Monday, January 17, 2011

The Precession of the Equinoxes in Astrology

The New York Times, early this weekend, had breaking news for all us stargazers.  It turns out, they report, that the astrological signs in the sky no longer match up to what they were thousands of years ago, when astrology first came into being.  The result: if you're a Cancer, the sun isn't really set against the constellation Cancer when you're born.

The opening sentence of the article, however, is a snarky and ignorant attack on astrologers everywhere: "Astrologers, not surprisingly, say they knew this would happen."  Well, duh!  Of course astrologers knew this would happen!  Claudius Ptolemy - who developed the mathematic system that astrology is based upon back in the 100s - included the "precession of the equinoxes" in his seminal work.  The precession of the equinoxes has been a part of astrology since the very beginning.

That doesn't stop the writer of the New York Times piece from doing a straw-man, ad hominem hack job on astrologers everywhere, however, asserting in essence that the practice is just vague, meaningless mumbo-jumbo.  Now, I've been interested in astrology for long enough to know that some people will simply never take it seriously, but for those of you who are open-minded enough to at least consider that astrology might, for whatever reason, have some merit, read on.

The precession of the equinoxes is indeed built into astrology.  You've probably heard about the "Age of Aquarius," that we have now entered.  Almost certainly, however, you have no idea what makes our modern era the Age of Aquarius, and, likewise, you probably don't realize that before this we were mired in and/or blessed with the Age of Pisces.  You see, the current astrological age comes from where the sun is on the first day of the astrological new year (that is, on the spring equinox).  Because the stars drift backwards very slowly - taking about 2,000 years per sign, we move through the signs in reverse.

Consider the history of the world from the perspective of astrological ages, to get a sense of how astrology may actually be in the right here:

8000 BC to 6000 BC - Age of Cancer

Transition from hunter-gatherer societies and rise of the first agricultural communities.  Cancer, being the sign of the home (and of food), is particularly appropriate.  Under the influence of Cancer, humans settle, invent newer, more reliable ways to access food, and start to cultivate family relationships (Cancer's emotional attachment is at play here as well) for the first time.

6000 BC to 4000 BC -  Age of Gemini

Gemini is the sign of communication and short-range travel.  Here, it's particularly important for its relationship with practical wisdom: that is, Gemini is a sign of thinking practically, and knowing how to operate in a way that allows for survival.  The development of pottery, plowing, and early trade between communities all fit well into the Age of Gemini's profile.

4000 BC to 2000 BC - Age of Taurus

Taurus is a sign of laziness, but also of determination.  More importantly, however, Taurus is a very possessive sign, interested in beauty and value.  The development of early currency systems, as well as early works of art and literature fit well in the Age of Taurus.  Moreover, city-states began to develop walls and armies at a scale previously unseen, reflecting the sense of ownership that Taurus bestows.

2000 BC to 1 AD - Age of Aries

A sign of, well, war.  It's no accident that turbulent conflicts marked the Greek and Roman eras.  Aries, however, is also aggressive in its developing of opinions and ideas, and the flowering of civilization in Greece and Egypt during this time period demonstrate a love of debate (sophistry and/or philosophy, in Greece) and a general striving for excellence that is indicative of Aries.

1 AD to 2000 AD - Age of Pisces

The most recent age of our time is Pisces, an age of deep spirituality, of rediscovering the past, and of self-deceptions.  Pisces is a transitional sign, always, and the numerous revolutions that have dotted the last two millenia indicate both the covering and uncovering of truth and a lack of unity in intentions that go with Pisces.  The so-called "Dark Ages" or "Age of Christendom" are a strong example of Piscean influence.  But, indeed, there is no better indication than the disagreement about which title is correct for the time from the fall of Rome to the Renaissance.  That both have a claim suggests Pisces has been at work.

Now, don't take these dates as perfect.  There's not really agreement about exactly when a given age ends or when a new one begins, and that's ok.  When it comes down to it, the transitional points between ages are just as important as the ages themselves, and those transitional points tend to include influences from both signs.  Our contemporary world, for example, shows strong Aquarian aspects: the rapid development of technology, the rampant (compared to the past) idealism, the desire for change; but it also still shows Piscean qualities, like religious warfare and conflict, and corrupt and deceptive governments.  Such is to be expected.  Just as a cusp in the birth chart indicates that both signs have influence, the same can be said about the Ages.

The influence of the astrological age, however, is limited by the distance of the stars at work.  The specifics of day-to-day life, or even life-to-life generations, are not really touched that much by the current astrological age.  Instead, astrology is concerned with smaller units of measurment.  You see, the signs are based not upon the stars, but upon the seasons.  While Leo derives its name from the lion-like constellation it was found under two thousand years ago, its qualities are attributes of the mid-summer, of a time after the solstice, but before the autumnal equinox.

Some astrologers, it is true, use the siderial zodiac, choosing to interpret charts based upon what is really in the sky.  It is these astrologers that are concerned with measuring the actual size of the signs (hint, not all 12 cover 30 degrees of the 360 in the ecliptic, the band through which the sun and planets move).  It is, ironically, these astrologers who are most subject to the criticisms of astronomers and less-informed New York Times journalists, as well.  I prefer traditional zodiac for exactly this reason: its mathematics are clearer, and its interepretations are rooted not in astronomy, but in mythology.

Don't get me wrong, astronomy and astrology are deeply intertwined.  It is important, however, to recall the difference between the two, going back to their linguistic roots.  "Astronomy" means, simply, the rules of the stars.  It is a science desinged to calculate exactly what is going on in the heavens.  "Astrology," however, means the story of the stars, or the interpretation, or the logic, or the account.  It is, regardless of exact translation, a lyrical and interpretive study from the outset, concerned as much - or more - with why we call Pluto "Pluto" as whether Pluto is a planet.  Why?  Becuase the account astrology has of human life, at a grand scale or for a given individual, is designed to take into account the mythological and literary history of mankind as well as the mystical influences of the stars.  Indeed, some astrologers, like myself, would argue that astrology has nothing to do with the stars at all, that the stars are just a convenient metaphor for our hopes and dreams and desires, and that finding order in their motions operates by analogy and mythology.

You might think the results, here, would be chaotic, and in some sense they are.  I would argue, however, that they are also meaningful in that they provide an interpretive framework for a chaotic world.  Astrologers use that framework as a starting point for a conversation, as a way to enter into our inner cultural and metaphyiscal lives.  In my experience, it works.

Whether you believe it works or not, however, at least know the facts.  Any criticism of astrology should challenge its interpretive frameworks - its logos - not its understanding of the location of the stars - its astro.  The latter is accurate.  The former?  Up for debate.  I'd venture, though, that a good astrologer can wow even the staunchest skeptic.

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