The Horoscope as Text

Beyond a Humanist or Medieval Astrology


“If the truth be told”, says Harry Moody in The Five Stages of the Soul, “we don’t really govern many of the forces that shape our existence. None of us really have all that much personal power, despite the myths of being in control … We don’t pick our parents. We don’t choose our bodies, our talent, our temperament, or most of the seminal elements that determine our fates. … What we do choose, especially as we increase in wisdom and years, is the way we approach the circumstances of our lives.” [1]

Despite not being an astrologer, Harry Moody has neatly defined the relationship between fate and free will so familiar to astrologers. This relationship remains a difficult one for serious practitioners of astrology. Do we predict, or do we assist our clients to choose how they “approach the circumstances” of their lives? If we have, as Moody alleges, limited choices, is it pointless to predict, given the circumstances of birth, physical qualities and temperament that are beyond our control?

These questions seem to be currently articulated in the controversy between “Humanist” and “Medieval” astrology, with practitioners of both either curious, suspicious or, in the extreme, contemptuous of the other. The purpose of this article is to explore what we mean by Humanist and Medieval astrology and what they mean to the practicing astrologer.

I would like to begin with some simple definitions of Humanist and Medieval Astrology.

With its emphasis on the importance, powers and achievements of the individual, Humanism is noted for its study of humankind. [2] Historically associated with the Renaissance, its main focus is that the welfare of humanity, rather than fulfilling the will of God, should be the result of moral action. [3]

Humanist astrology, therefore, is a form of astrology that emphasises the individual’s powers, achievements and interests, describing these qualities in astrological terms. As it developed, Humanist astrologers studied the work of Freud and Jung thus creating an astrology that used psychological insights, in particular Jung’s work on symbols, mythology and archetype. However psychology is strictly a “branch of philosophy covering the phenomena of mental life”, or the study of the human mind. [4] As astrologers claim astrology is more than an investigation into how the mind works, the term psychological astrology will not be used for the purposes of this discussion.

Humanism provided a base from which to criticise such Medieval certainties as the “Will of God” or “Individual Destiny”. In the same manner, Humanist astrology provides a base from which to reject fatalism in astrology. In humanistic terms it is the individual who determines the course of her life not God, fate, destiny or Karma as “written in the stars”.

Michael Meyer in Humanistic Astrology Revisited confirms this:

“From the approach of an authentic humanist astrology, the birth-chart and its progressions and transits do not show what will occur in terms of specific future events, but rather it symbolises the process through which one may effectively, consciously and creatively participate in a gradual and orderly actualization of one’s birth potential and unique life purposes”. [5]

So-called Medieval astrology is a re-examination of ancient Greek and Arabic astrological texts. Originally promoted by the directors of Project Hindsight, the aim was to translate “‘primary’ Greek and Latin texts” in order to “clarify and free the wealth of astrological ideas and techniques locked in these ancient languages”. [6] As with the translation and canonisation of all texts it would be interesting to know which texts were considered primary, what criteria were used when deciding and who made the decisions. The originators of this enterprise, Robert Hand, Robert Zoller and Robert Schmidt wanted to reveal the “very different world view that the Greeks held as the core of their civilisation”. [7]

The kind of astrological methods or techniques we use generally determines the kind of astrology we practice. It is also believed that our practice is strongly influenced by our theoretical orientation. Therefore it seems reasonable to assess “Medieval astrology” in the light of how both Greeks and Medieval astrologers perceived the world.

Richard Tarnas in The Passion of the Western Mind sums up “the classical Greek conception of reality” [8] thus (for the sake of brevity I have further summarised his comments):

• The world is an ordered cosmos, whose order is akin to an order within the human mind,
• the cosmos as a whole is expressive of a persuasive intelligence that gives to nature its purpose and design,
• intellectual analysis reveals this timeless order,
• understanding world reality satisfies not only the mind but the soul. [9]

However, as Tarnas clearly points out, the legacy of the Greek mind was a dual one. A second set of principles also held that:

• knowledge can be acquired only through reason and empirical observation,
• truth is found only in the present world of human experience,
• the causes of natural phenomena are impersonal and physical,
• theoretical understanding must be measured against empirical reality,
• no system of thought is final and the search for truth must be critical and self critical. [10]

Medieval scholars who translated, commented on and used the ancient Greek, Roman (and Arabic) texts (now re-translated by Project Hindsight and ARHAT), were constrained by the dominant Christian paradigm of the time. This involved a belief in:

• one supreme God,
• human sin as a given and part of humanity’s guilt for the fall from Paradise.
• Christ, who was born to redeem humankind from this burden of sin and guilt.
However, this redemption was mediated through the Church and Holy Scripture which alone guided the intellectual, spiritual and daily life of the individual. [11]

Medieval society was strictly hierarchical. People knew their place, did their duty and gained personal salvation only in the afterlife. Salvation was achieved through devout compliance with the will of God and those who mediated His Word; the Pope, his Bishops and Priests. Education was for the wealthy and this never included women. Feudalism ensured that those born into a certain position remained there. Those who questioned these conditions were dealt with harshly.

An uncritical acceptance of the Medieval techniques of astrology may not mean an uncritical acceptance of Medieval philosophies and beliefs. However, we can still ask ourselves if the practitioners of Medieval astrology believe that “The fate of the human soul (is) divinely preordained … a belief supported by the apparent powerlessness of early medieval men and women”? [12] If this is true, is this the kind of astrology we should be practicing in our consultation rooms?

According to Robert Zoller, Horary astrology was practised almost exclusively during the Medieval period, as the ordinary person had no knowledge of their birth time. [13] It is possible, then, that the Neo-Medievalists are using Horary techniques and applying them to Natal astrology. This could be a dangerous use of Medieval techniques as Horary astrologers were interested in judging the quality of a moment (of asking a question) through the condition of the planets. In other words the chart was judged for its ability to not only deliver the desired outcome, but as to the fitness or value of the question, or the thing desired. When the term judgement is used there is also the implication of guilt, as if a chart could be found guilty (or innocent) in the way humanity was guilty of sin.

Humanist astrology counteracted this tendency through encouraging an individual to explore their “inner self”. Rather than judging the quality of time, the quality of a person was held up as a mirror, not for the astrologer to judge, but for a client to experience. Planets were no longer exhaustively interrogated as to the good or evil they yielded but as symbolic of the possibilities they held.

While most Neo-Medievalists would dispute that they practice an astrology that denies human potential, the fact remains that Medieval astrology seems to be a more prescriptive (they would say exact) form of astrology. A glance at their texts and topics would support this. Robert Zoller writes in Tools and Techniques of the Medieval Astrologers, “So often we read stories of great feats of astrological prognostication and wisdom. We want to know how these astrologers came to their conclusions. What methods did they use?” [14] The reason for translating these ancient texts is, therefore, not simply an “investigation and research of the ancient and Medieval astrological methods” [15] but how to be a better predictive astrologer. The question remains — is this the kind of astrology we want to practice in the 21st Century?

As the debate appears to be between two different ways of thinking, as much as between different astrological techniques, it might be useful to leave the duality of Medieval verses Humanist thought (a duality reminiscent of Greek thought, noted above) and explore modern — or rather post modern — thought and see if that can inform our discussion.

No single definition, theory or argument can effectively represent post modern theory. Briefly, post modernism rejects any notion of a privileged, truth telling discourse in favour of a plural, open ended approach to all disciplines. Rather than “either/or” it embraces “and/and”. Post modern thought is diverse and celebrates diversity. It involves cultural and intellectual understandings that render reality malleable and changeable. [16] Above all, it includes a rigorous scrutiny of all discourses – including itself. Coming from a belief that “no single a priori thought system should govern belief or investigation” [17] all “truths” are subject to testing. In so doing it is discovered that all knowledge is “relative, fallible and that the quest for knowledge is endlessly self revising”. [18]

The so called truths of any discourse — even astrology — are a function of power relations which are created by and through “binary oppositions”. Such oppositions involve notions of ‘black’, ‘old’, ‘feminine’ equalling “bad”, with ‘white’, ‘young’, ‘masculine’ equalling “good”. What is perceived as good is privileged, rewarded and can exercise power. Such dualism can be found embedded in the “astrology verses science” dilemma and even this present discussion.

Examination of “subjectivity” is one of the prime occupations of postmodern writers.

The human subject is an embodied argent, acting and judging in a context that can never be wholly objectified, with orientations and motivations that can never be fully grasped or controlled. [19]

Traditional concepts of identity involve understanding a person as homogenous, consistent and whole. Postmodern understandings of the subject proposes an individual always in process, a product (construct) of social, cultural and sexual systems from which they cannot escape. In addition the subject may never fully realise how profoundly their society has constructed them.

For astrologers this means they can never really separate themselves from their background, culture, religious and spiritual beliefs and education – the social system into which they were born. As Tarnas points out, “There is no empirical “fact” that is not already theory-laden … All human understanding is interpretation and no interpretation is final”. [20] Postmodern thought holds that any interpretation is already embedded in the subject through given social meanings and construction.

What this implies is that, “No interpretation of a text can claim decisive authority because that which is interpreted contains hidden contradictions that undermine its coherence”. [21] If we take the individual’s horoscope — any astrological chart in fact — as a text we therefore find that no reading of a chart can claim a decisive authority. This is because a chart (as representative of the subject) contains ‘hidden contradictions that undermine’ an astrologer’s attempts to “read” it.

Critics of post modernism believe this contributes to the demise of the individual. In a sense this is true. The pretence of an integrated, holistic, objective Self is rejected by post modern theorists. Logically this offers us a powerless individual constructed through society and language with no authority or identity other than that created for them by their gender, culture, race or class.

However, through awareness of our subjectivity, of how truth is invented and how we are socially constructed through our race, class and gender we can begin to create a Self that is plural, diverse, fluid, multiple and always in process. Through questioning class, race and gender constructions, through questioning how knowledge and power is produced and used we can undermine (or subvert) the dominant paradigm(s). Finally, post modernism celebrates difference as one way of confounding, confusing and challenging inherited (or even “re-discovered”), doctrines.

As summarised by Tarnas, post modernism with its:

“pluralism, complexity, and ambiguity — are precisely the characteristics necessary for the potential emergence of a fundamentally new form of intellectual vision (a) call for, and practice of, open “conversation” between different understandings, different vocabularies, different cultural paradigms”. [22]

It is my belief that it is precisely this kind of vision we need for modern — post modern — astrology. Medieval astrology seems to be a backward step to a hierarchical, truth-telling, Euro- and phallocentric view of the subject. It is laden with attitudes that:

• privilege authority (quotes taken from ancient “names” are given as reasons for their veracity),
• “homogenise” the client (a supposedly “universal” subject, knowable, coherent, consistent, and conforming to astrological standards taken from a society which no longer exists),
• uncritically privileges Medieval society (Because it is old, because it is Medieval, it must be good. Nowhere in Medieval astrology texts is demonstrated an understanding of the social, cultural and political milieu of the period),
• uncritically proposes a “canon” of historical texts (Who is speaking, for whom, and on whose authority?),
• assumes an (impossible) scientific objectivity,
• ignores centuries of social, cultural and political development represented in astrology by Uranus, Neptune, Pluto, and recently, Chiron, planets which some Neo-medievalists actually ignore).

In fact, it would seem that astrology as a whole ignores the fact that meaning (gaining meaning from a text, for example) is subject to power relations and struggles and has, so far, eschewed a study of the culture of power and it’s impact on the subject. (Mundane astrology, also mostly Euro- and phallocentric, not withstanding. But that is another topic.)

Alternatively, how might we read an Astrological text, the horoscope, from a post modern perspective?

• we start with the belief that the client is not a single, unified, coherent subject but is multiple, diverse, always becoming, never finished. If, as post modern theory presents, a client is a many faceted subject negotiating their way through multiple discourses, different realities and a pluralistic world, how are we able to predict their actions or the events that may affect them?
• we need to understand that we read a text through our cultural and gendered subjectivity and the client will similarly gain meaning from the reading through their background. As astrologers we need to be aware of the political, social and gendered significations within which we operate,
• recognise both the “author” (client) and reader (astrologer) of a text (the chart) actively participate in the production of meaning and that those meanings can change from one reading to the next,
• understand that the text contains multiple and different codes of meaning, some of which are transparent and easily readable, some which shift and slip beyond standard meanings. Meaning is reproduced (and recirculated) so often (ie a Sun Neptune “means” an absent, or addicted or visionary father) that they become taken for granted — thus rendering them meaningless. There are times, therefore, when we must go beyond the codified meanings of astrology.

One way of doing this is through the postmodern technique of ‘deconstruction’. This term refers to the complex exercise of “turning a text against itself”. Deconstruction defies definition as the very language used to define it may also be used to undermine that definition.

To deconstruct a text we peel away layers of socially (and gender) produced meanings embedded in the text. In doing this we may uncover biases, theoretical influences and dogma. Unmasking the text destabilises astrology opening it to new interpretations. As we read a text we take nothing for granted, while continually questioning and challenging traditional assumptions about astrology, the client and the role of the astrologer. Play is a powerful way to undermine oppression and interrogate reality. Searching for puns, jokes and unlikely connections in a chart may reveal the multiple voices contained therein. Reading the chart in this way may communicate more about the “design of the Cosmos” than adhering to limited notions of reality. We can also apply this technique to texts about astrology further interrogating assumptions about its place in the world.

For many astrologers, astrology can be a way to assume authority in a postmodern world that no longer privileges it. It would seem that Medieval astrology is practiced because it seeks to re-establish the astrologer as a powerful authority who alone knows the subject’s “fate”. It is a false claim however, because a client can, and does, display behaviour that avoids categorisation and classification. Modern clients, particularly the younger ones, are skilled at, and enjoy playing with, various styles of self representation. A perfect example of this is “pop Diva” Madonna, who has made a career out of parodying, exaggerating and pantomiming feminine stereotypes.

In post-modern thought, the holistic subject is therefore a myth and perhaps even a danger to the freedom of the individual. As noted above, critics of post modernism assert that this robs the individual of “Self-hood”. Yet James Hillman has warned us of the dangers of humanistic psychotherapy. “If there is only one model of individuation can there be true individuality?” he asks. [23] He opts instead for “Fragmentation” which “would then indicate many possibilities for individuation and might even be the result of individuation” of the subject. [24] He calls this “polytheistic psychology” (surely a cousin of post modernism?) and claims that, when dealing with archetypes in therapy, the aim is:

“less at gathering them into unity and more at integrating each fragment according to its own principle, giving each god its due over that portion of consciousness, that symptom, that complex, fantasy … It would accept the multiplicity of voices, the Babel of the anima and animus, without insisting upon unifying them into one figure, and accept too the dissolution into diversity as equal in value to the coagulation process into unity. [25]

“Giving each god (sic) his due” can be applied to all aspects of astrology. A post modern (polytheistic) reading of a Natal chart might help the client understand, celebrate and play with the different parts of the self (represented by the planets) utilising them where, and if appropriate, for a fuller, richer life. This may be an improvement on integrating or synthesising disparate parts of the chart into an impossible whole (the Humanist approach) or, worse, judging a chart according to a planet’s ability to prosper (the Neo-Medievalist style).

Post-modern analysis might also resolve the fate and free will issue. Rather than either fate or free will operating as a limiting duality on the subject, astrologers might promote both fate and free will as part of the subject’s experience. We can then get on with the task of being better astrologers. This means we improve communication with our clients while we resist positioning ourselves as an “authority” on their lives. We are then better able to function as a participant in their development.

In refusing to condone a hierarchical, patriarchal and elitist privileging of certain astrological writers and techniques, astrologers can begin to explore new (rather than retrospective) methods of gaining meaning from a chart. New ways of writing and reading astrological texts may result, improving the manner in which astrology represents itself in society.

Then astrology, as many astrologers seem to desire, can claim to be an “alternative” movement.

-by Janet Webber




[1] Harry Moody and David Carroll, The Five Stages of the Soul, London: Rider, 1998, p. 226.
[2] Ted Honderich, The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1995, p. 375.
[3] Ibid., p. 376.
[4] Richard L. Gregory, The Oxford Companion to the Mind, Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1987, p. 650.
[5] Michael Meyer, Humanistic Astrology Revisited, PO Box 1761, Ojai, California 93024: Published by Michael R. Meyer, 1997, pp. 12-13.
[6] Author unknown, “Project Hindsight, A New Look at Ancient Texts”, Article in FAA Journal, Vol 24, No. 3, September 1994, p. 46.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind, New York: Ballantine Books, 1991, p. 68.
[9] Ibid., pp. 69-70.
[10] Ibid., pp. 70-71.
[11] Ibid., pp. 165-166.
[12] Ibid., p. 166.
[13] Robert Zoller, “The Arabic Parts”, in M. Garcia, (Ed), Astrology: An Ancient Art in a Modern World, PO Box 83, Brighton Sth Australia, 5048: FAASA Inc, 1998, p. 214.
[14] Robert Zoller, Tools and Techniques of the Medieval Astrologer, PO Box 203, Salisbury, Qld, 4107, Australia: Spica Publications, 1981, p. iv.
[15] Ibid., p. iii.
[16] Tarnas, 1991, p. 395.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Ibid., p. 396, my italics.
[20] Ibid., p. 397.
[21] Ibid.
[22] Ibid., p. 402.
[23] Thomas Moore (Ed), A Blue Fire, Selected Writings by James Hillman, New York, USA: Harper Perennial, 1991, p. 40.
[24] Ibid.
[25] Ibid., p. 39.