A review of Experiential Astrology: From the Map to the Territory by Antero Alli
The title of this vibrant book (XA for short) by Antero Alli, a Portland-based astrologer with 35+ years’ experience, begs the question: when astrology isn’t experiential, what is it? Theoretical. And, like the right and left brain, both ideally work together. Yet astrologers often live in their heads, dissecting the past and predicting the future instead of seizing the day. An occupational hazard, it’s why I once walked away from an established practice of teaching, consulting and speaking. Having a life leaves little time for acquiring the knowledge needed to master such a complex art, so it’s a rare practitioner who integrates theory and experience.
In 1991, the Aquarian Press produced an anthology, Creative Astrology: Experiential Understanding of the Horoscope, in which diverse exponents including its editor, Prudence Jones, present approaches geared for a direct, if guided, experience of astrological symbolism – group process, music, dance, ritual, writing, role-playing etc. – emerging from the human potential movement of the 1960s and ’70s. It’s long since gone out of print; ‘experiential’ lacks the cachet it once had. And except for a spirited essay by Palden Jenkins, the book now feels dated and tame. So how does Alli’s recent solo offering compare?
‘Not saying I’m a shaman,’ he writes, a disclaimer that continues with ‘though some may think so.’ The context for this broad hint is an account of the paratheatrical process he’s explored for more than four decades – slightly longer than he’s practised astrology. Through the group ritual discipline of paratheatre, what Alli calls ‘the universal forces symbolized in any horoscope’ (aka archetypes) are accessed, experienced and creatively expressed as movement, dance and vocals. And having participated in one of his rituals, timed to coincide with a major outer planetary alignment, I recall it as deeply transformative.
Alli has long maintained that astrology is an oracular calling, as well as a language best spoken from the margins. Unlike uptight peers keen to institutionalise the profession, he freely uses examples from the birth chart and life he knows best: his own. And though he throws in a few notable nativities for good measure – e.g., Nietzsche, Kurt Cobain and Angelina Jolie – his chart lays bare his bias and his personal revelations remind us that each astrologer’s window on the cosmos is unique.
Some astrologers understand the planets as dynamic forces animating the psyche 24/7. Others treat them like a divinatory tool to be put away when not in use. The monetisation of all aspects of contemporary life ensures that the latter kind prevail, exemplified by the omnipresent star-sign column: the reduction of a holistic discipline to a narrow band of the heavens, a projection of our cultural obsession with identity, a movie starring humans. But a ‘star sign’ (aka Sun sign) is static, like a costume or personal style, while the planets form ever-shifting patterns. If star-sign astrologers are like Instagram influencers, and archetypal astrologers are like coders or program analysts, are experiential astrologers like hackers?
Astrology of any kind can hold up a mirror to life – if it reflects the reality of our solar system as we now know it. The thing is, when Alli wrote his first astrology primer, Astrologik (Vigilantero Press, 1990), it was pretty much up to date; it even had a savvy section on Chiron, an asteroid-cum-comet discovered 13 years earlier, which many astrologers weren’t yet using. But then, a couple of years after Astrologik appeared, so did the first Kuiper belt object, way out beyond Pluto, along with more centaurs – kin of Chiron – a little closer in. And so by the time the internet really got going (Web 2.0), we had a few new planets, all bigger than, hence at least as significant as, Chiron.
Yet nothing of this cosmic revolution in consciousness rates any mention in Alli’s latest book on astrology. An adept whose first, cutting-edge text brought him well-deserved attention, he no longer stands at the vanguard of his profession. The innovations praised by his illustrious peers – Rick Levine, Steven Forrest and Rob Brezsny – were present 32 years ago in Astrologik, a guide that still thrills. XA represents consolidation, sure and steady development over the course of a full, rich career – not the deathless quest to shake up his profession that Astrologik seemed to promise. So what happened? I’m guessing Alli’s creative originality – still evident in XA, but just not on steroids – got diverted by film-making, an all-or-nothing venture into which he’s poured his resources and passion for a whole cycle of Saturn, producing fifteen features plus numerous shorts and music videos. Yet this devotion to art as a life path grounds his astrological wisdom. Because life spans such a vast range of experience that to try to read it from a map including just two luminaries, eight planets, a comet, four asteroids and the lunar nodes, leaves much scope for uncertainty – or, as Western astrology teaches, working creatively with the fate indicated by planetary patterns presiding at birth.
So Alli provides ample examples of how conjunctions, sextiles, trines, squares, oppositions and quincunxes function, along with more exotic combos thereof: grand trines and crosses, T-squares and the lesser known yod: two planets linked by sextile (60º) and in quincunx (150º) to a third. Semisquares and sesquisquares (8th harmonic) don’t rate a write-up despite being stronger than the 12th-harmonic quincunx – too hard to see on a 360º wheel divided into twelve, common though they are? In contrast, the so-called ‘Finger of God’ is uncommon enough that natives tend to feel special, like inheritors of a rare blood group. So imagine my surprise on finding that adding just one Kuiper belt object to my horoscope reveals a tightly aspected yod. What could it mean? XA had little to say: something to do with timing (like all else astrological?). Yet Astrologik runs on for several pages re yods. It’s as if the concept no longer excites Alli the way it once did – or as if he’s pared back his entire astrological package. A wise decision? Because then I reread XA on the quincunx and had an epiphany. Alli’s catalyst/catalysed model neatly encapsulates challenges I’d been grappling with for months. So maybe it’s not about what we include or omit, but how we do it?
Esteemed astrologer Rick Levine writes in the preface to XA: ‘Throughout the book, [Antero] casually drops bombs that combine powerful depth of perception with the creative magic of poetry.’ And Levine supplies quotes. So you’d assume – or I did – that he’s read it from start to finish. But maybe XA induced such expansive delight – ‘Antero reminds me how wide our perspective can be and how vast the cosmos is’ – that certain technical details escaped his professional eye. Because if he’d looked closely at the example charts Alli delineates, he might have noticed a glitch in Joni Mitchell’s. The data for her day, time and place of birth fit, but not the year: 1943 appears as ‘43’: a decade or so after Christ’s crucifixion.
Computing errors are universal. But Alli consults a chart representing a moment 1,979 years ago to interpret Joni’s ‘three significant sextiles’. (In fact, she has more, but between different planets; stay tuned for the second edition of XA.) No need to be familiar with her natal picture to notice Venus sextile Uranus in Libra, which, last century, it didn’t enter until the late ’60s. That astrology books in general tend to contain more errors than many may say less about their authors than a lack of crack editors. Alli knows his own chart, though? Yet he mentions an asteroid opposite his Mars when he means Mercury (readers can check) – a trivial error on par with XA’s frequent typos and wayward grammar, no slur on his astrological knowledge.
Indeed, he knows enough to bring a critical eye to the groundbreaking work of Barbara Hand Clow, whose seminal text, Chiron: Rainbow Bridge Between the Inner & Outer Planets (Llewellyn, 1987) has influenced countless professionals. Chiron had been on our radar for just a decade when her book came out. Yet Alli has always had a feel for this hybrid, linking it to punk in Astrologik, and questions her styling of Chiron as ‘New Age Wounded Healer’. After reading her book, he ‘felt there had to be more grit to Chiron’s story’. And after studying many examples of natal Chiron in charts he was reading, he recognised a self-sabotage pattern that, when transformed, makes us agents of subversion through the house Chiron inhabits – a simpler take on what Hand Clow is already saying in New Age–speak, since any true healing, given our toxic culture, means subverting the status quo, creating space for alternatives. Maybe it’s so long since Alli read her comprehensive text – acknowledged in Astrologik – that he’s forgotten a key theme. He tells us the Chiron return occurs around age 52, and though aware it’s a comet (the typical orbit of which is elliptical), assumes its path is neatly circular, hence the first square at 13, the opposition at 26, and the second square at 39. Yet Hand Clow repeatedly refers to the crisis of awareness arising at Chiron’s first square, i.e., anywhere between ages five and 23, and stresses how ‘this extremely elliptical quality is what prepares the individual for receptivity to outer planet influences’, a topic she covers in depth.
Alli notes that Chiron’s transits can coincide with literal physical wounds or health issues, but though ‘these woundings can happen anytime’, he’s ‘seen them occur more frequently during the Chiron opposition at 26 and the Chiron return at 52’. Not too frequent; the former seldom comes at 26. His own occurred at 36, Hand Clow’s at just 16, and mine at 31 – coinciding, funnily enough, with an all-day group I attended in robust health, led by Alli himself (see above). Is this gaffe an example of what can happen with his own Chiron (p. 137) if, say, he starts ‘writing or speaking in ways to try to impress others’? My Chiron occupies the same house, if not the same sign, as his, and I’ve suffered from what he calls ‘an embarrassing foot in mouth habit’ all my life: blurting whatever enters my head then finding, to my horror, I’ve embarrassed someone else or, worse, offended them. Anyway, today’s astrologers aren’t astronomers, and I found XA interpretively sound. Alli walks and workshops readers through the 12 archetypes, creatively reinventing their terms to elucidate their purpose.
When I first read Astrologik in 1991, having fallen for its funky cover, its sassy suss knocked my socks off. Alli’s way with words and concepts was wildly inventive. Or so I remembered. I didn’t know what to expect from XA – but maybe something less sedate? Of course it still rocks compared to others of its genre. Yet I recalled its precursor as outstanding. But was it all that mind-expanding? Or was I, early in my career, easier to impress? I began to read passages from Astrologik at random. Well, the passage of time hasn’t dimmed its incandescence – it’s harder to put down than XA, which I read in fits and starts, almost dutifully through some parts. Is XA more accessible? Possibly. And is it more grounded? Yes. It never scales the same dizzying heights of metaphor; its insights glow like coals rather than blaze like flames.
Not long ago, I caught a free online summit, ‘Secrets of Master Astrologers’, an excuse for a promotional drive so unsubtle I doubted those featured had any secrets worth divulging. In contrast, not only does Alli deliver a series of snappy sections treating standard techniques with real freshness; he also shares original insights available nowhere else I’m aware of. These bona fide secrets, proffered in a conversational style – what XA lacks in polish, it makes up for in immediacy – add great value to Alli’s solid primer. Recommended for anyone wanting a dynamic and exquisitely illustrated guide that distils a good deal of the most useful knowledge of 20th-century astrology.