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.
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.
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?
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.