On the Shelf: Two Books on William Lilly

We’ve recently seen two books released on the seventeenth-century astrologer William Lilly.  Generally Papers doesn’t dip too far into astrology, but Lilly did not restrain his esoteric delvings to that procedure.  He also was, from time to time, a practitioner of ceremonial magic, a treasure hunter, and an acquaintance of many other occult seekers.   He also became one of the most influential individuals of his place and time, successfully navigating his way through the English Civil War and giving advice to rich and poor alike.

The first is a 300th anniversary edition of William Lilly’s History of His Life and Times, as compiled at the request of his pupil and friend Elias Ashmole.   Rubedo Press has issued a cheap edition (purchased by me) which is a reprint of the original, with copious annotations and an introduction by Wade Caves.   It should be stated that a public domain edition is available online, but the Rubedo edition’s annotations will prove quite helpful for those not familiar with the time period, or astrology.  It is a valuable work for those who are interested in reading biographies of mystical individuals, or those interested in the history of astrology.

The second is Catherine Blackledge’s The Man Who Saw the Future, which may be summed up as a retelling of William Lilly’s life with fictional extrapolations from what is known.  (I picked up a review copy of this at the Esoteric Book Conference, which – as I never got around to blogging about it – I should say was a a wonderful experience.)  Lilly’s biography is a prime source for this work, but this is mingled with his writing and other sources on Lilly’s milieu to make an entertaining exploration of this fascinating character.  I was disappointed that the book started only after Lilly had taken on a successful career as an astrologer, as there is much of interest in his earlier life that could have been included.   Nonetheless, the book has an introduction by Owen Davies, which is certainly worthwhile.

It also bears noting that both of these books regard Lilly’s skill at astrological prognostication very highly.  Neither of them really answer the question of what proportion of Lilly’s predictions were accurate (although Blackledge notes one that was incorrect), or how much of his reputation was due to the natural tendency to cherry-pick a fortuneteller’s most accurate statements.  Some blog readers will find this unnecessary or simply will not care, of course.  If you are someone who would care about such matters, you may find that these concerns make it more difficult to appreciate these books.

The caveats above notwithstanding, I did appreciate both books.  I don’t know if I’d recommend both to most readers, but Caves’ edited work will appeal to those who want to get into primary documents, while Blackledge’s should be better for those who want a lighter read.

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Published in: on January 15, 2016 at 5:00 pm  Leave a Comment  

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