The first astrology book I ever bought was the Picatrix.
It arrived at my doorstep one day in 2007, in an innocuous yellow envelope. I remember the excitement I felt as I tore open the bubble wrap and found myself holding the 86th copy of the first English translation of this infamous grimoire.
In 2002, Ouroboros Press published 1000 copies of the first two books of the Picatrix. And five years later I suddenly found myself desperate to get my hands on one.
I had to buy it on eBay; the original print run had sold out long ago. I paid an exorbitant price too, from memory it was something north of $300 Australian dollars. Not an insignificant sum for a bloke working at a corner store!
I was struck by the beauty of the book I held in my hands; bound in black goatskin leather, with embossed gold titles, it looked exactly how I imagined a medieval book of magic should look - valuable, powerful, and more than a little intimidating.
But my excitement soon evaporated when I started poring through its contents. It quickly dawned on me - I had absolutely no idea how to use this book!
Partly this was due to the translation, which I later learned left much to be desired. But the main thing stopping me from understanding this book was my ignorance of astrology.
So the next day I went to my local library and looked up what astrology books they had available. Later that evening I sat down in my bedroom at my parents house and began to read that seminal classic of the astrological tradition, Astrology For Dummies, hoping that it would help me to unlock the secrets of celestial image magic.
This was the moment I began studying astrology.
In comic books, an “origin story” is the backstory that explains how a superhero got their powers - like Spider Man getting bitten by a radioactive spider.
One of my favourite things to ask other astrologers is how they first got got started with astrology. I like to call them “Astrology origin stories.”
The reasons that draw someone to astrology are highly personal, and can tell you a lot about the kind of astrologer that they are. Some stories involve adventures and accidents, heartbreak and mishaps; and some are just plain funny (at least in retrospect). They’re also a humbling reminder that we all started out as beginners at some point.
Occasionally these stories are fairly humdrum, especially if the astro-bug was inherited from the parents. Stop me if you’ve heard this one: “My mother was really into astrology so it’s just always been a part of my life.”
A blessed childhood no doubt, but it doesn’t make for a gripping tale. For starters it lacks conflict. And more importantly the hero doesn’t go on any kind of journey. That’s why the best astrology origin stories come from people who grew up in an environment that was hostile to astrology. And that’s pretty much how my story begins.
At school I was a nerdy kid; I got reasonably good grades in all of my subjects, and I loved science. I was even contemplating a major in chemistry. I was also a pretty vehement skeptic, more or less 100% on board with the prevailing materialist world view, and quite happy to explain why religious people are fools and why astrology is nonsense to anyone who cared to listen.
The only inkling of my future passion for astrology was that I loved philosophy, ever since I took a class on it in high school. I was particularly affected by Plato - his thought troubled me but also fascinated me. The Platonic world view was so alien, and so fundamentally opposed to my own, that in 1997 I chose to argue against it in an essay - and got fairly good marks too.
Ten years after I handed in that essay, I was the proud owner of a near-complete collection of Plato’s works. I guess the guy had rubbed off on me. I was also the proud owner of a useless bachelors degree in creative writing, and I was living with my parents, working at a corner store selling newspapers and lottery tickets. It may not sound great, but it was actually one of the best years of my life.
I was in love. My partner at the time was a former Wiccan and general woo-woo enthusiast. I, the enlightened Man of Science, looked on her interests with a certain amount of disdain. But I also loved her, and I wanted to relate to her more.
One day while perusing the history section at the library I came across Jim Tester’s A History of Western Astrology. A thought struck me - maybe borrowing this book was the ideal way to connect with my partner? I love history and she loves astrology. Win-win, right?
This was the first book on astrology that I ever read. While not a particularly great history (the author’s hostility to his chosen subject harms his presentation), it proved in retrospect to be a life-changing moment. I was intrigued by shadowy references to Nechepso and Petosiris. I was shocked to discover that astrology was much more complicated than I had ever imagined. And I was humbled when I realised that most of the people who practiced and wrote about astrology in the past were smart cookies. It gave me a respect for astrologers that I had not previously felt.
But there was one part of the book that really intrigued me - a very brief reference to the creation of magical talismans, and a mysterious book called the Picatrix. My eyes bugged out. Until now I had always assumed that magic was a fairy tale. I was amazed that magic was practiced in earnest by real people in the middle ages and renaissance, and that they actually left us their books to read.
Over the next few days I kept returning to that passage in Tester’s work. Something about it had mesmerised me. Curious, I entered the word “Picatrix” into Google.
Lo and behold, I discovered that I lived in exciting times - the first ever English translation had been published in 2002.
Something in my brain snapped.
My skepticism left my body and fled screeching into the night.
All I knew in that moment was that I HAD to get a copy of that book.
Fast forward a couple of months - I’m sitting in my bedroom, with an open copy of Astrology For Dummies on my lap, the Picatrix by my side, and a furrowed brow.
I had been trying for the past week to make sense of Baby’s First Grimoire, but my chosen textbook on astrology just wasn’t getting me over the line. It was slowly dawning on me that the astrology of the middle ages was very different to the astrology of the 21st century.
Some references in Astrology for Dummies made it plain that Uranus, Neptune and Pluto were relatively recent additions to the astrological canon. I wondered what else had changed since the time that the Picatrix was first penned - and I began to despair. Maybe I would never be able to understand this book. Maybe I was just born in the wrong period of history.
Little did I know that I was actually born at exactly the right time - traditional astrology was going through a renaissance, and I was about to blunder into it.
One thing my close friends know about me is that I can be incredibly bloody-minded. Rather than give up hope, I began scouring the “New Age/Spiritual” sections of major chain bookshops looking for anything I could find about medieval astrology, but found nothing helpful.
Swallowing my pride, I began to look further afield, venturing into stores that reeked of incense, stores selling crystals and smudge sticks and tarot decks - the kind of place that a year ago I would never have stooped to enter. I had crossed over the dark side, and I was secretly really enjoying myself.
One blessed day, in a metaphysical bookshop that also doubled as a homeopathic medicine dispensary, I came across the second astrology book I ever bought: John Frawley’s The Real Astrology.
Frawley’s work was a literal godsend: a book by a contemporary author, about the astrology that was practiced in the middle ages and renaissance. It was exactly what I was after. It even had a whole chapter on astrological magic (albeit one that basically discourages its practice). I baulked at the price ($58.95) but forced myself to fork out the dough. I also bought an ephemeris and some tables of houses at the same time, and started teaching myself how to cast charts by hand.
Over the next few years I worked my way through most of the books on Frawley’s “recommended reading list,” in the process becoming a card-carrying member of the William Lilly Revival Movement™. Frawley’s influence on me was massive, not only rekindling my love-hate relationship with Platonism but also switching me on to Perennial philosophy, and getting my recalcitrant ass back to Church on a semi-regular basis.
These days I rarely crack open a grimoire, and I see myself more as a “recovering Frawley fan” - out in the wide world, exploring astrology on my own two feet.
But I still look back on those early days of discovery with great fondness. In my more romantic moments I like to think that, in some way, I was meant to find astrology.
And if I’m in a really poetic mood, I might tell you that the very ink on the page in Tester’s History that spelled the word Picatrix seems to me like some kind of talisman, sitting patiently on the shelves of my local library for decades, waiting to cast its spell on me.
If you’re a student of astrology, I’d love to know how you first got into studying this subject! If you’ve got a tale worth telling, hit me up on social media and let the world know - what winding paths did you go down to reach this destination?
Thanks and best wishes