What’s in a Name? – Deconstructing the Roots of Astrological Meaning

There was a time, a few years ago, when after a lengthy and dizzying honeymoon period with astrology, I finally began to think and question, and to ask why, where and how does this cosmic craft of ours work, and if it does indeed work, what is it that works? Questioning is a dangerous pastime for an astrologer, for once we become converted and begin practising this most princely, or is it queenly of stellar sciences, there is generally no turning back. We are hooked: where once our lives were chaotic and meaningless, now we have substituted order, meaning and numinosity. Like many of my fellow colleagues, I initially embraced astrology with a fervour not unlike that of a born-again religious convert who first meets with his/her God/dess.

Astrology’s Uranian quality turned on a light, illuminating once mysterious corners of my life and being. It explained and named the previously un-nameable. It was nothing short of an aha experience – so that’s why I’m like that I mused – I’m not a dialectical nightmare after all, as one former partner had endlessly teased – I’m a very normal and stereotypical Libran! What a relief it was. My “dialectical nightmare” qualities had finally been named and firmly contextualized. Quite suddenly and unexpectedly, in classic Uranian style, and after far too many gruelling years of youthful confusion and aimless questing, I felt I finally knew myself. It took a full twenty four hours of immersion into the minutiae of my chart with my newfound astrologer friend, and my life turned full-circle and everything assumed a new and more meaning-full hue. A catalytic conversion to be sure! Not surprisingly, at that time transiting Mars was exactly conjoining Mercury, and Uranus was passing back and forth over natal Saturn.

Half a Saturn cycle later, when Saturn and each of the outer planets transited my natal Mercury, everything changed yet again. I began to see that what I had embraced with such enthusiasm all those years ago was actually a belief system, albeit an astrological belief system, and one that at the time had certainly helped me to feel a much-needed sense of security, meaning, purposefulness and direction. But a belief system nonetheless. The implications of this re-thinking were to be far-reaching.

During this pivotal time, I realized with a sharp forcefulness the extent to which I had hitherto accepted unquestioningly the notion that there must necessarily be a peculiar synchronicity between the chosen name of a planet and the qualities of that planet, astrologically speaking. After all, astrology is all about synchronicity, isn’t it? At least, that’s what Jung says, and what Jungian astrologers who have followed in the great man’s revered footsteps have oft repeated. But a decade or more after first setting out on my astro-journey I started to come across some anomalies, and I started to question. The result was initially as discomfiting to me as it was to the recipients of my newly-hatched questions. It is not easy to realize that what one has held aloft as “the Truth” is naught but a belief system; it is even harder to overturn one’s belief system when one realizes that’s what it is. What does one replace it with?

Jayj Jacobs in his article, “The Codswallop Detector and Critique of Impure Reason” encapsulated all my lingering and festering doubts in the most pithy definition of “Nomification” as “the assumption that because it has a name, or that because you give it one, it has actual significance”. [1] I had long pondered on the matter of how we derive the astrological meaning of an astronomical body. It was not difficult to identify several sources of meaning: the astronomy, the discovery chart, the nomenclature and hence the mythology, the symbolic meaning in the glyph (glyphology) and the cultural and socio-political events and trends active at the time of discovery. Thrown into this cosmic cake mix is also a substantial dollop of empirical observation, a measure of quantitative research and sprinklings of anecdotal findings. Astrologers also clearly rely on the principle of synchronicity, the law of correspondences and the notions of connectivity and relatedness to ‘divine’ our astrological meanings. This has led to what Dale Huckeby in his article, “Astrological Correspondences: The Patterns in our Lives” [2], has referred to as the “plasticity” of symbolism, where anything can mean everything, and therefore by inference nothing at all. As Dale notes, astrologers are renowned for their loud proclamation of “use what works for you”, thereby making anything fit. This ideology is frequently used to justify why the wrong chart achieved so-called “right” results. We assert that it must have been what the client needed at that particular time, regardless of the fact that the chart read was not his/hers: it was “synchronous”, or some such flimsy justification.

My subsequent introduction to post-modern thinking was crucial in awakening me to the context-bound and subjective nature of any interpretation. I began to sense that an astrological interpretation could not be held aloft as “the truth” for, by its very nature, it must be coloured by the interpreter’s socio-cultural biases and worldview. Peter Clamp’s article “The Astrology of Homophobia” [3] is testament to the extent to which homophobic bias, for example, can colour one’s interpretation of astrological factors.

So I began to look deeper. First stop Chiron, which had captured my own subjective imagination since I learned of its position in my birth chart – exactly conjunct natal Moon. Since this was a relatively newly discovered body, perhaps an analysis of how we derived its commonly accepted meanings could offer some insight.


Example: Sources of Meaning for Chiron

Investigation revealed that the derivation of Chiron’s meaning had been drawn from the usual and previously stated sources. Beginning with the astronomy of the body, we came up with qualities like the Rainbow Bridge and the Maverick. An analysis of the cultural and socio-political events and trends active at the time of Chiron’s discovery came up with meanings like networking, healing and holism. We saw in the Sabian symbol for Chiron in its Discovery chart, a vivid reinforcement of the Rainbow theme. [4] It was, of course, the naming of the body ‘Chiron’ by its discoverer Charles Kowal that was the real clincher. And it was that name which led us to the mythology of the legendary Chiron, and gave us the meanings of wounded healer, mentor and teacher of heroes.

For many years I unquestioningly accepted that Chiron must be the ‘wounded healer’ because this was the general consensus. The name was “synchronistically” chosen by its astronomer discoverer and the most common way of interpreting the Greco-Roman myth of Chiron, King of the Centaurs, was therefore to focus on the infamous wound which would not heal. And of course, it worked for me, so it must be right! After all, I personally resonated with the Wounded Healer archetype. The astrological literature I devoured on the subject and the clients I saw all reinforced my belief that Chiron’s position in the chart reflected an area of wounding, pain or suffering of some deep and potent sort, and one which could be transformed through compassionate healing of others. Imagine my discomfort, when I began to encounter those who did not feel wounded in that area, if at all, and who questioned my whole notion of ‘woundedness’. What does an astrologer do under such circumstances – stick to her cosmic guns, or consider the possibility that the standard definition may indeed not fit all? At this stage, it is surely time to rethink. Looking back, I realize I was fortunate that one or two colleagues did challenge me quite mercilessly about my preconceived ideas of the meaning of Chiron in the birth chart.

In time, I began to notice that even interpretations of the myth varied, for example, the meaning of Chiron’s death. Some say that Chiron gave up his immortality to relieve Prometheus’ suffering. The implication is that it was an altruistic act of humanitarian self-sacrifice and relinquishment emanating from He who so empathized with the suffering of others. Barbara Hand Clow, for example, writes that “Chiron gave himself willingly so that the fire could be released from the Underworld by Prometheus”. [5] Yet other readings of the myth look at it more from Prometheus’ perspective. They stress that Chiron regretted his immortality, that he raged in his agony, fervently wishing to die, for his pain was so great and so unbearable, and that it was Prometheus who consented to take on the burden of the Centaur’s immortality. Ultimately, all the stories agree, Chiron was most grateful to die. The day I realized that Chiron had chosen to suicide rather than endure his pain any longer was a mind-opening revelation. On that day, Chiron tumbled from his lofty compassionate self-sacrificing pedestal. When it all boiled down to it, he was as selfish as the next person. I subsequently began to wonder if there had been a tendency, in some quarters, to romanticize Chiron’s nature and qualities? I started to ask questions like: why have we fashioned Chiron into a wounded self-sacrificing Christ-like martyr hero when he was as suicidally human as the best or rest of us? Could this be a product of our Judeo-Christian worldview? It occurred to me that there could be other ways to interpret this myth, other avenues from which to draw meaning and understanding of Chiron. [6]

Interestingly, I learned that the discoverer and namer of Chiron, astronomer Charles Kowal, chose the name Chiron from a very rational perspective, yet one also based on his own knowledge of Greek mythology. According to an article in The New Scientist magazine, April 1991, astronomers initially catalogued Chiron as an asteroid. In keeping with astronomical convention, this meant that the discoverer could choose the name, whereas if it had been categorised as a comet, it would have been named after its discoverer. Chiron would then have been called Kowal. Apparently, according to this article, Kowal chose Chiron because he was aware that mythologically speaking, Chiron was the son of Chronus (Saturn) and the grandson of Ouranous (Uranus), and hence the name Chiron aptly reflected its astronomic location between the two. Needless to say, Chiron’s astronomic identity has shifted since its discovery. In the 1980s, astronomers observed cometary activity, but still Chiron was no ordinary comet. [7] As astronomer Alan Stern comments, it “was too small to be a planet, too distant to be a conventional asteroid, and too large to be a conventional comet”. In the 1990s, astronomers discovered other bodies similar to Chiron and these have now been named “centaurs” by astronomers. Chiron too has since been reclassified as a “centaur”.

All this is very interesting from an astronomical point of view. Certainly, if we derive at least part of our astrological meanings from the astronomy, we need to get it right. However, what all this fluctuation in astronomical status suggests to me, is that if Chiron’s real astronomical identity had been known at the time of its discovery, it could very well have received an entirely different name. If astronomers had observed its cometary behaviour in 1977, it would not have been named Chiron. So where does this leave our tendency to extrapolate meaning based on mythological connections to the chosen name?

Of even more interest is the recent development whereby some astrologers are collaborating with astronomers to name newly discovered bodies like the centaurs. In fact, a small group of astrologers, led by Zane Stein, reached a consensus on the naming of object 1993 HA2 as Nessus. Apparently, several astrologers had arrived at the same name independently of each other. So convinced were they of the meaningful synchronicity of this event, they submitted the name Nessus to the astronomical Working Group on Planetary System Nomenclature, and it was accepted. [8]

Zane Stein hailed this development as “truly a history-making event”, [9] while Melanie Reinhart has described it as an “extraordinary communication between the worlds of science and astrology”. [10] And yet, I wonder if this is such a good thing. Knowing full well how astrologers can so easily subjectivise the meaning of a newly found body based on their own personal experience or limited cultural mindset, how objective and universal can an astrologically determined name be? Who, amongst our astrological fraternity, will determine whether a particular body means this or that? Personally, I would prefer to leave the naming process to the astronomers who at least do not carry any preconceived notions about what a cosmic body might or should mean in astrological terms. For those astrologers who get to choose, it would seem to open the way for a potential pre-fabricating and contriving of names and therefore meanings to fit with what we already believe.

Needless to say, the astrological meaning of Nessus is largely based on its mythological meaning, which brings me to another related observation. It is evident that the astrological meaning of a planet or asteroid is primarily derived from the relevant myth, hailing from both the Greek and Roman pantheons. Which begs the question, why do we base the bulk of our astrological meanings on one (or two) particular mythological pantheons, that of the Greeks and Romans? And has anyone taken into account the fact that this is a highly patriarchal mythology? And what does this say about the type of astrology which many of us practise?


The cultural relativism of myth

The more I contemplated the apparent paradox surrounding what I understand to be the cultural relativism of myth, the more I wondered about the extent to which the patriarchal mindset of Greco-Roman mythology has been applied (or indeed misapplied) to astrology. It is quite clear that much of what is generally labelled as ‘psychological’ astrology (especially of the neo-Jungian variety) appears to be largely a marriage or cross-fertilization with Greek and Roman mythology. I now question the extent to which we ‘moderns’ are superimposing or grafting one particular belief system (albeit a highly patriarchal worldview) onto astrology. When I began to look at Pluto more closely, for example, I was stunned. From the perspective of Greek mythology, Pluto is Hades, god of the Underworld, abductor and rapist of Persephone. And yet, through the lens of Sumerian myth, the boss of the Underworld was a female deity – Ereshkigal. How does this crucial difference influence our perception and understanding of the astrological Pluto? And how does this in turn influence how we describe a Plutonian issue to a client?

I know many astrologers who perceive the Plutonian experience as akin to an abduction, of being dragged forcibly into the Underworld (the unconscious) or being forced to confront the so-called ‘darker’ side of life. The Pluto lesson is often presented as one of being forced to relinquish our innocence (a certain parallel with the rape motif). And yet, if I see Pluto as Ereshkigal, my perception changes, for Inanna, unlike Persephone, chooses to enter the Underworld. She did not have to be dragged kicking and screaming, and raped in the process, to do so.

Personally, I haven’t been able to reconcile these contradictions. The same can be said for the Moon, which I understand began as a male deity before it ‘became’ feminine in quality. Similarly, in matrifocal cultures, which predate the Greek and Roman eras, the Sun was feminine. How many of us look at the Sun as masculine, father, yang, the creative principle and the Moon as feminine, mother, yin, the receptive principle? And then there’s Venus/Aphrodite, who in her earlier incarnation as the Sumerian Inanna, was goddess of war, as well as goddess of love. How many of us see in Venus a martial aspect?


Cross-naming between pantheons

Another curious phenomenon which abounds in astro-circles is the naming of the 6000 plus asteroids and what appears to be a confusing cross-fertilization between the Greek and Roman appellations. There are a number of asteroids which are named after both the Greek and Roman deity, yet each has a quite different identity in terms of its location in the solar system and consequently in the birth chart. Examples are Ceres and Demeter; Hera and Juno; Persephone and Proserpina; and Minerva and Pallas Athene. In each of these examples, the former is the Greek deity and the latter the Roman, and they are frequently used interchangeably, by both mythologists and mytho-astrologers. If these are the same deity, but derived from different pantheons, how can their astrological meanings be distinguished?

Demetra George, one of the ‘experts’ on The Big Four (Ceres, Pallas, Juno, Vesta) and other asteroids, appears to have unified the Greek and Roman pantheons in her appraisal of the asteroids in her book The Asteroid Goddesses. As an example, in the section on the asteroid Ceres, she uses the names of the goddesses Ceres and Demeter interchangeably. Some examples from this chapter: The title is “Ceres: The Great Mother” and is followed by Homer’s poem to Demeter. The section on “The Mythology of Ceres” begins “The Roman goddess Ceres was originally known to the ancient Greeks as Demeter”. The next section is titled “The Story of Ceres and Persephone”. In my reading of this myth, from various sources, it is usually named “The myth of Demeter and Persephone”. George clearly bases her interpretation of the asteroid Ceres on the myth of Demeter. [11]

The asteroids Ceres and Demeter are discretely separate astronomical bodies. Therefore, in the light of George’s work on Ceres, and that of other astrologers who have followed her, how can we possibly distinguish qualitative differences in meaning between the asteroids Ceres and Demeter?


A closer look at the Demeter-Persephone-Hades myth

A further area of ambiguity lies in the manner in which astrologers tend to interpret myths in quite particular ways while others appear to blindly adhere to these interpretations. In studying the myth of Demeter and Persephone, for example, I have observed that Demeter seems to be generally portrayed, particularly in ‘Jungian’ psychological/astrological circles, as the possessive, grieving, raging, withholding, devouring, refusing- to-let-go face of the mother archetype. Or, on the other side of the coin, she is the unconditionally loving, perfect, all-nourishing Earth Mother. And yet, my perception of Demeter, from studying the myth, is of a strong, determined persistent feminine figure who refused to accept her daughter’s fate, and fought to have her returned after her rape and abduction by Hades/Pluto. It depends on how we look at it, doesn’t it?

Liz Greene notes that the abducting raping Hades was a “relatively late formulation”: “The earliest images of the Goddess are those of a phallic mother…In the end this goddess vanishes into her own depths, and the phallic power is represented by a male deity: Hades”. [12] George too stresses that “Persephone’s rape symbolizes the power struggle that was occurring between the patriarchal cultures (Pluto) and the indigenous matriarchal cults (represented by Ceres)”. [13]

The myths clearly portray the political and cultural climate of the times as much as any deeply numinous or spiritual meaning. Yet, whilst acknowledging the background context of this particular myth, both Liz Greene and Demetra George go on to interpret the Demeter-Persephone myth in a very narrow light. Greene asserts that Persephone colluded in her rape and abduction, that it was “governed by necessity”, that she secretly “invoked” it. [14] In other words, not only was it Persephone’s fate (necessity) to be raped, she asked for it! What a disempowering archetype for women! Why is Ceres/Demeter interpreted as a possessive and over-attached mother? Why are we told that the lesson of this myth is to learn to let go of our children or, by analogy, of our creative extensions? Why should Demeter relinquish her daughter to an incestuous rapist? Pluto was, after all, Persephone’s uncle. Of course, anything goes in the chaotic world of myth, yet why are we so quick to transcribe meaning from myth to reality, from crazy gods to mortal humans?

Unlike George, Greene, Idemon and others, I do not perceive Ceres as a poor suffering vengeful mother archetype. I see her as a strong protective archetype. To me, this is not just a story of abandonment, rejection and revenge, as is commonly portrayed, it is also a story of empowerment, of fighting back, of challenging the usurping patriarchy, of which I believe Hades is a symbol. This does not mean my interpretation is necessarily valid or correct. It simply demonstrates the degree to which our own belief systems and perceptions can colour how we interpret a myth and how we may apply that interpretation to the birth chart, if we are using mythology as an interpretive framework.

Of course, attempts to question the underlying foundations of these stories are usually met with protestations that mythology is ‘numinous’ and therefore should not be interpreted on such a basic ‘human’ literal level – that the myth is merely symbolic of the passage from maidenhood or innocence (Kore) to womanhood and maturity (Persephone). But what sort of symbolism are we invoking here, and why must such an important rite of passage be portrayed in such violent terms, with the male force in the position of power and the female as hapless victim (Persephone) or shrew (Demeter)?


Questioning Assumptions

In conclusion, I continue to question many of the fundamental assumptions underlying current interpretations of the above and other myths. It seems to me that what we are doing is overlaying a particular world view onto the birth chart, and generally speaking, the prevailing world view is a patriarchal one with its roots firmly embedded in the Classical Greek paradigm. I would also suggest that much of our highly popular psychological/Jungian/mythological approach to astrology is similarly based on this Greek (and Roman) patriarchal worldview. This worldview thus becomes analogous to a filter or lens through which we view the astrological scenery before us. Could it be that we have been dazzled by one particular colour? Perhaps we are colour-blind? Perhaps there are other worldviews or filters through which to perceive and interpret astrology? How different would our astrology be, for example, it was based on the more matriarchal Celtic mythology?

It certainly appears that astrologers perceive and thereby interpret the meanings of both planets and asteroids from within a very limited mythological/cultural framework. I have often pondered on the extent to which our particular perception of the astrological meanings of the planets could be changed overnight if we superimposed another world view onto the one[s] upon which we currently rely to garner our meaning and sense of ‘truth’. Myths and worldviews change with the passage of time and this must surely affect how we perceive and interpret an astrological archetype. Surely meaning and interpretation are bound by the context, and as the context changes, so does the meaning?

This article obviously raises far more questions than it seeks to answer. In fact, it offers no answers whatsoever. This may sit uncomfortably with many astrologers. After all, how many of us were first attracted to its study because it offered ready answers to the conundrum of existence on the one hand and the minor trivialities of everyday life on the other? Here is a discipline, craft or science which purports to tell us who we are, why we are like we are, who we are compatible with, when is the best time to marry that person or enter a business partnership, and can even tell us where to find our wedding ring if we misplace it!

In the face of such gargantuan claims to be able to answer life’s big and little questions, to be able to tell us the why, who, what, where and even when of life, many of us can forget the need to question, to inquire, to investigate, to think for ourselves, to examine and ultimately to doubt. The ‘d’ word is clearly a dirty word for many astrologers. In the presence of doubt we can find ourselves in a highly uncertain and formless place, bereft of answers, shorn of predictability, and of course we all know that astrologers need answers and thrive on certainty. After all, predictability is our greatest claim to fame. Without that, perhaps we may cease to exist!

But what this questionless state of affairs really engenders is little more than a fundamentalist belief system with all the hallmarks of a somewhat rabid religion. Those few who do dare to ask the difficult questions are more often than not marginalized as heretics to the true cause of astrology, for it seems apparent that astrologers are threatened by too many questions. Yet it is my belief that the discipline and practice of astrology could only benefit from some serious questioning, investigation and ultimately deconstruction. It is important to note that deconstruction is a dismantling process: it is not a destruction as many believe, and its purpose is to find the source of meaning which lies at the core of any system or set of beliefs. As a fellow colleague so eloquently put it: …”if you accept that a construct is an amalgam of meaning(s) produced in and through ideological means, the construct(ed) meaning must be deconstructed in order to reach its source. It’s like a forensic scientist or medical coroner examining the innards of the body. Deconstruction leads to a more real, de-politicized understanding of the thing, upon which truth, not ideology, can be built.” [15]

All of this may indeed threaten the foundations of our tightly held and secure astro-belief system, but as Dane Rudhyar wrote: “The crisis all human beings face is a crisis of belief“. [16] And surely, that is as it should be!

-by Candy Hillenbrand



Notes & References:

[1] Jayj Jacobs, “The Codswallop Detector and Critique of Impure Reason”, A Place in Space
[2] Dale Huckeby, “Astrological Correspondences: The Patterns in our Lives”, A Place in Space
[3] Peter Clamp, “The Astrology of Homophobia”, A Place in Space
[4] Taurus 4 – “The Pot of Gold at the End of the Rainbow”, in Dane Rudhyar, An Astrological Mandala: The Cycle of Transformations and its 360 Phases, New York: Vintage Books, 1974, p. 73.
[5] Barbara Hand Clow, Chiron: Rainbow Bridge Between the Inner and Outer Planets, St. Paul, Minnesota: Llewellyn Publications, 1990, p. 8.
[6] Candy Hillenbrand, “The Centaur Connection: Expanding Chiron’s Territory”, The Mountain Astrologer, Issue #88, Dec 1999/Jan 2000.
[7] Alan Stern, “Chiron: Interloper from the Kuiper Disk?” Astronomy, August 1994.
[8] Zane Stein, Chiron and Friends
[9] ibid.
[10] Melanie Reinhart, Letters to the Editor, The Mountain Astrologer, Issue #90, April/May 2000.
[11] Demetra George, Asteroid Goddesses, ACS Publications, Inc: San Diego, CA, 1986.
[12] Ibid., pp. 38-9.
[13] Ibid., p. 45.
[14] Liz Greene, The Astrology of Fate, London: Unwin Paperbacks, 1985, p. 41.
[15] Vanessa Starr, through personal communication.
[16] Dane Rudhyar, The Fullness of Human Experience, Wheaton, IL: Quest Books, 1986, p. 236.