Scope for uncertainty, or creatively hacking fate?

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.


The Uninvited – a whole new ball game?

Eris thumbing her nose...

I could be asleep or I could be awake, man
I could be alive or be the walking dead
I could be ignorant or I could be informed
I could lead my life, man, or I could be led

John Butler

Once upon a time, astronomers used to be astrologers too: Ptolemy, Galileo and Kepler, among others. But these disciplines diverged in the 1700s, and astrologers today uphold the status quo by piously mouthing the axiom of ‘As above, so below’ without noticing astronomy’s recent quantum leap in knowledge of our solar system.

And the radical change that began when Uranus showed up in 1781 continues to snowball. The 1800s brought asteroids with the Industrial Revolution: both Earth and outer space grew more crowded. In the 1990s, centaurs (asteroids-cum-comets) thickened the plot. And in the early 2000s came the trans-Neptunian Kuiper belt, a circumstellar disc comprising thousands of small icy bodies (and counting). But just how relevant are these hordes of mostly tiny entities to what astrologers do? That question cuts to the core of our identity. The escalating rate of their discovery implies rapid destabilisation of human culture. How much more detail can we use without losing sight of the big picture? The map may not be the territory, but it helps to have a current edition.

On 5 January 2005, a California-based team of astronomers discovered a new, tenth planet orbiting the Sun way out beyond Pluto. And its similar size and greater mass fuelled the debate over Pluto’s claim to planetary status, prompting the International Astronomical Union (IAU) to consign both it and Pluto to a new ‘dwarf planet’ category. So, on 24 August 2006, the latest likely entrant to the planetary pantheon, soon to be officially named Eris, found herself uninvited, as in the ancient Greek myth. Goddess of strife and sister to the war god Ares, Eris gatecrashed a wedding and threw the guests a golden apple inscribed ‘To the fairest’. Hence the judgement of Paris, who fell for Aphrodite’s bribe, Helen, which led to the fall of Troy.

If legions of asteroids hadn’t taken most Graeco-Roman names, Eris might be called something else. And yet the names astronomers choose give us useful points of departure for approaching each archetype. Which begs the question of why most astrologers would ignore the taxonomic update, or downgrade, of Pluto to ‘dwarf’. Those with whom I’ve discussed the idea dismiss occult author John Michael Greer’s unorthodox theory that Pluto’s mojo is fading. In The Twilight of Pluto (Inner Traditions, 2022), Greer argues that the traits Pluto shares with Eris and other Kuiper belt objects (KBOs) set it apart from the big eight. However, some astrologers call Eris a planet too, due to its likeness to Pluto.

In the words of evolutionary astrologer Steven Forrest: ‘The structure of the solar system continues to reflect the structure of the human mind.’ So, with each new finding, individual and collective consciousness stretch to a new place. And Greer, a comparative historian, concurs; his innovation lies in reversing the principle: when a planet loses its standing, that new place (an atomised society/psyche, in Pluto’s case) is destined to be abandoned like a boomtown after its mine shuts down. Greer expects the archetype to pack up its toys and go home to Hades.

But what if we forget such artificial distinctions as ‘planet’ vs. ‘dwarf planet’? After all, though Jupiter is 22× the size of Mars, we don’t deem it more important, and though it has 3× the mass of Saturn, besides being slightly bigger, the longer transits of the latter tend to leave a deeper impression. Still, Greer’s instinct is to simplify what looks too complicated, and old-school techniques work well enough for his political forecasts. Hence he terms Eris a ‘confirmed’ dwarf planet and candidate for a ‘Tertiaries’ category (Sun and Moon = Primaries; the seven planets = Secondaries). His Saturnian bias towards order serves his professional needs. Likewise, the IAU voted for expedience: adding hundreds of planets to our solar system would amount to a paradigm shift on par with exploding the flat earth theory. So the IAU’s gatekeepers resist consciousness stretching to a new place. But repressing chaos traps us in the past: ‘the word “planet” is a cultural artifact, nothing more’, writes Forrest. ‘It is a word left over from the days before telescopes…’ In contrast to Greer, he makes a case for the truth of growing complexity. And Eris, named for the instigator of the Trojan War, is far from the only harbinger of disorder.

When did humans first recognise the presence of Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn in the heavens? Clearly visible, crossing night skies free of light pollution against the backdrop of seasonally changing constellations, they would have stood out when not overshadowed by the Moon. To set the stage for diminution of Pluto, Greer compellingly correlates the sequence of major advancements in civilisation with the relative brightness of the planets: for instance, crafts and gardens (Venus, the most luminous) preceded writing (Mercury, the hardest to see).

The thing is, once those five had been identified and their cycles observed and recorded, millennia went by with no more than the odd passing comet to disturb the familiar order. Civilisation marched on, but at a glacial pace compared to the industrial surge that came with Uranus, followed by the asteroid belt, Neptune and Pluto, all within a century and a half. And less than a century after the 1930 advent of Pluto, we have hundreds of thousands of asteroids between Mars and Jupiter, maybe millions of centaurs between Jupiter and Neptune, and thousands of KBOs between Neptune and the mysterious outer edge of our solar system.

These discoveries have sped up in the last few decades, along with technological developments, and the rise of the internet and fragmentation of human society reflect the growing anarchy of our celestial map. Gone is the beautiful cosmic order Greer so clearly yearns for (and predicts will return as Pluto’s power supposedly wanes). Yet the haste of many astrologers to surf the viral wave of half-baked Eris interpretations risks psychic indigestion. Not all information is created equal; the pace at which it now travels compounds the risk of dirty data. So, since it takes time to understand and integrate the principles embodied by the objects science keeps finding at an exponential rate, we can either expand our consciousness or delegate the job – and AI, a fast learner, is available for hire. Meanwhile, some burning questions arise.

Should we treat Eris like a planet? No, in Greer’s opinion (though he dwells on Pluto’s former vast influence). But if we beg to differ, which other KBOs besides Eris merit more cred?

The more I explore the manifestations of these newly revealed minor planets, irrespective of how we care to define them, the more I think that while Greer has good cause to dispute standard warnings re Pluto, he underrates the significance of the Kuiper belt as a thing in its own right, with its implications for consciousness, individual and collective. If finding Pluto accompanied the quest to penetrate matter/the atom to the core to grasp its essence, maybe we’ve had time to prepare for a vaster influx of awareness – binary planet Pluto as agent of, or gateway to, transformation. Its largest moon, Charon, discovered in 1978, is named after the Greek mythological ferryman of the dead, symbolising passage, not ultimate destination. So what lies on the other side?

For millennia, the patriarchal bias of society has been mirrored by the male names of the five visible planets. Counting the Moon, that’s two out of seven female divinities in the heavens. But then, just two decades after Uranus, came sphere-shaped Ceres. The largest asteroid, it was taken for a new planet. But more kept appearing, so Ceres got demoted after Neptune entered the picture in 1846, to be named, like Uranus, for a male god. And astronomers followed suit with Pluto. So the attribution of goddess names to a haphazard host of odd-shaped rocks (Greek or Roman for the first nineteen, found from 1801–52) now looks merely tokenistic. And despite the excitement of asteroid specialists, their individual influence often eludes detection. As the solar system has grown, so has its gender inequity.

Until, at last, it seemed that Eris, initially nicknamed Xena (a nod to the long-sought ‘Planet X’ pending an official handle), would reverse the long-standing trend. But when the IAU convened, they sidelined Xena. Synchronistic proof of minor influence for Greer. For those of us inclined to test theories against experience, much fieldwork awaits. But how do we begin to divine the meaning of a new planet?

First comes the name. If astrology is a language, as many astrologers claim, then a planet’s name should be essential to understanding its nature. But according to pop astrologer Jessica Adams, the Greek and Roman systems correspond with different stages in history. So, despite widespread use of asteroid Pallas in chart delineation, Adams advises against mixing it with Ceres, Juno and Vesta, the other three popularised by Demetra George in the mid 1980s. News for those who adopted all four as a package and find them equally valid, but the same logic goes for Eris if Adams is correct. And not only is Eris not Roman, her goddess status is questionable: sometimes she’s defined as a mere ‘personification’, in contrast to divinities honoured with many stories and temples. Which might help to explain why so few astrologers have embraced Eris the way they did Chiron, the centaur discovered in 1977.

Named for the wise and just healer, teacher and oracle, Chiron – like Uranus, Neptune and Pluto (named for gods of the heavens, oceans and chthonic depths respectively) – came with ample ready-made lore, a sometimes revealing interpretive package. So, the traits of the deity for whom a planet is named form the basis of a working hypothesis. Yet despite endless, intricate rehashing of classical myths by learned psychological astrologers, accounts of gods and goddesses fail to fully convey the qualities of planetary energies, which always span dimensions beyond the mythic. Besides which, some versions of myths can, much like rumours, conflict with others. And in the case of unpopular Eris, scant detail exists, an excuse for progressive astrologers to air their woke/feminist politics, spouting the rhetoric of empowerment. Yet Eris never evinces sisterly solidarity; aggro like her bro, she targets female vanity.

Astrologer and software creator Henry Seltzer, an oft-cited, self-styled pioneer of Eris interpretation, bills the archetype as ‘a Feminine Warrior energy for profound aspiration’, featured in the charts of leading feminists and paradigm shifters (his use of wide orbs plus both subtle and generational aspects vastly broadens the scope for reading meaning into Eris): positive, if less than objective. And his Astrograph Eris report on my natal Eris placement is, with a few small exceptions, hilarious – leaving me to intuit the nature of Eris for myself. Where to next?

Both stories in which Eris appears cast her as a provocateur, less directly vengeful than catalytic. With a mere walk-on part, she incites competition that escalates until events culminate in the Trojan War. And in a later, lesser known story, Hera sends Eris to do her dirty work: pitting a couple, Aëdon and Polytechnos, against each other, Eris is an agent, not the author, of revenge. Social justice or feminine warrior energy isn’t what links both stories; it’s action that spirals out of hand, turns viral.

Which relates to another method for inferring a planet’s meaning: big themes breaking into collective consciousness through major cultural advancements. So, what occurred between 2003 and 2006, the period during which Eris was first imaged, identified, classified and named? If Greer’s assessment in The Twilight of Pluto is correct, and Eris lacks the power of a planet, it shouldn’t count for more than many, even smaller ‘dwarf planets’ discovered around the same time. But if Eris is as potent as Pluto, despite its greater remoteness, we might well ask: what dominant 21st-century phenomena have had the most impact on the world as we know it?

The rise of the internet and global connectivity, sped by the miniaturisation of technology, have reconfigured society and the psyche, reshaped our social landscape and rewired our brains. And this ubiquitous uptake owes much to social media – which took off around 2005. In February 2004, less than a year before Eris appeared, Mark Zuckerberg co-founded Facebook. And Eris is, if nothing else, a social goddess: though unwelcome, she turned up at a wedding to make her presence felt; sparked a reaction. Eris initiates contests involving comparisons. Now, consider the origin of Facebook: Facemash. Shown pairs of photos, users were asked to choose who was hotter. (Hera? Athena? Aphrodite?) The friendly facade of Facebook, rebranded as Meta, masks what arguably started as a nerd’s revenge. And since then, social media has gone from strength to strength, implicated in the engineering of Trump’s election and Brexit. Social media is the last stop for millions before sleep; their first port of call on waking each morning. It enabled the #MeToo movement, named – like Eris – in 2006, with its toxic shadow of call-out or cancel culture, and the often destructive results. Social media has also fuelled discrimination against the unvaxxed, reviled, during peak Covid, as selfish at best and, at worst, as terrorists for defying conformist society: aptly symbolised by Pluto in Capricorn square Eris in Aries, exact on 26/1/2020, 14/6/2020, 10/12/2020, 27/8/2021 and 9/10/2021 – dates worth researching re, for starters, how the pandemic label gained traction, which speaks to the theme of epic upheaval resulting from something seemingly small.

So, do the birth charts of those instrumental in spinning the twisted narrative that legitimised a social divide implicate Eris? Anthony Fauci, chief medical advisor to Trump and Biden, has both natal Sun square Eris and Venus trine it within a tight orb; Klaus Schwab, WEF CEO and architect of the ‘Great Reset’, a warped global plan for ‘smart’ cities justified by the pandemic, has Sun conjunct Eris; Dan Andrews, Victorian premier and nemesis of the unvaxxed, has Sun square Eris exactly (1º orb max); Jacinda Ardern, NZ PM and two-tier society advocate, has Mercury square Eris exactly, and her Canadian counterpart, Justin Trudeau, has a Moon–Eris conjunction in the 8th house of other people’s (e.g., truckers’) money, with Mercury trine it exactly. But I digress.

Social media has heightened obsession with personal and group identity – so could it be an Eris theme? Witness Pluto’s identity crisis when she came on the scene. And the IAU’s ruling provoked public protest; identity is arguably the hottest topic, so far, this century: identity politics, identity theft, digital identity, their uncertain identity making refugees pawns in the war on terror… And if the mythic Eris revelled in bloodshed, how about mass shooters? Martin Bryant, whose Port Arthur spree left 35 dead and many wounded, has Moon conjunct Eris in his first house. Columbine massacre mastermind, Eric Harris, had Sun, Venus and Mars conjunct Eris, while his partner in crime, Dylan Klebold, had Mercury and Jupiter opposite Eris. And mass shootings are on the rise in the US, as if the urge has gone viral. Speaking of which…

If digital connectivity and the resultant social media are intrinsically Eridian, does Eris feature in the natal charts of key players? Not Zuckerberg’s (though we have no birth time). But he didn’t create Facebook in isolation; he got the idea from ConnectU, and one of its founders, Divya Narendra, has Mars exactly opposite Eris. Then Zuckerberg needed more funds to outstrip the competition. Enter co-founder Eduardo Saverin, also with an exact Mars–Eris opposition. Coincidence? Well, Bill Gates has Mars opposite Eris too, and shares an exact Moon–Eris conjunction with his long-term competitor Steve Jobs. Remember the legendary rivalry between Microsoft and Apple, their companies? As a discernible pattern emerges, so begins just one line of research…

For further clues, see the attributes of a new planet: appearance, position, composition, relative size and mass, orbital quirks and eccentricity. And Eris carves a highly elliptical path, spending more than one fifth of its 558-year orbit in Aries, and less than one thirty-eighth of its orbit in Leo. Which means it’s been in the same sign for most of the last century. Now, notice how many Eris themes often also apply to Aries, such as the warrior or the competitor. Take the aspect of Moon conjunct Eris. Who could deny how well warrior roles fit Angelina Jolie, or the intense competitive drive of Bill Gates? Their exact Moon–Eris conjunctions stand out on their Aries midheavens. Yet those archetypes don’t obviously apply to, e.g., Isaac Newton, Mozart or birth control campaigner Marie Stopes, whose exact Moon–Eris conjunctions fall in Cancer, Sagittarius and Pisces, respectively. Still, all three are recognised as pioneers in their fields. So maybe Eris is a game-changer.

A planet’s archetypal nature tends to be most distinct when it returns or makes stressful aspects to its place in the birth chart. During its transits to and from other planets, energies merge, much as with natal aspect patterns. Yet a planet’s transits to itself emphasise its core function: Jupiterian opportunity, Saturnian consolidation, Uranian rebellion, Neptunian surrender. Classic examples include the Saturn return ripening around age 28–30, and the Uranus opposition midlife crisis at 40–42: universal cyclic stages that define the life journey. Even Pluto, with a 248-year orbital period, squares itself in the course of any life not cut short: between 36–60, due to its elliptical path. So one obstacle to perceiving Eris, at least on a personal level, is that none of us with it in Aries will live long enough to undergo the first square.

The shorter a planet’s cycle, the more familiar its rhythms, and so, the more tangible its expression. The shortest, the 24-hourly axial spin of the Earth, orients us, defining the contexts in which planetary forces manifest; the monthly Moon cycle regulates emotional tides; the fastest planet, Mercury, describes the workings of our minds; Venus accords with values; the Sun illuminates personal will; Mars, drive and direction; Jupiter, faith and vision; Saturn, responsibility and wisdom born of limits. The farther out a planet, the slower and, so, the more subtle – unconscious – its function. Most humans are merely reacting to the transpersonal energies of Uranus, Neptune and Pluto, and the much newer discoveries scattered far beyond them present an even greater challenge to consciousness. Which means Eris may well look like discord, competition, social division and war until or unless we can wake up. And other ‘dwarf’ planets orbiting slower than Pluto – 284 years for Haumea, 306 for Makemake – may be no less relevant, but Eris has upstaged them, as if demanding recognition first. Some astrologers throw new planets into the interpretive stew as soon as ephemerides exist, but too many can cause confusion. A net cast too wide can keep us stranded in the shallows of popular understanding. Energies must be lived through, and with, to be integrated; to initiate us into them.

So the more planets astronomers find, the more choices astrologers face. Which archetypes warrant a share of the horoscope’s limited space? The question deserves serious thought, as choices that don’t matter burgeon in sync with the minor planet catalogue. More, more, more… But the mantra of progress invokes quantity, not quality, as science explores an endless horizon. From an inner or, for some, spiritual perspective, these vast classes of objects – centaurs, KBOS, whatever – signify levels. The first few asteroids to be spotted are now widely used; ditto, the first of the centaurs, Chiron, acts as ambassador for the rest. And Eris holds space for the KBOs; enough reason to include it. As for all the others, how much time can we devote? The large asteroid Hygiea, the centaur Chariklo, or the dwarf planet Haumea might point to a special destiny if prominent in a natal chart. Vaccine crusader Bill Gates has Hygiea (goddess of preventative medicine) conjunct his Scorpio Saturn exactly. The concept of preemptive protection that gets under your skin (conjunct Venus too) makes sense within his reality construct. Funnily enough, I too have a tight Hygiea–Saturn conjunction, but while my preventative regimen of wholefoods, outdoor exercise and stress reduction works well, I don’t seek to sell it to the public.

One popular, if lazy, method of deciphering a new planet’s energies involves interpretation of its discovery chart: a great opportunity for astrologers to strut their stuff. Yet this practice seems flawed at best. A discovery chart can’t work like a natal chart because a planet isn’t born at the moment astronomers notice it. Humanity is but a blink in its lifespan. Charts for countries can work because their boundaries are constructed. But an astrologer who retrofits the discovery chart to a planet’s myth is too confused to offer constructive insight. The chart more likely points to effects of the finding. Yet the signature of, say, Eris inheres in historical cycles and figures: a useful place to start, combined with hindsight re its transits and/or secondary progressions and solar arc directions to our own and others’ charts.

Synchronicity, so intrinsic to astrology, plays a part. At the supermarket after a day of Eris research, I heard the John Butler Trio song ‘Zebra’ (2003) over the speakers. Its lyrics touch on questions of identity – and their activist writer, the front man, has a natal Sun–Eris conjunction.

The end of an era, or just a question of identity?

A review of The Twilight of Pluto: Astrology and the Rise and Fall of Planetary Influences by John Michael Greer

A blogger and the author of 70+ books on a broad range of topics including the occult (he’s a druid), politics and ecology, along with a raft of fantasy novels, John Michael Greer is an independent scholar. ‘Writing is a core part of the way I explore the world’, he has said. But what qualifies him to write on astrology? An adept occultist when he took it up 15 years ago, he already had a working relationship with the planets. For Greer they aren’t just abstractions.

Dogma can blind those who find astrology before they’ve explored other knowledge systems. Greer’s somewhat late start may partly explain his breadth of vision, which makes for a mind-expanding read, despite gaps. A political astrologer, he knows less about natal charts. Yet, from what he says in this book and related interviews, his observations re his own and others’ charts have fuelled, if not sparked, the idea that Pluto’s influence is universally dwindling. And he writes as if it’s inevitable without discussing, say, events during transits to natal Pluto for subjects born decades or centuries before its 1930 discovery.

Astrologers tend to concur that planetary archetypes enter collective awareness around the time a planet is identified. Effects begin to kick in about 30 years prior, according to Greer. But conversely, if a so-called planet gets redefined, its effects decline over a 30-year period following banishment from the pantheon. So Pluto’s demotion to ‘dwarf planet’ in 2006 means its influence is weakening and will cease as of 2036 – a radical prediction bound to confound many astrologers, though it merely follows their logic.

Astronomical logic is a whole other ball game. Pluto’s downgrading, a matter of a category, hinged on findings we already knew of. Advances in technology had progressively revealed a smaller body than initially guessed, and then thousands of similar, even smaller ones beyond it. A glance at lists of possible dwarf planets makes it clear that astronomers, not just Greer, are making up the rules as they go along. So, what can history tell us about the future?

One reason why astrology eludes scientific proof is the sheer complexity of the cycles it charts. This also accounts in part for the margin of error common to astrological prediction. Yet retrospective research reveals dramatic patterns of intertwined themes. And Greer cites the best available source, Cosmos and Psyche (2006) by Richard Tarnas, as if unaware that parts of it cast doubt on his argument. For instance, Greer atypically associates the 1846 discovery of Neptune with revolution (apt, insofar as all the outer planets relate to far-reaching collective and individual change), yet overlooks the explicitly revolutionary implications of the Uranus-Pluto conjunction peaking in 1850–51 and effective for roughly a decade.

According to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, in an essay I found, funnily enough, via Greer’s blog, ‘we can say of every phenomenon that it is connected to countless others’ and ‘we cannot be careful enough to examine other bordering phenomena’. Though Greer can get creative with interpretation, he gives ample classic examples of how the emergence of a major new factor in human society and consciousness accompanied each planet’s discovery. But his main paradigm for subsequent loss of planetary status is Ceres, the largest asteroid, deemed a planet for about 50 years. As he explains, astrologers associate Ceres, named for the ancient Roman goddess of grain, with nourishment and nurturing. So, what new factor emerged around 1801? Romanticism, for Greer, is ‘the keynote of the Cerean era’. And sure enough, the Romantics championed nature. Yet Greer fails to link their movement with the nurture principle. Another flaw in the Ceres–Pluto comparison is the former’s thematic narrowness versus the latter’s vast scope. But to do justice to the idea he pitched to Inner Traditions, he’s had to cherry-pick facts and omit what doesn’t fit. Which makes for a neatly persuasive case.

Too neat, perhaps? While he ably demonstrates the occurrence of major cultural shifts with the recognition of each planet, his thesis rests on the contentious definition of what a planet is. And the current official version, though liable to further revision, suits Greer. For starters, the theoretical shrinkage of Pluto’s significance accords with his not unappealing predictions. But as a practising mage he has another agenda. The tree of life central to the cabalistic magical system comprises ten spheres, including the Sun, Moon and Earth, which leaves room for just seven more planets. Pluto threw a spanner in the works.

And, unlike most astrologers, Greer fixates on this contrariness: ‘the core nature of Pluto can be summed up straightforwardly as opposition to cosmos (p. 7)’; that phrase reappears later, still italicised, as if to stress just how totally Pluto goes against the grain. Cosmos, in Greer’s vision, is ‘the beautiful order of things’ – as symbolised by, e.g., the tree of life. Yet isn’t order an infinitely layered and subtle principle prone to change at less than predictable intervals? So even if Greer can tweak the tree to his liking, who’s to say its form won’t be disrupted again, as it first was with the arrival of another subverter of order, Uranus?

Just over two weeks ago, a NASA team travelled to outback Australia, the perfect place from which to observe Pluto cast its shadow on Earth as it passed in front of a star, a rare chance to gather data re its weather; its atmosphere isn’t behaving as expected. Many news items on the event call Pluto a planet: it seems the masses aren’t up to speed with astronomy’s taxonomy.

Greer’s evidence for the retirement of Pluto includes the fact that reputedly dire transits to it in his own chart and others have underwhelmed: more so, should Pluto be weakly placed. If a given natal chart reflects its subject’s perceptual filter, one might surmise that Pluto opposes something in Greer’s chart. But irrespective of how, say, Jupiter opposite Pluto behaves, has he overlooked certain factors? Practice with surfing planetary energies tempers their effects, and even slow old Saturn has circled his chart twice. So, conscious magical work geared to harmonise personal will with divine will would, at least in theory, refine Pluto’s expression.

Not unjustifiably, Greer seems unimpressed with personality-centred astrology, the rise of which he attributes to Pluto, along with pet hates like modern art and pretty much all else he deems ugly and meaningless in 20th-century culture. Indeed, it’s hard to believe that an archetype he credits with such immense impact could fade out to the extent he anticipates. Not that he mentions archetypes, a concept informing Jungian (personality-centred) astrology. But what would Jung say? Jungians see archetypes as eternal. Not that Greer expects Pluto’s influence to disappear; it just won’t signify for those in whose charts it doesn’t much figure.

Another gap in Greer’s picture concerns what will happen during future alignments of the slower-moving planets with Pluto. The Saturn–Pluto conjunction of 2020, coinciding with the declaration of a global pandemic and the deep and sweeping structural changes it enabled, rates no mention. Yet the ongoing consequences suggest no lessening anytime soon of Plutonian intensity. God of the underworld, Pluto was invisible; the archetype is covert by nature. Is it really losing potency? (Will our governments dial back surveillance?)

‘As the influence of Pluto wanes, the social and cultural phenomena that influence inspired can be expected to wane with it,’ writes Greer, ‘or to reorient themselves to echo the influence of some other planet (p. 116).’ An objective perspective may only be possible in hindsight. Meanwhile, Greer’s ideas deserve consideration.

The Astrology of Covid-19

Can anyone remember an astrologer predicting a pandemic for 2020? Astrologers all over the planet foresaw the conjunction of Saturn and Pluto, exact on 12/13 January, and some knew enough about the history of its cycle to await it with ambivalence, if not grave misgivings. If you want a comprehensive study of corresponding events over the last 2+ millennia, Cosmos and Psyche (2006) by Richard Tarnas is a good start. Highlights include the climax of the Black Death that devastated Europe in the 14th century, the eruption of World War I, the onset of the Cold War, the widespread emergence of AIDS in the early ’80s… hardly a period to look forward to.

And yet those fateful dates, then the rest of January 2020, came and went, leaving me none the wiser. Some astrologers saw the Oz bushfires as the extent of it. But wasn’t this local disaster just one of countless signs of the worsening global climate crisis? And besides, months earlier, news of China’s mass-surveillance program and punitive social credit system had looked like a sneak preview of Saturn conjunct Pluto in Capricorn to me.

It’s a guessing game anyone can play, equipped with a grab bag of keywords. Saturn = restriction, fear, authority, conformity, denial, isolation and more. Pluto = invisibility, undermining, manipulation, annihilation, corruption, mutation and so on. And the sign, or context, of Capricorn = social control, establishment, organisation, hierarchy, government, public life… Admittedly, some of those words carry negative connotations that might not apply in personal consultations. But at the collective level, history tells us to watch for the lowest common denominator.

And so when you start to combine these concepts (and others of the same type), you get ideas like manipulation through fear… or, to be a little more precise, the imposition of social restrictions/isolation to limit fatalities caused by something invisible. Astrology is, among other things, a language, and the more concepts you combine, the more refined the picture – but often only in retrospect. More concepts = more possibilities, making outcomes hard to predict.

As you might assume from the foregoing qualities (few of which are acknowledged as issues in our so-called liberal democracies), more than any other planetary combo, Saturn – traditionally known as the greater malefic – and Pluto – named for the underworld ruler (Hades to the ancient Greeks) – have a reputation for evil.

The immensely influential Swiss psychologist, Carl Jung (1875–1961) – a major force behind astrology’s resurgence last century, after a couple of centuries’ disrepute – was born as Saturn formed a square to Pluto, a stress point in the Saturn-Pluto cycle (manifestations of which include the recent global financial crisis and the outbreak of World War II). And Jung wrestled all his life with the question of evil – which he believed was just as real as good (or any other archetype). Besides theorising the anima, the shadow and the collective unconscious, he developed the concept of individuation, basic to most new-age philosophies. But during certain types of cycles, to exercise individual will becomes much more difficult, if not impossible. So two questions I pondered before news of the pandemic’s global spread broke were:

What major event or widespread conditions could lead to reduced personal freedom by providing an excuse for enforcement of greater social conformity?

How are China’s repressive agendas relevant to the West, where self-expression, including the right to protest injustice, is the norm?

Despite conspiracy theories that insist the pandemic was engineered, the image of something primal breaching the boundaries that divide civilisation from wilderness fits the symbolism. Some might see the catastrophe of a species-hopping virus as a predictable consequence of humanity’s rape of nature. With or without a moralising spin, that’s basic science. Saturnian rigidity, a feature of mortality, is no match for Plutonian powers of evolution.

Pluto can overwhelm Saturn or intensify its energies. We’ve seen grievous defects in the aged-care system exposed, the old and/or disabled confined without needed support, and conservative governments exploiting mass paranoia to fast-track enforcement of pro-corporate anti-progressive programs and monitor our movements as never before.

As I write with the luxury of hindsight, from the relative safety of Australia, which has so far gotten off lightly (thanks to geographical remoteness more than sound management), I’m witnessing state and federal governments pushing to go back to business as usual, while, with most restrictions now relaxed, the average punter is acting as if the Covid threat is over. And yet, changes coinciding with the Saturn-Pluto cycle inevitably prove to be irrevocable, even when not as overt as they were with, for instance, the last opposition.

Starkly symbolised by 9/11 – a plane (ruthless Pluto in fiery Sagittarius) flying head on at (opposing) its World Trade Center twin target (pragmatic Saturn in the sign of the twins, Gemini) – this polarised dynamic (us/US against them) had far-reaching consequences: war on Iraq.

As convenient as it may seem to forget Covid along with last year’s fires, in reality many worldwide have died and many more have been born – a whole generation with Saturn conjunct Pluto, set to enact the energy (resilience, relentlessness, intense control etc.) whenever transiting planets align with those key Capricorn degrees.

Meanwhile, the radical action of Plutonian change on Saturnian form ensures there’s no going back. Even as many await salvation via vaccination, epidemiologists say the virus is mutating. And so human quests for containment are doomed to at best partial failure. But Saturn and Pluto signify positives too. Pluto can also mean rebirth, renewal, release, revelation, transfiguration and even privacy, while Saturn can manifest as integrity, clarity, conservation, respect, responsibility and resistance.

If we recognise that no external authority (Saturn) can turn back the clock, can we open our minds to learn from Covid? Maybe resisting change (Saturn) increases the danger of viral invasion (Pluto), and our willed separation from nature inclines us to fear and fight it? Regeneration from Pluto’s perspective transcends the merely human dimension. Besides effecting dreaded population control, as do wars and natural catastrophes, viruses – with or without our intervention – play an essential evolutionary role.

astrology for unbelievers

What is astrology? How you answer this question may well reveal more about you than about the field itself. The definition in Australia’s Macquarie Dictionary (fifth edition) – ‘a study which assumes, and professes to interpret, the influence of the heavenly bodies on human affairs’ – is not only condescending but centuries out of date. Little do the ivory-tower word nerds suspect how much they have in common with astrologers – as keepers of a language that never stops evolving.

Yet the nature of astrology is such that nothing escapes it: at least, no one (or thing) with a birth (or start) time + place. So our use of the discipline, and what it can teach us, however adept we may be, reflects our own natal dynamics, subject to transiting factors. Whatever objectivity ensues is always relative; just as any map betrays the biases of its maker. The same conundrum bedevils science and mainstream psychology, both of which are forever at pains to disavow astrology (and which, if they doth protest too much, sound suspiciously religious). And indeed astrology differs from these systems of knowledge (both of which have enriched it despite their dismissiveness) by virtue of its age-old resistance to institutionalisation; its feral capacity to flourish in the cracks; its seemingly endless potential for reinvention.

In its most visible guise today, astrology is a commodity – typically in the form of information marketed to consumers. What happens if it’s offered on a not-for-profit basis? So far, and it’s early days, people lack interest or else want to pay. Monetisation confers worth in our capitalist age. But commercial pressures limit the interpretive possibilities. One of my astrologer friends suggests it’s gone underground – necessary for all subversive activities by definition. But if so, what does astrology – the real deal – look like now?

In the popular imagination, it tends to show up as a series of characters (ram, bull, twins, crab etc.), two thirds of them animals, but often personified as or merged with a young woman – presumably the leading consumer of ‘star sign’ predictions – and represented in columns, calendars and almanacs by fairytale/fashion-style graphics. However, for those with enough patience and interest to study in depth, whether as an amateur or a professional, the covers of many handbooks bear pictures of planets, stars, symbols, ancient gods or some idealised mixture thereof: images that could be read as cues to leave Earth and/or your body behind, to enter the abstract dimension of archetypal mind. As if astrology (whatever it is) happens elsewhere, in some rarefied realm – a sacred space remote from the immediacy of the mundane, a reflective place above and beyond the present. It looks like a sober and serious subject, not a form of entertainment. But what does astrology look like stripped of the packaging?

Philosopher Ian Hacking, in his review of DSM-5, the latest version of the manual often described as psychiatry’s bible, identifies ‘a fundamental flaw in the enterprise’ of classifying mental disorders. The high incidence in those deemed mentally ill of comorbidity – ‘systematically overlapping diagnoses to the point that it is unclear that it makes sense to talk of the primary ailment’ – means such illnesses can’t be usefully classified in the same manner as plants.

To take a random example, my bipolar neighbour, a stay-at-home whose eyes dart wildly when she talks, clearly suffers from one or more anxiety disorders; typical of 75% of those with a Bipolar I diagnosis. Her proneness to outbursts of verbal abuse and gratuitous noise (‘disruptive, impulse-control or conduct disorder’) and binge drinking (‘alcohol abuse disorder’) applies to over 50% of those diagnosed with Bipolar I. So even if she didn’t exhibit a mash-up of most of the symptoms of all the ‘Cluster A’ personality disorders, no single category could do her dysfunction justice. The botanical model of classification can’t help us understand the full complexity of insanity.

And it’s this sort of reductiveness that gets stuck on the zodiac (‘circle of animals’). So-called star signs (named for constellations) are only sun signs, the backdrop to the apparent annual movement of the Sun. Which means that, much as an alcoholic can be schizoid, paranoid, manic and disruptively antisocial with the balance in constant flux, someone born as the Sun passed through, say, Scorpio displays traits that also reflect Moon or rising signs, planetary aspects and more.

The starting point is in external reality: shifting alignments of planets seen at night or mapped on an astronomical ephemeris. But the more you look into astrology, the less rational it can seem. Most people, sceptics included, know that astrological forecasts are based on actual movements – transits – of the Sun, Moon and planets. Events occur in synchrony, as if sky and Earth were connected, akin to how lunar and tidal cycles coincide. Of course, things get more complex when we introduce a horoscope: a virtual snapshot of where the planets were at a person’s time of birth (though not quite, due to the slippage of signs called ‘precession of the equinoxes’). But if you can conceive that each moment in time might possess its own unique quality (as expressed or embodied in various art forms, e.g., haiku, improvised dance or jazz, impressionist painting, photography), doesn’t it follow that some moments – or periods – harmonise with that of your birth, while some don’t?

And some concepts are more abstract still, involving more purely symbolic equivalences. A few months ago I attended a seminar on the use of secondary progressions – a subject I’d once taught to my advanced students because, though beginners would understand, I viewed it as backup: useful to reinforce the transiting story or fill in its gaps. How do you apply this standard old technique? The qualified astrologer explained that each day after your birth equals a year in your life. So if the Sun changed signs when you were 18 days old, some sort of significant change would occur when you reached the age of 18. That’s the basic formula used for progressions: nothing to do with what’s happening in the sky now. So how – or, rather, why – do they work? That wasn’t discussed. And the speaker failed to demonstrate that they do discernibly work by using such loose criteria for assessing their relevance that she always got results, but of a sort too inconsistent to use predictively, which might be why she’d minimise the value of predictive work and assert the importance of letting the client talk, as if to provide too much perspective would be unsympathetic.

Most of my clients over the years came to pick my brains, not bend my ear. While I talked with the tape recorder running, they felt they were getting their money’s worth. Yet they had ample time to ask questions, and kept the tapes to replay, reflect on at leisure, and share with friends, some of whom came for readings too. Was my informative style any better? That the speaker on progressions presumably gets repeat business, like I did, suggests to me that most clients are seeking reassurance and don’t give much (if any) thought to the logic that supports it.

Why do patterns that escape the notice of most others live so vividly in an astrologer’s head? Do we simply project them onto the outer world and ignore contrary evidence? That astrology tends to make more sense retrospectively – the meaning of events becoming apparent only after they happen, often with greater clarity as more time elapses – could suggest that astrologers somehow create their own kind of narrative.

Every narrative demonstrates some sort of thought process. And astrology, in all its diverse forms, is a way of thinking. Or (and this can be true of science and religion too), a way of not thinking – if it involves recycling received opinion. We can’t (or at least are trained not to) grasp and communicate concepts without words, symbols or images. Which makes astrology first of all a language. And so, much as a given language conditions the thoughts of which we’re capable, astrological language enables a distinct way of thinking. Conversely, some ways of thinking seem conducive to its use. Not so in the case of those who, with their vocab confined to the twelve signs, zealously generalise about Taureans etc. they’ve known then say, ‘I’m not sure I believe in it’. Yet even astrology’s fiercest critics (e.g., Richard Dawkins) don’t think it through, while true believers refuse to subject their faith to rational scrutiny, as if they fear it has no more substance than a soap bubble.

And that’s what most of astrology’s sceptics and its believers have in common: they’re making a category mistake. Belief or its opposite is possible only if we treat astrology as a belief system. In fact, its practice involves other fields of knowledge. It can’t be neatly detached from astronomy, maths or psychology.

A hallmark of any religion is its claim to provide an overarching belief system, a unified theory of everything. For instance, veganism – a practice defined as abstinence from all consumption of animal products – behaves like a religion when adherents believe that eating the meat or secretions of suffering animals is the root cause of all violence and fear on the planet. Ditto, astrology starts to look a lot like a religion to the extent that we use it to account for all phenomena, inner and outer, making it the source of all meanings instead of a frame of reference for them.

Does astrology work if you don’t ‘believe in’ it?

In the sense that a cat’s reflection is still objectively visible when it won’t look or can’t recognise itself in a mirror, flat-earthers can’t levitate despite their denial of gravity, and climate change deniers can’t avert extreme weather events, astrology sceptics don’t escape natural cycles just because these escape them. Meanwhile, anyone fluent in the language of astrological symbols can observe and even, if sufficiently skilled, predict the emergence of corresponding themes and issues, whether for an individual or the collective. Cultural historian Richard Tarnas has charted such cycles retrospectively over millennia in Cosmos and Psyche (2006), bridging a gap in astrological literature, much of which promises self-help or personal development. In contrast, the scale and complexity of Tarnas’s research, grounded in painstaking scholarship, offers a broader perspective to sceptics with arguments like the following:

In fact, no matter what an astrologer may claim, a search of the literature will invariably find a conflicting claim by another group of astrologers. Unlike disputes in science, it is unclear how such disputes can be resolved, even in principle. This disagreement exists even at the most fundamental level for entire populations of astrologers…

Does that sound reminiscent of climate science? While up to 97% of climate scientists agree that global warming is anthropogenic, 100% of astrologers agree that stellar and planetary patterns correspond with events occurring on Earth. Scepticism, untested, amounts to mere belief. You can’t assess the worth of astrology by surveying its users, any more than you can measure ocean temperature by shoving a thermometer up surfers’ bums. Faith and scepticism both offer the comfort of certainty.

Manifestations of the divine – God or the gods – have long given rise to systems of belief. Yet the foundations of such beliefs are no more fixed than the so-called fixed stars orbiting their own galactic centres. The patterns of archetypal revelation never stand still. And when so many (and, often, rival) perspectives exist, how can truth be other than relative? So within the essentially polytheistic belief in astrology, we find a diverse range of models. Is Earth central to our view of the cosmos (geocentric) or do we follow Copernican logic (heliocentric)? Do we measure the divisions of the zodiacal wheel by the Earth’s axial tilt beneath our feet or by its circuit of our sun against the distant constellations? Why would a devotee worship at one temple and not another? For the sake of peer group acceptance? Or through a spontaneous awakening?

Such a range and multiplicity of systems also applies to religion. Yet astrology, to many of its users, is no more a religion than is any symbolic system. To practise the discipline requires no belief in or worship of any god. Religions depend on language for their transmission, not the reverse. And while it’s true that, along with use of symbols, astrology and religions happen to share concern with seeking and/or making meaning, science also shares this concern. For example, what might a near-death experience mean? Some recent research suggests it’s just a lucid dream, though caution is needed – research has shown that hypotheses can influence experiments. And what might semi- or unconscious subjects feel just prior to actual death? (Few, if any, have managed to tell us.) Researchers have hoped to learn by observing the brains of rats as they ‘sacrifice’ them: a biblical term. And modern science has followed in the footsteps of religions that seek to subjugate nature (and the instincts).

Astrology evolved out of observing the natural world – hence, observatory. So observation connotes detached, objective contemplation. Astronomers watch the skies and analyse their findings; psychologists observe the workings of the mind. An astrologer, to be effective, must observe – in the sense of comply with – the actual positions of Sun, Moon, planets and stars in space as well as the dates and times of countless alignments; past, present and prospective. Patterns must be discerned before meaning can be inferred and interpreted.

Why are some of us wired to perceive correspondences between planetary transits and personal or world events, while others see little or no connection? Pattern recognition appears to be more developed in some individuals. Taken to an extreme, it may result in, say, original art and/or a diagnosis of schizophrenia.

James Hillman’s facility for pattern recognition has enriched the field of contemporary psychology, even if just by provoking in-depth critiques. The founder of the archetypal psychology movement, Hillman influenced Tarnas, and his son Laurence Hillman is an archetypal astrologer. Presumably to protect his credibility, Hillman chose not to be identified with astrology. But his use of language – images, metaphors etc. – in his magnum opus, Re-Visioning Psychology (1975), implies a deep engagement with astrological concepts, which inform his understanding of soul, psyche, archetypes and the gods. For instance, he describes ‘the processional characteristic of the archetypes’:

Their tales and their figures move through phases like dramas and interweave one with another, dissolve into one another. Whether expressed as instincts or as Gods, archetypes are not definitely distinct. One instinct modifies another… Their process is in their complication […] the archetypes are structures in process; this process is many-formed and mythical (p. 148)…

Or: ‘Archetypes are the skeletal structures of the psyche, yet the bones are changeable constellations of light—sparks, waves, motions (p.157).’ Is this at all suggestive of stars and planetary transits? And: ‘These constellations are … descriptions … of patterns, interactions, of Gods in their complexities. […] Gods are relations and always imply each other (p. 158)…’ Hillman refers to soul or psyche as a perspective: ‘like a reflection in a flowing mirror (p. x)’ and ‘as the perspective that sees through (p.174)’.

One way to see through Hillman’s imagery might be to recognise his Neptunian (nostalgic, poetic) style of re-visioning, with the Sun, Moon and Jupiter all forming close aspects to a third-house Neptune in his birth chart. And likewise, it’s possible, even without their charts, to see through the analyses of his critics, whose styles and concerns express distinctly different archetypes.

the astrology of subversion

Astrology isn’t a topic you’d expect would be popular with latte-left atheist intellectuals. Predictably, Canadian debut novelist Eliza Robertson’s lecture at the recent Sydney Writers’ Festival didn’t pull a large crowd. And of those assembled, few evinced much, if any, astrological knowledge. For instance, the science writing buff beside me professed a lack of belief. Though he seemed willing to keep an open mind, he summed up astrology as a way of dealing with uncertainty. Which incidentally seems to be the principle project of science. But, unlike another festival guest who discussed her pet topic (see below), Robertson didn’t make an appeal to our rational minds.

Perhaps her strongest selling point, for an audience of this kind, was the idea that astrology is subversive. As she notes, it’s practised on the margins, and therefore attracts those denied power in the mainstream. She says it can offer a language of protest, of refusal. However, she offered no substantial examples. And it can also offer a language of pseudo-spiritual one-upmanship, a type of cosmic hierarchy, to those so inclined.

Astrology is a language (among other things). And any complex language can be used to protest or refuse. Or perpetrate prejudice and exclusion. But the complexity of astrology is invisible in the mainstream media; it’s given space on the condition that it doesn’t take itself seriously: a dilemma it shares with, for instance, most women.

Robertson linked this lack or loss of cred to the Enlightenment, when astrology, once integral to astronomy, medicine etc., got dismissed as foolish superstition. Yet mainstream Western religion had opposed astrology well before that. So it seems reasonable to surmise that astrology represents a threat not to reason (as many who argue against it can tend to sound irrational) but to the ruling religion of our time, i.e., Science, which has yet to devise reliable tests of astrology’s effectiveness.

And so throughout the festival session featuring science writer Michael Brooks, author of The Quantum Astrologer’s Handbook, astrology rated only a passing mention. Though Jerome (Girolamo) Cardano, the 16th-century Milanese polymath who inspired his inventive biography, happened to practise astrology, Brooks discounts the whole field of inquiry due to lack of proof: typical of today’s mainstream intellectuals, who revere the pioneering genius of game changers such as Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo and Newton, yet deny their use of astrology might be integral to their thinking. Brooks pointed out that Cardano was critical of astrology. But how else can any system of knowledge develop? Criticism means nothing unless the critic knows their subject, as countless online customer reviews attest (like this one of Brooks’s book: ‘A nice easy read, apart from the physics, which was interesting and quite accessible, but to do need to be interested.’).

Brooks confessed he’d (briefly) used himself as a guinea pig to test astrology, but clearly wasn’t impressed. And after all, the effectiveness of a reading, assuming it’s competent, depends on how well the subject knows their self. So if astrology has any genuine subversive potential, personalised interpretation may prove to be a dead end. In enough depth, it can offer a great introduction to an intelligent sceptic. Yet often, these days, it’s just one more lens to try on in an atomised culture of self-obsession – ironic, when an understanding of all perspectives as relative is one of astrology’s most fundamental lessons.

Cultural historian Richard Tarnas has a stab at making astrology relevant in his magnum opus, Cosmos and Psyche (2006), an unprecedentedly comprehensive and rigorous study of planetary cycles in the context of human (Western) culture over time. A seasoned philosopher and psychologist, he avoids most of the traps that novices like Robertson fall into.

Her recent lecture, while engaging, lacked the power to convince. If, as it seems, she aspires to broaden astrology’s audience, certain habits may prove a hindrance:

· Talking a lot about herself, interesting though she is, kept the focus personalistic, thus revealing more about the speaker than her subject. The reflective, navel-gazing tenor of endless self-analysis is wholly compatible with narcissistic consumerism. Where’s the subversion in that?

· She overemphasised star signs – e.g., her Aries Moon, Leo rising, Sagittarian Sun etc. – while barely touching on aspects, i.e., angles between the planets that embody dynamics rather than styles; the cyclical action instead of the colourful backdrop (which, as she noted, is Eurocentric).

· Talk of re-enchantment. This seems only natural for a writer whose first novel – Demi-Gods – mines themes from ancient Greek myth, but also risks aligning her with the utopian/escapist New Age.

And yet this last point is where she and Tarnas, despite their vast differences, overlap; because, for all his formidable erudition, Tarnas seems confident that astrology can restore what’s been lost – as if our disenchanted cosmos, like powdered milk or eggs, could be reconstituted by adding enough water, or our world were a shattered vessel that astrology could glue back together.

From the lofty heights of his scholarly perspective, the future looks hopeful indeed. But the masses, or the corporate giants that manipulate them, want expedience, distraction and convenience, not expansion of consciousness. Science has given us clean green power but people buy what’s cheap. Astrology might hold the keys to deeper self-awareness, but why should those who prize wealth and status care?

During the Age of Reason, astrology lost status and went underground. But astrologers today are reclaiming it. In Brooks’s book, he time-travels back to the 1500s to chat with Cardano: about quantum physics, the topic of his PhD. Too bad he doesn’t ask what Cardano thinks astrology might be like with three new planets in the picture. These three – Uranus, Neptune and Pluto – are those Tarnas most emphasises: the aspects they form in their vast orbits describe cultural tides. To expand its horizons, astrology relies on science, without which it sinks into superstition; for meaning, it needs philosophy, without which it’s just a means of prediction; and for grounding in lived experience, it needs psychology, without which it lacks depth. However, these fields, with their patriarchal biases, aren’t self-sufficient either. Maybe they’re ripe for subversion? But the ‘magic happens’ approach doesn’t work.

Story-eyed: the pros & cons of astrology as entertainment

Anyone shopping around for a natal chart reading today, whether they opt for a consultation or a pre-programmed report, could be forgiven for confusing astrology with storytelling. But so what? Don’t they both offer age-old wisdom and knowledge, potentially?

As humans, we use stories to construct our identities: stories of our origins (species, clan, personal etc.), how we got to where we are now, and futures we desire or dread. And as we tell them, these stories morph according to our audience: friends, strangers, prospective employers or mates and, most often, our selves. Such stories, despite our conviction, can only amount to fictions, the facts changing as our perspectives shift. Yet most fiction contains grains of truth and some fictions are useful. Stories can guide or orientate, like a map or a case history. But if they offer nothing more than escape from harsh realities, fictions on the page or the screen can prove addictive.

And so, in our highly competitive information society, stories make compelling bait for an audience hooked on entertainment. Eliciting laughter, shock, sympathy and/or curiosity, such stories exist only to introduce a theme or idea – because, no matter how technical or academic the writing, storytelling seems to fit the zeitgeist. But unlike the sacred myths of old, stories have never been more disposable.

Meanwhile, psychotherapists, astrologers etc. read the grand dramas of ancient Greek archetypes into clients’ lives and charts. And as astrology becomes increasingly institutionalised, edging towards mainstream acceptance, these conventions persist. Notes from one well-known school refer to the astronomical Chiron as ‘he’ – as if this tiny body discovered in modern times (1977) were inseparable from the archaic image of a male centaur; as if its name defined its nature and potentials.

And other astrologers might pluck stories from your deep personal past. One I knew of told a credulous client that she’d been Paul Gauguin, the French post-impressionist painter, in a former life. I’ve supposedly been a Delphic oracle, a Christian mystic in hiding and a Jewish intellectual, among others. But isn’t it all as insubstantial as shadows dancing on cave walls, entrancing to an ego deprived of sunlight?

It’s tempting to identify with an immortal mythic figure or a significant former incarnation when you crave meaning. Yet such identification can promote ego inflation. That the passage of time – marked by planetary cycles – might bring self-revelation to those who resist illusory self-images is a hard sell in a culture based on short-term gratification. Who can be bothered with a solitary search for self-knowledge when the digital world exists to protect us from uncertainty, as if we’re all children in a vast virtual nursery?

Astrology might be a science, a religion, a divinatory art, a predictive system, a means to psychological insights and/or an ally of magic. But whatever else we choose to call it, astrology is also a language. And while language is the bricks and mortar from which we construct stories, it performs many functions besides narration. Astrological language is as abstract as algebra – each single symbol serves as a reference point or repository for a vast network or storehouse of themes, principles, concepts and more.

Rather like most computer users can’t read programming code and don’t want to, the majority of seekers drawn to astrology don’t care how it works. They just want to avoid pitfalls, exploit advantages and/or defend their prejudices. The latter attitude, implying belief in good vs. bad planetary aspects and zodiacal degrees, assumes a static model that seems at odds with the changing pattern described in the sky by stars, planets and asteroids that never stand still, except symbolically.

Such amateurs often have a sufficiently adequate vocabulary – signs, houses, planets, aspects – to never lack for answers, but don’t know the language in enough depth to ask searching questions. Like a visitor to a foreign land who’s memorised their phrasebook enough to maintain personal comfort, yet whose failure to fully follow, let alone learn from, local conversation precludes any real chance of understanding. So they bring their old familiar mindset and biases with them wherever they go, taking the guided tours that fuel their travelogues.

Within a few short lines and minutes, my improvised analogy has begun to spin itself into a story, as if the form were integral to the actual process of thinking. And yet we experience planetary energies more directly – registering them hormonally, sensually, viscerally…

Stories are a function of, inextricably bound up in, time. They measure, record, warp and tie knots in it, fold or bend it back on itself, stretch it out to infinity, compress it into a tiny full stop, make it flow backwards, shoot holes in it… We kill time by telling or listening to, writing or reading stories. Lost in story time, we lose track of clock time. The pace of a story makes time pass faster or slower for the reader. Time is to story (and music and poetry) what space is to sculpture or painting; time is part of its architecture.

Imagine losing track of time – no longer knowing the date. The practice of modern astrology wouldn’t be an option. You’d have no way of knowing what transits were occurring. At best, you’d be able to hazard a guess, based on the time of year, the Moon’s phases, your state of mind or mood, and physical indications (blurred/clear vision, muscular tension/relaxation, sex drive etc.). Whatever stories you’d been used to telling yourself to moderate or mediate your experience, whether by interpreting the data in an ephemeris or by reading a pop astrology column, would start to lose coherence. Instead, you’d be subject to the immediacy of undefined energies. That’s why humans turn to science, philosophy and religion, isn’t it – to find explanatory narratives that make sense of our existence?

Non-astrologers, and not just sceptics, often think of astrology as a crutch, a security blanket, or a tool for predicting the future. But now that so few people leave home without their smartphone or feel fully functional without a range of apps, it’s harder to point the finger. A crutch can become a liability if you forget that its purpose is to help you recover independence – much like a mirror (so useful for, say, cleaning teeth or shaving) can make you shallow if you don’t know when to look away from it.

Because it can offer independence, astrology used to represent a threat to the Church – ‘observers of times’ denotes astrologers in the King James Bible – but if the new Church, or place of worship, resides in technology, who are the new observers?

As above, so below – a dated equation?

How much does the enduring appeal of the above old saying derive from its power to comfort? Plenty, to the extent that it evokes benign (or appeaseable) forces beaming down on us in conformity with a predictable cosmic order.

Yet the planets, as conceived of by most educated folk today, are no longer supernal forces but prospective resources or real estate, long-haul destinations waiting for humans to conquer and put them to use.

Ergo, the hermetic maxim ‘As above, so below’ – beloved of writers on assorted occult subjects including astrology – can no longer evoke unqualified acceptance. And don’t such catchy, catch-all formulations fuel the tendency of uninformed sceptics to confuse astrology with religion, as do its believers who revere self-proclaimed mystics? But to profit from prophecies, forecasts and/or potted psychological profiles puts astrologers on the same footing not as priests but as other wheeler-dealers.

Yet to many of their followers, astrologers are more than mere translators of coded celestial cycles, even if they reduce astrology to a prop (astro sans logical), indulging clients who resist demystification and crave certainties decreed by Fate (vs. a biased interpretation).

‘As above, so below’, says self-styled astrologer/astro-theologian, Santos Bonacci, on YouTube, while attempting to rationalise his belief that the Earth is flat. Mixing pop astrology with assorted old systems of occult knowledge, to form an intriguing if shallow East-West hash, he rates a cult following. Syncretism, he calls his religion, which seems cut out for a culture characterised by skimming of surfaces – an orientation that finds an apt metaphor in the image of a flat Earth.

The planets (really stars, according to Bonacci) are indeed above us if we live on a stationary disc (not a sphere). But if ours is just one of a number of planets that orbit the Sun, Earth is likewise ‘above’ when seen from the surface of, say, Mars or Venus. And, if today’s prevailing view is that humanity rules and will soon use technology to colonise other worlds, in contrast to the archaic, minority view that the planets influence us, isn’t it at least possible that reality lies somewhere between?

Sure, the ancients saw the planets as angels or gods. Whether learned or innate, it’s a human trait to value what we can personify; we first dehumanise those we want to exploit or suppress, discredit, forget (conversely, corporations enjoy some of the same rights to which persons are entitled). Even ancient Egyptian animal gods have human bodies. Yet why must the divine, for pagans and Christians alike, be anthropomorphised? How is that less infantile than storybook rabbits who wear clothes and talk? Isn’t a need to see one’s reflection to feel deep respect narcissistic?

A Jungian might argue that such mythic figures are archetypes: changeless instinctual patterns or images rooted in the collective unconscious; and most Jungian astrologers match them with zodiac signs, planets and asteroids, a convenience with the possible drawback of overly simplified meanings. For instance, a planet made of rock, gas or ice has no sex, even though for millennia they’ve had gendered names, making our solar system male dominated (and while we orbit the solar Apollo, his sister, Artemis, orbits us). Even if we count our Earth, Gaia, as female and add a few major asteroids from the hordes numbered or named for deities, famous mortals etc. (i.e. arbitrarily), this stark imbalance mirrors earthly gender inequities. With the film industry’s star system a modern equivalent to defunct gods/goddesses, might Olympus today look like Hollywood?

Name the first ten directors that spring to mind… Any women? (Given the solar system rollcall, ‘as above, so below’ fits. No wonder astrology, despite its basis in science, is dismissed as archaic and apolitical.) According to Oz filmmaker Megan Simpson Huberman (Lumina, May 2015):

Women seeking to direct face the problem that they do not resemble the template for what a director looks like in many people’s subconscious. Until more women are directing, that template will be resistant to change.

Templates can change once they’re identified: look at genetics. And though As below, so above doesn’t roll off the tongue like its reverse, film can be used to raise awareness, not just entertain (ditto astrology). Influence can work from the bottom up. Creator of The Wire (an ‘anti-cop show’ tackling ‘the fundamental problems of urbanity’), David Simon says ‘the idea that . . . we’re still fated by indifferent gods, feels to us antiquated and superstitious’, so he’s updated them:

Instead of the old gods, The Wire is a Greek tragedy in which the postmodern institutions are the Olympian forces. It’s the police department, or the drug economy, or the political structures, or the school administration, or the macroeconomic forces that are throwing the lightning bolts and hitting people in the ass for no decent reason. […] In this drama, the institutions always prove larger, and those characters with hubris enough to challenge the postmodern construct of American empire are invariably mocked, marginalized, or crushed. Greek tragedy for the new millennium, so to speak.

A former journalist, Simon dares to tell it like it is, but who’s listening? With its character-driven narratives, long-form serial TV is the new novel. Who has time to read? Yet viewing is comparatively passive, and though the gods/God might be dead (to invoke a tired Nietzschean quote), the patriarchy isn’t about to give up the ghost.

Meanwhile, in the void left by dwindling divinity, humanity’s gotten above itself. We’ve lost touch with the ground of our being, yet what’s below us steers our fate – shifting tectonic plates, rising seas, gut flora, toxins in soil and water – as surely as any luminous orbs in the heavens. Whatever. We’re more invested in corporate-driven connectivity. And this growing 24/7 dependency on technology with its attendant estrangement from nature is reflected in the way we practise and understand astrology – the few of us for whom it’s not just one more curiosity in the vast virtual museum digital culture offers.

Of course astrology remains a popular tool for spiritual development. But this personalistic emphasis, in today’s world, only confirms its waning cultural relevance. Astrology can only reflect – it can’t reconstitute meaning that’s gone.

the death of the gods & the birth of homo exsilius

The gods are dead. And Man intends to colonise their corpses. With plans to make Mars first base, he seeks to conquer space – to transcend, once and for all, his animal nature. And why not mine the Moon in the meantime?

Of course, if the gods have died, archetypes can’t be far behind. Even the language defining them – e.g. anima – is as dead as Latin. Besides, archetypes aren’t just irrelevant but unscientific.

No, the gods still live, insist some grizzled, die-hard Jungians – it’s just that they’ve been relegated to the storehouse of the Unconscious. Sort of like plaster busts of Caesar or statues of armless Aphrodite gathering dust in corners of art-school storerooms? Or like a life model ignored by students working from photos or apps?

Gods. Planets. Archetypes. These categories overlap. And none holds much if any wonder or meaning for so-called civilised people. As science and technology have pushed the bounds of the known farther out beyond our own planet, solar system and galaxy, our focus has grown progressively myopic, self-obsessed, egocentric. Our powers of observation have been outsourced to machines.

Which means it’s not just God or the gods that are dead: we’re all riding the sixth great wave of extinction. And culturally, we’re losing refined arts such as (to name just a few) painting, the novel and classical music. Are the gods really dead, though, or have they just gone underground – to lurk ever ready to erupt and shake up or shatter the doubting? The latter belief smacks of superstition. Never mind that you can’t see or hear them, don’t neglect their rituals; set their place at your table. And as their myths grow stale, add more gore/zombies/vampires; shorten the scenes; heighten sensation. Keep comatose tradition on life support. Or consider a third possibility.

Maybe archetypes shape-shift? Just because we anthropomorphised the gods in ancient times doesn’t mean they can’t ever change. And what is death if not the ultimate process of defamiliarisation? Just as you can’t make something from nothing, something can’t become nothing. The unconscious might be less a vast repository for spurned gods/goddesses than a synonym for non-recognition. That which we can’t see, hear, feel or think might not be dead but just fail to register.

When abstract art first emerged as a cultural phenomenon, most viewers (not just the Nazis) couldn’t see the wood for the trees. Though none of the vocabulary of the painted image was lost, they found the altered syntax disorienting. Attachment to the narrative content of portrait, landscape and genre – i.e. to people, places and things – had conditioned their minds and blinkered their vision. Yet, representational, realist painting lost at least part of its raison d’être – to provide a lasting record – with the advent of the camera. Technology freed painting from any need or obligation to document the world – official or personal – objectively. So Impressionism, Expressionism, Surrealism, abstraction et al – none of which precludes narrative content – were natural progressions. And figuration hasn’t actually vanished. But it now haunts the periphery of the cultural stage; it’s quaintly nostalgic niche entertainment. Today’s art gallery visitors want interactive exhibits.

And the same goes for the ancient myths: quaint entertainment. The other, older part of representational painting’s reason for being was to honour, to make a space for, the sacred. But that role had lost real importance before photography displaced it. Myths, too, once served to honour the sacred. Now they no longer fulfil a central, essential religious function in culture. A myth (e.g. Theseus and the Minotaur, Perseus and Medusa, Artemis and Actaeon, Isis and Osiris) exists on par with all other made-up stories (e.g. Shrek, Barbie as Rapunzel, the Harry Potter franchise, Game of Thrones): you select those which appeal to you from the options that giant corporations offer. Religion, too, has been commodified to the extent that Western culture is more or less one vast, virtual shopping mall. If you choose not to buy, say, the myth of salvation vs. eternal damnation, you can, if you want, pay a Jungian astrologer to explain that your serial abusive relationships re-enact the myth of Persephone and Hades. So you can identify with a goddess instead of an object of charity, never mind how imprecise the ancient Greek analogy.

Because, imprecise or not, it’s as easy to identify with a god as with an online avatar, a novel’s protagonist or a celebrity. The ego can take a holiday: in the fifth house of recreation. Children and amateur actors do it often. Yes, it’s easy and fun to identify with a god/dess, because s/he’s personified.

So, what does astrology stand to lose if we drop the narrative props? And is this akin to the quantum leap art made from the figurative to the abstract? Cubism, for one, provided a bridge. As does the logic of the digital: number is so much more abstract than myth. Cubism, for some, was an ugly movement. But it facilitated transition; even had its moments of lyrical beauty.

As with Cubism, some find geometry unsympathetic. Yet maths underlies the design of the spaces in which we live. And as money – the god many worship today – progressively withdraws from the realm of solid matter to become a volatile concept (a leap requiring a kind of faith), no more than code recorded and transferred electronically, our security resides not in what we can touch or carry or stash in a vault but in the rarefied realm of abstraction.

For us moderns, the ancient gods could never be more than glorified actors. And even revered screen actors are being displaced by digital animation. The emphasis in most public discourse (as true for the arts as for politics) has shifted from meaning to process, from contents to constantly morphing package. In fact, today’s restless, discontented, tech-fuelled cult of personality mirrors as much as it contrasts impersonal, transitory planetary patterns.