Astrology and the Imagination in 1910
“The most wondrous world system ever conceived by the imagination is that of astrology.”
—Count Hermann Keyserling1
In 1910, four years before World War I would rend Europe asunder, prominent philosopher Count Hermann Keyserling gave a public lecture on astrology called “Sterndeutung” that framed astrology in terms of human imagination. I recently translated this lecture for the second volume of The Ascendant, AYA’s annual journal, and I would like to share it here in full, with some brief introductory thoughts about its significance.2
Keyserling’s lecture took place in the earliest years of the revival of astrological practice in Germany. For Keyserling and many others in central Europe, recent developments in scientific inquiry were threatening to rip apart an integrated experience of the world, as Keyserling states, “the more research advances, the more insistently it analyzes the facts, the more inconsistent the universe appears, the more questionable its real coherence.”3
In Keyserling’s view, astrology serves to overcome this incoherence and establish correspondences between seemingly unconnected objects: “The stars in their positions and wanderings are the projection of life into space, they are the dial of the world clock. Visible and invisible, living and lifeless, cosmic and human necessarily correlate in such a way, the meaning of it all, however, lies in man.”4 The significance of astrology lies not in telling us anything objectively true about the outer world, but something true about mankind, that is, ourselves.
The German term, “Sterndeutung,” can be translated simply as “astrology” or more literally as “celestial interpretation.” The branch of knowledge dealing with interpretation is called hermeneutics, which explores how we establish the meaning or significance of something that we encounter. I chose “Celestial Interpretation” as the English title for the piece because it retains Keyserling’s emphasis on the hermeneutic function of the practice of astrology that the term “astrology” obscures, seeing as it is derived from the Greek astron “star” and –logia “treating of” to create astrologia which means “a telling of the stars.”5 At the time, “Astrologie” would have been an available title choice, yet Keyserling chose to use the German term Sterndeutung.
The title Sterndeutung must also be compared with the 1899 book by Sigmund Freud, Traumdeutung, in English known as The Interpretation of Dreams, which was still quite topical in 1911 when this lecture was first published in the Hyperion Almanac. Keyserling’s text continuously emphasizes reading the stars, a trope that goes back to the very roots of Mesopotamian astrology, which was poetically termed sitir same or sitirti samami – “heavenly writing.”6 And what is written is meant to be read – and interpreted.
Returning to Keyserling: “For the astrologer, the universe is a clockwork, in which each individual points back to the whole, and the whole is reflected in every single one of them. The cycles of the stars emerge in the germinating souls; what will and should happen on Earth, can be read up in the sky.”7 He then links the arbitrariness of human language to nature and the hermeneutic system of astrology:
What does it matter that the elements of this worldview – the specific meanings of the stars and their combinations – seem nonsensical in and of themselves and arbitrarily determined? From a purely human standpoint, arbitrary are a fortiori the products of nature. These could surely be different, nevertheless they always exhibit the same properties according to experience; exactly in this way the specific meanings of the stars in their being [Dasein] cannot be explained further, but have been proven to be accurate through millennia of research.8
Over the years many scholars have spilled ink on the arbitrariness of human language, most famously Ferdinand de Saussure and C. S. Peirce. What Keyserling points to here is that even the very products of nature are in and of themselves arbitrary as well. That trees and faceted crystals – and even flowers or foxes – can be found in the wild, all of these “products of nature” are quite arbitrary. Yet they exist, and we interact with them, and over time our interactions form culturally mediated, shared languages of engagement. One would not try to drive a car with square wheels, let alone build one. And venomous creatures are best left well enough alone. These are things we come to know as we are brought up into a world that pre-exists us.
Keyserling suggests that just as these products of nature come to be known by humans, the very stars and planets themselves have announced their “meanings” reaching all the way back to the seven-hundred-year span of time when the earliest Mesopotamian astrologers collected and recorded observational data relating the heavens to events on earth in the Enuma Anu Enlil, if not before. Yet, the reason for these meanings still cannot necessarily be explained.
Before armies of astrologers respond to this with outcries and dissertation-length explanations of Hermetic theory (it’s because As Above So Below!), I suggest that Keyserling expresses himself in this way to reach the scientists in his audience who expect causal explanations for why one would claim a certain celestial configuration means something specific. At the heart of his claim is the then-accepted scientific method of Erfahrungswissenschaft, or empirical science… that is, the old meaning of the term, which refers to gathering knowledge by way of accumulated experience, and not necessarily knowledge that has been verified through experiment. Experimental evidence is a stricter variety of empirical evidence. With his emphasis on experience, both in the natural and celestial worlds, Keyserling hooks into a debate about experience and astrology that would erupt in Germany over the next decade.9
And yet, not necessarily on the positive side of said debate, for despite what he asserts above, he continues with the following: “the elements of astrology have no conceivable relation to the world of experience; in the framework of natural order there is no room for them.”10 By this, he seems to mean that we cannot find a causal reason why the stars seems to echo human events, impressions, and feelings. His use of the word experience here is of a different order than the accumulation of experiences that circumambulate celestial meanings he mentions above.
He continues, “The truth of astrology is arguably of another origin; it is not rooted in nature, it arises from the human soul. It is a real work of the mind. But it is no less true. The germ of every truth emerges from the imagination; the world was first created by spirit. Reality is initially foreign to us, we do not see, understand it; we only see what we invent.”11 In this view, there is no astrology before a human mind engages with the world to create one. We have created the system of meanings, by reading our environment and drawing meaningful links between this star and that event, for years and years and years.
Historically, humans of various world cultures have interpreted the stars and formed bodies of stories that continue to circulate, get interpreted, and reinterpreted. The accumulated experiences of relating celestial movements to human events on earth has generated archives of knowledge and practice that comprises what we now call astrology. Yet even this noun “astrology” is somewhat misleading; it lumps together a vast array of practices under the guise of a singular noun.
Recently, Liz Greene and Nicholas Campion have called attention to the multiplicity of astrology.12 They argue that various astrological practices are culturally distinct and non-teleological. That is, there is no “one true astrology” that was born in a single place and continued on a developmental trajectory leading to where we are in the modern West. To believe so, is to do disservice to the varieties that many human cultures have practiced that are not commensurate with what is popularly practiced in the West today. The non-western forms are not more or less true than the western variety. They are simply different, and these alternative astrological systems are no less worthy of scholarly attention.
In an echo of Keyserling’s approach, Campion has also stressed the role of imagination in the interpretation of horoscopes:
The horoscope does not carry a fixed set of objectively defined data, but can be used by us to extract the information we need for our own ends. This does not mean that there is no reality in the horoscope, but that we conspire with the astrology to bring out whatever information is relevant and meaningful at the moment, depending on our perspective and prejudices.13
In both Keyserling and Campion, we see that our own frame of view, our vantage point, is what limits our mileage with both astrology and reality. Keyserling: “we see only what we invent” versus Campion: “depending on our perspective and prejudices.” Thus to get beyond ourselves, we need to inquire about our own imaginal frame. Where are we coming from? What are our blind spots? What else could we do to widen our scope and see other possibilities? Other astrologies?
In 1928, two years after the highpoint of the astrological revival in Weimar Germany, the words of astrologer Dr. Olga von Ungern-Sternberg echo these early words from her colleague Keyserling, “from here, it almost seems as if the doctrine of the stars is in reality a doctrine of mankind.”14 By reading the stars, we read ourselves. And by translating our past, both ancient and recent, we can imagine a new future for our art. Here is Keyserling’s speech in full.
IT IS A PREJUDICE without any real background that modern natural science represents a closed and complete world view: it is closed only in so far as it excludes, and complete only within narrow limits. All systems that exact research has led to and that withstand scientific criticism suffer from the common affliction that they leave little else of the world. The world of the physicist is closed enough, but only masses and movements find place in it, and there are many other things in nature; the energetic worldview proves to be complete only as long as the many things that are not understood as energy are ignored. Today, a system that is to include the whole and emanates from a single, all-conditional principle can no longer be put forward in the sphere of phenomena: the more research advances, the more insistently it analyzes the facts, the more inconsistent the universe appears, the more questionable its real coherence.
¶ The more unsatisfactory, of course, our worldview. Critical philosophy has well taught that the question of unity only arises from the standpoint of thought, and that our comprehension is only commensurate with a narrow slice of reality: the naïve, primitive man, who also dwells in the depths of the most conceptual scholar, does not know how to cope with a world foreign to him. He does not come to terms in a reality in which his laws are not dominant, which does not accommodate his understanding, whose meaning does not lie in the human. With all the tenacity of a deep-seated instinct he struggles against it, he seeks to force, to outwit it: the world must, be it as it may, be a seamlessly linked nexus, must be comprehensible by people. In earlier times, researchers had no difficulty in asserting their sense of self against such inhumane facts: the Christian order of salvation gave all mechanism meaning, and the reality of this order of salvation was beyond doubt. Today belief in the dogma is shaken, we know too much about the origins. And because that which is not dogma, which is not presupposed as being beyond any possible criticism, cannot achieve footing, religion lost its miraculous power to counterbalance science. Even those world syntheses of an abstract nature, that could comprehend everything and satisfy the spirit in bygone days, are no longer capable of doing this today: they have been destroyed by criticism, their foundations have been undermined, they have lost their background. We are without redeeming religion, without reassuring metaphysics; we feel homeless in infinite space, disappointed by all stars. What remains there for the tortured spirits, who, too weak for modesty, cannot live in a dehumanized world? Only one thing: to believe in those connections, which are not situated in the sphere of pure belief, since their presupposed reality is to be revealed in the order of nature, which however are neither unambiguous to prove, nor to refute because they cannot be directly derived from the phenomena: connections of a mystical nature. It is logical and easy to understand that precisely today, at a height of scientific knowledge, those seemingly long-dead disciplines, which were forged by the germinating spirit of inquiry, are awakening again: astrology, magic, and spirit lore; it is no less logical that we encounter as their most ardent adepts, the men of exact sciences, famous physicists, doctors, philosophers: for they are most closely and painfully touched by the inhumanity of nature.
¶ No, the mind is not called to serve, it is born to rule. Where it serves, it does so out of politics: only he is the master of his material, who knows its laws. The mind wants objective truth, as long as it proves its power. As soon as it turns out that nature does not obey it, does not recognize its norms, the tyrant awakens, overturns the constitution, belts the world into the bonds of the imagination. From the outset, nature was incomprehensible to the first humans, therefore they put a more humane one in its place, at first. Our cognitive power fails only in the depths of the world, only there are we compelled to have visions, to create correspondences that the spirit demands. And this compulsion functions as a liberation, as salvation; subservient knowledge is an abomination to the spirit. Everyone, even the most modest researcher, who spends his days as a servant of hard facts, basically merely lives off the desire to be able to conjure one day. It is this hope that sustains him. The magician is indeed the master of nature, he shapes it as he pleases; the magician cannot err, for his will first creates truth; his spirit, foremost, is spirit in the full sense of the word for it is unbound. Let’s explore what our soul secretly loves: the world of fairies and goblins is more familiar to it than the Copernican system of the world. Every magical world is more intelligible to us than objective nature, since it is spirit of our spirit.
¶ The most wondrous world system ever conceived by the imagination is that of astrology; it is the most coherent, cohesive, and complete system that can be imagined. It organically comprises nature and the intellectual world, coincidence and necessity, arbitrariness and fate, and all cosmic events possess deep human meaning. For the astrologer, the universe is a clockwork, in which each individual points back to the whole, and the whole is reflected in every single one of them. The cycles of the stars emerge in the germinating souls; what will and should happen on Earth, can be read up in the sky. The stars in their positions and wanderings are the projection of life into space, they are the dial of the world clock. Visible and invisible, living and lifeless, cosmic and human necessarily correlate in such a way; the meaning of it all, however, lies in man.
¶ Astrology allows free will to exist. The configuration that determines the form of the soul at birth and whose progression signifies fate, is but the visible expression of those last immutable features which form the layout of character and persist beyond any free decision. The future presaged in the stars even glimpses—though less clearly—from the eyes; the compulsion of the stars is of one mind with the blood. Far from asserting an arbitrary influence on man through strange forces, astrology in fact establishes a coherently linked, watertight, intimate and necessary connection of all cosmic elements—a cohesive Becoming, down to the last detail. The flywheel of this becoming is the starry sky, a tiny cog in the work of every individual freedom. On the premise that the stars possess meaning, the world process is not a blind activity, rather a regulated development, not a senseless event, rather a meaningful fate. In such a world, spirit manages without difficulty: for it meets itself again everywhere. Everything is connected, makes sense, has a human, plausible meaning. The whole is so artfully arranged that no one is able to overlook it, and its possibilities are so rich, so dazzlingly ambiguous, that the principle does not have to be considered as failing in any questionable individual case. No wonder, therefore, that the astrological world appears to be more firmly established to all those who tend toward it than a theory to any researcher: it corresponds to the basic requirements of the spirit, the most urgent needs of the mind. What does it matter that the elements of this worldview—the specific meanings of the stars and their combinations—seem nonsensical in and of themselves and arbitrarily determined? From a purely human standpoint, arbitrary are a fortiori the products of nature. These could surely be different, nevertheless they always exhibit the same properties according to experience; exactly in this way the specific meanings of the stars in their being [Dasein] cannot be explained further, but have been proven to be accurate through millennia of research. Since ancient Chaldean times, science has not stopped testing its premises on reality; as much as induction can prove, it must have proven it here. The astrologer, supported by the oldest wisdom of humanity, presupposes the virtues of the stars just as naturally as the stars themselves.
¶ The astrological worldview has never been surpassed in beauty. At the same time, it is the most arrogant thing ever created by spirit: The paths of eternal suns as curves of fleeting fortune, the starry sky as the emblem of personal, human fate—Prometheus has never been more proud of himself than he is of this belief, never more defiantly has he stood up to nature. Nature, however, has bowed to spirit, who knew how to violate it so splendidly: what was written above in the heavens has, for the most part, happened on Earth.
¶ Celestial interpretation has proven itself for millennia as a source of knowledge. This is a fact, cannot be denied. And yet: anyone who searched for the cause for this in the stars, he struggled fruitlessly: the elements of astrology have no conceivable relation to the world of experience; in the framework of natural order there is no room for them. The truth of astrology is arguably of another origin; it is not rooted in nature, it arises from the human soul. It is a real work of the mind. But it is no less true. The germ of every truth emerges from the imagination; the world was first created by spirit. Reality is initially foreign to us, we do not see, understand it; we only see what we invent. We imagine ourselves in an inhuman world, grasp from it only that which fancies our concepts, our world is a child of our imagination. Thus the astrologer strikes a chord with only those facts, which must confirm the veracity of his art; so everywhere he must rediscover the relationships that correspond to his set of beliefs. It is not possible to refute a worldview if it corresponds to subjective reality; the subject exposes the object; where no light falls remains invisible. Thus many worlds have replaced each other, all of them really in their time; they all dissolve into darkness as soon as the magic lamp of the imagination settles on new desires and expectations. In our epoch, the human world may be fundamentally the same as the inhuman order of nature. Our world has become immortal. But nature is strengthened at the expense of spirit, it threatens to suffocate the mind. Our imaginations are weakened, our courage is sapped, we hazard, we cannot do any more. Out of creators, we have become observers, out of conquerors, envoys. We move further and further away from the type of the first human, who was at once the greatest: from the demigod Prometheus.
Count Hermann Alexander von Keyserling (July 20, 1880–1946) was a renowned Baltic German philosopher who delivered this lecture on astrology in 1910, nine years before the Communists confiscated his ancestral home and property in Russian territory (now Estonia). In 1920 he founded the School of Wisdom in Darmstadt, Germany, gathering luminaries such as C. G. Jung, Richard Wilhelm and Rabindranath Tagore, among many others. Astrology was integrated as one of the wisdom traditions taught by the school, and it was a foundational site for the crosspollination of astrology with the newly emerging field of psychology. After the Nazis rose to power, Keyserling’s School was shuttered, his citizenship revoked, and he was forced into virtual house arrest. He died in Innsbruck, Austria in 1946.
Translator Jennifer Zahrt, PhD stumbled upon this text in 2009, during her research at the University of California, Berkeley. Zahrt’s mission is to bring facets of German astrological history to the English-speaking world through translations and publications. To this end, she currently serves as an Honorary Fellow at the Sophia Centre for the Study of Cosmology in Culture and the University of Wales Trinity Saint David. This translation was also made by possible by the financial support of over 90 patrons through her Patreon campaign. Help her keep material like this coming: www.patreon.com/jennzahrt.
Featured image: Annie Spratt
1 Count Hermann A. von Keyserling, “Sterndeutung,” first appeared in a publication called the Hyperion Almanac in 1911, and was reprinted in Keyserling, Philosophie als Kunst (Darmstadt: Otto Reichl, 1920), 9–15. Reprinted in Keyserling, Philosophie als Kunst (Darmstadt: Otto Reichl, 1920), 9–15. The quote is from page 12 of this edition and translated by Jenn Zahrt.
2 Hermann Keyserling, “Celestial Interpretation,” translated by Jenn Zahrt, The Ascendant 2 (2018): 96–98.
3 Keyserling, “Celestial Interpretation,” 96.
4 Keyserling, “Celestial Interpretation,” 97.
5 Definition of “astrology” on Etymonline: https://www.etymonline.com/word/astrology [last accessed 3 July 2018]
6 Francesca Rochberg, The Heavenly Writing: Divination, Horoscopy, and Astronomy in Mesopotamian Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 1.
7 Keyserling, “Celestial Interpretation,” 97.
8 Keyserling, “Celestial Interpretation,” 97.
9 For a standard account of this, read Ellic Howe, Astrology: A Recent History Including the Untold Story of Its Role in World War II (New York: Walker and Company, 1967); for recent research see Jennifer Zahrt, “The Astrological Imaginary in Early Twentieth–Century German Culture” (PhD thesis, UC Berkeley, 2012) and Zahrt, “A Study of Astrological Polemics in German Culture before 1933” (MA thesis, UWTSD, 2015).
10 Keyserling, “Celestial Interpretation,” 98.
11 Keyserling, “Celestial Interpretation,” 98.
12 Liz Greene and Nicholas Campion, Astrologies: Plurality and Diversity (Ceredigion: Sophia Centre Press, 2011).
13 Nicholas Campion, “Mythical Moments in the Rectification of History” in Noel Tyl, ed., Astrology looks at History (St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn, 1995), 25–64, here 43.
14 Translation mine. Dr. Olga von Ungern-Sternberg, Die innerseelische Erfahrungswelt am Bilde der Astrologie (Detmold: Meyerische Buchhandlung, 1928), 10.