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How Astrology Works and Why

Astrology first began when the first caveman crawled out of the first cave to see the last great ice age begin to recede as the sun rose, on the first day of the first Spring. The day grew warmer and brighter, and he (or she) felt excited and happy to be alive, at least until the sun had risen as high as it could and began to set. Then, very disappointed, the first caveman crawled back into the first cave, sad that the sun had disappeared so quickly and frightened that the dark cold ice would return.

It must have taken a very long time watching the sun come and go for that first caveman— or his children or grandchildren— to come to trust that the sun would always return. Like Charlie Brown not quite trusting that Lucy would hold his football steady for him to kick, we humans at the very beginning must have been a very suspicious group, uncertain as we were about what might happen next as the seasons came and went. The cycles of light and dark, warmth and cold, were studied very carefully by the wiser ones, whose advice helped counsel the strong ones in leading the tribe. The partnership of wisdom and strength was established at the very start of human civilization in just about this way.

The cycle of day and night, in which the sun was seen to rise and set every twenty-four hours, was probably the first cycle to be mapped out. It probably took a while longer to notice the monthly cycle of the moon’s phases, as it waxed for 14 days or so from new to full before waning back again from full to new. The annual cycle of the seasons of the year might have taken even longer to recognize, as the sun came north in the warmer months of the year, and then went south during the colder months of the year. In time the relationships between these cycles of the earth, sun and moon were measured out in the regular intervals we have come to know as days, months, and years.

As they studied the stars to learn about these cycles of light and dark, warmth and cold, seven of them were identified as “planets” (wandering stars); they were the bright sun and moon and five smaller points of light that had their own cycles in the sky: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. The days of the week were named after them. Our European tradition results from a blend of Classic Mediterranean (Greek and Roman) with North European (Norse and Saxon) traditions. Here is a list of the seven “planets” as they were named in the ancient Latin and Saxon languages.

Sun Sol Sun's Day Sunday
Moon Luna Moon's Day Monday
Mars Martis Tiw's Day Tuesday
Mercury Mercurius Woden's Day Wednesday
Jupiter Jove Thor's Day Thursday
Venus Veneris Freya's Day Friday
Saturn Saturni Seterne's Day Saturday

The cycle of the year was measured at first against the constellations of stars, and as measurements became more precise (thanks to the stone observatories built all around the world, such as the pyramids of Egypt and Stonehenge in England), the ancient astronomers began paying attention to four bright stars known as the “Watchers of the Heavens” which announced the start of each season. If the first star to appear in the east after sunset was Regulus (in the constellation of Leo the Lion), then Spring had begun. If Antares was the first star, then it was Summer. If Fomalhaut was rising in the east as the sun was setting in the west it was Fall, and if Aldebaran was rising at sunset it was Winter.

These four stars became the framework for a measure of the seasons in twelve equal parts known as the signs of the zodiac (“circle of life” from the ancient Greek word zoe, meaning “life”). They were named after twelve of the constellations through which the sun, moon and planets (“wandering stars” from the ancient Greek word planasthai, meaning “wanderer”) traveled. To this day the seasons of the year are measured by these twelve signs of the zodiac, all of equal size and each one lasting about 30 days. The dates for each sign will fluctuate a day or so from year to year from the ones given here:

Many people confuse the astrological signs of the zodiac with the astronomical constellations they were named after, but they are very different. There are in fact thirteen (not twelve) astronomical constellations through which the ecliptic passes, and they are not equal but of various sizes. It is interesting to compare the signs of the zodiac given above with the constellations given below, and to know that while you were born in one particular sign the sun might be in a different constellation. According to the International Astronomical Union, these are generally the days when the sun occupies each constellation (again, the dates will fluctuate a day or so from year to year).

This gradual shift between the stars in heaven and the seasons on earth was recognized by the ancient Greeks as the precession of the equinox. The equinox (the first day of Spring) has travelled backwards through the constellation Pisces for the past few thousand years and is now approaching the constellation Aquarius; when it enters the constellation Aquarius we will be living in the Age of Aquarius. No one knows when this will happen, but most guesses are that it will happen sometime during the next few hundred years.

When the partnership of wisdom and strength was established at the very start of human civilization, by the tribal chief asking advice of the tribal shaman, two ways of thinking began to develop: the literal and the oracular. The literal way of thinking was good for measuring tangible things and solving problems in an analytic way, while the oracular way of thinking was good for exploring the meanings of things and for inspiring people, appealing to their feelings. Wherever these two ways of thinking cooperated civilization continued to grow, with the literal minds developing technological advances and the oracular minds contributing philosophical insight.

The discovery of the Rosetta Stone in Egypt in 1799 helped us to understand how these two ways of thinking worked together. It showed the two written languages used in ancient Egypt, the demotic language and the hieroglyphic language, side by side. Demotic languages were based on the evolution of an alphabet made up of letters that could be written in various combinations to name something that was literal and dealt with tangible issues such as taxes and commerce, while the more ancient abstract hieroglyphic languages made up of pictures were more symbolic and dealt with the abstract concerns of philosophy, psychology and religion.

Astrology is a symbolic, oracular approach to understanding the meaning of life; it is not a literal language that simply describes the personality traits of an individual, though it is usually reduced to that. The newspaper “horoscope” is an example of astrology oversimplified when it tells us what will happen to us on a given day, given the month we were born in. A horoscope is actually not a general list of what might happen to certain “sun signs”; it refers instead to a specific map that is drawn up for a specific person at the time and place of their birth, and it shows the various meanings and agendas at work within us. A horoscope shows far more than a “sun sign”, it shows all ten traditional “planets” in all twelve signs of the zodiac, so a much more complicated astrological picture is given than many people realize.

The most useful way of thinking about a horoscope or birthchart is that it maps out the meaning of our personality. It is fairly easy to think about the meaning of great people such as Einstein or Martin Luther King Jr— we all agree on what these people mean to us. And then each of you know what your parents and other family members mean to you as special people, but you know they mean that just for you. The person sitting next to you has different parents, and they mean something similar but still different to them. What is difficult is to know what we mean, what our purpose in life is. This is where the horoscope comes in. People who have not studied astrology carefully believe that the horoscope can predict what will happen, or can define a person in specific detail. This is like saying that the preview of a movie will tell you exactly what will happen in the movie— usually it doesn’t. An astrologer looks at the planets to learn what is possible, just as the manager of a baseball team might look at the players on his team to decide who will play what position.

The ten planets name specific parts of human nature, or particular sub-personalities within the psyche:

The “Lights” of the horoscope, the Sun and Moon, establish the sense of identity. They are the two Lights, the rulers of day and night, just as the chief and shaman rule the tribe through technology and tradition.

The Sun is how we think of ourselves— our ego, you might say. No matter how you are with your friends you always know which one you are, and you never confuse yourself with someone else. This is your ego. The Sun represents the day side of human nature, conscious individuality as the rational, literal aspect of identity, sometimes associated with the ego. I think of it as representing the left (analytic, exclusive) side of the brain, rather than a particularly “masculine” quality.

The Moon is the other side of who we feel we are— our moods, our habits, the things we do more automatically, more instinctively. The Moon represents the night side of human nature, the irrational, associative aspect of identity, and is sometimes connected with the subconscious instinct for relatedness. It represents the right (emotional, inclusive) side of the brain, rather than a “feminine” quality.

If the Sun is in one sign and the Moon is in another, we may seem to contradict ourselves from time to time— and most of us are like that. This identifies our rational and our instinctive sides, which are not always working together cooperatively.

The three inner planets constitute the three parts of personality. Mercury represents the mind, especially as objective perception (gathering data through the five senses), reason (the thinking process as a detached analysis), and communication by an explicit written or spoken expression. Venus represents the heart, especially as subjective perception, the inner process of valuing, empathy, and comprehension in an implicit, involved sense of relatedness. Mars represents the body, especially its affect and behavior; it also represents advocacy, activity and assertiveness— particularly towards those things desired.

The two great “gas giants” that lie beyond combine to establish character. Jupiter represents the extroverted aspect of the psyche: aspiration, and the urge to expand into the outer world in a fulfillment of one’s inner potential. It also represents the altruistic sense of social consciousness, justice, and commitment. Saturn, on the other hand, represents the introverted aspect of the psyche: conscience and integrity. It is often represented as the superego, or the personal sense of social obligation and responsibility.

The three modern “transpersonal” planets constitute the three stages of developing a sense of selfhood. Uranus represents the genius for hearing a “different drummer”. Generally mistaken for rebellion against social norms at first, this aspect of the psyche will eventually recognize a potentially unique contribution to society. Neptune represents devotion, the mystic whose vision initiates a personal transformation. It can at first seem overwhelmingly confused and hypersensitive, with a tendency to denial or indulgence often the result. Pluto is the embodiment of a fundamental purpose in life, that part of the psyche farthest removed from the central ego and therefore its ultimate container— the self-realized soul.

The twelve signs of the zodiac describe these parts of the psyche the way adjectives describe nouns. This is what they can mean:

We draw a horoscope as a map of the day and place you were born. The first thing that is drawn is a circle around the baby that is being born, representing the circle of life, the zodiac, divided into its twelve signs. When we know the time of birth we know where the sun will be, and so we can know how the signs are arranged around the baby. Then we can place the other planets around the birth, according to their positions in the zodiac. Sometimes I think of them as the fairy godmothers gathered about a newborn’s crib in children’s stories.

These notes were prepared for a presentation made several years ago to students at a middle school,
and appeared in The Observer Quarterly: volume one, issue three (Spring 1998).

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