Astrology 101


I'm indebted to Jai Maharaj for some of the material in the following text.

1) Can you cast my chart and do a chart interpretation for me?

A complete interpretation of a person's chart takes a great deal of time and energy to prepare, and I simply can't do that in addition to all of my other projects. Someone just learning astrology might be willing to do a chart for you as practice, but if you want a high-quality interpretation, you should pay an experienced astrologer.

The astrologer I most highly recommend is RO LOUGHRAN. Here's her website.

RO utilizes a blend of well-trained intuition, emotional warmth, and a high degree of technical proficiency in horoscope interpretation; she is skilled at exploring the mysteries of your life's purpose and nurturing your connection with your own inner wisdom.

Ro is based in California, but can do phone consultations and otherwise work with you regardless of geographic boundaries.

2) What are these "other projects" that you do?

I'm an aspiring master of curiosity, spiritual freedom fighter, and founder of the Beauty and Truth Lab. If you and I were sitting at a small round table in a noisy room right now and you asked me, "What consistently incites your lust for life?", I'd say "making stuff." I'm deliciously addicted to creating writing, music, and shows. I've written three books and recorded five music albums, and have performed in about a thousand shows.

More than that, I like to regard every moment, whether it's conversing with the clerk at the 7-Eleven or riding my mountain bike up a steep dirt path or meditating in my riotous sanctuary, as a new opportunity to add to and refine the work of art that encompasses all the rest: the performance art piece that is my life.

3) How did you get started in writing "Free Will Astrology?"

Read all about it here.

4) I've heard you say that you only believe in astrology about 80 percent. What's up with that?

Read all about it here.

5) Do you really believe in astrology?

In his book Signs of Success, astrologer Steven Weiss says, "The question 'Do you believe in astrology?' is like asking someone if they believe in art."

I agree. Picture a no-nonsense physicist gazing at a Kandinsky painting, with its teeming blobs of mad color and exuberant shapes, and declaring it to be a superstitious eruption of delusion that's not based on a logical understanding of the world.

Like Kandinsky's perspective, astrology at its best roots us in the poetic language of the soul, and isn't blindly submissive to the values of the rational ego. It's here to liberate our imaginations and encourage us to think less literally and to visualize life as a mythic quest.

6) Why are the weekly horoscopes on the Free Will Astrology website updated on Tuesday or Wednesday instead of Monday?

For years I've written my column primarily for alternative newsweeklies, most of which come out on Wednesday or Thursday. Hence, the time each column takes effect is midnight, Wednesday night/Thursday morning.

7) The paper that carries your column doesn't advertise your expanded audio horoscopes each week. How do I access them?

To hear my Expanded Audio horoscopes, which provide a deeper examination of the cosmic omens shaping your life, sign up and/or log in here. The audio horoscopes are available for $6 apiece, or at a discount for multiple purchases.

You can also access them by phone by calling 1-877-873-4888
or 1-900-950-7700. The cost by phone is $1.99 per minute.

The new horoscopes are posted early Tuesday morning.

8) Tell us more about the images that accompany your horoscopes on your website.

Sylvi and Antero Alli created the images that are featured next to my weekly horoscopes. Find out more about the cards here.

9) I was born on a day when the Sun changes sign, i.e., on the cusp. Which sun sign am I?

Which sign your Sun falls in will depend on your exact time of birth. There are two ways you can find out where your Sun is in the zodiac. Since the Sun is only one of ten bodies (at least) to consider, and since the whole chart is needed for an understanding of personality and life, it might be useful to cast a complete chart, which would tell you the exact position of the Sun as well as the exact positions of all the planets and houses.

The website offers a free copy of your chart. When you go there, click on "Free Charts" in the upper left-hand corner of the page.

10) Which Sun signs are compatible with mine?

Some people feel that, in a very rough way, people with Suns in the same element (fire, earth, air, water) or, to a lesser extent, in the same polarity (positive -- fire and air; negative -- earth and water) tend to get along more easily. The fire signs are Aries, Leo, and Sagittarius; Earth are: Taurus, Virgo, Capricorn; Air: Gemini, Libra, Aquarius; and Water: Cancer, Scorpio, Pisces.

But interactions among specific planets and houses in two charts are far more important in determining how well people will get along. Your best match may well be someone whose Sun is in a sign of a different polarity, and your worst enemy may well have his/her Sun in a sign of the same element!

Real compatibility can only be determined when the complete charts of two people are compared, or a special chart is constructed based on the two people's birth data. And don't forget, the charts can predict dire unhappiness, and yet you and your partner may be the happiest of couples. It's all what you make of what you've got.

11) Is the Sun sign the most important assessment of personality and astrological prediction?

While Sun sign designations are the most convenient to use for writing horoscope columns, the art of astrology is much more complicated. Astrology involves determining the exact position in the zodiac (not just by sign, but by degree and minute, that is, the specific part of the sky) of the Sun, the Moon, and eight planets (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto).

The zodiacal degree of other points and bodies, such as the Moon's North and South Nodes, asteroids, Uranian points, and Arabic parts, are included by some astrologers.

Astrologers also calculate the positions of 12 "houses" which are specific to the exact place and time of birth. The location of planets in these houses and the sign on the cusp of each house are important sources of information in chart interpretation.

Looking at the angular distances in the zodiac between each pair of planets -- certain specific angular distances, called "aspects" -- is also meaningful. All of this information is necessary to determine the astrological influences present at a person's birth and to formulate predictions for the future. The signs in which the Sun and Moon fall are only one small part of the picture.

12) Can you recommend some good books on astrology for beginners?

Astrologik by Antero Alli

Astrology of Personality: A Reformulation of Astrological Concepts and Ideals in Terms of Contemporary Psychology and Philosophy by Dane Rudhyar (This was my first astrology text, and still one of my favorites)

Astrology, Karma & Transformation: The Inner Dimensions of the Birth Chart by Stephen Arroyo

The Inner Sky by Steven Forrest

Skymates: Love, Sex and Evolutionary Astrology by Jodie and Steven Forrest

Planets in Transit by Robert Hand

Horoscope Symbols by Robert Hand

13) What approach do you recommend for learning about astrology?

Finding a class offered in your area might be the best approach to learning to assess what is important in chart interpretation.

The most difficult area of astrology is natal (i.e., birth) chart interpretation. It takes years to learn the art of synthesis that allows for accurate readings of a natal chart.

Beginners might benefit from concentrating on first learning about transits, which are the movements of the planets in the sky across time in relation to a natal chart. Astrocartography, concerned with the changes in the zodiacal positions of the 12 houses as one moves from city to city, is also fun and useful. And synastry, the evaluation of contacts between two charts to determine the nature of a relationship, is an enjoyable course.

When the basic natures of the planets, signs, houses, and aspects become familiar, then one can begin to study natal charts in earnest, combining the various factors holistically to achieve a meaningful reading.

14) I have seen people born within days/hours of one another whose lives are really different. How come?

Even a few minutes difference in the time of birth or having a different birthplace can change the chart substantially. Obviously, people who only have the same birthday will have different charts. Since Earth is the only planet that makes a trip around the Sun exactly once a year, all the other planets will be at completely different positions in a different year. But even if people are born on the very same day, their charts can differ quite radically. The Moon moves about 13 degrees in a day, and the astrological houses, which are an extremely important element of the chart, move through the entire zodiac in a 24-hour period. And their positions are affected by latitude as well.

In addition, even if two people's charts are identical (which is rare), other factors may influence the way the chart is expressed. Some people operate on a material level, some on a mental level, and a few operate on a spiritual level. The same chart can be expressed on any of these levels. An astrological chart does not show the "fate" or "destiny" as such. An individual always has a choice, and the exercise of free will determines how the influences indicated in a chart manifest themselves.

15) Do the planets control our fates? Are we merely puppets of cosmic forces?

Not in my view. I believe the study of astrology can be a liberating force, alerting us to our own unconscious motivations and revealing the long-term cycles in our lives. In offering you my weekly horoscopes, I aspire to unleash the power of your imagination to create the destiny you want. It is in that spirit that I named my column "Free Will Astrology." I hope it serves as a continual reminder that you are always the boss of you.

The planets can indicate the various tendencies inherent in your personality and the possible conditions surrounding various areas of your life. There is a famous saying: "The stars incline, but they do not compel." Within the situational and psychological context described in a chart, you are free to act and react according to your will, which is in turn guided by the wisdom you possess and your stage in your spiritual evolution.

16) How is it possible for astrology to work?

There are at least two schools of thought on this. One common explanation is a principle similar, in some ways, to synchronicity, an acausal connecting principle proposed by Carl Jung.

The general idea is that events on earth of a certain nature coincide in time with astronomical events of a similar nature according to the symbolic significance of the planets and their relations in the heavens. Although synchronicity operates throughout the universe, the planets might have special significance because they are part of collective experience (that is, we can all see them or know about them) and so they can take on a collective meaning -- they can speak to the "collective unconscious." But Jung's synchronicity principle and the related one that is applied to the astrological question are still hypothetical and not well understood. (Another related idea is Kammerer's seriality.)

A less popular explanation is that there are unknown and currently undetected forces or energies emanating from the planets that affect life on earth, perhaps something akin to Rupert Sheldrake's morphic fields. This explanation is unpopular among those physicists who believe that all the forces in the universe are already known. Biological evidence showing a harmony between celestial rhythms and biological rhythms suggests that known or unknown planetary forces operate on organisms at a material level, sometimes through changes in the pattern of solar radiation. Such biological effects might alter psychological processing and thus human action and the events that arise from it.

Whatever explanation is offered, evidence both from experience and research convinces us that astrology does indeed work. The rich descriptive theory that has evolved over thousands of years provides for a deep understanding of human nature and the capacity for prediction of the type of circumstances that will prevail during specific time periods. As with most areas of inquiry, the correct explanatory theory to account for the structure of the descriptive theory awaits its discoverer.

17) Every sensible person knows that astrology couldn't possibly work, so why are you wasting your time?

It is impossible to rule out astrological phenomena on a priori grounds. Current understanding in scientific circles does not shape the actual structure of the universe. Science involves research. No mere mortal is omniscient, and so none can predict infallibly which effects would show up in research and which would not. What is currently known is not all that will ever be known. It is a mistake to buy into the current way of thinking as if it was an accurate and complete picture of the universe. Dogma is antithetical to true science.

18) Don't you know that no cause for astrological effects is known? Therefore such effects cannot exist.

There are quite a few variations of this very popular fallacy. A common variation is to point out that the hands of the doctor delivering a baby exert a far stronger gravitational pull than any planet could. Again, the reasoning here goes, "no cause, therefore no effect." If there ever is a cause advanced for astrological effects, it may well not involve gravity.

All sorts of sciences are based on empirical evidence alone, with no explanatory theories available. Genetics was accepted as part of science before the discovery of DNA, and, even now, the complete mapping from genetic factors to amino acids is far from complete. In psychology, the principles that govern the organization of vision and audition (i.e., that determine the boundaries and content of separate "figures," "objects," or "streams" of sound) are well established, but researchers have no idea why perceptual processes follow these particular principles.

Vast areas of sciences that do provide causal explanations make specific predictions that cannot be derived directly from the believed cause but are based on empirical evidence and descriptive theories that capture the structures inherent in the data.

So the descriptive theories of astrology, the relations that have been discovered and exploited over a period of thousands of years, may not lend themselves to an explanation in terms of causes any more than Newton's laws of motion do. The human mind seeks "causes" (at least in the West), but Nature herself may be indifferent to them. The Eastern vision of a harmonious universe with all its interconnected parts dancing in unison may be more in line with reality.

19) Don't you know that tests of groups of astrologers show they do no better than chance? Therefore astrology does not work.

The same is said of investment managers. From The Economist for March 7, 1992, p. 81: "Numerous studies suggest that 'exceptional' investment managers do not exist. In any given period, each has no more than an even chance of doing better than the market index; moreover, a manager who does well one year is no likelier than others to do well in the next. A few funds may beat the index for, say, three years running, but these are no more common than chance would predict. Give a sample of coin-tossers three coins each. If they obey the laws of probability, one in either will toss three heads."

Does this mean there is no such thing as good investment advice?

The question of the standard of practice in the profession and of the validity of the discipline are not the same, and should not be confused. Do the best astrologers participate in such tests? Given that astrology is not a closed profession, can testing groups of people where the only criterion for selection is that they say they are astrologers really say anything about astrology? Given these sort of ground rules for the test, would a good astrologer decide to participate?

Even if highly qualified astrologers agreed to participate in a study, did the specific test administered give the astrologers a fair shot at accuracy (e.g., if they are asked to match charts with people, are they allowed to get to know the people well and learn about their lives and personal history in detail, or are they allowed just a brief chat with the people)?

It would be very hard to answer any of these questions with an unqualified "Yes." The talent of practitioners and the validity of the discipline they practice must not be confused. And scientific tests conducted by those attempting to "debunk" astrology must be evaluated with as much critical attention as any other scientific study. The tests must be fair. The conditions of the tests must be conducive to finding an effect if any is possible. They must not be arranged so that finding an effect is impossible simply by virtue of the experimental design.

One must be very careful in drawing conclusions from a lack of evidence (either because of negative findings or because no studies have been conducted). The failure to find an effect does not mean that the hypothesis is false. It just means that one hasn't found evidence in favor of it. Nothing more, nothing less.

But if one does find an effect, then one has evidence in support of the hypothesis (and any other hypothesis that would make the same prediction, whether or not that hypothesis is currently available).

So there is an asymmetry that is rarely recognized: evidence (data) can support an experimental hypothesis, but a lack of evidence cannot refute it (even if the lack of evidence is in the form of failure to find a predicted effect, e.g., a difference between samples). The possibility always remains that our experimental design is flawed and/or our measurement techniques are inappropriate and so they fail to capture the effect.

In psychology, where measurement is often very difficult and indirect (as it is in much astrological research), one can fail to find evidence to support a particular hypothesis even after years of experimentation. Then some clever researcher invents a new measurement technique, or creates a new experimental design more favorable for the emergence of the phenomenon of interest, and the predicted effect emerges!

Note that many scientific astrological studies that do not focus on the ability of individual astrologers (e.g., to match charts to people) have found positive results that are replicable. The elements of subjectivity and interpretive ability are missing from these studies because they concentrate on objective measures (e.g., the presence/absence of a planet in a certain area of the chart for a certain group of people) and so effects are easier to observe. As any experimental psychologist will confirm, subjective judgments are fraught with error, and the unreliability in such measures vastly reduces the success rate of experimental studies.

20) Legitimate scientists universally despise astrology. Can such a weight of opinion be wrong?

Yes. Easily. Examples in the social sciences of educated opinion doing a total about-face are common. Racialist theories, now despised by almost all those in academe, were orthodox before World War II, as just one example.

In the health sciences as well, practices such as phrenology, acupuncture, hypnotism and chiropractic have all crossed in one direction or another the line that separates respected science from despised pseudo-science. If astrology does so too, it will definitely not be the first time, nor the last.

This question is based on an appeal to authority and, as such, is an example of a common fallacy in reasoning. Plausibility based on current worldviews is a poor guide to the nature of reality, but scientists, being human, are as fallible as the rest of us in embracing modern views with undue passion.

Humans have a deep need to feel they understand things. The unknown is a source of fear, so many choose to deny it. But the unknown is only unreal for those who are omniscient. For those of us who are less than omniscient, humility is in order in any discussion of the nature of reality.

21) Why don't astrologers consider the fact that when the Sun is in the sign of Aries, it is not really in the constellation Aries?

The astrological signs are not defined by, nor do they have anything to do with, the constellations you see in the sky. Approximately 2,000 years ago, when the foundations of astrological thinking were formulated, the names of the constellations happened to be paired with the astrological signs. Today, those pairings are no longer in sync: Astrological signs do not line up with the constellations in the same way they did way back then, due to the phenomena known as the precession of the equinoxes. The equinoxes move backwards, or precess, with respect to the constellations by about one degree every 72 years.

However, modern Western astrologers understand that the raw material of their work does not involve a study of distant stars. Rather, their relevant data have to do with the interweavings of the planets in our own solar system within a zone of influence defined by the relationship between the Earth and Sun. The key demarcation points in that relationship are the equinoxes, the points in time and space at which the Earth, with its tilted axis, is positioned with respect to the Sun in such a way that the length of day and night are equal. At the vernal equinox, which occurs on about March 20th of each year, the Sun enters into the sign of Aries.

This zodiac, positioned with respect to the equinoxes, is called the "tropical zodiac." Most Western astrologers, who use this system, are called tropical astrologers. There is also a zodiac based loosely on the constellations. It's called the "sidereal zodiac," and is used primarily by Vedic (or Hindu) astrologers. For an excellent discussion of the differences between sidereal and tropical astrology, and the merits of each, pick up the April/May 2002 issue of The Mountain Astrologer.

Astrologers using the tropical zodiac do not do so out of ignorance of the precession of the equinoxes. Knowledge of the precession is very ancient, and possibly predates the creation of the tropical zodiac. Precession was discovered thousands of years ago in Bharat (also known as India). Sir Norman Lockyer found that many very early temples in Egypt had been moved at different periods in history so that they lined up with a particular star as it precessed across the sky.

The ancient Egyptians also had a succession of cults that adopted symbols (e.g., the bull, the ram) associated with the concurrent precessional age. (See, for e.g., E. C. Krupp, In Search of Ancient
Astronomies, Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1977.)

Early Christian symbolism was dominated by fishes, the symbol associated with Pisces, which is the constellation that defines the precessional age that began around the birth of Christ. (See C. G. Jung, Aion, translated by R. F. C. Hull, 2nd edition, Princeton: University Press, 1959.) Modern-day Christians in America sometimes use a fish symbol to signal their Christianity. So perhaps an attraction to a symbol associated with the astrological age in which one lives need not be accompanied by conscious knowledge about the age and the precession that defines it.

The ancient Greek astrological writers (e.g., Ptolemy) were very explicit in distinguishing the tropical zodiac they used from the fixed stars and constellations. This distinction is still made among modern Western astrologers who use the tropical zodiac.

Some people who are not knowledgeable about the history or practice of astrology may ask, "Why then do the tropical signs have the same names and symbols as the constellations with which they were aligned 2000 years ago? Aren't the zodiacal constellations the source of the meanings of the tropical signs? And so shouldn't astrologers take the meaning of a tropical sign from the constellation most closely aligned with it now?"

This specious argument is based on the presupposition that the meanings of the signs come from the natures of the symbols in the heavens that we call constellations. But clearly this is not the case. Some of the traditionally dominant traits of Virgo are obsession with detail and an analytical and critical nature. How could these traits be derived from a picture of a virgin? How could the Piscean qualities of spirituality, selflessness, imaginativeness, capacity for inspiration, femininity, and idealism be derive from a picture of two fish? Few traits of each sign can easily be related to the symbol assigned to the constellation of the same name.

There is no necessity, given current knowledge, for the tropical signs to have received their meanings from the zodiacal constellations; it is possible that the nature of the tropical signs suggested a symbol to associate with a constellation (since most of the symbols look very little like the pattern of stars we associate with them).

Much depends on which was established first, the tropical signs or the zodiacal constellations. When did the tropical zodiac and constellations appear? The tropical zodiac may have been around a long time. The Sumerians and the Egyptians had a tropical (lunar-solar) calendar by the early part of the third millennium B.C.E.; given the direct and transparent relationship between the signs of the tropical zodiac and the months of the solar year, they may have had a tropical zodiac as well, although we have no direct evidence of this.

Tropical calendars in the form of standing stones (e.g., Stonehenge) date from 1000-5000 B.C.E. in Northwest Europe, so a tropical zodiac might have existed there. Unfortunately, the preliterate people of these cultures left no records behind. Martin Seymour-Smith (The New Astrologer, New York: Collier, 1981) claims that some sort of zodiac, possibly sidereal, with 12 equal signs of 30 degrees, existed in India in 3000 B.C.E. He claims that a manuscript in Sanskrit from that period shows that astrologers then used a zodiac, an equal house system, and aspects counted sign to sign (as in much modern-day Hindu astrology, and as in classical Greek astrology). Unfortunately, Seymour-Smith does not cite any references or explain how the dating of the manuscript was arrived at.

The origin of the modern constellations is somewhat obscure, so it is very difficult to decide whether all of the zodiacal constellations were around to lend meaning to the tropical signs at the time when the tropical zodiac was created (especially because we cannot be certain when the tropical zodiac appeared). Noonan (1976; Journal of Geocosmic Research, Vol. 2, No. 1, pp. 6-7) claims that the first zodiac of the constellations appeared around 500 B.C.E.

The constellations are believed to have been assigned symbols by the Babylonians, but there were originally 36 constellations, and only some of them coincide with the modern sidereal signs. We know that some of the symbols used for the modern signs are recent, because the original symbols were all animals (the word "zodiac," derived from the Greek zoidiako's, means "circle of animals"). We can be certain that the modern constellations of the zodiac existed by about 30 B.C. because they appear very clearly on the ceiling of the Temple of Hathor at Dendera in Upper Egypt. So was the tropical zodiac in use by then?

It might have been. The precession of the equinoxes was certainly common knowledge at that time. Precession was discovered at the very latest in 200 B.C., when Hipparchus wrote about it. But Sir Norman Lockyer found that many very early temples in Egypt had been moved at different periods in history so that they lined up with a particular star as it precessed across the sky. (See, for example, E.C. Krupp, In Search of Ancient Astronomies, New York: Doubleday, 1977.)

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