Astrology and Cabbala - the Dutch connection?
This post is about two astrology books, the elusive authors who wrote them, and their relevance to the Cabbala groups of Soho and of later years. It also follows the enquiry about ‘the Dutch connection’, as raised in the post on Common Life, which may be of importance to the transmission of this particular tradition of Cabbala. Perhaps you have one or both of these books on your own shelf, and will be interested to learn more about their background?
Astrology was commonly practised by members of the Soho and subsequent Cabbala groups. It was taken up both as a practical discipline, and as a way of understanding the symbolism of the solar system. Ernest Page, the wandering astrologer, was a mentor to some of the founding members of the group, and they in turn taught others. But with or without an instructor, books were needed to get to grips with horoscope construction and full interpretation. The usual place to look in the early days was in Watkins esoteric bookshop, in Cecil Court on the edge of Soho. But even there, not many astrological titles were available in the 50s and early 60s.
‘The only astrology books around at the time were those of Alan Leo, plus two others - Astrology, its Technics [sic] and Ethics, by one C. Aqua Libra (clearly a pseudonym) and Astrology and its Practical Application by Else Parker. I still have a copy of the latter, which was the first book I ever found which had an esoteric slant different from Alan Leo’s, and gave readings for the Part of Fortune in the twelve houses. Both books were translated from their Dutch originals. The first was little different from Waite and lacked the condensed ephemeris and tables of houses of the latter, also, Else Parker's delineations were fuller and more interesting.’ - Alan Bain
Taking Alan Bain’s references, Alan Leo’s popular astrology books had a strong theosophical flavour but also endeavoured to include something of modern psychology. Waite’s Compendium was a useful source, with enough of an ephemeris and table of houses to get by for calculations, and some canny interpretations, but it did not really contain enough information for a rounded chart interpretation. (As a side note, Brian Gardener, a member of a subsequent Cabbala group led by Tony Potter, updated Waite’s Compendium in 1971. Those who learnt their astrology in the 1970s, as I did, may still have a copy of his edition in their possession. ‘Waite's’ became redundant, however, as computerised astrology calculations began to take hold in the late 1970s and 80s, and more reliable tables were produced.)
But it was ‘the Dutch astrologers’, Else Parker and C. Aq. Libra*, who were a somewhat unusual choice, and who caught the attention of group members. Their books were recommended throughout later Cabbala groups too. This was not just a question of availability, since astrology books of all types rapidly came onto the market from the late 60s onwards, but because of their depth and outlook, which chimed in very naturally with Cabbala and which, it was whispered, might be allied with our own roots. *(This was the official way the author spelt his name, though he was often referred to by others as Alan writes it above, as ‘C. Aqua Libra’.)
As I’ve written in the post on ‘The Common Life’ , there was an indication that our line of Cabbala may have been handed down through the Brothers and Sisters of the Common Life, and through the later Dutch Schools of Cabbala. It was then, so we were told, brought over to the UK from ‘the Low Countries' after World War One, and passed down to Glyn Davies (a teacher and founding member of the Soho Group) via a farmer from Yorkshire who was enigmatically named as ‘John Smith’. (This farmer may have had one or two other pupils too, but at this period the tradition was only kept by a very few, following the more open flowering of Cabbala in the earlier periods.) To cut a long story short, perhaps this particular branch of Dutch astrology might also be kin to our tradition.
Research into the background of these two books provides no final answer, but it has opened a window onto the Dutch esoteric world of the time, and to the network of connections there. I would say too, that there is something of significance embedded in them, and strong hints of an esoteric background, which resonate to a degree with that of ‘Soho Cabbala’.
The Occult Twenties
Both Else Parker’s and C. Aq. Libra’s books were published around the 1920s. It would take many years of serious background study ever to untangle all the threads of occultism and esoteric studies which were present at this time, but it’s safe to say that from the end of the 19th century in continental Europe, Theosophy played a big part, along with Rosicrucianism, and the occult systems set up by Papus, and Eliphas Levi, including Martinism. From researching these books, and in particular the other titles by C. Aq. Libra, we know that the authors did have connections with these movements.
Astrology of the period
Astrology too was enjoying something of a revival, after being largely dismissed during the rise of science in the 18th century. However, in the 1920s it hadn’t yet attracted popular interest through commercial ‘sun sign’ columns in the newspapers, which only started in the 1930s. It seemed to be in a transitional period; earlier astrology had put maximum emphasis on the Ascendant (Rising Sign), but this plainly wouldn’t work in a generalised forecast for newspaper readers, as the Ascendant sign can only be discovered by calculating a horoscope individually according to the date, time and place of birth. A Sun Sign, on the other hand, is easily known just from the date of birth, since, for instance, a birthday in early May will always signify Sun in the sign of Taurus.
However, it would be misleading to say that it was the ‘invention’ of sun sign columns in the 1930s which switched the emphasis in the horoscope, since already in the 1920s, the more esoterically-minded astrologers were drawing on theosophical teachings which advocated the idea of ‘the Central Sun’. Such an idea would also accord with the Cabbalistic Tree of Life, whose central point is the sphere named as Tiphareth, corresponding to the sun and the essence of a person. This chimed in too with a growing interest in individual psychology. In these Dutch astrology books, this outlook is already present. C. Aq. Libra describes the sun as ‘The Ruler of Life’ and says that in a chart: ‘The Sun is in the horoscope the symbol of vital power and the higher intellect. It represents in the horoscope the spiritual principle, the real man, the individuality…. The influence of the Sun, together with that of the Moon, is by far the principal in a horoscope, and in judging a nativity [horoscope] these two centres must first be considered.’ (p. 53) But whether we think this understanding might come primarily from a connection with Cabbala (where the Sun is generally associated with Tiphareth at the centre of the Tree of Life) or with theosophy – or indeed with both! - is hard to say. Certainly, these were not ‘bread-and-butter’ astrologers but ones who dipped into spiritual philosophy as well as the practicalities of the horoscope.
I’ll begin with Else Parker; my report is brief as I’ve discovered very little about her. Her book Astrology and its Practical Application was translated from the Dutch and published in English in 1927. She is more focused on the practice of astrology than the philosophy behind it, but affirms that this philosophy is important, and also that astrology and modern science are connected. (This aspiration, to re-unite astrology and science, is strongly expressed in C. Aq. Libra’s writing too.)
This was Alan Bain’s preferred book out of the two; as the title implies, it’s perhaps more approachable and practical than C. Aq. Libra’s, but we can see that she too values a spiritual approach underlying the astrology. She quotes from Kant, and a French author called Flammarion, who in 1865 wrote a book titled ‘La Pluralité des Mondes Habités’ (‘The Multitude of Inhabited Worlds). Parker also acknowledges her interest in occult, or esoteric teachings. The Preface concludes: ‘In order not to frighten away the laity I have kept to the main points when choosing the…..(calculations)…. May that which is given bring to the reader the realisation of the powers working in the Cosmos, the connection of all that exists, and prompt him to further research into the occult teachings. Differences of opinion, additions, explanations etc. arising after serious perusal of this work will be gratefully accepted.’ [author’s italics – plainly she wanted no time-wasters!]
As Alan Bain remarked, this was a pseudonym. The author’s real name was Roelf Takens, and he was born in Winsum, Netherlands, in 1862. From his horoscope, which has reliably been checked and posted on line, we can see that his pen name comes from having Sun in Libra, Moon in Aquarius, and Cancer rising. Ie: C.(ancer)-Aq(uarius)-Libra. Roelf Takens was also a horse vet and an artist, who belonged to the artists’ Guild of St Lucas in Amsterdam. (St Luke was said to have painted a portrait of the Virgin Mary, hence he was often acclaimed as the patron saint of artists.). A couple of his rather gloomy paintings have come to light on the internet, as can be seen below. The biography accompanying his horoscope concludes: He lived and worked in Haren, Den Haag, Cairo, Egypt (1908-9), North America (1909) and Lugano, Italy (-1918). I will return to the Cairo connection later.
Takens was a prolific author on astrology and cosmological subjects, most of which have never been translated from Dutch into English. His book Astrology, its Technics and Ethics (we would certainly say ‘Techniques’ nowadays) spreads its net wide. He gives a good, solid and detailed account of astrology, and also brings in related topics, such as the Laws of Karma, the Cosmos, Symbology, Handwriting, Number, Sound and Colour, Astrology and the Bible, and the ‘science’ of Iridology under the guise of The Zodiac of the Eye. Despite Alan Bain’s reservations, I’ve always found his core astrology very helpful, even if I haven’t followed him down every branching pathway.
Another publication by C. Aq.Libra, which is only available in Dutch, but digitised on line, is Innerlijke Kosmologie, or 'Inner Cosmology', issued in 1925 by De Vrij Religieuse Tempel. (I’ll discuss the publisher below.) This is clearly aligned to his Astrology, as a kind of companion volume where he now gives priority to the other related cosmological studies: chapter topics include Atlantis, the Aura, the Paranormal, the Akashic records, the Laws of Vibrations and Polarity. There are some intriguing diagrams. Rod Thorn’s recent research shows that the spiral diagram is most probably taken from contemporary Theosophy, and that ‘it is more or less the periodic table of elements drawn as a spiral, so that each spoke is one of the 18 columns in the periodic table.’: This book can be downloaded as text or a PDF, and basic translations made either through Google translate, or via the website itself. Colleague Michael Frenda reports: ‘The original Dutch website link does have an English translation – if you press on the “text” button to the right - although the translation is a bit strained in places.’
The Castle and the Mountain
One guiding principle of C. Aq.Libra’s work is that of honouring a universal truth, rather than a specific dogma. In Astrology, its Technics and Ethics, he takes pains to point out that while religion is valuable, each religion just provides one ‘view’ of ‘the great castle of truth’.
‘All religions are based on the esoteric doctrine and are the different, outer (exoteric) expressions of it. However much they differ, they are all necessary; for all men have not evolved in the same direction, each differs in his conception of truth…. All religions are views upon the great castle of truth, seen from different angles and through a more or less dense veil of dust. All reveal to us one side of the Universal Truth, but in proportion to the veil, more or less hazy and twisted. They are all, however, useful and needful to their followers.’
The first edition of his book contains a colour plate, another of his paintings called ‘Evolution’. (see above for this illustration) It is an emblem for his perception of life as a spiritual journey, and astrology as a tool for this journey. Astrology is ‘a system that can make us cast a deep glance into life and evolution.' (p.255) And the solar system itself is a kind of metaphor for a different level of reality: ‘That which is outwardly observable, also in relation to the planets, is only an infinitesimal part of the whole. The physical sun we observe, is only the physical manifestation of the Sun in the infinitely greater spiritual Sun which comprises our whole planetary system…We may regard the physical Sun as the heart of the Creator of our solar-system – the Word, the Logos – and the Sun proper. (p.251) Cabbalists from the groups would have no problem in allying their own philosophy with the one expressed here, especially as the Tree of Life itself is often referred to as ‘a universal symbol’.
His painting of Evolution, along with his image of the castle, and the mention of a ‘return’ to the source of creation, also chimes in with the ‘path to the mountain’ followed by the mystics of the Brothers and Sisters of the Common Life, as described in my earlier post . The mountain was also a popular symbol with the Rosicrucians from the slightly later period. (see this article on The Sacred Mountain) It went under various names: as the ‘Mountain of the Initiates’, ‘Mountain of Philosophy’, or ‘Mountain of Life’, it is found in the writings and engravings of 17th – 18th century Rosicrucians such as Heinrich Kunrath. Possibly, too, the Mountain doubled as a symbol for the Cabbalistic Tree of Life in some contexts, since the link between this and the Rosicrucians is very close.
Images below are of various Rosicrucian and Cabbalistic symbolic sacred mountains, and Kunrath's 'Journey to the Heights' (bottom image)
Takens and his Associates
Although the empathy of approach between C. Aq. Libra and the Soho Cabbalists is clear, I haven’t discovered any definite connection between him and either the Cabbala or the Common Life tradition. He does refer briefly to Cabbala in Astrology, but in the past tense, as though this were an outdated form of study, and with the emphasis on the number permutations of Gematria rather than the Tree of Life. Certainly the writing implies that Cabbala is something separate from his own interests. ‘The Cabbalists set great value upon the numeral significance of the Zodiacal signs and of the planets, and this becomes clear to us when we take into consideration the fact that to them the numbers were symbols with a profound meaning.’ We should bear in mind, though, that ‘Christian Cabbala’ was transmitted in Europe in various guises from the medieval period right into the 19th century, and that he might have known it in another form, and under another name. In any case, he would almost certainly have absorbed a certain amount through his associations with theosophy and the occult circles of the time. His outlook on astrology may have a Cabbalistic slant, even if he is not part of the specific Dutch line of Cabbala which found its way into Yorkshire.
Associates of Roelf Takens
Although there may be no evidence that Takens was a Cabbalist as such, it’s clear from his publishers and associates that he played an active part in a particular stream of occult philosophy.
One clue I followed up comes from Innerlijke Kosmologie, which is dedicated to F. C. Barlet, who he describes as ‘teacher and friend’. F. C. Barlet is the pseudonym for Albert Facheux, who played a minor but significant role upon the crowded stage of late 19th century and early 20th century occultism. References to him reveal that he was ‘a French theosophist who practised astrology more as ‘mystic occultism’ than as a ‘practical “science”’. (Owen Davies). Barlet is credited with leading the revival of astrology in France, and also being one of the few astrologers there who tried to understand the events of World War One as they unfolded. Barlet, aka Fâcheux, also co-wrote a paper with J. Lejay entitled, 'L’art et l’esotérisme,' for a journal called L'initiation: revue philosophique indépendante des hautes études (Paris, June 1894, vol. 23, p. 207). This journal was set up by a group of occultists who were close to Papus, (Gérard Encausse) one of the most influential esoteric writers of the time. .
And the link to Papus is probably the most interesting aspect of Barlet’s connections. In The Brotherhood of the Rosy Cross: A History of the Rosicrucians. A. E. Waite mentions that in 1897, Barlet became head of the ‘Order Kabbalistique de La Rose-Croix’. This was an order which was founded around 1889 by Marquis Stanislas de Guaita, and of which – intriguingly - the president was assisted by a Council of Twelve, six of whom were ‘known’ and ‘six unknown’. Barlet resigned, after what seems to have been a short term of office, but then Papus took his place. Perhaps Barlet withdrew so that the renowned magus could step into position? (It seems from what follows below, that Barlet was not a man who liked the public stage, but preferred to work behind the scenes.) So the two men would certainly have known each other, and worked together within this Order.
After a little more research among our ‘Saros Roots Group’ colleagues, we can take this a step further. Esteemed esoteric scholar and practitioner Gareth Knight – who has solved one or two mysteries for us before! – has an excellent blog post about Barlet: . ‘A modest and reclusive figure, dedicated and knowledgeable, never known to refuse a service to anyone, he was welcome as a senior member of esoteric groups of the time. Not only the Martinists and Rosicrucians but as a local representative for foreign organisations, such as the Anglo-American H.B.L. (Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor), who welcomed his reputation for a squeaky clean respectability.’ Knight goes on to say that Barlet was considered to rank high among the ‘masters’ of the era, but that he was not blighted by the egotism and arrogance that some of them displayed. ‘Barlet was certainly more modest and approachable. “Please,” he was heard to say to one enquirer, “Do not call me ‘master’ – I am just an old student.”’ Another reference, in Takens’ book, also implies that Papus was the student of Barlet, rather than the other way round. Barlet never left a compendium of his knowledge, however, and Gareth Knight remarks, based on impressions recorded by Mitchelet, a contemporary of Barlet: ‘…Although there are some people too busy teaching to be able to learn very much, Barlet was too concerned with learning to find time to teach! A problem for actual or aspiring initiates everywhere?’'
Here, therefore, we have a connection-at-one-remove between Takens (C. Aq. Libra) and Papus, through the intermediary of F. C. Barlet. If Barlet was the teacher of Takens (and possibly of Papus), then whether or not Takens himself knew Papus, he would almost certainly be linked into that stream of teaching, with its input from Cabbala, Roscicrucianism and Theosophy. The connection to an ‘Order’ too implies knowledge of ritual and symbolism.
For those who wish to plunge deeper into the thickets of French and Dutch occultism of the period, there could be some rich finds!
The Middle Eastern connection
Roelf Takens worked in Cairo from 1908-09; in what capacity it isn’t clear, but perhaps as an equine vet. This placement may have some significance. Research carried out in our Saros Roots group has thrown up a number of other occultists who spent time in Egypt or the Middle East, and who appear to have encountered Cabbalistic and esoteric traditions there, including Ronald Heaver of the Glastonbury Sanctuary, the magician W. G. (‘Bill’) Gray, and a Dr Agatha Mills, who began teaching ‘philosophic and subtle studies’ in the UK in the 1940s after studying in Cairo. Her chain of transmission leads to the current school of ‘Imaginal Studies’.
So it’s possible that Takens had some experience or contact in Egypt which shaped his outlook. At the turn of the 20th century, especially before two World Wars permanently disrupted its geography and culture, older ways of life and teachings still prevailed in the Middle East. For instance, a tradition of alchemy persisted in North Africa, most likely unbroken from the Middle Ages. Historian E. J. Holmyard wrote in 1957 about his friendship with a leading Muslim scholar and keen amateur alchemist, who lived in the UK. ‘One of his last acts was to write a letter of introduction to an alchemist friend at Fez, the outcome of which was to give the author the privilege of being taken to see a subterranean alchemical laboratory in the old part of that city.’ (Alchemy p. 101)
The Watcher on the Threshold
Returning to Else Parker and C. Aq. Libra as a duo of authors on astrology, they almost certainly both moved in the same circle of Dutch theosophical astrologers. It would be more of a surprise if they weren’t connected, since they write in a similar manner and were both published by P. Dz Veen in the 1920s, in Dutch originals and English translations.
They also make an identical reference which is absent elsewhere, to Saturn as ‘The Watcher on the Threshold’. The italics which both authors used imply that it’s a specific term or name. In an earlier post on Soho Tree, we looked at Chronos as a key symbol in the early Soho groups, and its related terms such as The Dweller on the Threshold, a phrase used especially in theosophical circles. But there was no example at that point of a ‘Watcher on the Threshold’, and I’ve since searched online for it without success, apart from a short story by John Buchan called ‘The Watcher at the Threshold’. This suggests that both Else Parker and C. Aq. Libra had learned this reference from a particular occult or astrological system. What was this particular teaching about Saturn, and where did it come from?
Apparently in earlier times Saturn was sometimes called the Guardian of the Threshold, as the outer planet of the solar system before further planets were discovered. . But the phrase used by our two authors - The Watcher on the Threshold - hasn’t come to light in this context. And a ‘Watcher’ and a ‘Guardian’ are two different things.
However, just in time for this post, Rod Thorn found a further explanation in C. Aq. Libra’s Inner Cosmology, which translates roughly as:
Saturn (♄) is the cleansing force, which by its cold grip compresses and squeezes everything and transforms it into the beautiful crystal form - the symbol of pure Matter. There is no unclean admixture allowed; under Saturn's care, only the cleansed matter can pass its "threshold." Saturn is the first Hierophant of Initiation. He is the principle of cold, as the Sun is the principle of heat.
We can therefore assume that there is a ritual and magical side to this attribution of ‘The Watcher on the Threshold’ to Saturn.
The Temple of Free Religion
Finally, the search for the Dutch astrologers opens a door to a surprising project undertaken in Amsterdam in 1927. De Vrij Religieuze Tempel, who published C. Aq. Libra’s Innerlijke Kosmologie, was in fact the publishing arm of a movement known as the ‘Free Religion Temple’, whose aim was to promote higher and more spiritual thinking, without dogmatic divisions between religions. It also produced a magazine, The Temple, which covered the following subjects:
‘Eastern and Western religion, spiritism, theosophy, astrology, kabbalah, freemasonry, anthroposophy, Rosicrucianism, mysticism, physical research’. Their long list of books on similar topics include one called De Qabbalah by R. Oehmke. This might lend a little weight to the inference of a Cabbalistic influence in C. Aq. Libra’s writings, as he was involved with the Free Religion movement both as a contributor to the journal, and as a subscriber to ‘the Temple project’ which is explained below. Surprisingly, De Vrij Religieuze Tempel was also the first publisher to gain the Dutch translation rights to the novel Dracula by Bram Stoker!
This Free Religion movement conceived an idea to build a Universal Temple in Amsterdam, to bring together people of different spiritual, religious and cultural interests. It would cover many needs, operating as a concert and conference hall, a gallery for art exhibitions, offering meeting rooms for discussions about ‘higher’ matters, and a library for books ‘in the field of free religion’. It would be equipped with a mighty organ, effective heating and a coffee shop.
An ambitious architectural plan was drawn up, and construction began on the organ. A newspaper report of 1923, about the work in progress, can be read here (PDF link below), which has been translated from the Dutch with the kind assistance of my friend Wim van Klaveren.
Did the Temple finally get built? Wim, a native of the Netherlands, thinks the answer is yes – but he also says: ‘I read somewhere that it was not very successful and that the building was later converted to a garage.’
However, it was an extraordinary undertaking and shows that at least one of our ‘Dutch astrologers’ was part of a movement which has a remarkable resonance with our own times, with the aim of finding common ground among those of different spiritual and cultural backgrounds. In particular, this chimes in with the Deventer Project, proposed and partially developed by members of Saros, as an aspiration to create a kind of temple which would belong to no particular religion, but to what unites all of them. The name serves as a tribute to the Brothers and Sisters of the Common Life, who originated in Deventer. We don’t know for sure whether the work of Else Parker and C. Aq. Libra was directly linked to the Common Life movement, or to the line of Cabbala which came to the UK from the Netherlands, but there is certainly a kinship.
Cherry Gilchrist (with assistance from Rod Thorn and the Saros Roots group)
Astrology and its Practical Application Else Parker, English translation published by L. J. Veen Amsterdam (1927)
Astrology, its Technics and Ethics, C. Aqua Libra, English translation published by P. Dz. Veen, Amsterdam (1917)
A Christian Rosenkreutz Anthology by Paul M. Allen (Rudolf Steiner Publications 1968)
Supernatural War: Magic, Divination, and Faith during the First World War Owen Davies
Alchemy, E. J. Holmyard (Penguin 1957)
Modern Esoteric Spirituality, ed Antoine le Favre & Jacob Needleman (Crossroad, 1995)
Cuttings about the organ at the Free Religion Temple
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