Meditations on Astrology

“Here vigour failed the lofty fantasy:
But now was turning my desire and will,
even as a wheel that equally is moved,
The love which moves the sun and the other stars.”

Dante’s last line in Paradise

Last December, shortly after my mother passed away, I signed up for Adam Elenbaas’s Hellenistic Astrology course*. How little I understood then the timeliness of this course of study with its potential for reseeding and sustaining me through the subsequent changes in my personal life. The class is difficult, challenging me to discipline my study habits and to align them with the teacher’s plan and vision – for learning now, and eventually, for practicing astrology on my own.

Here goes a first attempt at articulating some thoughts I have about astrology, which like alchemy, I see primarily as a practice for deepening my understanding of the human experience, where the map can align with the territory, revealing a new depth perspective of the landscape. There are countless details yet to incorporate before this new language can begin to be more fully articulated. Astrology itself, is a big world, filled with many diverse voices and perspectives.

Aurora_zodiac

Practice

Astrology, in the most basic sense, is a way to see and discover the vast array of correspondences between heaven and earth, between the ideal or archetypal realm, and the everyday world of our lives and the patterns revealed over time. The astrological chart then, is an image of the skies from the perspective of Earth. The “wheel” shows the positions of the planets from two distinct perspectives:

  • Primary or geocentric motion: the clockwise east to west motion that we observe from sunrise to sunset.
  • Secondary, or heliocentric motion: the counter-clockwise motion of the planets relative to the constellations or zodiac.

Cosmology

Astrology, like alchemy, can provide yet another form or structure for an initiation into a personal experience of the eternal mysteries, the Divine will of the gods, of which we each share a portion of both their glory and fall, or what the ancients referred to as fate.

Fate: late Middle English: from Italian fato or (later) from its source, Latin fatum ‘that which has been spoken’, from fari ‘speak’.

Throughout human history, and in a variety of cultures, astrologers have provided us with the tradition of tending to the “wandering stars” as signifiers of power for their ability to move contrary to the backdrop of the fixed stars. Perhaps the awareness of this secondary motion, sparked the idea that we too, could either harness their powers, or be harnessed, depending on our knowledge and alignment with the heavens. If fate itself is a power, perhaps, we too, could understand it, or least be present to its impact upon us.

That we are situated, a human body on this tiny planet, in such a largely unknown cosmos, when not taken for granted, is humbling. Perhaps through the recognition that astrology offers us a vision of alignment with the cycles of the planets, we might feel all the more that we too, must belong. We are after all stardust! In some ways, we have lost the sense of connection to the underlying powers of any unseen world, just as we no longer remember the stories of the ancient ones.

Viennese_zodiacI am grateful to have found an astrology teacher who suits me well. Adam is immersed in a variety of esoteric traditional studies (See his excellent series on the Hermetica), and views astrology as yet another practice that can mirror back to us the ways we are aligned, or misaligned as the case may be, to the cosmos. Through this embodied life, with all of its joys and sorrows, we are, all of us, offered an experience of something so much greater than what meets the eye.

Are we able to embrace the totality of our personal experience as necessary parts of the whole and so align ourselves into a radical acceptance of the need for cooperation with each other and the powers that be?

Antoine_Caron_Astronomers_Studying_an_Eclipse

Fear

Traditional, or Hellenistic astrology, unlike more modern forms, did not shy away from the idea that each of the planets held distinct qualities and influences, and with the exception of Mercury, were considered either benefic or malefic, depending on the qualities of their illumination. Jupiter, big and bright, is considered a benefic, and brings expansion and good fortune, Saturn, with its darker nature, and the farthest away of the seven known planets, was seen as malefic, associated with the time-bound, finite qualities of living beings and, until the more recent discoveries of Neptune, Uranus and Pluto, also served as the end of conceivable time and space.

The ancients, of course, were more vulnerable to the hardships of life, and hence, to a fear of the unknown with the need to seek and find meaningful tools for survival. The idea of fate, that the heavens could “speak” our predicament, was deeply embedded in day to day existence of many peoples and often related to” divine will” whose powers were transmitted through earthly conduits, such as demigods and royalty. To seek access to the divine gifts of the gods was a way to harness power for both mystical and political practices.

While some moderns might argue that rational thought replaced the superstitions of astrology, and that we are better off for it, one must not only ignore the technological context of objective reality in any given era, but might also reflect on the condition we now find ourselves in. If for us moderns, it is no longer true that we can directly experience the state of the world through feeling her mystery, awe, beauty, fear and joy, and if we have become incapable of seeing that the use of technology and political norms has brought us to the brink of destruction, then we are left with a meaningless “nothing but” world of bucket lists, calendar dates with a heap of destruction in their wake.

 

1024px-Earth_from_Apollo_10

The Natal Chart

As I am just beginning to learn the basics of reading a natal chart, useful patterns already begin to emerge. As I ponder the meanings of planetary positions, aspects, house placements and dignities, a story emerges that resonates deeply within me. 

Any form of an interior practice should, I think, take nothing on faith, but keep all questions front and center. As well, questioning need not deter one from engaging the practice. As with other forms of contemplative practices, trusting in the process as a potential for opening oneself deeper into reflection becomes another precious gift.

My prayer is for the humility to release me into current life changes; to stay with this new practice; to trust and accept in tending to the work, and that it may bear fruit worth sharing.

  • Along with the Nightlight Astrology class experience, I am also grateful to KoneKrusoKronos for his astrological reflections that can be found here:

https://konekrusoskronos.wordpress.com/2010/12/19/the-mother-of-all-sciences/

https://konekrusoskronos.wordpress.com/2010/01/29/astrology-spiritual-alchemy/

*The ideas presented here are strictly my own interpretations.

Alchemy Class Notes – Session Twelve

“Enter alchemy – thing-words, image-words, craft-words. The five supposed sources of alchemy are each a technology. Each is a handwork physically grappling with sensate materials: (1) Metallurgy and Jewelry: mining, heating, smelting, forging, annealing; (2) Cloth and Fiber Dyeing: dipping, coloring, drying; (3) Embalming the Dead: dismembering, evacuating, infusing, preserving; (4) Perfumery and Cosmetics: grinding, mixing, distilling, diluting, evaporating; (5) Pharmacy: distinguishing, tincturing, measuring, dissolving, desiccating, pulverizing.”

Although admittedly going off on a tangent here, this post was inspired by Session Twelve of the Jung Platform’s course on James Hillman’s book, Alchemical Psychology. What I’ve recently come to appreciate is that the study of alchemy is as inexhaustible as is its application to my life.

Alchemy is styled and practiced in a number of traditions dating back at least to the 3rd and 4th century BCE. With that in mind, my focus here is to review the general structure of Western alchemy, while staying with Hillman’s emphasis to work one’s perspective by giving substance to soul and soul to substance.

Alchemy is a practice; a work in which a transformation of some kind is initiated through the desire and aim of a goal. In everyday life, it can be applied to cooking, writing, relationships to any person, place or thing, or the learning of a craft, trade or art. You may think of other applications.

Elihu Vedder (1836–1923) Title: Soul in Bondage

Prior to the 18th century, before science divorced herself from the arts, it may have been more readily understood that the work on the materials would simultaneously “work” the practitioner. Alchemy then was a quest for knowledge about the nature of particular substances and processes in the world.

The modern sense of our individuality reflects science’s need to distinguish between subject and object, self and other. These changes bring much freedom to the individual, while also coinciding with a loss of soul, or soul’s substantiality. Not only a sense of one’s personal soul, but the felt sense that the world herself is ensouled, enlivened by all creatures and substances and their varying degrees of autonomy and obeisance.

One might say that the more one feels the divide and separation between themselves and others, the more we might miss, or dismiss the autonomy of other beings and things, leaving no room for acknowledging the invisible, autonomous forces, except where science quantifies them (gravity, electromagnetism, etc.).

Modern ideas of alchemy deeply reflect these changes of self-perception and our place in the cosmos. To speak of a literal alchemy in which base materials are turned into precious metals has lost credibility with all but a few practitioners. As well, the work, if undertaken at all, seems narrowed by an emphasis on personal transformation. But, if alchemy itself is a reflection of an evolving consciousness of universal import, we might see this modern emphasis on self as a necessary stage before the gap between material and non-material existence can dissolve.

Limbourg brothers, Title:Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry English: Anatomical Man.

If alchemy lives on anywhere, as a practice of noting influence and correspondences between the microcosm of one’s human experience and the macrocosm of the hidden nature of the greater cosmos, we have astrologers to thank. For astrologers have never abandoned the idea that human nature and experience is a reflection of the nature, motion and resemblance shared throughout the cosmos, enhanced all the more by our apprehension of it.

With that in mind, we can break alchemy down into three dimensions of the practice: the materials, the operations and the stages of the work.

Materials

In alchemy, as in astrology, the elements are the givens, each of which have mythological, planetary or astrological correspondence. The idea of turning base medals into gold, literally or psychologically, requires coming to know the nature of each material substance. Alchemical psychology and Western astrology, borrowing much from their mythological heritage, see in each planet a corresponding metallic nature.

When alchemists link the planet Saturn to lead, it sees leaden characteristics, knowable by working directly with the substance lead. Alchemy, like astrology, does not stop here, but sees lead’s slow, heavy nature as an influential psychic force corresponding to our nature as well. For example, Saturn’s influence is said to be felt as weighty, depressive, slowing us down in some way in both mind, body and circumstance. As Saturn is associated with the Greek god Kronos, where we get our word for time (chronology), there may also be a need for time or attention to some aspect of our lives.

Hillman says of the alchemists work with metals:

“The metals were imagined to be made of coagulated moist vapors, like a condensed gas whose spirit could be released by the proper operations. Because the metals were inherently moist, that is, embodying phlegm, they had a phlegmatic tendency to be passive or inert, requiring fire. Resistance to change is given with the seeds of our nature and only intense heat can move human nature from its innate inertia.”

When we moderns deprive ourselves of seeing any correspondence between ourselves and the nature and motion of the cosmos, we risk increasing the feeling we may already have of alienation, with both ourselves, others and the world we are literally pieces and parts of.

Saturn = Lead

Jupiter = Tin

Mars = Iron

Sun = Gold

Mercury = Quicksilver (Mercury)

Venus = Copper

Moon = Silver

Operations

The operations used in alchemy for initiating action and reaction upon the materials are primarily salt, sulfur and mercury. Salt as agent for thickening, loosening and resistance to heat, sulphur for heating and combustion, and mercury or quicksilver for fluidity. Hillman warns that there is no purity in substance, operation or stages of alchemical work but a blending and merging of one into the other.

Making Waffles – Alexander Hugo Bakker Korff (1824–1882)

“Whatever is said about salt is always contaminated, and must be so contaminated by the materials, vessels, and operations with which it is in interaction. Psychic materials are always in diffuse interpenetration, with other materials and do not remain singly self-consistent, and so require multiple interpretation. In fact, this very contamination is part of their definition: let us say that alchemy is soft-edged. Lines between its elements cannot be drawn hard and fast because these elements are also elementary living natures.”

Stages

The work both progresses and regresses in stages associated with coloration, usually three or more of the following: Black, Blue, White, Yellow, Red. The colors themselves have astrological and mythological associations. Alchemy in contrast to modern science, is the practice of knowing the nature of anything by the qualities it presents to us. Where modern science reduces things down to size and mathematical relationships, alchemy seeks essence through the quality and nature of relationships within and between things.

Hillman emphasizes the alchemist’s ability to see psychologically through any practice that involves working with the worlds substantive qualities. From this work a truer understanding of ourselves and the nature of the world emerges into the unique expression each of us then presents daily to the world. In coming to know the substances, images, environments and actions/reactions which influence us, we are continually ensouled through our sensual, everyday experience that sees our nature reflected back to us through the nature of the cosmos.

All quotes: Hillman, James (2011-10-10). Alchemical Psychology (Uniform Edition of the Writings of James Hillman). Spring Publications, Inc.. Kindle Edition.