The Cosmic Loom — the Astrology of Dennis Elwell
This article follows on from the previous one, and only really makes sense if you’ve read that. There I discussed the relationship between astrology, Jungian psychology, and mythology, and noted that many people working in those fields agree that there is a strong connection between them. Someone who doesn’t is the astrologer Dennis Elwell, and I discuss his ideas here.
My understanding of astrology comes from a spiritual, Jungian perspective. Some astrologers resist this, and prefer a more ‘scientific’ approach. An example would be Michael Harding, whose objections I have discussed at length in earlier articles. Elwell is not one of those; rather he resists the modern developments, and wants to retain a more traditional version, which could be called pre-Enlightenment astrology, since it seems steeped in a medieval worldview (I am reminded of a figure like Paracelsus).
Although I disagree with what he says about psychology, and argue in the article below that he is more Jungian than he thinks, his book is nevertheless a fascinating read, giving much insight into a pre-scientific way of looking at the world. Here is a brief taster of his worldview:
- He believes in the old idea of correspondences, for example between planets and metals. He says that “the atomic numbers (which the ancients knew nothing about), and other properties of the metals, form sequences which are directly related to the orbital periods of the planets, a somewhat remarkable ‘coincidence’ ”.
- “By adopting categories in which apparently dissimilar things were lumped together under the name of the same planet, the old astrologers made an audacious statement about the way reality was structured. For instance, as well as the metal lead, Saturn was associated with the skeleton, gravity, the ageing process, and many other things besides”.
- “The evidence for some of the internal consistencies has become available only recently, through the progress of science. It is a popular delusion that as science advances, the beliefs of astrologers will become more and more discredited. The very reverse is happening… A growing number of discoveries leads us to think that the old astrologers must have been wiser than they knew” (from The Cosmic Loom, p47, p48).
In my original book, what follows was an appendix to chapter 13, so I have reproduced it here, following that chapter.
In The Cosmic Loom¹, and in an essay in The Future of Astrology², Dennis Elwell expresses reservations about Jung’s thinking, and is not sympathetic to therapy in general. He says, for example, that any suggestion that Astrology is only the “handmaiden to some recognized form of psychotherapy” (e.g. Jung, Assagioli) is to be deplored (FofA, p103). He may be responding to statements like this one by Dane Rudhyar: “(Astrology) is a practical study with a very definite — even if not usually understood — purpose. A vital purpose. It is, at least potentially, the foundation of a new technique of living, of a new principle of conduct implied already more or less in the technique of analytical psychology”³. There is a possible implication here that the older astrology, of which Elwell is a practitioner, was seriously flawed, and that it needed to be revised, transformed, in order to remain meaningful, and this in line with an already existing psychology. I am not sure that Rudhyar goes this far, and I say this only as a suggestion. As I have been arguing, Astrology and (Jung’s) Analytical Psychology should be seen as equal marriage partners. Elwell, however, wants to go further than that, since he believes that Astrology’s psychology is superior to those of the schools which sprung up in the twentieth century.
- He says that “any psychology is a projection of the self-elements of its originator, and hence inevitably does not possess the universality claimed for it”. Specifically, “Jung was born with Saturn rising in Aquarius… When he turned to psychology what came to interest him were the historical determinants common to the whole of mankind (Aquarius)”. He gives the further example of Roberto Assagioli, the founder of Psychosynthesis, whose psychology which “emphasises the importance of the will has much to do with the exact square of Mars and Saturn in fixed signs in his chart” (Cosmic Loom, p177).
- He is not convinced by the concept of the unconscious, Freudian or Jungian. His main point is expressed most succinctly here: “The ‘collective unconscious’ explains nothing which cannot be explained more satisfactorily by ideas which are not only better adapted to the subject matter of astrology, but have far more impressive credentials” (p51).
My observations on these points are as follows. Even if we allow Elwell his somewhat over-simplified analysis of Jung and Assagioli, it is possible that the same could be said about Astrology, in that the writings of the various exponents all clearly bear the stamp of their author’s personality. For example Luis Alvarado distinguishes between “the astrology of soul as exemplified by Liz Greene, and the astrology of the spirit, as exemplified by Dane Rudhyar”⁴.
Elwell also discusses Liz Greene and her mythological approach. In his view the ancients “identified the planets with their gods, with the planet taking on the attributes of the deity assigned to it. But as Jack Lindsay’s Origins of Astrology points out: ‘The astrologers did not attempt to link the planets with the various myths told of the deities; they simply drew on mythology for the character of each deity, the complex of associations roused by the name. The discarding of myth, with a concentration on the essential characteristics of each deity, was helped by the allegorical interpretation of myth favoured by Zenon and the Stoics in general’. Modern astrologers influenced by the depth psychology of Jung, of whom the most notable is Liz Greene, have explored mythology for new insights, in a degree of detail that would seem strange to those who, in earlier times, lived closer to their deities than we do today” (Cosmic Loom, pp 89–90).
He thus seems to think that Greene has taken Astrology into something of a blind alley. It is nevertheless true that she is a very successful astrologer, and her own brand of astrology must have been fruitful for her and her clients⁵; she would not share his view that she has needlessly explored mythology for insights. It would therefore seem reasonable to speculate that Rudhyar’s astrology of the spirit, Greene’s mythological astrology of soul, and Elwell’s cosmocentric astrology might also be reflected in their birth-charts, and thus be expressions of their personalities. (It certainly cannot be said they practise identical astrologies.)
Elwell does not agree, however; he believes that the quality of the true, deeper Astrology is universal. It provides “the most comprehensive formulation of human psychology ever devised”. Although there may be “some overlap” with other systems, “it cannot be stated often enough that astrology’s view of your personality and the events of your life is uniquely its own, and can be derived from no other source”. “Astrology’s own unadulterated psychology is more profound than any rival theory of human nature. It claims, after all, to look into the crucible of creation itself ! Its concepts are more subtle and comprehensive than any that might be advanced in competition” (pp 90, 174, 177 and 195). This is mouthwatering stuff, and should make us keen to understand his vision. As I am not a trained astrologer, I am not qualified to comment in detail on Elwell’s claims. Without any irony, I bow to his lifetime’s experience, given that his is the most fascinating book on Astrology that I have come across in my researches. That said, it is not clear to me that his psychology of Astrology is unique in the way that he claims. For example, he says that “whatever other dimensions your personality may have, astrology alone testifies that you also possess an unsuspected cosmic dimension” (p177). This is clearly not true. The Jungian Self, described as the God-image in man, is undoubtedly a cosmic dimension to personality⁶, and fits very closely with Elwell’s thinking, presumably more than he realizes.
This also applies to his reservations about the unconscious. It would take more space here than the end result would justify to enter into a full debate on this question, turning as it would on precise definitions of terms, arguing over semantic points. I will restrict myself to noting some parallels between Elwell’s position and Jung’s. For example he says:
- “But if thoughts, feelings, and so forth, are not secretions of the individual mind, but part of a cosmic process in which we humans are included, then there is no need to hypothesise an unconscious repository” (p144).
- “The picture of the human situation that emerges from astrology can be explained in a somewhat clumsy metaphor. Imagine that each individual is a cell in a giant brain. Consider what happens when the brain of a Leonardo or an Einstein perceives, thinks, feels, directs the hand to move the brush, or scribble an equation. Individual cells momentarily spark, something passes between them, part of a process, the purpose and scale of which they can have no individual comprehension” (p145).
I do not think that Jung would have any arguments with these statements, although they are intended as a correction of his position. Elwell’s choice of the term “unconscious repository” suggests that he is thinking more of Freud than Jung, and the last phrase is especially revealing. If there is something of which we have no individual comprehension, surely this is therefore ‘unconscious’.
With regard to Elwell’s contention that the collective unconscious explains nothing that is not better explained by astrology, as explained in Part I the two aspects of the collective unconscious that I find most relevant to astrology are synchronicity and the archetypes. Regarding synchronicity Elwell says: “Astrology develops this concept much further than Jung was able to take it, demonstrating that meaningful coincidences are far more common than even he suspected. The reason they are not noticed is that we have yet to learn their specialized language… So there is a language of mathematics whereby hidden relationships are revealed, and there is a language of astrology which connects things that might seem unconnected” (p10–11). If we leave to one side the debatable issue of whether Jung did or did not realize what Elwell is talking about, to say that an idea is truer than even the originator thought can hardly be considered to be a limitation or criticism of the theory. Now consider this statement: “The astrological hypothesis is that, God aside, there exist principles in the universe which are the same today as they were at the foundation of the world. Like all laws they are invisible, making themselves known only through their operation, and astrologers are able to confirm their existence on the basis of daily experience” (p154). This is indistinguishable from a description of the archetypes! He also talks about “astrology’s unique concept of the psyche”, namely that “in our psychology the shaping forces of the universe reappear, transformed into states of consciousness” (p173). It is simply not the case that this concept is unique to Astrology. It is completely consistent with the Jungian theory of the archetypes, as I have discussed at various places in the book, and for that matter with the views of Danah Zohar and David Bohm that I explored in Part I.
To say that the concept of the collective unconscious is superfluous, and then to replace it with a theory involving synchronicity and the archetypes, whatever name you choose to give them, seems to be at best splitting hairs. Elwell favours the term holon, which he has borrowed from Arthur Koestler (an idea I’ll be discussing in more detail in chapter 16).
He uses it to describe a category of things which can be grouped together — and therefore ‘belong’ together — even though there is no logical reason for doing so. This again sounds like the archetypes. I would suggest therefore that, rather than making the concept of the collective unconscious redundant, Elwell’s astrology is actually using it and, through some of the fascinating things that he says, is actually deepening our understanding of it.
Further comparisons can be made which support this line of thinking. For example, here is Jungian astrologer Karen Hamaker-Zondag describing the collective unconscious: “It is a layer wherein time and space do not exist and which contains all psychological reactions and experiences of humanity from the very beginning of its existence”⁷. Elwell says: “We have to imagine a persisting matrix which incorporates all the material of history and geography, as if everything that ever happened is engraved somewhere… If we try to construct a model or metaphor of this dimension it looks very like a brain, in which the accumulated data is constantly being linked and unlinked… It is a dimension where past, present and future merge into one” (p275). What is Elwell talking about, if not the collective unconscious?⁸
Yet he is quite right to say that his astrology has something to offer which is unavailable elsewhere. I would choose to describe this, however, as greater insight into the nature of the archetypes, thus the collective unconscious. I find the following statements especially interesting:
- “Viewed through the astrologer’s peephole every visible thing points to an overarching invisible reality. Lumps of metal can indeed be the physical counterpart of issues, aspirations, opportunities, realisations, intentions. Every lower points to a higher” (p117).
- “Now it is obvious that if what is symbolised in the heavens at any moment can be readily adapted to human nature, dung beetle nature, horse nature, ideas nature, and the nature of widely different enterprises like launching ships or signing agreements, then it must exist in a highly plastic and indeterminate condition. Unpalatable though it may be for those astrologers who equate the heavens purely with psychology, what is written there is not yet written in terms of human nature. Everything we know about the planets, signs, etc., tells us they are sufficiently multiform to be accommodated to the potentialities of whatever vehicle is available” (p186).
1. Urania Trust, 1999
2. A.T. Mann (editor), Unwin Hyman, 1987
3. The Astrology of Personality, Servire/Wassenaar, 1936, my copy 1963, p211
4. Psychology, Astrology and Western Magic, Llewellyn, 1991, p69
5. She is described by astrologer Jim Lewis as a ‘superstar’, who had a “rise to unprecedented fame in our field” (The Future of Astrology, as footnote 2, p117).
6. expressed best in the quotations from Jaffé and Progoff that I used in chapter 9.
7. in The Future of Astrology, as footnote 2, p133
8. Hamaker-Zondag says immediately afterwards that “the collective unconscious contains ‘archetypes’, ideas that exist before material takes form…”. Compare this with Elwell’s statement above: “there exist principles in the universe which are the same today as they were at the foundation of the world”.