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Astrology, Patriarchy and Postmodernism

Copyright 1999 by Bill Sheeran. All Rights Reserved.

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Cultural Bifurcations
This is a big question. In beginning to address it, it makes sense to start with a highly simplistic overview. In relation to the history of astrology, I'd like to propose three major periods of transition, or cultural bifurcations. They coincide with the invention of the wheel (circa 4000-3000 B.C.E.) [4], the beginning of the scientific revolution (circa 16th-17th centuries), and the latter half of the 20th century, correlating with the Pre-Modern, the Modern and the Post-Modern eras respectively. Each period represents a broad cultural backdrop within which astrology has had an evolving social presence. A key point I wish to make below is that despite the crisis which the Modern era has created for astrology, it nevertheless shares common ground with the Pre-Modern era in that both give a dominant expression to the desire for order, combined with a positive rejection of chaos (the formless, unfathomable well spring from which order emerges). In the current Post-Modern era this symmetry seems to be breaking in significant ways, which has implications for the astrology of the future.

Astrology and the Pre-Modern Era
The investing of meaning and power in celestial bodies goes back beyond the time of the earliest written mythologies of Sumer (circa 3,000 BCE) into the mists of prehistory. The discovery of the wheel (and the consequent ability to transport large amounts of foodstuffs to central storage points) facilitated an agrarian revolution and the beginnings of urbanisation. This helped to nurture the emergence of what is called patriarchy, a process which slowly got underway in the general period of 5000-3000B.C.E. in the region of what is now Iraq and its surrounding territory, maturing fully during the following two millennia [5]. Patriarchy was originally a social system geared towards the creation of stable societies, uniform social ideals and cultural traditions, economic growth, the protection of the communal harvest, etc.. In such a social context, order becomes a primary virtue. In keeping with the premise that the form which astrology takes is to a degree culturally determined, one can imagine that the shift from nomadic to agrarian to urban life styles would have an impact in this regard. Without wishing to deny its earlier manifestations, the recognisable form of the astrology we practice is largely based on the blending of Mesopotamian astral divination with Greek mathematics and astronomy from approximately the 6th century B.C.E onwards in the Pre-Modern era. This places its roots firmly in the period when patriarchy already held sway in the Mediterranean region.

For 2000 years, astrology featured as an integral part of the European cultural map. As a system it mediated understanding on a cosmological level, and in relation to climate, health, politics, relationships, etc. It was consistent to one extent or another with the philosophies of major figures such as Plato and Aristotle, and their later champions such as Thomas Aquinas in the medieval period. Naturally, it provoked argument, whether along populist vs esoteric or judicial vs. natural astrology lines, etc. The encroachment of blatant superstition into astrology has also been a perennial focus for criticism, and still is today. However, the outcome of such debates rarely entailed a complete denial of astrology. Instead a serious critique of underlying suppositions and some of the practical applications of astrology ensued (especially in relation to divinatory astrology). Nonetheless, a precursor to astrology's fall from grace and the birth of modern astronomy was the division during the Renaissance between those who perceived astrology in more objective terms ("mathematical or scientific astrology"), and those who had strong subjectivist leanings [6].

This division became more polarised during the cultural bifurcation that separated the Modern from the Pre-Modern era, and which saw the launch of two highly significant and characteristic developments. One of these was the formulation of scientific method, a logical approach to experimentation with a view to establishing objective truth. The other was the emergence of the doctrine of materialism. This held that whatever exists is either matter, or entirely dependant on matter for its existence. Astrology wilted in the face of these new truth criteria. It became stranded on the receding cliffs of the Pre-Modern worldview, submitting without a murmur in a strikingly short period of time. Astrology stopped making sense, inducing a "cognitive dissonance" among those embracing the new perspectives. This mutual alienation has created the illusion of complete separation between the old and the new.

Astrology and the Modern Era
Astrology in the west had a pretty rough ride during the 18th and 19th centuries [7]. Enlightenment thinking sought to subject all received wisdom to the gaze of reason, and to banish the darkness of superstition or enslavement to belief. Astrology could not withstand the interrogation. The ideology of individual freedom paradoxically resided alongside the mechanistic determinism of Newtonian physics, to the detriment of older concepts of astral determinism. The concept of linear progress took hold, prompting an conscious distancing from the traditions of the past. Initially, those who continued to practice astrology adopted a resolutely anti-Modern stance. The dehumanising impact of the industrial revolution, materialism and rationalism, eventually provoked a Romantic reaction in the 19th century. Apart from the outpourings from artists, poets, writers, musicians, etc., an interest in the esoteric and sublime took hold. The quest for "higher truths" counter-balanced the search for material truths. This quintessentially Neptunian response to the excesses of the Uranian Enlightenment produced the Theosophical movement. Its doctrinal blend of Hindu and Neo-Platonic elements provided a fertile ground for the re-emergence of astrology in the Modern era.

However, the new shift in the cognitive landscape during those centuries had an impact, and debates between the more objectively oriented astrologers influenced by Modern ideas and those who operated within the confines of Theosophy started to flow. Typical examples of objectively inclined practitioners include 19th century astrologers A.J.Pearce and Richard Garnett [8]. They attempted to assimilate Enlightenment thinking by advancing the notion of astrology as an applied mathematical science. Both were avid critics of theosophical astrology. They were in the minority though, and the more esoterically toned astrology was the one which asserted itself in the early years of this century. Since the 1940s, the Modern impulse has made a greater impression, whether it be through the work of cosmobiologists such as Rheinhold Ebertin, the beginnings of research as encapsulated by projects such Cyril Fagan's elaboration of siderealism, the statistical research of the Gauquelins, etc.

The Common Ground between Astrology and Science
Although astrology fell from favour during the Modern era, it has been influenced by the currents of the period. Apart from the practical and psychological effects of exclusion and rejection (which in my opinion still echo in the form of an inferiority complex and a difficulty in engaging in the process of self-criticism), the influence of scientific thinking on the one hand, and the reactionary subjectivism of Theosophy on the other, are both evident in 20th century astrology. One could also argue that the lack of a tradition of theoretical or conceptual modelling in contemporary astrology is a legacy of Enlightenment exclusion. However, on probing beneath the surface, it soon becomes clear that despite the crisis of transition between the Pre-Modern and Modern eras, some things remained unchanged.

There is a bridge between the Pre-modern and Modern worlds, constructed from the highly influential philosophy of Plato and Aristotle. The impact of these two philosophers on the evolution of ideas in the west is hard to overestimate, and they provide the twin pillars upon which science and mathematics rest. Astrology is also compatible with these same philosophies. Although they may have engaged on the battlefield 350 years ago, astrology and Modern science are bonded on a deep philosophical level, one which relates to giving primacy to order and structure over evolution and process.

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[4] Chaos Gaia Eros, Ralph Abraham, Harper Collins, New York, 1994 chapter 13, pp 157-167 gives a chronology of the wheel.  back

[5] See The Chalice and the Blade, by Riane Eisler, Harper & Row, New York, 1987  back

[6] Astrology in the Renaissance: The Zodiac of Life, Eugenio Garin, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London 1983 presents arguments from the Renaissance period.  back

[7] For an informative and entertaining discussion of astrology and astrologers in Britain during the Victorian and Edwardian period, see A Confusion of Prophets, Patrick Curry, Collins & Brown, London, 1992  back

[8] A Confusion of Prophets, pp 109-121  back