The Imaginal Zodiac

"Zodiacal Man" from <i>Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry</i>, early 15th c.

"Zodiacal Man" from Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, early 15th c.

Author: John Wadsworth

By taking The Alchemical Journey, we are really walking in the footsteps of countless ancient mystery traditions that have gone before. We are following a twelve-fold path of initiation, a contemporary version of mystery school practices such as those found in Roman Mithraism, which also followed the zodiacal path around the year. I like to think of it as a form of alchemical training for the imagination, imitating and embodying the journey of the Sun through the seasons, through the twelve months of the year and through the twelve astrological portals or gateways.  By allowing the zodiac archetypes to penetrate our imaginations in this way, we really experience the “medicine” of each of the sign perspectives.  And we are of course bringing this time-honoured journey bang up-to-date, making our alchemical enquiries and practices really relevant to the challenges and opportunities we face in our modern lives, but without losing the magic that is deeply woven into the fabric of the archaic myth and symbolism.  We’re always really careful to honour that magic straw that takes us into the other world, the imaginal realm.

The Imaginal Realm
By working with what I have termed The Imaginal Zodiac, we are advocating a way of engaging with the Zodiac and its symbolism in a creative, imaginative way.  However, this needs to be unpacked a little so as to understand what we mean by this. By imaginal here, I am not referring to something ‘imaginary’ in the way that that term is used (usually perjoratively). Following Henri Corbin, who coined the term, the word imaginal is a distinction that differentiates an intermediary world or ‘realm’ that lies between the empirical world of matter and the abstract world of the intellect. In my own framing, I would say it is more akin to the ‘otherworld’ of myth and legend, that realm which is often described as being “betwixt and between”, home to ambiguous entities which are neither fully material, nor fully spiritual. In James Hillman’s terms, the imaginal realm is the realm of Soul, and it involves an essential pluralism of perspectives, a pluralism of which the Zodiac naturally partakes. There are twelve signs, offering twelve distinct, autonomous perspectives, each associated with a different planet and no one sign/planet perspective can be reduced to any other.

In the modern, western worldview, the imagination has been impoverished through intellectualism, and now tends to equate (and be reduced to) a collection of personal, subjective experiences, where imagination belongs “in the head” of the imaginer. Understood in this limited way, my imaginings are rendered nothing more than impressions that I construct in my own mind which imitate sensations, ideas or other images that “I” (as in my perceiving mind), have been “subjected” to. This understanding of imagination holds in tact an untenable subject-object dualism, which demands that we consider subject-perceiver as existentially separate from object-perceived, with virtually no allowance for a genuine two-way participation between them. Such dualism privileges the reality of “objects” (including, of course, animals, plants, planets, stars), stripped of agency and intentionality, onto which our minds project their own subjective perception. The only sanctioned medium of relationship within this dualistic perspective is literal, conceptual and linguistic. The subjective experience may be described, analysed or explained, but only ever in terms of its projection onto objects that are permitted no capacity for autonomous response. Any instance of ‘objects’ being perceived to respond in their own right, or having any agency of their own is heavily pathologised within this worldview, and considered to be a delusion of perception. Because this is so counter-intuitive to our actual lived experience, which is naturally full of such instances, we are trained to guard against the ‘delusions of the mind’, thus suppressing our true creative, imaginative abilities.  Our western languages do not help us, of course, as they are so loaded toward a disenchanted, mechanistic, dualistic worldview rooted in Aristotelian logic, and they do not easily admit the rich, complex, poetic ambiguities of the imaginal realm.

Henri Corbin, the renowned mystic and scholar, identifies a key moment in Christian history when the original Christian tripartite phenomenology of spirit, soul and body was abolished in favour of a dualistic framing of matter and spirit. This happened in the 9th century CE, and he sees this as the beginning of a kind of proto-Cartesian dualism that paved the way for Descartes and those who were to follow him. By eliminating the third realm of soul and conflating it with spirit, he insists, the mediating realm of angels and other intermediary beings is marginalised and true imagination is lost. Moreover, the intellect now assumes a shadow form through the abstraction of reason and the tyranny of literalism. Imagination itself becomes a kind of nebulous appendage to the more reliable and stable intellect, which is privileged above all else, in which imagination and soul are now imprisoned. Corbin sought to reclaim the realm of imagination by distinguishing the imaginary, being the mere abstract fantasies and speculations of the intellect, the imaginal or mundus imaginalis being an intermediary world or realm that lies between the empirical world of matter and the abstract world of the intellect.

An Astrologer’s Imaginal Perspective
“We sin against the image whenever we ask an image for its meaning, requiring that images be translated into concepts…We do not hear music, touch sculpture, or read stories with meaning in mind, but for the sake of the imagination.”[1]

From the imaginal perspective, the image offers us a way into a mystical experience, capable of transforming our perspective, rather than merely a subject for reductive interpretation and analysis. I have always been sensitive to this as an astrologer, the dangers of over-interpreting or over-analysing astrological symbols, as if they were mere linguistic conundrums to be translated into a more palatable language. This is why I do not consider that astrology is a language, at least not in the way we would normally define a language. Perhaps within a broader framing, we might call it the language of the soul, but then we must respect it as such and not do damage to it by disenchanting its symbolism and relying too heavily on cook-book style definitions of planetary placements. As an imaginal astrologer, I am compelled by the aliveness of astrological images, their ability to surprise me in the moment and reveal a level of meaning that I hadn’t previously considered. I am continually inspired by their capacity of astrological images to yield up deep knowledge about this intermediary realm of soul. By resisting too much interpretation, and allowing the image to respond within an embodied, ritual context, I am confronted with surprising connections, correspondences and a sense of synchronicity in the aliveness of the moment, experiences which defy causal explanation, something I have come to call enchantment (thank you, Patrick Curry).

The work we do on The Alchemical Journey programme draws upon this richly imaginal vein of symbolic resonance. The work is full of soul. For me, the zodiac like an archaic memory theatre – a storehouse of cultural, psychological and spiritual knowledge ready to be tapped by those with the sensitivity and commitment to understand. In alchemical terms, the zodiac operates as an alembic, a sacred vessel or temple that can contain the pain, the suffering, the confusion that we experience in life, without judgment or analysis – offering us instead, a rich array of stories. These are stories that we can act out, play with, identify with and allow ourselves to be carried away by – within a contained, ritual setting. I see this as a powerful form of alchemical gold-making, or in James Hillman’s terms, “soul-making”. It enables us to transform our own dominant perspective, and realise that perspectives are myriad, and that we have the capacity to enter them experientially. When we do that, miracles happen.

[1] Hillman, James, Revisioning Psychology, (New York:  Harper Colophon, 1977) p.39