Whenever I talk about astrology, I recognize that a large part of my work is educating others, a kind of meta-education. I must teach you what I’m talking about as I’m talking about it. Thus, I don’t take for granted that there isn’t a consensus on what astrology is and what its purpose and function is.
Many people, many who have not heard of a birth chart, think astrology is horoscopes based on your “sign” (properly, the sign your Sun occupied at the time of your birth), and that there are like 12 “prototypes” that astrology uses to define people. It’s very simplistic. People who view astrology that way are the same people who would say that “the English language is the alphabet.”
They’re not taking into consideration the cultural context for language, and that the alphabet is the basic building blocks of language, just like numbers are the basic building block for math.There is much implied in the structure and way that we count, or in the variety of languages that there are, or in the alphabet as characters that make up words in a language. But those things are not the language itself. So, we can say the same thing of astrology, that the 12 zodiac signs are not astrology itself.
The Fundamental Question
What is astrology? This can be a difficult question to answer because we can break down anything into its pieces; we can dissect it into parts. We can say astrology is planets, signs, and houses. But that’s not really telling me what astrology is, why it is, or how and why it functions.
Part of why I want to talk about this is because I have been thinking about what I do when I sit down with a client, and how I’m looking at this person’s chart and I don’t know them from Adam or Eve, or Steve, or whatever their names are. I am able to tell them about their mother, their father, their home, family, and their interests, their health, and their illness, and the times of important events in their lives, and help them piece together their stories. And, I’m in awe every day.
What is astrology that I can do this with it? That I can tell the story of someone’s life, without them giving me any information besides their birth data, what is the power of these symbols?
Note: How I talk about astrology, how I define astrology, is not necessarily something I sat down and come up with among other astrologers. It’s not something that I’ve read somewhere. It’s not something you can go find in a book somewhere. I won’t say my ideas are completely original. Everything is derivative in, nothing is completely original.
The content in this post is from a LIVE Instagram broadcast. It has been heavily edited for clarity. You can find the original video here: Daily Live – February 20, 2019: What is #Astrology?
Astrology is a Language
Astrology is a language. Language is a complex set of symbols that we use to think about, visualize, and talk about ourselves and the world around us.
Language is a consequence of consensus. Consensus is cultural. When I say apple, you think of a round, likely red, food item. We have agreed to call that object an apple. Maybe if I say pomme then the pomme you envision is yellow or green, based on your cultural imagery around that word and object.
The Complexity of Language
So, now let’s get to the real meat of it. I’ve established that astrology is a language, which is a complex set of symbols, that we use to name, visualize, think about, and talk about ourselves and the world around us. Astrology helps us in that regard.
Now, the next piece is, if astrology is a language, what is the alphabet? What is the lexicon and syntax of it? In any language there is a syntax; there is a lexicon; there is a correspondence of these symbols to some concept or object, person or place in our world. What is the grammar? What are the pieces that we put together to make this language?
In language we have alphabets or character sets— each letter or character, corresponds to a sound. And, depending on how those letters come together, the sound is going to change. Even the sounds that letters make are very culturally significant and specific, right, if you hear English, and the derivatives of English, or rather, the languages that English is derived from: Latin, the Romance languages, Germanic languages, Native words—the English language is an amalgamation of all the colonial exploits of England. But if we go to China, it’s a totally different way of organizing the symbols. They have characters that are pictures, and those are very complex in how they’re organized.
Language as a Cultural Phenomenon
A book called Barracoon by Zora Neale Hurston was finally published after years of being withheld. A story on NPR talked about Zora Neale Hurston’s insistence that Kossula, the person about whom the book is written, tell his story in his own dialect. The editorial director of the publisher, Deborah Plant, spoke about the importance of preserving the way that Kossula spoke about himself. There was no ‘I’ in his culture. She explained how in American Western culture there is this constant reinforcing of ‘I’: ‘I say.’ ‘I do.’ ‘I feel.’ ‘I think.’ Whereas in his culture, ‘I’ is implied; he’s standing right here before you, so he doesn’t have to say ‘I’. This is the complexity of language. And I explain that because I want to apply this and help you understand something about astrology: just
So, in that sense astrology, like language, is explicitly a cultural phenomenon.
As with any language, astrology emerges from a cultural and historical context. Astrology is not something that’s uniquely Western. It’s not uniquely European or American. Astrology is Indian. Astrology is Babylonian and Sumerian and Mesopotamian. Astrology is Kemetic. Astrology is of the Asian Diaspora, practiced in Korea, in China, in Singapore, in Malaysia. And each of these astrologies emerges from relevant cultural contexts.
When we pull together the building pieces of any astrology we always start with the Sun and the Moon, which are not planets. The Sun is a star. It is the biggest star, the closest star. The Moon is, for all intents and purposes, a big ol’ rock. We observe it as a marker of time, and have done so for time immemorial. So much of our orientations of our bodies in the world are rooted in the Moon and our observations of the Moon. Again, not necessarily anything astrological at this point, but purely astronomical, in that we watch the Moon wax and wane in its light.
All astrological traditions start with those two pieces. Then we spread out to other bodies that are observable with the naked eye. You must remember telescopes weren’t always a thing. This brings up something that is important to astrology, is that it’s a visual art. I know that we have all these complex words and concepts and things—this sign is this or that planet is that. But, astrology is first an observable phenomena, rooted in astronomy.
Astrology vs Astronomy
There was a time where astronomy and astrology were no different; they were the same thing. At some point there was a power struggle around access to knowledge that split the two into different disciplines with divergent social, religious, and political implications. Then science became this thing no longer practiced by clergy who have the privilege to study and learn math and all of these things. At that point it becomes the privilege of the aristocracy.
We start with the Sun and Moon, then we move to the observable bodies that are visible to the naked eye. So now that’s Mercury, that’s Venus, that’s Mars, that’s Jupiter, and that’s Saturn.
In observing the astronomical cycles of these planets, we begin to understand how they move and correlate and the time frames with them.
Ah! So, let’s see every day, within this timeframe the Sun is doing the this over here in the East, but then it does something else over here in the West!
— Observe & record.
Ah! Okay, the Moon is doing this today, but 29 days ago it did this same thing.—
—Observe & record.
Ah! Whoa, Mercury’s doing this thing, but then it’s doing this thing-but that thing-then this thing-then that thing-then this thing — Venus, the same for Saturn and Mars and Jupiter, and Venus.
Alright, so we’re observing, in relationship to time and space, what these bodies are doing.
The whole point is that astrology is rooted in this observation. And that in astrology, everything is about visibility. When we’re talking about the houses, we’re talking about observable, astronomical, and physical phenomena in space and time. When we’re talking about a Saturn Return, or where the Sun is, or what the Moon is doing, again, we’re talking about observable phenomena.
Astrology Segments, Names, and Interprets Time
Astrology is a tool, for measuring, naming, and interpreting time. Just like clocks and calendars, except there’s the added dimension of ‘but what does that mean?’ Astrology is similar to a calendar or a clock; it names and segments time. In astrology we observe the astronomical phenomenon of how planets appear to move with Earth as a reference point. And with those observations, we segment and name a period of time in relation to that.
The segment of time designated as a year correlates to the astronomical cycle of the Sun. Why? Because it takes approximately 365 days (a time segment which we have designated ‘year’) for the Sun to return to a designated reference point. But implied in that astronomical measurement is that the Sun is doing something observable, predictable, and consistent.
Each planet has its own cycle. The Moon has a 29-day cycle. Mercury varies. Venus varies. Jupiter has 12 years. Saturn has 29 years. All of these planets— and this is not astrological, in the sense of there’s no interpretation yet— this is purely astronomical. It is astronomical— observable and measurable— that Saturn is doing this thing in 29 years. The Moon is doing this thing in 29 days. The Sun is doing this thing in 365 days.
Like language, time, too, is a consequence of consensus. We have agreed on what is one minute, one hour, one day, one second, one month, one year, a decade, a century. There’s a consensus around what those things mean, so that when I say ‘one week,’ I don’t have to explain that to you, you know what that is.
Unlike calendars and unlike clocks, astrology interprets time. It tells us what it means. So, in that sense, I say, astrology helps us to name and define and interpret the seasons and times of our life.
A Time & Season for All Things
We know that at particular times of year, based on how much sunlight there is, how much rain (or not) there is, whatever the temperature is—we know that there is an appropriate thing to do at that particular time. That is, if we want a certain outcome from the land. We organize our lives around those appropriate times. We organize our lives around the hours of daylight and nighttime so that we know that there is an appropriate time to do things.
We think about times and seasons in relationship to our physical bodies— how we grow our food, how we eat, how we sleep, the schedule that we have in our bodies and in our lives. But we don’t always think about that regarding the choices that we make and the undertakings that we choose to endeavor upon at any give time.
Unlike a calendar or a clock, astrology interprets time. It tells us what is happening and what it means. It helps us to build a narrative around a particular story.
Now, we can say, not only is there a time for planting food, for harvesting, for sowing, for tilling. There’s also a time for things to happen in our own lives. So, my favorite scripture, my favorite scripture to reference in this context, talks about
‘There’s a time for death, and birth, and growth, conservation, joy, celebration, atonement.’ There’s a time for all of these things. Yet and still, as a culture, we have not really grasped, the practical and spiritual significance of that truth. Astrology is this tool that helps us do that.
Astrology is a language—a complex set of symbols used to talk about, think about, and conceptualize the world around us. All languages emerge from a specific cultural context and are dynamic.
Astrology is a tool for measuring time. Like a clock and a calendar, with the added functionality of defining the quality and meaning of time.
Astrology is rooted in astronomy, which is the tangible, physical, measurable cycles and phenomena of the planets. What they’re doing in relationships to themselves, and what they’re doing in relationship to each other.
Check out this post on some of the philosophical differences between the tropical and the sidereal zodiac. I’ve outlined some of the technical differences between the tropical and sidereal zodiacs in this 70 minute webinar (with accompanying PDF). Get a very special reading focused on understanding the differences between your tropical birth chart and your sidereal birth chart in this comparison reading.