The Sophia Centre was established at Bath Spa University in 2002, where it achieved an international reputation for its ground-breaking and innovative MA Cultural Astronomy and Astrology.
In 2007 the Centre transferred to the University of Wales, Lampeter, in order to achieve a greater international reach and teach the MA as a distance-learning programme. The MA is now taught within the University's School of Archaeology, History and Anthropology.
The Sophia Centre’s academic goals are 'to pursue research, scholarship and teaching in the relationship between astrological, astronomical and cosmological beliefs and theories, and society, politics, religion and the arts, past and present' and to 'to undertake the academic and critical examination of astrology and its practice'. We can sponsor research in any time-period or culture.
The Centre’s wider goal is stated in its title – to ‘study cosmology in culture’. This enables us to tackle a wide range of topics, from Egyptian sky religion and Babylonian astrology, to astronomy in surrealist painting, astrology in contemporary culture, UFO abduction and the politics of the space race.
The Centre promotes research in the subject area, holds seminars and conferences, including an annual graduate conference, is associated with the publication Culture and Cosmos, teaches the MA in Cultural Astronomy and Astrology and supervises PhD students. We are associated with the academic press; Sophia Centre Press.
We define Cultural Astronomy as the ‘study of the application of beliefs about the stars to all aspects of human culture, from religion and science to the arts and literature. It includes the new discipline of archaeoastronomy - the study of astronomical alignments, orientation and symbolism in architecture, ancient and modern’. Astrology is 'the practice of relating the heavenly bodies to lives and events on earth, and the tradition that has thus been generated’. We take our cue from Michael Hoskin, editor of the Journal on the History of Astronomy, who posed the question, ‘what astronomy is not an astronomy in culture?’ We are heavily influenced by recent trends in anthropology, which means that modern western culture can be subject to the same academic scrutiny as pre-modern or non-western cultures, and by questions such as the requirement for the scholar or research to engage in practice as part of their study of practice.
Cultural astronomy is an emerging discipline attracting an increasing number of scholars who are aware of the sky’s importance to humanity. The importance of astrology in the history of ideas was established by Lynn Thorndike in 1905 in ‘The Place of Magic in the Intellectual History of Europe’. Astrology’s role in contemporary culture tends to be mentioned briefly by sociologists, often in a New Age context, but is rarely investigated in detail.
The words astronomy and astrology have distinct meanings in modern English. Astronomy is the scientific study of the physical universe. Astrology is more akin to a study of the psychic universe. The split between the two, though, is a feature of the modern west. Both words are of Greek origin; astronomy means the ‘law’ of the stars, while astrology is best translated as the ‘word’, or ‘reason’, of the stars. In the classical world, their meanings overlapped. To the Greek scholar Claudius Ptolemy, writing in the 2nd century, there were two forms of astronomy, one which dealt with the movement of the stars, the other (which we would call astrology) with their effects or significance.
From then until the seventeenth century, the two words were interchangeable. In ‘King Lear’, Shakespeare had Edgar refer to his brother Edmund, who had been posing as an astrologer, as a ‘sectary astronomical’. Other terms Shakespeare might have used include mathematician (the astronomer Johannes Kepler studied astrology as part of his duties as ‘Imperial Mathematician’) or Chaldean (both astrology and astronomy were commonly traced to Mesopotamia). Neither do most non-western countries employ different words to distinguish traditional astronomy from astrology. In India both are jyotish, the ‘science of light’. In Japan they are onmyōdō, the ‘yin-yang way’. The title of the MA, whose subject matter includes the beliefs and practices of pre-modern and non-western cultures, as well as contemporary worlds, is therefore necessarily ‘Cultural Astronomy AND Astrology’.
The Centre’s purpose is to understand the cultural role and function of beliefs about the sky, rather than mathematical astronomy or technical astrology. We work from a humanities/social science perspective and encompass research styles and methodologies from anthropology, history, religious studies and sociology. The focus is on astronomy and astrology as systems of story-telling about the cosmos, or the location of meaning in the heavens.
Work undertaken by students has included such diverse topics as classical theories of the ascent of the soul, Christian critiques of astrology, modern pagan calendar rituals, children’s perceptions of the sky, the use of astrology in business, the tarot as a cosmological model in the nineteenth century ‘occult revival’, astrology and enchantment, astrology in surrealist painting, the naming of planets, the nature of the astrological consultation, and cinema as cosmology. We aim to publish the best student work.
We welcome inquiries from prospective students around the world. We maintain international links with other institutions pursuing similar programmes and are always ready to consider offers of collaboration.