Monday, November 21, 2016

The Speech of the Stars: An Astrological Interlude

Last week’s post on divination, for the sake of simplicity, finessed a distinction that’s actually of some importance—the existence of different categories of divination. Most of the divinatory oracles in use these days belong to a single category, which is technically called “sortilege.” That’s what you call any oracle that involves the (apparently) random selection of one or more symbols out of a predetermined set. Tarot cards, runes, geomantic figures, Ogham fews, the hexagrams of the I Ching, the letters of the Coelbren alphabet, and the list goes on: all these are methods of sortilege.

Sortilege is the most popular approach to divination these days, but it’s not the only game in town, and a brief glimpse at some of the other options is appropriate here. The oldest of all methods of divination, as far as anyone knows, is omen divination: you watch for something unusual to happen, and when it does, you interpret it.

That was the most prestigious method of divination in classical times.  Before any important event, such as the founding of a temple or the beginning of an official’s term of office, an augur—a professional omen reader—would sit down in the appropriate location, facing south, and wait for an omen to happen: the appearance of a lucky or unlucky bird, thunder from this or that direction, or what have you. We still talk about the inauguration of a president or other elected official, even though nobody but birdwatchers notices what’s perched in the trees beforehand. 

Mind you, omens still happen, even if there’s a shortage of augurs to interpret them. The news media in America just before the recent election, for example, carried a story from Florida, where two bald eagles, one male, one female, got into a fight in midair and plunged together into the gutter. After a few minutes, the male flew up and away, leaving the female eagle to be rescued by the local animal-control department. Any ancient Greek augur worth his salt would have known exactly how to read that omen.

The difficulty with omen divination, though, is that omens don’t necessarily show up when required. I suspect a lot of augurs spent a lot of long hours staring south at an empty sky waiting for something, anything, to happen. The other approaches to divination all get around this by making an omen happen when required. Sortilege is one of these, but there are three others in common use.

The first of these doesn’t have a common name, but without too much distortion it could be called Rohrshach-blot divination. Tea leaf reading is the method of this kind that most people know about, but there are other practices of the same kind—for example, wizards in Finland used to pour molten lead into cold water, wait until the lead congealed, and read the future from the blobby shape produced. Methods of these kind generally use no-holds-barred free association to interpret the results, so their accuracy depends entirely on the intuitive gifts of the diviner.

The same is true of the next kind of divination I have in mind, which is scrying. That’s what the stereotypical Romany seer is doing when she stares into a crystal ball and sees a tall, dark stranger coming into your life. Crystal balls aren’t the only option; any more or less reflective surface will do. People who have the gift of scrying can put themselves into a light trance as they gaze at the surface, and then they begin to see things. It can be an extremely effective method, but it depends on having strong intuitive gifts and also the talent of going into the light trance, which not everyone can do. For example, I can’t manage the thing at all.

Then we go to the other extreme, to those systems of divination that require no special states of consciousness, because they rely on cyclical phenomena that, at least in theory, have objective effects on human consciousness and thus on human affairs. There are a number of divination systems in this category, but the one that I plan to discuss—partly because it’s the one with which I’ve had a decent amount of experience, partly because it has had an immense role in the occult traditions of the western world—is astrology: “the speech of the stars,” to give the combination astro-logos its actual meaning in ancient Greek.

I should probably be more specific here, because there are four broad traditions of astrology in the world. There’s Mesoamerican astrology, Chinese astrology, Indian astrology, and the Western tradition, which had its roots in ancient Mesopotamia and went from there through Greece and the Arab world to Europe and the European diaspora. There are important similarities among these four traditions, but also important differences, and it’s not safe to generalize from one to the others. Thus I’m talking about the last of the traditions just named, Western astrology.

What’s more, all four traditions are full of the same lively process of competition between different schools of theory and practice that you find in, ahem, every other science. What I’ll be discussing here is the kind of astrology used by the great majority of practitioners in the English-speaking world: more specifically, the particular version of that kind of astrology that emerged in early to mid-twentieth century America, as taught and practiced by Llewellyn George and Ivy Goldstein-Jacobson, the two writers I’ve studied most closely.

It is, to begin with, tropical astrology. No doubt this phrase suggests to many of my readers that it ought to be practiced under a palm tree with a pina colada close at hand, but that’s not actually what the term denotes. To understand the difference between tropical astrology and the other kind, sidereal astrology, it’s useful—surprisingly so—to turn to one of the standard criticisms of astrology.

This is the claim that astrology can’t work because the precession of the equinoxes—the slow wobble of the Earth’s axis that takes 25,920 years or so to complete a full cycle—has moved the groups of stars named Aries, Taurus, etc. out of the regions of the sky that share those names, and astrology hasn’t taken that into account. It’s a very common sound bite flung by self-proclaimed skeptics against astrology, and like most such sound bites, it seems to make sense so long as you don’t know the first thing about the subject.

In point of fact, the very first surviving discussion of the precession of the equinoxes that has survived is in a book by the Roman astrologer Claudius Ptolemy. Pick up any astrological textbook that’s beyond the babytalk level and odds are you’ll find a detailed discussion of precession. Many of my readers may have heard the phrase “the age of Aquarius” in an astrological context—what defines that age is, again, precession. So, yes, astrologers know all about it.

Why hasn’t the shifting of star groups affected the location of those regions of the sky that astrologers call the signs of the Zodiac? It’s really quite simple. The signs are not the constellations.

As seen from the Earth, the Sun appears to move across the background of stars at a little less than one degree a day, following a track in space called the ecliptic—the name comes from the fact that eclipses happen when the Moon crosses that track. There are four important points along the ecliptic: the two equinoctial points, where the ecliptic crosses the celestial equator (the projection of the Earth’s equator into space), where the Sun may be found at the spring and fall equinoxes, and the two solstitial points, when the Sun is as far from the celestial equator as it gets, up against the Tropic of Cancer or Capricorn at the northern hemisphere’s summer and winter equinoxes respectively.

Those four points are at right angles to each other, marking out four ninety-degree wedges of space. Astrologers divide each of those wedges into three, to produce the twelve signs. Each sign got its name from the constellation that was there in classical times, when casting a horoscope usually involved noting the angle of the Sun with an astrolabe at the moment of birth, then waiting until after sunset to see where the planets were; the constellations were convenient signposts back then. As mathematics improved, tables of planetary positions took the place of the astrolabe, and so nobody cared much when the constellations drifted out of the signs to which they’d lent their names.

The signs are not the constellations. The signs of the zodiac are thirty-degree wedges of space defined by the relationship of the Sun and the Earth, with the thin point at the center of the Earth and the base along an arc of the ecliptic, like slices of celestial pizza. Each wedge has its own distinct flavor or character, and when the Sun, the Moon, or one of the planets is in a given wedge, its influence on Earth takes on some of that flavor.

Take a moment to imagine the Earth in space. Spread out in the middle distance are an assortment of other celestial bodies: the Sun, blazing at the center of the solar system; the Moon, circling the Earth; the other planets moving along their own orbits. Each of these bodies is either on the ecliptic or fairly close to it, and so each one falls into one of the signs, the thirty-degree wedges of space I’ve just described, which are established by the relationship of the Earth to the Sun. The constellations and the individual stars? For all practical purposes, they’re just background decor.

That’s the universe of the tropical astrologer. It’s only fair to note that there’s also a system called sidereal astrology, which is used by a small minority of Western astrologers, and which assigns those wedges of space according to the location of the constellations rather than the location of the solstices and equinoxes. (Again, this sort of disagreement between competing theories happens in every science.) There are various systems of sidereal astrology, and apparently some people get good results with them.  The one I’ve explored, the one used and then discarded by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in its early days, produced inaccurate predictions and embarrassingly bad personality readings when I used it, which is why I went back to tropical astrology. Still, your mileage may vary.

Skeptics of the sort who like to rabbit on about how precession disproves astrology also like to insist that there’s no way that the stars, all those light-years away, could affect events here on Earth. With this claim the tropical astrologer has no disagreement at all. The universe of tropical astrology stops at the limits of the solar system, and even scientists admit that the planets are much, much closer than the stars and thus able to exert measurable effects on this planet. The thesis of tropical astrology is simply that there are more effects of this kind than modern science has gotten around to noticing, mostly because it doesn’t want to look—and that these effects can be tracked by the tools of astrology.

Some astrologers of the last century who were also students of occultism suggested what, to my mind, is the most plausible explanation for the way that astrological influences reach the Earth. We’ve already talked about the astral light, the subtle whatever-it-is—not energy in the sense that physicists give that word, and probably not matter either—that, ahem, “surrounds us and penetrates us, and binds the solar system together.” In occult theory, the Sun is the source of the astral light—presumably every star is the source of astral light in its own system—and as the astral light from our Sun streams out to the edges of the solar system, it forms complex patterns of resonance and reverberation around each of the planets, which then react with one another in predictable ways.

If that were the case, you’d get the strongest effects either from the body that was the primary source of astral light, or from a body that was really, really close to the Earth—and in astrology, that’s exactly what you do in fact get. The Sun and the Moon are far more powerful in a chart than the planets. If you know somebody’s Sun sign, Moon sign, and rising sign—the wedge of the heavens that was on the eastern horizon at the moment of birth—and nothing else, you know much more about them than if you know the location of all the planets in their birth chart but don’t know the three points just named.

What’s more, the planets are more important in a chart than smaller bodies.  After the discovery of the asteroids, astrologers went to work trying to figure out what they meant; the astrology of the asteroids is a field for specialists these days, though, because the influence of these little lumps of rock turned out to be fairly minor most of the time. The discovery of the Kuiper Belt objects off beyond Pluto has launched similar investigations on the part of today’s astrologers; while everyone’s pretty sure that Eris, Sedna, and the other glorified snowballs out there in the frozen outer reaches of the solar system have some effect, it’s doubtful that they’ll have much more influence than asteroids.

So you’ve got the Sun, Moon, planets, and a variety of minor bodies, each of which seems to lend a specific force to human consciousness and life, moving through the pizza-wedges of the signs, each of which has a distinct flavor or character that it seems to impart to any celestial body that, from our perspective on Earth, passes through the sign. There are three other sets of factors. The first are the houses, which are twelve more pizza-slice wedges of the sky, defined not by the solstices and equinoxes but by the location on Earth for which a chart is cast. There are various ways to calculate the cusps (dividing points) of the houses, each of which has its partisans—again, the sort of competition of theory and practice usual in every science—but in most systems, the four cardinal points are the same:   the ascendant at the eastern horizon, the descendant at the western horizon, the midheaven at the ecliptic’s greatest elevation, and the nadir at its lowest point. It’s the fine points of dividing the quarters into three slices each that are still up for debate.

Where the planets have their specific forces and the signs have their flavors or characters, the houses relate to the different aspects of human life. The first house, which is just below the ascendant, relates to personality, and so any celestial object in that house will exert its force, flavored by the sign it’s in, predominantly on the personality. Similarly, the tenth house, which is just east of the midheaven, relates to career, and any celestial object in the tenth house will influence the career in accordance with its force and the flavor of the sign it happens to be in.

That’s the first factor. The second factor is that each celestial body relates to the signs in its own idiosyncratic way. The Sun, for example, has a special connection with Leo; its influence is unusually strong there, and if the cusp of one of the houses is in Leo, the Sun will influence the part of life governed by that house, even if it’s in a different house in the chart. Astrologers express this by saying that the Sun rules Leo. Correspondingly, the Sun is very weak in Aquarius—in its detriment, in astrological jargon. In Aries, the Sun is exalted—that is, it tends to express its influence in an unusually beneficial manner—while in Libra it’s in its fall, and expresses its influence in an unusually negative manner. The Moon and the planets have their own rulerships, detriments, exaltations, and falls, which work exactly the same way.

The third factor, finally, is that celestial bodies can affect one another if their positions form certain angles when seen from the standpoint of Earth. At some angles—especially 60° and 120°—they reinforce each other; at others—especially 90° and 180°—they conflict with each other. What if they aren’t at one of these angles? In that case, they don’t have a thing to do with each other. These angles are called aspects; there are major aspects, which have strong effects, and minor aspects, which have less obvious effects.

Sounds complicated, doesn’t it? It is. It’s an intricate, extraordinarily complex, and rather fussy form of divination that has had more research, experimentation, retrospective analysis, and testing put into it than all other Western systems of divination put together. One of the downsides of astrology is that it takes a lot of study and practice to get good at it. I got to the point of being able to do clear, accurate Tarot readings after about six months of steady practice, and it took me less than that to become a good geomancer; by contrast, I’ve been studying astrology pretty systematically for getting on for seven years, and there are still entire branches of theory and practice relating to the speech of the stars about which I still basically don’t have a clue.

(One of the things I haven’t mentioned yet is that you can use astrology for much, much more than birth charts. You can take a birth chart and progress it, to give year-by-year predictions about the life of the chart’s subject; that’s predictive astrology. You can choose a time to start something in order to give it the best possible start; that’s elective astrology. You can cast a chart for the moment a question is asked, and read the answer to the question right off the chart; that’s horary astrology. You can cast a chart for the moment you first feel ill, and use the chart to figure out the cause, course, and result of the illness; that’s medical astrology. You can cast a chart for one of the equinoxes or solstices for the capital city of a country, and get a very clear sense of the mood of the country and the course of political events for the following three months; that’s mundane astrology. Birth charts? That’s natal astrology, or if you prefer a more ornate term, genethliac astrology.)

Another downside is that astrology is inherently “fuzzy.” An astrological chart, whether it’s a birth chart or something else, talks in general categories. That doesn’t mean that anything goes; if you know what you’re doing, you can draw hard and fast conclusions from a chart—but there’s a gap between the conclusions you can draw and the exact details of the way they’re expressed. For example, I have Uranus in the first house of my natal chart. That’s the classic placement of the eccentric, the person who instinctively veers left where everyone else veers right, whose interests are at right angles to other people’s and gets bored with anything that’s too popular—and I’m unquestionably that sort of person.

What couldn’t be told from the chart is exactly what kind of eccentric I would turn out to be. A good Tarot reader or scryer could have gotten details; an astrologer, by and large, has to settle for “eccentric, with a taste for old things” (the latter due to my Saturn placement). Mind you, there are astrologers who can read a chart the way a Tarot reader reads the cards, and extract all kinds of improbably accurate data from it; I suspect what’s going on here is that intuition’s being applied on top of astrology.

But there’s an upside that goes along with that: you can surf the waves of astrological influence, to a much greater extent than you can surf other divination methods. If you find something in your natal chart you don’t like, once you know about it, you can work around it. If you have a bad transit—that is to say, a planet moving through a position where it’s in a difficult aspect to something in your birth chart, and thus influences your consciousness and life in some unwelcome way—you can deliberately counter its influence. You take fewer risks when Mars is afflicted, allow more time when Saturn is being difficult, decide not to order that second piece of pie when Jupiter’s in a bad position. Equally, when you have a favorable transit, you run with it.

All this suggests to me that there really is something objective behind astrology—something that more or less corresponds to the occult teaching referenced earlier. That’s a possibility I’d encourage readers to keep in mind as we proceed.

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It’s been a while now since I proposed a contest, asking readers to write stories about magic that dealt with magic as it actually works, rather than the cheap imitations that fill the pages of fantasy novels and Hollywood movies. I received in response some first-rate stories—but, I’m sorry to say, not enough of them to make an anthology along the lines of the four After Oil anthologies. I want to thank everyone who wrote a story in response to my challenge, and since a good many of the stories in question deserve publication, I’ve forwarded them to the editor of MYTHIC Magazine, who has promised to consider them for publication. MYTHIC is a new magazine of fantasy and science fiction, and a paying market; I’ve got a story slated for publication in the first issue—and to be quite frank, I would be honored to have my story appear alongside some of the stories that were submitted in response to the contest.