Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Astrology & Heraldry

I've had a passing interest in heraldry since my very early working life, as an archivist's assistant back in England. My boss had studied the subject in depth as part of his training, and would often pass on tid-bits of information to his interested young helper. Heraldry is a more complex and strictly disciplined subject than it might at first appear. It hadn't struck me until the other day that astrology had a part to play in the way heraldry developed, back in the Middle Ages, 12th century onwards.

From an article : HERMETIC HERALDRY by Rafal T. Prinke, originally published in The Hermetic Journal, 1989, I discovered that the strictly limited colours traditionally used in heraldry have some connection to astrology.
Here's the relevant extract:
European heraldry, as we know it, is the creation of the chivalric society of the early 12th century and therefore it is obvious that if any hermetic symbolism can be discerned in it, it must have preceded heraldry itself and not the other way round. thus:

Traditional symbolism, mentioned above, is meant to include ancient and Arab sources which are of greatest interest here. First of all the colours and their correspondences must be mentioned, as crucial to heraldry and also very important in hermetic theory and art. The basic arrangement of planetary colours is most probably of Babilonian origin and was developed as a part of the system of astrological correspondences. It was later adapted by the Hellenistic astrologers of Ptolemaic Egypt and inherited by the Islamic scholars of the 8th-10th centuries. There cannot be any doubt that the latter knew it, as the whole scheme is clearly set out in the treatise on The Perfect Man (Insan-ul-Kamil) by the Sufi mystic Jili. In theoretical texts on European heraldry, the earliest of which are quite late, this system also appears, most notably in Le blason des armoiries by Hyerome de Bara (Lyon, 1581).

It is very meaningful, in this context, that the beginnings of heraldry coincided in time with very close contacts of European knights and scholars with the world of Islam through the crusades and Arab occupation of Spain. The passing of the "lamp" of esoteric learning from the Arabian astrologers, alchemists and mystics to their European successors is well documented and cannot be questioned. It was the main source of occult ideas before the Renaissance translations of Corpus Hermeticum and other hellenistic gnostic texts. And for alchemy, which developed along somewhat different lines than the occult tradition connected with magic and the Kabbalah, the Renaissance intellectual revolution had little importance.

The same influence may be seen in the system of geometrical divisions of the heraldic shield called ordinaries. Mathematics and geometry of the Arabs at the time of crusades was highly developed and, as some authors say, "degenerated" into esoteric interpretations of the Neopythagorean school. The mystical significance of geometrical divisions and similar simple forms was studied both by architects and by Sufi masters. This is, however, a slippery ground for speculations as geometry also played significant role in Celtic and early Romanesque art symbolism.

Wikipedia states, however, that though.... English heraldry recognises seven principal tinctures, consisting of two "metals", or light tinctures (gold and silver), and five "colours", or dark tinctures (blue, red, purple, black, and green),
A peculiar fad of the Renaissance sought to couple each tincture with an associated planet, gemstone, flower, astrological sign, etc., but this practice was soon abandoned and is now regarded as wildly divergent from the science of heraldry.
"Wildly divergent from the science of....." Now where have I heard that before?
(Interesting article about Coats of Arms also at Family Chronicle here. )


Wisewebwoman said...

Well, T. I come here to learn, for sure. That was so informative. I have a coat of arms (quite an interesting history to my family name) so will have to haul it out and have a look at it in light of your information.

Twilight said...

WWW ~~~ Yes, family names and their origin is another interesting study.
Glad you found this post interesting. :-)