How CS Lewis Taught Me Astrology

CS Lewis’ fictional descriptions helped me understand the qualities of the five classical planets because he retained pagan elements in the Medieval worldview that he studied and loved.

I have written before about why I prefer other forms of divination over astrology, but for some of my recent lessons in the Order of the White Moon, astrology became important, so I set out to become at least minimally more familiar with it. In the process of doing so, I made a strange discovery: some of my deepest visceral understanding of astrology draws on the work of Christian apologist CS Lewis.

Specifically, it comes from the final book in Lewis’ Space Trilogy, an attempt at a sort of sci-fi Christian allegory. At heart, though, Lewis is a medievalist, and like Dante, he has to make space for those virtuous pagans and their ideas that he could not bear to leave behind. (Please note that I use lowercase for classical paganism or what Bonewits described as paleo-paganisms.)

In The Discarded Image, Lewis’ book on medieval cosmology, he says, “Other ages have not had a Model so universally accepted as theirs, so imaginable, and so satisfying to the imagination.” (203) He goes on to admit: “I have made no serious effort to hide the fact that the old Model delights me as I believe it delighted our ancestors. Few constructions of the imagination seem to me to have combined splendour, sobriety, and coherence in the same degree.” (216) While he admits that there is a tiny problem in that the old cosmology was scientifically inaccurate, but being well aware of the changes in scientific ontology and epistemology around the turn of the 20th century, he feels free to use the fall of positivism as a defense for his romantic fascination.

A much more serious concern for him is that the truly classical worldview, rediscovered in the medieval period, was not Christian. He integrates his beloved Model with Christianity by, among other things, characterizing the spirits of the planets as a kind of angel, fitting them neatly into the Great Chain of Being without disrupting its hierarchical structure, following the lead of many thinkers both medieval and modern who concluded that they had found in Christianity the name of the Aristotelian Prime Mover.

The Space Trilogy reads to me as an extended series of musings on how the hybrid vigor of this revitalized (and redeemed?) medieval mythology might play out in today’s world(s). It starts out with establishing the cosmos and Earth’s place in it; the second book reimagines a new creation-redemption myth; the third brings the consequences back to Earth with a quasi-apocalyptic tale that fuses the trippy imagery of Arthur C. Clarke with the assurance of epic meaning through spiritual warfare of Frank Peretti.

Lewis was trying to work with sci-fi, but the result reads more like fantasy kludged with his contemporary technology. Since his protagonist, like himself, is a scholar of languages and liberal arts, neither of them has any interest in the science and the narrative takes pains to spare the reader any potentially boringly-detailed discussions of the technology. Much more interesting are his interpretations of the angelic beings of different orders; he dwells lovingly on the sensations of being near them and speculates about how they might exist, using all the best medieval metaphors, such as “vibrations.”

Throughout it all runs the deep certainty of the apologist and the massively kyriarchical assumptions of the utterly privileged. To me, there is also a whisper of the sense that readers can vicariously enjoy the protagonist’s place at the center of universe-shaking action in lieu of their own frustrated desires to have a more important role in the epic narrative their theology lays out for them. With all of this in mind, I should point out that That Hideous Strength, the third in the trilogy, is a deeply weird book and not one I recommend to the casual reader – but…

For me, Lewis certainly succeeded in his project to bring a deeper understanding of the Medieval cosmology to the modern mind. Near the end of That Hideous Strength, the powers that inhabit the five classical planets descend to Earth, and Lewis chronicles the effects each of them has on a core group of characters. Those accounts stuck in my mind as the most vivid ways of understanding the influences of each of these planets, much more clearly than any information gleaned from the original myths, perhaps because Lewis does write from the human perspective.

Mercury brings puns and “plays upon thoughts, paradoxes, fancies, anecdotes, theories laughingly advanced yet (on consideration) well worth taking seriously…skyrockets of metaphor and allusion.” (318) Lewis’ own allusions to the qualities of literal mercury lead to him describing how “all the fragments – needle-pointed desires, brisk merriments, lynx-eyed thoughts – went rolling to and fro like glittering drops and reunited themselves,” much as is experienced when poetry brings “the counterpoint of the mind, the mastery of doubled and trebled vision.” (319)

Lewis is more sparing in his descriptions of Venus’ effects, sparing the delicate sensibilities of his English readers. We do see that Venus brings warmth, comfort, and sweetness; good scents and a feeling of being rocked on the ocean touch “the inconsolable wound with which man is born.” (320) The effect is one of desire, but holy desire, which can never be fully satisfied in the sublunar realm.

The arrival of Mars stirs discussion of courage in terms that are the essence of British masculinity in the World Wars. The people are unafraid to die, and the martial splendor overwhelms any petty concern with dangers. Interestingly, here Lewis also alludes to Northern European mythology by syncretizing Mars with “Tyr who put his hand in the wolf-mouth.” (322)

Saturn comes next, with cold, the cold of the depths of space where even stars fizzle themselves out into the heat-death of the universe. It is the embodiment of time, “more and still more time, into freezing wastes and silence of unnameable numbers.” (323) This mastery of the depths gives Saturn a kind of immovable strength, but all its power is suffused with sorrow.

Last, in Lewis’ descent of the gods, is Jove. I get the impression that he is placed there because he is the only spirit which can overmaster Saturn, and Lewis is too much of a storyteller to leave readers on the ending without a conclusion that Saturn creates.

Lewis first describes Jove as “one whose influence tempered and almost transformed to his own quality the skill of leaping Mercury, the clearness of Mars, the subtler vibration of Venus, and even the numbing weight of Saturn.”

The further account was the first to make me understand how the adjective “jovial” was originally meant to combine kingly dignity and hearty revelry; Lewis says that under Jove’s influence, “Though you were a cripple, your walk would have become stately: though a beggar, you would have worn your rags magnanimously,” (323) and that all the characters feel as if they are at some royal festival.

The vividness and human perspective of these interpretations was what helped most as I was trying to make sense of different planets’ roles in astrology, so I can honestly say that Lewis, bless his Christian medievalist heart, was the first to teach me astrology, and his lessons remain with me today.

This sort of connection through preservation of earlier knowledge is an example of how Neo-Paganism can justifiably count paleo-paganism among its spiritual ancestors; what it means today is what we have to create for ourselves – not even the stars can tell us that.

Why I ignore the stars but read my cards

After the recent dustup about whether or not there is a “13th sign” in the zodiac (answer: depends on what system of astrology you’re using, sidereal or tropical), an interesting article appeared called “You Are Not Your Star Sign.” The author describes how some people’s identities are bound up very closely with astrology. This matches up with how one academic critiqued the social function of astrology: among other things, astrology can serve as a way for people to make sense of their lives, but because of the apparently fixed nature of astrology, it can very easily become an excuse for the status quo rather than an empowering insight towards improvement. This, in short, is why I do not study astrology, but I do read Tarot.

It might seem contradictory for someone to use one form of divination but not another. If you “believe” in one, don’t you “believe” in all of them? Well, yes and no, depending on how you define “believe.” A good quote from a fictional character expresses my understanding well:

People always ask me if I “believe” in Tarot cards. It’s pretty easy to do: I own five decks of them. What they mean, of course, is “Do you believe that Tarot cards can tell the future?” and the answer to that is yes – and no.

You can tell the future. If you wear a white cashmere sweater-dress to an important lunch, there is an eighty percent chance that you will spill shrimp cocktail or something else with tomato sauce on it – if only because you’re so worried about spilling something that you go all awkward. You know this, but you’re unlikely to act on the information, even if your mother, your roommate, and your best friend all tell you so.

But if the cards tell you so – and mind, tell you what you already know – you’re more likely to accept and act upon the advice, wear bottle-green wool gabardine, and avoid serious grief and dry-cleaning bills. Tarot is a way of sorting out what’s bothering you and getting advice from the best-informed source – you – in a way that you’re likely to listen to. (Rosemary Edghill, Bell, Book, and Murder, 108, emphasis original)

This is a great example of a simple version of a psychological understanding of how Tarot can work. The psychological interpretation doesn’t depend on any idea of the supernatural influencing the cards at all. Skeptics sometimes complain that some forms of divination yield seemingly meaningful results only because of the human tendency to make meaningful stories or patterns out of even random information. This understanding of Tarot says, yes, that’s exactly what we’re doing. And we know it. And it’s helpful to some people some of the time, which is why we do it.

Mary K. Greer, an excellent Tarot author, describes her style of reading as RITE, meaning Reading Interactively for Transformation and Empowerment. She explicitly teaches readers how to guide a querent (the person asking the questions) through a reading so that the querent uses Tarot as an opportunity to reflect on her life, issues, and ideas. In Greer’s style, I, as the person reading the cards to help you answer your question, might say something about what a card traditionally means or how it is often interpreted, but you do the final interpretation. You tell me what it brings up, what you think it means, and how it’s relevant. Then we work together to help you take the actions you choose to work towards the outcome that you want. The goal is your empowerment, which Greer describes as “consciously participating in your own destiny…finding in yourself the most effective posture to take in a situation.” (Greer, 21 Ways to Read a Tarot Card, Kindle location 69) I’m not reading your future. I’m helping you understand yourself so that you can shape your future.

It takes work to make divination an empowering situation for the querent. It’s easier to regard Tarot as a mystical way to get an inside track on the future than to do the hard work of self-examination that the RITE approach requires, whether reading for oneself or for someone else. But it seems to me that astrology makes it much harder to use that human pattern-making, story-telling tendency, except in retrospect. I think the social critic’s argument above – that astrology usually breaks down into a justification of the way things are, functionally depriving people of empowerment, not providing it – is basically accurate. I know astrology is a lot more than what you read in the newspaper under “This Week for Libras.” I’ve actually studied a little astrology, just enough to know that it’s incredibly complex, and based on a view of divination that was originally about predestination and unchangeable fate, as well as heavily patriarchal and gender essentialist and so on, which makes it even harder for me to use. What I’ve learned hasn’t changed my assessment of astrology’s much lower potential for empowerment, and since I don’t believe it has any predestined information to provide me, I’ve decided that it’s not for me. I may learn more about it in the future, but for now, I’m going to stick to my cards. I may not be able to change my stars, but I sure can shuffle.