Thursday, March 26, 2015

In Defence of the 13th Sign

In the late 70s, someone mentioned to me that there used to be a 13th sign of the zodiac and that it had something to do with a spider. I was intrigued. I had a strong feeling for astrology, but I knew nothing about it (which is probably why I was better then at guessing people’s star signs than I am now.)

I never followed up on the 13th sign, but I did hear it mentioned from time to time. It was only a couple of days ago, when I saw a piece on Facebook protesting (quite rightly) at the BBC’s inaccurate presentation of astrology that I found about properly about this mysterious sign, Ophiuchus.

From the point of view of traditional astrology, the 13th sign is a piece of nonsense, invented in about 1970. What happened was that in 1930 the astronomers redefined the boundaries of the constellations so that Ophiuchus was now behind the Sun from Dec 1 to Dec 18 each year.

From there it was a short step to someone saying, well in that case it is a zodiac sign, because that is how zodiac signs are defined: they are the constellations on the Sun’s path through the sky (the ecliptic).

Except that the signs aren’t defined that way, not any more. Originally, the signs would have been based around the constellations on the ecliptic. But then they got tidied up into 30 degrees each (which of course they aren’t) and since that time, due to precession, they have drifted 23 degrees off that original alignment.

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So the signs are a fiction, as they have nothing to do with the stars anymore (though I don't think the public is usually aware of that!) They are simply a way we have of dividing space into 12 segments, based around the seasons instead of the stars. So that Aries always begins at the spring equinox. Whereas in India, where they take precession into account, Aries now begins in mid April.

The 12 signs and the corresponding constellations: note the constellations are of unequal size and do not line up exactly with the signs
So from this point of view, claiming the constellation Ophiuchus as a sign makes no sense, because the constellations are not the signs.

This is incorrectly called The Zodiac. It is in fact the 13 constellations on the ecliptic.
And if we were to incorporate it, it would make a mess of all the symmetry and symbolism that comes with having 12 signs.

And yet…. The 13th sign clearly has popular appeal, and it doesn’t look like it’s about to go away, especially with the BBC promoting it! One of the myths surrounding it is that 2000 years ago it was a sign, and the astrologers of the time excluded it (another piece of nonsense). That adds to its mystery, so when modern astrologers also shut it out, that almost adds to the mystique. An excluded, hidden part of the psyche.

I would argue that a tradition needs to respond to popular appeal if it wants to stay alive. Much as the Church did in the 10th century, when the Pope began canonising saints, which up till then had just been a local, popular practice.
There’s nothing about canonising saints in the Bible, and no doubt some theologians dismissed it as doctrinal nonsense, and they would have been right. But if something has popular appeal, you can always adjust the doctrine.

And maybe astrologers also need to look at their criteria for incorporating change. When a new planet is discovered by astronomers, we accept it, and we accept the mythology around the name of the planet, even though the name is decided upon by astronomers. And astronomers are not people we generally think of as sympathetic to astrology. Yet when people who ARE sympathetic to astrology – a large section of the public – run with a new piece of mythology that has no basis in doctrine, we are quick to dismiss it. Our instinct seems to be not to adapt. Maybe we are too intellectual, so that astronomers get taken seriously where popular feeling does not?

But does the 13th sign really have no basis in astrological theory? Do we, in other words, over-egg the difference between signs and constellations? Because the origin of the signs was indeed the constellations, before the systematisers came along and tidied it all up. 

Geometrically/astronomically, the signs and constellations are not the same. But mythologically, they are closely related. Of course they are. The signs are fundamentally mythological, they tell us ancient stories about ourselves, that is part of their deep appeal, and they are the same myths as the constellations associated with them.

So if a constellation is reconfigured so that it is, to some extent, on the ecliptic - as in the case of Ophiuchus -  then I think it is mythologically true to say that it becomes part of the zodiac, because the zodiac’s mythological foundations are those constellations on the ecliptic.

And when you are thinking mythologically, you’re not thinking about systems. You are feeling and imagining and divining, and this was the original basis of astrology: that raw relationship with the sky that Bernadette Brady has done so much to unearth and invoke through her visual astrology.

That, if you like, is my theoretical case for the 13th sign. And my practical case is that it has popular appeal – in other words, it has found its way in, at least to some extent, whether we like it or not, and however much we may huff and puff about doctrinal incorrectness. Much as the outer planets and their  mythologies have found their way in through astronomy, so has the 13th sign found its way in through its popular appeal. Not only do we need our public, but there can be a wisdom in that popular feeling, even if it's based on what we see as muddled thinking, that I think needs paying attention to.

So what are we going to do with it? Astrology is a flexible tradition, and in its modern form we find room for extra planets, asteroids and the Galactic Centre along with imaginary bodies such as Vulcan and the Dark Moon.

Black Moon
But I don’t think we can just pat Ophiuchus on the head and give him a new category and then quietly ignore him, while congratulating ourselves on being broad-minded. He has come in as a sign of the zodiac, and therefore needs to be treated as such. The way he has come in is part of the sign’s divinatory qualities, along with the mythology behind Ophiuchus.

I don’t say we have to change the zodiac to incorporate him (though maybe we could?). No, we can keep the same zodiac, but then – if we want - add in to our reading any planets in that sign, which extends from about 8 to 26 Sagittarius (yes, the Galactic Centre at 26 Sag harbours the dark secret of Ophiuchus!) and which is now also 0 to 18 Ophiuchus.

18th century star map illustrating how the feet of Ophiuchus cross the ecliptic
Ophiuchus is a man grappling with a serpent, the only sign to contain both man and beast. The mid-point of early Aquarius and early Scorpio is in Ophiuchus – the man and the serpent, he resolves these 2 signs.

The 1st century Roman poet Manilius describes the constellation thus:

“Ophiuchus holds apart the serpent which with its mighty spirals and twisted body encircles his own, so that he may untie its knots and back that winds in loops. But, bending its supple neck, the serpent looks back and returns: and the other's hands slide over the loosened coils. The struggle will last forever, since they wage it on level terms with equal powers.”

It is powerful imagery. Man grappling with his demons, but they are equals, he does not slay them like St George, but meets them with a respect which is mutual. Aquarius meets Scorpio.

And it seems that in modern times, this principle is having to force its way in, if the response of the astrological world to Ophiuchus is anything to go by. We live in an age of ideas, of scientific and technological progress (Aquarius) and the dark side of that (Scorpio) is all around us in environmental degradation, terrible weapons and an alienation from the rhythms of nature. Aquarius here is also the astrologers with their beautiful, human-made systems; and Scorpio is the popular feeling that doesn't always have much regard for such systems, that just likes a good story, even if it’s not true.

So it’s as if through Ophiuchus, that principle of integration of man and beast, human consciousness and its origins, is wanting to make a new synthesis between technological man and nature.

Later in his poem, Manilius describes the astrological influence of Ophiuchus, when the constellation is in its rising phase, as one which offers affinity with snakes and protection from poisons, saying "he renders the forms of snakes innocuous to those born under him. They will receive snakes into the folds of their flowing robes, and will exchange kisses with these poisonous monsters and suffer no harm" (Wiki)

This seems to suggest a healing quality. For the Romans, the figure in Ophiuchus was Asclepius, the Healer.

And again:

To the ancient Greeks, the constellation represented the god Apollo struggling with a huge snake that guarded the Oracle of Delphi.

This brings us back to astrology: the use of reason to create a system (Apollo) and the divinatory power that system was built to serve (the Oracle); the tension, hopefully creative, that you get between the two, that one seems to get in any spiritual tradition: the direct experience of the mystic, and the wisdom of the book.

Jim Morrison
But what about some divination? After all, the above is no use if Ophiuchus does not have divinatory validity. And I thought the quality I want to look for is a struggle with demons as characterising the life of someone with Sun in Ophiuchus, and that I’d see who I had on my personal list of famous people. There were just 2 of them, Jim Morrison (of the Doors) and the painter Edvard Munch.

Jim Morrison
Jim Morrison is well known for his losing battle with his own demons, resulting in his death aged 27 of a heroin overdose. And Munch is known to all of us as the painter of The Scream, portraying the existential anxieties of modern people.

And that was enough for me. This thing works. I don’t test divination with statistics, because it doesn’t work that way. I test it with what immediately presents itself to me, and that was a double hit.

So if you have substantial personal placements in Ophiuchus, your life is likely to be characterised more than most by a struggle with demons, which you may at times be losing, or which you may turn into art for the collective; and whose wider context is the archetypal struggle (leading hopefully to synthesis) between humans and nature, a struggle that is particularly pressing right now as Ophiuchus pushes himself into view from the left field.

And the fact that Ophiuchus as a sign of the zodiac has popular appeal, but is ridiculed by many astrologers, maybe suggests an imbalance between the intricate and beautiful astrological system that has developed over 2 millennia, and the raw divinatory power that system was built to serve.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Greece, Islamic State, Uranus-Pluto and the Eclipse

On 17th March we had the last of 7 squares between Uranus and Pluto. This configuration has provided the overall context for world events for about 6 or 7 years now: the Great Recession, the Arab ‘Spring’, the rise of Islamic State, the Euro crisis…

The final square doesn’t mean the end of Uranus-Pluto – it will be playing out for a while yet. But 3 days later there was an eclipse of the Sun at 29 Pisces, the last degree of the last sign of the zodiac. If that doesn’t suggest an ending, I don’t know what does.

The US invaded Iraq in 2003 with the Sun at 29 Pisces. You don’t begin things under mutable signs, you end them, which is why it all went wrong. But I think this eclipse could signal the end of any meaningful US involvement in Iraq. The US has been providing air support for the fightback against IS, but no ‘boots on the ground’. It has been half-hearted. Nothing will probably be said, but Tikrit hasn’t fallen to the Kurds like it was expected to, and this may be looked at as the time when America quietly left Iraq to its fate.

The Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, a year before the final crossing of the last Uranus-Pluto square, and what came next was the outcome of the changes wrought by that square.

Islamic State declared itself a Caliphate at Ramadan last year, 8 months before the final crossing of the current Uranus-Pluto square. I see very little difference between them and the Nazis – the unlimited territorial ambitions, the powerful sense of belonging, the extreme brutality, the genocide. They do not at this stage need to be ‘understood’, they need to be opposed and eliminated. And, as with the Nazis, the world is largely standing by while they expand. With the Nazis, memories of WWI were too strong. With Islamic State, the shambolic invasion of Iraq in 2003 has made military opposition politically impossible.

The chart I use for IS has Cardinal Sun, Moon and Asc, with Pluto opposite Sun and conjunct Asc. It is the start (Cardinal) of something powerful (Pluto), unless they are stopped. With Moon-Jupiter in Cancer, expanding (Jupiter) the homeland (Moon in Cancer) is very important to them. The trine from the Moon to 10th House Saturn in Scorpio again suggests power and ambition and ease of accomplishment, facilitated by popular appeal (Moon conj Jupiter). And we see Pluto at his worst, the beast from the Underworld, called forth by American blundering and her own ambitions. The US Sun at 13 Cancer is on the midpoint of the IS Sun and Moon, showing the close connection.

Uranus and Pluto will be hard aspecting the IS Moon-Jupiter in the coming years. So the brutal struggle for an expanded Caliphate looks set to continue.

Another ending that seems likely under this eclipse is Greece’s membership of the Euro. If you use fairly wide orbs, then the eclipse took place in Greece’s 10th House, conjunct the MC (position in the world), square to Venus (wealth) and opposite Moon-Pluto (the disempowered people). In addition, the Uranus-Pluto square took place 2 degrees off the Greek Ascendant.

The new leader, Alex Tsipras, made an impossible promise to the electorate: to end the austerity and to keep Greece in the Euro. You can’t do both, and even leaving the Euro would, for a while, lead to greater austerity. So I think Tsipras has been putting on a good show of trying to renegotiate Greece’s debts with the EU, so that when Greece does leave the Euro (as seems very likely), he can blame Europe for pushing them out.

Now here’s something: the chart for the Euro has Angles at 29 degrees of the Mutable signs. The worst time to begin something! And the eclipse was bang on those Angles.

It seems from the astrology that Greece will leave the Euro soon, and from the Euro chart, it suggests it will not be an isolated event, but the beginning of the unravelling of the currency itself. The EEC came into existence on 1 1 58 at 00am, again giving it Angles at 29 degrees of the Mutable signs. So the unravelling of the currency, to whatever degree that occurs, will also involve an unravelling of the EU itself.

And that means the Britain, in its referendum, may vote to stay within the EU, because there will be less political control from Brussels to fear. With Pluto and Uranus having recently finished with Britain’s Sun and Angles, and moving on to our Cancer Moon, we are in the middle of a search for a new identity: our place in the world is shrinking, Scotland looks likely to leave the Union within a few years, and our relationship with Europe has reached make or break point as Europe has drawn ever closer politically. A few years down the line I think we will be a smaller and humbler country, occupying a more proportionate place in the world, shorn of Scotland, but with a clearer, less bloated identity  and with stronger ties to Europe as the prospect of a mega-state recedes.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Of Gay Rams and Lesbian Gibbons

A few weeks ago I was reading a BBC article about gay rams and lesbian gibbons. And a zoologist tried to explain animal gayness in evolutionary terms, ie how this behaviour could ultimately result in such animals leaving more offspring. 

 Because if you are an evolutionist, which of course any rational person is nowadays, then any feature of the animal or plant world has to have arisen because it results in the individuals concerned ultimately leaving more offspring. The explanation of gayness, needless to say, was rather clunky and convoluted, because the one thing that gayness DOESN’T usually do is to result in more offspring.

And I thought well maybe these rams just like being gay, isn’t that enough? Why does everything have to potentially result in leaving more offspring?

We think we know why evolution happens, and that it has to be for this one reason: life as a struggle to make your own genes predominate over others.

The theory of evolution arose in Victorian times, during the industrial revolution, when capitalism was on the rise – the survival, and the superiority, of the financially fittest. And the military fittest - Britain at the time had the largest Empire the world had ever seen, in which we ruled over 'inferior' peoples. Evolution was given a motivation that reflected the capitalist and imperialist ethos of Britain at the time – it is as simple and as brutal as that. And that ethos continues today under the free market ideology and the individualism that arose in the 80s under Reagan and Thatcher.

 There is so much human behaviour that is not explicable in terms of leaving more offspring. Very little of our behaviour seems to me to be reducible to that. In the West, most of us are happy with 2 kids on average, when we could have far more. I am not writing this piece in the hope that I will have more offspring. I take it you are not reading it in the hope of having more offspring.

It is ridiculous, therefore, to describe human behaviour in those terms. So if it doesn’t apply to us, why should it apply to the rest of the natural world, since we are part of it?

I think life is unfathomable. I am writing this piece because I want to, and because I want to understand something and to communicate it, and that is about as honest as I can be. It is a desire, if you like, that life has given me. Is that not enough? And why should it not be enough that some rams are gay simply because that is their nature, because they want to be gay?

I don’t think that we have much of a clue about evolution and why it happens. I don’t think we ever will, because it is part of the mystery at the heart of life.

 The evidence for evolution is full of holes, and of course no-one has ever seen it occur. You get the classic schoolbook example of white peppered moths turning black as camouflage under conditions of industrial soot, but that isn’t evolution, all it shows is a capacity for a bit of variability. They are still the same species. And maybe it wasn’t driven by random selective advantage. Consciousness is primary, not matter, as any quantum physicist can tell you.

“I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness. We cannot get behind consciousness." – Max Planck, Nobel Prize-winning physicist.

I think it more likely that in some way the moths ‘decided’ to turn black, re-imagined themselves, as a matter of common sense.

If consciousness is primary, then evolution is surely driven by a whole range of motivations. And it suggests as well that it is not based around the random variability that biology also insists upon.

That is, if evolution occurred in the first place. Certainly, biology shows that all life forms are very closely connected. The genes for our limbs are in the same sort of chromosomal position as the genes for limbs in flies, which is quite incredible. It suggests a profound common source. But I would put the emphasis on consciousness giving material expression to itself, rather than cold matter – with consciousness as an epiphenomenon – having the genius to create life forms.

 Because there is a kind of genius behind it. Not ‘a’ genius in the form of a being like God, but the genius of consciousness to imagine these intricate life forms, that are so well-adapted and so mutually interdependent and so elegant and inventive. It seems absurd to imagine selfishness and random change as the primary mechanism – even as part of the mechanism at all.

A Nobel Prize winning microbiologist, Werner Arber, researched change over thousands of generations in bacteria, and concluded that only limited variability was possible through genetic recombination and mutation. He then drags in God, which is where I part company. But if you think about it, humans have been selectively breeding animals for thousands of years, but they remain the same species - there are limits to variability. The arising of new species seems to be a mystery.

I don’t believe ‘God’ created life as we know it. But I find it preferable to the theory of evolution, because at least there is a transcendent dimension. And I think it is sound (though unintended) psychology that it is a requirement in some American states to teach both evolution and creationism: it presents the idea to children that there is more than one way of looking at anything. It is an ironic consequence of 2 fundamentalisms battling it out for the souls of the younger generation.

As I said earlier, any ‘rational’ person nowadays subscribes to the theory of evolution as commonly presented. It is perverse not to, as it is so well-established and so well understood.

Rather like a particular version of the Koran for members of Islamic State. It is a relief that this sort of fundamentalism is mainly to be found in the Middle East, among primitive fanatics, rather than amongst ourselves. We have every right to condemn these extremists for their narrow and intolerant attitudes. In the West we have rationality, and that protects us from becoming fundamentalist.*

* For anyone not from the UK, I'm being ironical