Book Review: Astrology and Cosmology in the World’s Religions by Nicholas Campion (2012) New York University Press.

By Joseph Crane

August, 2014


campion-bookIf Nicholas Campion’s two-volume History of Western Astrology is like spending a week in a great library, Astrology and Cosmology in the World’s Religions is like an afternoon visit to an art museum.  His short book takes us around the world and around the centuries, beginning with indigenous (oral transmission) cultures in Australia, Africa, North America, and the islands of the Pacific, to the ancient societies of Egypt, India, Mesopotamia, and Greece, to the contributions of the great monotheistic religions, concluding with the modern “New Age/Pagan” movement.

Touring a large art museum, there’s the familiar stuff but sometimes we can see it in a new way.  What is less familiar to us can suddenly display qualities that we can identify with as our own, even with major differences of style or content.  If this is the author’s purpose, he has accomplished it well.

Nick Campion is well-known to the astrological community as a teacher and writer.  A historian by campiontraining, he has worked with mundane and historical astrology and, more recently, the history of astrology.  Campion’s previous two books trace the history of Western astrology from the Neolithic ages to our contemporary western culture.  Currently he is lecturer and director of the Sophia Center for the Study of Cosmology and Culture at the University of Wales in Lampeter, Wales.  This new book comes out of his current job.

Campion first has to define what he means by “cosmology”, “astrology” and “religion” and the first two chapters take on this daunting task. His book begins by stating that cosmology relates people and their “fears, concerns, and hopes” to the cosmos – this would include tracking recurrences of appearances of the sky, constructing systems to show the perfection of a higher realm of reality, precisely locating large-scale public buildings, ordering time through calendars and yearly, monthly, or daily rituals, and sailing large distances using subtle changes in star positions.

“Astrology” may be either “natural,” reflecting the order of nature, or “judicial,” casting judgment on an enterprise present or future, concerned with individuals or kingdoms. Not only does one read celestial phenomena for oneself, but one’s kingdom or king.  For purposes of this book, Campion uses one scholar’s seven dimensions of religion which range from the devotional to the doctrinal to the artistic.  This wide net of cosmology, astrology religion does not have the virtue of elegant simplicity but it enables Campion to explore humanity’s many meanings and uses of the sky.

Campion has the modern historian’s distrust of speculation and broad conceptualization and tries to stick with the supportable facts.  Readers who are more speculative or doctrinally-oriented may be disappointed.  If this book were an astrological sign it would be Gemini.

Although Campion makes some thematic connections between different societies and cultures, each one is presented on its own, each being given between nine and thirteen pages of text.  Although our knowledge of these cultures varies widely, he has given then all roughly equal space, implying an equivalency between them.

When appropriate, Campion also discusses the limitations of the available information on a culture’s traditions. Difficulties are sometimes due to a culture not committing their knowledge to writing or having been destroyed by invaders or from a mistrust of contemporary inquirers by current members of that culture.   A “culture” may be composed of many different groups that diverge widely so there is no one tradition that encompasses them all.   There are also limitations of historical interpretation:  Campion also discusses previous ideas, such as an independently “rational” Greek spirit, that have not stood the test of time.   And, of course, until the present time historians have tended to ignore the importance of astrology in many cultures.

Most chapters continue with a depiction of different stories of the origin of the universe that Campion divides into “cosmic” and what he calls “chaotic” (I prefer “emergent”) – did the universe begin at one time by some kind of divine Act or did the universe emerge more gradually from a more disorderly or primordial space and eventually take on the characteristics of a patterned world?

Of concern is that there are orderly patterns of the heavens, but also unpredictable events like meteors and comets.  Are the skies above us orderly in contrast to life that is messier down here, or instead are sky and earth within a continuum that includes the animals, oceans, the surrounding landscape, and us?   Is the entire cosmos alive or just part of it? And if the changing skies contain messages from the gods, can the gods be propitiated and fate altered?

Campion shows the strong ambivalence toward astrology within cultures whose religions posit a single transcendent deity.   By reading the heavens for application to affairs on earth, do astrologers commit an impious abrogation of God’s will, or do they reveal the glory of God’s creation?

We modern astrologers think of our work as involving signs, planets, houses and angles. Yet this system is particular to the Western style of astrology that began in Mesopotamia, was filtered through the Egyptians and Greeks, and from which another stream appeared on the Indian subcontinent.  Our astrology is central to us but it’s not the whole thing.

Of universal importance is the symbolic range of the Sun, as a universal symbol of power and order in the universe, the commander of time, and, in many cultures, who also went into the underworld daily and emerged the next morning, triumphant.  The Moon’s cyclic regularity help organize short-term units of time, along with Venus in its movement before and after the Sun. There are larger scale movements of time that correlate with long-term recurrence cycles and even with the backwards movement of the equinoctial point.

The tendency to look at the constellations and individual stars and give them stories was a cross-cultural endeavor and constituted different “theatres of the sky” overhead.  These may be parts of “folk cosmology” that coexisted with all the philosophy and religion and observation and calculation that constituted larger systems of coordinating sky and earth.

Of particular interest is the last chapter, “Theological, New Age, and Pagan Cosmologies”, for Campion brings in recent scholarship to depict the transcendentally-minded “New Age’ culture with its interest in a new Aquarian Age and a more earth-bound “Pagan” culture, both of which have use for modern astrology. This fascinating distinction between New Age and Pagan deserves more research and elaboration – and perhaps updating, for now there seems to be less emphasis on the Aquarian Age than in the recent past.

There are limitations in Campion’s even-handed approach toward different cultures, since they, and the amount of reliable information available about them, vary widely.  Because he devotes roughly as much space to “Classical Greece” and “Christianity” as “Oceania” and other orally-transmitted cultures of North America and Sub-Saharan Africa, the author’s depictions of the Western tradition have little room left for popular cosmology and religion in the ancient West or the importance of art and architecture to transit cosmological and astrological ideas.  One can also make a case for dividing “Classical Greece” into two chapters, separating the Hellenic from the later Hellenistic synthesis that gave rise to the astrology that we use today.

If I were writing this book, I would include a chapter on Northern Europe, another on the nomadic groups from Asia whose migrations have had such an impact on world history, and traditions of Buddhism, particularly the Kalachakra Tantra within Vajrayana Buddhism.  I would have talked about the medieval cathedrals and differentiated between the philosophy of the Hellenic world and its contemporary religious practices. I would have also said more about the implications for ethical ideals for a state, king, or an ordinary person. I would have said more about Protestantism. I would have included something about the contemporary scientific discipline that is also called “cosmology”, even if there is no settled understanding of it or its implications.  Yet, given the nature of a short book on a vast topic, I expect no two people will agree on what to include or exclude.

As befitting the Gemini nature of Astrology and Cosmology, there is no conclusion that pulls together previously discussed factors from different cultures.  The book’s abrupt ending may strike some readers as unsatisfying, but I would like to think that this omission is intentional – to invite the reader to read more deeply, investigate the sources further, and come up with his or her own conclusions.

I will recommend this book for my astrology students and friends, but one should read it carefully, maybe a little at a time, and not expect to agree with or like all of it. By nature we prize our own points of view and there is value in knowing other possibilities, even learning a lot about some of them.  It’s easy for astrologers to forget that we are this generation’s and this culture’s foot-soldiers in a long-lasting and far-ranging human endeavor.  Campion’s short book serves us well to remind us of this.