by Rosemery Green
A question: why is it that modern astrology is based on a configuration of the heavens dating from 2000BC, at the dawn of the Age of Aries? And here we are, near the end of the Age of Pisces and with the much-heralded Age of Aquarius just over the horizon.
Modern astrology, the system used to determine our birth signs, takes no account of the precession of the equinoxes. This is the name given to the process yielding the Great Year of 26000 years as planet Earth wobbles on her axis like a slow-motion spinning top. As this happens, the north pole points to a different North Star, and more importantly for astrology, the constellation behind the Sun at the Spring Equinox of March 21st slowly slips through the zodiac, a constellation every two millennia or thereabouts, from Aries, to Pisces, and on to Aquarius …
However, experience tells me that astrology works. How is that possible? How is it that many Earth sign people I know tend to have a practical streak, fixed signs don’t easily change loyalties, and Geminis can quite happily accommodate seemingly contradictory ideas? I have also noticed that certain astrological signs tend to gravitate towards particular professions. When I worked in IT, there were a lot of Virgos in the office. Virgoan attention to detail meant that they were much more suited for the job than I was, as a non-Virgo.
How can this be, when at the time of their birth, the Sun wasn’t in Virgo but Leo? There are two possible explanations. Either I and every other person who has found validity in astrology has an overdeveloped imagination, seeing patterns where none exist, or something else is going on. Here is my exploration of the something else.
Modern astrology has so many layers. Each sign has a ruling planet, one of the seven planets of the ancients (Sun, Moon and the five planets visible to the naked eye). As new planets have been discovered, they have been incorporated into the system, very successfully. Each sign has a quadruplicity (Fire, Earth, Air, Water), a triplicity (fixed, cardinal or mutable), and a duality (positive or negative). Each sign has a glyph ( etc) and a symbol (Ram, Bull etc) supposedly derived from the constellation but very difficult to see as you look at the stars themselves. So we have a year divided into segments of thirty days or so, each described by a unique combination of these layers. Divisions into 2, 3, 4, 6 and 12 are represented. There are more layers, but these will do for a start. Interestingly, Chinese astrology developed into a completely different system. The features shared with western astrology are the focus on cycles of the planets and constellations, and the number twelve.
Researchers believe that the western system of astrology was developed in Mesopotamia (modernIraq) around 2000BC, and possibly further elaborated in Minoan Crete. Whoever put it all together, they must have been busy people. It must have been so exciting, finding patterns within patterns, and discovering how well they worked! It starts with the positive sign of Aries, cardinal (new directions) fire, the ram, ruled by Mars. All about beginnings and headbutting determination. And at the opposite equinox, in September, we have the other pivot point: Libra, also a cardinal sign but air, with the symbol of the scales, looking for equilibrium. Libra gives a sense of searching for the fulcrum, the place of mental and emotional balance.
The system worked then, but why does it still work now? After all, the Great Year has moved through nearly two signs since those people researched the zodiac so thoroughly four thousand years ago.
Perhaps all that work and investigation is a clue in itself. There is a human urge to make sense of our world, to describe it, to develop templates, patterns for understanding it. When these descriptions correspond closely with external reality, enough for others to recognise their validity, the template takes on a life of its own. As a person perceives it, there is a sense of ’why didn’t I see this before?’. It must have been like this as each of the major world religions made their appearance and found their adherents. And other major new human insights: the moment when Isaac Newton realised that the movements of physical bodies from a pebble to a planet could be described mathematically with the same few principles, or when Charles Darwin showed that the Creation did not end after seven days, that all of life is in a continuing process of change and evolution. Or when Galileo demonstrated that the Earth is not the centre of all things when he pointed out the moons of Jupiter. Or when Copernicus proposed that the Earth moves around the Sun, not the other way round. Those understandings govern our perception today.
Some world views become obsolete as our experience changes. For Herodotus, writing in the 5th century BC, humans could not escape their fate. In ‘The Histories’ he gives example after example of those who attempted to do so, without success. Few people would see human life that way nowadays. Not all templates endure, although free will is still a matter of debate.
Could it be that the system researched by that group of people 4000 years ago was so thoroughly investigated, it so resonated with what was there and what was understood, that it took on an existence of its own, independent of the constellations that inspired it? It existed and still exists as a valid template, to be referred to today. They found some core truths and put them together in a system. Not a system that would be recognisable to many twenty-first century scientists, but a template nonetheless.
What did they see that humans have seen since then and we can still see now? The patterns within patterns: the duality expressed in the positive and negative signs. Speaking and listening, yes and no, breathing in and breathing out. The triplicities are expressed through the threesomes of positive, negative and neutral, electricity, magnetism and motion, or every time there is a need for a mediator in an argument. The quadruplicities are expressed through the four humours, the basis of medicine for many years. Or the four states of matter: earth, air, water and fire, or solid, liquid, gas and plasma. The symbols themselves of the twelve astrological signs are still potent today: Cancer the crab, Leo the lion …
Although there is no natural division of the year into twelve, the number encompasses so many of the truths of astrology. (The moon completes its cycle thirteen times in a year, not twelve. The twelve months of the year, like the seven days of the week, have no obvious correspondence to planetary cycles.) The number twelve can be symbolised by the tetrahedron, three faces and four points of which are visible from any direction (Three times four equals twelve). Perhaps modern astrology might be better with a different name – how about dodecology, the study of twelves? It contains its truth within the divisions of that number and the cycles that we experience within the days and years. It reaches as far as the planets but not beyond our solar system to the stars any more. I wonder if there is a new astrology ready to be discovered in the true meaning of the word, study of the stars?