William Lilly and the Cabala

Sue Ward’s web log entry about the Primary Problem with Venus, which is supplemental to her recommended presentation God, the Universe and Everything, raised the important issue of the intrinsic interconnectedness between astrology and the glyph of the cabalistic Tree of Life. Some of the readers of my web log may know that  this glyph was extensively used by magical orders of the 19th and 20th century, but what is of interest here is the importance of this knowledge to traditional astrologers and especially to William Lilly.

Ramon Lull (1232 – 1315) was the first writer and philosopher who introduced the Cabala to the West. He was followed by Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463 – 1494), who studied the Cabala as well as the teachings of Hermes Trismegistus; they became known as the Hermetic Mysteries. Mirandola believed he could, through the revelations of the Cabala, unify Christianity with the teachings of Plato and Pythagoras.

John Dee (1527 – 1608), the famous astrologer and mathematician of the Renaissance condensed all his knowledge into one glyph, the Monas hieroglyph.


It is said that his writings on astrology, Cabala and the hermetic arts buildt the foundations of the 17th century Rosicrucian movement.

In 1614 a manuscript with the title Fama Fraternitatis: The Declaration of the Worthy Order of the Rosy Cross was anonymously published in Germany, followed by Confessio Fraternitatis and The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz, in 1615 and 1616. These manuscripts were drawing their information from a range of sources, including John Dee’s Monas Hieroglyphica. His glyph was to be found on the front page of the Fama Fraternitatis. The publication of these books triggered the beginnings of a vast Rosicrucian movement in Europe. William Shakespeare was linked to the movement and important personalities like Robert Fludd and Elias Ashmole identified themselves as Rosicrucians.

We know that Ashmole and William Lilly were both deeply interested in all aspects of the hermetic arts and especially in the writings of John Dee. As Sue has so rightly pointed out in her presentation, it was this spiritual bond that made the friendship between these two men possible. But can we be sure that Lilly knew about these secrets and used them in his astrology? As in many cases, the thorough study of his masterpiece, Christian Astrology, provides us with an answer, as Lilly writes:

“It is a recieved, general Rule amongst those Artists that know the Cabalistic Key of Astrologie, that  if one Planet be the Lord of the ascendant and twelfth house….” (CA, p464)

This quote shows that, at least in my opinion, Lilly knew about the cabalistic correspondences and used them in his daily work, if the necessity arose to do so. Another revealing piece of information can be found in Lilly’s Merlinus Anglicus Ephemeris for the year 1680, where he writes:

“But We must owne the assistance of our Friend Mr. Henry Coley herein; of him We have had experience for several Years past, and to him shall communicate many Secrets in Art, not know to the Vulgar Astrologer;…”

I hope I could outline how cabalistic teachings were integrated in the Western Mystery Tradition and became an intrinsic part of the lore. Astrologers like William Lilly were well versed in the symbolism through their studies of the hermetic arts. For them astrology was only one expression of the mysteries which enabled them to get closer to the Divine.

A depiction from the Syriac New Testament, Vienna 1555, illustrates this beautifully.

Tree of Life

8 thoughts on “William Lilly and the Cabala

  1. Dear Peter

    Thank you for a very interesting piece. I was particularly drawn to the illustration you’ve provided, which is beautiful, and note that the Vesica Piscis (surrounding the Tree of Life) symbolises fertility and generation, and thus Venus. A fascinating study.

    Sue Ward

    • Dear Sue

      Yes, the Vesica Piscis was heavily used in the Christian iconography, although its symbolism was already known to the Pythagoreans. Sacred geometry is based on this intersection of two circles, creating the square root of 3. The ratio of 265:153 is the closest approximation and this was seen as a validation of the Gospel of John, which tells us that the number of fish Jesus caught was 153. The best known depiction of the Vesica Piscis is probably the lid of the well in chalice garden, Glastonbury.

      But, as I mentioned, the symbolism of the Vesica Piscis is of course not only restricted to the teachings of esoteric Christianity. It is indeed the representation of fertility per se. You are absolutely correct in connecting its symbolism to Venus. As mentioned before, the Magical Weapon of Netzach/Venus is the Lamp, but there are two others. One is the Rose, which in its symmetry, beauty and perfection does not need an explanation. The other one is the Girdle, which is quite self explanatory when seen in context with fertility and regeneration.


  2. Pingback: Free Astrology Resources » Blog Archive » Blog Roundup: 19 Sep 2009

  3. This is brilliant. Maybe there’s a reason I just NOW found it (aside from the obvious “try as you might, you can’t read everything at once”).

    Could it be that the reason is that I just started reading Lilly? Hmmm.

    The mapping of the Tree of Life onto the Tree of Sacrifice is marvelous, and I’m right on top of all the symbolism, EXCEPT … do you have any idea what the “burning box” opposite the bull at the foot of the Cross is?

    • Thanks!

      As far as I understand it, the symbolism of the bull and the sacrificial fire is rooted in the “Sacrifice of the Red Heifer”. The following excerpt from a website may suffice:

      “The heifer was to be totally consumed with nothing remaining but ashes. This typified the extent to which the last Adam would go. He offered Himself, both soul and body, as a sacrifice made by fire (2 Cor. 5:21; Isa. 9:18, Psa. 22:14)…. The burning to ashes represents the total consumption and destruction of sin and sinners (Mal. 4:1, 3). …

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