Conversations on Natal Astrology, 1
As on one Christmas evening we hugged the fire, I asked my uncle, ‘How do you judge the natal chart?’ The look he gave me I remember often with regret. It said, ‘Do not trouble me with work amid this feast’. But I was young, so I pressed him. ‘Tell me, uncle, tell me. Where do we start?’
He sighed, with the sigh that one who has laboured overlong at coalface might well sigh, but I knew my uncle and his histrionic effects. He refilled his pipe, slowly, with ceremony that drew each eye around the room, and my eager heart quivered. I knew by this sign that he would not disappoint me. An eyebrow raised, I know not by what significant millimetre, for I did not see it, towards my aunt, told her to refill his glass.And then he began.
“I know your enthusiasm, my boy, and I know you think you have a smattering of knowledge. I’m sure, then, you want me to enlighten you on all those exciting things like solar returns and Arabian Parts. “That,” you’re no doubt thinking, “Is what I need to learn.”’
I could not help but nod. The basic structure of a reading I could assemble from the books that lined my room. They could tell me the meaning of each planet in each sign, or in each house; what every possible aspect might signify; even how I should cope with the consequences of the less desirable parts of my chart. With the eagerness of youth, I longed to run beyond that, to learn the mysteries of a deeper arcana.
‘I’ll tell you about that stuff in time,’ he continued. ‘But we should begin at the beginning. You know, I have often thought that if I were ever invited to give a year’s course in natal astrology, I would spend the first 364 days discussing theology.’ I didn’t know whether I should smile or not. Was this a joke? ‘Only on the last few hours of the final day would I start teaching astrological method. The clearer we are on the background philosophy, the more we find that the astrological techniques become merely a matter of common sense. They are no more than the practical application of the understanding we have garnered. But lacking a knowledge of the background philosophy, we cannot usefully employ whatever techniques we may have learned. For what should we apply them to?
‘When we study a birthchart, we are studying a human being. It would seem quite important, then, that we have a reasonably clear idea of what a human being is. Our starting point for that must be in theology, because if we do not understand man’s place in the world, we understand nothing of man.’
‘That makes sense, uncle,’ I had to admit, even though the thought of a prolonged lecture on theology was making me wonder how soon I could retire to bed without hurting the old fellow’s feelings.
‘The recognition of man’s essential creatureliness - his existence as a thing created - is fundamental. The pattern of planets in a birthchart does not itself contain a psychology. It must be fitted to a psychology, to a model of the human being. Even beyond, and far beyond, its adoption of some bizarre techniques and its abandonment of techniques that work, the greatest failing of the astrology most commonly practiced today is its reliance upon a fictional and utterly degrading model of the human being. Fit your astrology to a psychological model taken from, for instance, Carl Jung, and you cannot wonder that you end up with nonsense.
‘A little human understanding is helpful too, before we even begin to work with astrology. Suppose you are judging a natal chart to find out something about that person’s relationships. If your understanding of the way emotion and desire intertwine is limited to what you’ve learned from soap operas or Hollywood movies, whatever the chart might show will be a closed book to you. It’s much the same as with music. We might have the most technically gifted pianist in the world, yet if he knows nothing of passion his rendering of Chopin will leave his audience cold. On the other hand, merely understanding the passion is not enough: he needs to know how to play. Whether the squiggles we try to interpret are a musical score or an astrological chart, technique alone is never enough.’
My aunt’s restraining finger tapped him gently on the shoulder. He humpfed a little, then resumed, ‘Well, you get my point, my boy. I could continue, and most valuably so if you truly wish to learn, but it’s Christmas and we have had sufficient today of heavy fare. You want astrology, and astrology you shall have.’
Astrology without Textbooks
‘What I intend to teach you, young man, is how to practice astrology without using textbooks. Most of what passes for astrological practice is no more than a cut and paste job, where the artist assembles a reading by gluing together passages either from books on his desk, or from whatever odd snippets he may have stored in his head. Whatever this is, it is not the practice of astrology. A refined form of sudoku, maybe; astrology, definitely not. You cannot truly be said to be practicing astrology unless your judgment of the chart is done from knowledge that is truly yours. Textbooks may help you along the way to acquiring that knowledge, but they do not themselves contain that knowledge.’
So how do I get that knowledge, uncle?’
‘By gaining a sound understanding of basic principles. That is a lifetime’s work: one’s understanding can always be sounder. But it can quite quickly become sound enough. That is where our study must be directed. It is those basics that are the really important thing.’
He could see the disappointment in my face. Not the basics again! I had to admit to myself I had skated quickly over them when first I began to study, but I had no wish to return for a longer look. ‘You will have seen, or even, I fear, read many of the gaudy titles so readily spawned by modern astrologers in need of a little cash. Whole books devoted to one trivial iota of technique: the T-square; the yod; the quindecile.’ Blushing, I had to admit I had read more than a few such works, though I couldn’t remember one thing they had taught me. ‘From the traditional point of view, writing a book like that is insanity. It is like picking out bar 72 of Beethoven’s 9th and writing a whole book about bar 72 without a single mention of the rest of the symphony.
‘We do find the occasional book by the traditional masters on such things as solar returns or eclipses, but never on one minor constituent of judging any individual chart. We do not have Bonatti’s book on trines, or William Lilly’s masterpiece on contrantiscia. That’s because these techniques are not stand-alone little pieces: idiosyncratic quirks of method. They are congruent with the whole system of astrology. If you understand the few basic principles, everything you need for judgment falls neatly into place. So the important thing is to understand these basics.
‘When we’re looking at a birthchart, we work out the temperament, look what phase the Moon is in, look where Mercury is, and this tells us most of what we need to know about that person. There is no need to start applying ever more recondite techniques in the hope that we are going to dig up ever more recondite little sections of this person’s personality.
‘You may find the idea of concentrating on the basics dull, but even at my sere age I’m endlessly learning about astrology, and what I am learning, and what I get excited about learning, is not some obscure add-on, which I’ve dug up in some antique manuscript. The things I get excited about are doors opening to grant me a profounder understanding of the basics - of things like the phase of the Moon and the position of Mercury, which you may well believe are beneath you. It’s possible that I’m incredibly obtuse and I missed out on this astrological kindergarden; but I value an increased and deepening understanding of these basics far more than a superficial acquaintance with a lot of flashy extras. What’s more important in a car: the wheels and the engine, or the retractable gadget for holding your coffee-cup?’
The Absence of Textbooks
‘Presenting natal astrology truthfully is no easy task, my boy. Traditional natal astrology is a hard job; it is not accomplished in moments. It’s not like horary, which does those fantastic little tricks for you all the time - ‘Abracadabra, and there’s the answer! Great!’ There are those who like to give public demonstrations, where they will look at the chart of someone in the audience and come up with some flashy statements about it: “Your life’s purpose is this”, or “You like doing that, don’t you?”. That, as I hope you realise, is not astrology; it is nothing but smoke and mirrors. Conjuring apparently accurate statements can be done by any fairground huckster.
‘I’m sure, too, you’ve sat in lectures and listened to the speaker point at a chart and say, “Aha, there’s Mars square Uranus, therefore this person invented socks or discovered Antarctica or something”. In the moment it sounds very persuasive. But judgment is not a matter of diving into the chart and plucking out a single testimony, like picking a tasty morsel from a stir-fry. You have to build up the whole chart, from the bottom working upwards. A lecturer discussing a natal chart should start by working out the temperament and going through all the other stages of judgment. This takes time. Is it practical in a lecture? No. So we are back to smoke and mirrors again.
‘Natal astrology is difficult to present in a lecture; it’s also difficult to teach. Since you were a young pup, I’ve been teaching natal astrology. I’m forever telling my students, “You must do this; you must do that”. But while I’m doing that, I’m forever thinking, “I don’t do that when I’m judging a chart”. I teach them to do it, but I would never dream of doing it myself.
‘I’m often reminded of a story about John Coltrane. A fan would follow him from concert to concert, transcribing his solos. Quite a feat, I think you’ll agree.’ I looked suitably awed. ‘Then she met him at a party one night, and said, “That thing you played yesterday was so beautiful. I’ve transcribed it. Could you play it for me?” Coltrane looked in astonishment at what she’d written down and said, “I can’t play that!” It’s much like that with returning clients. I look at my notes from the previous consultation and think, “However did I work that out?”
‘This is why I teach my students what I do, even though much of it I no longer do myself. It is necessary to learn the structures. These structures are what I am going to teach you. These structures are - to use a sporting metaphor - to get you into the zone. You can enter that zone where everything works for you, in exactly the same way as it does in a sporting context; a zone where you leave the structures behind. But this is not the same as trying to get into the zone without having the structures. If you spend six hours a day practicing your control of a football, you can get into the zone easily and do wonderful things. If you don’t spend any time practicing your football, you can’t get into the zone at all. So it is with astrology.
‘These difficulties in presenting and teaching natal astrology explain why there is no good textbook of natal astrology, either ancient or modern. Books are overrated things. It is easy to believe that filling your bookshelves is a method of learning. In fact, it is usually quite the reverse: acquiring another book is more often than not a way to avoid learning. Instead of doing some work on the book that we have, we make a superficial acquaintance with a new book. And then with another new book, and another after that. It’s much like friendship: superficial acquaintances are ten-a-penny; we would swap any number of such for one good friend. Better to find the book that will be your steadfast friend and not to fritter away your time and attention on the others.’
‘What book can be my friend, uncle?’
‘I have based my study on Lilly’s Christian Astrology and Abu Ali al-Khayyat’s Judgements of Nativities. I’ve found these the best, but they’re the best of a very bad lot. I mean no disparagement to either Lilly, al-Khayyat, or the authors of other books. Well, that’s not true: I mean a great deal of disparagement to the authors of many books, but there are others who have done as good a job as perhaps could be done.
‘In my green youth, I thought I’d write a textbook of natal astrology. Then I wrote The Horary Textbook. That showed me exactly why there is no good textbook of natal astrology. Writing it would be an impossibility. Horary is simple and linear: 2 + 2 = 4. Natal astrology is not. If horary is like a straight line, natal is like a sphere. A sphere cannot be reduced to the linear form demanded by the act of writing. The attempt to do so divests it of its spherical nature, which is why those attempts that have been made cannot help but distort their subject. As soon squeeze a beachball into a toothpaste tube, or one of your dear aunt’s excellent Christmas puddings through the eye of a needle.’ She took the hint and scampered away to fetch him another portion.
‘The textbooks - purely from the necessity that somehow the author has got to say something, and that something can only be expressed in the linear form of prose - sooner or later fall into cookbook mode, or aphorisms, or both. You know the cookbooks: “Saturn in Pisces means this,” and “Jupiter in the 10th house means that”. Such statements are meaningless. It’s like saying “Pawn on king’s bishop 6 means...”
What does it mean? What it means depends on where all the other pieces are. Nothing means anything on its own, either in chess or natal astrology. It’s as if each natal chart creates its own context, its own set of rules for understanding everything which is within that chart. Because Brad Pitt played a certain role in one film, we do not assume he’ll play exactly the same role in another film. Yet this is exactly what we do assume when we say that “Saturn in Pisces means this” and “Jupiter in the 10th house means that”.’
‘So what about aphorisms?’
‘Based on a fallacy. Read, for instance, Christian Astrology, and you’ll see lists of aphorisms for each house of the chart. There is an implicit assumption that each house is an autonomous state, governed by its own set of laws. This is not so: the chart is of a piece. The same basic laws work all the way round it. Any individual aphorism either agrees with those basic laws, in which case we don’t need the aphorism, or it disagrees with them, in which case it is wrong.’
‘So either way we don’t need the aphorism.’
‘Quite. So I won’t be filling your head with them.’
‘Thank goodness for that, uncle. From what I’ve seen, those lists are an awful lot to remember.’
‘Yes. All you need is to understand the basic laws. That understanding is what I do aim to fill your head with.’
‘But I’ve met astrologers who are avid in their collecting of old texts.’
‘Alas so, my boy. Certain astrologers obsess about books. “I’ve got more translations of old authors on my shelves than you have. You’re not a serious astrologer at all, are you?” We don’t need lots of books! Do you think Napoleon sat on the battlefield reading How to be a General, book 1? There is no magic key to astrology hidden away in some dusty text somewhere - the vital piece of information that suddenly makes it all so simple. If there were, somebody would have read that dusty text and spread the good news.
‘Nor, my boy, are books worthy of such reverence. Books can only ever be partial. They are written by fallible people. Let’s face it, astrologers are more fallible than most. There’s a fond myth that books are deliberately only partial: that there is an oral transmission because people don’t want to write everything down, they want to keep the really important things secret. I’ve met astrologers who’ve managed to tap into to this oral transmission of astrology by finding it on internet sites.’
‘Is that where you find secret oral transmissions, uncle?’
‘So it seems. But nobody is keeping anything secret! It’s just not possible to write all of it down. Even if you wanted to, you can’t. This is why we have poetry, to say what can’t be said in prose. That’s why we have music, to say what can’t be said in poetry.
‘We must also be aware that books exist in time. We cannot approach books written 300 years ago or 15oo years ago as if they were written in the late twentieth century. Most of the misunderstandings of William Lilly’s Christian Astrology come from the readers’ assumption that Lilly was a professor in some provincial English university during the 1970s. God in His mercy spared him that fate. It’s important to have some idea of the age in which people wrote and the preconceptions which therefore they brought to the table when they were writing. What was Lilly trying to achieve? How did he write? What assumptions did he hold? The answers to these questions will not be the same for Lilly as they were for Ptolemy, or for Ibn Ezra, or for an author in the America of today. Yet these things will greatly affect the nature of the book he produces, sometimes in ways that are fairly obvious, sometimes in ways that are subtle, but none the less significant.
‘I’ve often found, for instance, my students misunderstanding passages in Lilly because they assume that methods of writing and editing were the same for Lilly as we would expect for a modern author. They were not. Much of Christian Astrology was dictated, not written, and editing was, at best, cursory. So we find changes of mind incorporated into the text, purely because no one bothered to cross them out before the book went to the printer. The reader who does not realise that this is what is happening will surely be confused.
‘But just as Lilly is not a twentieth century author, nor is he Ptolemy, nor Ibn Ezra, nor Bonatti. These are men of different religious and political beliefs, living hundreds of years and hundreds of miles apart: they are not cut from the same cloth, so neither are their works.
‘Once their authors have finished with them, books have a history of their own. Many of the texts on which our understanding of astrology is based come from the days when they had to be copied by scribes. This scribal transmission was gloriously unreliable. Let me give you an example of this. A popular book of philosophy during the Middle Ages was The Book of the Apple. Its subtitle is The Canon of the Pure Good. The book was translated in Sicily, then sent up to Paris, where it was copied by scribes. By the time it had got to the university in Krakow, the subtitle had changed from The Canon of the Pure Good to On the Causes of Lemons. There’s not a mention of lemons in the whole book, yet the scribes have been happily copying this subtitle.
‘Ye humble scribe is unlikely to have understood the astrology he was copying, so he would not have noticed a mistake in the text he was using. So the mistakes are passed on, with the inevitable addition of a few of his own. And that’s just transcription: translation brings even more problems, especially as we may be dealing with the translation of a translation of a translation. What we end up with can resemble the end-product of a lengthy game of Chinese whispers.
‘This is why, or one reason why, it’s so important to have the information inside us soundly rooted in our own understanding, because then we’re far less susceptible to the shortcomings of books.’
What is traditional astrology?
‘You talk of “traditional astrology”, uncle. What do you mean by that? What is this tradition?’
‘Ah, that is indeed the question! Well asked, my boy, well asked. The term is much misunderstood. In my wanderings in Astroworld, I’ve often heard people say, “I do traditional astrology,” meaning that they base their work on such as Alan Leo or Liz Greene, in blithe unawareness that astrology existed before the twentieth century, and of how much the moderns writers have transformed it - not for the better.
‘Then there are those who tell me, “Oh, you do that traditional astrology; I prefer psychological astrology myself,” as if traditional astrology does not concern itself with psychology, or that psychology is in any way possible within the baseless philosophies of the authors they follow. How can you have psychology, the science of the soul, without a model of the human being that recognises what the soul is?’
‘So we’re back to theology again, uncle.’
‘Yes - I told you it was important. The most pernicious error, however, is that which sees the distinction between traditional and non-traditional astrology as a temporal one. I must confess that the lose usage I’ve often enough adopted myself, of distinguishing between “traditional” astrology on the one hand and “modern” astrology on the other, is most unhelpful. The idea that everything before a certain point in time, whether that be the Enlightenment or the end of the nineteenth century, is traditional and everything thereafter modern is simply false.’
‘That’s what I understood, uncle. William Lilly and Nicholas Culpeper are traditional astrologers, because they practiced before the Enlightenment. Are you saying that modern astrology existed before that, and that traditional astrology exists in the world today?’
‘What do you think you are doing now, boy? The conversation which we are having is a part of the tradition. It is as much a part of the tradition as anything that William Lilly or Guide Bonatti ever did or said. Pay attention to what I’m telling you and you too will become part of that tradition, swimming in that same stream.
‘As so often, what is of real importance to the student of astrology is not to be found in astrology books. Joseph Pieper, the Thomist theologian, defined what he called “a very special sense” of the word tradition as “a traditum in the strictest meaning of that concept: received from a superhuman source, to be handed on undiminished, received and handed on again.” That is tradition in exactly the sense I am using it, and that is our duty with regard to that tradition.’
‘But you’re not speaking to me in olde worlde terms, uncle. And I’ve found in the books you’ve written many places where you disagree with such as Lilly.’
‘Ah, my boy, you share a common misapprehension about the nature of tradition. A tradition is a living thing. It moves. If it were not moving, it would be dead, and there wouldn’t be much point in studying it, except as a form of intellectual archaeology. As Pieper explains, “Real handing down, the living process of transmission from one generation to another, is deterred rather than abetted by the kind of traditionalism that clings to external appearances. For what really matters is not mere preservation and conservation, but a constant succession of new, creative reshapings which give contemporaneity to the content.” There are traditionalists both within and without Astroworld who regard any deviation from what existed at one particular time and one particular place in the past as a failing in the tradition. But that view is in itself anti-traditionalist: if you want to kill or corrupt a tradition, the most effective way to do so is to set its forms in stone, to prevent it from changing.’ ‘Like a snake, a tradition needs to slough its skin.’
‘Exactly. On a regular basis. Pieper speaks of reshaping. This is not something merely desirable, but something essential: the tradition cannot be passed on without it. It must be made new for each new person in the line of the tradition, because it must be understood before it can be passed on. Understood, not merely relayed, as a post office box stores a letter for a while until someone else picks it up: that is not our role, and if we acted as if it were the tradition would very soon be a dead thing.’
‘OK, uncle, I get the point. But what is this tradition, if it is not simply “the old stuff”?’ ‘
It is the western tradition in astrology. That is the astrology of the Jews, the Moslems and the Christians. It is astrology rooted in, and inseparable from, monotheism. As such, it stands over and against the astrologies that are rooted in and inseparable from paganism: the Hellenistic astrology that is so much en vogue today; Egyptian astrology; Vedic astrology; and the astrology that is loosely called “modern” - the various inventions of the modern era. In the essential relativism of their philosophies, these astrologies have far more in common with each other than any of them do with the western tradition.
What is the chart?
‘Can we start doing some astrology now, uncle? Tell me what Mars square Saturn means! And Moon in the 10th house!’
‘Patience, my boy, patience. You want to start talking about the chart. But had we not best find out what the chart is, before we start picking it apart?’
What was the old man talking about? ‘What do you mean, uncle? It’s a birthchart. It’s the chart for that person.’
‘Yes, but what do you mean by “that person”? Stand up for a minute, lad.’ I did as I was asked. ‘Now, show me where the boundaries of you are.’
‘Of me?’ I touched my hands to my shoulders, then quickly traced the outlines of my body with them.
‘That would be the common answer. But what about that?’ he asked, pointing at my leg. ‘You could lose that, couldn’t you?’
‘So it might be yours, but it is hardly you, is it?’
‘I suppose not.’
‘Indeed, you will surely one day lose all your body, will you not?’
‘So what will remain?’ ‘My soul, I trust - until it is reclothed.’
‘So what is truly you?’
‘My soul, uncle; only my soul.’
‘So what is your body?’
‘It is... it’s not me.’
‘Yes, it’s part of that great lump of stuff called Not-me. A great lump that comprises everything in creation except your soul. That is what the chart is: a window onto Not-me.’
‘But if it’s my chart, it’s me - surely?’
‘In a manner of speaking; but only in a manner of speaking. We must be clear: this is a most important point. It is natural to assume that the boundary of Me is more or less the same as the boundary of my body. That is where Me ends and the world begins. This boundary seems, for Me, the most important boundary there is. But only seems. The important boundary is that between my soul and everything else in the world - which includes most or all of what it is usual to regard as Me. On the one side we have the soul; on the other we have the self and everything else in the world. From the soul’s point of view, the self and the world are the same. This is why we can read both the nature of the self and the events of the life, including the other people and external occasions in that life, from the birthchart.’
‘So where is the soul in the birthchart?’
‘It isn’t. Pay attention: I’ve just told you that the chart is a window onto Not-me, onto all that is not my soul. We can construct a chart within the birthchart, an inner chart that stands as a chart for the individual soul, but that chart is not in what we are concerned with now, the standard birthchart. The birthchart is a map of the self and the world in which that self moves.’
‘I’m glad we got that straight, uncle. I’d never asked myself how come we can see both the person and the life in the same chart.’
‘You see, I told you it was important. You can sit down now, my boy. Ah, but before you do...’ He rotated his glass between his fingers to point its emptiness. I took the hint, and fetched the brandy bottle from the table.
What are we aiming to achieve?
‘What’s next, then, uncle?’ I could see that my desire to hear about planets and houses was likely to remain some time unsatisfied. What else would he have to explain to me before we could even begin studying a chart?
‘We’ve found out what the birthchart is. Next we might ask ourselves why we are looking at it. After all, if we don’t know what we hope to achieve, we are unlikely to achieve it.’
‘I thought we just sort of... looked at it. It’s something we do.’
‘But why? And how do we know we’re succeeding?’
‘I’ve heard quite a few astrologers say they know their reading is accurate when the client bursts into tears.’
‘I’ve often heard that, too. I find it utterly appalling. What a way to treat our clients! If that’s our criterion of success, why do we need astrology? Just poke the client in the eye and have done with it. I find the client bursting into tears acutely embarrassing. Why should we want that?’
‘But if you’re touching on something profound?’
‘Of course. Often in astrological consultations we are dealing with grave matters. For someone to start crying when talking about the loss of a loved one or some tragedy with a child is perfectly understandable. There are times when the astrologer bursts into tears. It’s sad, and both astrologer and client are human. But to provoke someone to tears just because you are talking about his psychology - there’s something wrong with that idea. And something very wrong indeed if that is the desired end of your astrology. If that’s your attitude, stick to pulling the wings off flies and leave human beings well alone!’
‘It’s certainly not my attitude, uncle.’
‘Pleased to hear it, my boy.’
‘So how do you know you’re succeeding in the consultation?’
‘I think there are two things, not the aim of the consultation, but which show me I’m on the right lines. The first of these is when I can replicate the client’s internal dialogue - when I can describe the discussions they’re having inside their own head. The important point about this being that we are replicating it. The astrologer is understanding what is going on in the client’s head, while remaining strictly on the outside of it, unlike those dreadful “psychic astrologers” who want to trample their muddy feet all over the inside of their client’s mind. Thank you, no! Client there, me here; big barrier between us, please.
‘I’ll give you an example. A client wanted to discuss why she procrastinates so much. She is a woman of immense capacity, but she delays and delays and delays, and so achieves far less than she should. From looking at the chart - and I’ll tell you how to do this later - we can say, “OK, the initial idea is always presented as ‘xyz’; but then this other voice says ‘abc’. Now, ‘abc’ isn’t a very convincing argument, and you can see through that; but this second voice has power over the first voice, because it also says ‘pqr’, and you have no answer to that”. You see, you are understanding how the client’s mind works.
‘The second thing which lets me see, or makes me feel, that I’m on the right track is when I start making constructive suggestions that the client might adopt, and the client says, “Ah, I started doing that only last week!”’
‘Doesn’t that make the suggestion rather redundant?’
‘Far from it. If you stop your car to ask someone the way, the words “You’re heading in the right direction” are fully as valuable as “You need to go over there”.’
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