Why is astrology so hard to learn?
The original article appeared in South Africa's Astrology Today and was reprinted in Considerations 6(3), 5-13, 1991. This version includes a summary of the first follow-up that appeared in Considerations 7(1), 34-45, 1992 and a digest of the lengthy second follow-up written in 1997 but not published in Considerations until 1999. Dr Patterson (now deceased) was a mining consultant and a former engineering lecturer at the University of Witswatersrand. His interest in astrology began in the 1960s, and for many years he was a teacher and invigilator in South Africa for the UK Faculty of Astrological Studies. His scientific background resulted in that most rare of combinations -- a fine critical sense plus an encyclopedic grasp of astrology.
In this article he takes an expert look at the problems facing students trying to learn astrology, and concludes that a more secure basis in observation is needed. Were he alive today he might want to modify his suggestion in the light of continuing negative findings, nevertheless his article remains a fine example of the hope that this may lead to a better astrology.
Abstract -- Astrology is hard to learn because chart interpretations are either bland, disagreeing, useless, or evasive. Many examples are given from leading astrology books. Yet their authors present them as if they were true. Until astrology meets everyday standards of objectivity and consistency, it will remain a vague and wishy-washy thing, capable of meaning anything you want it to mean. A look at chart statements show that astrology is helpful because practitioners instinctively use as much ambiguity as clients will tolerate, while instinctively denying its involvcement.
Why is it so difficult to learn astrology? Does everyone have this trouble, or is it just me? Have I been out of school so long that I've forgotten how to learn?
If you have ever asked yourself these questions then you are in good company, for astrology is much more difficult to master than anyone realizes. The main problem is the way astrological information is presented. Whether verbal or in textbooks, it is guaranteed to cause confusion and bewilderment.
The experience of astrology
Later, you learn how to set up a chart. You notice that several types of chart blanks are available, and various ephemerides and tables of houses. But, by and large, everything seems much the same. Later still, you learn some astronomy, which is not easy to grasp, but authors seem clear about what they are saying, and they all pretty much agree with one another.
A growing uneasiness
There are various symptoms of this: You are not terribly clear about the difference between Sun in Leo and Moon in Leo. When asked to describe Saturn in the 8th bouse you find either no words come to mind or so many words that you don't know where to start. All you can say about hard aspects is that they are challenging, while easy aspects are, well, easy. As for a quincunx, all you know is that you struggle to pronounce it.
Is more books the answer?
1. The delineations are all the same
Let's look at each of these reasons in turn.
1. The delineations are all the same
You come to realize that you cannot really tell apart the entries for any planet in any given sign, especially those for the Sun and Moon. Hence, Sun in Aries reads the same as Moon in Aries, and there's not much to choose between Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto in Aries either, as in Derek and Julia Parker's The Compleat Astrologer. What's more, they all bear a strong resemblance to Mars in the 1st or 10th, as well as to all of the Mars aspects that are described. A delightful vagueness permeates the whole text, and is most noticeable in those books which, while not exactly Sun Sign paperbacks, come down very heavily on signs, treat houses very superficially, and deal with aspects very much as an afterthought, as in Jeff Mayo's Teach Yourself Astrology and Sheila Geddes's The Art of Astrology.
2. The delineations are all different
"Self-expression hurtfully limited. Life hard, causes self-pity. Tendency to falls, chills, orthopedic troubles" (Margaret Hone The Modern Textbook of Astrology)
"A life of hardship and drudgery. Everything is earned the Nard way; nothing come freely" (Frances Sakoian & Louis Acker The Astrologer's Handbook)
"A fear of expressing what you truly are" (Stephen Arroyo Astrology, Karma and Transformation)
"You have to learn to like yourself" (Robert Pelletier Planets in Aspect)
"A deep feeling of inadequacy and a compulsion to achieve in compensation. The theme is loss of father, and a search to fnd him in some form, yet dissatisfaction and anger when you do; you seek him because you want to overthrow him" (Liz Greene Outer Planets and their Cycles)
The sheer variety of these statements is breathtaking. There is everything from unabashed fortune telling to Jungian mythology. And the usual hedging ("a tendency to") creeps in.
3. The delineations are useless
It seems impossible to believe that the authors are talking about the same thing. Yet for different reasons, both statements are equally useless. The first is far too general -- there is nothing that would distinguish the client from others. The second is far too specific -- as an astrologer you may indeed meet a sword-dancer with Mars in Libra, but you would be idiotic to offer this as a serious delineation.
But the Scylla of generality and the Charybdis of specificity contain an even nastier trap: On the one hand, the more general a statement is, the more likely it will be accepted, but the less it tells you. On the other hand, the more specific a statement is, the more it tells you, but the more likely it will be incorrect. What a dilemma! How to deal with it? Well, the glib answer is that you must balance content against correctness. That is, as Plato and the Buddha reminded us, you must take the middle path. In practice, of course, at least in astrology, this is far from easy. Some would say impossible for reasons discussed later.
4. The delineations are evasive
Then there is a whole class of phrases known as keywords, as in the Mayo and Hone books, which were introduced to make learning astrology easier. But keywords are too terse to be of help in remembering all the possible variations -- for example Rex Bills, in his The Rulership Book, lists more than a thousand variations for each planet and several hundred variations for each sign. Short delineations such as those in Alan Oken's The Horoscope, the Road, and its Travelers are almost as bad. He too uses colourful key phrases such as "The False Prophet" (Jupiter square Pluto), but the background descriptions are too thin to support them.
What a pleasure, therefore, to read Howard Sasportas's The Twelve Houses with its full and well-rounded outlines, as well as Stephen Arroyo's Astrology, Karma and Transformation. Yet even here fullness does not guarantee clarity. For example consider Robert Pelletier's delineation, in Planets in Aspect, of Mercury square Uranus, which is a brilliant example of beating about the bush:
"Your extreme impatience with established facts often forces you to create whatever truths require the least commitment from you".
What on earth does that mean? It's not at all obvious, but we can be sure that Pelletier is being infuriatingly tactful about an unpleasant aspect, because he really does understand the aspect. This is not always the case -- how many times do you get the impression that the author is just piling on the padding? Either way, is it any wonder that you struggle with astrology?
Is what they're saying true?
But this is exactly not the position taken in astrology books. For example in her book Sun Signs Linda Goodman states that "Virgos love small animals and herb gardens" without considering whether observations have shown Virgos to love small animals and herb gardens any more or less than non-Virgos. At least Sakoian and Acker warn that some statements in their The Astrologer's Handbook are speculative.
However, there is worse. Dane Rudhyar, who is practically worshipped for his contributions to astrology, has written works such as The Astrology of Personality that are essentially guesses. And to heap Pelion on Ossa, Martin Shulman's book on Karmic Astrology, and others such as Marc Edmund Jones's Sabian Symbols, are unashamedly derived from "psychic sources", that is, more guesses.
Astrology is a symbolic system
For example look again at the delineations cited earlier for the Sun-Saturn square. This particular aspect also indicates what pop psychology calls an inferiority complex. Hence the over-compensation and burning ambition to prove oneself. In a woman's chart it represents an inability to relate properly to masculine figures, starting with the father. And so on, and so on, and so on.
How symbolism works
The important thing is that the central symbolism leads to an indefinite number of specific manifestations, which is the justification for saying that any one of these is true because it could be true. But this line of reasoning is quite useless when it comes to predicting anything specific. All that can be said is that, whatever the outcome, astrology says the outcome will be consistent with the symbolism. Which with a little ingenuity can be made to fit anything, for example an emphasis on Aries fits both an aggressive person (because Aries is aggressive) and an unaggressive person (because scared of carrying aggressive Aries to excess). Not terribly useful!
The demands of observation
If astrology wishes to overcome the objections to symbolism, it has to become a body of knowledge assembled in accordance with observations that are objective, repeatable, and consistent. That is, observations that are essentially the same irrespective of who made them, and which can be quantified by counting or measurement. From what has been said above, we can see that astrology does not meet even the basic demands of observation, let alone the whole scheme.
A personal note
Examples of astrological statements
Planets as influences or qualities
The unexpected source refers to Jupiter. Here the planets are seen as various influences such as Venus romance, Mars energy, Jupiter luck, Saturn obstacles. Or "Your Fate in the Stars" in a nutshell. Just add padding and you can earn a good living from the gullible.
Your power to expend energy is very high, being trined by the expansive planet Jupiter.
The power to expend energy refers to Mars. Here the planets are a set of qualities that we may have, rather than some external influence. Both approaches imply that everything is written in the stars and thus discourage the taking of personal responsibility.
The above example describes the appearance of Capricorn rising and is taken from Raphael's The Key and Guide to Astrology 1905. Given that a birth chart cannot indicate male or female, why should it indicate appearance?
Most astrologers would regard this as nonsense, if only because they see the sun sign as describing how the occupation is practiced (diligently, enthusiastically, carelessly), not what the occupation is.
But intelligence is something that charts are not supposed to indicate, perhaps because errors would be too obvious. I know a young woman who has a close conjunction between these two planets and is mentally retarded. Her mother (who knows some astrology) told me "Yes, but she is very intelligent, considering". There is a logic here that defeats me.
This says the person is caring, sensitive and intuitive. But other factors in the chart may indicate the opposite. If nothing else, such statements should be regarded as flattery.
People like you with Mars in Taurus are always found digging in the garden.
This may be quite untrue while being true of others without Mars in Taurus. If you tell astrologers you don't like digging, they may reply: "well, you ought to!"
Charts of others
Even if the client did see her mother as emotionally scattered, we cannot assume this view would be shared by others.
Prediction of events
The 6th house is not a good house for any planet, as it betokens poor health. If the Moon is in a mutable sign there is a danger of tuberculosis or other lung disease; in fixed signs the danger is gravel or stones; in cardinal signs there is stomach trouble or bad nerves.
There is an aphorism that says Neptune in 8th house indicates death by drowning, so roughly one person in twelve should die by drowning, which is clearly nonsense. Why should Moon in 6th house be any better? Note also the hedging "there is a danger of", so if disease occurs, the danger materialised, but if it didn't, it didn't. This is a good example of nonfalsifiability -- no conceivable outcome could prove the statement wrong.
On 3 October 1965, being in crime-ridden South Africa, my home was invaded by four armed robbers, who tied up my son and myself, and ransacked the place. A scary experience, as we expected a bullet at any moment. It occurred to me to give all the relevant dates and times to the editor of the local astrology magazine, and I offered a substantial cash prize to anyone who could say what had happened to me that night. Needless to say, my money was safe. Some of the suggestions that came in were absolutely preposterous. [This paragraph is from a 1997 email and does not appear in the original article.]
You have an afflicted Neptune in the Ninth, so amongst other things you are deeply conscious of the plight of the poor.
Your Moon is square Pluto, which while showing a fundamental lack of security may also make you experience your mother as threatening and dominating you.
Wherever the Moon lies by house tells us where you need and seek emotional security. It your case it is in the 2nd house, so you will seek security in money and material possessions.
You want to be the boss, to run things, to be master of the house.
Generally speaking, people react well to statements that describe their inner life, even though their inner life is unobservable and therefore beyond verification. Which explains its popularity with astrologers.
Designed to impress
Your animus is represented by Mars and the Sun, and the signs they occupy tell us how it is coloured. Meanwhile there is a fundamental clash between your Senex and your Puer which must be resolved.
Both statements could be useful if the client gets something out of them, but not if they are merely being used to impress. Could anything prove these statements wrong?
Clarity of mystical wonder?
To understand your Scorpio, we must first explore the myth of Pluto and Persephone.
Such statements may be acceptable to astrologers when gathered to talk shop, but not to clients who prefer clarity to mystical wonder.
Poetic images like these appeal to people who judge the truth of ideas by the way they feel, where they react with "Oh yes! I relate to that! It speaks to me!". So who needs a birth chart when you can have poetic images? Akin to this is what I call astrology by sound effects, where you get statements like: "in two months, Uranus will come round to zap your Mars! Pow!"
Moon-Pluto's emotional life reminds me of a seabird, maybe a gannet, a bird who dives headlong into the water for its food and then comes up to digest what it has caught.
The above statement is from Sue Tompkins' Aspects in Astrology (1989). Although only mildly poetic, it shows that such statements really do exist in print.
More and more astrology books claim connections between charts and past lives, even future lives, but why should anyone believe them? Do such visions reflect an actual reality or merely a vivid imagination?
Statements of universal validity
Really? Isn't that true of every girl in her mid-teens?
When things seem to be going badly, why not seek out a friend to talk to'
Yes, why not. You might even find a barman cheaper than an astrologer. To say nothing of your Auntie Fanny with her pot of tea and endless supply of tissues. And what about that favourite opening line:
This is a chart with great potential.
Stephen Arroyo. Astrology, Karma and Transformation
Rex Bills. The Rulership Book
Geoffrey Dean & Arthur Mather. Recent Advances in Natal Astrology
Sheila Geddes. The Art of Astrology
Llewellyn George. The A to Z Horoscope Maker and Delineator
Linda Goodman. Sun Signs
Liz Greene. Outer Planets and their Cycles
Margaret Hone. The Modern Textbook of Astrology
Alice Howell. Jungian Symbolism in Astrology
Marc Edmund Jones. Sabian Symbols
Jeff Mayo. Astrology
Alan Oken. The Horoscope, the Road, and its Travelers
Derek & Julia Parker. The Compleat Astrologer
Robert Pelletier. Planets in Aspect
Raphael. The Key and Guide to Astrology
Dane Rudhyar. The Astrology of Personality
Frances Sakoian & Louis Acker. The Astrologer's Handbook
Howard Sasportas. The Twelve Houses
Martin Shulman. Karmic Astrology
Sue Tompkins. Aspects in Astrology