Brief Stay in the City of Astrology—I

February 6, 2016

Astrology literally means the study (or science, depending on how one translates the Greek word logos) of the stars (astron). Astrology differs from astronomy by confining its attention to the study of correlations between celestial events and humanly meaningful events. Most people are familiar with only a tiny portion of the science of the stars, namely the 12 signs of the Zodiac as they relate to the personality of individuals and the use of astrology for divinatory purposes.

… The Zodiac (literally the “circle of animals” or, in its more primary meaning, the “circle of life” or “circle of living beings”) is the belt constituted by the 12 signs—Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo, Libra, Scorpio, Sagittarius, Capricorn, Aquarius, and Pisces. This “belt” is said to extend 8° or 9° on either side of the ecliptic (the imaginary line drawn against the backdrop of the stars by the orbit of the Earth). The orbits of the various planets in the solar system all lie within approximately the same geometric plane, so that, from a position within the system, all of the heavenly bodies appear to move across the face of the same set of constellations. Several thousand years ago, these constellations gave their names to the Zodiac.

… From a broad historical perspective, zodiacal symbolism can be found everywhere, and zodiacal expressions are still in use in modern English—e.g., “bull-headed” (an allusion to Taurus), “crabby” (an allusion to Cancer), etc. The popularity of Sun-sign astrology (the kind found in the daily newspaper) has kept these ancient symbols alive in modern society, so that even such prominent artifacts as automobiles have been named after some of the signs (e.g., the Taurus and the Scorpio).

… The sign of the Zodiac the Sun is in at the time of a person’s birth is his or her Sun sign (sometimes also called the birth sign). The Sun, as the most important celestial body for Earth-dwellers, is the most important influence in a horoscope (an astrological chart). Consequently, the sign that the Sun is in at birth will usually be the single most important influence on an individual’s personality. Thus when people say that they are a certain sign, they are almost always referring to their Sun sign.

… Sun-sign astrology, which is the kind of astrology one finds in newspapers and magazines, has the advantage of simplicity—all one needs to know is one’s birthday to be able to figure out one’s sign—but this simplicity is purchased at the price of ignoring all other astrological influences. The other important celestial bodies, for example, were all located in signs at the moment of birth.

… Thus, someone with a Scorpio Sun sign might also have a Sagittarius Moon sign, a Virgo Venus sign, a Libra Mercury sign, etc. Each of these other signs has an influence, which is why everyone with the same Sun sign does not have the same personality. The subsidiary influences of the sign positions of the planets is further modified by the angles between them (referred to as aspects), as well as by their house positions (another set of 12 divisions).

… Similar remarks apply to predictions of the future by the 12 signs. Sun sign prediction, in other words, is also a hit-or-miss system that sometimes works and sometimes misses the mark entirely. The columns found in popular periodicals also tend to create misperceptions about the nature of astrological prediction. In particular, readers can come away with the impression that astrological prediction is a kind of astrological fortune-telling that portrays the stars as if they foretold an irrevocable destiny for the person having her or his fortune told. Modern astrologers, however, tend to distance themselves from this tradition of predicting specific events. Instead of predicting events, most contemporary astrologers describe upcoming planetary conditions, with the understanding that clients have the free will to respond to planetary influences in different ways. Like a meteorologist, an astrologer can only predict trends and probabilities—not details.

… Astrology occupies a peculiar position in the modern world. Derided by many as medieval superstition, the science of the stars nevertheless continues to exercise a fascination over the human mind. Furthermore, polls indicate that its popularity is growing rather than waning. The abysmal failure of critics to halt the expansion of astrology should be a sign that we have reached a juncture where—rather than continuing simply to dismiss astrology as a superstitious retreat from the modern world—it is appropriate to ask other kinds of questions. Simultaneously, we need to understand why this practice has evoked such passionate criticism.

… To shift forward in an effort to understand the attraction of astrology for the typical citizen of an industrialized society, one has to see that, even for many people with a modicum of belief in traditional religion, ordinary, everyday life—the world as it is experienced on a day-to-day basis—appears to be empty of significance. Most people feel themselves to be at the mercy of social, economic, and political forces that they can rarely understand, much less predict. Although to the outsider astrology appears to be unappealing because of its apparent determinism, it allows people to comprehend the events in their lives as part of a meaningful, predictive system over which they can gain a certain amount of control. Furthermore, even the most mundane life acquires a certain amount of cosmic significance when viewed through the lens of astrology, in the sense that the system portrays humans as beings that are basically “at home” in the universe.

… Approaches to explaining how astrology “works” move between two poles, one that stresses the study of the stars as a natural science (and that consequently attempts to distance it from occultism), and another that, while often calling astrology by the name of science, emphasizes the spiritual or occult dimension of the study of planetary influences. The former perspective, using the natural science model, tends to conceive of astrological influences in terms of forces, analogous to the forces of gravity and magnetism, that are actually “radiated” by the planets.

… The latter perspective, while often speaking in terms of “occult forces,” usually emphasizes that correlations between celestial and mundane spheres result from a kind of “prearranged harmony” that is built into the very structure of the cosmos. In other words, the various correspondences that astrology studies are a result of “synchronicity” (to use Carl Jung’s term) rather than cause and effect. It is worth noting that a large number of astrologers attempt to adhere simultaneously to both a force and a correspondence explanation.

…The cosmic interconnectedness that the second approach tends to see as fundamental to understanding astrological influence implies a kind of monistic view of the universe that is related to the worldview held in common by most strands of America’s metaphysical subculture. This link is the primary reason that astrology has come in for such severe criticism from militant secularists as well as from conservative Christians.

…The Christian church absorbed astrology along with many other aspects of Hellenistic civilization. Some Christian thinkers worried about the tension between free will and the perceived determinism of astrology, but by and large, the science of the stars occupied an honorable position in the Western tradition. Although some of the Biblical prophets disparaged stargazing, the three wise men were clearly astrologers, and in certain other scriptural passages it is evident that God regularly utilized heavenly signs to instruct the faithful. Despite certain tensions in the marriage, astrology and Christianity did not divorce until the fundamentalist movement emerged in the early twentieth century. For various reasons—but particularly because of astrology’s association with metaphysical religion—fundamentalists, and later most other conservative Christians, rejected astrology as a delusion at best and as a tool of Satan at worst.

…The metaphysical community is a loosely knit subculture. Its most distinctive institutions are the metaphysical bookstores and organizations. The largest of these organizations are the many theosophical societies and spiritualist churches, which were formed in the nineteenth century. This metaphysical community was relatively small until the late twentieth century. When the counterculture of the sixties faded away in the early seventies, many former “hippies” found themselves embarking upon spiritual quests, which radically departed from the Judeo-Christian mainstream. These new seekers swelled the ranks of the metaphysical subculture until it became a significant social force.

One important manifestation of this subculture is called the New Age movement. While segments of the metaphysical community have been referring to themselves as New Age for a long time, neither the community nor the term were familiar to the cultural mainstream until the late eighties. In North America, the single most important event prompting general awareness of this subculture was the broadcast of Shirley MacLaine’s Out on a Limb in January 1987. The success of this television miniseries stimulated the mass media to begin investigating and, in time, to begin generating articles and programs about the New Age. The media’s interest was still high at the time of the Harmonic Convergence gatherings in 1987, causing the Convergence to attract more public attention than any New Age event before or since.


Source: From the Book, The Astrology Book, by James R. Lewis


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