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Venus in ScorpioWhat is a planet?

As an astrology teacher, I find this is one of the first disconnects between astrology and astronomy that needs to be addressed. Most people learned in school that the planets are the large objects that orbit the Sun: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and (until recently) Pluto. Astrology, on the other hand, draws from a pre-Copernican tradition that considered all the permanent, moving “lights” of the sky planets. This excluded the Earth (obviously), but included the Sun and Moon.

Then there is the matter of the “modern” planets, discovered with the aid of the telescope: Uranus (1781), Neptune (1846), and Pluto (1930). These were unknown in ancient times, and were not a part of astrological thinking for most of the history of the art. At the time of the discovery of Uranus, there was considerable debate about whether the new planet should be included as an astrological planet. Once consensus settled around Uranus’s inclusion, the pattern was set for Neptune and Pluto to be accepted into the astrological fold.

The asteroids or minor planets (at least the larger ones) also receive some attention from modern astrologers: Ceres, Pallas, Juno, and Vesta. Recent years have seen the discovery of asteroid- to planet-sized objects in the outer solar system: the nearby Chiron, and the large icy bodies orbiting far beyond Pluto – Sedna, Quaoar, and others. Astrologers are now scrambling to keep up with every new blip of light recorded in the astronomers’ computers. When will it end, one has to wonder?

Strangely, although astrology seems disposed to keep current with the discoveries of astronomy, the reaction to the demotion of Pluto has been largely one of rejection of disinterest. Modern astrology, it seems, has too much invested in Pluto’s planetary status to adapt to its loss from the fold. I find this interesting, especially when one considers that the discovery of Uranus was really much more disruptive to astrology and the demotion of Pluto would be.

The classical system of astrology, with only seven planets, had developed to a remarkable state of polish and symmetry. The Sun and Moon each ruled one sign, and the other planets each ruled two (a day house and a night house), in a perfectly symmetrical pattern around the Zodiac. The seven days of the week corresponded to the seven planets, and there was a body of lore connecting them with herbs, gemstones, colors, and other elements of the metaphysical systems of the times. The system of essential dignities, set forth by Ptolemy, gave a rich picture of the energy of the seven planets in each of the signs. Resisting adaptation to the inclusion of additional planets, the system faded away from astrological awareness, until recently.

It seems to me that astrology, as a collective discipline, has yet to completely come to terms with its relationship to astronomy. It tends to be reactive, deciding in the moment how to respond to this astronomical discovery or that. Astrology seems to be astronomy’s younger sibling, taking hand-me-downs and hoping they fit.

For me, having earned a PhD in astronomy some years ago, and now being a practicing Pagan astrologer, it seems that this business of astrology fawning at the heals of science is not very healthy. For most scientists, astrology is a joke at best, and a superstitious evil at worst. Astronomy will never give astrologers the imprimatur of academic respectability. Yet astrologers somehow feel that being astronomically literate and current gives their art some semblance of scientific credibility.

I prefer to see the authority and credibility of astrology as coming from within astrology itself. It is a spiritual practice, like meditation, ritual, or divinatory practices such as I Ching or tarot. In fact, I see astrology as a highly developed form of nature divination. Its roots go back to Sumerian priests watching the sky at dusk and dawn, reading messages in the winds, clouds, and colors of the sky. There were no personal horoscopes then. It was about searching the sky for omens and premonitions, in the moment.

There was a clear connection, originally, between the visual appearance of the planets and the nature of the gods and goddesses who gave them their names. Venus still stirs our hearts with her beauty against the inky blue sky as evening star or morning star, warlike Mars is blood red and occasionally flares into great brightness for a few months before retreating again. Jupiter is undisputed ruler of the night, constantly bright and outshining the stars. Saturn plods lethargically in the background, and Mercury dashes back and forth around the Sun, seldom visible for long.

As a Pagan, I keep an awareness of nature alive in all aspects of my life and spiritual practice; astrology is no exception. I like to go outside and experience the night sky. When I cast a birth chart, my mind’s eye creates a picture of the sky, and I visualize the planets looking down from above at the moment of birth. Although I can and do use a computer to calculate planetary positions at different times, I regard the computer as a convenience, not an authority. The authority is the sky itself.

From this perspective, what matters is not whether some object passes the IAU’s current criteria for planet status, but whether it is something I can experience when I stand outside at night. The planets of antiquity are the ones I care about as a Pagan astrologer. Even the most astronomically diligent astrologer must draw the line somewhere: astronomy has catalogued thousands of solar system objects, and more are discovered each year. One cannot begin to deal with them all. For me, there is one obvious place to draw the line: the planets that are visible to the unaided eye, known the world over in all times by all peoples. These, surely, are the core elements of a divinatory art based on the changes of the night sky.

But, some will protest, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto are so important – how can you just ignore the energies and concepts they represent? The answer is that before these telescopic planets were discovered, their energies were captured in aspects of the traditional planets. Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars have lost some of their richness and complexity as, one by one, they have surrendered metaphysical territory to the invisible newcomers. Yes, the 10-planet system works and says many interesting things. But the 7-planet system also works, and also says many interesting things. And it has the advantage of being grounded in thousands of years of human experience.

I would like to suggest that for Pagans, at least, there is some reason to return to an astrological practice rooted in experience, a practice we can relate to the experiences of our ancient spiritual ancestors, men and women who looked up into the sky at night and saw the faces of their gods and goddesses. Let’s leave the telescopes, computers, and digital imaging chips to the astronomers.


March 2008
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