Can We Take Astrology Seriously? — “How did you do it, how did you know?”
This is part of a series of articles I am publishing on Medium Can We Take Astrology Seriously? These were previously an unpublished book I wrote some time ago, Homage to Patric Walker. This article is chapter 3, which follows the Introduction, part 1 and part 2, chapter 1 and chapter 2.
The title is a line from a song of mine (1), and was addressed to Patric Walker; they were intended to convey my feeling of uncomfortable awe at how he managed to be so accurate in newspaper and magazine horoscope columns.
How do astrologers “do it?” As I pointed out in the previous article, many of them do not know themselves. I now want to begin my own investigation. Although this will concentrate almost exclusively on ‘serious’ astrology, I would like to discuss in passing the newspaper variety, in the extremely unlikely event that there just might be something in it. After all, Walker was one of my original inspirations.
If you think serious astrology has a bad reputation among scientists, this is almost nothing compared with the invective poured out on ‘newspaper’ astrology by scientists, and also by ‘serious’ astrologers, presumably because they hold it responsible for the ridicule to which they are subjected. As M. Truzzi said: “A manifesto denouncing newspaper astrology columns could as easily be signed by the leading astrologers as by a group of respected scientists” (2). For example, the Humanist manifesto referred to in chapter 1 prompted a response from the astrological journal Aquarian Agent, stating that it was important to distinguish “sun sign frauds, from genuine astrologers” (3).
I have noted earlier the scientific views of Eysenck/Nias and Gauquelin. Here are some examples from the serious astrologers discussed in chapter 2:
a) Jeff Mayo and Christine Ramsdale: “These columns ask us to believe that on a certain day all the millions of people born under the same sign in different years and different parts of the world will meet ‘a tall handsome stranger’ or find it ‘a good afternoon for going on a journey’. No wonder, then, if someone who has not studied astrology thinks it is an amusing parlour game, a medieval superstition that won’t lie down” (4).
b) Lindsay River and Sally Gillespie: “Categorical statements, applied to individuals merely on account of their month of birth, are bad astrology” (5).
c) Charles and Suzi Harvey:
“Behind the light-hearted horoscopes of the popular press…”
“For real astrology, from which this popular entertainment derives…”
“It is deeply unfortunate that for much of the general public the word astrology instantly means the Lottery’s Mystic Meg and breathless mediums peering into crystal balls” (6).
Is there any validity at all, according to serious astrologers, in the sun-sign variety?
The same authors, while again condemning the practice… :
“Different newspapers give different forecasts from the same information. All too true. Most newspaper columns are light-hearted fun and pour out ‘thoughts for the day’ without too much reference to the cosmic climate. Even the best and most conscientious of newspaper astrologers is faced with trying to reduce a cosmic ocean of information into a single sip. This is soundbites gone mad, and horoscope columns imply that they contain far greater personal information than they could ever supply”,
…add the following rider: “That said, a particular period of time will, on average, be more stressful or advantageous for certain signs. Prevailing surges in energy or tense patterns will tend to be picked up by some types rather than others” (7). They imply, therefore, that sun-sign astrology is not ridiculous per se, rather that too much is claimed for it.
This view seems to be shared by Margaret Hone: “The popular press began to realise that members of the public were interested in forecasts and in trying to understand themselves by means of descriptions of persons in certain months. The war (8) brought about an added keenness to know what might be expected of the future in the sphere of political activity. The work necessary for this is highly technical and needs wide knowledge of world conditions before astrological deductions can be made. These were not always correct any more than the diagnoses of doctors are infallible. The efforts of the very few astrologers who specialised in this way were copied by others less well informed, with the result that the wide publicity given to their failures led readers to discredit what they imagined to be the whole of ‘astrology’ ” (9). Thus, for her, sun-sign astrology is not ridiculous, merely more difficult, something which should only be undertaken by experts.
Cordelia Mansall makes the most favorable statement that I have found by a serious astrologer: “Most of us owe eternal gratitude (!) to the popular sun signs for our initial introduction to this subject. Whether in the newspaper or magazine columns, on radio, T.V. or anywhere else for that matter, there is no doubt about it, sun sign astrology is fun! It is often extraordinary how revealing a simple birth date can be. Certainly the basic characteristics associated with the twelve Sun signs provide a useful working knowledge of human behaviour in any situation”(10). Presumably the gratitude she feels resulted from the accuracy of the columns, otherwise why would she have felt inspired to study further?
I have mentioned my own experiences with sun-sign astrology in my Introduction, part 1. They have left me with the impression, despite the derision of serious astrologers, that there is some validity in it, however vague that might be. I would therefore like to spend some time exploring the remote possibility that it is not quite as crazy as it seems.
Sun-sign astrology can be divided into two areas, the character traits that are associated with the houses, and secondly the predictions of the trends happening in the persons’ lives. Anyone who is any way sympathetic to Astrology would find the first one possible. The second one, however, does seem particularly bizarre. The idea that each one twelfth of the population is going through a similar life experience, no matter when or where they were born, does seem ridiculous. Because of the contradiction between the apparently accurate columns of Walker and Cainer and the absurdity of believing such a thing, for some time while writing these pages I had planned to write to Jonathan Cainer asking him for his views on the subject, especially as he is both a serious and a newspaper astrologer. There seemed to be no special urgency, however, as I viewed the writing as a long-term project.
Then, on January 31st 2000, I was galvanized into action. On that day, amidst a wave of publicity, Cainer changed his newspaper from the Daily Mail to the Daily Express, which precipitated a number of interviews, including one on the BBC Radio5 Nicky Campbell show. As usual, the programme was inviting people to ring in with questions for the guest. I rushed to the phone, and was accepted as a caller. During the few minutes that I was on air, having been asked how he thought sun-sign astrology worked, Jonathan Cainer said the following:
“As a serious astrologer I have real difficulty with what I do in the newspaper every day. It is very much like trying to paint an incredibly intricate picture with a five-inch wallpaper brush”.
At this point I put it to him that he, and Patric Walker, were far more accurate than what he had just said implied. He responded: “There is something in sun-sign astrology, it’s just that there’s a lot more in the full astrology that you get when you work with someone’s date, time and place of birth… You’re painting big, broad generalised pictures, and then the art is to use that five-inch brush to try and picture something which is going to relate to an individual. How I manage to be accurate, I don’t quite understand myself”.
In an interview in the Guardian on the same day he said the following: “I believe in Astrology. Astrology is a belief system, not an art or a science, though there is a bit of art and science chucked in, and I am a true subscriber to that belief. But my belief system gets a bit stretched when I find myself in the game of forecasting for a twelfth of the population”.
I found this fascinating. On the face of it here was a man whom I perceived to possess a certain talent, and he was almost denying that he had it, and even if he did, he could not understand it — which was a brave admission, considering the vast amounts of money he had made, and intended to make in the future, from this practice. Yet there was a glimmer of hope; he had acknowledged “there is something in sun-sign astrology”. This seemed like the right moment to pursue the matter further so, inspired by having managed to speak to him directly, I then wrote, asking if he had any further thoughts on the matter. Here is an extract from the reply I received from one of his assistants:
“There are no published rules… Jonathan was so baffled that he was seriously considering whether he should throw in the towel when he finally hit upon the solution — which was to study which aspects Patric Walker used and shamelessly copy him! Eventually Jonathan began to notice that Patric used to dwell on the outer planetary aspects and hammer them to death for days and that, for example, the effects of a Moon/Saturn conjunction would always outweigh Moon/Venus. After a while, like learning the piano, Jonathan began to see for himself which planets were calling the tune and which were providing the accompaniment. However, he has to admit that whilst he uses the positions of the planets as a framework, his intuition also comes into play and he often finds himself improvising on a planetary theme”.
I was excited by this reply. Obviously Jonathan Cainer had been impressed enough by the accuracy of Patric Walker’s columns to want to study his method, which confirmed my own observation. It also indicated that there might be something in this method, given that Cainer was also obtaining good results from it. And what is this method? “Dwell on the outer planetary aspects”. As I am on the whole ignorant about the practice of Astrology, I cannot evaluate how meaningful this statement is. However, in relation to it I can offer the following observation. By coincidence, at the time I received this reply I was reading Astrology, Karma and Transformation by Stephen Arroyo (11). The very next time I opened the book I almost immediately came across the following passage, in which the author quotes an article by Dane Rudhyar from Astroview magazine:
“Any organic system or cosmic unit is subjected to two contrary forces. There is the pull which draws every part of the system to the centre (for instance, the pull of gravitation); but there is also the pull exerted by outer space, which actually means by a larger system within which the first system operates.
“Every planet of our solar system and every living being on Earth is to some degree affected by the pressures and pulls which reach us from the galaxy; we are also affected in an opposite direction by the gravitational power of the Sun, centre of our system.
“Saturn, however, represents a basic line of demarcation between these two opposite forces, galactic and solar. The planets inside of Saturn’s orbit are mainly creatures and vassals of the Sun; while the planets beyond Saturn are what I have called many years ago ‘ambassadors of the galaxy’. They focus upon the solar system the power of this vast community of stars, the galaxy. They do not completely belong to the solar system. They are within its sphere of influence to do a job, to link our small system…with the larger system, the galaxy” (p36).
According to this view then, the planets are not individual bodies, but should be divided into two groups, the outer (Uranus, Neptune, Pluto) and the inner (Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter) with Saturn acting as the “line of demarcation”, presumably with a foot in both camps. Now, according to Jonathan Cainer, he makes his sun-sign predictions by studying the “outer planetary aspects”, the planets from the first group which Rudhyar calls “ambassadors of the galaxy”. So it is possible that the individual’s personality is more directly related to the inner planets (“our small system”), whereas generalisations about sun-signs would be derived more from the outer planets which are links to “a larger system within which the first system operates”; put more simply, sun-sign relationships are more cosmic, whereas individual ones are more local.
Since making that observation, I have discovered other astrologers who have expressed the same idea in other contexts:
1) Dennis Elwell: “There may be a sense in which the original seven… comprise a system which is qualitatively different from those beyond Saturn, a planet often found emphasising boundaries and limits” (12).
2) Stephen Arroyo: Trans-Saturnians symbolize “transcendent dimensions of experience… These three planets could be said to refer to transpersonal factors” (13, his italics).
3) Liz Greene: “Saturn seems to me to represent, among other things, the boundary line of the ego. It marks where I end and you begin. It’s my sense of separateness, my structure, my ring of defenses”.
“…the inner planets which we associate with our individual needs, and the outer planets which are concerned with deep movements in the collective” (14).
So to summarize:
- My personal experience and the opinion of several serious astrologers says that Jonathan Cainer and Patric Walker are ‘on to something’.
- Cainer accepts that he has copied his method from Walker, which is to “dwell on the outer planetary aspects”.
- According to Dane Rudhyar the planets can be divided into two groups, the outer ones being the “ambassadors of the galaxy”.
- Astrologers as ‘serious’ as the Harveys can say: “A particular period of time will, on average, be more stressful or advantageous for certain signs. Prevailing surges in energy or tense patterns will tend to be picked up by some types rather than others”.
To my mind it is therefore a reasonable hypothesis that the outer planets may play a different role in astrological effects, and therefore be more in tune with natal sun-signs. As I have stated, I am not a trained astrologer, so I cannot know if there is any validity in this idea; I merely put it forward as food for thought. I believe however that there is enough in it to warrant further investigation. As far as I am aware there has not been any research into the accuracy of sun-sign astrology, yet it would be possible to devise a Gauquelin type experiment, in order to test it out. For example, an astrologer could write his column for a certain day, and this could be read by a large number of people from all the different star-signs, who would be asked to choose which of the twelve paragraphs they thought most closely corresponded to their situation. The results could then be evaluated against chance, and if these seemed significant the participants would be asked to describe the events in their lives which they thought were relevant to the column. These could be compared, to see whether there were in fact any close similarities between their lives, or, what would be far more intriguing, whether a similar pattern of meaning could be established even though the actual events were completely different (15).This would be hard work, and the results could obviously be criticised for being based merely on subjective statements and opinions, but it would nevertheless be a relatively simple procedure.
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I hope you are enjoying my articles. I have written much on other subjects apart from Astrology. For a full list it is easiest to visit my website (click here). They are also available at Medium, if you look at my profile.
(1) referred to in Introduction, part 1. The lyrics are on my website grahampemberton.com They may not seem like obvious song lyrics when read; imagine them as a rap.
(2) quoted in Astrology, Science or Superstition, H. J. Eysenck, and D. K. B. Nias, Maurice Temple, 1982, p12
(3) ibid., p4
(4) Teach Yourself Astrology, Hodder Headline, 1996, p5
(5) The Knot of Time, Women’s Press Ltd., 1987, p9
(6) Principles of Astrology, Thorsons, 1999, pp1–2
(7) ibid., p18
(8) She was writing in 1951.
(9) The Modern Text book of Astrology, L.N. Fowler, 1978 edition, p14
(10) Discover Astrology, Aquarian Press, 1991, p11
(11) CRCS, 1992
(12) The Cosmic Loom, Urania Trust, 1999, p93
(13) Astrology, Psychology, and the Four Elements, CRCS, 1975, pp77–8
(14) New Insights in Modern Astrology, CRCS , 1991, p150, p196
(15) Jonathan Cainer, in a Channel 4 Witness programme about Astrology which appeared on June 18th 2000, said: “Sometimes there are generalisations you can make that are very relevant. And it surprises me that you know, I’ll look, and I don’t see how I can say this to all Geminis, and then, you know, a bunch of Geminis will come up to me during the day for totally different reasons and say, ‘You know, what you’re saying at the moment makes so much sense to me’ ”.