home articles forum events
glossary horary quiz consultations links more

Dennis Elwell

Dennis Elwell

Buy Dennis Elwell's groundbreaking-book:

Cosmic Loom by Dennis Elwell
Available from

A modern art of horary - By Dennis Elwell

Dennis Elwell is a world leader when it comes to championing the cause of 'good astrology'. Notable for his outspoken views against rigid adherents to traditional astrology (he attracted notoriety in the US by venturing to create 'Project Foresight' just as 'Project Hindsight' gained the backing of the astrological world), his views upon horary astrology and its practitioners have often been controversial and challenging.
In this article Elwell calls for astrologers to take a new look at the art of horary; to recognize that the innovative and creative input of the astrologer is the key element of successful and worthwhile judgement.
This work is adapted from Elwell's classic text Cosmic Loom, a truly remarkable book which should be studied and contemplated by anyone who claims to have a legitimate interest in astrology. We welcome your feedback to the opinions presented here.

At any given moment there is a whole complex of interacting ideas seeking vehicles of manifestation. Rich rewards undoubtedly await those who have insight into the uniqueness of the moment, and the skill to act as midwife to whatever is struggling to come to birth. The universe seems to be so constituted that it matters not at all that the planets are continuously moving on: because of its uniqueness the cosmic signature of every moment remains eternally.

For centuries astrologers have practised a technique of divination which relies on this same moment-by-moment interconnectedness of mind and universe. In 'horary' astrology our human concerns are referred to the heavens by setting up a chart, and the pattern of the planets for that time and place becomes a sort of 'exploded diagram' of the problem in hand, and is presumed to point to the likely outcome.

By attempting to answer any and every question, ranging from the whereabouts of a lost cat to whether the Channel Tunnel would ever be built (the astrologer was wrong on that one), horary astrology offers a tempting target to sceptics. They point out, with some justice, that if you can answer questions like 'Will the favourite win the two-thirty?', or 'Will this stock be a good investment?', then horary astrologers would have the world at their feet. The inconvenient fact is that while offering to pronounce on a wide range of clients' problems, as a group, horary exponents themselves seem to have loftily spurned the advice the stars might give them on practical affairs. Challenged, they are apt to retort briskly that not everybody is obsessed with money and success.

Yet the persistence of the horary art, and its resistance to the obvious criticisms, is one of the paradoxes of astrology today. It is certainly true that by encouraging clients to ask questions to which the answer is either a plain yes or no, the horary consultant can count on being right half the time, a feat that could be replicated by tossing a coin. Finding you are correct in fifty per cent of cases encourages you to perfect your skills, and press forward towards the elusive hundred per cent.

Not surprisingly, many modem astrologers have rejected horary as a throwback to more superstitious times. The astrology of any age is fitted to the mind-set of that age; indeed, what applies to astrology is true of all the other activities that are subject to historical development. Both astrologers and those who turn to them for help are products of their era. It could hardly be otherwise.

Therefore we can learn from Greek astrology, or from the astrology of William Lilly - that persuasive voice of horary speaking from the seventeenth century - how people thought about the world and their place in it. We can discern their priorities, their values, for the simple reason that astrology has always sought to make itself relevant to current concerns, to be of service.

For most of astrology's long career its 'consumers' had a very elementary yardstick. They wanted simple answers to their pressing problems. They wanted to know if good fortune awaited them, or the reverse, as if all were being dispensed by some fickle god. If astrology has changed, and become less black and white in its determinations, it must be because the Western mind-set has changed, and more sophisticated evaluations are required.

Horary today has the hallmarks of a fundamentalist belief system, with its practitioners harking back to the extraordinarily finessed rules of judgment propounded by exponents like Lilly, and arguing theologically among themselves. Quite recently there arose among contemporary astrologers a defence of what was deemed to be the astrological tradition, and at one extreme, horary has become a seventeenth century time capsule. Its rules are to be venerated, not interrogated, and contrary opinions are simply dismissed.

One problem with defending a tradition is to know what tradition, whose tradition? In astrology's long career there have been a number of traditions, nor at any one time have their upholders agreed among themselves. Moreover, acknowledging the stature of Lilly and others, one cannot in conscience gratuitously insult their intellect by supposing that, given the opportunity to embrace more recent advances, they would have remained behind with the cobwebbed thought-forms of their period. The minds of these pioneers were nothing if not lively and inquiring. Indeed, had they been content merely to perpetuate the tradition of their day, their own original observations would have been lost.

Those who have glimpsed the riches waiting to be mined from an enlightened astrology can only deplore this failure to keep up with the times. While other branches of knowledge strain to advance their leading edge, horary die-hards have pronounced that there is nothing left to be discovered. The tragedy is that they happen to be the custodians of astrology's central truth, namely that our human minds are embedded in a cosmic mind, and from moment to moment reflect its nature.

How might the tradition embodied in the horary approach be brought up to date? There is a way, which not only preserves the integrity of the tradition but enhances it.

A client who takes a pressing question to a horary astrologer is entitled to ask: 'If you're so smart that you can tell me the answer, why can't you tell me the question?' After all, it might be argued that before listening to the client's concerns, the astrologer is already mentally asking what the question is going to be! So why should not the heavens be answering that?

It is a highly instructive exercise to try to discern the question posed by the chart, before the client gives his or her version. This may not be the precise question as formulated by the client, who may not actually have yet understood the real issue, or may simply be reluctant to reveal it. The heavens may be answering not so much the question as the questioner.

Two charts culled from the Astrology Quarterly (summer 1998) will serve as examples. A woman asked: 'Will I travel or stay at home the next few months?' Now if the astrologer had attempted to unwrap the question from the chart, without the help of the client, a cluster of planets around the cusp of the fourth house (home and family) would have been instantly noticed. The planets included a conjunction of Venus and Mars, the 'rulers' of the first house (the questioner) and the seventh house (the husband).

The inference was that the real question concerned the home she shared with her husband. Indeed, it turned out that her husband wanted money to be spent on overdue repairs to their house. Her preference was to blow it on a trip, hence her question about the likelihood of travelling.

When bringing their questions to the heavens clients are encouraged to enter the fated and deterministic world which horary astrologers suppose reality to be. Instead of asking 'Will I travel in the next few months?' she might have asked 'Should I travel in the next few months?', because in view of the conflict with her husband, it was undeniably a should issue. A modern art of horary would go beyond the strict wording of the question, and offer positive insight by exploring why it was being asked in the first place. That Venus Mars conjunction speaks volumes. Venus is about 'we', while Mars is about 'I'. Relationships are often a conflict, or at best a balancing act, between what we desire for ourselves, and how far we are prepared to go along with the wants of the other person. Probably the holiday issue was a sample of what was currently happening in her marriage, and she may even have hoped that the astrologer would detect the underlying difficulty and throw light on it.

This chart offers another important clue. Horary astrologers say that a planet in the ascendant describes the questioner, and elaborate descriptions have been compiled of the appearance and personality disposed by each planet and sign. Here the moon (females) rising in Libra (partnership) indicates a married woman. Of course many questioners will be married women, but when their status is spelled out so clearly it indicates that being a married woman is somehow important. The fact that the moon squares the Venus-Mars conjunction, and also the sun, suggests that her marital role was becoming a problem.

In the other chart from the same source, the question put was 'Will I have another baby?' Here again one suspects this was not the central issue. Some charts shout 'babies!' at you, but not this one. Its most striking feature is Neptune (uncertainty, ambiguity) exactly in the midheaven (status, identity). There are also indications of emotional frustration. The astrologer who did not take the question at its face value would wonder whether the quandary in which this woman found herself was connected with the fact that for ten years she had been living on and off with a man friend, a situation into which a baby would introduce a new element. Moreover, since the midheaven is connected with the career, the astrologer might usefully have inquired what would happen to her job, at the age of forty-five, if a baby arrived.

Coming to this chart at second-hand it is not possible to discover how far the real issue was a desire to escape from one or more frustrating situations, with motherhood seen as a way out. But this chart illustrates that while a question may seem straightforward, it could merely hint at the person's true concerns. Handed this chart, any astrologer who tried to guess in advance the drift of the question that was about to be asked would have probably got close to the mark.

It must be said that to open out questions in this way leads to a more ethical horary practice. It cannot be ethical to paint a picture of a future which is already predetermined in its details. After all, a woman of forty-five who asks 'Will I have another baby?' might be looking for confirmation that she no longer needs to practise birth control! One celebrated astrologer who assured a client that the stars were shining brightly on partnership ventures never suspected she was planning to murder her husband!

The ethics of astrology are something of a minefield, but any approach which brushes aside free will and the need for personal responsibility must surely be deplored. In so far as horary plays down the crucial role of human choice it is in need of a radical rethink. The astrologer should be enlarging the scope of free will by explaining the real issues, thus allowing sounder decisions to be made, and perhaps revealing options which may have escaped notice.

This is the point to express a view which will doubtless outrage those who are determined to defend the horary paradigm. As usually understood, horary is about asking human questions to which the heavens make a human answer. That is to say, the cosmos is expected to speak our language, and to be immediately comprehensible to us. Yet throughout astrology we find that our human questioning is apt to be met with a cosmic answer, which may require us to stretch our imagination. To assume that the cosmos can do no other than function within the straitjacket of our limited human concepts is the ultimate arrogance! Therefore there are many instances where we think the cosmos is saying one thing, when actually it is saying something quite different.

The basic premise - humans asking questions and the heavens replying - seems a straightforward enough transaction. But the process at work in genuine horary astrology is the exact reverse! It is the cosmos that asks the question, to which we must make a human response. The most authentic questions arise, not out of mere curiosity, but when some pressing circumstance moves us to seek an answer. That is to say, the impetus for the question comes out of our individual or collective life experience. The need to know is prompted by the stream of cosmic becoming, in which our participation is as uninterrupted as it is unconscious.

William Lilly, the maestro himself, ordered some fish from London, but the warehouse was robbed before it could be delivered. Taking the exact time he heard the bad news, he set up a chart to see what had happened to his fish. He wanted his supper back, and the villain apprehended. He has bequeathed this chart, and his deliberations on it, to posterity, but although he tracked down the thief it is obvious from his description that the feat owed as much to private sleuthing and a bit of luck as to astrology - what he calls 'discretion, together with art.'

What Lilly did not pause to ask was why the universe in its majesty should visit this inconvenience upon him, at precisely this time. Do the purposes of the cosmos really include trivial malevolence? Instead of wondering why me, why now, he assumed the only question to be answered was how the injury could be righted.

The chart he set up tells another story. The moon rising in Taurus is held to refer to the querent, and indeed this combination describes someone disposed to the creature comforts, notably a good meal. The fish were intended to see him through Lent, the period of penance and fasting. Traditionally Mercury is the planet of thieves, and it had become standstill in the sign of the Fishes, and in the twelfth house, where 'secret enemies' are said to lurk. So the chart unmistakably contains the trappings of the event. But is that all?

Instead of rushing to apply the quaintly inflexible rules on which horary judgment depends, Lilly's thoughts could have taken a different route. He might have speculated that if the universe is intelligent, not blindly vindictive, there must be meaning behind its dealings with humanity. At one level Mercury is about making experience intelligible, and the sign it occupied (Pisces) notoriously represents forces which - like the fishes tied tail-to-tail - tug in opposite directions. So he might have taken the hint that this experience could be turned around and read in more than one way.

Maybe if he had been born in the age of Jung, or was familiar with the daemon, the guardian angel, the higher self, the spirit guide, Lilly might have pondered the significance of the fish as a Christian symbol, for Lent is after all a Christian festival. He was a religious man, as his famous open letter to students of astrology makes plain, and he called his masterpiece Christian Astrology. Was Pisces catching him out, trying to face both ways?

Taurus was strong in his birth chart, and mealtime abstentions do not come easily to some Taureans. But for someone born under a Pisces ascendant, as he was, fish on the menu may not be a real deprivation at all, and maybe for the good of his soul his guardian angel did not want him to fake his asceticism.

At any rate Lilly pursued the miscreant as implacably as any Inspector Javert. He did not stop to ask why a fisherman should steal fish. Nor did he recall the Christian doctrine that when somebody slaps you with one wet fish you should take him another - and why not stay to eat it with him while you are about it!

Lilly thought he was posing the question, but perhaps this was an interrogation of Lilly, on the sincerity of his faith? Indeed, as we go through life the system continually tosses us problems and puzzles, asking 'What do you make of this?'

Another point needs to be made. The idea that the heavens manifest equally everywhere, as if by some purely mechanical process, is hard to sustain. Some people may be 'better connected' than others, and the rapport of the same person may vary from time to time. It is feasible that lukewarm feelings, flickering thoughts, tend to distance us from the cosmic order, while conversely the intensity shown by fanatics binds us more tightly to it. Thus, speaking to us from the thirteenth century, in his De Mirabilibus Mundi, Albertus Magnus declares: 'Whoever would learn the secret of doing and undoing these things must know that everyone can influence everything magically if he falls into a great excess ... For the soul is then so desirous of the matter she would accomplish that of her own accord she seizes the more significant and better astrological hour which also rules over the things suited to that matter'.

A journalist for most of his life, Dennis Elwell has explored any byway that might throw light on astrology, leading to a study of science on the one hand, and occultists like Rudolf Steiner and Gurdjieff on the other. Teaching himself the basics as a teenager, he became a regular contributor to American Astrology; a platform for the leading astrologers of the day. The association continued for twenty years. He began lecturing to astrologers in 1963 and has subsequently gained an illustrious reputation as an original thinker and stimulating speaker.
In 1987 Elwell attracted considerable media attention through forewarning the shipping company P&O of impending disaster. Ten days after their reply, expressing complete confidence in their safety standards, the 'Herald of Free Enterprise' capsized of Zeebrugge with the tragic loss of 188 lives. His book Cosmic Loom, was published in the same year and was recently republished by the Urania Trust in an updated and expanded version.

[ More articles by Dennis Elwell ]

© Dennis Elwell

Horary Astrology
print version
This is the printer friendly version. To go to the web friendly version click here >>
Contact Deborah Houlding  | terms and conditions  
All rights on all text and images reserved. Reproduction by any means is not permitted without the express
agreement of Deborah Houlding or in the case of articles by guest astrologers, the copyright owner indictated