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