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Image: Vladimir Manzhos Waone, The Magus, Ukraine 2012–14, courtesy of Taschen

This Massive Astrology Art Book Is So Beautiful It Will Even Woo the Haters

The author of Taschen’s new Library of Esoterica volume explains how NASA, art scholars, and even conservatives helped her decode the horoscope.
MF
New York, US
February 3, 2021, 12:00pm

Astrology is really good at indulging us in sweet nothings and dump truck revelations alike, such as: Why should you keep your phone locked around that one friend? (He’s a Gemini, duh.) Or, why did your Tinder date spend most of the evening staring at their own reflection? (Typical Libra.) In this newfound, quarantino Age of Aquarius, we’re stoked for the opportunity to build an even more involved relationship with astrology. Ideally, on a level that goes deeper than our current pastime of just bookmarking “Typical Aquarius” memes. But for that kind of plunge, we’d also like someone to hold our hand.

“Tracing the history of astrology is so [vast], and we had to be so specific in this book in clarifying that we were looking at Western horoscopic astrology,” says Andrea Richards, author of the new book Library of Esoterica: Astrology, one of the latest releases from iconic art book publisher TASCHEN. “That’s [the basis] for this one introductory book alone. There are scholars and astrologers who have devoted their lifetime to the tradition that were really generous with me as I was writing; people like Robert Hand and Susan Miller.”

Released on January 9 (making it a Capricorn, congrats), Library of Esoterica: Astrology tackles revelatory—or rather, forgotten—secrets of the cosmos. After peering through its glossy pages, we don’t just see astrology everywhere; we want astrology everywhere. Which is nice, after a year when it has actually been on pretty thin fucking ice

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Address your thanks to author Andrea Richards, who explored the pseudoscience not as an astrologist, but as a journalist equipped with a team of astrologists (and historians, art specialists, and NASA scientists). The goal, she says, was to use the visual language of astrology to make its traditions more accessible—even to those who claim to hate it. 

Seeing how the zodiac has inspired so many great artworks is the Great Mouse Detective moment we really needed at this stage in quar—the gratification of pulling on a thread that connects artworks by 20,000-year-old cave bros, revolutionaries, ancient alchemists, and Afrofuturists alike. The result is a crystalline report on one of our planet’s more puzzling subjects, romancing our eyeballs with a collection of images and artwork that surprises at every page.

We spoke to Richards about why astrology feels both wide-sweeping and individualistic, what she thinks about astrology memes, and why this massive, juicy introduction to astrology deserves a spot not just on your shelf, but your nightstand. 


VICE: Congratulations on the book. Astrology is so big, and so juicy in text and image. We see works by Alfonse Mucha, Hilma A.F. Klimt, and Manzel Bowman (the cover artist), to name a few. There’s even a USSR propaganda poster. 

Andrea Richards: Thank you. I have to say I can’t even believe how beautiful it is. That’s all the book’s designer, who is just a magical being.

This is the second volume of Taschen’s Library of Esoterica (the first of which is the wonderful Tarot). What made astrology deserving of this second installment? 

The Library of Esoterica, including this volume, is really about providing an introduction to the esoteric—which is limited and known to only a few by its very nature. I loved that from the beginning, our series editor Jessica Hundley was asking, “How do we continue to make this more accessible?” 

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I mean, people love astrology. But you dive into more than horoscopes here. 

Yeah. It was about finding a way to welcome people into these huge fields of wisdom that have been circulating for so long. And we wanted to accomplish that by consolidating a beautiful array of images and artwork with some introductory text to help [frame] where these traditions come from, but that also to allow you to just experience that wisdom. You can experience the image personally or aesthetically, and then realize, Oh! That’s a bullheaded goddess, and dive into more symbolism and history, which adds different levels of understanding.

Speaking of images, do you have any opinions on astrology memes? 

Well, Instagram has given astrology such a boost. I think that’s so beautiful. [Memes are] a marriage of image and text, just like the book. The only meme I’m stuck on right now is the Bernie [Sanders] one, like everyone, which is just so great. 

What are some of your favorite artworks in the book? 

I geeked out about the early handmade, paper charts that you could manipulate and move. I was also delighted to have Betye Saar’s work in there, and seeing it again in the context of astrology brought out new connections for me. I love the Harry Smith film image. There’s so many. 

Is there a right way to enjoy or make astrological art? 

There are traditionalists. But what’s amazing about all these traditions is that they evolve. There are the basics, and then reinterpretations. We’re going to relate to them in different ways.

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As for their evolution, I think it’s really exciting. Juliana McCarthy also wrote a great introductory book to astrology, The Stars Within You: A Modern Guide to Astrology. She and I started talking about Taurus, and I have two daughters with sun signs in Taurus, and she brought up that Taurus isn’t just the bull, but Persephone riding the bull. That image helped me so much with one of my daughters. I realized it’s not just about the stubbornness or wildness of the bull. It’s about this interspecies relationship of trust, taming each other and relying on each other. 

What was it like to write this not as an astrologist, but a journalist? 

I’ve long been interested in the more esoteric strands of popular philosophy. My dad is a southern Baptist minister. I got really jazzed by the gnostic gospels, and the kinds of esoteric, mystical strains that you realize, historically, could have won out when Christianity was just coming into being. The question of “Who won out, and why?” is something I’ve always been curious about. But, again, that information isn’t really put out there. 

Right? Like how in hell are we supposed to just know about ancient dead dudes like Pliny the Elder? 

[The astrologists I worked with] were very generous. There’s not a lot of easily accessible histories of astrological ideas. There was this one moment [during research] where I sat back and thought, This is exactly the kind of book I want to write, where I get to talk to an astrologer, a NASA scientist, and an Islamic art scholar all in the same day. To me the interdisciplinary nature of astrology is exciting. 

Does that mean I can love astrology and Carl Sagan without being a hypocrite?

Yeah. The very basis of astrology is earth- and sky-centered. It’s not abstract. It really is about the placement of the planets at certain times, and where we are in relation to them. In a way, what could be more grounded? There have always been [astrological] practices for the everyday. I think about my Midwestern grandmother, who is the last person in the world who I would say practiced astrology. At the same time, she knew the phases of the moon, and why they changed how and when she should plant things. That’s astrology, in the larger sense.

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How can astrology help us cope during the pandemic? Time feels bananas.

Doesn’t it though? This is a timely book. Everyone is having a huge moment right now. No matter who you are, you have had to take the geographic [pulse] of, like, where are we in the world? What is our point and how do we live now? I can’t get that last idea out of my head. If we have the good fortune to live, how are we going to be connected in a better way? Astrology is a timely tool, because you’re working with interpersonal dynamics. Planetary dynamics. Internal ones. It gives you 12 characters to play around with. 

I think what astrology gives us is this helpful conception of cyclical time. So often, we’re trying to operate with this idea of following linear time as a way for making improvements. I think what we’re finding out is that that’s just BS. It’s a capitalist lie that we’ve bought into. That’s not progress. Instead, we’re asking, “How is it that things are so broken?” We thought we were progressing with racism in the United States, for example. People were thinking, “Wow, we’ve had a Black president. We’ve come so far.” What we’ve realized is, well, not quite. There’s a cycle that’s being repeated over and over and over. 

I once saw a picture of this vintage campaign button that read, “Leos for Reagan.” It made so much sense. 

Oh, totally. I mean, a president and a film star? Can you get more Leo?

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In the book, I was surprised to learn that Ronald Reagan had an official White House astrologer. It seems unusual to see a conservative leader liking astrology.

I think people in power have always loved astrology. It could be used by them. One of the things that spoke to me about researching astrology was that, like everything, it was practiced in the beginning as a collective, for collective concerns. Like, when do we plant this? 

That sounds like a leftist dream. 

Yes, well, then once divination became a part of it, people started thinking, “Oh! If I can ‘define’ the future then that can give me power.” That’s when it started shifting over to a more individualized thing for the kings and queens. 

Today, astrologers know it can be both. It can be interpersonal. But also, how can we address the collective? How can we address climate devastation together? We see this globalized world we live in and think, wow—but astrology shows us how interconnected we have been, in so many ways, long before that. It blows my mind. 

Library of Esoterica: Astrology is on sale now at TASCHEN.


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