An Archaic Astrology Cast Adrift in a Post-Modern World

Towards the end of the 17th century, science and astrology firmly parted company and the discipline of astrology was expelled from its formerly venerable place within the world’s great universities. Today, astrology remains on the outermost fringes to which it was long ago exiled — scorned and reviled by the academic world. At the same time, many astrologers are scrambling to reestablish some sense of respectability and credibility to their craft through their relentless pursuit of acceptance by the scientific community.

As part of this quest, some astrologers are searching for a rational or so-called objective basis to astrology. Such astrologers even assert that the planets directly influence human behaviour in some manner which will (hopefully) one day be scientifically proven.

What underlies this quest appears to be a belief in the doctrine of determinism. Determinism is wedded to the notions of mechanism and causation and the ramification of such a doctrine for astrology is a necessary belief in the reliability, and often infallibility, of prediction and the concomitant denial of individual freedom and choice.


Behaviourism and Determinism

The deterministic corollary in psychology is behaviourism. The rejection of individual freedom and choice is precisely the implication of B.F. Skinner’s behaviourist psychology. The title of his landmark book, Beyond Freedom and Dignity says it all. Skinner simply substitutes ‘conditioning’ for ‘fate’.

There appear to be numerous parallels between ‘traditional’ astrology and behaviourist psychology. Both are obsessed with the prediction of behaviour; both seek justification in the amassing and quantifying of empirical data; both strive to be objective; both deny the capacity of the individual to be self determining; both deny the importance of consciousness, intention, desire, freedom, self-actualization and choice. Not surprisingly, in this postmodern era, behaviourism is now floundering on very shaky ideological ground. In this light, the development of humanistic and transpersonal psychologies can be viewed as a reaction to the determinism and consciousness-denying extremes of behaviourist psychology.

The determinist parallel in science — positivist science — has similarly fallen on shaky ground, thanks to relatively new developments in the field of quantum physics. Heisenberg’s famous “Uncertainty or Indeterminacy Principle” and other similar findings have demonstrated that at the subatomic level, ‘events’ are indeterminate, uncertain and hence unpredictable. Another important finding, and one very relevant to astrology, is that the very act of observation, measurement or experimentation, affects the phenomenon being observed. As Jung put it: “the observer is inseparable from the observed and always disturbs it by the act of observation”. [1]

What this means in practical terms is that the experimenter is not separate from the experiment and similarly, the astrologer is not separate from the chart s/he is observing. The experimenter can affect the outcome of an experiment and similarly an astrologer can affect the ‘reading’ of the chart. The boundaries between subject and object, between subjective and objective, are hence blurred.

It appears, therefore, that new developments in the fields of psychology and the so-called hard sciences have left astrology trailing far behind. It is time, I believe, for the discipline of astrology to engage in a much-needed philosophical overhaul, to bring itself more in line with more modern, or more correctly, post-modern developments in thinking.

I have been involved in many fascinating cyber debates on this and related subjects during the last few years. At first, the best anyone could come up with (myself included) was the imperative to offer choices and options, rather than a cast-in-cement fate. However, I now believe that the mere offering of choices and options simply presupposes the prediction of a seemingly objective reality (or fate) against which choice is possible. What is the background against which the choices and options are presented? I would suggest that the astrologer, in most cases, has a quite clear belief as to the background scenario (based on the transits/progressions and any known past history, etc), and offers so-called choices in keeping with her/his preconceptions as to the nature of that background. In other words, I suspect that the astrologer who successfully predicts an event in a person’s future, is simply basing that prediction on the assumption that the person will behave in the future in the same way s/he has in the past.

My own ideas have altered drastically since coming into contact with many astrologers, particularly on the internet. Once, in the days before computers and cyberspace, I did my own thing and operated in an astro-vacuum of my own humanistic making. Then I began to venture out, consulted the odd astrologer, subscribed to magazines, attended conferences, joined astrology schools and organizations, sat for examinations, became certified, and engaged in huge cyber debates. This just has to change your worldview! When I observed astrologers en masse, I began to see the pervasiveness of the fatalistic/deterministic astro-paradigm. I now contend that this paradigm is the norm, despite often vehement protestations to the contrary. Moreover, this determinism is embedded within all sorts of astrology, not simply within the medieval predictive school, but is also rife within the depth psychological/neo-Jungian/Greco-Roman mythological and karmic astrology schools. Necessity = karma = fate.

In contrast, humanistic and transpersonal astrology operate from quite different assumptions to those of traditional astrology and presuppose a particular type of belief system or worldview. The goal of humanistic astrology is self-actualization. If one is consciously dedicated to the path of self-actualization, then one is consciously attempting to exercise one’s freewill and the creative power of choice. If one is following the transpersonal path, then one is attempting to align the ‘personal’ will with the ‘divine’ will, to consecrate the personal self to some sense of a greater collective whole or purpose.


Enter postmodern Psychology

I believe that within the various forms of post-modern psychology, (for example, narrative therapy) there may lie important revelations that could be usefully applied to the practice of astrology. My personal belief is that astrology needs to undergo a post-modern revolution, on a par to that which is happening within most other academic fields. My understanding of post-modern thinking, although admittedly still in its embryonic stages, is that it necessitates a new way of looking at the ‘self’, amongst other things. It proposes that we are the authors (author-ities) of our own lives, that each of us is a creation of our own unique stories, with all its many relationships, experiences and background contexts.

Whereas the prevailing astro-paradigm (specifically relating to traditional astrology) is unabashedly deterministic and reductionistic, being based on a codified set of rather strict rules and judgements, and necessitating the essentialising or reducing of the whole unique person into a set of (psychological) parts or functions, post-modernism is crying out for a recognition of plurality, diversity, relativity and context. Post-modern psychology clearly acknowledges and recognises, perhaps far more than astrology ever can, the uniqueness of the individual.

Many of us, when we study a chart, unconsciously see it through a deterministic and hence fatalistic lens. We think we can determine the childhood circumstances from the chart, and often it seems that we can, so this reinforces the fatalistic mindset. We think we know this person before they arrive, that the chart reveals the deepest innermost aspects of her/him, which we are somehow privileged to ‘see’. We think we can even find ‘significators’ of personality, of violence, compassion, certain diseases, sexuality, ADHD, to name but a few.

Yet that chart does not reveal the soul/spirit or inner self (and hence the capacity for freewill and self-determining action) of the person to whom it belongs. It could just as easily be the chart of a dog or building or earthquake. And too often we forget that. We seek to predict the client’s future, either through prescriptive and definitive statements of what ‘will’ happen at one extreme or vague references to future ‘trends’ and ‘possibilities’ of what ‘might’ happen at the other.

The implications of post-modern thinking for astrology are various. In contrast to the general practice of astrology described above, in post-modern forms of psychological counselling, such as narrative therapy, the client is the storyteller, the author, or the narrator of her/his own ‘truth’ and the therapist a co-participant rather than an outside author-ity (the-rapist) who has possession of all the answers. The therapist, through asking appropriate questions, helps the client to articulate and to become more aware of her/his story or stories, and assists the client in rewriting, reframing or even changing parts of the story which may no longer be usefully serving him/her. The therapeutic exchange is also dialogic as opposed to monologic. What a stark contrast to traditional astrology where the client often scarsely participates in the telling of her/his own story! Essentially, in traditional forms of astrology, the story is told to her/him by an outsider. The chart is read and the fate is pronounced — this is the absolute antithesis of the post-modern approach.


Depth psychological astrology

In reaction to this ‘problem’, I think, psychological astrology was born, principally a ‘depth’ psychological approach which grafted neo-Jungian theory onto Greco-Roman mythology. This approach asserts that the stars don’t do anything to us, but that the astrological ‘system’ is merely ‘symbolic’ or a ‘mirror’. It is a ‘map of the psyche’. We look within rather than without. Everything is put down to a projection, a complex, a facet of the shadow, a motif constellated in the collective unconscious, and so forth. I must say I have frequently observed the ‘projection’ theory taken to ridiculous and dangerous extremes — ie. since everything which happens to us is a projection of what is going on inside us, we must necessarily accept full responsibility for all the shit which happens in our lives. We must even blame ourselves if we are raped, if we were abused as a child, if we get cancer, or more commonly, if we have a bad relationship — something within us must have attracted that ‘event’ or person to us, or that person/event must be a reflection of our own inner darkness.

In this system, fate is not an external agent but is instead embodied internally or embedded in psychological ‘complexes’. ‘Necessity’, a term borrowed from the Greeks, apparently dictates the need to face those complexes through the manifestation of external events. Fate dressed in different clothing no less! In my opinion, depth psychological astrology is, in short, just as fated as its traditional predecessor, and in fact, may be even more disempowering since it purports to be what it is not, i.e. empowering. In this system, we have simply substituted ‘fate’ for ‘necessity’, ‘projection’ and ‘complex’.


Astrology as a Religion

It is my thesis that astrology is a religion and has always been a religion. It is a belief system, a construct. It was, historically, one of the earliest religions. Astrology began as the worship of the stars; of the enshrining of the stars with god/goddess-like qualities. Of course, this is a rather challenging notion to those who believe that astrology has some objective reality or is ‘the truth’. Talk to a layperson about astrology and it becomes quite clear, in the absence of any scientific ‘proof’, that to practise it requires believing in it. Astrology has all the hallmarks of a religion — beliefs (in fate, a cosmic order, etc), myths, symbols, rituals, superstitions, dogma and doctrine.

Religious people believe humans are fated, and so do astrologers. Even astrologers who use a therapeutic or choice centred approach to transits are invoking the age-old practice of sympathetic magic in their suggestions to, for example, clean out the closets during a Pluto transit in order to offset the nasties! Mythological-psychological astrologers variously speak of invoking the gods (planets) and making symbolic sacrifices to the gods.

This doesn’t even begin to touch on the sense of awe, wonder and reverence which every astrologer feels when gazing at the starry night sky. Speaking from personal experience, astrology was a conversion experience for me. It catapulted me from an agnostic/atheistic worldview to a belief in a sense of order, meaning and purpose in life. I think all astrologers hold this belief at root. If we think about it, and take it to its logical extreme, this must necessarily imply a belief in something greater….. numinous…… divine……. god-dess. I suspect that, perhaps even unconsciously, many astrologers may believe that the ‘word of God’ is written in the horoscope, and what’s more, that they can read the ‘word of God’ and convey to the client the precise nature of that word or destiny or fate. This is astrologer as priest or hierophant — mediator between God (macrocosm) and man/woman (microcosm).

More specifically, I view the current revival of medieval astrology, with its array of impressive predictive techniques, as exhibiting all the hallmarks of a rabidly fundamentalist type of religion, hell-bent on dragging us back into the grim fate-ridden ignorance of the Dark Ages! And yet without such contrast, there would be no pluralism, and it is within a pluralism of approaches and worldviews, that wealth and richness and diversity can be had.


The Quest for a New Language

The question posed I think, is how do we explain astrology, to ourselves, to our clients, to the lay public? In order to explain it, we need to understand it, and we clearly don’t. We don’t know how, if or why astrology works. So we fumble around, trying to avoid the word ‘influence’ in this post-humanistic era. We talk vaguely about synchronicity, the planets inclining but not compelling, or being symbolic of or mirroring our experience. The more scientific (or perhaps quasi-scientific) amongst us may talk of morphogenetic fields, chaos theory and implicate order (with its implication of a deeper order underlying external chaos).

Some of us use and some of us dislike the terms destiny, fate or karma to explain how astrology works and why things happen in our lives. We may talk of potential, the unconscious or predispositions. But whatever language we use, we still have this chart before us which we read as if “it is written”. The very act of doing this necessitates a belief in astrology, and a belief in something akin to fate, karma, destiny, necessity, order, correspondence, coincidence, synchronicity. That is the nature of the astro-beast.

In post-modern terms, I define astrology as a “grand narrative” or a “metanarrative”. Its proponents earnestly believe that it is “the truth”. It is a grand over-arching theory which claims to have all the answers, which “claims to provide universal explanations and trade[s] on the authority this gives them”. [2] In attempting to make all of humanity fit into the constraints of its all-embracing, universal and authoritarian ‘theory of personality’ or ‘theory of how-the-world-works’, astrology robs the individual of her/his own authority.

I have long suspected that FEAR lies at the root of much of what astrologers do — quintessentially the fear of chaos. I think we astrologers have tended, collectively speaking, to think that we are indeed special by virtue of the fact that we can somehow either deny or countermand this fear, on the one hand, by attempting to determine the fearful future in advance, hence to render it less fearful and/or on the other hand, to come up with choices, options, talismans, healings, warnings, etc, to offset the feared and fearful outcomes. In fact, looked at in this way, we can indeed see how the popular so-called ’empowering’ practice of giving the client choices and options is not all that far removed from the ancient practices of sympathetic and talismanic magic.


Astrology as Divination

Personally, I think there is much worth in Geoffrey Cornelius’ position that “astrology is divination”. [3] Of course, this is a heresy amongst ‘modernist’ (as opposed to ‘premodern’ and ‘postmodern’) astrologers who so desperately want to see astrology proven as a rational, objective, mechanistic and empirical science.

Astrology’s earliest roots lie in the practice of divination, resting firmly in the magical worldview of the pre-modern era, and yet to me at least, Cornelius’ thesis seems to be strangely relevant in today’s post-modern climate.

In his work, Cornelius makes frequent reference to the art of horary astrology, the casting and reading of a chart for the precise moment that a question is asked. Ironically, horary is most often used as a precise predictive technique which attempts to give clients stark black and white yes/no answers to concrete questions. And yet, as others have pointed out, horary astrology also restores the astrologer to the equation and addresses the subject/object split which is a hallmark of ‘modernist’ traditional deterministic astrology. While I am no expert in the techniques of horary, and bow to the expertise of others in this area, a few things seem clear.

What horary demonstrates is not so much the application of a set of precise rules for determining the fate (location) of an object, or the fate (outcome) of an issue, but the fundamental divinatory principle that meaning (and surely the core purpose of astrology is to derive meaning?) is embodied in, captured in, and/or reflected in moments of time. Meaning in moments — this is, after all, what we are doing with natal astrology. We settle on a birth time, through various means, and we interpret the resulting chart and derive the meaning from that moment of time.

Geoffrey Cornelius has rightly pointed out the spuriousness of most birth times, whether recorded or not. It matters little whether the time is recorded on a birth certificate. The first place of recording is often the hospital and anyone who has worked in a hospital, or is familiar with hospital procedure, knows full well that nursing staff do not watch the clock for the exact moment of birth. Even mothers who are astrologers forget the clock in the throes of birthing. Not to mention the possibility that the clock in the labour room may be fast or slow! Birth times are notoriously WRONG — rounded off, estimated, forgotten, and so on. As for rectification, I concur with some others on the subjectivity and delusive quality of any so-called scientific rectification technique.

So, what we are doing with natal astrology is, more often than not, in the absence of an absolutely correct birth time, equivalent to a ‘divinatory’ reading. Even very empirically-oriented astrologers acknowledge this fact, although often using other words to describe the process at work. I have heard astrologers of this ilk discuss rectification procedures in the context of looking for a time that “works”, so that we can come up with a chart that “responds to predictive work”. This too suggests a ‘divinatory’ principle at work.

Horary also demonstrates that meaning changes from moment to moment, depending on the moment we choose for which to erect the chart. In other words, horary demonstrates the post-modern principle that meaning is relative, i.e. context dependent. It suggests a psychological quality of the moment which affects every interaction in that moment, and this is especially the case for a horary chart set up for the moment of the consultation. Incidentally, for those who dismiss horary as naught but a method of finding lost objects, it was an important part of Dane Rudhyar’s astrological toolkit. He, and others who have followed him, have recognised the vital importance of the horary for the natal consultation, and this in itself points to the crucial factor of the context of the consultation, again a very post-modern concept.

The horary for the consultation brings the astrologer into the equation, by looking at the 7th house and its ruler and aspects. This suggests again, that the astrologer is an important factor in a ‘reading’ or consultation. Quite apart from the chart and the unique story of the client, we are also looking at the relationship between the astrologer and client. Synastry, or the astrology of relationships, is also vitally important. We do not exist in vacuums — we exist in relationship to many others. In fact, others constitute a part of our context, and the astrologer is equally a part of the client’s context in the astrological exchange.

Hence the chart is not an objective ‘thing’; it is not simply a map to be deciphered. It has to be read and interpreted and it is surely a truism that different astrologers will interpret the same chart in different ways. I also believe that the same astrologer will interpret the same chart differently on different days, taking all sorts of contextual factors into account, including the physical and psychological ‘weather’. This is the basis of horary astrology — the recognition of the unique quality which is brought to bear upon any given moment of time.

Horary, and any divinatory techniques like the Tarot and the I Ching, all suggest that by becoming aware of the quality of a moment, we can actually change the quality of the next and subsequent moments, simply through the conscious act of awareness. One moment is qualitatively different to the next and therefore nothing stays the same. I suspect that this is also the case with empowering therapies, such as Rogerian ‘client-centered’ type therapies, narrative therapy, and perhaps even astrology at its potentially post-modern person-centered best.

What these approaches suggest to me is that the ‘self’ is not a static entity, a belief which I think traditional astrology has tended to reinforce. Rather, the ‘self’ is in process of development and unfoldment. And perhaps, ultimately, there is no such thing as an ‘essential’ self. Perhaps we are many selves.

– by Candy Hillenbrand



[1] Carl Jung, Aion, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1959, p. 226.
[2] Stuart Sim (Ed), The Icon Critical Dictionary of Postmodern Thought, Cambridge: Penguin Books Ltd, 1998.
[3] Geoffrey Cornelius, “Is Astrology Divination and Does it Matter; Psychoanalysis, Divination and Astrology

This article was adapted from a paper contributed to the Exegesis online forum, Exegesis Digest, 28 Jul 1999, Volume 4 Issue 63