroe Smith, entitled “The Year 1927,” which featured the Jupiter-Saturn conjunction of 1921.7 He begins his article by saying:
“I make no apology for once more drawing your attention to the forgoing figure, for the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in the year 1921. I have discussed it here before, and I shall do so again whenever I am asked to speak on National Astrology during the period over which it rules. Because, although perhaps less is known concerning this branch of our work than almost any other, yet there is reason to believe that national destiny runs in cycles; and we get, I think, a glimpse of this cyclical process in the Jupiter-Saturn conjunctions which recur at intervals of approximately 20 years.” (page 4)
So far, this could have been written by Masha' Allah – except for the phrase “national destiny.” We have moved into the period of democracies and other governmental forms, where the Head of State may only last in that role for a few years – rarely for life.
However, a close examination of the article reveals major differences. First of all, his year is a calendar year: not a year as defined by the Aries Ingress. In fact, there are no cardinal ingresses to be seen at all! What is present is a chart purporting to be for the exact moment of the conjunction – something we have already seen has some serious astronomical challenges associated with it.
His chart comes out to approximately 45 minutes off our modern calculation! How can this be? There are two components to the problem:
  • In the era before the computer, the accuracy of planetary positions in an ephemeris was not as high as now. This is the major source of the error in Protheroe-Smith's case.
  • Trying to come up with the exact moment of a slow conjunction such as this from an old ephemeris, which gives static positions for each day, is truly impossible. Positions were given to the nearest minute. You can't just interpolate the exact moment, because a minute isn't sufficiently accurate for a body that only moves a few minutes per day! Is that position of 1 degree 56 minutes really 56 minutes, or 55.51, or 56.49 minutes? You don't know! You can even see whether your current computer program has conquered this problem by comparing a timed transit list to using the ephemeris generator to see if you get the same time! READ MORE

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