Astronomy vs. Astrology
by Renee Sills (©Renee Sills, Embodied Astrology 2017)
Astrology and astronomy share the same roots and were practiced together until the late 17th century. You might think of astrology as the spiritual side of astronomy, though it has many uses beyond the spiritual, including timing of events (electional astrology), self-understanding (psychological astrology), and even physical health (medical astrology). Today, astrology and astronomy are vastly different disciplines—though astrologers are some of the biggest fans of astronomy, relying upon it as the framework for their craft!
Astronomy can be understood as the study of the universe and its contents outside of Earth’s atmosphere. Astronomers examine the positions, motions, and properties of celestial objects, and they apply mathematics, physics, and chemistry in order to explain the origin of those objects, their phenomena, and evolution. Modern astronomers study planets, moons, stars, galaxies, comets, and phenomena such as supernova explosions, gamma ray bursts, and cosmic background radiation. Though astronomers might search for the origins of our universe (physical cosmology), these origins are typically considered separately from other origin theories that might be found in religious or mythological cosmologies.
Astrology on the other hand, is a creative, symbolic, and oftentimes spiritual interpretation of astrological data. Variants of astrological systems can be found worldwide and traced back to the earliest civilizations in recorded history, such as the Babylonians, Greeks, Indians, Egyptians, Nubians, Iranians, Chinese, and Maya. Our ancestors all performed methodical observations of the night sky (early astronomy) and then used those observations to devise sophisticated and nuanced application for human benefit (astrology). Ancient astrologers were highly valued as advisors to royalty, military, and priests for their ability to predict events, assess character, and make accurate medical diagnoses.
Today, there is significant misunderstanding, if not outright contempt, between astronomers and astrologers. Astronomers often believe that astrologers are trying to make a claim of scientific fact. Common arguments from astronomers and science-enthusiasts claim that astrologers use outdated astronomical data, failing to work with the actual constellations.
This is a basic misunderstanding of astrological systems, which stems from the astronomical concept of axial precession: a slow, gravity-induced, continuous change in the orientation of Earth’s axis of rotation (similar to how you might imagine the axis shifting in a top that’s spinning). Earth is not a perfect sphere and thus rotates, or wobbles, slightly off its axis. Each of these “wobbles,” or cycles of changing rotation, lasts approximately 26,000 years. This cycle was historically called the precession of the equinoxes; the equinoxes moved westward, relative to the fixed stars, along the ecliptic (the circular path on the celestial sphere that the Sun appears to follow over the course of a year). This movement is opposite to the yearly motion of the Sun along the ecliptic.
Due to axial precession, over time, the apparent, seasonal placement of the constellations has shifted “backwards” by about 13º, resulting in a discrepancy between the zodiacal constellation visible in the night sky and what might be called the “zodiacal season.” It’s important to remember, however, that the zodiacal season and constellations were aligned at the point when calculations and observations of the heavens began to be recorded in writing. The mythic figures, who are the constellations' namesakes, also referenced the environmental qualities and human behaviors associated with those seasons. Though axial precession changes the time of year we view the constellations in the night sky, the seasons themselves, and the astrological and seasonal narratives still remain basically the same.
Western astrology, also called Tropical Astrology, is the style of astrology most popular in the Western world. Tropical Astrology bases itself on cycles of seasonal light. The Tropical Zodiac begins on the Vernal Equinox, sometimes called The Aries Point, which marks the first day of Spring and the beginning of the sign Aries in the Northern Hemisphere. This is the day when the rotation of Earth in relation to the sun aligns so that we experience equal length of day and night in locations to the north and south of the equator. Beginning from The Aries Point, the Tropical Zodiac then gives 30 degrees to every sign. The Sun takes one day to travel one degree. In this way the Tropical Zodiac is formed with 12 signs, each containing 30 degrees.
Sidereal astrology, also called Vedic or Jyotish astrology, has continued to adapt its system in relation to the movement of the constellations. Sidereal astrology is not based on seasonal light, rather, it references the light of the stars and position of the constellations. Therefore, some people will have different “signs” in Sidereal astrology than they do in Tropical astrology. If a person was born in the first 13 days of a sign (or the first 13º of the 30º span), their birthday will correspond with the constellation which precedes their (Tropical Zodiac) sign visible at the highest point in the heavens. For example, March 20th, 2018 will mark the beginning of Aries’ season in Tropical Astrology, but the constellation Pisces will still be overhead. Thus, the person with a March 20th birthday (Tropical Zodiac Aries) will qualify as a Pisces according to the Sidereal system.
Along with this most basic distinction, there are a number of other differences between the two systems in regards to chart preparation and interpretation. Suffice to say that both systems can provide accurate and meaningful information and interpretation through different means. Regardless of their differences, the two systems share many agreements about the qualities and personality attributes of each sign, the meaning of aspects (relationships between two or more planets), and basic construction of natal charts into “houses” (defined arenas in which planets and signs manifest their influence, i.e. your finances as opposed to your love life.
How does astrology work?
Astrology works in a number of different ways. Three of the primary ways it works are: applied observational analysis, mythic interpretation, and as a conduit for intuitive divination or psychic capacity. Most astrologers use some combination of these three.
Applied observational analysis works like this: imagine how you feel on a hot summer’s day… What is going on around you? What colors do you see? How does your environment affect your mood and priorities? Now contrast this by imagining how you feel, what you see, and what you might do in the middle of winter. Pretty different, right? Now imagine that electric light wasn’t around you all the time and you were dependent upon the sun to provide the majority of light you needed for your regular activities. How would you feel in the morning as opposed to the evening?
If electric lights and illuminated screens weren’t streaming into your eyes at night, there’s a good chance you’d be much more attentive to the light of the stars. If you were, you’d probably notice that at different times of year you would see different constellations overhead. You’d also notice that over the course of the year, or sometimes over the course of many years, the wandering light of the planets would make their way through the night sky. In turn, these lights might affect you deeply on emotional and mental levels. You might come to associate the visibility of certain stars or planets with human behavior and activities. You might view the celestial bodies as premonitions for events to come based on historical observations of common occurrences during their last cycles of visibility.
Astrology, as an observational practice, is the closest to what we think of as science. It records human behavior and qualitative personal attributes such as temperament, talent, and even physical appearance, and measures those attributes against seasonal or zodiacal conditions. In this way, over many thousands of years, astrologers have found that there are remarkable similarities between people born at certain times of year or when specific constellations are visible.
An individual’s astrological makeup is much more complex than what time of year they were born. To prepare a natal chart, astrologers also take into account the location and time of day to determine what’s known as the rising sign (the portion of the sky which was visible on the easternmost horizon at the time and place of birth). Additionally, they consider the influence (sign, degree, and aspects) of the six other classical planets or luminaries (Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn), the three “modern planets” (Uranus, Pluto, Neptune), and perhaps many other minor or dwarf planets, asteroids, and fixed stars. In this way, observational astrology can paint an incredibly nuanced picture of someone’s basic personality, motivations, fears and phobias, talents, and sensitivities. A good astrologer will therefore be able to foretell how an individual will most likely respond to upcoming cyclical and seasonal changes, much as a scientist will be able to hypothesize the behavior of certain elements in specific conditions by deducing information from past observational analyses.
Mythological association or interpretation uses applied observation as described above, and it includes mythology associated with planets, stars, and constellations in order to understand unconscious, archetypal influences. Here, it’s important to remember that familiar figures and planetary namesakes from the Greek and Roman pantheons descended from Babylonian, Mesopotamian, and Sumerian deities. For example, we might recognize Mercury as the planetary influence of exchange (which is why important exchanges such as contracts and large financial expenditures are contraindicated when Mercury is in its retrograde cycle). In earlier forms, however, Mercury is associated with the Greek god Hermes who was able to traverse between the upper and lower worlds, thereby facilitating exchange between the two realms and serving as a guide into the lower realms for the recently deceased. Hermes, in turn, descends from the Etruscan god Turms who was also associated with trade and served as a messenger between the realms.
A mythic interpretation in an astrology reading might consider Mercury in any of the following ways: as an indicator of communicative and cognitive ability (i.e. how well an individual distinguishes between their internal experiences and external realities and relationships, and then how well they articulate their internal experiences to an external factor); as a signature of currency exchange and/or adeptness with currency; or as a factor in curiosity, attentiveness, and ability for abstract thinking.
An astrologer who’s skilled in mythic interpretation will not only be familiar with the myths and legends she refers to, but she will also be able to form correlations between the mythic archetypes and her client’s behavior and disposition. For this reason, mythic association is an especially useful tool for psychological astrology. While the myths may not always be able to foretell outcome or timing, they can provide exceptional perspective into the circumstances and conditions which form an individual’s biases and unconscious behavioral motivations. Understanding these elements can therefore assist a client in making important decisions in regard to their present conditions and future plans.
Finally, astrology is a useful language and medium for people with intuitive or psychic capacities to work through. Many intuitives use a formalized language such as astrology to describe the information to which they are sensitive. Used in this way, astrology becomes a conduit for information. Here, astrology is a form of divination much like tarot, tea leaves, or other occult practices that act as a medium between material and immaterial planes of existence.
An astrologer with intuitive or psychic capacities may also use observational analysis and mythic association, but these perspectives will often simply verify information that she receives through other means such as emotional-mental intuition or psychic communication. Emotional and mental intuition could be described as high levels of empathic relatedness, which allow an astrologer to perceive beyond the immediate verbal or visual cues a client gives. Intuitives of this kind are sometimes referred to as clairvoyants, or “clear seers.” Psychics may be able to project their awareness into other dimensions of time and space. Psychic capacity describes the ability to communicate with, or perceive, people and animals who may be deceased, estranged or far away, as well as the ability to “see” into the future or the past.
Though science has some explanations for psychic ability, there have not been many well-founded studies, or at least not many that have been made publicly available. Many psychics and clairvoyants fail at scientifically administered guessing games yet still are able to accurately predict events and “know” information pertaining to their clients even when they may have never met the client in question.
Science does tell us that the phenomenal world is an intricately connected web of matter and energy. Since events, emotions, and personal actions obviously influence this web, it makes sense to me that some people will have levels of sensitivity attuned enough to perceive these influences, even across time and space. In fact, most of us have had at least a few intuitive or clairvoyant experiences in our lives that we probably can’t explain through logic. Children often exhibit psychic capacity and high levels of attunement that allow them to know seemingly random information without any plausible reason for them to know it. Animals often seem to know when their owners are coming home or in distress. Yet the intuition of children and animals is often chalked up to coincidence. In my opinion, children, animals, and psychics are simply more attuned to subtle energetic states than most adults – perhaps because most adults have been educated to forget and ignore their sensitivities.
We should remember that science is also in a constant state of evolution. Fully believing in science carries as much opportunity for narrow-mindedness and fundamentalism as fully believing in any other incomplete system of thought such as religion or astrology. Any scientist (or astrologer) worth their salt will tell you that there are a lot of unanswered mysteries out there. To me, science and astrology provide different avenues toward pursuing answers and generating questions. Both should promote and provoke critical thinking to investigate their strengths and weaknesses. Such rigorous, interdisciplinary engagement will offer more holistic perspectives.