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The Astrological Memory Theatre

By and © A T Mann

(Excerpt from "Sacred Architecture," Barnes & Noble, 1993 & 1997)

Fludd's Theater of the World: Soul flanked by Emotions; Higher Functions Abound


"All the world's a stage

And all the men and women merely players."

"As You Like It" by William Shakespeare

The Art of Memory was invented by the Greeks as an essential part of education. Their goddess Mnemosyne (Memory) was the mother of the Muses, a position that reflected the importance of an accurate and efficient memory in those times.

Until the invention of printing in the 14th Century, the primary way one could gain access to information was by word of mouth. . There were few manuscripts to record information and very few individuals could read them. Once one having heard a play, or story, or the recounting of a battle, the only way to store it was in the memory. This required a memory art, which the Greeks based on techniques of creating a series of 'places' and 'images' in the mind.

The art was reputedly invented by the poet Simonides, who chanted a poem to a Thessalian nobleman and his guests at a special occasion, but dedicated half of the poem to the god Castor and the other half to god Pollux. As a result of the split dedication, the nobleman offered to pay Simonides only half of the agreed sum. A messenger came shortly afterward requesting that Simonides step outside to see two gentlemen, at which point the roof of the banquet hall collapsed, killing the nobleman and all his guests. In the ensuing destruction and confusion, the dead was impossible to identity. Such was Simonides' memory that he was able to remember the place of every guest in the hall. This exercise gave him the idea for the art of memory. It was imputed that the two gentlemen were the gods Castor and Pollux in disguise.

The essence of the art of memory is as follows: we must form mental images of the things we wish to remember and store their images on familiar places, like objects in our house, so that the order of the places preserves the order of the things. With practice, the images of things will denote the things themselves. The process is very much like astrology, where we assign qualities to the sequence of zodiacal signs and assign people to their appropriate places

Roman orators and politicians used the memory art so they could deliver speeches with great accuracy. The tradition established by the Greek and Roman orators, poets and actors was carried through to the Renaissance, although after the invention of printing declined in importance.

Architectural Memory Arts

As a foundation of the art of memory, the Greeks and Romans used architecture and sculpture. A spacious and familiar building is memorized, including the decorations in the rooms. The speech to be remembered is associated with specific images, and the images are stored in a consistent and organized manner on the places within the building. When it was necessary to remember the speech, the orator travels in his imagination through the building, retrieving the images from the places upon which he had placed them. The order is fixed by the order of the building. In this manner, very long speeches could be remembered verbatim.

The places are selected with great care. Their structure and relationships are important because they are used over and over again. The places remain in memory as the various sets of memory images come and go. There are elaborate criteria for these memory places, for their ideal distances from each other, their size, shape, illumination, color and other conditions. The buildings can be either an actual building or an imaginary one.

The images have similar rules to guide their selection. There is a clear psychological rationale for the choice of images. Some images are remembered very clearly, while others are not so clear. Nature teaches the correct choice. Uninteresting things make hazy memory images, while evocative images bring vivid and sharply defined memories. Arousing emotional effects, unusual characteristics and bizarre forms all create good memory images. It is clear in this context that a highly valuable psychological issue is illustrated by the correct use of the memory art, and that vivid recollection is enhanced by positive emotional content and re-enforcement.

The Platonic Memory Idea

Plato described a knowledge that both precedes the life of our sense impressions, latent in our soul's memory, and transcends it. 'Ideas' are forms of reality the soul carries into life. In Plato's definition, true knowledge involves fitting the input from sense impressions into the imprinted higher reality, of which physical reality is a mere reflection. All supposedly 'original' concepts are by definition false and superficial. The implication is inherent in sacred architecture because the buildings based on archetypal forms encourage the remembering of the true Ideas of things. The Platonic memory art practiced in the Renaissance was organized in relation to the realities of the archetypal world.

Aristotle believed that memory is the basis of knowledge, as it is the modification of the input from the senses by memory that creates the material of intellect. It is more important to remember the relativity of the images in the mind than their mere existence. This idea is central to the philosophy of astrology. Aristotle implied that the soul makes higher thought processes possible and that imagination emanates from the same part of the soul. His ideas on the processes of recollection of one's past, association and the inherent order or disorder among the mental images which compose the rational mind eventually form a foundation for the psychology of Freud and Jung.

Metrodorus and the Astrological Memory Art

One of the most fascinating examples of the classical memory art is the Greek poet Metrodorus of Scepsis. Traditional memory places were divided into groups of five and ten, so he utilized the zodiac as a memory wheel. For each of the twelve signs and 36 decans of ten degrees each, there was an associated decanate figure. Each set of ten images was grouped under a more powerful image, and any image could be located both by its number and its decanate figure.

Metrodorus could not only remember everything that he heard, but he could also go from the present backwards into an evening's conversation and remember everything said in reverse. His system was fascinating because it utilized the order of the zodiac and its progression of signs and decanate figures instead architectural techniques to improve further the power of memory art.

Many of the great teachers of the Pythagorean revival, as well as St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas in late antiquity utilized memory systems to instill Christian concepts. The Jesuits still use memory as the cornerstone of their religious and moral education. The rose windows of the great cathedrals also used such a memory system inherent in their structure, order and symbolism. (See the chapter on Rose Windows in "Sacred Architecture.")

Architectural Memory Devices

In the medieval world the principles of the memory art were often applied to buildings and the iconography within them. For a largely uneducated populace, religious messages were transmitted by stories that could be expressed by art and architecture. Images of virtues and vices were recorded in buildings, particularly monastic and religious buildings, so that the moral and devotional qualities of the people could be educated and heightened. The outer form of the buildings reflected the inner eye of the devotional monk or peasant. Memory images exist throughout medieval art and architecture in the paintings, architecture, sculpture, illuminated manuscripts, rose windows and literature. Dante's Inferno was a description of the images of heaven, purgatory and hell. The memory art was integrated into art, literature and architecture.

Giulio Camillo (1480-1544) was one of the most famous men of the sixteenth century. He created a portable wooden memory theatre into which only two people could enter that contained the keys to the mysteries. Its secrets and form was only revealed to one person in the world, the King of France. Camillo claimed that anyone entering his magical theater would come out discoursing on any subject at Cicero's level of understanding. The integration of architecture and imagery was such that it contained memory places and loci which could contain all known knowledge. The power and reputation of this memory theatre reflected the emerging Hermetic/magical philosophy of the Renaissance. Books appeared which claimed to represent the mysteries of the Egyptians, particularly the Egyptian god of knowledge and letters, Thoth Hermes Trismegistus and the god Mercury. These writings combined the mystical tradition of the Hebrew Cabala with the philosophy of the Egyptians, Pythagoreans and Platonists, ideas espoused by some of the greatest men of the time. These Hermeticists believed that mind was influenced by the quality and organization of the images stored within it by the soul and reflected in the sensory input of a lifetime. By attracting superior imagery, the soul would be more likely to be fulfilled and a higher spiritual state attained.

Entering the Memory Theatre

In Camillo's theater seven steps and seven gangways represented the seven planets. The spectator looked from the stage into the audience. The positions and qualities of the people were used as memory places. Since the more important and distinguished people typically sat on the lowest seats at the theatre, so in the memory theatre the closest seats are the most important and become less so as they rise and step away from the stage. Each gangway had a gate or door decorated with images.

The sevenfold memory system of the theatre was based on Solomon's seven pillars of wisdom, the seven Sephiroth of the supercelestial world. Rather than placing memory places on vague and frail things, this allowed the enlightened Platonist to utilize eternal places as distinct from mundane ones. The art of memory became a spiritual process, bringing the soul to higher levels of awareness.

The images in Camillo's theater are astrologically based on the planets and their characteristics, gods and goddesses, and qualities. Each row of seats represents a level of being. Each planetary section creates a set of values that have appropriate imagery, including the tranquillity of Jupiter, the anger of Mars, the melancholy of Saturn, the love of Venus, etc. The theater enables the viewer to see the world from a higher state of consciousness, using superior images to allow the mind and soul to ascend to contact a super-celestial fountain of wisdom. Camillo successfully transformed the classical art of memory into an occult, magical Hermetic art of the spirit.

The philosopher Marsilio Ficino attempted to capture the spirit of the stars, the astral currents that pour down from above, and use them for improved health and life. The celestial life of the spirit is the ultimate goal, and the theatre is one of the ways to accomplish this goal. Camillo’s Memory Theater magically reflected the divine world in its proportions, architecture and imagery.

One of the great Italian architect Palladio's most interesting buildings is the Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza. The theatre was full of symbolic objects and overrun with memory places. The stage utilized magical effects because it is banked steeply so that from the audience that the streets on stage appear to vanish into the far distance. It was clearly created to express this memory art in practice.

The Globe Theatre

The theaters of Elizabethan London were spectacular. The original Globe Theatre was erected on the south bank of the Thames in 1599. It was used until it burned down in 1613, and was then rebuilt on the same foundations. William Shakespeare belonged to the company of actors who used the theatre for their performances and was almost certainly involved in its foundation.

The exact layout of the Globe is subject to much speculation from two sources — one from architects and archaeologists and the other from researchers into the stage directions and the dramatic texts of the time. It is well known that Shakespeare and his contemporaries' written plays lacked stage directions. Scholars have never been sure how locations on stage, entrance directions or other crucial directions were indicated.

The reconstruction indicates that the theaters had columns in the open courtyard that supported a covering protecting the inner part of the stage. The underside of the covering was painted with a zodiac circle and stars, representing the heavens. The paintings would have been not only accurate diagrams of the stars and their relative positions, but also representations of the spheres of the seven planets, or even more elaborate. The heavens covered dramas enacted within the Globe.

The combination of square and circle relates the Shakespearean theater to the original conception of the sacred temple. The Elizabethan "theater of the world" echoed the Leonardo man in the circle as keys to the Renaissance Humanist tradition, and reflected the relationship between macrocosm and microcosm. The theater, when created with these ideas in mind, truly represents a synthesis between the players and audience in a setting that expresses the hierarchy of spiritual levels as sacred architecture.

The spiritual qualities of Shakespeare’s plays show that the theatre was a vehicle through which to reinforce higher ideas. The multi-leveled openings on the stage signified these emerging qualities. The heavens above represented the Platonic 'world of ideas' from which everything emanated. The balconies mediated between heaven and earth. Scenes such as the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet showed the intercourse between sacred and mundane, or above and below.

It is the organization of the stage that is most interesting. The information made available by subdividing the stage into planetary zones creates intriguing implications for the staging of Shakespearean theatre. The shape of the stage in the Palladian version was a double square, the mystical and sacred shape traced back to the creation myths of ancient people. The marble tiles on the floor of each square are organized into seven rows and columns, making 49 squares in each half, or 98 squares in all. The square tiles are in a black and white checkerboard pattern, a common symbol for the binary, physical universe in Masonic and Rosicrucian ritual spaces. Tarot cards traditionally use the checkerboard pattern to signify the physical world, either as an endless landscape on the ground in the High Priest card or elevated to a higher plane, as in the Magician.

"The High Priest" from the Mandala Astrological Tarot by A T Mann

The squares on the stage are dedicated to planets. Astrological aspects are combinations of planets that indicate archetypal behavioral qualities. The grid of planetary aspects determines stage directions for plays. The cosmic qualities of Shakespearean drama are very important. The proposed reconstruction of the theatre could be used as a model for the staging of plays reflecting the Renaissance humanist perspective and also solve problems created by staging such plays in our time.

Creating a Theatre of the Mind

An example of the way the stage could have been used to determine the positions and movements of actors is easy to illustrate. The five entrances to the stage at ground level and the three balcony entrances have obvious meanings when considered from the cosmic perspective. The central entrance signifies the spirit – an actor entering from this position would speak from a spiritual perspective. When a character exited here it signified that his or her action expressed spiritual quality. The entrances to either side of the center represent to the left negative emotions and to the right positive emotions. A character emerging from left rear stage would be negative and in a black emotional state, while if he exited through the right-hand opening, there would have been a transformation from negative to positive emotion during his time on stage.

The openings to the sides of the stage represent mental states, again with left being negative or unconscious ideas or thoughts and right being positive or conscious ideas or thoughts. The permutations of entrances and exits could indicate to the audience the exact role of each character and define clearly their movements. Once upon the stage, the exact position of each actor would have a precise meaning. Movement during dialogue could be choreographed to indicate to the audience qualities expressed by each role. The staging would represent each character and dialogue in astrological-cosmic terms.

A Shakespearean play choreographed using the Astrological Memory Theatre would synchronize the spiritual message of the play with its underlying astrological structure, and would be a cosmic exercise for those who understood the language of the theatre of the world.

"Then our play's begun

When we are borne, and to the world first enter,

And all find exits when their parts are done.

If then the world a theatre present,

As by the roundnesse it appears most fit,

Built with starre galleries of hye ascent,

In which Jehove doth as spectator sit,

And chief determiner to applaud the best,

And their endeavours crowne with more than merit;

but by their evil actions doomes the rest

To end distrac't, whilst others praise inherit;

He that denys then theatres should be

He may as well deny a world to me."