Curious about astrology? Here’s an overview of different pieces of that cosmos.
This was originally written as a comment on a Dreamwidth conversation talking about personality typing and whether or not it was at all useful.
I was writing to someone I knew was both skeptical about the idea, and who comes from a religion which has opinions about divination, so some of my explanations are keeping those things in mind. (Alternity is a collaborative Harry Potter transformative work project I was involved with from 2008 through 2015.)
I should note, before I do this, that I am, on the topic of astrology, still only at a bare post-novice stage by my standards: I know a bunch of the background theory, and a bunch of the competing approaches, but it’s not something I have yet invested tons of time in, and I still have to rely on a lot of other sources to make any sense out of anything at all.
And here, I’m pretty much exclusively talking about Western European derived astrology, because I am even less well-read in other systems, though they are also Very Interesting.
Some basic principles:
(Because some of these people know, and some of them people don’t, and putting them in one place makes the later stuff easier.)
Historically speaking, astrology and astronomy were closely linked for a very long time – much longer than they’ve been separate subjects
As noted, the modern rise of astrology-as-personality-type is exceedingly modern.
There are tons of different kinds of astrology: natal astrology (the ‘what was going on when you were born’ is only one of them. The ones I use more often are electional astrology (‘when is a good day/time to do X?’) and relational astrology (‘what things should I be aware of in this interaction’?) – I’ll come back to that.
That no matter which one of these versions you’re talking about, it is vastly more complicated than just a single sign. A single person’s natal chart has (depending on the system for astrology you use) has at least 11 different things on it, and quite possibly more, and then there are interactions between the houses (the part of the chart the planets fall in), and the relationships between the different planets (some angles are a positive relationship, some are a challenging relationship, and so on).
At the most basic, we really ought to talk more about sun sign (the sign someone’s sun is in), the rising sign (this is often described as the self that we show to the world), and the moon sign (how our inner motivation and self works), roughly.
Here, for an example, have a copy of Dolores Umbridge’s chart using her birth data as for Alternity because I got curious at one point when we were discussing her background and ran it.
I’m not going to go into detail about interpreting it, but what I want to reference here is that it’s a) a bunch of complicated interrelationships, b) that the blue lines are things that are harmonious relationships, red ones are challenging relationships, and the green lines are points of reference that not all interpretations use.) The Wikipedia article on natal astrology is not a bad basic overview.
Other points of interest:
The other part of this is that in horoscopes, some bits move very very slowly (and therefore are in basically the same place in a chart for an entire generation – Uranus, Pluto), some move over the course of a couple of years (Saturn, say), and some move every day or so (the Moon). And since you’re talking angles between planets as well as their own positions, this leads to a whole lot of variables.
And then on top of that you have the interactions between where things were when you were born, and where they are in the current moment, and all of those things have potential influences.
Finally, as with basically any subject, people have Vastly Ranging Opinions, some of which make me go “Huh?” a lot. (And as is true with basically any esoteric subject, some of those opinions are just plain totally bizarre in my opinion.)
Also, assuming that everyone who writes about astrology is actually competent to do so is about as poor idea as assuming that everyone who writes about any topic is competent to do so, which is to say, some are and some aren’t, and it’s often hard to tell which without further reading and learning.
Signs and planets
So. We have, at root, 7+ things going on here (sun, 8 planets that are not Earth), plus the rising sign (which is a calculated thing.) And whether people use the outer planets is a whole other argument.
And we also have the 12 zodiac signs, whose history I’m not getting into, but are basically the signs along the elliptical of the heavens when looking upwards from earth. Each of those signs also has an elemental association (earth, air, fire, water), and a quality (cardinal, fixed, and mutable). Which works out nicely mathematically, so you have one fixed air sign, one fixed earth sign, etc. etc.
Each of those signs is considered ‘ruled’ or ‘governed’ by a particular planet, and each planet is considered to exert a general kind of influence. But this does not work out as tidily in the math, so sometimes a planet rules more than one sign. And generally speaking, a planet is that is in the sign that it governs has more influence than otherwise. Or may interact in other ways.
(This is the point at which I usually go “How did you people figure this stuff out before you had computers and erasable pencils, because my gods the math and the calculations and the necessary layers of implication!” And then I get all fascinated by systems of knowledge and cataloguing of data, and forget about the actual astrology, which would be why I have not actually done more serious reading about this.
But it is also why you get massively different interpretations in some places, because you have people coming from different sources and then applying different layers, and it’s sort of like “Well, most cultures make bread, but boy, pita bread is different from French pain ancienne, and actually Tuscan bread isn’t as similar as you’d think.”)
Fundamentally, I tend to believe that what horoscope astrology tells us is what questions we might want to ask, or what things we might want to pay attention to in our lives. It isn’t a map of “This thing, it will absolutely happen” – it’s not telling the future, it’s not forcing us into a particular action. It’s just saying “This thing, it might be more likely for you than that thing.” And people’s lived experiences definitely can (and will) change their reactions to something.
(If you notice a parallel in what I think about MBTI and personality typing, this is not a coincidence. I think sorting the world into groupings we can get our head around is often useful, but you can’t stop with the sorting, you have to keep poking at what questions that sorting raises.)
Now, a bunch of this could be contained in ‘we are products of our childhood influences’ – but you get siblings who clearly have a great deal in common, but who go in very different directions, or who respond to the same basic situation in very different ways, and what’s that about anyway? And astrology is one way (among many many others) at poking at some of that why.
Anyway, when one is actually looking at a natal horoscope, there’s one part “Here are the signs”, and one part “Here are the places they are in the chart” and then a layer of “And heres the planetary rulerships and where that might be relevant” and one part art, because part of reading charts is getting a sense of the synergy of them.
What you usually see in, say, a newspaper horoscope is a very very very reduced form of that, in which the person is looking at how Virgo, say, that month, is aligned in relationship to the various planets. But it is not, of necessity, at all specific, because an individual person’s year of birth, or the other stuff in their chart might well have a bigger influence on them personally, than, say, where the moon is next week.
However, if you’re looking at it as a general map of “How do I work in the world” saying that I’m a Virgo sun, Capricorn rising, and Aries moon means I might start asking questions about ways I can do things that involve both detail and particular kinds of commitment, that I am unlikely to be happy in settings where I can’t do practical things to help (people, projects, whatever), and that I might be better at starting things than continuing them when they get tedious (that’s the Aries bit, though the Virgo helps with the grinding-type tasks.)
And knowing those things turns out to be handy, the way that “No, really, I am UNHAPPY with unsettled decisions” is handy in MBTI for me.)
Electional and relational astrology
I use electional astrology when I’ve sorted out a couple of possible practical dates for some kind of ritual work (usually stuff like religious initiations, or other things where you basically get one shot, and it’s nice to get as many things lining up for the result you want as possible.) Sometimes there’s only one night it’s feasible, and you just go with that and cope, but if you have choices, electional astrology can help sort out some of the options.
(There’s also related stuff, that if you have a fixed date – say, an election – you can use astrology to suggest the things that may be particularly effective in advertising for that election at which times, say. I am less sure I believe this one but I at least thing it’s an interesting thing to poke at as a mental puzzle.)
Relational astrology is basically ‘you take person A’s chart, and person B’s chart, and you superimpose them and look at the interrelationships’. Again, I don’t think this tells you what should happen or what will happen (humans have choice!)
I do relational charts with potential long-term students for Pagan religious work because when I’m first meeting them, there are thousands and thousands and thousands of possible places to start talking or asking about things, and it’s a way of narrowing down some of what I start with.
I would never accept or deny someone on the basis of the chart. But I have fairly regularly looked at a comparison between charts that suggests communication might be an issue, or that someone’s goals might be in a very different place than what I’m offering, and start with questions about those things, rather than somewhere else.
Basically, there’s a very large number of potential places to start, and only so many I’m going to get to in the first couple of hours of conversation. Astrology helps me figure out what to start with.
Looking back at history
Historically, a lot of what we see is electional astrology, horary astrology (which is basically “cast a chart to answer a question”, which is a more typically divinatory thing), with a side of personality-focused stuff.
But it’s also basically about trying to make sense about how the different bits of the world fit together, and about whether (and if so how) what’s above fits with what’s below, and what’s external fits with what’s internal. And some of that is science that we’ve since disproven, and some of it is way more complicated than they realised 500 years ago. But some of it is “Huh. There might still be something there” for me.
(Here we hit a “I am totally interested in this, but entirely under-read it in it, and there are not many great summaries out there”, but I wanted to gesture at it, but it’s mostly about the elemental rulerships and how they interact with each other, and how you might respond differently if you have a lot of water signs in good dignity, than if you have fire signs in poor dignity, or whatever.)
And it’s an imperfect system, in a lot of ways, but that’s the other way I use astrology, which is to say if I’m looking at a whole chart, and however many things I’m putting on it, it’s a chance for me to go “Hey, wait, is there a gap in my life about this Thing?”
At which point I can decide to do something about it or not, or decide what I’m going to do, but at least I’m looking at it, which is a generally useful thing to do periodically.
As noted, Wikipedia isn’t horrible at this.
For deeper stuff, the place I use for charts has a thorough explanation of a whole lot of stuff on their site:
- Astro.com has some great information and this link should pull up the index (start with the ‘introduction to’ bit, obviously, but the ‘astrology and psychology’ bit is also highly relevant to this post.)
- Their index to signs (with links to further info)
- They also have a wiki
Since writing this original comment, Ivo Dominguez has come out with the first astrology book I’ve read that made sense to me without a lot of peering at it. It’s called Practical Astrology for Witches and Pagans: Using the Planets and the Stars for Effective Spellwork, Rituals, and Magickal Work and it has a great approach to astrology as forming sentences that may work well for you too if you do better with words.
Theresa Reed’s Astrology for Real Life: A Workbook for Beginners (A No B.S. Guide for the Astro-Curious) is also a great introduction.
I love Benebell Wen’s material – she has great intro material for free on her website and a moderately priced (and extremely detailed) course for sale as well.
Other titles I’ve found helpful include:
- The Only Astrology Book You’ll Ever Need by Joanna Martine Woolfolk is actually pretty well named (it focuses on natal astronomy).
- Astrologickal Magick by Estelle Daniels has a good overview of magical applications.
- Making the Gods Work for You: The Astrological Language of the Psyche by Caroline W. Casey is an interesting look at the more archetypal aspects – it focuses on how each of the planets interacts in our lives. (I’m not crazy about the title, and there’s places I raise eyebrows, but I’ve also found a number of her suggestions very effective.)
Last edited December 24, 2016. Reformatted in November 2020.