A Philosophy of Astrology #8 ~ The Symbolism

In part 7 of this series we saw that in the Jungian synchronistic worldview, both the internal world (thoughts, dreams etc.) and the external world are amenable to symbolic interpretation. In this post we'll take a closer look at the nature of astrological symbolism.

Philosophically, the Jungian worldview described previously conforms to idealism. On the other hand, the current philosophical fashion in academia is known as materialism or physicalism. Put simply, idealists think of Nature as fundamentally mental, while physicalists defend the position that consciousness is an inexplicable epiphenomenon of matter, and matter is all that really exists. When we examine 20th century 'scientific' research into astrology, unfortunately, the smell of materialism is everywhere.

In the 20th century, research into astrological order typically started with the (implicit) assumption that there have to be physical causes, and that astrological structures must be an effect of these causes. And so electromagnetism became a popular causal scapegoat. Unsurprisingly, the explanatory power of this approach turned out to be somewhat limited. While changes in Earth's electromagnetic field are related to certain behaviors, this mechanism can't account for subtle astrological structures that seem to be rooted in symbolism and association by similarity only (think asteroid astrology).

Fun fact: Bernardo Kastrup, whose interpretation of Jung is crucial for my own views on astrology, has written a useful book about materialism with the provocative title Why materialism is baloney

Michel Gauquelin
The work of Michel and Françoise Gauquelin put scientific astrology on the map in the 20th century, and for that accomplishment they deserve respect. But the Gauquelins did not care too much about astrological symbolism. In fact, they completely dismissed it with typical materialist disdain. In the epilogue of The Cosmic Clocks, titled 'From Light-Gods to Planetary Clocks' Michel Gauquelin writes:

"The sky is not a magic mirror in which our pleasures and pains are reflected. But science does teach us that the whole universe is reflected in a drop of water, that the cosmic rhythms are necessary to the survival of life. Thus we begin to see that our bodies are in fact tied with invisible strings to the cosmos, as was dimly realized in the past. But these strings are not held by planetary gods who make us perform like puppets; they are fields of force known as electricity, magnetism and gravitation. [...] It would be presumptuous to insist that man never gained a glimpse of the truth in six thousand years of astrological investigations. [...] We have seen that glimmers of truth have been prematurely interpreted and distorted and that the early correct intuitions about the cosmic influences on man have degenerated into myth and superstition. Science today reveals and explains cosmic influences to us in new terms, divorced from magic and astrology."

So Gauquelin says that only cosmic influences with a physical cause are real, myth is a degenerate form of superstition that corrupts our brains, and astrology, insofar as it's based on symbolism, is baloney. Of course there's a fundamental issue that's not being addressed: how can the birth charts of eminent athletes be related to Mars, but not to Jupiter or Saturn? In other words: how do the planets get, or exert their specific qualities? What's the qualitative mechanism? 

But of course... electromagnetism!

Theodor Landscheidt
It's quite impossible to characterize the High Court judge, philosopher, astronomer and astrologer Theodor Landscheidt as a staunch materialist. When it came to astronomy and scientific astrology, Landscheidt was pragmatic in the sense that this part of his work was unambiguously materialist (think electromagnetism, gravity, Sun-cycles). On the other hand, this self-confessed mystic wrote a book titled Wir sind Kinder des Lichts (We are children of the Light). Clearly, there are at least two sides to the great, but unfortunately almost forgotten Theodor Landscheidt.

In my opinion, his Golden Aspect-research is Landscheidt's most important contribution to astrology. It reveals that the 'regular' harmonic aspects known to every modern astrologer have a golden ratio-based counterpart. Unfortunately, most astrologers are either unaware of, or in deep denial about the Golden Aspects, which for example explain the 'funny' shape of the so-called Gauquelin plus-zones. Landscheidt conceptualized them as physical forces that balance out, or dampen the orbital disturbances created by harmonic aspects. When meditating on the fact that harmonic aspects are based on simple (Pythagorean) whole number ratio's, while 'Golden' aspects are based on the most irrational number in mathematics, he comes close to the Jungian idea that numbers are archetypes of order, but he holds on to physics:   

"If we step back and scan the bigger picture, it becomes evident that astrological aspects have deep roots that go down to the Platonic realm of mathematical structures encompassing as abstract features as the polarity of rational and irrational numbers. And who would have thought that valid aspects are based on a physical principle that guarantees the stability of dynamical systems including the solar system, our cosmic home."

In 'Wir sind Kinder des Lichts', Landscheidt is much more open about his worldview. He wants us to know that in contrast to the materialist point of view, in a very important and deep sense, the cosmos is a place full of meaning. He talks about cosmic consciousness but symbolically he doesn't stray from the Christian image of God as Light. The pagan Gods of astrology are ignored.

Percy Seymour

Astrophysicist Percy Seymour is an academic who actually had the courage to become a 'mad scientist'. He followed the same, strictly materialist line of reasoning as Gauquelin and the scientist Landscheidt. And again, this position confined him to writing about certain topics that are closely related to astrology, without capturing the essence. Think clocks, calendars and electromagnetism.

One of his more frivolous metaphors is the magnetic melody, a reference to Kepler's Harmony of the Spheres. We're mostly talking sonification here, not music, but still Seymour's criticism of traditional astrology is more nuanced than Gauquelin's blunt rejection. In chapter 11 of The scientific proof of astrology Seymour even speculates that thousands of years ago, humans may have been more sensitive to 'planetary melodies' and he entertains the possibility that combative people were tuned into Martial music while happy people listened to radio Jupiter, which is really cute.  

The nature of astrological symbolism
In essence, astrology isn't about physical chains of cause and effect. It's about association by similarity on a cosmic level. Scientists are interested in things that are measurable. Certain astrological structures are definitely measurable, but we can only study them in a coherent way if we start from a philosophical position and a theory of astrology that allow the symbolism involved to play its proper part.

But what is a symbol? How does it differ from signs, metaphors and so on? How should we think of symbols or symbolism in the context of astrology? There are a few ways to approach these questions. For example, we could try to map Peircean semiotics onto astrology. Or we could look into twelve Jungian definitions of a symbol. But if we take a purely pragmatic approach, astrological symbolism can simply be categorized according to the amount of interpretational wiggle room that actual astrological symbols leave us with. Let's try a basic categorization in simple, relatively unambiguous signs, simple ambiguous symbols and more complex ambiguous symbols.

1. Simple, relatively unambiguous signs
Name-asteroids or 'significators' are one of the great gifts of asteroid astrology. In the realm of astrological symbolism, this is as unambiguous and literal as it gets. Think asteroids named after people, cities, countries, rivers, volcanoes etc. Some examples:

170 Maria (A877 AA)
182 Elsa (A878 CC)
265 Anna (A887 DA)
334 Chicago (A892 QB)
434 Hungaria (A898 RB)

Note that ambiguity can't be separated from context. In a biblical context for example, Anna could be the mother of Maria, who then could be the mother of Jesus. And both Elsa and Anna have acquired new top-of-mind associations after the Disney movie Frozen. 

The same thing is true for 11421 Cardano (1999 LW2), named after Gerolamo Cardano (1501-1576). In a 21st century context Cardano will be associated primarily with a big blockchain/crypto project.

An example of a limit case in terms of interpretational wiggle room would be 23238 Ocasio-Cortez (2000 WU111), named after the American congresswoman. Having said that, we should also expect 54 Alexandra (A858 RA) to function as a personal significator, even tho her first name is Alexandria. The principle at work here is very simple: associative strength trumps correct English spelling.

Here's a practical example: in the birth chart of country legend Johnny Cash, the name-asteroid 10683 Carter (1980 LY) is exactly conjunct the Moon. Of course, June Carter was the name of his second wife and considering the modern, canonical symbolism of the Moon, this makes a lot of symbolical sense (click to enlarge). 

2. Simple, but ambiguous symbols
Personally, i would think of harmonic aspects as relatively simple geometrical signs/symbols. (In fact, Golden Aspects are also simple because of their strong association with stability.) But perhaps more importantly, this middle category contains asteroids that can be interpreted quite easily, altho they're a bit more ambiguous, or less literal, than name-asteroids. These asteroids refer to simple concepts like friendship (Amicitia), trust (Fides and Fiducia), things related to photo and film (Photographica) and so on and so forth.

We could also include 'morphologically adventurous' associations like Pons (Ponzi scheme) or ambiguity caused by differences between languages, as an asteroid name can have different meanings in different languages. Again, the strength of the association is decisive. Furthermore, we could include asteroids that have salient physical or orbital characteristics. These can show up as 'embodied symbolism' and complicate interpretation.

More ambiguous symbols can be misinterpreted more easily. For example, Fides or Fiducia could point to a lack or crisis of trust. The central theme is stated positively, which can be misleading. Another complicating factor is that many asteroids have overlapping meanings. For example, Pinocchio, the character associated with the nose that would grow when he lied, can also point to lack of trust.

3. Complex ambiguous symbols
In the third category we find stars, planets and complex asteroids like Chaos or Ixion. Any object with a name derived from mythology or fiction is in this category, as stories can generate many different kinds of associations. Having said that, many objects in this category also have canonical 'core' meanings. 

Zodiacal systems, house systems, planetary nodes and midpoints are also in this category. These too can have, or generate a broad spectrum of meaningful associations.

All celestial objects, whether they function as relatively simple signs or as complex symbols, should be thought of as 'rocks' pointing to archetypal structures. The same is true for geometrical projections like zodiacs or nodes: these point to archetypal structures as well.

Mapping the cosmic mind
Remember the Jungian cosmic mind-metaphor in the previous episode? It can be mapped in various ways. For example, when looking at the solar system we can think of the Sun as the most primitive brain, that deals with life and survival in a purely instinctive way. The Moon would then introduce emotion, and Mercury would point to the processing of information by the newest parts of the human brain. Another way to look at it would be to map the conscious/unconscious distinction on the solar system, so that the 'inner' planets and asteroids represent the conscious part, and the 'outer' planets and asteroids represent the (collective) unconscious. We can even think of aspects between celestial objects as astrological neurons that enable (temporary) associative links, colored by the quality of the particular aspect. 

Is astrological order inevitable?
The incredible complexity of the 'cosmic mind' and its clockwork-like qualities provoke a deep question: should we think of the symbolic language of the firmament as elaborate semantic ornamentation, or is cosmic communication of astrological order in some sense inevitable or necessary? Let's call this the hard problem of astrology.