Book review: On the Heavenly Spheres by Helena Avelar and Luis Ribeiro

I posted this review on but decided to put it here as well.

A friend recommended this book, so I ordered a copy. The book is nicely done and the authors are good teachers who seem well versed in traditional astrology. The explanations are clear and well written. The illustrations are very helpful. This is a fine introduction to astrology and a good book to keep on hand for reference. For these reasons I highly recommend it to students of astrology.

There are a few cons, though. First, there is no index, which makes it hard to look up an obscure concept. The only way to find something is to leaf through the book page by page until you find where the authors have discussed what you are looking for. I don’t understand why in this age of computerized word processors, providing an index to a reference text is not a matter of routine. Perhaps the ancient astrologers did not have indices, so why should modern students be any different? In addition the authors don’t footnote their comments, so it’s hard to know if they are quoting a source or simply giving their own opinion. For example, they have a different understanding of the relationship between the elements and primary qualities than I do from reading Aristotle. They may be correct but I have no way to checking their sources.

The authors do give the sources for their charts, but one of their charts appears to be based on inaccurate birth data.  The chart of the homosexual boy King Sebastian of Portugal (1554-1578) who was repeatedly sexually abused by his Jesuit father confessor and tutor is based on a document by a court cartographer who was only 4 years old when the king was born.  There is a more accurate source from a physician astrologer who was actually present at the boy king’s birth and provided a written description of the boy’s horoscope to the royal family.  That document gives an early Pisces ASC rather than the late Aquarius ASC used in the book.  Modern astrologers will not be surprised to see Pluto, ruler of the 9th of religious clerics, smack on the ASC of the more accurate chart.  An angular Pluto is common in the charts of victims of sexual abuse, a fact that traditional astrologers would simply miss because they don’t look at anything past the 17th century.

My second criticism is that the authors present their overview uncritically. It’s as if their standard is that anything ancient/medieval is good and anything modern is bad. That’s overly simplistic but not too far off the mark. I agree that astrologers should learn how the ancients did astrology and what their thought processes were, but I also feel that teachers should point out the logical inconsistencies and absurdities in the older approaches. The ancients believed a lot of very silly things by modern standards. As astrologers we should acknowledge that.

To do traditional astrology as presented in this text, the reader must suspend belief in the modern scientific view that the planets travel around the sun and instead must act as if the earth is the center of the universe. This entails a belief in epicycles, which the authors conveniently omit. There is no mention of Morinus, perhaps the greatest astrologer who practiced in the tradition they are describing, but who regarded much of the traditional astrological lore as superstitious nonsense which only served to give ammunition to the detractors of astrology — things like pitted degrees and so on. Instead, the authors present these ideas as part of the tradition (which they are) without a word about the traditional astrologers who thought they were nonsense (which they may be).

To quote Morinus, writing in the 1600s: “there have come forth in astrology the terms, the novenas, the bright degrees, the smoky degrees, the monomoairai, etc., which are nothing other than mere symbols of the ineptitude, stupidity and insanity of men who were ignorant of the principles of this divine science which the wiser astrologers have always disdained.”

The authors also present misinformation such as stating the Uranus cannot be seen with the naked eye. In fact, Uranus can be seen with the naked eye but it was not “discovered” as a planet because the traditional view taught that additional planets could not exist. Traditional astrology had blinded observers to what they could see if only they looked for it. Uranus was always there for them to see with their naked eyes, but they were unable to see it because their theory told them it could not exist. This is akin to religious fundamentalism which claims that dinosaurs could not have existed because they are not consistent with the Biblical view of history.

The authors also argue that the influence of planets in based on the ancient theory of optics. This is true but the ancient theory of optics is rather ridiculous by modern standards. They argue that Uranus cannot be part of the ancient scheme because only visible planets fit into the ancient scheme. They ignore the fact that Uranus is visible to the naked eye, thus avoiding the logical inconsistency in their own argument which would make the theoretic structure of traditional astrology fall apart.

By the way, the ancient theory of optics on which traditional astrologers based the theory of action of the aspects goes as follows (quoted from wikipedia): “In the fifth century BC, Empedocles postulated that everything was composed of four elements; fire, air, earth and water. He believed that Aphrodite made the human eye out of the four elements and that she lit the fire in the eye which shone out from the eye making sight possible. If this were true, then one could see during the night just as well as during the day, so Empedocles postulated an interaction between rays from the eyes and rays from a source such as the sun.” Maybe I’m off, but I find it hard to believe that Aphrodite lit a fire in my eye so that it can emit rays that enable me to see. The optical theory of aspect action also runs into problems when one considers the latitude of planets, so that two planets can be in partile conjunction with respect to the ecliptic but also be platic with respect to latitude.

If I sound critical, it’s because I really value astrology and wish astrologers would be more logical and critical in their presentations so that, as Morinus warns, we do not become subjects of ridicule by intelligent readers.

Nonetheless, this is an excellent presentation of many of the traditional ideas in astrology. The authors have done a great job in teaching these old concepts. If they had addressed the logical inconsistencies and absurdities in the traditional system, I would have given it 5 stars.

About Anthony Louis

Author of books about astrology and tarot, including TAROT PLAIN AND SIMPLE, HORARY ASTROLOGY, and THE ART OF FORECASTING WITH SOLAR RETURNS.
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