Sir Isaac Newton & the Age of Aries
Sir Isaac Newton
A Radical Christian Eschatologist,
a major contributor to the New Age belief in the dawning of the Age of Aquarius,
and to the idea of Astrological World Ages based upon the
Precession of the Equinoxes.
Godfrey Kneller's 1689 portrait
of Isaac Newton aged 46
of his Principia,
with his hand-written
By Courtney Roberts, M.A.
When we think of dedicated Christian eschatologists, the name Isaac Newton doesn't usually spring to mind, but perhaps it should. He had a particular passion, during the last forty years of his life, for researching and reconciling ancient chronology with Biblical prophecy. Frank Manuel, who has published extensively on Newton’s life and work, elaborates on Newton's public image as an enlightened, thoroughly rational, modern scientist:
''That part of the Newtonian system which was related to his puritanical bibliolatry and to his interpretation of prophecy was, of course, rejected by most eighteenth-century intellectuals and for many years was kept hidden as a shameful weakness in their new god."(Manuel, 1980, 380)
Shortly after Newton’s death in 1727, rumours began to circulate, insinuating that Newton suffered a complete breakdown in 1693, and that all of his later works were the products of mental illness. These stories have been traced back to the French astronomers Marquis de Laplace and Jean-Baptiste Biot, two dedicated positivists who were convinced that public knowledge of Newton's real interests would be dangerous to the cause of science (Manuel, 1963, 5). In Cambridge, while Newton's scientific manuscripts in the Portsmouth Collection were readily available for study, access to his materials on chronology and theology was restricted. Even writers of the calibre of Edward Gibbon were prevented from studying Newton's historical and theological manuscripts. (Manuel, 1963, 5-6)
Nevertheless, in 1936, at the Sotheby sale of Newton's papers from the Portsmouth Collection, there were 'lots totalling close to two hundred thousand words ...described as relating directly to chronology, as distinct from what were called the theological writings, which amounted to more than a million words...In addition...there are four volumes, about a thousand folios, chiefly on chronology and theology...' (Manuel, 1980, 362). Newton's voluminous alchemical records, detailing his decades of experimentation with the purification of planetary metals, must remain beyond the scope of this article.
Newton obviously invested a lot of time and energy into these pursuits, and in the course of a lifetime of studying religion, mythology, and history, he developed his own, unique systems of interpretation. A dedicated euhemerist, for Newton, mythology was history in disguise. In his Theologiae gentilis origines philosophicae (The Philosophical Origins of Gentile Philosophy), probably composed during the 1680’s and contained within the Yahuda MS 16.2, Newton argues that all ancient peoples worshipped the same twelve gods, albeit under different names.
These gods were all divinised ancestors; namely, Noah and his family, from whom the entire population of the world was descended after the flood. However, as the populations expanded, people began to identify these gods with their own kings and heroes. While local mythologies proliferated, they also tended to keep the same twelve ‘archetypal” figures; for instance, according to Newton, all ancient people had an old man, Saturn-like, ancestor deity, and a beautiful female deity like Venus or Astarte, etc. (Westfall, 1980, 351-353).
According to biographer Richard Westfall, Newton believed that “The histories of the gods of one people frequently became confused with those of another, and peoples invented fables which confounded the origins of the gods by claiming the gods of others for their own. (Westfall, 1980, 352)
Newton elaborates on this same theme in this quote from the “Origines:”
‘Every nation studing (sic) to honour their own ancestors they were not content to worship them them selves but sometimes pretended them to be the Gods of other nations also. & on this account ye Egyptians also pretended that Dionysius Bacchus Adonis & Pan were their Osiris.” (Newton, 168?, f19)
The 12 gods were a product of Newton’s mystical astronomy, for this number was derived from the seven planets, the four elements, plus the quintessence (Westfall, 1980, 353). Newton believed that this errant gentile theology was born of astronomy, from the observations of the movements of heavenly bodies, and he often referred to it as ‘astronomical theology’ or ‘sidereal theology’ (Westfall, 1980, 353). Westfall indicates that Newton may have been influenced in this direction by contemporary works such as Samuel Bochart’s Geographia sacra or Ralph Cudworth’s Intellectual System of the World. However, Newton's copious references to classical authors throughout his own writings (Westfall, 1980, 353) indicate that his sidereal theology probably also arose, in large part, somewhere within the confrontation between his 17th century, Puritanical natural philosophy and the perplexing pantheons of the ancient world.
Newton’s most startling and original step in The Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms Amended, published in 1725, was his attempt to apply the discoveries of the new astronomy to some of the knottier problems of ancient chronology. In linking historical and mythological events to the precession of the equinoxes, Newton proposed a radical re-dating of ancient civilizations based upon his literal interpretation of astronomical myths.
In his resolute euhemerism, he cites Chiron, the centaur, as an historical character, declaring him a 'practical astronomer' (Newton, 1770, 83-84). According to Newton, Chiron not only delineated the asterisms, or constellations, of the Greeks, but he also built the first celestial sphere. That Chiron did this at a time concurrent with the sailing of the Argo is a point which Newton considers self-evident, because the original constellations of the Greek celestial sphere, as listed later in the 3rd century BC by Aratus in his Phaenomena, depict characters and events all related to the Argonauts and their contemporaries (Newton, 1770 85).
Quoting from his Chronology:
"The Sphere seems therefore to have been formed by Chiron and Museus, for the use of the Argonauts; for the Ship Argo was the first long ship built by the Greeks. Hitherto they had used round vessels of burden, and kept within sight of the shore; and now, …the Flower of Greece were to sail with Expedition through the deep, in a long Ship with Sails, and guide their Ship by the Stars. (Newton, 1770, 85-86)
According to Newton, the stars which guided the Argo were the constellations of the original Greek celestial sphere, and naturally, these constellations did not depict any myths or heroes that were earlier than those related to the voyage of the Argo.
Some of the constellations listed by Newton supporting this conclusion include Aries, "... the golden RAM, the ensign of the Vessel in which Phryxus fled to Colchis; the BULL with brazen hoofs (sic) tamed by Jason; the TWINS, CASTOR and POLLUX, two of the Argonauts...There's the Ship ARGO, and HYDRUS the watchful Dragon, with Medea's CUP...There's CHIRON, the master of Jason, with his ALTAR and SACRIFICE...etc." (Newton, 1770, 84)
Newton adds in the following section that the inhabitants of the island Corcyra had their own authoress of the celestial sphere in the princess Nausicaa, the daughter of King Alcinous, but he concludes that she probably got her sphere from the Argonauts who had spent some time with her father there on their way home. Obviously, Newton had a limited awareness of the influence of Babylonian astronomy.
The fulcrum of Newton's equinoctial argument is the assertion, attributed to Hipparchus, that in the sphere of Eudoxus, the Solstices and Equinoxes were placed in the middle of the constellations: Aries, Cancer, Chelae (the claws, or Libra,) and Capricorn. Newton concludes that Eudoxus was working from the celestial sphere of Chiron, the first among the Greeks, and that therefore, the equinoxes and solstices must have been in the middle of these four constellations during Chiron's lifetime, which coincided with the sailing of the Argo. Newton describes how subsequent astronomers like Thales, Euctemon, Meton, and Hipparchus regularly moved their solsticial and equinoctial colures back through these same constellations to accommodate precession; to 12 degrees, 8 degrees, 4 degrees, etc. (Newton, 1770, 92-93)
Newton's conscious intention here may have been more scientific than euhemeristic. In order to interpret the future of Bibllcal prophecy, he needed to pinpoint the past. His use of the point of the vernal equinox, as it precessed against the background of the fixed stars of the Zodiac, actually represented an attempt to create a 'scientific,' astronomically-based, and therefore, accurate dating system for ancient chronology. However, in doing so, he instinctively catapults history into the heavens, with all its concomitant apotheoses and catasterisms. In this erudite melding of astronomy, history, mythology and religion, and his astonishing dissolution of any distinction between the mythical and the historical, Newton's genius shines through, even when he's dead wrong. Newton's resulting conclusion, that the Jews had the oldest and best records after all, could almost have been predicted on the basis of his own puritan bibliolatry.
As Frank Manuel puts it, in A Portrait of Isaac Newton,
"...there was no sharp distinction in Newton's mind between the physical history of the universe and the history of nations, since both histories could be learned by man and there were continual correspondences between them. In his monist system a chronological event in the history of kingdoms could be translated into an astronomical event in the physical history of the universe and vice versa, for there were parallel histories in the heavens and on earth." (Manuel, 1980, 377)
Newton's work does imply an underlying, monist belief system wherein the physical history of the universe corresponds with the history of nations, and that these parallel histories are revealed in the precession of the equinoxes through the signs of the zodiac, and encoded in the relevant mythologies. But where did Newton get these ideas? What inspired him to use the vernal equinox and this complex interaction between history and star lore as an accurate dating tool? We don't have to look very far for the answers.
The assumption of a continuity between the precessional movement and the history of nations underpins many centuries of work in mundane astrology. For instance, in 1711, a French contemporary of Newton, Henri de Boulainvilliers, published his masterpiece of astrologie mondiale, entitled Histoire du mouvement de l'apogee du soleil, ou pratique abregee des regles d'Astrologie pour juger des evenements generaux. In this work, Boulainvilliers traced a causal relationship between precession, the apogee of the sun, and human history. Boulainvilliers warmly expressed his gratitude to both Flamsteed and Newton for their efforts in establishing the accurate rate of precession. This had enabled Boulainvilliers to generate his own chronological tables in which he aligned the major events in world history with the movement of the fixed stars and the sun (Manuel, 1963 68-69).
Actually, according to J.D. North, "The idea of a Great Year, manifesting itself as a motion of the Eighth Sphere, had in astrological quarters by the 17th century, become a well-established dogma" (North, 1989, 107).
Continued at: The 8th Sphere: Precession & Trepidation
All the sources referenced within the text can be found in the Bibliography
Copyright 2008 Courtney Roberts, M.A.