Saturday, December 11, 2010

Astronomy, Astrology, and the Natal Chart

Astrology is an interest I picked up as a Sophomore at St. John's College.  There was something about reading Ptolemy's Almagest, tracing his mathematical and mythological argument for how the planets move around the Earth according to circular paths that was alluring.  Of course, Ptolemy is wrong about the construction of the solar system - indeed, he would never even call it a solar system - but he was not really that off on the appearances.  That is, the conceptual framework for his system may have been incorrect, but the math more or less wasn't.

More important than the question of right or wrong, to me, was the project itself.  As my roommate and I would sit on our balcony and gaze at the stars during one of his smoke breaks (my second-hand smoke breaks, I guess), we would ruminate on college-y things like how mind-bogglingly vast the universe is.  But, at least as Sophomores, we'd also think and talk about Ptolemy, about how much dedication and effort it must have taken to build his model.

The thing is, Ptolemy worked well before even telescopes had been invented.  His evidence that Mercury even existed was scant, and his complex formulae describing the motions of the other planets like Mars and Venus were built upon the kind of inexact measurements that mere eyesight and some fingers held up to the horizon provide.  In short, his was a Herculean task, impossibly detailed, completely lacking the equipment to do it, and without even a solid theoretical backdrop (for example, a theory of gravity) to do it from.

The mythos not only of the planets and their namesakes, but also the man who first described with a degree of accuracy the paths of those planets is a powerful one.  My own interest in astrology may surprise - does surprise - people who know me as a scientific kind of thinker.  I would argue, however, that while I do not know how or why the planets seem to be so relevant to my life and my understanding of the world, I do know that mythology is a much more powerful force than we like to give it credit for.  Human energy poured into any project - especially one as ancient and alternately revered and persecuted as astrology is liable to produce results we simply do not yet have the capacity to understand.

As a person interested in mythos, there is no question that astrology is fascinating to me.  Each planet, each sign, each aspect and house has its own story, its own anthropological and anthropomorphic being.  Whether those elements of astrological calculation are causes for us or we for them is irrelevant; they tell a story, they are an organized and orderly system in a chaotic world, a lens through which we can filter the nonsensical noise of life and end up with a meaning.  And what, after all, is a myth?  Is it not a story, a moral or ethical parable that provides way of divining meaning from chaos?  And what, after all, is science?  Isn't it the same thing?

The other key piece of Ptolemy's story is what happened to his work afterwards.  Sure, his model of the universe was co-opted by the Catholic church and turned into a dogma used to persecute scientists - the first astronomers in particular.  But the church had little use for astrology either, seeing its practitioners as just as dangerous as their more scientific brethren.  Indeed, in many cases those people were one in the same.  Astrology and astronomy may be worlds apart in our modern age, just as alchemy and chemistry are, but there was a time when those words meant essentially the same thing.

Think about the Greek roots for a minute.  Astronomy means, simple "laws of the stars," while Astrology means either "study of the stars," "logic of the stars," or, as I prefer, "story of the stars."  The difference is minimal, really.  Astronomy is, in some ways, a mere subset of astrology, a piece of the bigger picture.  Astronomy delineates the rules - hence Ptolemy as astronomer - but astrology tells the story.

All of which leads me to the actual practice of astrology.  My interest was piqued by Ptolemy, reinforced by gazing at the night sky, informed by my grandmother - who was a professional astrologer - and refined as I studied more and more, eventually taking an online course (which I heartily recommend) from the Astrology Career Institute and Samuel Reynolds.  I have learned a lot of specific skills along the way, but because I'm a meta-learner, too, I've also thought a lot about how different people both do and teach astrology differently.  My grandma, for example, has a number of opinions about how retrogrades work that differ from Sam's.  Some of the books I've read characterize certain aspects as bad and good, while others see them as "hard" and "soft."  In short - and this is no surprise - in this mythological, anthropological, psycho-social, linguistic field there's no shortage of debate and disagreement about everything from meaning to process to the nuts and bolts of which method of calculating houses is best.

All of which, I think, speaks in astrology's favor.  It's a robust world, an ancient study that has more to do with interactions and relationships than it does with solitary absolutes.  There is no greater misunderstanding of astrology than the notion that you are your sun sign, leading to the off-hand, "But I'm nothing like what the paper says a Virgo is like!"  Of course you aren't, I say, because astrology is about the way that Virgo sun you have interacts with your other planets.  But more than that, it's also about how the astrologer you're with right now reads your chart, and how that reading differs from the one a different astrologer would give.  The point is, both of those astrologers, though they might interpret every single piece of your chart differently, might both be right nonetheless.  The point is, astrology isn't about reducing your life or your person into a single sentence or a single word ("Leo!"), but rather it's about expanding it and complicating your picture of yourself.  It's about providing you a lens to discover your heart and soul and grow in ways you never previously imagined.

For those of you who don't know anything about astrology, then (and I'm impressed that you're still reading), I want to show you what a chart looks like.  I usually use to run my charts, but since I'm too lazy to boot to Linux and create one right now, I'm just plopping my own birth info into, a free chart service online.  Take a look and see what you think about it.  As a teacher who prefers inquiry-based learning, I'm going to let the thing stew for a couple days before I write another post getting into more of the details here, explaining how I read a chart.

My Natal Chart

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