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JULY 2009  

ancient and modern systems for the classification of wisdom
by Nancy Humphreys

Today we use big words like algorithms, classification, and taxonomy to describe ways of storing and retrieving data. But astrology, the I Ching, the Kabbala, runes, and the Tarot were all ways of encoding and communicating wisdom too. These ancient ways, thousands of years old, are just as sophisticated, perhaps even more sophisticated, as our modern ways for organizing all human knowledge.

Astrology, in particular, is a key bridge between ancient and modern ways of discovering new information.

REVIEW OF PARTS ONE AND TWO

Part one

We learned about "open" and "closed" systems for organizing ideas.

Examples of closed systems for accessing ancient and modern knowledge: Dewey Decimal system for library books, used mainly by public libraries; the Minor Arcana of the Tarot, 56 cards similar to numbered and face cards in a deck of playing cards; and the I Ching, a 5,000+ year old Chinese system of sixty-four hexagrams created from combinations of six lines, each line of which is either broken (yin) or unbroken (yang).

Examples of open systems for accessing ancient and modern knowledge: Library of Congress (LC) system for classifying books, used mainly in college libraries; The Major Arcana of the Tarot, 22 cards similar to the Joker in a playing card deck; and the Runes, 2,000 year old letters of the Viking alphabet usually carved or painted onto small stones. (1)

Part Two

We looked at how astrology, like the Tarot, contains both "closed" and "open systems for organizing ideas.

The two closed systems within astrology are the twelve astrological signs and the twelve houses. The signs represent time as found in the cycle of the solar year. The houses represent space as seen from along the earth's horizon.

The two open systems within astrology are the planets (and other heavenly bodies), and individuals (particular people, places or other entities) for which a reading is done.

Astrology is unique. Like the Tarot, it has open parts (planets and individuals) and closed parts (signs and houses). But unlike the two separate parts of the Tarot, the four parts of astrology are closely integrated to form an organic whole.

In astrology, the “open systems” of individuals and planets become interconnected within the “closed systems” of houses and signs (space and time) by the degree around the horizon where each of the planets is located in the sky in reference to the location of the individual at a particular place and moment in time on Earth.

Although all the ancient systems have the closed and/or open systems in common, Astrology is quite unique in its tight integration of the closed and open systems within it.

And astrology points to a way forward for information access as well as shows the way back to common roots among all the ancient systems of wisdom.

THE THIRD MODERN LIBRARY SYSTEM

RanganathanAstrology appears to have spawned a third modern method of library organization. This method is called “facet analysis.” It was created in the early twentieth century by S.R. Ranganathan, an Indian mathematician and “the father of [modern] library science.”

To give you an idea of how differently this man thought than most, here is his most famous creation:

The Five Laws of Library Science

  • Books are for use.
  • Every reader his or her book.
  • Every book its reader.
  • Save the time of the reader.
  • The Library is a growing organism.

Ranganathan’s faceted system of classification is the culmination of ancient, symbolic systems of wisdom such as the I Ching, Tarot and astrology into a modern library classification scheme. It is also the bridge to future knowledge.

Astrology connects to Ranganathan’s system through his five universal facets and through the four elements found in most of the ancient systems for accessing knowledge. (2)

THE FIVE FACETS

The fundamental facets that Ranganathan developed were: Personality, Matter, Energy, Space, and Time.

  • Personality—what the object is primarily “about.” This is considered the “main facet.”
  • Matter—the material of the object
  • Energy—the processes or activities that take place in relation to the object
  • Space—where the object happens or exists
  • Time—when the object occurs [Wikipedia]

Ranganathan felt that any “thing” could be analyzed by use of these five facets. When strung out in a line with colons between them, these facets form his Colon Classification. Colon Classification was later modified by British and American periodicals indexers and is sometimes called “string” or “chain” indexing. This is a method of indexing very popular for fields within engineering.

Facets can also be visualized as a three-dimensional cube, with each of the four sides of the cube being a facet of some “thing.” Hans Wellisch, for example, provides an example from the field of literature. Here the four other facets of a particular work of literature might be: theme(s): form (or genre): language (or country): and era (or century), e.g., tragic romance novel in French from the 19th century (i.e., Madame Bovary).

For our purposes, Ranganathan’s own five facets are what count. These basic concepts correspond very closely to the open and closed systems within astrology. Here’s one suggested set of parallels between Ranganathan’s facets and astrological systems:

Personality:  planets
Matter:  individuals      
Energy:  aspects of planets
Space:  houses
Time:  signs

In other words, I’m suggesting that Ranganathan’s “Theory of Everything” using his five universal principals for facets may have been derived from ancient astrology. (3)

In addition, astrology, like most of the ancient systems of wisdom, employed the “four elements” which also appear along with the fifth element called “Space” in Indian Ayurvedic theory, a system Ranganathan, as a Hindu, was familiar with.

THE FOUR ELEMENTS

The four basic elements are Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. Various cultures added a fifth element: e.g., “Metal” in China, Tibet, and used by Arabic and European medevial alchemists; “Aether” in Greece and Europe; “Void” in Japan;  and “Space” in Tibet and India. The four elements are the basis for parts of the Tarot, the Kabbala, the I Ching, and astrology.

But these four (or sometimes five) elements don’t show up in modern library systems. They were thoroughly discredited by Sir Francis Bacon, who kicked off the new “scientific method” movement of the “Enlightenment” period in the 17th through 19th centuries in England and Europe. About the only way Westerners even know of these four elements today is through study of the Tarot, Kabbala, or astrology, or Elizabethan-era English literature, or Eastern medicine and philosophies.

Portable Magic, a book that I reviewed in an earlier issue of Daykeeper Journal, makes clear many of the connections among The Kabbala, astrology, and the Tarot around use of the four basic elements. It is also possible to link the four elements via their doubled use in the Court Cards of the Minor Arcana of the Tarot to 16 of the I Ching hexagrams. This is because the some of the I Ching is based on trigrams for Fire (Li), Water (Kan), Earth (Kun) and Air (Ch’ien).  The I Ching is over 5,000 years old.

You can see that the widespread notion that Marco Polo was the first person to really bridge the distance between Europe and the far East in the 13th century becomes rather absurd. Unlike the plethora of flood stories in ancient pre-Christian religions, the prevalence of the same basic four elements in the ancient world doesn’t seem to be explainable merely by the weather!

In astrology, the four elements show up in horoscope signs. According to Julie Loar (“Sign Language: Exploring the Enduring Meaning in the Zodiac” Atlantis Rising! July/August 2008, pp. 48-49), the twelve horoscope signs are created from four elements (air, earth, fire and water) and three modes (cardinal, fixed, and mutable). She says, “Ancient Chinese and Hindu systems are organized in the same manner using different vocabulary.”

LOOKING BACK

I would like to suggest a hypothesis that the ancient world, even millennia before Christ, was far more connected than modern science and Western history would lead us to believe. The ancient forms of wisdom were based on universally understood symbols that were potent and portable across vast distances. They did not depend on particular language skills or writing to communicate. Messages could be passed on easily with just a card or a small stone or a set of lines on the back of a turtle shell or written in the dirt.

LOOKING FORWARD

As far as the future goes, Ranganathan’s method of faceted analysis offers a new way of understanding ancient systems of wisdom. One has only to look at all of the ancient systems that are “closed” wholly or in part(s) or in some other manner: e.g., the I Ching, Astrology, Kabbala, Runes and the Tarot, in terms of three-dimensional facets to gain a more complete understanding of each and all them.

The difference between “open” and “closed” systems lies in this: 

Any item in an “open system” can be changed, moved or deleted without affecting its meaning or that of the other items in the system.

This isn’t the case with closed systems. Items within closed systems gain meaning by their position. Their full meaning is understood only in the context of all other items within that system.

The I Ching, the Tarot, and astrology all include closed systems where each individual hexagram, Minor Arcana card, sign or house must be understood in context with all of the others. The Tarot includes a separate open system of Major Arcana cards that can be used alone or “set against” Minor Arcana cards to amplify or otherwise modify them.

In astrology, the closed and open systems are very well integrated. When doing a “reading” for an individual or for a group of persons with a particular astrological Sign, aspects (e.g, conjunctions, squares, etc.) among the Planets perform the same function as Major Arcana cards do in a Tarot reading or the Wyrd (a blank stone) does in a Rune reading.

But astrology, like the Tarot, I Ching, Kabbala, Runes, and other ancient systems was not merely a method used for “divination” or for “magic”. It was also a method of storing and accessing information.

Furthermore, astrology, as incorporated by S.R. Ranganathan into faceted classification, again has the potential to be a model for a scalable way to classify all human knowledge into one organized system for accessing information.

For example, it looks as if the Internet needs some combination of “closed” and “open” systems of knowledge organization in order to keep up with the immense rapid expansion of information appearing on the Web(s). Astrology provides one way for looking at Ranganathan’s facets of Time and Space as “closed” systems within an infinite universe. Probably there are many other ways (even an infinite number of ways) to limit these two facets or the others for quick searches for information.

Meanwhile, you too can expand your own knowledge using Ranganathan’s method for analyzing facets of Personality, Matter, Energy, Space, and Time. Begin with an object or an idea, say, a flower, a bird or a new word, and explore all of its other facets. Follow wherever these facets may lead you along any serendipitous path towards the further understanding you seek. This is the real “library” Ranganathan wanted to see created for everyone to use. 

Endnotes:

(1) According to Jean Marie Stine in Empowering Your Life With Runes, 2004, pp. 244-245, Runes were used to mark the 24 waxing and waning cycles of the moon throughout the year. This order would be "closed." However Rune images come from both nature and human activity, and they do not correlate with only one time of the year. Also the better-known uses of Runes are for making talismans (on buildings, for example) and for "readings" where the Runes are chosen randomly and the moon cycle each represents has little or no meaning. For these reasons, with what we now know about these ancient symbols at this time in history, I'm considering the Runes an "open" system of access to wisdom.

(2) An exception seems to be Runes. Runes depict natural symbols that include forms of fire and water, earth and air, but Runes do not appear to be based upon these four essential elements.

(3) An obscure possible documentation of this link is in the index of Ranganathan’s biography of Ramanujan, another early 20th century Indian mathematician who is featured in the fictional story by David Leavitt, The Indian Clerk, 2007. In the index to Ranganathan’s biography, under the main topic of “Astrology” we see:

    Astrology rift [referred in relation to]
      Ramanujan
        Irt [in relation to]
               His death B24
               His greatness MC4
               His reputation B24

From "Ramanujan" by S.R. Ranganathan (1892-1972), published in 1967.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to see Ranganathan’s book to find out what the astrology references in the book said. This information came by email from my brother, James, who was able to view the book at a nearby college library.

Copyright © Nancy Humphreys 2009.


Nancy HumphreysNancy Humphreys is a former librarian and the author of the forthcoming book series, The I Ching Circles.

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October 2009
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Jessica Murray:
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