When trying to define a thing, it’s generally easier to point at all the things it is not than to state what it is. But the question remains. What is astrology?
I prefer to approach this question first by considering astrology’s history, in particular its origins. Astrology as we know it was inherited from the Persians by the Greeks, though the Greeks would say they got it from Egypt. Both statements are probably true. But that’s not where astrology began. Astrology stretches back beyond the origins of writing, thus before history.
Astrology is a practice we have inherited from prehistory. Let your imagination run wild on that one.
Seriously. Imagine how this practice came to be. I expect that it is, in some form, more ancient even than language. The highly intelligent apes our pre-linguistic ancestors were would have been fully capable of looking up at the sky and noticing that a few of the stars changed position over time. Venus’ motion especially would have been difficult to miss.
Imagine that, as an ancient pre-human species, as some sort of reflective intelligence who spontaneously emerged from the world, more or less a clean slate from our perspective, you are standing on a hilltop, as the awe-inspiring brilliance of the night sky emerges from behind a veil of blue while the Sun finishes setting in all its many colors. At some point in this process a very bright star catches your attention and you stare at it for a long time, wondering what it is, and marveling at its beauty. It is bright, yes, and beautiful, for sure, but much more than that. It is much more than just that. You can feel it. You know it.
Pause. Keep in mind that you are an ancient human being in this scenario, a highly intelligent pre-literate, possibly pre-linguistic primate. You view the world in a way entirely unlike the way we do now. You don’t have language, or perhaps very little, yet you are a social, empathic creature capable of understanding, even if in a crude sense, that other minds exist. Your siblings had other minds, the birds have other minds, the lions have other minds, and so does the river, and so do the clouds, the trees, and the rocks.
Clearly, over time, you see that the very bright star has a distinct mind of its own, moving as it does against the backdrop of the other stars, who all retain a definite position relative to each other. It is perfectly natural for you to see this behavior of the wanderer and not only attribute mind to it, but also motives and desires. Where is it moving to? Where is it going, and why?
Then you find four more stars who do this exact same thing, each with a distinct personality, as determined by its brightness, color, speed and so on. After looking up at the night sky with nothing else to do except maybe sleep, for months and years on end, this will be nearly impossible for any reflectively aware intelligence to miss.
These wandering stars, you automatically see, have a place within the community of spirits, whom you recognize permeate all things.
For many, many thousands of years this is all there is to it. Humans lived out their lives as hunters and gathers (or whatever), aware of the presence of the Sun, the Moon, the many stars, and the five wanderers in the sky, who move about and watch over them, perhaps benevolently, perhaps not, but certainly, unmistakably there.
That was the beginning of astrology in my mind. It emerged simply, naturally, seamlessly, from an animistic view of nature which was capable of seeing the planets in the sky.
Eventually, people started to use their numbers, and eventually, as like Pythagoras and his cult, really, really came to appreciate them. Appreciation of number, even their worship, we could say, has continued throughout history, perhaps peaking today when collections of equations have essentially taken up the role of deity in the dominant culture and are asserted to be more real than anything else.
I’m oversimplifying, of course, but the merging of this appreciation of mathematics with ancient Babylonian myth grew into the astrology we know today — not modern psychological astrology, but the kind we actually inherited from our ancestors.
From the moment of its conception, astrology was held as obviously true, in some fashion. The most serious-minded skeptics of astrology throughout history, for example, Plotinus, generally did not criticize astrology as a whole but particular conceptions of it. Plotinus didn’t disregard astrology in the Enneads, but seemed to ask astrologers — philosophers — to think about their art more seriously, in particular, he challenged two notions: that the planets had a physical influence, and, on the other side of the spectrum, that the planets were incarnated gods. Even as the Christians came around, they couldn’t reject astrology, and this is strongly evidenced by all of the astrological references in the Bible. The church usually didn’t care for astrology, but the primary reason was that it threatened to usurp some of its control over the belief systems of its followers. Even Martin Luther had difficulties as people would distrust him for not having a proper birth time to provide.
Later, as the Copernican revolution sank into the collective psyche, the church’s near-complete hold upon the whole of western consciousness loosened and the Enlightenment took form, famously beginning with the statement cogito ergo sum, astrology began to fall out of favor, eventually to be fiercely opposed. Assumptions regarding how the world operated, and more importantly ideas about how and whether things can be known pulled the ground out from beneath astrology and cast it into the bin of “superstition.”
Superstition, by the way, is a meaningless word. The closest thing it has to a definition is, “Things I don’t believe and insist you don’t believe also.” This isn’t so obvious given that the dictionary has words in the place where a definition goes and that we expect dictionary definitions to be useful, but historically speaking a culture calls a superstition anything it doesn’t like of another culture. Consider Pliny, for example, the encyclopedist of the first century who hated the Magi of Persia passionately, and all things he called “magic,” yet who very clearly accepted as authentic quite a lot that we today would label as magic, such as the method of curing a headache by way of tying a plant that had grown on the head of a statue around your neck with a red string. To Pliny, the Magi were superstitious, to us, Pliny was superstitious, to others yet to come, we will be seen as superstitious for all of our hand-washing and probably our fixations on our phones in the apparent implicit belief that they must be checked every fifteen seconds or something important might be lost.
But it might well be true. Any given thing labelled “superstitious” may well be true. Seriously, try Pliny’s headache trick, just for fun. Maybe it works. And maybe our phones are helpful, but hand washing is just a bunch of woo. Or vice versa. I don’t know.
Astrology was tossed into the bin of superstition for a number of reasons, and they’re all good reasons within the context of the given belief system — Enlightenment sensibilities — but astrology itself was never actually disproved. It was, rather, merely attacked mercilessly and wrestled into submission, eventually to be ignored and all but forgotten.
Western astrology practically died some time in the 19th century. When it began a small revival at the turn of the 20th century, it underwent a major transformation largely brought about by Alan Leo, father of Sun signs and modern psychological astrology. According to skyscript’s biography of the man, “He gradually discarded almost the entire list of zodiacal attributes, which had accumulated from the first to seventeenth centuries. He ignored physical characteristics to focus on inner character.”
Virtually no one who has learned astrology in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries has not been influenced by Alan Leo. The astrological tradition accumulated over those centuries had by his time mostly been lost in the first place. Modern astrology continued throughout the twentieth century, receiving special attention in the 1960’s, largely divorced from its origins. What remained of the tradition was mutated and repurposed. And so was the state of affairs until Robert Hand came along and in 1993, with Robert Schmidt, Ellen Black, and Robert Zoller (why are they all Robert?), began work on Project Hindsight.
By way of Rob Hand we are in a new phase of the astrological tradition in which people trained in the starved and corrupted astrology of Alan Leo are incorporating ancient techniques, associations, and insights, and yet others are learning astrology from the start directly from the ancient masters.
A lot of questions arise from this situation, and while I have so far had nothing nice to say about modern astrology I do not dismiss it out of hand, first because it does happen to exist, and second because the near-death and later reinvention of astrology brought us just a step closer to the position of that prehistoric man on the hill trying to figure everything out for the first time, while still living in the present. Granted, a good deal that has come of modern astrology is nonsense, as any decent modern astrologer can tell you of other modern astrologers, but modern astrology is primarily responsible for easing out the meanings of the outer planets — modern astrology is Uranian, Neptunian, and Plutonian. Modern astrology is, historically speaking, fresh, current. It is fuzzy-headed, high-minded (sometimes falsely), idealistic, escapist, and stubborn as all Hell. Eris came along with the revival of the old ways as the two smash together.
I’ll be clear. Attempting to revive the tradition by translating ancient books and learning the methods of the old masters through them probably will not of itself be fruitful. A tradition is a living thing passed on from human to human. No book can contain it without a human translator. Had that tradition not died out, it would have evolved with the rest of human thought. But it didn’t, couldn’t, do that, which leaves us to wonder what astrology should look like in the 21st century, informed by millennia-old manuscripts of nearly wholly alien worlds and modes of thought.