Astrology and Freedom

Friday September 8th 2017
Dante encounters Beatrice. A 14th century Venetian illustration for the Divine Comedy from Biblioteca Marciana

Dante encounters Beatrice. A 14th century Venetian illustration for the Divine Comedy from Biblioteca Marciana

I have quite a few Asian clients, brought up in the Vedic or Chinese systems of astrology. At first, I was curious that they should seek out a Western practitioner even though they were steeped in a more culturally-accepted tradition. But after several enlightening conversations, I started to understand just how liberating it might be to use a system that is outside your own culture — and saw what a smart choice these clients are making.

The Nine Planets Temple at Konark

The Nine Planets Temple at Konark. These personifications are finely dressed, scented and flower-decked.

This set me thinking about how all astrology needs to be understood within its own cultural and historical context. For example, if you read a Western astrology book written in the 1970s or 1980s, you might be urged to seek therapy or immerse yourself in the writings of Gustav Jung, or if you read one written in the noughties, there’s a lot of “setting your intentions”. Early twentieth century astrologers, such as Alan Leo, assume we have an understanding of past lives. You could choose to put his work in the context of the explosion of colonial ethnography at turn of the century. Grant Lewi’s classic Astrology for the Millions conjures up 1940s California as readily as Jack Kerouac’s writing. Much earlier astrologers, such as William Lilly, see astrology in the context of Christianity, while Roman astrologers assume a first-(or at least second) hand acquaintance with the Olympians.

The concepts we take most for granted when studying astrology might be the very concepts we ought to question. Here are a couple of easy examples.

A three-armed Ardhanarishvara sculpture with only Nandi as a vahana, 11th century, Gangaikonda Cholapuram temple from Creative Commons

A three-armed Ardhanarishvara sculpture — half male and half female. 11th century, Gangaikonda Cholapuram temple from Creative Commons

History is still written from the male (usually white) perspective. “He” is the default eye. Here’s one racial example in astrology. Pluto is said to be a “black man” sometimes — but, I wonder, is he a black man if you yourself are a black man (or woman for that matter)? Maybe Pluto turns up as a white man. In short, maybe Pluto does not have a colour, but is rather “the other”.

Another way this default male “I” works is in the gendering of the planets. Of the seven traditional planets, just two are female — one associated with mother, the other with lover. Add the three modern outer planets and the ratio gets worse. Add Chiron and the centaurs and it gets even worse. It’s not until we get to the asteroids that things start to even out. Take a look at Vedic astrology: ALL the planets and the Lunar Nodes are personified as male.

So, having so many “mascuiine” planets reinforces the idea the male is the norm. Trying to think of the planets as abstract energies can be tricky. It’s easier to personify them. There’s a great tradition of this via mythology in the West, and as a living tradition in Vedic astrology. Actually though, how helpful is it? And what is it tacitly telling us? All power structures are necessarily male.

This is where Lilith comes in — of course — the outcast feminine, again gender-specific. But is Lilith always a woman? I’ve argued, for example, that author Patricia Highsmith’s Lilith manifested as “The Talented Mr Ripley”.

And look at this gender issue from the other side — how does it feel as a man to be told your maleness is rather weak, if you have Mars in Libra, say? And if you’re a woman with Mars in Aries on the MC, does that make you less of a woman? In other words, what is normative?

Yin Yang symbol and the hexagrams of the I Ching, a document which reinforces Confucian social theory and at the very same time liberates through the Dao.

Yin Yang symbol and the hexagrams of the I Ching, a document which reinforces Confucian social theory and at the very same time liberates through the Dao.

These are all especially relevant questions perhaps in these gender fluid times. One of the underlying assumptions of the astrological worldview is dualism — an extraordinarily powerful and useful concept found in most cultures. Polarities are often mitigated and then re-asserted in a continuous flow. However, when polarities become calcified, we’re in trouble. But that’s another post.

There are other ways that astrology can be used to coerce and control. There’s the astrologer who fixes you with a darkling eye and announces that your marriage is over, or, you will never be able to have children, or, if you want to know more, come back next week, or, that you brought your broken arm on yourself by failing to “work with the planets”.

Astrology can be used to plant a seed of doubt, to instil fear — to make you lose faith in your own judgment.

On the most basic level, there’s that compatibility diagram that shows you can never love a Leo, trust a Gemini or make babies with an Aquarian.

Reading some astrology books (or websites), especially older ones, can make your hair stand on end. They are full of warnings and bad omens, strictures against this and that, “evil” transits, “malefic” planets. On the other hand, more modern ones tend to gloss over the difficulty of tough transits, leaving us feeling as if it was all our own fault, if only we’d handled x, y or z differently. Explain that to the victims of Hurricane Irma. The flip-side of that kind thinking is when you’re “born on third base, think you’ve hit a triple”.

So like any system for understanding life, the universe and everything, astrology needs to be navigated clear-sightedly, with a questioning confidence and a good choice of co-pilots.

What the best astrology does, of course, is unshackle you from fear, arm you with self-knowledge, help you to feel at one with the great, pulsing universe — set you free.


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  1. Seema says:

    “What the best astrology does, of course, is unshackle you from fear, arm you with self-knowledge, help you to feel at one with the great, pulsing universe — set you free.”

    Wise words. And yes, looking outside your culture is very liberating. It is also incredibly educational.

  2. Vesta says:

    Very important post.
    I have been interested in astrology since I was at school. A lifelong interest which I can probably put down to my north node Gemini curiosity and sun Scorpio seeking to understand. So I have read a lot of astrology books and am loving the explosion of information online. But I’ve learnt to discern.
    Along with outdated ideas, there’s also the astrologer themselves to consider, their worldview, their perspective, their beliefs. I’m not talking about the ones to ignore, the ones who copy others and steal their ideas. I mean ones who comes across as quite good who have a decent following and what looks like a good reputation. I have seen some who, on the back of that, instil fear and cast blame. For example, when I was going through the worst of the recent uranus/pluto years, which hit me hard, I saw a ton of unhelpful posts. There’s a lot of stupidity, if not cruelty, out there. When your first thought is, “wtf is that?”, I say ignore it and move on, and never read that astrologer again.
    In terms of gender etc, I have always thought of our own yin and yang energies, the balance of masculine and feminine we all have within. So that’s Jungian, I suppose. I really like the idea and it works for me. I have my ‘aggressive’ or ‘assertive’ Scorpio side, so that’s mars and pluto, and I have my ‘soft’ or ‘feminine’ side, which I am guessing must be all the watery goodness in my chart. It’s all good and great, but the next thing is to learn how to use it, and that comes with experience. When to be passive/receptive, and when to be proactive and push. There’s no judgement on gender here, it’s whatever you need to do, when you need to do it. I really appreciate astrologers who make this point and remind you.
    In my reading, I have looked at other forms of astrology, I’m a Chinese wood snake. 🙂 I forget what I am in Vedic, I got confused. 🙂
    What matters is the information you glean from your reading. What insights? What wisdom? What did you learn? What lightbulb went on? There’s information everywhere, there are insights everywhere. I don’t judge what sparks them. A weekly horoscope that does that is as good as any in depth chart reading.
    In this age of the internet, I have settled on a few excellent astrologers who I know I can learn from, you being among them. 🙂 It’s not just knowledge I admire, it’s also those flashes of intuition that I appreciate, that I recognise as spot on. But for me to recognise them, I need to hear it said, so I can go “oh yeah, of course”. I am intuitive too, but unless you sit down and work on it, it’s easy to ignore in the noise of day to day. And the news is very noisy right now.
    I’m hearing more and more people are being drawn to astrology in this time of chaos. It makes sense, apparently it was the same in the 1960s, the last time uranus/pluto met. I hope lots of people see this post and consider what you said.
    The best thing I ever read was, you don’t have to be your sun sign. That suits me! You have to be allowed to be you. It’s been great learning about what’s in my chart, all these different aspects of me. Something that bothers me is learning things like ‘this aspect means your partner will always cheat on you, there will always be a third person in your relationship’. It bothers me because so far, it’s come true. So that’s a tough one, especially as trust is damaged. Not sure how to overcome that. Learn to trust?

    • Iris says:

      I remember picking up a book once by an astrologer who had written a generalised description/prediction of people born each year, due to the outer planet patterns. Interesting idea. However for my year she said something like: ‘It’s unlikely these people will ever be useful or effective individuals’. The difficulty being harnessing the energies effectively. Even though my mind could see that was an implausibly broad sweep for a whole year of humans, it struck right at my wounded self, in a really corrosive way. Like confirmation of my fate. Yes we are all responsible for ourselves and our own growth, but making statements like about others that really can be destructive. One good rule for me seems: beware astrology that employs the terms ‘never,’ ‘ever’ and ‘always’.
      Great post Christina.