What comes to mind at the mention of astrology? Perhaps zodiac signs and horoscopes? Or maybe millennials, the full moon, and new-age ideas? Today astrology has the less than stellar reputation as the unempirical version of astronomy, and certainly nowhere near the academic realm of science or mathematics. Historically, astrology and science are not as irreconcilable as many believe. The two have had an intimate relationship since their humble beginnings during antiquity. A prime example of their entwined natures is Ebenezer Sibly’s A complete illustration of the celestial science of astrology, or, The art of foretelling future events and contingencies, by the aspects, positions, and influences of the heavenly bodies: founded on natural philosophy, scripture, reason, and the mathematics: in four parts.
Sibly was a physician, surgeon, astrologer, and freemason (initiated in 1784 under the name “Noah Sibly”) who successfully straddled the line between science and the occult. Born in Bristol, England, on January 30, 1751, Sibly was educated until the age of 17, when he left school to help run his father’s mechanic business. This did not impede his curious and academically inclined mind. He continued to teach himself medicine, natural philosophy, and occultism. He also studied surgery in London, graduating from Kings College in 1792.
Sibly’s Illustration was published in 1788. Its importance resides in the fact that it was the first comprehensive textbook for astrology and meteorological applications. It unites magic, astrology, science, and math–all subjects now thought to be repellent to each other. He freely and purposely mixed natural philosophy and mathematics with cosmology and alchemy. He believed that the seemingly opposite worlds actually refined and corrected each other, balancing them out. Sibly was not the only one to believe this. Arguably, the zenith of astrology was during the Renaissance, and the disciplines of math, science, magic, and astrology were connected by many scientists, theorists, and researchers.
The most notable aspect of Illustration to American history is in part three, or as Sibly writes, “Part the Third containing . . . Rules for prejudging the Revolutions of every Part of the habitual world, general effects of Great Conjunctions, Eclipses, Comets, Blazing Stars, and other Extraordinary Phenomena. . . .” Sibly created an astrological chart for the birth of the infant nation America. An accompanying plate pictures George Washington, a Native American, and a figure of Justice set against a backdrop of an encampment and a port cityscape. Based on America’s astrological chart, Sibly’s draws the conclusion that “the state of America shall in time have an extensive and flourishing commerce, an advantageous and universal traffic to every quarter of the globe, with great fecundity and prosperity amongst the people.”
On another particularly exciting page, Sibly uses astrology and math to accurately predict the occurrence of the French Revolution of 1789. In 1788 he writes that “the significators which represent the Court of France . . . denotes much restlessness and instability in the councils of that country . . . some very important event will happen in the politics of France, such as may dethrone, or very nearly touch the life of the king, and make victims of many great and illustrious men in church and state, preparatory to a revolution or change in the affairs of that empire, which will at once astonish and surprise the surrounding nations.” As the history books tell us, this is what did indeed come to pass.
A century earlier, such a forecast and its fulfillment would have guaranteed Sibly national fame or notoriety. However, it drew little or no comment. This reception points to the way professional and disciplinary boundaries of knowledge had hardened toward the end of the 18th century, firmly excluding anything identifiable as occult, magical, or astrological. Astrology had reached its peak in the 17th century, and once the scientific ideals of the Enlightenment took hold, the boundaries between astrology and science solidified. This attitude toward the two subjects remains much the same today.
Sibly was, however, still able to find an audience in the middle class, particularly among semi-learned urban readers interested in popular magical science. This same niche is tapped into by almanac authors. Almanacs rely on astronomical data, lucky or unlucky days, religious festivals, and tide tables, among other like examples. Sibly published a few other books in addition to Illustration, such as A Key to Physic and the Occult Sciences, and Universal System of Natural History. He also edited an edition of Culpeper’s English Physician and Complete Herbal. All were devoured by the public and went through multiple editions.
This post is by Gina Modero, Reference Librarian for Printed Collections.