The Chain of Being, Astrology & Magic

At the end of Book Two, Chapter 31 of the Occult Philosophy, Cornelius Agrippa points to the supremely important role of what “Plato calleth the Golden Chain (catena aurea)” to both astrology and magic. This catena aurea is that “by which every thing and cause being linked one to another, do depend on the superior, even until it may be brought to the Supreme Cause of all, from which all things depend.”[i]

Agrippa has admirably summarized the medieval doctrine of the “Chain of Being,” in which the universe is conceived as a hierarchical order of beings created and moved by God. It was one of the most important concepts carried over into the Middle Ages and Renaissance from the classical period. Agrippa’s image of a vast Golden Chain linking earth to the irresistible pull of heaven comes from Homer,[ii] whilst Plato later developed this image as a metaphysical vision of the cosmos as an ascending ladder of forms (Timaeus).[iii] We also see in “The Chain of Being” Aristotle’s notion of God as the Prime Mover affecting the world through a succession of secondary causes.

It is a chain, not a rope, for any chain that supports a weight is made up of higher and lower links. In like fashion, the universe consists of greater and lesser beings ranked by grade. In the Chain of Being, each great “link” is an individual genus or class of beings, distinguished by a greater or lesser share in reason and spirit.[iv] At the bottom is the “inanimate class” or material elements, liquids and metals, all having simple existence. Above it are the “vegetative class” (i.e., plants, with the virtues of nutrition and growth), the “sensitive class” (i.e., mollusks, having touch and other rudimentary senses), and the “animate class” (i.e., animals, capable of moving). If we couple the sensitive and animate classes, we have the classic division of things into animal, vegetable and mineral.[v] These three classes mount up to the human being – the genus homo – who augments their various perfections with the faculty of reason.[vi]

As we should expect within a theistic scheme, the Chain of Being does not end with human beings. So we arrive at the angels, “linked to man by community of understanding, but freed from simultaneous attachment to the lower faculties.”[vii] The angels themselves are arranged in a hierarchical chain of ranks – usually nine of them, following the tradition of Pseudo-Dionysius[viii] – each containing as vast a number of species as the lower links in the chain do.[ix]

The existence of angels would, of course, have been a tenet of the revealed Catholic faith. Yet, it was also arrived at by a form of analogical reasoning. For the medieval mind, a perfectly conceived universe must also be a plenitude symmetrically organized.[x] Just as there are completely material beings, so there must also be beings that are more and more spiritual, and less and less corporeal. A world of mindless matter at the bottom of the chain (i.e., the base elements) should finally be counterbalanced by a heaven of immaterial minds at the top (i.e., the seraphim).

Thomas Aquinas held that all angels are pure intellects. But medieval thinkers generally conceived of the lesser ranks of angels as having bodies made of aethyr, a very rarified form of celestial fire. In these bodies, the angels inhabit the coelum empyreaum – the fiery heaven – and quite literally dance around the throne of God.[xi] This dance is virtually identical to the movement of the angelic intellect, since aethyric bodies do not impede its expression; and because this movement is also one of adoration, the dance is also liturgical and ceremonial.[xii]

Observation of the visible heavens confirmed this reasoning. The further up into the sky the eye could see, the more perfect and refined everything seemed to be. The planets moved, but their motion appeared to be circular, suggesting both geometrical perfection and the cosmic dance. The stars were fixed and bright – immutable and glorious like the angels and, by way of analogy, the divine Being itself. Yet, even the sphere of the fixed stars (the primum mobile) moved as whole. Hence, something unseen must move it: an order of yet more perfectly actualized movement, literally on the other side of the fixed stars.

It should be clear that, for the medieval mind, the Chain of Being was more than just a conceptual system. It was a perceptible continuum. From the earth and its creatures up to the sky beneath the Moon, outward from there through the planetary orbits to the fixed stars: these were the main links in the Great Chain. At the point beyond which the eyes could not see, the mind was aroused to press on towards the contemplative vision of the angelic and divine worlds.[xiii]

This explains, in part, why the stars (fixed and moving) would be understood to have such a bearing on fortune.[xiv] On the one hand, the planetary spheres and the primum mobile are where the sensible gives way to the higher, intelligible links in the Chain. But they are equally where where the intelligible flows down into the sensible, translating the vast mind of the angels into astrological speech.[xv] To read the sky is to apprehend the content of the angelic minds, which not only understand our mundane affairs much more completely than we do but also hold the ideal causes of earthly things, which some equated with the Platonic Forms.[xvi] It is on this threshold between the upper and lower worlds that the “Soul of the World” dwells. Lesser than the angels but immensely greater than mortals, she was thought to be the intelligence behind all of nature: “imprint[ing] into matter with the seal of divinity all forms generative and corruptible.”[xvii]

The Chain of Being is therefore at one and the same time a chain of causes and a chain of correspondences, whereby the lower links depend upon the higher ones both for their being and for their “essence” respectively. According to this doctrine, meaning and causation are in a very real sense interdependent: “In the sun-king correspondence, [Shakespeare]… uses a poetical metaphor which is more than a metaphor. The sun not only is the king of the sky but he is like the king and the king is like the sun. The great mathematical equivalence and the temporary metaphorical one are simultaneously created.”[xviii] Insofar as the sun “is” the king of the sky, he is the sovereign cause of certain effects on earth (e.g., the seasons). Insofar as he is the antitype of earthly kings, he sums up ideally the meaning of all kingship. By becoming more “solar” in quality, so to speak, the king gains real power, and the kingdom enjoys peace and prosperity. Causation and correspondence merge in the being and nature of the effect.

This sheds light on our own study of astrology and astrological magic. By investigating the astral causes we perform an act of symbolic interpretation through which all of life, including the future, may be understood: astrology. Similarly, by linking up material things in the right way, in light of their symbolic correspondences and in harmony with the sky, we can cause change to occur: magic.

This is what Agrippa is driving at in the passage quoted in the first paragraph. The Golden Chain is a sequence of linked-up, interdependent causes, with the Moon as the nearest and most important intermediary. The Moon is a cause, transmitting the “power of the superiors” to us below. But if we want to attract and use that power – the “virtue of any star” – we have to work in the symbolic order of correspondence: “take the stone and herb of that planet, when the Moon doth either fortunately get under, or hath a good aspect on, that star.”[xix] Astrology and magic are two sides of the same reality. In astrology, we move from cause to meaning, in magic, from meaning to cause.


[i] Three Books of Occult Philosophy, trans. James Freake (Llewellyn, 2004) p. 366

[ii] “Make ye fast from heaven a chain of gold… and the [chain] should I thereafter bind about a peak of Olympus and all those things should hang in space.” Iliad 8:19-26, trans. A.T. Murray.

[iii] E.M.W. Tillyard, The Elizabethan World Picture, p. 26.

[iv] Tillyard, p. 28.

[v] Tillyard, p. 80.

[vi] Tillyard, pp. 27-28.

[vii] Tillyard, p. 27.

[viii] Tillyard, p. 49.

[ix] Tillyard, p. 28.

[x] Tillyard, p. 34.

[xi] Tillyard, p. 102-103.

[xii] Tillyard, p. 36. Religious and theurgical rites – the object of God’s “Ceremonial Law” – aim not only to express the right movement of the human reason but also to imitate the angelic dance, so as to attract the presence of the hierarchies by means of sympathy.

[xiii] The Chain of Being tutors man’s intellect by attracting his eye for perfection and then nurturing his “aptitude…in his raising himself towards it.” Tillyard, p. 71.

[xiv] Tillyard, pp. 52-53.

[xv] Tillyard, p. 54.

[xvi] Tillyard, pp. 47-48.

[xvii] Tillyard, p. 46.

[xviii] Tilllyard, p. 100.

[xix] Three Books of Occult Philosophy, p. 366

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Raymond December 28, 2014 at 1:26 pm

Thank you so much for your great wisdom & gifts in your publishing. If you teach or have any books available or recommended please let me know. Do you do natal chart interpretation? Gratefully, Raymond

Suzanne March 5, 2015 at 10:08 am

Great article! It inspired me to clean off the mess on my desk as a magical act. As I sense the “meaning” of objects and put them in their place, I am linking with the angelic realms. It is the Full Moon today, so living with magical intention is particularly powerful. Your article gave more language to my understanding of how to live with the higher dimensions of being in a devotional and cooperative way.

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