Deborah Houlding is familiar to many as the editor of The Traditional Astrologer
magazine, which ran from 1993 to 2000 and helped to arouse interest in various facets of astrology's history and traditional philosophy. Deborah has also been instrumental in the republication of many valuable astrological texts, whilst her own book The Houses: Temples of the Sky
has received widespread acclaim for its reminder of the need to reunite modern astrological principles with their underlying philosophy and the most consistent line of traditional teachings.
Deborah is one of the foremost practitioners of horary astrology, which she has been teaching to students through lectures, residential seminars and correspondence courses since 1990. Her workshops have been delivered in places as far apart as Hawaii and Tasmania, and her articles (which have graced the pages of most well known astrological journals) have been translated into many languages. She runs her own school of traditional astrology which offers certificate and masters-level horary courses, exemplifying the methods of William Lilly.
Besides her writings, presentations, tutorial and consultancy work, Deborah finds time to host and maintain 'Skyscript' (www.skyscript.co.uk
) - a website dedicated to exploring the philosophy and practical application of astrological symbolism. More details of her own activities can be found on her personal website at www.debhoulding.co.uk
Q: If you think back to when you first heard of astrology, were you inclined to believe it would work as soon as you heard of it?
No. I started studying astrology in 1986 when I was 23 - not really through my own choosing. I'd made a friend of a woman who was older than me, and she asked me to go along to some local classes; I think so that she could get a lift in my car.
To begin with I saw astrology as something only the "loopy set" believed in. But then my only exposure had been through Sun-sign columns in newspapers and magazines. At school, we would hang around on rainy breaks and read each others' horoscopes so we could laugh and wind each other up. And, of course, the same thing happened when I left school and started work. The idea that astrology could be taken seriously didn't enter my head. That was fairly typical for the area I came from and the group of people I mixed with: To say you "believed in astrology" was akin to saying you believed in fairies at the bottom of the garden.
Plus, my background was very down-to-earth. I was taught to believe in myself, but I think my family felt uncomfortable around people who proclaimed passionate or literal beliefs about anything - be they psychics, Jehovah's Witnesses, or even the local vicar. We were embarrassed on their behalf! My dad would often say things like: "When you're dead, you're dead, and that's it!" and "the only thing religion has ever done is cause wars."
Actually, when I started studying astrology seriously and exploring other occult studies, some of my close friends and family were a bit concerned for my sanity. They thought I might get involved in a cult that would take my personality away!
Q: At what point did you become convinced that there was "something in it"?
Not for a long time. Having seen various interpretations of personal birth charts, I was convinced that people placed too much emphasis on comments that essentially applied to everyone. I was very sceptical and saw it as a lesson that People often take out of an experience what they expected, going into it.
But I was interested in exploring the theory of astrology almost from the start, and I did seem to shine in that local class. There was a group of about a dozen of us. After the teacher had finished explaining something, she would set us little assignments to be completed in class. She was a very clever astrologer and had obtained a Ph.D. on a thesis related to astrology, but she didn't always allow for our elementary level of comprehension. People would sit around saying "Uh? What was that? What am I supposed to be doing?" and I would quietly re-explain what I thought I had understood myself in a way that made sense to them. Eventually people started to treat me as if I had a natural affinity for the subject, but at that stage it was more a case of the short-sighted leading the blind.
Towards the end of the course, one of the organisers for the arts council who were hosting the classes came in and asked to have her horoscope drawn up and interpreted. To my horror the task was given to me. That was my first experience of writing an interpretation for someone else. I had a week to compile it, and I didn't know where to start. Very little of what I'd learnt in the class seemed to have sunk in, so I bought a copy of the Parkers' Compleat Astrologer
and compiled the whole interpretation based on snippets I found in that. But I was determined that there wouldn't be anything vague, and no phrases that could be left open to interpretation, so where the Parkers wrote that a certain planetary placement might suggest the possibility of loss of a father figure, I wrote "your father died while you were a child." From other snippets I can't remember now, I told her what he had died of. From the fact that Gemini was on the Descendant, I told her she was divorced and currently in her second marriage - to a much older man - because Saturn was in the 7th house. Because Venus was conjunct Mars in the 3rd, I told her she had a very competitive relationship with her sister and was always falling out with her.
I told her all sorts of things based on reasoning that ought never to be repeated, and I described the state of her finances, her attitude towards her work, and her only son. All of this, I realised, was a figment of my imagination, because I knew nothing about the woman and didn't for one moment expect any of it to be true. My approach reflect my horror at being given the task in the first place. It was my way of showing that I wasn't going to get drawn into the self-delusion game. The interpretation was going to be very black and white, and if it was all wrong, then at least I'd know to stop wasting my time.
After the organiser had been given the report, she came bursting into the class, unable to contain herself about how accurate it had been. Everyone was amazed, but most of all me, because I didn't get the reaction I was expecting to get. But it still didn't convince me that there was anything to astrology. I just thought it was incredibly good luck that what I had written had happened to match reality. Other people thought I knew what I was doing, but I was very aware that I didn't and that I'd just cobbled together some random comments that somehow fell into place. And I still decided that I must have left my comments too open to interpretation, or that she'd overlooked parts that weren't relevant because of the bits that were.
Q: It sounds like you were still pretty much a sceptic. So, why did you carry on with astrology?
Regardless of whether I believed in it, my first exposure to astrology as a system left me intrigued - because of the way it presented ideas to me that I'd never had the chance to explore before. I have always been interested in people and in understanding their emotional and instinctive reactions. I think that, even as a child, I was fascinated by observing people and being able to play psychological games with them. So, initially, it was the psychological element of astrology that drew me into it, and I simply suspended the need for belief. I was pregnant with my third child at this time and running a business, so I didn't get much time for myself or for contemplating things like "what is the meaning of life, anyway?" Astrology gave me an avenue to investigate my own thoughts and reflections on life and to develop an interest in philosophy and cultural and historical insights. I was always fascinated by that aspect of it. That led me to eventually enrol in the Faculty [of Astrological Studies] correspondence course; I enjoyed the intellectual challenge of the exercises, and they gave me a valid reason to make time for myself at night when the children were asleep and the house was quiet.
Two years after I started studying astrology, during which I had suspended my disbelief for the sake of the pleasure it gave me to study it, I remember being struck by the realisation that astrology actually works! Up until then, it had really been the means through which I developed a lot of other latent interests. It was a very powerful moment in which I let go of my innate disbelief, and realised I loved the subject and trusted it completely.
Q: What happened? Did this realisation dawn because of some particular chart reading, or was it just a result of sitting and pondering? And do you have a chart for that moment?
I don't have a chart for the moment, but I have often thought of it, and sometime afterwards, I realised I was having my Jupiter return at the time. Jupiter is on the Midheaven of my chart, with Neptune in a close trine from the 5th house. I remembered it as a very positive Jupiter-Neptune experience because of the idealistic sense of pure love, trust, and expansion of mind.
I was looking at a chart at the time; I can't remember whose chart it was, but this time, instead of analysing it (like I usually did), I just lost myself in it. It was like a momentary lack of concentration where the creative part of my brain must have found time to rise up and kick a bit a space for itself alongside the rational part. Before that, my approach to "studying" a chart was to take each part of it to pieces and make lots of little notes that I later had to wrestle with to rule out the contradictions and generate themes for my analysis. But, this time, the connection of everything to everything just made perfect sense, and I had some sort of emotional or sympathetic reaction to the energy of that chart. I felt very strongly affected by it. I'm sure it's a common experience amongst astrologers that you start to feel the energy of the chart, for example to the extent that you feel the physical disabilities
of the person whose chart you are looking at and become affected by their manner of expression and sense of humour. But it was my first experience of reading a chart as a whole, where everything fit perfectly and nothing left me confused.
Appropriately, I was on my knees bending over the chart. I remember that because, although this didn't occur to me until later, there was a quality of feeling very special, but also very humble and blessed; that was really why I was so awed by it.
Of course, logically, it was probably the turning point where I simply relaxed into astrology and let all the bits I'd been learning fall into place so that I could express it fluently. Before that, I thought I'd never get the hang of interpretation and wondered how some people were able to make a living as astrologers because the work involved seemed endless. The moment was more magical for me because of the sense that I had "found" my way to astrology (or astrology had found me
), despite all the odds: an initial disinterest, a cynical approach, a disapproving family, ridiculing friends. Lots of practicalities had made me feel I was acting selfishly to pursue my study of astrology, and there were limits to how far I could allow myself to go with it. So it was also the realisation at that time that all the barriers had been removed. Life had conspired to find ways for me to pay for the courses and books I needed, despite my concerns about the cost, to give me the time I thought I didn't have, and I'd slowly gained the support of my friends, and family, who were starting to think that if I liked astrology so much, there must be something in it.
Q: Presumably, you learned modern astrology to start with. So, how did you get interested in horary and traditional techniques?
It is a similar story to what you will have heard from other people who turned from modern to traditional techniques in the late 80s. Initially, modern astrology seems to hold such promise, and the psychological element is very satisfying. There is a feeling of so much to learn and so many useful techniques to master. But eventually, I felt that, no matter how many techniques I threw into the interpretation, none of them were revealing more depth of detail; they just brought more of the same. I knew that astrology was capable of delivering more than that. The psychological element was an important part of it, but I knew that astrology should be capable of describing life in much more vivid detail; there were actual events that I ought to be able to discern, not just emotional reactions and "trends of experience."
Although my modern training had opened me up to a lot of new perspectives, it had also knocked out of me all the expectation of accuracy and precision. I was being taught to compile interpretations that reminded me of the ones I had disliked at the beginning - very long and wordy, high on psychological principles, low on actual real-life content. I knew this was pleasing to my tutors, who were taking me down that direction, but I was getting increasingly dissatisfied and unmotivated - and astrology, as I was developing it, didn't seem to match the expectations of people I knew who wanted chart interpretations. In terms of offering potential client satisfaction, it struck me that there was something more valuable in my clumsy and na´ve first attempt, where I'd relied on nothing more than the Parkers' book and the inclination to let astrology sink or swim.
I carried on like this for a while, but in the end I lost all the pleasure and motivation. I felt astrology was much more powerful than the way I was being taught to express it, but I didn't know how to develop myself towards that. And it was clear that the training I was receiving wasn't going to deliver. So, I dropped out. I felt quite dejected, but I couldn't find a good reason to carry on. None of the books I was reading were stimulating me or holding my attention. I felt saturated by psychological analysis and rational debate - and drained of inspiration.
Q: So, then what happened?
Another of life's conspiracies. About a year before this, I had heard about a book called Christian Astrology which was very expensive, but because I was so curious to read everything that I could at that time, I put it on my Christmas present list. But I didn't get it. Six months after "giving up" on astrology, my husband eventually surprised me with the book. I think I made some disparaging remark about his inept sense of timing - to buy me a book about a subject I'd lost interest in six months before. [smiles]
I stuck it somewhere and forgot about it. Months later, I was moving furniture around, came across it, and flicked through it. It didn't mean much to me, so I put it back. I had several occasions when I felt obliged to read it, just because it was a present, but each time, I couldn't gather enough interest or get past the first few pages. Eventually, one night, I picked it up and made a committed attempt to read it. The old-fashioned language, typeface, and weird spellings completely put me off - I couldn't understand it. Eventually I got really frustrated with it and ended up throwing it on the floor.
I was quite shocked to realise how angry this book was making me feel. It seemed like I was having some kind of mental battle with it. I put it back on the shelf but couldn't take my thoughts off it. I was in and out of the book all night, not able to settle into it but not able to settle into anything else either. Sometimes, I'd get through quite a few pages - but then I'd realise that I was only so far along because I hadn't understood what I was reading and had let my thoughts drift somewhere else.
Finally, I decided that I was not going to be defeated. But instead of expecting this "William Lilly" to talk to me in my language, I would make the attempt to listen to him in his language. I mentally visualised him sitting in the chair across from me, speaking the words as I read them. This was the only way that I could control my eagerness to "get through" the book, so I proceeded to read it at a pace where I could absorb it slowly and take it in. If there was a word I was unfamiliar with, I visualised Lilly instructing me to hold back on my impatience as all will be explained in due course. After a few pages
I was completely engrossed and couldn't put the book down. Even now, whenever I refer to the book, I never feel as if I am just looking up a comment but that I am "consulting" with Lilly, who sometimes laughs at my frustration and impatience.
You have to take this attitude with Christian Astrology. If you really want to understand Lilly's approach, you need to let him speak to you. This just isn't a book you "get through," and you can't rush the process; deeper meanings are always revealing themselves. Every time I re-read a passage from Lilly, I discover a deeper principle that I didn't recognise before.
It's not that Lilly was perfect or that his book was some kind of "sacred" authority. Of course not! Christian Astrology wouldn't be anywhere near as enduring if it wasn't for the way that Lilly appears in his text complete with his flaws and personal frustrations. That is part of what I find so fascinating about this work, that he somehow left his impression in it, like the spirit of a mature astrologer who wants to pass on the benefits of his own experience - the struggles as well as the achievements. Anyone can tap into that and get a wealth of wisdom out of it, providing you are prepared to enter his world and take the trouble to look at astrology through his eyes.
That doesn't mean you should stay there, of course. I hate to see horary judgements written as if Lilly had composed them in the 17th century! Lilly expressed himself according to the style of his day, and every astrologer should do the same. I don't see any conflict in bringing psychological understanding into horary either; Lilly did so, though discreetly. Psychological insight is actually quite essential and very easily incorporated into horary, providing you use it to elucidate the meaning of traditional methods and don't distort the techniques. The techniques need to be preserved, because they are so effective for providing description and detail, so we can get a finely tuned understanding of how a situation has arisen and where it is heading.
Q: I wonder if you could describe a reading or two which shows astrology working with the kind of precision you're talking about.
One situation, which wasn't just dependent on horary, was where I did a reading for the manager of the company involved in the printing of the Traditional Astrologer magazine and the reprints I used to supply. He would see these strange, obscure texts being brought in for reproduction. When he asked about them and I explained what they were, he made it very clear he was a sceptic. One day he asked me - in that manner that sounds like somebody is putting you to the test - if I could tell him if and when his wife would get pregnant. I did the chart, but I saw a pregnancy followed by a miscarriage. I spoke to him about that but explained that sometimes these things happen for a reason, to bring undiscovered problems to light, and that he shouldn't take that as an indication that they would never have more children. (They had one son but had been trying for another child for more than ten years.)
Later, he announced that his wife was pregnant, and I congratulated him; then, sadly, she miscarried, and I commiserated. We didn't really talk about the horary - to be honest, I felt quite bad about it, and he seemed to become even more skeptical in his attitude.
Quite a while afterwards, after not mentioning astrology at all, he suddenly said he would be interested in having his birth chart properly interpreted, "just out of curiosity." We made an appointment, and a week later I gave him a reading, based on his birth chart and transits, but I also did a horary chart for the time he asked for the consultation, to get more detail on what was concerning him most. (I usually do this when I give a birth chart reading, or I set a chart for the start of the consultation and read it exactly as I would a horary.)
During the process, I remember him going ashen as I went into detail about his life, what was happening around him, his relationships, and the situations he was involved in. I warned him that, during the weekend, the Moon was hitting a prominent collection of hard contacts, so he needed to avoid acting rashly, because the chart was suggestive of the kind of sudden stresses that we find with such things as car accidents (I think there was an emphasis on Mars-Mercury-Uranus contacts). He asked about the pregnancy matter, and I categorically stated that his wife was already pregnant with a baby girl. She obviously wasn't aware of this yet, because it was so recent, but I said the chart was undeniably clear that the conception had already happened, and that the pregnancy would be successful. He totally rejected this and said it was impossible, but I was convinced and insisted on it. At the end of the reading, when I asked if he felt it was informative, he just said that it left him feeling "shaky" because it was so hard to take in the consequence of everything I had said.
Afterwards, always, that's when I get my doubts. I was kicking myself for not saying something safer, like "I'm sure she'll have a successful pregnancy soon." I know how disturbing it is to have hopes raised and then crashed to the ground. But when I am in the process of consultation my mind shifts away from the purely rational, and that wasn't what the chart indicated; the significators for his wife's pregnancy were very positive, but they were also separating, so it had to have already happened. The technique constrained me, so it wasn't possible to interpret it any other way.
I didn't see him until the next week when I went in to collect some magazines. As I entered the building, he was gushing: "If I didn't believe in astrology before, I do now! My wife has just been confirmed pregnant and some idiot drove into the back of my car on Saturday, even though I was driving carefully." Some part of my rational brain still thinks I am being very lucky, or that I am 'cheating' because I don't really know this stuff myself, I'm only reading what is in the chart. Part of me still has the urge to try and find some kind of angle to this. But then you think about the odds of this sort of situation and you realize that 'lucky guesswork' really can't account for it. (They had a baby girl, of course, and I subsequently worked on a number of business horaries for this man).
Q: You said a little earlier that psychological insight and horary work are perfectly compatible. I wonder if you could say something more about that?
Many horaries don't necessarily predict something that is going to happen; they are about exploring some kind of emotional problem that is stopping the querent from living life to the full. This can happen a lot in relationship charts where the querent needs a reality check, because they need to "let go" and move on from someone they are convinced is their soul mate. We might think that we are just in the rather negative business of disappointing people in their hopes and dreams, but often horary astrology presents a very valuable opportunity to help them out of a harmful self-delusion.
There is one particularly poignant example which I have demonstrated a few times and this chart usually breaks down some barriers amongst modern astrologers who don't care for horary or traditional techniques. The question came from a mother who was asking about the whereabouts of her missing son, who had "disappeared" in a shipping accident five years before. She refused to accept that he was dead and spoke about how her life had been one tragic event after another since the night it happened. She wouldn't tolerate anyone trying to convince her that her son had died; she said she would know if this was the case, but she was so sure that he was alive (suffering from memory loss) that she hadn't shed one tear, had refused to attend his memorial service, and had thrown out any friends who had tried to persuade her otherwise. Her intolerance of people who tried to get her to see the situation differently had caused her to lose her marriage, her friends, her job, and her health; she was struggling for money, and the week before she asked the question, there was a fire in her home, so the house had been destroyed and she felt that she was left with nothing, and no hope, only the painful need to discover what had happened to her son.
The chart is very powerful in how it deals with the issues involved and connects them all to an underlying cause of denying her son's death. Fortunately, the woman had been to one of my talks, so she knew enough about the techniques I used for me to let her see for herself just how clear the chart was in describing the manner of his death. She was signified by Saturn retrograde in Pisces, very appropriate for a woman in denial, unable to cry and express her grief. Her son's significator was separating from hers by opposition (showing the painful and abrupt separation between them); it was located in the 8th house, combust, and separated by five degrees from the 8th-house ruler. There was no alternate judgement possible but that he had drowned in the accident.
Her significator was retrograding to the opposition of the 8th-house ruler, showing her need to return to an unprocessed past event which had to be confronted despite the pain involved. I explained that death normally involves a process of loss, grief, acceptance, and then recovery, but by denying her grief in the one loss she couldn't bear to face, she was trapped on the threshold of loss, so nothing in her life was able to be creative or productive. I knew the consultation was successful when she finally broke down and started to cry. The purpose of this chart was to get her out of her own denial and put her in touch with the grief she was rejecting. Horary charts don't have to be about making predictions for the future; they are only about understanding the problem that concerns the clients and finding the best way to help them deal with it productively. Very often, that involves taking clients back to a point in the past, encouraging them to break through their fears, and allowing them to look at their own issues clearly.
Q: These sound like very special readings. Do you find that astrology always works so well for you?
I would have to say that all horaries are special. I can't understand it when astrologers talk about "percentages of success." I have never experienced a chart being "wrong" or in some way not useful - providing it is a sincere question received personally from the querent about a situation they are directly involved in, and there is no manipulation or dishonesty in the question. And by "sincere" I mean pertinent and touching upon a real issue, not just that they really, really want to know (or think they do). I don't believe that horary is as reliable in any other circumstance, such as predicting results of sports contests, political events, or "third-party" horaries (where someone is asking about someone else's business). The closer you get to something fundamentally important, the more reliable and powerful the astrology is. So, if astrologers are finding that only some of their charts "perform," they ought to reflect upon the kinds of issues they are dealing with and whether they are too busy trying to get a successful prediction to see the bigger, or the deeper, issue.
But there are lots of questions that I instinctively know I don't want to get involved in, usually because when I explore the issue there doesn't seem to be any way I can bring a positive benefit to the client. For example, I had one lady ask if I would do a horary one morning just after an interview, to tell her the results of the phone call she was expecting that afternoon. I see no point in that; she may as well just wait and see. It's too late for me to make a difference or offer any suggestions, and I don't like it when people try to use horary to "test something out" or just to satisfy their whims. I also can't relate to the idea of horary astrologers giving one word, 'yes or no' answers - I think that so undervalues what we can and should be doing with horary that it is just incomprehensible to me. I use my common sense to filter out the questions that don't seem to be appropriate. Consequently, it seems to be very rare that I get charts showing the traditional warnings against judgement. Of course, you often get people disguising what they really want to know behind a contrived question - and people who don't realise that beneath the question they are asking lies a much deeper issue that deserves to be explored. But the chart reveals what the problem really is, so the words of questions are less important to me than the attitude of the person I'm working with. If the querent is honestly upset or really concerned about something, or if they have a strong commitment and focus to the question, then I think you can guarantee the chart will be clear and meaningful.
Q: I remember you wrote up the astrology of your illness in the penultimate issue of The Traditional Astrologer (March, 1999). Without asking you to go over old ground, I wonder if you could explain what role astrology played in your dealing with what must have been a hugely traumatic episode?
In a broad sense, astrology made me much more informed about what I was suffering from and the likely consequences of it than any of the conflicting advice I had received from the several doctors and consultants involved. I started going dizzy and then learned that I had a brain tumour whilst I was lecturing in Australia (October, 1998), on quite an intensive tour where I was pulling in time for health checks during lunch hours. I saw the doctor in Adelaide, the consultant in Brisbane, and received my results the day I flew to Sydney. I was literally all over the place and buffeted between "you probably don't have this" to "I'm sure you don't have this, but it would be very serious if you did" to "yes, you do have it, but I'm sure you'll be fine, don't worry"!
Whenever someone suggested a possibility, first "it might be worth you seeing a consultant," then "it might be worth you having a scan," etc., I drew up a chart to check out the reality of the concern, expecting it would show that my fears were groundless. But all of the charts were very clear in indicating that the tumour was real and a problem that needed to be dealt with. So, I knew what was happening even before the tests, let alone the results. And, of course, I had other astrologers around me - they knew what was happening, too.
Although the charts revealed a serious problem, they also indicated that the tumour would be benign and not malign, and that took some of my fear away from the start. The last chart I did was the event chart for the MRI brain scan, and that was actually quite scary - but only in the sense that it confirmed the reality of the problem and the serious consequences of it not being attended to. Honestly, I was more in awe of the clarity of the chart. It made me very certain of what to expect, and I marvelled all over again how the symbolism in a chart set for a moment I had no control over could be so clear and descriptive. It made me reflect upon how we really don't need to try to elect the best moment for things to happen, because everything happens at the perfect moment anyway, and things that are meant to be, will be. So, from possibly the most threatening chart I've ever done for myself, I experienced the greatest sense of calm, and the realisation that life's natural rhythm is sublime. I also knew that, although the event was worrisome, it could have been a lot more serious but for the weird sequence of events that allowed me to discover the tumour much earlier than I could have done. So, I couldn't help feeling that my interests were being looked after, and because of that, I didn't really have anything to fear.
That was the last chart I did for several years. Of course, the whole experience was a shock to begin with, but ever since that time, I've had a much greater belief that we don't need to manipulate our actions towards astrology by electing times to do things, or worry about the consequences of hard transits or directions. We should just do what life stirs us to do at the time it stirs us to do it. Astrology helped me to cope with that experience, but the experience itself has had a deep impact upon my relationship with astrology. What I realised at that time was, because of my belief in astrology and the sense of trust it has given me, I know I don't have to keep looking at astrology to understand how to live my life. The real issue is much less about looking ahead to the future as making full use of the here and now. So, as long as we use our judgement and aim to apply wisdom and a sense of conscience, there are no upcoming "bad-transit periods" that we need to waste time worrying about. All of them are bringing something useful - experiences that we need even though it's often hard to see why at the time. Because of that view, I barely ever look at what is going on in my birth chart anymore.
I understand that, after you recovered from your illness, you got back into astrology mainly by creating your Web site. Anyone who has visited the Skyscript Web site will know that it looks great but, more importantly, it's a huge resource of astrological information. I don't know anywhere else on the Web where you get the same intelligent debate as on the Skyscript forum. So, it seems to me that the site epitomises a common thread which I see running through all your astrological ventures - namely, a desire to make information available and accessible in a form that people can understand. In that way, your aim is similar to the one Lilly had in writing Christian Astrology. Do you see it that way?
Perhaps there is an element of that in it. Not everyone is in an easy position to attend good astrology classes, and there are lots of students who are still not encouraged to explore the value of the history and development of astrological ideas. So many astrologers are being taught to use techniques without any explanation of the underlying philosophy that supports them; then, a lot of astrologers are still unaware that traditional techniques exist which would allow them to add more definition and depth to their interpretations.
So, I do want to be involved in helping to bring an awareness of this and, more importantly, to be involved in the process of exemplifying traditional techniques so they can be understood within their proper context. But I certainly don't want to oversimplify techniques such as horary or make them so easily available that they are devalued by people who try to use them without proper commitment, training, reflection, and discrimination.
I am concerned about the Web, in that regard. Even though I try to make sure that the information on Skyscript is of good quality, I see the danger of people thinking that practising horary requires no more than reading a few articles and asking a question. Being a beginner is not the problem - we all start somewhere - but a student once said, after a course in horary, "I know just enough now to be dangerous with this." Although it was a joke which didn't apply to her, there are some people who do bring that phrase to mind! This is a problem that our generation needs to think about - part of me strives to help make the information accesible, but part of me believes that the information is put to much better use if someone has had to stretch themselves to get access to it.
Q: You seem to have a very clear, black-and-white approach to life. I'm thinking specifically of how you gave astrology up completely for some years. And I'm wondering whether this character trait might have something to do with why you find that astrology works so clearly. It often strikes me that doubt, or a half-hearted approach, can prevent anything useful coming out of a reading - in fact, you alluded to this earlier. So, well, let me make the question as broad as possible: What qualities, would you say, make a good astrologer?
First of all, doubt is something that we all have to deal with, because even people who have a very strong conviction about astrology will still experience doubt in themselves and their own abilities when they first start to perform it as a service. After all, the claims we make about astrology are quite monumental. The half-hearted approach could well be a response to that - "I don't want to get this wrong, so I'll play it safe and avoid saying anything too specific." We can't avoid the doubt, but since we base our profession upon claiming to help other people overcome theirs, then we ought to be competent at keeping our own fear in place and not allow the quality of our work to be affected by fear. Some students need to be encouraged to pretend to be confident to begin with, because their fear-ridden doubts make them freeze at a time when they need to be creative. They just need to get into the habit of knowing when to respond to doubt and when to ignore it. Ultimately, they also need to realise that fears can only be overcome when there is a willingness to face up to them in the full acceptance of the risks involved. This often requires a leap of faith, and astrologers don't get anywhere without taking at least a few of those.
There's a process involved in developing confidence. I personally found the experience of moving into professional practice nerve-wracking. I was riddled with doubts about my abilities for a long time - before and after every consultation. I used to think it is only a matter of time before someone calls to complain that none of the things I said six months ago came true. Every time a past client called and introduced themselves, my heart would stop - but they'd be calling to thank me and ask for some more work. It took me at least five years to get over the worst of my insecurities about that. So, I don't think it is natural for anyone to be devoid of doubt when it comes to the practice of astrology, no matter how much they believe in the system as a whole. But the things that struck me as being a big risk to comment upon in the early days now go unnoticed as too obvious to hesitate over. As for being very "black and white" in my approach, that's only after I make decisions, and I usually put myself into positions where I can't turn back, because otherwise I know I will. [smiles] You have no idea how much I struggle to make decisions in the first place; I often prevaricate and convince myself that I need to consider everything.
As for the qualities that make a "good astrologer," they can be quite variable - and it depends upon how you're applying the definition. Do you mean a good, effective, consulting astrologer (as opposed to someone who understands the theory of it and talks about it in the abstract)? It's usual to expect any subject's "experts" to be good in the practice of it, yet we have this strange situation in astrology where quite a few of our experts (authors, lecturers, commentators, and researchers) aren't naturally good, or at least relaxed, in one-to-one consultations, and by their own admission seek to avoid them. That might be put down to the fact that clever people spend much of their lives buried in books, yet astrology requires good "people skills," so the best consulting astrologers are not necessarily the astrologers with the most well known names or even the ones who are most educated in the techniques involved.
Q: So, some astrologers hold themselves back - just wanting to avoid being wrong, period - and don't commit themselves fully, either by not reading charts at all or, as you say, being so vague that they can never really be wrong.
Yes, well I think the problem is that a lot of astrologers acquire the theoretical knowledge of how to interpret a chart but don't simultaneously develop the confidence or the skills required to create a sound judgement and deliver that effectively. So, we have some very knowledgeable astrologers building their reputations on analysing what other astrologers do and offering insightful critiques of other people's techniques, yet they can't demonstrate the effectiveness of these in their own work. I've also heard a lot of astrologers admit that, after graduating from reputable courses, they couldn't take the leap of faith required to put everything they'd learned into practice. And some astrologers remain "perpetual students" addicted to learning more and more, investigating this approach and that approach, so they know an awful lot, but they don't do charts or would never venture to share their judgement with someone else, publicly or privately.
I'm sure there is a problem with how most astrologers are educated. The onus seems to be very strongly on developing rational knowledge of techniques, with not nearly enough focus on training people how to put them to work in real-life situations. I'd like to see more students encouraged to study using a structured approach but placed in situations where they need to make judgements with no books to refer to, so that they get used to the process of overcoming their doubts and realising that the chart in front of them, and their own relationship with the symbolism, are the only things that matter in the end. Before Spiritualist mediums work in churches, whilst they are in development, they go through a process of being called a "fledgling," where they are put into the same situation as qualified mediums and expected to conquer their fears of the process. But they have a safety net, because people are aware that they are only learning, so it's not a big deal if they make a mistake, and the expectations aren't out of proportion to what they can feasibly deliver.
I'm not endorsing people reading charts any way they like, but this sort of experience actually makes you realise how important it is to study the techniques, understand the method you are working with, and learn the symbolism more completely! So many people have spent years studying astrology only to end up as "hindsight readers" or interpreters of charts with such wide significance that they know no one is going to take them to task over it, or the judgement cannot possibly be proved right or wrong. When someone is doing this, they are still regarding astrology as something outside of themselves, rather than an art that becomes illuminated through their own engagement with it. It's as if they are thinking: "The chances of me saying something that is wrong are considerably increased by the act of saying anything at all."
My bottom-line opinion on this is that if someone has the will and desire to be a good astrologer, and by that I mean they want to do astrology well, rather than chasing the 'cuedos' of being known as a 'good astrologer', then no character-inclination or personality-type or personal incapacity exists that will stop that person from being a good astrologer, providing they maintain their integrity and invest in the necessary experience.
Thanks, Deborah, for making time for this interview. It's been absolutely fascinating, and frankly I'm in awe of your ability to pull so much knowledge together in so practical a way. You've given a huge amount to the astrological community, so thank you indeed!
has practised astrology since 1976. His other interests include Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta. Astrology in the Year Zero
published in 2000, resulted from Garry's study of astrology - in particular, from his investigation of the philosophy and assumptions that underpin the subject. His articles and lectures have appeared under the aegis of groups including the Astrological Association of Great Britain, the Astrological Lodge, the Company of Astrologers, the Urania Trust, the Standing Conference on Organizational Symbolism, The Mountain Astrologer, and Ascella. He is currently working on a PhD about astrology and truth at the University of Wales, Trinity St. David.
Visit Garry's website at http://www.astrozero.co.uk/
© Garry Phillipson, 2005 - all rights reserved. Published online, March 2009.