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Max & Tollers
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Astrology, Divination and Enchantment: The Carter Memorial Lecture (2004) by Patrick Curry

This article presents the transcript of the 2004 Carter Memorial Lecture delivered by Patrick Curry. The choice of the astrologer selected to deliver the Carter Memorial Lecture is decided by the Astrological Association of Great Britain and the Astrological Lodge of London, who undertake this responsibility in rotation. The lecture is delivered as a highlight of the Astrological Association's annual conference and repeated as the first of the Lodge's autumn term of talks and lectures. It is part of the tradition that the lecture is repeated verbatim.

Well, it's not very original but it's true: I feel extremely honoured to be here, doing this, and I would like to thank those responsible for the invitation. I read Charles Carter early in my astrological education with respect, bordering on awe (as well as appreciation of his dry wit), and that hasn't changed.

Still, this Carter Memorial lecture will be a bit different from what you are used to, because I won't be speaking to you primarily as an astrologer, and I won't be showing you any charts. That doesn't mean I am not an astrologer (among other things!). But many years ago I realised that there were, and always would be, quite a few better astrologers than me, whereas almost no one seemed interested in doing what I wanted to do, namely to think about astrology. And what, I asked myself, is the point of doing something that lots of others are doing, often better, rather than something that you in particular - even, perhaps, uniquely - can do, and have to offer? (Sun in Aries - moi?) Of course, my experience of the truth of astrology has been vital in enabling me to think about it in a way that respects its integrity. But what I can best share with you tonight (with all the modesty and understatement of Aries) is some of the fruits of my reflections on astrology.

Another difference is that since an hour and a bit is a long time to listen, I have included a few bits of offstage remarks and dialogue to keep you awake. But I'm not too worried. I intend to have a go at so many sacred astrological cows that you won't all fall asleep at once, anyway. (One of the very few people to whom I showed this in advance suggested I might want to make sure the rear exit here is open and a car is waiting, preferably with the engine running…)

Many of you will already know that I teach in the MA programme in Cultural Astronomy and Astrology at Bath Spa University College. So here is another necessary disclaimer. What I will be saying tonight consists, as is appropriate, of my own ideas; and while they are certainly on offer at Bath, and inevitably inform my teaching, I certainly don't try to insist on them for students. Education, at heart, involves not imposing your ideas but helping people to realise theirs, albeit in a way that enables them to be able to share and discuss those ideas as widely as possible. (Far too many astrologers, for historical reasons that are not their own fault, go around metaphorically talking to themselves and maybe a very few others; so a big part of what we do is to try to make possible new connections and wider conversations.)

Now the central concepts I have found most illuminating for astrology - and which astrology illuminates in turn - are divination, myth, and enchantment. Each one is implicated in the other: divination is only possible in a mythic world, which is precisely an enchanted place. So let me talk a bit about each, and its implications (but especially the last). And those implications are sometimes quite radical.


I will say least about divination because I spend some time on it in my recent book, co-authored with Roy Willis, [1] and I don't like repeating myself. (Moi?) But let me pick up one point. I argue there that astrology, which originated as astromancy, or astral divination - a dialogue with the divine - essentially still is that; and that the paradigmatic question for the gods, or fate, is, 'Should I do x?' This kind of question requires several things: ethics ('should'), a particular action ('do x') and a particular person ('I', or 'we'). So it is not, for example, an inquiry in which the questioner or his or her client has no personal involvement, or the question is trivial; nor is it an abstract religious or philosophical inquiry. These are simply not appropriate kinds of questions in this context. Above all, divinatory astrology involves not prediction but advice, in a way that is as true of nativities as horary: advice concerning a particular relationship, or particular career, or whatever, in as exact a way as possible. This also implies that the quality of an astrological session will depend just as much on the quality of the questions the client brings to it as on your skill as an astrologer.

I still hold to all that. But a student [2] (bless them…) subsequently pointed out to me that there is a special class of questions such as, 'Where is my cat?' which do not seem to involve either ethics or, in the usual sense, advice.

Note, however, that such questions are still not predictive. I think there is something important at stake here. Indeed, it is not too much of a rhetorical liberty to say that the fate of astrology is bound up with how astrologers come to view fate. A predictive view will close down options and present a boon to your enemies. So what is the alternative? Here is Alby Stone in a very important passage on the North European pagan idea of fate - one which I found equally true of classical Graeco-Roman culture. The old English word wyrd

combines all the qualities found in the names of the three nornir: it means 'worth'; 'death'; and 'that which will happen or come to be…'. The shaping of destiny did not stop at birth.... Clearly, fate was perceived as a steady, ongoing process, only fully completed at the end of a lifetime.... [So] to foretell the future is to assume the mantle of the Fates, and thus to create the future. In this way, the constant process of creation is maintained, and although the future has already been written, its shape is constantly being redrawn. [3]

Now I know there is a lot here to think about, so for now, please just try to imagine a fate that is not fixed at birth, but is ongoing, constantly being recreated and negotiated, and never complete for any individual until the moment of death. This is a view which opens doors and retains freedom - it is certainly unwise to reject the advice of the gods or fates, but it is also certainly possible. No problem of so-called free will here - and no pretence that the will is perfectly free, either. (That is, unsituated and unaffected by our desires on the one hand and cosmic circumstances on the other.) So it is also a more realistic view. And about advice, unlike prediction, science has nothing to say.

I am not trying to ban prediction; but I will say that it is not essential to astrology, and I would advise those who must do it to keep some things in mind:

First, since there is a future but it is always liable to change without notice, it follows that, as John Heaton remarked, astrologers can predict but they can't predict when their predictions will be correct.

Second, You can't use prediction to 'prove' anything about astrology. (This is to say nothing of why you would want to try to do such a thing, and who exactly you are trying to convince… And please - if I may - avoid the word 'proof' altogether; there is simply no such thing outside pure mathematics, and even there it's controversial.) If your prediction turns out to be correct, it doesn't show that astrology is 'true', any more than if it turns out to be wrong that shows that astrology is 'false'. Why? Because alternative explanations are always possible (in either case).

Third, here is Michael Wood in a recent book on oracles:

"Prophecies are neither true nor false at the time of their utterance…. [They] are fulfilled or not - or more precisely, they are deemed to have been fulfilled or not. Someone, priest, judge, layperson, a whole culture, has to declare the result… The question is which interpretation counts once the results are in… [Then] the event really does seem inevitable. That is because, given sufficient agreement on the interpretation it is inevitable - now. Not because it had to happen, but because it already has happened." As he adds, "The whole language of truth is strange in this connection." [4]

Finally, isn't every question about the future really one about the present? After all, the present is all there ever is, although it includes both pasts and futures. (Even this way of putting it is strange; how much more than now could there be, or do you want?) I would therefore suggest translating such questions ("Will I win the lottery?" for example) into ones about the present ("I'm worried about my financial security…") and work with that. (In criticising strictly event-oriented predictions, the psychological astrologers were right about this, although that doesn't preclude the kind of precision often associated with horary.)


Fate as an ongoing present - or rather, 'presents' plural - is also the time of myth. "These things never happened," wrote the mythographer Sallust, "but are always." So let's take a closer look at the mythic lining of astrology. I would like to consider two figures in particular. One you will already know of: Hermes-Mercury. Messenger of the gods and bearer of messages back, ignoring boundaries and categories and moving instantly between worlds, 'this' and 'the other' - Hermes, it seems to me, is the patron god not only of shamans but also - even more than Zeus or Saturn or Uranus - of astrologers.

The second figure is much less well-known: Metis, a very ancient goddess, daughter of Oceanus (the sea) and Tethys (rivers and streams), themselves the offspring of Uranus (the heavens) and Gaea (the Earth). Her name means cunning, resourcefulness, and as Zeus' first wife she advised him until, typically, he became insecure and swallowed her up. (She continued to advise him from within, which I think was jolly understanding of her. And is Jupiter always benefic? Mythologically, at least, I have my doubts.) In any case, the child of Zeus and Metis, born from the former's head, was Athena, that ambiguous goddess of military and political strategy; and Athena was the patron and protector of Odysseus. Now where, you might ask, is this going?

Well, classical scholars, in the past couple of decades, have identified metis - defined as 'cunning wisdom' - as an ancient and persistent mode of being alongside Plato's episteme (abstract universal truth) and Aristotle's phronesis (practical skills). Metis was so hard to identify for several reasons: because it is so situated, tied to particular places and occasions, because it therefore did not lend itself to logical exposition and because of the huge value our society has long placed on Plato's abstract Truth. But as a way of thinking, acting and living, it seems to me that metis is much closer to the secret heart of astrology than either of its more philosophically respectable cousins. A metic diviner moves through the world (or rather, worlds) in an ongoing encounter with different moments (not time), places (not space) and what we have come to think of as qualities (not quantity) but which might as well - indeed, would better - be called what they always used to be called, namely spirits.

The same scholars identify Odysseus - together with Penelope, his wife - as exemplars of metis: the cunning wanderer, crossing all of thresholds and negotiating with the various powerful spirits of place to secure safe passage (not to mention a warm bed for the night), and the patient and skilful mistress of the household, beguiling her many waiting suitors. The Church Fathers decidedly did not approve, any more than did Plato - no small recommendation, in my view. (There are other possibilities, of course; Odin is an obvious one, and in 'Eastern' culture, Monkey, as well as the Bodhisattva's reliance on upaya, or 'skilful means'.)

Now some of my students will know that I am rather keen on a book by Sean Kane called Wisdom of the Mythtellers. One of the things Kane points out is that the further back in time one goes - not stopping with the Neolithic pantheons we know such as the Greek, Norse or Celtic, but carrying on into the Mesolithic and Paleolithic eras - the less anthropomorphic deities become, and the more inseparable are spirit and nature. Note: not Spirit, as a universal abstraction that is everywhere and always the same, and not nature as a green machine without intelligence, emotion or agency. This is a living spiritual nature, and it only comes in actual places and moments. Astrologers for far too long have paid homage to the tyrant Time, along with the kind of fixed fate that I criticised earlier: what Geoffrey Cornelius memorably called 'the Machine of Destiny', as opposed to 'the moment of astrology'. As for the Earth - which translates, in practice, as particular places - astrologers seem to have almost forgotten all about it. And that, as many people are starting to realise, however late in the day, is unwise. Isn't it time for a more ecological astrology, too?

Even the classical myths we still know bear traces of this ancient chthonic spirituality - just as our modern truths remain fully and unavoidably mythic. (A common one is what Mary Midgley calls "the myth of mythlessness": a kind of collective psychosis resulting from a coup d'état by Apollo. But Nietschze made a bad mistake to think Dionysian madness is the answer; such oppositions - unlike metic subversion - only prop each other up and keep the whole show on the road.) Let me remind you of the goddess Metis' provenance: ocean, rivers, the heavens or cosmos (not 'universe') and the Earth. Hermes too is a pre-Olympian god, with older roots still. When Apollo arrived on the scene, he took the right of prophecy away from Hermes, as well as killing the Python (i.e., Earth-spirit) and taking charge of the chief Greek oracle at Delphi. Older too than the Olympian gods is Aphrodite. And I was recently delighted to find that not only Metis and Hermes but Aphrodite symbolically unite in the persons of Odysseus and Penelope. Genealogically, Hermes is Odysseus's grandfather, and in addition he was first married to Ameirake who, after being rescued (and you'll have to use your imagination here) by a duck (pçnelops) - a bird sacred to Aphrodite - was also called Penelope.

Max and Tollers

I spent not a few years painstakingly working out my ideas on enchantment only to read, a couple of years ago, a lecture that Max Weber gave in 1919 in which they were all nicely laid out (if a little compressed).[5] And another lecture given by J.R.R. Tolkien in 1938 basically completes the picture.[6] To quote Kurt Vonnegut, "Heigh ho". Still, there are a few details to fill in - certainly where astrology is concerned.

Here are the crucial points that Weber made :
  1. The fate of our times is characterised by rationalisation and intellectualisation and, above all, by the 'disenchantment of the world.' [7]

  2. Does this result from "an increased and general knowledge of the conditions under which one lives"? No. "It means something else, namely the knowledge or belief that if one but wished one could learn it at any time. Hence, it means that principally there are no mysterious incalculable forces that come into play, but rather that one can, in principle, master all things by calculation. This means that the world is disenchanted.

  3. Scientific progress is a fraction, the most important fraction, of the process of intellectualisation which we have been undergoing for thousands of years.

  4. The unity of the primitive image of the world, in which everything was concrete magic, has tended to split into rational cognition and mastery of nature, on the one hand, and into 'mystic' experiences, on the other. [My emphases.]

Tolkien, for his part, made a crucial distinction between magic - which, he pointed out, is about "power in this world" and involves knowledge as power, and the will - and enchantment, which he defined as "the realisation, independent of the conceiving mind, of imagined wonder." So at the heart of enchantment is not will but wonder.

Now I have stated that astrology is essentially divinatory, that divination involves myth (and vice-versa), and that a mythic world is an enchanted one, marked (as Alkis Kontos says) by "mystery and a plurality of spirits".[8] Insofar as this is right, it follows that what astrology offers - not the theory but the practice - is an experience of enchantment.

Further to this point, you may have noticed that we live in a world, as Weber remarked, that is ever-increasingly disenchanted: quantified, privatised, desacralised and commodified. (Before you can successfully sell off something, particularly anything important, you have to turn people into consumers and what is for sale into a thing.) So I would like to add that in such a world, the experience of enchantment might be astrology's chief value. (Of course, wonder can be put to work and indeed, turn a tidy profit. Look at advertising and the mass media, not to mention corporate entertainment, sport and politics. But by then true enchantment, which is literally useless, has died and been replaced with something else, namely glamour.)

I want to say right away that I am not talking about some grand mystical transport or divine revelation about the nature of life, the universe and everything. Enchantment is both concrete - particular, situated and embedded - and magic, meaning enchanted. Surely nearly every astrologer has experienced this - the personal revelation that is spot-on, vouchsafed by the map, but only up to a point, and after that we really know not how; and that accompanying moment of wonder?

That moment is exactly concrete magic. And like Metis-Hermes, it subverts the very distinction, ground into us for millenia by Plato, the Church and now (beginning with Descartes) modern science, between 'spiritual' and 'material', 'subjective' and 'objective', 'mental' and 'physical', 'inner' and 'outer', and so endlessly on.

This characteristic is easily evident in one of the commonest kinds of enchantment (and no less wonderful for that), erotic love; it is the finest particulars of the loved one that are so charged with cosmic significance. At the other end of spectrum - pretty much entirely disenchanted, and certainly disenchanting - is (and here I am borrowing a New Yorker cartoon: a neglected source of wisdom) the man who explains to his suspicious partner, "Of course I love you, I love all women!"

To quote the poet Michael Longley - speaking of poetry but just as applicable to astrology - "when you capture something with precision, you also release its mysterious aura. You don't get the mystery without the precision." (Which captures the mysterious point I am trying to make with great precision!)

Garry Phillipson tells a wonderful story which I would like (with his permission) to borrow. A man is waiting for his bus to arrive. Having left home without his watch, he has no idea of the time. "I wonder what time it is?", he mutters to himself.

An angel appears before him, and says: "It's ten past two".

"Thank you" says the man.

"Not at all", says the angel, and disappears.

Now anyone who thinks that the most important thing about such an event was getting the correct time (and a few astrologers certainly might) has, I suggest, a rather strange sense of priorities. But if it transpired that the angel had supplied the wrong time, there would also have been something seriously awry, something that would have thrown the whole into question. Wonder transcends, but requires, precision.


This requirement is strikingly ignored in some kinds of astrology. As evidence, here is something I received in an email which was so wonderfully awful that I saved it. I think you will recognise the type.

The Harmonic Convergence: This extraordinary configuration is formed when six planets are distributed evenly around the circle in near-perfect symmetry. Even the untrained eye can easily discern the remarkable pattern in this chart, which is being called the harmonic concordance. This pattern occurs everywhere on the Earth, independent of your location. The pattern is known as the Star of David, with the prospect of a major breakthrough in consciousness. It symbolizes an incredible opportunity for humankind to participate in furthering our evolution as a species.

Astrological charts show the Concordance alignment contains a near perfect Grand Sextile/Star of David pattern in the feminine Earth and Water signs, featuring five masculine planets - the Sun, Jupiter, Mars, Saturn and Chiron, along with the Moon. The interaction of these six specific astrological metaphors combines to hold the perfectly appropriate and balanced energies to produce the effect of a planetary shift in consciousness. The Concordance is bringing us the opportunity to graduate into the Christ Consciousness. The eclipse of the moon on November 8 is the opening of the Eye of Ra - solar energies - The eye is a metaphor for the source of creational light…. The transformational energy of Scorpio pours out through earthy Taurus, making our little planet the focus of the improvements.

… all the Stargate portals will be open and will allow you to raise the frequency within your whole electromagnetic field. When 144,000 of us do this, we can control the consciousness on the planet and turn it towards love.

And that's without the references to the Holy Grail vortex, the Cathars, and the Mayan Indian codices… Of course, you will all have noticed the "Supreme Transmutation" that took place last November, when the world turned towards love… No? How very insensitive of you. But apart from the inconvenient fact that nothing of the kind took place, and the pretentious and inflated style, what makes this sort of thing bad astrology? It is cosmic, alright, but is pure generality; there is no precision and nothing personal (even location 'doesn't matter') - so no mystery. And with no mystery, I might add, no truth.

Admittedly, what I have just quoted is a kind of extreme. But there is a great deal of the same kind of thing about that comes closer to home. In astrology, it is usually called 'patterns' or 'cycles'. Now it can be done well (even brilliantly, as by Richard Tarnas); but too often it isn't, shading into New Age nonsense or worse, something along the lines of the Book of Revelations (a text written mainly to bash the Jewish and pagan competition): not just "5 or 6 planets will form a great pentagram" but "Jupiter is approaching Saturn in the fiery triplicity", so we can expect…great changes!

"Governments will fall, new religions appear, and..." (to quote one of the prophets in The Life of Brian) "...[he] shall ride forth on a serpent's back, and the eyes shall be red with the blood of living creatures, and the whore of Babylon shall rise over the hill…"

And so on. (I prefer the 'boring prophet': "And there shall in that time be rumours of things going astray, and there will be a great confusion as to where things really are, and nobody will know where lieth those little things with the sort of raffia work base, that has an attachment…")

Unless you are very judicious, this valid part of astrology quickly oversteps what it can do and falls flat trying to supply what it can't. And repeated, not to say relentless, riffing on the planetary principles involved isn't going to help either. The moral, I think, is an observation by Sean Kane:

"...the knowledge of pattern is the beginning of every practical wisdom."

Essential it may well be, but it is only the beginning of interpretation, and certainly not the end!

Those working with birth-charts are not necessarily in the clear either. The same problem afflicts the 'tendencies' which Alan Leo first suggested should replace 'influences'. The attempt to delineate every major factor in the horoscope, as 'factor', can mean that even the most personal - "with Mars in Scorpio in the 8th you are a highly sexual person" - fails to speak to the person concerned. (Always? Everywhere? With everyone? And even if only with occultists: all of them?) The precisely correct, relevant and therefore healing interpretation is in the birthchart, but the birthchart cannot tell you which one, among all the other possibilities, it is. We could say that is supplied by Hermes (if we ask nicely, and he wants to), but that is only a good name for another mystery.

'Make' it Real

This point leads directly to another. Here is Saul Bellow on a man trying to get to grips with Chicago:

What you didn't pass through your soul didn't even exist…
Thus he had taken it upon himself to pass Chicago through his own soul. A mass of data, terrible, murderous.
It was no easy matter to pass such things through. But there was no other way for reality to happen. Reality didn't exist 'out there.' It began to be real only when the soul found its underlying truth. In generalities there was no coherence ... [9]

Now if the sort of astrology I have just criticised - not only cookbook but distinctly undercooked - is too abstract, you can bet that by the same token it has not been passed through the astrologer's soul; that is, the astrologer does not really know what he or she is talking about. And being unreal to him or her, it is therefore useless to the client too; in which case, you can't even begin to work with it, to change it.

So the work of astrology (as Liz Greene has long insisted) is not only learning the craft, the art, the principles, the rules. Great astrologers from Cardano and Lilly to Carter have always acknowledged that it also requires a certain attitude - not piety but humility. (And as Lilly shows, humility and metic cunning are not mutually exclusive.) What do they of astrology know who only astrology know? The corollary I am suggesting is that although to have lived - to be, as fully as you can, alive to life - does not make anyone a good astrologer, it is difficult to be a good astrologer without it.

How otherwise will you be able to recognise, honour and share with others the astrological planets and stars, those great principles - although 'powers' would be better, and best what their names clearly imply: divinities. (As Roberto Calasso remarks, all we have done since is invent "longer, more numerous, more awkward names, which are less effective.")

Take Venus-Mars contacts in synastry:

"Ooh, you two have a tight Venus-Mars conjunction. Great sex!"

Well, on the one hand, even that much is denied if even one or the other party doesn't take it up and act on it. A song by Richard Thompson includes these lines:

"She said it was destiny
She said it was written somewhere
But if it was destiny
Why am I over here and she's over there?

She said it was in the stars
Something that just had to be
But Venus aligned with Mars
Always really takes it out of me…"

At the other extreme, here is John Cowper Powis:

…[he] was compelled to come to the conclusion that erotic delight has in itself the power of becoming a kind of absolute. He felt as if it became a sort of ultimate essence into which the merely relative emotions of the two preoccupied ones sank - indeed, were so utterly lost that a new identity dominated the field of their united consciousness, the admirable identity of amorousness in itself, the actual spiritual form, or 'psychic being,' of the god Eros! [10]

And this too is possible.

The same is true with all the others. Saturn transits, for example - famously AFOG ('Another *** Opportunity for Growth') - can involve everything from mild inconvenience to a direct encounter with the ancient and tragic flaw that is inherent in life itself, and which every world religion tries to explain but always fails to explain away.


Let me come back to enchantment. What disenchants? According to Weber, it is only a belief; but that belief, when collectively transmitted, encouraged and enforced, becomes very powerful. His word for it is 'rationalisation', which in turn involves belief in a single dominant principle (or god) in relation to which everything can (at least in principle) be ordered, explained and slotted away: in a word, system. And ideally, a "system from which all and everything follows." [11]

So the sine qua non for disenchantment are:
  1. monism, and

  2. universalism.
(These are two sides of the same coin: for a truth, or god, to be universal there can be no others somewhere else, and for it to be single it must be true everywhere and for everyone… whether they like it or not.)

Such a single universal truth comes in two kinds: spiritual (run by religion) and material (run by science). And the famous argument between religion and science is essentially in-house, because both believe that there is such a single universal truth (their version, of course); and both, for this reason, are disenchanting. True, monotheism takes longer and is somewhat more generous; after all, God is a mystery. But eventually the effect is the same ("We'll say what divine mystery is and isn't, thank you very much.").

What, then, of astrology? I have already suggested that the chief value of astrology is to offer an experience of the world - from the most precise detail of your personal life to the stars themselves - as enchanted. The stars really can speak to you. So too, just as remarkably, can squiggles of ink on a piece of paper, connecting you and the stars. (Not 'apparently connecting' - when it happens, they really do!) But there are other implications to consider.

One is this: like 'safe danger', 'foolproof technology', ' a sure-fire investment', 'lower taxes and better public services' and 'casual sex', there is no such thing as a 'science of enchantment'. If, that is, you mean anything like science in the modern sense, which is how - unless you want to go back to talking to yourself again - the word should therefore be used. That science - will-based knowledge of manipulable forces in the service of power - is now our magic! And such magic disenchants. Of course, you may think astrology as a kind of power-knowledge to be commanded by a magus is the thing to have - 'if you can't beat them, join 'em' ('spiritual' version). In that case, there is a difference of values that is probably unbridgeable. But since I am giving the Carter, I will say: that's not astrology, as I know and love it. In any case, there is a choice to be made: you can have a potential System, or you can have the possibility of enchantment, but you cannot have both.

There have been many attempts to turn astrology into a system, to 'rationalise' it. Not surprisingly, they fall into one side or another of the Great Divide. I'll take the 'material' side first. Probably the most influential attempt of all, for us, was Ptolemy's Tetrabiblos. This was a basically Aristotelian programme - which is to say, intended to provide a 'hard', causal explanation - which was later incorporated into Christianity by Aquinas precisely because it conveniently confined astrology to the corporeal world, any spiritual remainder then becoming 'superstition'.

More recently, modern science took over the same job more efficiently. Along the way, universal attraction-at-a-distance - including lunar tides - stopped being part of astrology and became science instead (and I do mean instead: that was how the scientists saw it and still do). Any remainder, once again, became 'superstition', albeit intellectually ignorant bad belief instead of religiously heterodox bad belief.

Now many astrologers seem to have a hankering, a hunger even, for scientific respectability that never fails to amaze me. The motive is entirely understandable: after three hundred and fifty years or so, you want to come in from the cold. But there is more than one way to do so, and this is a particularly hopeless and self-destructive one to choose. Let me try to tell you why.


I am not just thinking of the past two decades of scientific research into astrology, the results of which (I'm sure you've noticed) have been almost entirely negative. True, the original Gauquelin results still stand. But they remain standing in a no-person's land - unexplainable by, and therefore useless to, science, and (since they deny signs, houses, aspects and even, in practice, angular planets) equally useless to astrology. (They can be used in practice by astrologers, of course; that is a different matter.) The day may come when a scientific explanation for Gauquelin's planetary effects will be found. But if it ever did, would that be taken to 'prove' astrology? No; they too will stop being astrology and become part of science.

This is how the language-game of science, in Wittgenstein's term, works. Let me put it another way. The last two decades have also seen a burst of research on science, as well as thinking about it, the results of which (and this is something you may not already know) pretty consistently show that even science isn't scientific in the sense that its spokespersons would like us to believe - the gradual accumulation of knowledge proceeding by, and ever more closely approximating to, the Truth. Talk about modern myths! No one knows the Truth; we have only, we can only ever have, truths. (Yes, including this one.) So a question to ask yourselves is this: if science isn't 'scientific', how absurd is it to try to show that astrology is?

A related article of faith (and that's what it is) among a few astrologers is that what we need, or even 'all' that we need, is some 'testing'… Bless! As if 'testing' was quite simple, really. Just take this bit of astrology, apply a 'test' and hey presto, out pops 'the truth'… Whereas in methodology as she is spoke, every 'solution' generates new problems and more unanswered questions.

By the way, also beware the man (it's usually a man) who says he wants to 'save' or 'purify' or even just 'reform' astrology - find the nugget of gold, separate the wheat from the chaff, etc. This kind of cure is almost guaranteed to be worse than the disease. I confess that I myself once harboured such an ambition; the book was to be called An Alpheus for Astrology (Alpheus being the river Hercules diverted to cleanse the Augean stables) - thus simultaneously glorifying myself and patronising astrology! (I see Tom Cruise…) But youth can be very arrogant, so please forgive me.

Even now, when I've come to my senses, I am actually not opposed to anyone doing scientific research on astrology, and I think it can sometimes even reveal new and interesting things. What I would like to discourage, however, is the dangerously naïve belief that such research will ever - can ever - decisively settle anything. Even the most rigorous statistical results (and what, and how much, will have fallen by the wayside for that?) will still need interpreting, and as I have already mentioned, alternative explanations are always possible; so differences over what those results actually mean will almost certainly remain. (This is not a problem unique to astrology! It may be a problem - if it is a problem - unique to human beings.)

In any case, the very identity of modern science is founded, in part, on not being astrology; or rather, on being not-astrology. Why? Because in order for modern science and its programme of naturalism, mechanism and rationalism to succeed, the stars and planets - the source and object, ever since the Greek philosophers, of the most perfect truth available to human perception - had to be turned from spiritual and qualitatively distinct and unique agents, subjectivities, into fully 'natural', lifeless and quantitatively identical objects. (Note the change from an irreducibly plural pantheon to a single stuff.) So astrology had to be defeated, and for science it remains a heresy: embarrassing if not threatening, and those who still experience the heavens in the old way superstitious if not downright perverse.

This is a game, astrologers, that you cannot win!
  1. "Look: 10 hits out of 16 tries!"
  2. "Hm, very good. But let's talk about methodology. Then there's the stats, of course…"
  1. "But I find this really works."
  2. "I'm sure you do. But of course it's merely anecdotal. Now let's apply some real tests…"
(As in, 'this won't hurt a bit.') The researchers will always find a perfectly good reason, in their terms, why your result isn't valid or doesn't mean what you thought it did; and if that doesn't work (as it almost but not quite has with Gauquelin), they will simply ignore you. After all, there is funding as well as prestige to be considered…

So if you don't like this game (and who in their right mind would?), don't play! Or do you think you can say,
  1. "OK, I'll play, but first these rules will have to go …"
Or perhaps:
  1. "OK, I'll play, but first let's agree that we're actually doing something very different from what everyone else thinks we're doing…"
  2. "Security!"
The Indian laureate physicist C.V. Raman, it is said, would rush home from his laboratory in Calcutta in the 1930s to take a ritual bath ahead of a solar eclipse. When questioned about this, he is reported to have replied, "The Nobel Prize? That was science, a solar eclipse is personal." Yet those seeking official approval want to take what is personal about astrology - the very thing that makes it meaningful to each of us, and turn it into mere science! Actually, in my opinion, the fact that the door is barred is fortunate for astrology, because the price of admission to this particular club is enchantment - your soul.

The attitude I would recommend instead is that of an African diviner who refused to divine for a curious anthropologist (possibly a sceptical one, I don't know). What he said was, "one does not demonstrate or play at divination. It would offend the ancestral spirits to do so." The dignity of this position far outweighs all the possible sneers about it being very convenient. If astrologers themselves don't respect their ritual and tradition, who else will? (But please don't be literal-minded; some of the nicest people I know are anthropologists, so I would say that if they are also astrologers - I mean know it, first-hand, and respect it - then it's surely ok to play!)

This story is the close relative of another one, told by Wittgenstein:

Supposing we met a people who did not regard that [modern physics] as a telling reason … Instead of the physicist, they consult an oracle. (And for that we consider them primitive.) Is it wrong for them to consult an oracle and be guided by it? - If we call this 'wrong' aren't we using our language-game as a base from which to combat theirs? … I said I would 'combat' the other man - but wouldn't I give him reasons. Certainly; but how far do they go? At the end of reasons comes persuasion. (Think what happens when missionaries convert natives.) [12]

Astrologers - we are the natives!


I said earlier that there was another kind of attempt to rationalise and systematise astrology, which therefore also disenchants it. This one is even more popular, because it falls on the other side of the Great Divide - the spiritual side. Its commonest form is Neoplatonism and its psychological versions (much although not all of Jung, Assagioli and others). I'm afraid I shall once more have to take the risk of offending (moi? But with the Moon in Libra I shall pay a price afterwards, don't worry) and ask: is Neoplatonism - undoubtedly a kinder, fluffier sort of system - a radical alternative to science?

No, because it still accepts the divide that enchantment, as concrete magic, brushes aside. True, there is still some room for mystery and therefore humility. But the belief is, nonetheless, that everything ultimately proceeds from, and returns to, the One. And remember Weber's warning: what disenchants is the belief that we can, in principle, master all things by calculation. Pythagorean numbers are still an instance of such calculation! So it may be a roomier and more uplifting prison, but in holding to a single Reality, albeit more 'inner' than 'outer' - indeed, in its very acceptance of that division - Neoplatonism is still a world away from the plural, local, sensuous, mythic and metic world in which astrology is truly at home.

For the same reason, it fails to offer a safe refuge for astrology; its acceptance of system, of 'laws', is all the ticket of admittance that modernity needs.
  1. "So, astrology is a spiritual truth?"
  2. "Yes."
  1. "So its truth isn't random or arbitrary, then?"
  2. "Of course not!"
  1. "Well then, it must leave traces, at least, in the material world. Right?"
  2. "I suppose so…"
  1. "Then they must be tangible and objective traces. Fine! We are in the realm of testable science after all. Now let's see if we can find them…"
By the way, what I have said about Neoplatonism also applies to more recent spiritual systems such as Anthroposophy, and certainly sexier and more chic versions such as that of Ken Wilbur. The latter - aggressively monist, hierarchical and teleological - is at least as rationalising and disenchanting, and comes with considerably more ego investment on the part of its elite, namely the Spiritual Expert.
  1. "I had this amazing experience! I was flying… and the voice said … and then this Light …"
  2. "Hey babe, no problemo: level five, dimension four, third door on the left-hand path. You should check out my new book sometime…"
The question is not can we understand everything but can we really understand - let alone explain - anything? (To answer that we would first have to answer the question, what do we understand by 'understand' and 'explain' - which, of course, only defers the question in an infinite regress…) But let's pull back from the void for a moment.

The point is this: astrology is neither a spiritual system nor a scientific one. Nor, by the same token, is it a theory or a belief. It is no more a set of 'laws', of any kind, than a soup is a recipe; and it can no more be boiled down to such laws than a soup can be back into its ingredients. So it is time to respectfully consign this dream - the dream of astrology as a spiritual system - to history; ours, but history nonetheless. It was shared by Alan Leo, Charles Carter and Dane Rudhyar, as well as by John Addey and Charles Harvey (who also thought that the spiritual truth of astrology would be confirmed by material science). But it's over. That dream, we now know, leads in the end to the dread door of Geoff Dean, a.k.a. Dr. No. And in his way, as far as he goes, he is right!

As for understanding astrology, obviously I believe some understanding is possible, although never perfect or complete. The starting-point I would suggest instead is this: astrology is best considered, in all its essentials, as a ritual and a tradition. The tradition guides the ritual, and the ritual renews the tradition. Both are divinatory,[13] and the kind of divination specifically involves the stars and planets. So the relevant categories, in order of decreasing inclusiveness, goes:

ritual/tradition > divination > astrology.

(There are kinds of rituals and traditions which are not divinatory, just as there are kinds of divination which are not astrological.)

Of explanation, I am not so sure. It is easy enough to 'explain' a dead thing, but a living astrology - in action, in practice, as she flies? In any case, let's be honest about the poverty of our current favourite explanations…
  1. "Synchronicity!"
  2. "Yes."
  1. "Which is exactly what?"
  2. "Oh you know, things happening at the same time as other things… OK, OK, 'Whatever is born or done at this particular moment of time has the quality of this moment of time.'" [14]
  1. "Why?"
  2. "Because it does!"
As for quantum physics, super-string theory and the rest, few of even the best and most highly-trained physicists claim to understand that; so I rather doubt we do. Which leaves that old stand-by, "energies"… [15] Very illuminating, I'm sure. Or at least, comforting; like whistling in the dark. But there is no shame in not knowing!

Certainly we can think about astrology. That's what I try to do (among other things), and maybe help others to do. Why? Because I happen to enjoy doing so (it really does take all kinds…) but also because as humans, we will think about our experience. So it seems perfectly fair to suggest, as I have here, that there are better and worse ways to think about it. What then is the criterion, or at least a rough-and-ready guide, for a good way? Off the top of my head (!): the best ideas about astrology will be ones which

(1) recognise and respect it;

(2) carefully try to discover and theorise the conditions that enable it to happen; and

(3) admit the limits of theorising itself.

I'm sorry if that doesn't sound sufficiently ambitious. To me, it seems more than enough.

Notes & References:
  1 ] Astrology, Science and Culture: Pulling Down the Moon (Oxford: Berg, 2004)
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  2 ] James Brockbank
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  3 ] Wyrd: Fate and Destiny in North European Paganism (London: the author, 1989)
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  4 ] The Road to Delphi: the Life and Afterlife of Oracles (London: Chatto and Windus, 2004)
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  5 ] "Science as a Vocation", available in From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, ed. H.H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills (London: Routlegee, 1991).
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  6 ] "On Fairy-Stories", available in Tree and Leaf (London: HarperCollins)
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  7 ] The original quotation is by Schiller.
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  8 ] "The World Disenchanted, and the Return of Gods and Demons", in The Barbarism of Reason: Max Weber and the Twilight of Enlightenment, ed. A. Horowitz and T. Maley (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994)
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  9 ] The Dean's December (Secker & Warburg, 1982), p. 266
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  10 ] Wolf Solent (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1929), p. 262
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  11 ] Max Horkheimer and Theodor W, Adorno, The Dialectic of Enlightenment (NY: Continuum, 1994 [1944])
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  12 ] On Certainty (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1975), p. 80e
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  13 ] Note that this leaves open the nature of the divinity(s) involved: God, gods, spirits, etc.
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  14 ] C.G. Jung, "Richard Wilhelm: In Memoriam", Collected Works 15
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  15 ] There are no 'energies'; energy, by definition, is a single stuff (a.k.a. matter). The relevant contrast is with qualities.
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Patrick CurryPatrick Curry was born in Canada but has lived in London for more than 30 years. He received his PhD in the history and philosophy of science from University College London, and was taught astrology under the guidance of Zipporah Dobbyns, Richard Idemon and Liz Greene. His books include Prophecy and Power (on early modern astrology), A Confusion of Prophets (on Victorian and Edwardian astrologers) and most recently Astrology, Science and Culture: Pulling Down the Moon (Oxford: Berg Books, 2004), co-authored with Roy Willis. He has also published books on Machiavelli, Tolkien and ecology.

Patrick is currently senior lecturer in the MA programme in Cultural Astronomy and Astrology at Bath Spa University College.


© Patrick Curry, 2004. This paper has previously been published in The Astrological Journal 46:6 (2004) and the Astrology Quarterly 75:1 (2004/5).

Patrick Curry


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