Roots of Astrology: Archetypal Messages Written In Starlight

astrological wheel

I still clearly recall an experience, from when I was nine or ten years old, that might be described as my first encounter with astrology. I was in our small vegetable garden, perhaps on the way to fetch parsley for dinner, and I had stopped for a moment to gaze up into a particularly beautiful and clear moonless sky. I focused my vision upon a single star, a needle point of light so fine it flickered in the warm wind like a candle about to be extinguished. What fantastic dimension of space, I wondered, could reduce a vast sun to this infinitesimal silver shimmering?

Suddenly, in an indescribable rush of understanding, the reality of that immensity dawned on me. All at once I understood -- in the marrow of my blood rather than merely intellectually -- that I was gazing out to the farthest shores of nature. The hem of infinity brushed me. I grew terrified as my knees weakened and nearly gave way beneath me.

For some time after that night I feared the night sky much as one fears death in those rare moments when one apprehends it as a reality rather than an abstraction. For this vision of the cosmos utterly diminished me, as death does. Suddenly I knew my life as it truly is: afloat, far tinier than any star, in the ocean of infinity. It was a humbling and terrifying revelation, and yet paradoxically also uplifting, as if my insignificance were compensated by the extraordinary and inexplicable fact of my sheer existence in this marvelous creation.

Astronomy or Astrology?

The reader may wonder why I describe this experience as astrological. Is it not better characterized as a revelation of astronomy? It was, after all, a leap of imagination based in astronomical knowledge. I had been taught what the stars are, about the nuclear fire, the light years, the black holes, and it was with those astronomical concepts in mind that I stared up into the sky that night.

Yet in another sense it was truly astrological because it was a moment in which the stars, separated from me according to those rational teachings by an unbridgeable distance, penetrated my being, filling me with a rush of darkness and starlight. The stars were no longer only remote. They plunged so deeply into me that my relationship with them became exquisitely intimate. Reflections of this moment pervaded my dreams and guided my life subtly into new pathways, as it were, from the deepest fulcrum in my soul. Is this not a kind of raw astrological influence, starlight woven into human fate, macrocosm become microcosm?

It is my contention here that an experience of this sort is the original root of astrology. The core of astrology does not lie in the technicalities of chart interpretation, books full of diurnal positions, and systems of midpoints and aspects. It has nothing to do with "What star sign are you?" party games. No, astrology is rooted in the wonder and amazement of those original Chaldean ancestors staring up night after night into an unfathomable mystery. It is rooted in dreams of great gibbous moons ballooning threateningly in the sky. It is rooted in stories told to children about shooting stars, in Van Gogh's "Starry Night." In short, the root of astrology lies in the ancient relationship of the imagination with the stellar sky.(1)

Astrology is Archetypal

Like dance and religion, astrology is discovered autochthonous within each culture as a fresh revelation. The Aztecs, the Babylonians, the Egyptians, the Chinese, the Australian aborigines, and the Greeks all had astrologies of varying degrees of sophistication. The systems and mythologies of each astrological system vary, yet the impetus, the intuition of celestial reflections in fate and soul, is constant and irrepressible.

We can imagine easily enough the process whereby such systems came into being. Less technologically elaborate cultures than our own are constantly, cyclically, brought face to face with the mystery of the stars. Where no city lights pollute the sky with a constant ambient glare, the stars shine in a peaceful and immense spectacle of extraordinary beauty.

We can imagine the awe and wonder of our ancestors gazing into that sky, how they would have woven stories like a spider's web, connecting the stars into a luminous jeweled lacework of constellations and mythologies. As these imaginative accounts deepened with retelling, the night sky would have become a living tapestry of myth, each night becoming a retelling of sacred stories and a reminder of the divine background to life on earth.

Without an astronomy other than a rudimentary conception of days, seasons, and lunations -- without any understanding of the staggering truth of astronomical space -- those people would sometimes have felt the inrush of mystical amazement that I felt that night in my garden in suburbia. They would have felt touched by the movement of gods in their souls, and would never have doubted that it was indeed the gods within the stars themselves that seized them in such moments. Astronomy, astrology, and stellar mythology -- all would have been born together in the act of stargazing.

Messages Written In Starlight

In a culture addicted to stimulation by constantly changing images, it is difficult for many to comprehend the pleasure of contemplating the night sky. If our relationship with image is modeled on television, how can we appreciate the enduring, simple images of the constellations?

If we have learned to treat every image as instant and disposable, and become bored if there is not a change of scene every few seconds, how can we possibly allow the face of the stars -- the signature of eternity -- to engrave itself into our imaginations? Television images are intentionally sensational and shallow, intended for instant consumption, and teach us a relationship with image that is based on "entertainment" and fantasy gratification. What possible entertainment could be found in staring up at some burning hydrogen billions of miles away?

Yet to a culture for which the stars were not yet "explained away" as lifeless balls of burning gas, the night sky remains a mysterious text of divine ciphers. Reading it astronomically and astrologically may perhaps be a matter of survival. Perhaps here are written the secret wills of the gods, the meanings behind the inexplicable and dreadful sufferings of life.

Perhaps the elixir of immortality may be distilled from messages written in starlight. Mythologizing and astrologizing the stars would have been a matter of profound importance, of passion and fear, for such people.

Rationalizing The Cosmos

Today, with our smug self-assurance that nature is vanquished, our belief that fate belongs to us rather than the gods, and that all sufferings can be conquered by technological innovations, we no longer fear the gods in the stars. Astronomy assures us that we are safe from the interventions of cosmic divinities. The night sky is pretty and inert, its awesome magnificence obliterated by manmade light.

Forgetting the hubris of Icarus and Prometheus, we send our space machines to the top of mount Olympus to "probe" Jupiter himself, fearing no retribution. The old gods have been ousted from their thrones by a new pantheon of astrophysical enigmas: quasars, ten-dimensional superstrings, space-time singularities.

This process of rationalizing the cosmos has resulted in a gradual erosion of the connection between astrology and the sky itself, as if a vast umbrella of intractable mathematics shrouded our view. Today we practice astrology indoors, by day, in the city. The original astrological perspective -- the vista of stars -- could not be more remote. In this context it is all too easy to reduce astrology to a mere language game, a matter of books and words and numbers and signs. The chart becomes almost a magical entity, as if astrological effects emanate from this diagram.

With the connection between astrology and the sky growing ever more attenuated, many astrologers can no longer point out the constellations at night. House systems are used without any understanding of how these systems divide up the actual sky. Astrology's concepts and systems of representation (glyphs, axes, aspect lines, etc.) become more real than the worlds to which they refer.

This mode of practice -- confined, abstracted, linguistic -- subtly but profoundly influences (or perhaps reflects) the philosophical and interpretive dimensions of our astrology. Our thinking takes on the limitations of the media we employ and the environment we occupy. Thus, interpretation runs the risk of falling into the two-dimensional stasis of the chart and the artificiality and confinement of the office.

Without the night sky, astrology can lose its soul and begin to take on an excessively personalistic quality, talking trivially about "my" Moon, "my" Neptune, as if the planets were our personal psychic playthings. The extreme example of this approach is the "keyword system" of interpretation in which astrological symbols are reduced to a form of linguistic addition, divorced from any connection with image or nature itself.

Astrology As Relationship with Nature

Thomas Moore has written that, "Astrology is in essence not a belief, a method, a science or pseudoscience, or even an art. At base it is a form of relationship between human life and the world, a relationship in which we learn about ourselves by observing the sky."(2)

This shift in emphasis, this move away from the science/art debate toward the notion of relationship with nature, is the essence of my thesis. It helps us escape the impossible dilemmas of justifying astrology to an inherently hostile scientific establishment. Science must resist astrology simply because the inescapable subjective dimension of astrology is in opposition to the fundamental scientific fantasy of absolute objectivity.

Once we regard astrology as a form of imaginative intimacy with nature, we have sidestepped the apologetics into which astrologers tend to be seduced and simultaneously revisioned the role of astrologer outside the polarity of scientist/psychologist on the one hand and occultist/fortuneteller on the other.

Nature is the field to which we must return if we are to revitalize our astrological vision. I believe that a single night spent under the stars contemplating the movements and visual relationships of the planets and constellations, opening to an influx of inspiration, can deepen one's astrological perspective more than weeks of slaving through astrological textbooks. There we will find that the sky is a sphere, not just a wheel. It is full of constellations untouched by astrology -- Centaurus, Puppis, Hydra, and the magical arrow of the Hyades in Taurus. Whoever interpreted Venus sailing by the Hyades -- yet there she is! The night is brimming with unknown symbols.

The natural world is an extraordinarily rich ground in which to cultivate the symbolic imagination, and a deeply enriched imagination is the astrologer's most profound asset. It will provide her/him with an inexhaustible font of insight for which no amount of technique can substitute.

It is important not to misunderstand the notion of imagination in this context. The word "imaginary," in common usage, connotes unreality, something fanciful or even bogus. Authentic imagination is not mere fancy, but is rather the native activity of the soul. Indeed, it is the substance of the soul, its way of knowing itself and its relations with the world.(3)

The Truth of Astrology

The truth of astrology leads us to an awareness that imagination does not belong only within the individual, but is a matrix within which the individual and the physical world exist. Physical and imaginal are interpenetrating realities.

A true imaginative relationship with the world is therefore not a projection of psychological contents onto matter, but a way of knowing the world as imbued with soul. Astrology is an anomaly only when it exists within the context of a worldview which does not recognize the presence of imagination as a vital force within nature itself.

The computer age has given us unprecedented freedom to experiment with new ideas and techniques, yet all this information is useless unless it is supported by an adequately deep and strong imagination. How much do those churned-out lists of midpoints, parans, and pages of harmonic analyses, deepen our understanding of ourselves or our human client? Do they not risk substituting information for wisdom?

I wonder if this new fashion for collection of voluminous amounts of computer-generated information is not underpinned by a fantasy of control. If only we can collect all the relevant bits of data, perhaps we can eliminate the nagging feeling of not understanding, of missing the mark, falling short. Perhaps we can really take control of fate, if only we can know enough. It is the astrological equivalent of the physicist's fantasy of the "theory of everything," which will be able to predict all physical phenomena.

Contemplating the stars brings our sense of "falling short" into a different perspective. The experience of the cosmos's immensity is a salutary antidote to our astrological inflation. Only when the planets are reduced to a glyph on a chart and a collection of pat phrases can we possibly harbor fantasies of omniscience and faultless prediction. Let us be amazed and grateful for what we can know and predict, and cultivate simplicity, depth and rhythm in our readings, making our astrology a reflection of the sky that harbors its gods.

In moving astrology back toward the dark sky, we would accomplish more than an enrichment and a rejuvenation of astrological vision. We would strike a blow against the hegemony of rationalistic science which lays its heavy, monopolizing hand on the heavens which are our birthright. No longer marginalized by the intimidating edifice of esoteric knowledge presented by modern astrophysics, we could dare to reinvent the sky for our age. We could drink again from those starry Aquarian waters.

References & Notes:

1. For a wonderfully lyrical and very thorough examination of the history of mankind's relationship with the stars and planets, I strongly recommend Richard Grossinger's The Night Sky, Los Angeles: St. Martin's Press, 1988.

2. Thomas Moore, The Re-enchantment of Everyday Life, Hodder & Stoughton, 1996, p. 321.

3. These concepts are explored in depth in James Hillman's The Thought of the Heart and the Soul of the World, Dallas, Texas: Spring Publications, 1993. See also Robert Sardello, Love and the Soul, New York: HarperCollins, 1995.

Copyright1996 Pierz Newton-John - all rights reserved.
This article is reprinted with permission of the author
from the Dec./Jan. 1996-97 issue of The Mountain Astrologer.

Book by this Author

Fault Lines
by Pierz Newton-John

book cover of Fault Lines by Pierz Newton-JohnWhat makes a man? In this collection of short stories, Pierz Newton-John moves through the full range of masculine experience, with an openness not afraid to show men at their most lonely, sexual, loving, sometimes vulnerable, sometimes abusive.

In Pierz Newton John’s stories, it always comes back to emotion, tenderness with children, warmth with wives after dreams of alienation, the pain of treacherous girlfriends, the loneliness of men. Plus ça change plus c'est la même chose. . . the reader is lulled by the seamless prose, undercurrents of contemporary music, the urbane writing, the suburban settings, but it is all happening behind closed doors.

Info/Order book. Also available as a Kindle edition. 

About The Author

photo of Pierz Newton-JohnPierz Newton-John is an author, astrologer and psychotherapist practicing in Melbourne, Australia. He is "interested in tying together ideas in archetypal psychology with astrological theory and working on deepening the philosophical underpinnings of astrological practice". He majored in the History and Philosophy of Science at Melbourne University and is also a classical guitarist, poet, and amateur astronomer. He is also a founding faculty member of The School of Life Melbourne. 

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