the orientalist origins of modern astrology

Astrologer Dane Rudhyar pulled ideas and imagery from Hinduism, Daoism, and Zen Buddhism in his construction of modern astrology. (Source).

Recently, I attended an e-workshop called “Modernity, Modernism, and Astrology,” which examined the roots of modern astrology. The workshop was taught/facilitated by Alice Sparkly Kat, aka A (whose name I’ll bold in this post, just for clarity), and co-hosted by Asian American Writers’ Workshop (AAWW). It was also a COVID-19 grocery fundraiser for Asian seniors in NYC who would’ve had difficulty getting food themselves. Together, we raised $650, all of which went directly to food purchases! 

Anyway, I wanted to share what I learned. To note: this is just an overview; further recommended readings included below. Lez get into it:

Broadly speaking, astrology as we know it today is an illustration of the power dynamics that gave rise to it. What gave rise to it was modernism & modernity, the former of which was a reaction to and influence upon the development of the latter. Both modernism and the concept of modernity are fundamentally rooted in & built upon European colonialism. 

Art historian Bernard Smith writes:

Modernism must be distinguished from modernity. It emerged as a critique of modernity and ended as its dominant cultural style. It may be best understood as an expression of the twentieth century European exotic. It emerged, as did other expressions of the exotic in religion, politics, and language, at a time when Europe was at the height of its colonizing supremacy.

So what exactly is modernity vs. modernism? Modernity was a period that started in Europe in the late 19th and early 20th c, when a bunch of big technologies and systems were coming into place; it gave rise to the Industrial Revolution, urbanization, and, importantly, capitalism. This wasn’t the first time capitalism was posited as an economic system, but this is when it really took off. Modernity in many ways then, was the bringing of the world — meaning Europe and its vast sphere of influence, as ideas of “modernity” are definitionally Western-centric — under a (or soon to be the) market. Which brings us back to modernism–which is the conglomeration of ideas, cultural movements/moments, and structures that pushed back against but ultimately also helped bring about modernity. So think Dada, Freud/Jung, and…MODERN ASTROLOGY.

“Modern astrology” as we know it today, was basically invented by two European white guys: Alan Leo and Dane Rudhyar. Fun fact: Leo named himself after the astrological sign, and Rudhyar gave himself a name derived from Sanskrit, which tells you something about the material he was pulling/imagining from. Below are hyperlinked passages from their two respective foundational texts on astrology: 

    • Esoteric Astrology by Alan Leo ← this takes a while to load, since it’s a big file. But even just skimming through the first couple dozen pages, you’ll find a number of references to Hinduism and Leo’s interpretation of various concepts w/n Hinduism, as it relates to the school of astrology he’s proposing.

By looking more closely at Leo and Rudhyar, we begin to gain a better understanding of modern astrology’s Orientalist origins. In the workshop, we didn’t really get into the nitty-gritty examples of Orientalism and exoticism as they play out in Leo & Rudhyar’s theories/practices of astrology; so like, we didn’t unpack the way that natal charts are laid out, or specific stuff about planets and astrological houses and whatnot, but we did talk about how these men took from, and in many cases, distorted, Daoism, Zen Buddhism, and Hinduism/Indian culture more broadly. They also took from Greek & Roman traditions, but it seems to me that they did that in less dehumanizing ways. 

Alan Leo was a British man who, right away in laying out his take on astrology, explicitly orients his work in relation to the idea of “India.” From this book Esoteric Astrology (1936):

So very like, ~*mYsTiCaL*~ and exotifying.

A wrote in their powerpoint:

    • Leo had three goals: to make astrology a respectable science, to give it practical utility, and to understand it as a transcendental experience

    • Leo draws upon popular British associations between India and mysticism as his primary sources, but his work mostly reframes astrology through technological developments and social darwinism

Leo also made astrology into a product. His business was writing and mailing (I think it was weekly) horoscopes to British subscribers. In other words, he commodified astrology and along with it, the exotified notions of “Oriental” cultures that formed the backbone of his astrology. So you can see here how capitalism came into play. (Side note: Leo and Rudhyar both saw the Orient as being “the Far East,” ie South, East, and Southeast Asia, which is how American orientalism defined the Orient; whereas British orientalism defined the Orient more so as the Middle East.) 

Dane Rudhyar was a French-born astrologer who eventually became an American. I seem to recall A saying that his work (or the combo of his and Leo’s work?) went on to influence the 1960s hippie/beatnik generation and their espousal/appropriation of Zen Buddhism. 

    • Rudhyar’s astrology talked about differences between women/men and feminine/masculine, as derived from Daoism’s concepts around yin/yang. However, his incorporation of Daoist ideas was selective and didn’t present Daoism in a holistic, contextualized way. So for ex, one of the things he did use from it were the attributes and effects of the sun (yang) and the moon (yin).

    • We can examine the cover of his book Astrological Signs: the pulse of life, below. Next to it is a Daoist cosmological layout (Source). The Daoist layout is something I specifically copy & pasted below as a side-by-side comparison. So A didn’t actually say this, but I can’t help but wonder about the correlation between notions of “houses” in modern astrology and how they govern different areas of life vs. the way the 8 trigrams in Daoism govern different areas of life. I also wonder about the 5 elements in Chinese culture/Daoism–water, fire, wood, earth, and metal–vs. the 4 elements in modern astrology–water, fire, earth, and air–and I wonder what overlap or borrowing may be happening:

Here are some patterns we see across Leo & Rudhyar’s work and across modernity, modernism, and astrology in general:

    • Both L & R cobbled together exotified pieces of different traditions to form their own mash-ups, which they also then sold to the public. Recall what Bernard Smith said about how modernism is, “…an expression of the twentieth century European exotic.” 

    • Astrology highlights the ways in which modernism and modernity affect how we view our feeling space.

    • In modernism, Europeans projected themselves onto their colonies. As alive as this is in modernism, so too is it in Western astrology.

    • Related to that, Jane Naomi Iwamura [author of Virtual Orientalism] writes, “…the particular way in which Americans write themselves into the story is not a benign, non-ideological act: rather, it constructs a modernized cultural patriarchy in which Anglo-Americans reimagine themselves as the protectors, innovators, and guardians of Asian religions and culture and wrest the authority to define these traditions from others” (On the Oriental Monk and cultural appropriation of Zen buddhism).

    • We know the names of the creators and purveyors of modernity, such as Leo and Rudhyar, but we do not know the names of the subjects of modernity. The subjects–Asians, Africans, Pacific Islanders, etc–are referenced as cultures (ex the Japanese for Zen Buddhism), but the original thinkers and purveyors of those cultures remain largely unknown, as they were often not named in Western texts of the time. 

    • Here is a slide in A’s powerpoint that I found quite striking. (It references some of the recommended reading at the end of this doc. Bolding by A.):


Anne Anlin Cheng [author of Ornamentalism]: white culture prefers to either save or memorialize colonial subjects.

Theodore W. Allen [author of The Invention of the White Race]: when colonialists found hierarchical societies, they incorporated existing power relations within colonialism. When they found societies without top-down hierarchies, they genocided the societies.

There are three ingredients to the making of modern astrology: the hyper-visibility of Chinese, Japanese, and Indian astrologies, the universalism of European technologies, and the absence of American/Australian indigenous and African cosmologies.

[Modern astrology] was mainly white and bourgeois so they took all these gender ideals from buddhism, from daoism, from indigenous american culture, from islands, from Africa but they didn’t know how to translate. They never had to. They didn’t know how to engage in trans-ness and, so, they essentialized and colonized. 

This is also how modern astrologers (and by modern, I mean modern astrologer like Alan Leo or Dane Rudhyar and not contemporary astrologers) dealt with western astrology. If we’re defining the astrology that is popular today as western, then it only has as short of a history as the West. The West is mainly a modern invention. Anything that comes before colonialism cannot be considered western astrology. 


When A asked the workshop participants how we felt about how we might or might not wish to engage with astrology after this session, I said that I felt unsure if there was a way to engage with it that didn’t further the harmful structures that birthed it–that there might be a way to do it that is more of a reclamation than perpetuation, but then what would we be reclaiming? Can it really be reclamation if the thing being reclaimed is a creation of the white man? I don’t know. 

A then made the point that basically the world as we know it and the society that we live in are products of those same structures. One could argue that speaking English as colonized people also furthers those structures. However, speaking English doesn’t automatically make us colonial co-conspirators, especially if it’s a survival tool. This is where they mentioned that perhaps astrology can be engaged with more as a language than as a science. Perhaps we can use some of the tools within it, some of its vocabulary, as a means to make ourselves up, while still acknowledging the problematic nature of it all. 

Personally, I have more thinking to do on this…it’s knotty, and I’d love to hear y’all’s thoughts in the comments section below.

And then finally, here’s a RECOMMENDED READING LIST!:

    • Magic’s Reason: An Anthropology of Analogy – by Graham Jones
        • Talks about how modern European sciences defined themselves culturally in relation to racialized images popularized by stage magicians
    • Virtual Orientalism – by Jane Iwamura
        • Looks into American orientalism and its relation to spirituality
    • Ornamentalism – by Anne Anlin Cheng
        • A deep look at how racialized images of Asia float as decorative objects removed from tradition and context
    • Modernism and the Occult – by John Bramble
        • Explores how ideas around the occult and otherness were foundational to the development of modernism
    • Fin-De-Siecle Vienna – by Carl E. Shorske
        • An in-depth look at the Weimar Republic around the time of modern astrology’s formation 
    • The Invention of the White Race – by Theodore W. Allen
        • Asks the “how” question of the management of race questions under early modernity

If you made it this far: thanks so much for reading. And again, please feel welcome to share your thoughts below!



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