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what is

proposal 1
astrology is
what astrologers do

proposal 2
astrology is disconnected
from celestial reality

proposal 3
astrology is two-faced
(at least)






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What is astrology? - a series of short articles

Modest Proposal no.3: Astrology is two-faced (at least)

Unlike science, astrology cannot be described as a universal system. There are diverse astrologies which, although they overlap to one degree or another, are not congruent. The major culture-specific expressions of astrology emerged in China, the Mayan civilisation, India, and Greece via Mesopotamia. Whatever the overlaps and differences between them, fundamentally they share common ground because all astrologies use the solar system and the heaven/earth relationship as the source for their symbolic forms. The human experience of the heavens is in general also a shared one. The Moon doesn't behave differently when seen from China or Mexico.

Instinctively, there is a strong human urge to recognise and elaborate on the order and patterns associated with the experience of change. Apart from the practical benefits, this contributes to increasing feelings of existential security. The regular uniform motions of the sun, moon and stars, apparent or otherwise, provide the most obvious template in the environment for structuring the temporal awareness which is an aspect of the experience of change. The motions in the celestial realm are used to conceptually map this sense of temporal order in both rational (quantitative) and imaginal (qualitative) ways.

The imaginal expressions of this instinct are culturally mediated. Diversity in astrological forms is inevitably introduced as a result. Variables such as physical geography, mythic imagination, social structures, belief systems, language and so on play their parts in this respect. At the same time, cross fertilisation and exchange of ideas through inter-cultural contact contributes to the development of similarities or overlaps in different astrological systems.

Similarly, intra-cultural diversity or the differentiation of astrological forms within the same culture, is to be expected over time. This is because the role of the imagination, which is fluid and evolving, is central to the astrological process. The imagination is also coupled to reason and knowledge through feedback loops of mutual stimulation and co-evolution. Neither are static. Knowledge feeds the imagination, while imagination informs the pursuit of knowledge. It is not surprising that there are marked differences in content and application between modern western astrology and the traditions from earlier times.

The range of western astrological forms can be visualised as located in a spectrum which stretches between two poles. The polarity spectrum represents the interpenetration between opposites as exemplified by reason/imagination, objective/subjective, quantitative/qualitative, physical/symbolic, and so on. The location in the spectrum indicates in a very general and simplistic sense the relative mix between the two opposing themes.

The substrate with which both reason and imagination engage is the physical experience of change, extending from the local to the cosmic level. The basic two-fold character which results is reflected in the distinction traditionally made between natural astrology and judicial astrology. Or as Geoffrey Cornelius puts it, between the astrology of causes and the astrology of signs.

Towards one end of the spectrum one might place calendar/ephemeris construction and traditional mundane astrology, with their emphasis on cycles and rhythmic patterns of change. Up the other end one might place astral divination and horary astrology, which are more concerned with simultaneity and the interpretation of single events. In the middle of the spectrum, at the maximum penetration of opposites, the most complex astrological forms are situated. These, such as natal astrology, emphasise both single events (e.g. birth) and cyclic patterns which are considered to structurally correlate with the unfolding experience of change.

The simplistic graphic below illustrates such a scheme, also including a supplementary spectrum indicating the non-horoscopic nature of astrological processes at the poles of the main scheme in contrast to the horoscopic astrology located towards and at its centre.

schematic spectrum showing locations of calendars, ephemerides, mundane astrology, medical astrology, natal astrology, electional astrology, horary, and astral omens relative to the rational/physical/quantitative/objective pole, and the imaginal/symbolic/qualitative/subjectie pole

The non-horoscopic astrological activity at each end of the spectrum points towards western astrology's Mesopotamian roots. Scribes on the one hand were concerned with calendar construction and the scheduling of various civil and agrarian activities. The regular cycles of the sun, moon and stars were the primary source for temporal calibration and were thus the subject of much intellectual attention. On the other hand, it was also the scribes' task to interpret messages from the gods sent in various forms. This included reading celestial omens, which were no more or less important than any others such as terrestrial omens, abnormal births, and so on.

Mesopotamian natal astrology was a late development in their cultural tradition, and was also non-horoscopic in the sense of being textual rather than graphic. It would seem that increased understanding of the cyclic dynamics of the solar system eventually combined with three divinatory branches - astral omens (which originally referred solely to king/state), nativity omens (which referred to omens surrounding the birth of individuals), and hemerological omens (which referred to the significance of different days in the year) - to produce the prototype upon which western astrology rests. In other words, events in the sky (astral) at the moment of birth (nativity) on a particular date (hemerological). There is no evidence that this Mesopotamian natal astrology was conceptualised in causal terms. [1].

Mesopotamian astrological ideas were assimilated by the Greeks during the Hellenistic period. The idealised geometric representation of the heavens, in combination with a philosophically elaborated fascination with determinism, the concept of essences and so on, created the conditions for the emergence of a graphic horoscopic astrology open to interpretation in terms of causality.

It is as if the two ends of the spectrum gradually closed like a set of curtains and interpenetrated to fertilise and then give give birth to the template for the full range of western astrology's resilient and diverse conceptual system.

Any efforts to understand the nature of astrology, whether western or not, has to get to grips with the interpenetration of what one might call these cognitive polar opposites. The meanings of a transit or a real time planetary conjunction, whether conceptualised in a deterministic or a non-deterministic fashion, both derive from the same imaginal processes which underlie the attribution of significance of symbolism in a horary chart. Equally, both require an ephemeris.

The distinction often made between the astrology of causes and the astrology of signs is in my opinion misleading. The error stems from conflating the astrology of causes with the astronomy of causes, i.e. celestial mechanics. However, as I mentioned in another 'modest proposal', astrology is one step removed from celestial reality. As soon as one begins to use the information in the ephemeris for astrological purposes, celestial mechanics becomes irrelevant in a literal sense. The physical mechanical Saturn cycle may well be 29 years or so, but its use to symbolise a 29 year cycle of unfolding of potential in relation to the experience of limits, authority and so on happens within astrology's conceptual system. That's where its truth resides; it obviously isn't true for astronomers - try asking one!

Whether one is using dynamic astrology or focusing on unique moments, in both cases the key cognitive move is the attribution of significance. This is a metaphorical act. The nature of astrological causation is different from that of physical causation. The latter implies the involvement of physical forces which literally cause events to occur. Metaphorical causation is a different matter, because the force vector itself is metaphorical. Mars doesn't cause wars, and a Saturn-Moon transit doesn't cause a child to starve in Africa. These happen because of events and circumstances in the real world.

The astrology of signs doesn't involve even metaphorical causation never mind the physical kind, because it relates to the experience of simultaneity. With prototypical causation (upon which astrological causation is metaphorically based), the effects follow the cause, implying a temporal sequence. By definition, this rules out simultaneity.

For astrology to be able to illuminate the significance of all aspects of temporal experience, it has to be capable of being mapped onto both dynamic and momentary (i.e. simultaneous) events. It has evolved over a long period of time as a conceptual system to achieve this goal. One can generalise and compartmentalise astrological forms into astrologies of causes and signs, but natal astrology, which is the most common form practiced, is clearly a mixture of both. Whatever, the important point is that concepts of astrological causation are metaphorical, because all astrology is metaphorically and cognitively derived from the physical experience of the heaven-earth relationship.

[1] Francesca Rochberg's book The Heavenly Writing: Divination, Horoscopy, and Astronomy in Mesopotamian Culture, Cambridge University Press, 2004, is the source I've used for information concerning Mesopotamian divination and the development of cuneiform horoscope texts.    back

Copyright 2008 Bill Sheeran. All Rights Reserved.