From       20m 1g 72kb       Home       Fast-Find Index

Why is astrology so hard to learn?
A critical look at chart interpretation

Andrew Patterson

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
Probably we all have much the same experience. You meet astrology through a friend, are intrigued, and become hooked. You start studying, perhaps by correspondence, or by attending a course, or simply by reading. At first it seems quite straightforward. You read voraciously about Sun Signs, and almost at once begin to amaze your friends with your delineations.

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
Sometime after the euphoric infatuation with Sun Signs comes a lot of stuff about planets, bouses, signs, aspects and other technicalities, the meanings of them all explained in the literature or at meetings of your group. But sooner or later you sense a growing uneasiness. Despite paying careful attention to your teacher and working diligently at home, you do not seem to be grasping the subject.

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?
To clear up the confusion, you buy up every new book recommended by your friends, hoping on each occasion to find instant enlightenment. But without fail your confusion is actually made worse. Why does this happen? The reasons are simple:

1. The delineations are all the same
2. The delineations are all different
3. The delineations are all useless
4. The delineations are all evasive

Let's look at each of these reasons in turn.

1. The delineations are all the same
This is your conclusion when you despair of trying to distinguish what an author is variously saying about planets in signs, planets in houses, and aspects between planets. You can see the associations clearly enough, but all of the delineations are so bland and so general that they all blur into one another, as in Llewellyn George's The A to Z Horoscope Maker and Delineator.

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
The next thing you notice is that none of the astrology books in your possession seem to agree with one another. This is worrying, because in your studies of other subjects at school or university, you had come to accept that authors were in general agreement about the statements they were making. But this is not necessarily so in astrology. To illustrate the point, here are some delineations of the aspect Sun square Saturn:

"Tendency to deep-rooted inhibitions, pessimism, self-pity, needless worrying, selfshness, fears and phobias, chronic ill health" (Jeff Mayo Teach Yourself Astrology)

"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
The third way in which astrological statements are baffling is that some are very specific, and others are very general, with every shade of gray in between. Take Mars in Libra, for instance. One author says "energy apt to sway one way and another" (Margaret Hone The Modern Textbook of Astrology). Another says "the subject bas a passion for sword-dancing" (Alice Howell Jungian Symbolism in Astrology)

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
There is more. Often you meet statements so terse that they convey nothing while pretending to convey everything. My pet hate is "Neptune dissolves". This is invariably delivered with a lofty and knowing look, followed by a dramatic pause.

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?
Normally, when we read books, we assume they deal in established facts derived from actual observations about people or nature or mathematics or accounting or car repairs or whatever. We never consider that their authors might be merely speculating about the way things could be or ought to be. For example we expect chemistry books to describe real chemicals and real reactions, not imaginary ones.

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
Is there anything wrong with this? Many people might hesitate to say yes, simply because astrology is supposedly not ordinary knowledge but part of a reality that cannot be tested by ordinary means. But if astrological statements can be drawn from guesswork, even guesswork on the astral plane, how are they different from myths or legends or plain fairy stories? The stock answer is that astrology is a symbolic system, and the only thing that matters is whether its statements are consistent with the appropriate symbolism. If they are, then the statements are true because they could be true.

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
Here the symbolism works like this. The Sun is seen as symbolizing something like Achieving, and Saturn something like Controlling. When these two are coupled by a square, each over-expresses itself in a vain attempt to defeat the other, leading to a whole class of difficulties associated with internal indecisiveness. Some of these break out as feelings of inferiority, some as illnesses, some as external limitations, some as living out of a script or Myth, or whatever.

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
But there is an opposing school of thought, Aristotelian rather than Platonic, which insists that astrology must pass the same tests of truth as anything else, that is, it must be supported by observations. Proponents of this view are unconvinced by symbolism, and one of them (Geoffrey Dean in Recent Advances in Natal Astrology) is well known for the paraphrase "there are lies, damned lies, and symbols".

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
I believe that until astrology develops to a point where it meets the criteria of objectivity, repeatability and consistency, it will remain a vague and wishy-washy thing, capable of meaning anything we care to make it mean, where every chart delineation will fit equally well or equally badly every person under the sun. We may call it an art, a craft, a skill, a body of knowledge, or a way of getting in touch with the cosmos, but until we focus much more sharply on what we say when we learn astrology, we are not being intellectually honest and should not be surprised when tests fail to support the claims of astrologers.

Dr Patterson wrote a follow-up article "Towards a Better Astrology?" that appeared in Considerations 7(1), 34-45, 1992. In it he suggested that astrology could become an authentic body of knowledge if it required chart statements to be concrete, testable, falsifiable, and valid regardless of other factors in the chart. A second follow-up article "Styles of Chart Interpretation", written in 1997 but not published until 1999, contained many examples of astrological statements to illustrate the need for reform. A digest follows below.

Examples of astrological statements
If you examine enough chart interpretations you will find the following defects: wordiness, disorder, vagueness, padding with quotes, fatedness, and a general reliance on symbolism as if it were more than unproven beliefs. As shown by the following examples, the chart statements themselves can combine different target areas with different styles of description. Where possible the examples are taken from the astrological literature. Otherwise they come from talks, teaching sessions, and conversations fortuitously overheard.

Planets as influences or qualities
Your luck lies in the hidden realms. You will constantly find that you will get help at the last minute from an unexpected source.

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.

A short, slender person, not well formed; long, thin face; thin beard; chin, long; black, or dark coarse hair; narrow chest; long, small neck; weak knees, and of a bad gait generally.

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?

People with Sun in Scorpio are drawn to the recycling of materials, so you may consider being a scrap dealer. Alternatively, you would find satisfaction in being a butcher or surgeon.

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.

Hitler cartoon
The above cartoon (from the Astrological Association newsletter Transit, February 1983, page 23) does not appear in the original article but beautifully illustrates the point. The cartoonist (not identified in the newsletter) is astrologer Michael Harding.

Any aspect between Mercury and Uranus, such as you have, bestows high intelligence.

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.

Character traits
The two benefics, Venus and Jupiter, are in conjunction in the caring sign of Cancer, and the Moon in Pisces shows both sensitivity and intuition.

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
Since your Moon is in Pisces in the 10th, your mother is an emotionally scattered person.

Even if the client did see her mother as emotionally scattered, we cannot assume this view would be shared by others.

Prediction of events
Here is a verbatim interpretation of Moon in 6th house given to me by my own teacher of astrology as recently as 1977. It is similar to those found in early editions of Llewellyn George's A to Z Horoscope Maker and Delineator (1976). It betrays a fondness for bad news:

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.]

Subjective feelings
Here are four examples of astrological statements that any person-centred astrologer might make. They concern feelings, perceptions, needs, and desires, respectively:

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
The danger you face in continuing your power struggle with your child is that you might perceive yourself to have won, in which case you run the risk of being emotionally hamstrung through guilt.

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?
The Moon stands for the Process of Being, and Saturn is the Principle of Crystallisation, so in your chart ...

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
To understand how the Moon operates in your chart, think of a flock of heavy black-winged birds, turning towards the sun set on an autumn day, the last rays of the dying Sun probing gaps in the rainclouds.

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.

Esoteric statements
Because you have Sun in Taurus, your task in this life is to overcome your desire for material possessions, and your Moon in a Water Sign indicates your death from thirst in the Gobi desert in a previous life.

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
When Sharon reaches her mid-teens, she will be affected by a Neptune transit, which will cause her to be uncertain about her personality, and whether she will make it as an adult.

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.

Interpretations have traditionally been made on the assumption that astrology is helpful because it is true. But an examination of chart statements point to an astrology that is helpful for quite a different reason, namely because it does not need to be true. That is, it is helpful because it generates a mass of nicely-organised ambiguities, which astrologers and clients then interpret in whatever way suits their situation, so the interpretation cannot fail. It seems that the shrewd practitioner instinctively uses as much ambiguity as clients will tolerate, while instinctively denying its involvement.

Works cited
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

From       20m 1g 72kb       Home       Fast-Find Index