Waxing lyrical and the mind

Woodcut of a jester. Hans Hanberg. Germany (1568)
Woodcut of a jester. Hans Hanberg. Germany (1568)

Ancient philosophers wondered about the nature of memory and the retention of knowledge. They knew a good memory aided a person’s intelligence and learning ability and was not linked to either looks or social standing. They postulated various explanations as to why we remembered things and what memory was. One theory dominated all others. It likened the mind and memory to a block of wax.

Although this now seems like an odd idea, ear wax was believed to come from a sort of wax inside the head itself. Ideas on human biology were paralleled with those of plants and ear wax was thought of in similar kind of way as plant sap, only thicker. It moved slowly and it gently seeped out into the ear canal. Incidentally, hair and fingernails were also thought of in the same way as the leaves of a plant. They too grew from the inside out. In any case, some people had vigorous, robust growth whilst others didn’t and these ideas are likely to be the origin of this ancient theory of memory.

Even today we know just as the ancients did, that too much wax in the ears dulls our sense of hearing, particularly if the wax is very hard. It makes it difficult to hear or take things in. This affects our comprehension and understanding of what others are saying and communication becomes impaired. This affects how we relate to others.

It was believed that the information we received was imprinted or impressed upon the wax inside our head and this was the mechanism of memory retention. Remnants of this idea remain to the present day for we still talk about making a good impression and we can even be impressed by someone. The fact is, first impressions count and indicate that a baseline impression is stamped into our mind. It is very difficult to alter no matter how hard we try. That these verbal metaphors have endured is no surprise for wax continues to be the most popular and best material to use when making an impression of a figure.

The general rule was that the higher the quality of the wax an individual possessed the higher the quality of the mind. The ‘wax of the mind’ could be hard or soft, pure or mediocre in quality but a refined and soft wax was generally regarded to be the most suitable for learning. It allowed an impression to be formed quickly and sharply leading to a well defined, deep and crisp image, free of smudges. The memory was retained which led to a clarity of the mind and a good memory retention free from confusion or the clouding of memory. But any defects or impurities in this head wax affected our memory retention and had knock on effects on our intelligence and thought processes.

A soft wax gave an initial good impression but the outlines of the memory shapes would soon begin to fade and become indistinct as the wax slowly reverted to its original shape. This led to a loss of information and forgetfulness. People who were simple minded were thought to have very soft wax inside their head, hence the expression soft in the head. The term empty headed meant that one had little or no wax in the first place.

A hard wax meant that an impression was more difficult to obtain in the first place. This made learning a slow process and required greater effort. One had to think much harder, going over the same thing several times until the information was retained. It was believed that this is what led to someone having a rigid and inflexible mind.

Very hard wax was considered even worse for it made it extremely difficult to get an image at all and this ultimately led to an individual who lacked any depth of thought or understanding.

It was believed in ancient Greece that between the age of four and fourteen was the best time for moulding the mind and shaping it via education. This period of life was ruled by the planet mercury which is the natural significator and governor of our rational mind and intellect.

Ultimately how our mind works affect our intelligence. The way we use it is described as our Wit. Wit can refer to many things that require a good mind. What they all have in common is the expression of intelligence. We all know that someone can live off their wits and calling someone witty or a wit implies an intelligent person, imbibed with a good intellect with an adept mind who can demonstrate mental ability and agility.

Mercury ruled the tongue, the organ responsible for speech and the instrument through which we communicate our understanding. If we are mentally at a loss, finding ourselves exasperated, we can become tongue tied or even be at our at our wit’s end. The terms ‘nit-wit’ and ‘half-wit’ still remain in common parlance, continuing to be used as derogatory terms.

Memory and memory problems are traditionally ruled by mercury.

Astrologer beware!

Woodcut by Jorg Breu the Elder. Taken from 'The Book of Emblems' by Andrea Alciato. (1531).
Woodcut by Jorg Breu the Elder. Taken from ‘The Book of Emblems’ by Andrea Alciato. (1531).

There is no doubt that the study of astrology is fascinating. This particular astrologer in his wonderful medieval garb is depicted as looking upwards, entranced by the magnificent night sky containing a waxing moon and brightly shining stars.

The image clearly shows that his head (and thoughts for that matter) are well and truly up in the clouds for the heavens surround it. He is intent, lost in the spectacle overhead.

The night is ruled by the moon and the night is the reflective part of the daily cycle where our emotions and intuition are given full reign. These are lunar qualities and there is little room for solar logic here.

The astrologer points directly to a particular star – we know not which one. Could it be a malefic star he has noticed? We can only surmise. But it is conjunct the moon, traditional co-significator of the body.

Completely absorbed with the celestial, our astrologer pays scant regard to more pressing matters, namely the terrestrial. If we look at the earth upon which he treads we can see that his right foot is about to trip on a stone. He will soon take a tumble, see stars of a different kind and his attention will switch to more mundane matters when he goes down with a bang. The moon conjunct a malefic star? That sounds about right!

Claudius Ptolemy (1) tells us that ‘…prognostication by astronomical means is possible, and that it can go no further than what happens in the ambient and the consequences to man from such causes’. According to him this knowledge is ‘conducive to well-being, pleasure, and in general satisfaction’. So it would seem that this message of forewarned is forearmed is being pictorially delivered but unfortunately not adhered to. Ptolemy elaborates further by telling us that astrological knowledge ‘accustoms and calms the soul by experience of distant events as though they were present, and prepares it to greet with calm and steadiness whatever comes’. Will our soon to be falling astrologer agree with this statement? Who or what will he blame?

In the great astrological tradition the right and left sides of the body are ruled by the sun and moon respectively. The sun is of the dynamic, active principle whereas the moon is passive and receptive.

A look at the woodcut hints that it is the astrologers right hand and foot that cause his pending misfortune. In this receptive night environment it is the solar half of his body that is leading him on – his right hand points upwards as his right foot moves forwards. This gives him an almost chastising pose against the moon and stars. His left hand is downwards, a passive gesture and his left foot is behind him waiting to move.

The emphasis on the right hand side indicates a conscious choice to understand the universe rather than passively surrender to its mysteries, its wisdom – the stars do come out at night and after all. In this lunar landscape the astrologer’s decidedly solar stance is quite literally out of step with the environment. This might be the cause of his fall. We can read this image in many ways (and this is only one interpretation after all). It offers more questions than answers but more interestingly, isn’t the astrologer exactly where the stars dictated him to be in the first place? I leave you to ponder.

Let us return to the woodcut informing us that events can befall us quickly. It also serves as a reminder that although the stars foretell our fate this knowledge is useless if we don’t apply it. We must pay attention to what is going on around us, in heaven and on earth. They are connected and part of the same universe. This idea is perfectly captured by the old adage ‘as above, so below’ ascribed to Hermes Trismegistus, allegedly mankind’s first philosopher and the one who traditionally gave us astrology in the first place.

‘We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars’ (2) could well have been written as some kind of astrological mantra or oath. While it is true that the planets give indications to help us in life, we must use this precious knowledge carefully, appropriately, with a pinch of common sense thrown in for good measure.

Astrologer beware!

(1) Claudius Ptolemy. ‘The Tetrabiblos’. Book 1, chapter 3. That it is also Beneficial.

Robbins translation. The Loeb Classical Library, 1 volume, Harvard University Press, 1940

(2) Oscar Wilde. “LadyWindermere’s Fan”. (1892) Act III as spoken by Lord Darlington.

The Ptolemiac Universe

We know practically nothing about Claudius Ptolemy or his life. Among other things he was an ancient astronomer, astrologer, mathematician and geographer living in Alexandria, Egypt which was then part of the Roman Empire. He wrote on a diverse range of topics including geography, optics and music. He is best known for two books. One of them is ‘The Almagest” which is an astronomical treatise and contains star catalogues which are still in use to this day. It was the authoritative work on the universe for many centuries. Ptolemy also wrote a companion piece on astrology called the ‘Tetrabiblos” (the four books) which remians one of the most important astrological texts for all students of traditional astrology.

Peter Apian.
Peter Apian. “Cosmographia.” (1539) Diagram showing the Ptolemiac Universe of crystalline spheres.

Ptolemy, building upon theories and ideas of astrologers and philosophers that had gone before him, devised a simple scheme regarding the structure of the universe. It became known as the Ptolemaic or Geocentric Universe. With the immovable earth at its centre all the planets and stars rotated around it in a series of concentric, circular crystalline spheres. They were embedded into the surface of the spheres like jewels. Outside the spheres was the dwelling place of the creator, divine and unknown.

The first sphere is called the Primum Mobile. It had two very important functions. First of all it was responsible for maintaining the structure of the universe. It contained the other spheres within its boundary. Secondly, it was the motivating force behind the rotation of the other spheres, a sort of cosmic clockwork mechanism.

Spheres two and three have the stars embedded in them. Number two contained the stars of the zodiac constellations. The next one down has the fixed stars.

Moving inwards we have the seven planetary spheres that extend downwards from saturn to the moon. The order of these spheres from the outer to innermost is saturn, jupiter, mars, the sun, venus, mercury and the moon. This is known as the Chaldean Order and in traditional astrology it occurs time and time again. This order is worth remembing. Just as large, heavy objects appear to move more slowly when seen from a distance, this same observation was applied to the planets as viewed from earth.

The chaldean order of the planets is a scheme thst reflects each planets distance from furthest away from earth to the closest. It also reflects the order of the heaviest to the lightest planet as well as their mean speed from the slowest to fastest.

In this planetary scheme the sun is at the centre of the spheres dividing the planets into two groups. Above the sphere of the sun are mars, jupiter and saturn which are referred to as the superior planets. Below the sun are venus, mercury and the moon. Although venus and mercury are referred to as the inferior planets, the moon isn’t. In the great astrological tradition the sun and moon are known as the lights or luminaries. They are regarded differently from the five planets and called the greater and lesser light or respectively. However it is worth noting that the sun has three celestial bodies on either side.

Immediately below the sphere of the moon comes the spheres of the four classical elements. First of all is fire, then air and the next is water. At the very centre is the elemental sphere of earth. This is the sphere  upon which everything in the world is supported.

But not everything was quite so straightforward in Ptolemy’s scheme. Although the planets normally travelled across the sky in regular, circular paths, sometimes they slowed down and stopped before moving backwards. This is called retrograde motion. After a while they stop again for a second time then started to move forwards once more, recommencing their previous direct motion. A planet that has completely stopped in the sky is said to be stationary or at station. Many ancient astronomers wondered why this happened. Ptolemy put forward the idea that as the planets were carried through the sky on their crystalline spheres, they simultaneously moved in tiny circles. This can be likened to a fairground ride. As it moves in a circular direction it has carriages fixed to it that spin round and round. He called these smaller circular orbits epicycles.

But there were still some discrepancies in the heavenly movements that could not be accounted for by Ptolemy’s scheme. So he proposed that the earth was just ever so slightly off-centre of the middle of the universe. This would account for the deviations he observed. It meant that all the spheres would rotate in a slightly off-centre motion too, rather like wonky wheels.

This belief in the Ptolemaic Universe persisted for many, many centuries before finally being superseded by the Heliocentric or sun-centred model of Copernicus.

The Flammarion Woodcut

Camille Flammarion’s “L’atmosphere:meteorologie popularize” (1881)

The Flammarion Woodcut
The Flammarion Woodcut

A man investigates the point where heaven and earth meet. This fascinating engraving shows him lifting the curtain of the known world to gaze into the mysterious world of the unknown in his quest for knowledge. The intersection point is the ascendant and the artist shows the fabric of the sky, likened to the flap of a tent, allowing access from the inside  to the outside.

The engraving reinforces the view of a mechanistic universe with the earth at its centre. The ancient belief, that the universe comprised of concentric crystalline spheres with the earth at its core, is upheld. We see that the solid and spherical vault of the sky is strong enough to support the planets and stars as they rotate overhead, yet soft and yielding at the same time.

The perpendicular nature of the earth upon which our investigator is lying serves to reflect and reinforce the theory of the flat earth. It is the only horizontal component of the engraving showing the seeker at the ends of the earth and gives the woodcut a sense of dynamic motion.

The earth, land of the familiar, is highly illustrated and detailed but the vastness beyond the veil is not so detailed, hinting at our lack of knowledge. However, the engraver of this enigmatical and beautiful masterpiece starts from a familiar point of reference. Unsurprisingly the ‘beyond’ is also arranged spherically and is reminiscent of a clockwork mechanism with all its cogs and gears.

The prying figure is awestruck at the machinery of the cosmos in action, as depicted by a wheel within a wheel. In the heavenly realm the spherical bands with their regular rhythms, rotate around our earthly sub-lunar realm, influencing life on earth via the cycles of day and night, the season and so on. These bands also incorporate the four classical elements of fire, earth, air and water. Being the building blocks of all matter, naturally they are to be found nearest our earthly realm.