This chapter is a basic run-through on the astronomy of astrology. If you want to, you can skip if for now (but scan through it to see what it covers) and come back to it when you need to. We're going to look at our solar system and how it looks from Earth.
We live on a smallish but colourful planet we call Earth, third child of the Sun, our local star, which is eight light-minutes away (93m miles, 150m km). The nearest major neighbouring star, Sirius, a sister to our Sun, is eight light-years away (525,600 times the earth-sun distance). The physical distances involved are enormous. It makes our little lives on earth seem puny. Nevertheless, to us, life on Earth is a Big Thing.
Our solar system represents a macrocosmic analogy of an individual human. A human is made up of a collection of different psychological components, which we can call sub-personalities, and the 'orbit' of these sub-personalities around our real self is analogous to the orbit of the planets around the Sun. The planets move visibly over time, and thus are indicators of things which change through time (such as the sub-personalities which variously command our beings at any moment in our lives). The stars, however, have not moved appreciably in relation to each other during the entire course of human history, and thus they cannot be used if we are studying time and change.
Earth is a being, just like humans except much bigger, with its energy-centres, meridians and acupuncture points, a spirit, psyche and physical body, and taking care of her is one of the main issues of our time. She rotates on her own polar axis, like a spinning-top. This gives us the impression that the Sun, planets and stars rotate around us each day, as if they were decorating the inside of a vast heavenly sphere, half of which is sky-blue, and half of which is dark, bejewelled with stars.
Using Earth as our frame of reference, the cosmos rotates around us, but looking at Earth from an outer-space viewpoint, Earth is rotating on her axis. This is another psychological analogy: we tend to believe usually that the world around us rotates around us, when in fact, the world is fine as it is, and we are the ones who are spinning!
Sun and the Solar System
The Sun's position in our galaxy. The constellations on the plane of the galaxy, as seen from Earth, are named around the edge. A side view of the galaxy is on the left.
Sun is a being too, a parent to Earth, far bigger, made up of a hot gaseous, plasmic thermonuclear physical body. It is one of billions of suns in our galaxy, which takes a lenticular, spiral shape, with a vast centre, dense with suns and all sorts of activity.
We live 15,000 light years from the centre of the galaxy (one light year is 60,000,000,000,000 miles). Even though this sounds like a ridiculously long distance, it is significant only within the context of our own galaxy. It is one of a cluster of galaxies, of which there are, in turn, many, and no one really knows whether these clusters of galaxies actually form parts of larger clusters and systems. The distances and time-scales involved are so immense that to us they might as well be infinite: living on a densely-physical planet like ours involves squeezing ourselves into a time-scale and a space-localisation which is seemingly infinitesimally small if we looked at it from a 'God's-eye' view. The history of human life on Earth is like a grain of sand on a beach, and the personal history of each of us in terms of the whole of human history is likewise.
Distances of the planets from the Sun. The two most eccentrically-moving planets, Chiron and Pluto, vary greatly in their orbital distances from the Sun, while to other planets have only small variations – their orbits are near-circular. Distances are expressed in Astronomical Units (AU), where the distance between Sun and Earth is 1AU.
Back to the solar system. The planets are lit up by the Sun, and are a very different thing to the stars or the Sun. They orbit around the Sun at varying distances – Earth is quite close – on a more or less flat plane. This gives the impression from earth that Sun and planets move along a narrow belt of the sky, which we call the ecliptic. Most of the planets are in nearly-circular elliptical orbits, moving along the ecliptic.
Mild exceptions to this are the planets Mercury, Chiron and Pluto, whose orbits are eccentric and elliptical, inclined somewhat to the ecliptic, giving the impression that, in the course of their orbital cycles, they move above and below it.
All the planets orbit in the same direction, seen from Earth as west to east along the ecliptic (while the daily rotation of the Earth makes the whole lot go east to west, as a sphere, at a greatly faster rate).
The ecliptic is divided into twelve equal segments, or zodiac signs, each of which is subdivided, for measurement purposes, into 30 degrees (12x30° = 360°, a full circle). Thus, we can state the position of a planet at any moment by giving the degree and sign – for example, Mars at 12° Taurus or Jupiter at 27° Libra, which in astrologese is written '12', or '27'.
The signs are not constellations of stars, even though a series of constellations along the ecliptic confusingly share the same names. Over history, the signs and the constellations slowly shift in relation to one another (at a rate of 1° every 72 years, or one sign every 2,160 years, or the whole zodiac in 26,000 years), owing to the wobble created on the spinning motion of Earth by the combined effect of Sun and Moon. This cyclic shift is known as the Precession of the Equinoxes, describing a cycle lasting 25,000 years. This is subdivided into the great zodiacal ages, each lasting 2,160 years. When the constellations and zodiac signs picked up the names they possess today, in ancient Greek times, they were one and the same, but this precession has now moved the constellations approximately one sign apart.
The signs are rooted in earthly experience, in earthly time-coordinates – in the solstices and equinoxes, which are the anchor-points of the four seasons – and the seasons matter a lot as far as earthly life is concerned. The seasons are brought into being because Earth, with her poles leaning 23.5° from perpendicular to the ecliptic (or Earth's equator leans at 23.5° from the equator), exposes her north pole to the Sun for half a year, and her south pole for the other half, as she orbits annually around the Sun.
In temperate countries, the Sun moves higher and lower in the sky, seasonally, as a result. The orbit and the polar leaning are slightly out of synchronisation with each other by around one minute of time each year, which is what causes this precession: in other words, as history moves on, spring equinox takes place regularly each year at the same point in the Earth year, while the backdrop of stars slowly changes.
The inclination of the Earth's poles to the ecliptic and to the Sun brings about Earth's seasons, as it orbits around the Sun.
The main point is, though, that the zodiac signs are not the same as the constellations, and that we use the signs in astrology, for they are related to Earth experience, the real stuff of life as it matters to us and affects us. We consult astrologers because we feel affected by things!
[A note for Southern Hemisphere readers. Unfortunately for readers in Chile, Argentina, Southern Africa, Australia, New Zealand and other southern-hemisphere lands, this book is unashamedly northern-hemisphere chauvinistic, written by one who has not sufficiently had the chance to check out how everything feels, astrologically, in the southern hemisphere. Apologies and salutations – use a little deduction and imagination, and this 'northernist' book will still prove useful to you.]
Rising points of the Sun at different times of the year, looking eastwards at the centre of the diagram. The ecliptic itself oscillates daily back and forth as successive signs rise – regardless of where the Sun is located in the zodiac at the time. This variation in rising points increases as one draws closer to the Earth's poles, until it goes bananas at the polar circle at 66.5°N or S.
In the northern hemisphere, the summer-solsticial signs, Gemini and Cancer, ride high in the sky (regardless of whether or not the Sun is there) and the winter-solsticial signs, Sagittarius and Capricorn, ride low – and increasingly so the further north we move on Earth. This means that if the Moon or any planet is in a summer-solsticial sign (Gemini or Cancer) it will ride high in the sky, and if in a winter-solsticial sign (Sagittarius-Capricorn), it will ride low.
Put another way, if Sun, Moon or a planet is in a winter sign it will rise in the SE and set in the SW, and if it is in a summer sign, it will rise in the NE and set in the NW. If it is in one of the equinoctial signs (Pisces-Aries or Virgo-Libra) it will rise eastwards and set westwards. This oscillation of rising and setting points on the horizon increases the further north we go, such that north of 66.5° north latitude on Earth (the Polar Circle), Sun, Moon or planets do not set when they are in summer solsticial signs, and they never rise when they are in winter solsticial signs. This is a very remarkable experience to witness! The ancients made their zodiacal and calendrical measurements through keeping track of the rising and setting points of Sun and Moon on the horizon, as seen from carefully-located and designed places such as stone circles, standing stones or mounds, which were often aligned with sight-lines.
Astrology is all about cycles of time and solar, lunar and planetary motion. These cycles take on different durations and patterns.
* The diurnal cycle
The fastest cycle in use in astrology is the cycle of daily rotation of the Earth on her own axis. In a birth chart, the four angles (the Ascendant-Descendant and the Nadir-Zenith), together with the twelve houses, show the relationship at any given time between Earth and the zodiac. This cycle of relationship lasts 24 hours. Wherever we are on Earth, half of the heavens are above us and visible either as dark night sky or as daylight sky, and half of the heavens are below the Earth we stand on, and obscured by it. This changes rapidly, on average by the width of one zodiac sign every two hours. Hence the importance of the exact time and place of the birth or of an event in question, as basic data for the calculation of an astrological birth chart. The sign on the ascendant (eastwards, where Sun, Moon and planets rise) changes every 1-3 hours, depending on what sign it is, and how far from the equator the birth takes place.
The Earth and Moon co-orbit around a common barycentre which, while it lies inside Earth, is not at the Earth's centre.
* The lunar cycle
The second fastest cycle we use is the cycle of the Moon. Earth and Moon are a twin planet, co-orbiting around each other (although the barycentre, or centre of gravity, is still within the Earth – about 1,060 miles, 1,700 km, below the surface, and 2,940 miles, 4,700 km from Earth's centre). Moon moves around the zodiac in 27 days 7 hours (on average). She is by far the fastest-moving heavenly body in our sky. She moves through a zodiac sign every two to two-and-a-half days, according to her speed. Her speed is itself dependent on her closeness to or distance from Earth – another cyclic motion.
* The lunation cycle
The light of the Moon is reflected sunlight which is continually changing in shape or phase because the Moon, moving round Earth, is continually changing her angular relationship with both the Sun, the source of light, and Earth, the place we are seeing her from. This cycle of lunar phases (a whole cycle being called a lunation) is longer than the cycle of motion of Moon around the zodiac because, in the course of 28 days, the Sun moves through one sign of the zodiac too: this is like the hands of a clock, where the minute hand has to move through about 1hr 5mins worth of movement to catch up with the hour hand and cross or conjunct it. Thus the cycle of phases, the lunation cycle, lasts 29 days 12 hours, over two days longer than the average cycle of lunar motion through the zodiac. The Sun has moved one sign, and the Moon needs two days to move through that extra sign to catch up with the Sun. More about this in the next chapter.
* The annual solar cycle
The next-longest cycle we use in astrology is the cycle of the year: Sun moves through the zodiac in about 365 days, and is directly and causatively related to the Earth seasons. A year is subdivided into twelve astrological months of thirty-odd days (each starting on 20th-23rd of any calendar month – our calendar is not accurately astronomically-based). While the cycle of seasons is obvious to all of us, the underlying energy-currents hidden within it are not so obvious, since we are trained to ignore or overlook such energies and tides. Re-attuning ourselves to them is what we need to do. This book seeks to help.
The orbits of Venus and Mercury. When they move on the same side of the Sun as Earth, they appear to move retrograde (backwards). Seen from the Earth they appear to accompany the Sun around the zodiac, oscillating ahead of or behind it and periodically conjuncting it. Thus, at different times, they appear in the sky as evening or morning 'stars'.
* Planetary cycles
Then we come to the planets, which have various lengths of cycle, ranging from one to 250 years.
Mercury () and Venus (), which both orbit the Sun inside Earth's orbit, appear from Earth's viewpoint always to hover around the Sun like yoyos as it moves through the zodiac. Sometimes they conjunct the Sun, passing in front of or behind it – during this time they are invisible to us. At other times they can move up to 28° and 47° respectively away from the Sun, moving either ahead of or behind it in the zodiac. When Mercury or Venus are ahead of the Sun in the zodiac, they are visible in the evening westwards after the Sun has set – because ahead in the zodiac, in the northern hemisphere, is leftwards in our sky. When they are behind in the zodiac, they are visible in the morning, eastwards before sunrise.
Mercury is rarely seen in the sky, because it moves close to the Sun as seen from us, and its light is usually overpowered by the light of dawn or dusk. But Venus can be very bright, sparkly and prominent at times, as a morning or evening 'star'. Sometimes each of them moves faster than the Sun through the zodiac, sometimes slower, and sometimes they appear to go backwards – although this backwards motion is an illusion created when they pass between us and the Sun, in which they appear to move temporarily in the opposite direction to the Sun. Imagine someone walking around you, swinging a ball on a string around their head – from your perspective the ball would move forwards and backwards.
This is what appears to happen when a planet outside the Earth's orbit goes retrograde. Follow the sequence of numbers. Actually, the planet is moving forward, but the Earth is overtaking on the inside.
The planets outside Earth's orbit move around the zodiac each in their own wise.
Mars (, red and at times quite bright) takes 1 year and 10 months, or 687 days to move round the zodiac. Jupiter (, very bright, blue-white and often sparkly) nearly 12 years, Saturn (, dull, tarnishy yellow, not so bright) takes 29ish years, Chiron (, a newly-discovered planet, invisible to the naked eye, as are all those which follow) takes 51 years, Uranus () takes 84 years, Neptune () takes 165 years, and Pluto () takes 248 years.
Again, each of these planets can appear to move retrograde (backwards) at various times, but for a different reason. This time we are on a moving observation platform which is overtaking them, making them appear to move backwards when Earth is on the same side of the Sun as they are or, seen from on Earth, the Sun and the planet concerned are opposite each other. Mars is retrograde for 60-80 days every two years, and all the other outer planets are retrograde for 4-5 months per year. The naked-eye visible planets amongst these, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, are at their most prominent in our skies each year around the time of their opposition to the Sun in the night sky – they are both closest to us (on the same side of the Sun as we) and highlighted in the dark midnight skies. When they are passing round the other side of the Sun, they move forwards (direct), but they are invisible, distant and outshone by the Sun in the daytime sky.
All this means that astrology is using a kind of clock or orrery (a mechanical model of the solar system) with eleven hands. Telling the time by this clock is not as easy as it is with a normal analog clock, since there are so many more permutations to assess, and thus the language of astrology has developed to help us in this. The basic language involves planets, signs, aspects (angles between planets at any time) and houses (related to earth's orientation to the planets and signs), and there is a family of astrological shorthand symbols to do astrological work with.
The interrelations between the various planetary cycles thus start becoming very interesting. These interrelations are especially noted by examining the zodiacal angles (aspects) between any pair or number of planets, and then the aspects, planets and signs are all taken into account and assessed into a big picture, from which is derived an understanding of the nature of the 'energy-weather' at any moment we care to look at.
[A note: for the sake of simplicity, in astrologese, Sun and Moon are often called 'planets', even though they each are of a completely different order to the planets. What is meant here is 'heavenly bodies' but, for trade-shorthand astrologers lump Sun, Moon and planets together as 'planets'. This is not done because of ignorance!)
An astrological chart is a slice out of time, as if someone said "Cut!", and drew up a map to show how Earth, Sun, Moon and planets stood at the exact moment chosen for that map, as seen from the position on Earth of the observer. The place on Earth is important, in that two people born exactly simultaneously on opposite sides of the globe (for example in Britain and New Zealand or California and Afghanistan) will have exactly the same planetary positions and interrelations in their birth charts, but completely different house-orientations of those positions. One will have the Sun perhaps rising, the other will have it setting – and they were both born at the same moment.
A four-minute difference in time, or a one-degree difference in longitude (east-west measurement of position on Earth) will make for a one degree difference in orientation toward the zodiac, which can be a critical difference if, say, the signs on the ascendant are on the point of changing from one into another. In this book, however, we are not looking at time-slices, or birth charts – we're looking into the overall flow of time. This is the original stuff of astrology, as it was in most ancient times – the birth charts came later, and in our individualistic days, we are obsessed with them almost to the exclusion of understanding ongoing time-flows.
Describing the nature of time
A useful term we shall use here is that of energy-weather. Just as the weather is made up of a combination of factors which interrelate with one another (warmth, wind, rain, whatever), so also in the case of energy-weather, which is a subtler and less visible totality, many interrelating factors meet to make up an 'atmosphere', a nuance of a time, or a 'vibe'. In astrology, we give names to these factors, we give them symbols, and play around with different ways of relating them to each other and deriving meaning therefrom. It's a whole world-view. Any one moment and its energy-weather is characterised by a complete pattern or gestalt involving Earth, Sun, Moon and all the planets – it's an organic, twangy thing. Yet, intellectually, the contributing threads of influence can be disentangled into several main components which serve to describe their inter-relationships:
the positions of sun, moon and planets in the zodiac signs – for example, Sun in Aries or Mars in Leo;
their positions in relation to each other, measured by the aspects (angles) between them – for example, Venus trine Saturn (120º) or Mars sextile Pluto (60º);
the relationship between the zodiac and the particular place on Earth we are looking from (involving the rotation of Earth), mapped out in terms of the four angles and the houses – for example, Sagittarius rising (on the ascendant) and Libra at the zenith (high in the sky);
the relationship between the planets and the angles/houses (this is closely related to the last component) – for example Saturn in the second house and Jupiter at the nadir.
Confused or overloaded? It will come clear, and these things will be explained again.
Throwing together all of these factors, and sorting them into a synthesised whole – partially logically, partially intuitively – a skilled astrologer can 'tell the time' in terms of 'energy weather'. If that time concerns the time of birth of a person, then that astrologer can say things about the energy-potentials inherent in that person's life, and the energy-weather that person chose to be born into and to take on. This is based on the notion (which we shall examine again later) that the beginning of a cycle (in this case, a person's birth into life) has within it the seed-potential of the whole cycle, as with a proverbial acorn.
When you look at a seed, you can visualise the possible end-product, the plant or tree, might look like. The eventual form that tree tree takes depends on both its own inbuilt growth-programs, and on environmental factors which influence its growth. Similarly a person's seed-potential might be understood by considering both his-her uniqueness-factors (soul- and genetic factors), and earlier-life formative experiences, and assessing them together, with intuition and life-understanding thrown in.
In this book, we shall be largely passing over the question of houses in birth charts. The reason? Studying the houses involves giving attention time-periods which are but hours long, and in most cases we're interested in slower energy-matters. I have mentioned houses above in order to familiarise you with their existence – they concern the Earth's 24-hour rotation cycle, which has already moved along since you started reading this chapter! That's a bit quick for our needs.
Now if all this has thoroughly lost you, don't worry, for you can come back to this chapter as the whole astrological picture starts forming more coherently. A vision of the motions of all these rotations and orbits comes of its own accord, and in due course, as your understanding of the parts of the ever-moving astrological jigsaw grows.
It can help to spend some time with a flask of tea and a blanket, lying on the ground at night, observing the planets and stars over the course of a year, to help that vision come. Camping out works wonders. You don't have to do this, but it helps, and it can give quite a lift.
Astrologers nowadays use a book of computer-calculated tables called an ephemeris, which shows the exact positions of the planets for each day, and such a vision can come to the inner eye through working this way too. However, modern use of computers causes us to lose that sense of movement former astrologers had.
The main point to note is that all things move perpetually, and they move in cycles. These cycles never repeat exactly: time is forever unique. This is the basis of astrology.