collections

The Astrologer of the Nineteenth Century (1825)

Raphael. The Astrologer of the Nineteenth Century: Or the Master Key of Futurity, being a Complete System of Astrology, Geomancy & Occult Science. London: Knight and Lacey, 1825.

Before we’re even passed the title page of this manual on astrology and the occult, we encounter an instance of the dark arts at work — this second edition has been cunningly labelled the “seventh” to make it look like a runaway success. Its mysterious author “Raphael” cobbled the book together out of articles from The Straggling Astrologer, a pioneering journal of astrology which the previous year he had edited into an early grave. (The man behind the pen name was the Bristol-born writer Robert Cross Smith. He had probably chosen the pseudonym in reference to the archangel Raphael who is associated with Mercury, messenger of the Gods.)

Although not everything Raphael touched turned to publishing gold, he was a key figure in the nineteenth-century revival of astrology — a discipline which having lost its scientific credibility by 1700 had been in seemingly terminal decline. From 1826 to his death in 1832, Raphael edited a successful almanac, The Prophetic Messenger, which included the ephemeris — a chart of daily planetary positions. When issued as a separate volume, Raphael’s Ephemeris became the standard text for British and American astrologers constructing horoscopes.

The Astrologer of the Nineteenth Century covers, in quite dramatic prose, a multitude of occult topics in ten chapters, or “circles”:

Circle 1 is on necromancy (communicating with the dead)
Circle 2 describes several historical disasters and the omens that foretold them
Circle 3 concerns raising spirits from the dead with magic charms and incantations
Circle 4 is a how-to guide to astrology
Circle 5 identifies some brilliant prophecies that have come true
Circle 6 astrologically explains the lives of several illustrious people
Circle 7 is about geomancy (telling the future from patterns of dots)
Circle 8 offers various charms and talismans (including one to fend off reptiles)
Circle 9 recounts stories of ghosts and other supernatural phenomena
Circle 10 houses material that doesn’t fit neatly in the other circles, including reflections on the Philosopher’s Stone and a method for making trees more fruitful: “The seeds of roses, with mustard-seed, and the foot of a weasel, tied together in something, and hung among the boughs or branches of a tree which bears but little fruit, will remedy the defect, and render the tree amazingly fruitful.”

In his introduction, Raphael contends that he believes very firmly in astrology, fairly firmly in geomancy, and not much in magic rites, charms, and incantations. (He only includes these last to satisfy “Those who delight in the terrific, and the horribly sublime.”) The book makes a range of arguments for the veracity of astrology, the most ingenious being that “the greatest rulers, and statesmen, and chiefs, of the present age” are part of a conspiracy. They all publically call astrology “incompatible with sense and reason, and everything else that is esteemed good” because they want to retain exclusive access to it — “a science alone capable of instructing them when to bring forward their measures with the most certain prospect of success…”

The book warns of dire consequences for those who would ignore celestial omens. Thus we learn that the balloonist Thomas Harris would not have fallen to his death in 1824 if he had only noticed “the planet Jupiter coming into the point of the Dragon’s tail in the ominous sign Cancer but a few hours preceding the ascent.” If this kind of argument fails to convince readers, especially those who have recently experienced misfortune, then it may offend them instead. A century and a half later, in his book Cosmos (1980), Carl Sagan would neatly voice his frustration at the field of enquiry Raphael had helped to revive:

In contemporary Western society, buying a magazine on astrology – at a newsstand, say – is easy; it is much harder to find one on astronomy. Virtually every newspaper in America has a daily column on astrology; there are hardly any that have even a weekly column on astronomy. There are ten times more astrologers in the United States than astronomers. At parties, when I meet people who do not know I am a scientist, I am sometimes asked, ‘Are you a Gemini?’ (chances of success, one in twelve) or ‘What sign are you?’ Much more rarely am I asked, ‘Have you heard that gold is made in supernova explosions?…’

Whatever your feelings on the beliefs at the heart of Raphael’s book, we hope one thing everyone can agree on is the brilliance of the imagery it boasts. We’ve picked out some of our favourites and featured them below.

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