Faced with a new millennium it must be with real urgency that our centuries-old subject should now take a searching look at itself, ask what shape it is in, and what it has to pass on to the next generation of astrologers.
In particular we need to clarify where the growing-points are to be found, the seminal ideas which will carry astrology into the future.
It is appropriate that any attempt to gain a millenarian perspective should survey the past, to see where we have come from, and what can be harvested from the insights of astrological geniuses long dead. To this end a group of eminent contemporaries launched Project Hindsight, to blow the dust off ancient tomes and by translation make their teachings accessible to modern readers.
This is a salutary initiative, deserving the respect and support of all who seek to understand the mysterious interconnections between ourselves and the cosmos. If there are rules and procedures, developed by those early readers in the book of nature, which stand up to the detailed scrutiny available to us today with our enviable computer technology and extensive data bases – then we have a duty to rescue them from obscurity.
Yet even while praising Project Hindsight, and the enthusiasm of those who align themselves with the oldest traditions, there have to be reservations, in the form of unanswered questions. Are we implying that the laws of astrology, alone among the sciences, were laid down in antiquity in such an indelible form as to be beyond challenge or improvement by today’s expertise? What should be our attitude when ancient authorities disagree? Are we sufficiently alert to the dangers of promoting an astrological fundamentalism, comparable to those in Christianity, Islam, and any other area where a lack of absolute knowledge is bolstered by blind belief?
And as we take stock of astrology at this crucial time, let us ask ourselves a vital question: Do we agree with the ancients that astrology is little more than divination, or have we reached a degree of sophistication where a more inclusive and subtle view can be developed?
Classical astrology was divination pure and simple. In Greek times casting a chart for birth was very much a question of ‘lots’, a device for diagnosing sources of good and bad fortune in the life. You may know these lots as Arabic Parts, of which the most famous is the Part of Fortune.
To some extent things are what we say they are, or insist that they must be. We can say that astrology is divination, or we can say it is science. Undoubtedly astrology can be used as a form of divination. The flight of birds can be used for divination, but that has little to do with the science of ornithology
There are many kinds of divination. In the dictionary most of them end in -mancy, which comes from the Greek for soothsaying. Roget’s Thesaurus lists nearly 40. Just as congenital gamblers will gamble on anything, diviners can use – and have used – anything from which to predict the future. The heavens can be used in the same way, if anybody is so minded, but this does not do away with astronomy, and I very much doubt whether it exhausts the treasures contained in astrology either. The Emperor Hadrian was much interested in astrology, but he also was apt to use the Virgilian Lots – turning up passages of Virgil at random. Some people do it with the Bible or some other book… practically any book will do. But there is more to the poet Virgil than the use he is put to, and more to the Bible. And I must insist that there is vastly more to astrology than divination, regardless of how elaborate the rules for it may be.
I am tempted to wonder why anybody goes to the trouble to learn astrology when there are so many other methods of divination. available, which are far simpler. Could it be that astrology is in a different league, because it contains something they do not? If so, we had better be clear in our minds what that extra something is, and this is a task for our times.
We shall not find the answer in horary astrology which, seldom rises above seeking trivial answers to trivial questions. Most questions are pathetically unimaginative. It might be thought that the only issue when contemplating a new venture is: “Will the venture succeed or fail?”. But to me a far more interesting and surely legitimate question is, “What can be done to make this venture succeed?” But perhaps any system of divination tends to minimise our proactive input, through intelligent effort.
Horary demands that the mighty cosmos shape itself to our short sighted concerns and narrow perspectives. Suppose I ask whether I should go to India next year, and get an affirmative answer. I go, but it turns out to be not an enjoyable trip. I might mark that down as a failure of astrology. Yet for all I know, it was intended for me to have experiences that were not so much pleasant as consciousness expanding. Can we assume the cosmos is as concerned about our comfort as we are, or may it have other objectives for us?
When I go to a conference attended by horary astrologers I look around for the stretch limos. Charles Carter wisely remarked that if horary could do what it was claimed for it, then its practitioners would rule the world. It is futile to pretend that practitioners are so busy with finding lost pussy cats that there is no time to ask if this stock is going to rapidly increase in value, or whether the favourite will win the three thirty. I have been over fifty years in astrology, and horary has never impressed me by its tangible results. You have to remember that if you are asking yes/no questions you will get the answer right half the time just by tossing a coin.
There have been spectacular public failures, as when Derek Appleby decided that the Channel Tunnel would never be built. One specialist journal laudably devoted to mundane astrology became extinct when it made the mistake of allowing horary experts to pose a glut of questions about the fate of nations, matters with which they had no personal connection whatever. If their conclusions had been consistently born out by events the editorial eccentricity would have been forgivable.
Now I am in some difficulty here. Paradoxically, despite all I have said, I believe that the truth that underpins horary can lead us more directly to an understanding of astrology than any other route. To put it crudely, there is a cosmic mind which is in constant and momentary touch with human minds, and astrology is their interface. That realisation fills me with awe and humility, and a longing to discover the terms in which the cosmos itself is functioning. Can we assume the cosmos speaks our language? I strongly suspect that it has the answers to questions – even about my own affairs – which I have not yet had the wit to ask, because my language is still that of the kindergarden.
In this connection may I report that lately I have been looking at well-known charts with a fresh eye – charts for critical world events. Up to now many of these charts had failed to impress. Yes, with a little good will they could be made to fit the event, but sometimes there seemed to be no transparently clear correlation. When I went back to them it was with the uncompromising assumption that the chart really did represent the realityof the event, regardless of whether this endorsed the accepted view of what had happened, or my own preconceptions. In other words, I wanted the heavens to tell me what was really happening, behind the veil of appearances. To my continuing astonishment I find that this unprejudiced approach is leading to new hypotheses about the forces at work in the world, as they permute within the cosmic matrix.
At any rate, at some point in their career astrologers have to form some idea about what kind of universe they are living in. Divination implies a view of reality which is heavily weighted towards passivity, fatalism. There are plenty of questions put to ‘the gods’ about what will happen, as if it were already a foregone conclusion, rather than how can this or that can be successfully achieved, or how this or that might be prevented. There is the thinnest of lines between divination and superstition.
I refer here to divination as it is represented in traditional astrology, which is all about coaxing the cosmos to address our fallibly human questions. Perhaps in the next century we could restore a genuine divination, which consists of listening to the universe, not telling it what we – from our limited standpoint want to hear. Certainly my own approach, as new planetary configurations form and dissolve and form again, is to ask what is now required of me by the cosmos, what activities and ideas should now occupy my attention. I do not expect the cosmos to conspire with me to further my own ends, but am content to work with the ends suggested by the heavens. In other words I am affirming that the gods are wiser than I am, and see farther.
One of the big problems in astrology today is how to acknowledge that a genuine astrology does embrace the complex network of outer events in which we are all enmeshed – it is not just about psychology – but to do this in such a way that it does not lead us into superstition. Unfortunately divination can often fuel people’s fears, and thereby make them less effective in the world. Alter all, if you are posing a question to the gods you do not know in advance whether the answer is going to cheer you up or terrify you… and there are such things as self-fulfilling prophesies. I must emphasise that this is a contemporary problem, one which we have to tackle, which will not be solved by running to the ancient texts to find ways of making more reliable predictions. After all, greater certainty will only increase the anxiety! We need to evolve an astrology that can work within a supportive framework.
We all have horror stories to tell. A colleague of mine told me of one teenage girl who was encouraged by her parents to read the Tarot, at which she had become very accomplished, which much impressed her classmates. But it had made her neurotic and miserable. She was reaching for the cards before making even the most ordinary decisions. She did not break the spell of the Tarot until she became a born-again Christian.
My colleague went on to tell me her own story. When she was thirteen she was told by an Indian hand reader that she would never have children and would not live to see middle age. Eventually she married and became pregnant, and arrangements were made to have the baby at home. So perhaps the palmist was wrong after all? Or was he?
A short time before the baby was due, three things happened. She and some friends were experimenting with a ouija board, which kept frantically spelling out the name of a recently deceased friend named May. May had become frightened because she had seen a single magpie, which she interpreted as an omen of death. Two days later she was dead, from an unsuspected and inoperable cancer. The second thing that happened was that my colleague was at a party where a clairvoyant of some local reputation was demonstrating his powers. He told her that her baby would not be born at home, as was expected, but that she would have to go to hospital at the last minute. The third thing that happened to her was that just before the due date a single magpie suddenly appeared outside her window and she immediately thought of her dead friend May. Came the time for the baby to be born, and she went into labour. The second doctor who came to see her panicked, and sent for an ambulance to rush her to hospital.
Now can you imagine the state of anguish she was in? Here she was, being rushed to hospital, as the clairvoyant had predicted. And there was obviously something terribly wrong. She remembered the palmist’s statement about her never becoming a mother, and only having a short life. And there was the magpie, whose reputation as a harbinger of doom had been so recently confirmed.
The baby was born safely, and she is now fifty-one. But the incident made me more convinced than ever that there is an urgent need to reshape our astrological understanding of our individual and collective relationship with happenings in the outer world, so that the effect is not negative and debilitating. Always with the provision, of course, that to that end we do not deceive ourselves by falsifying the phenomena. We must not impose a frothy optimism on the facts, just because it feels better. On the other hand we may discover that when the whole truth is known it is in its very essence upbuilding rather than down-dragging.
Throughout astrology, as in medicine, there are moral implications, and nowhere do they surface more insistently than in divination and prediction. But we may be surprised to find that by addressing the moral consequences first, our astrology becomes not only more helpful but more accurate.
Of course if the historical texts do contain the material to demonstrate the validity of astrology to our contemporary world, however dire its revelations may be, then perhaps all such questions become irrelevant. If our doubts have already been resolved by Vettius Valens and the like, I for one shall be forced to acknowledge the fact. It is a question of the proof of the pudding. But I have more than a suspicion that if astrology could live up the claims of its early proponents, then its truth would be self-evident, and astrology would never have gone into a decline.
Moreover I wonder how the illustrious names that stud our past would stand up to the scrutiny of a sceptical science, or indeed to a bruising with the tabloid press. It is all very well for William Lilly to report his most impressive examples, but what if for every one of those successes the media bloodhounds tracked down fifty failures, or even dangerously misleading verdicts? I await the first case – it will certainly be in the USA, given the rush to litigation there – when a horary astrologer is taken to court for giving a disastrously wrong judgment. What will that do for the reputation of astrology generally, and perhaps even its legal status?
When I visited America last, to speak at a conference of the NCGR in Boston, I was interviewed for The Mountain Astrologer and asked what I thought of Project Hindsight. It was an opportunity to suggest that at the turn of the century astrology should be Janus-faced, turning not only to the past but the future. I outlined what forward looking astrologers should be doing, and the types of activity that should be encouraged. I explained that I was assembling these views under the name Project Foresight.
There was an embarrassingly positive response from readers of the magazine, asking for more information, and to have sent material to every inquirer, plus the necessary follow-ups, would have depleted my funds more than somewhat. I apologise to those who waited in vain for a reply, but at least there were lessons to be learnt. The first was the extent of the interest in an astrology determined to push back its horizons by co-ordinated effort. A no less important lesson was in how to finance what is essentially a networking operation, which involves an unknowable expenditure in terms of time, printing and postage. Perhaps the Internet is the only answer.
One reaction that did leave me open-mouthed came from the Project Hindsight team, who took my suggestion as an attack on their activities. Yet there is no reason why the two initiatives could not run back-to-back. Personally I have yet to be convinced that the old texts hold the key to astrology’s future, but they must be historically valuable in the same way scientific or medical antiquities are valuable, and we must be grateful to those who are prepared to retrace astrology’s steps to see if any useful knowledge has been left behind. A few gems might certainly be found.
But to assume that the past contains all the answers has obvious dangers. We live in a different world today, and it is necessary to infuse our astrology with the new vitality necessary to carry it across the 2000 threshold. What do I mean by vitality? Well, for one thing astrology has grown very tame. We argue and debate among ourselves in our journals, but we need to expose our ideas in the arena of modern world opinion, where we shall either be vindicated or savaged. I passionately believe in astrology militant. What ever we think we know, let us have the courage to use it as a battering ram against the doors of prejudice and ignorance.
That said, let me add – as a veteran journalist – that I would be reluctant to campaign. under a banner proclaiming that astrology can answer everybody’s questions. It would be shot to rags in no time. Moreover, it would be intellectual suicide to assert that astrology, alone among all the spheres of knowledge, anciently possessed an authenticity which it has unaccountably lost in its journey down the years. If we are going to put up a fight, we need to choose the battleground prudently.
The question of vitality also invokes making astrology relevant to the spirit of the age, so that it is a living thing, not just a museum piece. This means that it should keep abreast of contemporary streams of thought and discovery, and indeed build bridges to them. We cannot avoid what is happening in the world around us. I do not see why some of the findings of modern science should not be taken on board, if they help to augment our understanding.
Recently I had an experience which I hope is not typical. If you study what has been discovered about the functions of the two hemispheres of the brain, it is self-evident that the left hemisphere owes much to Mercury. But to me it is also clear that the right hemisphere, which has to do with perceiving patterns of relationship, and becomes active when listening to musical harmonies, is distinctly Venus. When I made this suggestion it was ridiculed by one defender of the tradition, who said that every right-thinking astrologer knew that the whole brain belonged to Mercury.
I don’t know about you, but I would like to be part of an astrological community that is open-minded, and prepared to give courteous attention to new ideas. After all, the tradition itself had to evolve, otherwise it would still be locked into the very first statement of it. Thus Lilly was receptive to Kepler’s new aspects, and I believe we do him and others a disservice by assuming their minds were hidebound.
There is also a clear danger that veneration of the old masters will detract from the enormous contribution made by twentieth century astrologers. This century has seen significant new developments in theory and practice, which are not always understood. There has been a revolution, almost unnoticed. Consider how the planets were known in the preceding centuries. They were known in terms of the physical characteristics of the people born under them, the diseases to which they were prone, the herbs that might cure them, the type of events they might experience, and so forth. Merely attributes, merely lists. There were no factors to organise or unify these disparate observations, no sense of the planets as a single principle, or process.
Before this century it would have been incomprehensible to speak of Saturn as the planet of contraction and limitation, or of Jupiter as expansion and diversification. in modern astrology there has been a groping for overarching meanings of the planets and signs, and it would be a natural evolution if this continued, with increasingly acute insights, into the next century.
One leading astrologer in these developments was Charles Carter (1887-1968) who made some acute first-hand observations of the effects of planetary aspects, which have been repackaged by other writers ever since. Had he been satisfied that his predecessors in the field could be relied upon he would have felt no need for this research. Recently I was preparing a written report on someone born under Sun square Jupiter, but despite leafing through various texts I found was still not entirely clear what this aspect meant. So I collected a number of cases, studied their biographies, and arrived at a new interpretation. This is the sort of modest project anybody can do, on whatever interests them, and perhaps Project Foresight could act as a co-ordinator and advisor. Adding to our pool of knowledge in this way has been inhibited by the idea that no observations are worth anything unless they can be proved with scientific rigour, but when it comes to a hands-on astrology a more limited standard of evidence is surely permissible. We need all the tips and wrinkles we can get.
There is one bear trap that needs to be avoided as we move towards the millennium. Because we are at the threshold of a new epoch it does not follow that the mishmash known collectively as New Age provides the right setting for astrology. To make that identifcation means that we must give up all scientific pretensions, and here it is worth reminding ourselves that for much of its history astrology was considered the science of its day.
A few years back I was invited to speak at a conference organised by Barbara Morgan in San Francisco. It was to be a breakthrough, because for the first time astrologers would be in conference with psychology professionals. What a splendid opportunity. But my expectations soon turned to dismay. As preparation the astrology speakers were invited to take off their shoes, and stand in a circle holding hands. The conference opened with the sounding of a Tibetan bowl. On the rostrum was a single candle, and there was a gasp of astonishment when I blew it out. Actually I was not making a statement. Peering over the flame at my audience was likely to trigger a visual migraine, and it was also making me cough. But had I thought of it, I would have blown it out anyway.
In a subsequent message on the net (25 July 1996) Robert Hand recalled that conference and condemned me for doing everything I could to be anti-New Age. Well, I have nothing against New Age philosophies and practices in themselves, only the assumption that astrology cannot exist outside of them. I light candles and burn incense – when the occasion is appropriate. At this conference I was angry that astrology was being hijacked and misrepresented, or at least not presented in way that might gain the confidence of the psychologists.
So my plea is to keep astrology pure, arid to dedicate our efforts to discovering what a truly astrological astrology looks like, separate from all the notions and expectations we might wish to graft onto it. To quote from Robert Hand’s splendid essay Astrology as a Revolutionary Science; ‘…the time has come for us to examine the bases of astrology in a scientific manner; to cast aside obscurantist attitudes and to reveal to the world the usefulness and spiritual merit of what we are exploring.’
In that paper Hand describes astrology as a craft without a science, yet one that contains a latent science capable of overthrowing the mechanist-materialist worldview. Observing that many astrologers are antagonistic to the creation of a science of astrology, Hand warns. ‘If astrology simply persists as it is, it will do very little for the culture as a whole. It will remain a deviant little group doing strange things within their own little world and disregarded by the rest of the world.’
Towards this end, I would suggest that astrologers begin to inquire more earnestly into the great unsolved mystery of astrology, namely by what process does the promise or threat of the heavens become translated into events on earth? How can a distant planet sink a ship, change a government, or bring about a myriad trivial effects? The absence of a mechanism has prevented astrology from being taken seriously, and that will always be the case, despite any seeming successes.
But it is not only astrology’s legitimacy in the eyes of the world that is at stake here. If astrologers understand more about what might be called the laws of manifestation, by realising that there are causes behind the effects, the new century will see the emergence of a vastly better astrology. Aware that the reactionaries in our ranks will insist that there is no need for anything better than the astrology we have already, I would suggest that we are stuck at a point in history similar to the time when all that was known of electromagnetism was the behaviour of the lodestone, or how amber picks up particles when rubbed.
That is a thought to ponder, as we watch the commercials, incinerate our toast, or sit before our computers.
Dennis Elwell is one of the UK’s most highly regarded astrological writers. The debate that he presents here is entertaining, challenging and controversial, but its also rich in philosophical arguments that address the issue of astrology’s changing identity in our modern culture. Our hope is that you will find this debate stimulating for your own thoughts, and we welcome your replies on any of the comments he has made.