On my desk today is the first work to depict ‘Celestial Writing’ in the skies– that is, the formation of the stars into characters reminiscent of the Hebrew alphabet, which until that time had only been described in the West in Agrippa’s Three Books of Occult Philosophy (first published in 1533). Why would you want to be able to read the skies in such a way? Some reasons include fortune telling, and trying to talk to angels. There is also a relationship to poetry, and most recently yet, the chart above factors into Jerome Rothenberg’s Ethnopoetics available on UbuWeb.
The work is by the expert Oriental scholar, Jacques Gaffarel (1601-1681)– his Curiositez inouyes sur la sculpture talismanique des Persans, horoscope des Patriarches et lecture des estoiles (“Unheard Curiosities concerning Talismanic Sculpture of the Persians, Horoscopes of the Patriarchs, and the Reading of the Stars”), was first printed in French in 1629– ours is later, 1637. Unlike Agrippa, Gaffarel was well qualified to write about the mysteries of the divine cabala, as well as Persian inscriptions, proficient as he was in Hebrew, Aramaic, Syrian and Persian.
This work in particular was printed well into the 18th century, its topic esoteric and complex as only a prodigy of Eastern languages could produce. The first part defends Oriental religion and philosophy, focusing on ancient Hebrew traditions especially, the second explores Persian talismans particularly as they relate to natural magic, and the third part returns to the Oriental religion, specifically astrology. Most radically, by tracing the origins of these belief systems Gaffarel argues that they are not diabolical or malicious, nor hostile to Christianity, but completely separate. By virtue of falling totally outside of (not to mention pre-dating) Western religious terms, they cannot be deemed idolatry– a wholly Western accusation. Nevertheless, he offers some helpful ways of translating these ancient methods of reading the stars to contemporary understanding. In other words, showing the reliance of Western star-gazing upon its more distant Judaic ancestry.
The work sparked immediate controversy and on 1 August 1629 was condemned by the Faculty of Theology at the University of Paris as “entirely to be disapproved”– “false, erroneous, scandalous, opposed to Holy Writ, contumelious towards the Church Fathers, and superstitious besides”. Such accusations were serious: the University was an ancient institution with considerable sway over the Monarchy, and strong ties to Catholic Rome, not to mention control over what could be printed in Paris. Since this book had been, and would continue to be printed right under their noses, in order for Gaffarel to appease the faculty he had to make some public show of contrition. So, two months later he did indeed sign a retraction vaguely stating that he had not intended to put forward his book as truth, merely to collect various ancient authorities on the matter. So don’t shoot the starry messenger.
Gaffarel, for all the upbraiding he received for defending astrology, was still on the right side of history: Rene Descartes delighted in the work (although thought of it as fantasy), Pierre Gassendi defended it, Thomas Browne consulted it to compile his own encyclopedic Pseudodoxica Epidemica, and even Cardinal Richelieu appointed Gaffarel as his librarian. Gaffarel used his leverage in this position to acquire books about the cabala for Richelieu, to the extent that he published a catalogue of related manuscripts in 1651, most of which once belonged to the late great Pico della Mirandola. Gaffarel was also a fan of that great occultist/utopian/theologian Tommaso Campanella, seeing that the Italians works were circulated in France, and even editing a brief synopsis of Campanella’s writings and purchasing all medical works for Richelieu’s library. This was a great help to Campanella, who in fact moved to France in 1634 after a huge fall-out with the Pope over his belief in astrology.