« PreviousContinue »
E XPLODED FOLLI E S.
The term Astrology, though originally employed to signify all investigations what into the phenomena of the heavens, was, in process of time, restricted to that branch of celestial science which professed to discover in the motions and relative positions of the heavenly bodies, in meteoric appearances, and other atmospheric changes, certain signs indicative of events on earth, and exerting a powerful influence over human affairs. Hence every chimerical speculation on the heavens came to be included justly under the term astrology, while the sober deductions of reason and truth were ranged under the noble science of astronomy. But it must not be supposed that this distinction of the real from the fanciful was a conclusion early or easily arrived at; on the contrary, astrology kept a close hold of its more rational brother from the times of the Chaldean Magi down to those of Tycho Brahé and Kepler, both of these eminent astronomers being believers to a certain extent in the influence of signs and conjunctions on terrestrial affairs. In the days when such men as these, and we may add Lord Bacon to the number, conceived that the destinies of nations and individuals were indicated by and dependent upon celestial phenomena, can we wonder that the majority of mankind clung to a similar belief with avidity, seeing that a desire to know the future has at all times been a strong principle in the human breast ?
It would be a waste of time to attempt to enter into the minutiæ of astrological science, especially as it is a point of extreme doubt whether any definite and universal rules ever existed on the subject. Astrology never was an inductive science, and, indeed, was beginning to decline before the inductive reasoning, or the method of
drawing general conclusions only from an array of singly established facts, was introduced into any science. Not even any distinct theoretical rules ever existed to guide astrological speculations, for we find that every one man, famed for his skill in such studies, had his own particular ways of reading the meaning of the stars.
Before astrology became, as it latterly did become, a tool merely in the hands of impostors, the science was divided into two pretty distinct kinds-namely, natural and judicial. Changes of the weather were the objects of natural astrology, and its followers would have been simply weatherwise men, had not they, as well as the rest of the world, conceived the destinies of mankind to depend on hurricanes and thunder. Judicial astrology went a great deal further; for without any visible changes on the face of heaven or earth, it professed an ability at all times to read and predict the fate of individuals and empires. The astrologers of later times made, as we have said, no such distinction of their science as the above. They pretended to foretell everything and in every way; and the whole being an imposture, one thing no doubt was just as easy to them as another. They professed, indeed, to the last, to keep up a kind of common jargon among themselves, and to go by rule in their operations; but without such mystery their tricks would have been unproductive. For example, if some poor dupe wished his fortune told, they inquired into the hour of his birth; and as the movements of the heavens are fixed, they pretended to examine what sign the sun was then in, and the conjunctions or relative positions of the planets. From this they drew, as they said, certain conclusions, at favourable hours, and then they told the poor fool what he wished to know. This was casting his horoscope. Unquestionably, many men addicted to these studies were sincere believers in their own powers; but in later times, as knowledge advanced, true men deserted astrology, and left it in the hands of thorough impostors. We believe our readers will be amused with an account of one of the most noted of the later astrologers, especially as his history illustrates curiously the times in which he lived.
William Lilly was, as his autobiographical memoirs style him, a professor of astrology; and ridicnlous as his pretensions would now seem, the universal belief in his powers, which then pervaded all ranks in the English nation, made Lilly no mean actor in the stormy period of the civil wars, when Puritan and Cavalier struggled for the ascendancy. The prophetical almanacs which he issued, were spelled over in the tavern, and quoted in the senate ; they nerved the arm of the soldier, and rounded the periods of the orator. No plot of any importance, in those plot-engendering days, was entered upon by either party, without previous consultation with the wizard. The fashionable beauty, overflowing with loyalty and romance, and the prim starched dame, fresh from a saintly tabernacle—the long-locked Cavalier and the crop-eared Puritan-glided alternately into the study of the wise man, and poured into his attentive ear strange tales of love or war, trade or treason. From the finding of a stray trinket to the restoration of the royal authority, nothing was considered too mean or too difficult for him who held dominion over the stars, with all their signs and houses, advents and portents.
Since high and low, rich and poor, were all equally affected with these absurd notions, it is clear that a fair and explicit detail of Lilly's history would be full of curious interest, and would lay open before us the inmost thoughts of our ancestors of that period. The mysterious follies which vanity, and pride in his art, have led him to stuff his memoirs with, have prevented this object from being effectually attained, but still he gives many pictures of a strange and amusing character. The poorest and least educated of our readers now-a-days will smile at the ridiculous nonsense, to which the highest and wisest of their forefathers only two centuries ago bent the knee in abject worship.
The family of Lilly were hereditary yeomen in Leicestershire, and the young astrologer, contrary, as he tells
us, to the custom of the place, 'was put to learn at such schools as the country afforded. He distinguished himself by his aptitude for learning while at school, and was sent afterwards to London, to the service of a gentleman who wanted a youth who could write and attend on him and his wife. After Lilly had been some time in this situation, where he was a great favourite, the gentleman's wife died, and soon after the widower, though far advanced in years, united himself to another mate. Lilly still continued in his place, and on the death of his master, paid his addresses to the young widow. He was successful, and they were speedily married, though, for prudential reasons, the match was for some time kept secret. Lilly never had occasion to repent of this step, his wife turning out a very loving and prudent one, besides being in very easy circumstances. One year before her death, which occurred in 1633, after a wedlock of six years, he chanced to become acquainted with an eccentric personage named Evans, who gave him the first bent toward the studies which tinctured so strongly his future life.
Lilly studied for some time under Evans, until they quarrelled regarding the casting of a figure, when the teacher and pupil parted. Our hero had already bought a great quantity of astrological books, and was so far initiated as to carry on his pursuit without assistance. His first wife died, and he joined hands again with a lady who had some money, but turned out a perfect termagant, being; as he professionally remarks, of the nature of Mars. Her shrewish spirit brought Lilly much unhappiness; nor was all his skill capable of laying it as long as she lived. He grew lean upon the matter, and retired to the country for four or five years ; after which, in 1641, “perceiving there was money to be got in London, he returned thither, and began assiduously to labour in his vocation. He soon became known, more especially as he did not content himself with practising the arts of prophesying and magic in private, but also published a work termed Merlin the Younger, which he continued
subsequently to issue as a periodical almanac. This arrested the attention of men very speedily, and his fame became universal.
Of the consequence which Lilly and his nonsense arrived at in those credulous times, we may mention that one of his trumpery bundles of periodical prophecies attracted the anxious attention of parliament, whose members, not altogether approving of some of the author's dark sayings, ordered him to be imprisoned. As the serjeantat-arms, however, was conveying him away, a personage stepped forward, who saved the astrologer from the distress of a long imprisonment, which, after he was once in jail, might have been his doom. Oliver Cromwell, lieutenantgeneral of the army, having never seen me, caused me to be produced again, where he steadfastly beheld me for a good space, and then I went with the messenger.' Nevertheless, he was not taken at that time to jail ; and though he gave himself up to custody next day from motives of deference to the Parliament, he was liberated again immediately by Cromwell's interposition. Whether or not Old Noll believed in the astrologer's power, it is impossible to say, but certainly he and his party owed some gratitude to Lilly. At the siege of Colchester, when the parliamentarian soldiers grew doubtful of the issue of the attack, and slackened somewhat in their exertions, Lilly and another person of the same character were sent for to encourage the besiegers, which they did by predicting the speedy surrender of the place, as it really fell out. Another example of the same kind occurred when Cromwell was in Scotland. On the eve of one of the battles fought by Oliver, a soldier mounted himself on an eminence, and as the troops filed past him, he cried out : 'Lo, hear what Lilly saith : you are in this month promised victory; fight it out, brave boys—and then read that month's prediction !'
Our astrologer declares that, in the early part of the civil war, his opinions leant decidedly to the side of the Royalists, until they gave him some ground of offence. His sentiments in reality, however, appear to have been