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The Planets: The First Piece
Astrology consists of groups of symbols, all having numerological and philosophical, as well as psychological and literal, meanings. The seven classical planets, plus the three more recently discovered Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto, are the main letters of the astrological alphabet. (The word "planets" is used throughout to apply to the Sun and Moon, though technically the Sun is a minor star and the Moon a satellite of Earth. To indicate that the Sun and Moon are considered as astrological archetypes, they are capitalized.) Planets are the factors that transmit energy in steps from the Godhead into the created world. Each is named for a Roman god or goddess whose character and history is largely borrowed from the Greek mythological tradition.
In psychological terms, the planets are carriers of psychic energy, responsible for the uniqueness and dynamism of each individual. They are motivators, impelling you to seek experiences and passively attracting them. In psychological language, they are equivalent to "needs" or "drives."
The number seven may be considered sacred precisely because there were originally believed to be seven planets (including Sun and Moon). The seven-day week was created with each day corresponding to one of them. A host of other associations also arose—metals, colors, rocks and precious gems, perfumes and incense, herbs, trees and plants, animals, emblems, and deities of various cultures. Whatever idea was associated with a planet was thought to have an affinity with its nature, on its own particular level. Astrological correlations derive in part from specific observations of physical reality. Because physical reality reflects inner essence, shape, appearance, taste, and behavior, all reveal planetary connections. Birthstones linked to the months of the year are a simplified example of astrological correspondence.
Given the archetypal nature of astrological symbols, the traditional way to learn about them is to memorize and ponder lists of key words. But you cannot grasp their significance with the intellect alone. You must circles the symbols, musing on a cluster of associated concepts to penetrate their essence. This is the method I use in the sections that follow: a circumambulation of each symbol that explores the concepts associated with it. At some point, with study and reflection on a given symbol, you may have an "aha!" moment of insight when you intuitively comprehend its inner meaning.
We will study the planets' basic principles and explore some literal manifestations, psychological meanings, and connections to various esoteric, religious, or spiritual disciplines. The discussion moves freely, referring to the essential planetary principle, the god or goddess that embodies it, or the many possible associated externalizations in our time-space dimension.
It is sometimes difficult in talking about astrology to find language that does not sound causal. Even though the planets represent pure abstract essences, astrologers as a shorthand always end up saying "it" or "he" or "she" "does" that or "influences" this or "rules" such-and-such. You must understand, however, that the planets are not causing anything—that astrology works because there is a greater organizing principle behind the appearance—synchronicity, that includes both the planets and us. We talk as if it were causal for convenience. But the planets (or any other factor) don't make you do anything, any more than the clock makes you put down your work at 5:00 and go home, or turn on the TV at 8:00 to see your favorite show.
The following ideas are intended to be suggestive and not definitive; you will benefit from reading other astrology books, consulting symbol dictionaries, and researching esoteric references to further open each symbol's inner meaning. Because a symbol's expression may be multivarious and not entirely predictable, one fascinating aspect of learning the astrological language is to observe how the universe plays with possibilities in manifesting planetary potential.
Some planets, like the Sun and Moon, or Venus and Mars, are obvious complementary opposites. According to some esoteric theories, at the moment of creation, the invisible One broke into a visible two, appearing as opposites that characterize our world: light and dark, up and down, good and bad, masculine and feminine, and so on. Some planetary pairs perfectly represent these polarized extremes.
Each astrological symbol also reflects this duality by containing within itself both an up side and a down side. In the old days (before the 20th century!), some of the symbols (like Saturn) were thought to be exclusively negative, and others (like Jupiter) exclusively positive. This interpretive bias has changed in the modern period, as greater psychological sophistication and awareness of esoteric ideas has led to the realization that symbols inherently contain their opposites.
The "Lights": The Sun and the Moon
The Sun ([??])
The Sun has received most attention in popular culture, because people know their birthdate (which immediately reveals the Sun's position in the zodiac). It can thus be isolated and commercially exploited. However, the Sun truly is the essential symbol. In fact, "essence" or "essential nature" are solar keywords.
The Sun is the paramount symbol of life, since its energy makes all living things active. The east, where the Sun rises with increasing splendor, is the place of birth or the first emergence of life. The Sun's reappearance each morning means that dark night is vanquished once more and that life will continue. The very predictability of sunrise each day lends human life order and stability.
Like the Sun, the solar hero or savior delivers his people from dark and monstrous terrors—even death itself. One such semi-divine hero is the Greek Perseus, whose mother conceived him in a shower of gold, the metal of the Sun. Perseus freed his people from tyrannical rule and destroyed the snake-haired Medusa, whose glance literally petrified anyone who gazed upon her. In myth, solar heroes like Perseus break free from the influence of parents and culture and overcome inner fears to reveal the individual's most glorious possibilities. These heroes, like the Sun itself, embody the elemental masculine principle.
But too much solar energy is destructive; it burns, dries, and dessicates, destroying crops and threatening life. The Chinese shot arrows at the Sun to challenge its deadly rays, which can magically transform invisible heat into visible fire.
Because of the Sun's prominence in the sky and the power of its rays, it represents divinity—the all-seeing eye of Ra in Egypt or Odin's eye of wisdom in Norse tradition. Under its steady gaze, all things are fully illumined and starkly differentiated. But the Sun's warm rays also translate as love from the divine heart, poured out freely to all on Earth.
By analogy, the Sun represents not only God in the heavens, but a nation's king on Earth. The ruler in many cultures was the "son of the Sun"; such a title presumed that he would rule with the same power as his heavenly counterpart. Since the Sun's rays fall with equal warmth on all, the ruler was expected to be just and impartial.
Being the outstanding symbol of illumination, the Sun is also the light of reason within the individual, enabling the declaration "I see!" at a moment of dawning insight. Reason is more than intellect. Sun gods like Apollo were often gifted with prophecy. The Sun is spiritual illumination, depicted as halos around the heads of saints or golden auras around enlightened beings.
The most intriguing and contradictory interpretation of the Sun has to do with the concept of the self. Psychologically, the Sun is the ego, the center of personal consciousness. But this personal self is a constructed or false (that is, temporary) self that is useful only in this world.
Yet the Sun also symbolizes the greater Self, the divine spark within, the inner core of the individual, all-encompassing and immortal, residing in the heart yet filling the entire cosmos. In spiritual terms, focusing on the Sun rather than on Earth means basing your sense of self not on ego but on eternal spirit. The individual who makes this shift of identification is "twice-born," and may experience the mystic vision whose splendor is like the rising of a thousand Suns.
Thus the Sun is paradoxically both the "lower" and the "higher" self: the personality that is an essential actor in this world, and the true Self that is your real identity. Our task seems to be to walk a kind of razor's edge: to be simultaneously the personal expression of the Sun and the impersonal bearer of the inner light.
The Moon ([??])
Unlike the Sun, the Moon is continually waxing and waning—first invisible at the dark New Moon, then an emerging crescent, next a fully visible orb, and finally back to crescent and invisibility again. So it symbolizes impermanence and constant change. No wonder Juliet urges Romeo, "O swear not by the Moon, the inconstant Moon ..."
In moonlight, things lose color. Separate things merge into one. Another kind of seeing, a diffused whole-body perception, overshadows rationality. Thus the Moon represents instinctual knowing without the use of logic. In esotericism, moonlight is analogous to the "astral light" of an invisible plane above the material where the principal organ of perception is the imagination. Things and ideas can come into being instantaneously and magically as the creative imagination conceives them.
The Moon symbolizes fertility, the Great Mother who gives birth to new forms of life and oversees their subsequent growth within vegetable, animal, and human kingdoms. Fertility is often measured in lunar cycles: farmers and gardeners plant, prune, and harvest according to the Moon's phases; a human female's fertility correlates to the changing Moon. Modern research has shown that at the Full Moon both animal and human sexual activity increases. Altogether, the Moon represents the entire process of the coming into being and the passing away of forms.
The Moon measures time. The earliest calendars were based on lunar cycles, marked by notches in bone that tracked New and Full Moons and eclipses. Days and years were established by the rising and setting Sun in its seasons, but intermediate periods were set by the Moon, whose rounds established the week and month ("moonth"). Lunar calendars are still used by some religions (Judaism and Islam) and cultures. The Chinese New Year is always the first New Moon in Aquarius; Easter's date is fixed as the first Sunday following the first New Moon after the Spring Equinox.
As keeper of time, the Moon means mortality. All visible life is subject to change, as forms materialize, fluctuate in their appearance, and then disappear—just like the Moon which dwindles and "dies" each month during its dark phase. It therefore measures human fate. Moon goddesses are often portrayed as spinners or weavers of destiny, like the Norse three Norns, or the three Fates of ancient Greece who spun, measured, and cut the threads of life on the loom of time.
The Moon relates to water in all its forms: the water of the womb, the water that falls as rain or appears magically as morning dew, and the vast ocean whose rising and ebbing tides are attributed to the Moon's attractive pull.
The Moon is the preeminent symbol of the feminine principle. It is associated with emotions, the inward, fluid tides of feeling that fluctuate from moment to moment, and instinctual urges and subliminal drives that motivate us without our personal will in control.
First differentiated in ancient Greece, the three principal phases of the Moon—new, full, and waning—correlate to three stages of a woman's life: maiden, mother, and crone (or wise woman). Differentiating the Moon allowed for contradictory interpretations such as virginal or maternal, barren or fertile, chaste or seductive. These aspects were represented by three distinct goddesses: Artemis the virgin huntress, Hera the wife, and Hecate the wise woman. No wonder, with her changeability and varied guises, that the feminine principle is seen as mysterious and unfathomable, irrational and unknowable.
Psychologically, the Moon represents the unconscious, the primitive and largely unknowable part of ourselves, the "night" half of the psyche. Remarkably, the Moon always has the same face toward Earth: its dark side is never seen.
The realm of the unconscious is notoriously difficult to engage without losing psychic balance; you must face fears and fantasies, and unmask projections. In esoteric terms, this has to do with the initiatory experience of confronting the "dweller on the threshold," a fear-inspiring entity that blocks your progress. This figure constellates everything you dread and have repressed, explaining why many find the inner explorations of therapy more terrifying than extreme sports.
In Kabbalistic mysticism, the Moon is the realm of Yesod, the first rung of the ladder of heaven, "the Treasurehouse of Images." Experiencing this dimension gives a vision of the workings of the Universe, and a perception of shapes before they coalesce and appear as physical forms.
The Five Classical Planets
The planet Mercury travels so close to the Sun that it can rarely be seen. No wonder the god Mercury is shown with a cap of invisibility! The planet moves the fastest of any, so the god Mercury wears a winged hat and has wings on his heels. Mercury correlates with the ability to move quickly and to adapt instantly to new situations, as well as to physical agility and manual dexterity—like that used by the juggler or stage magician who entertains to delight or fool the eye.
Because of Mercury's closeness to the Sun, it was natural to interpret its archetype as the gods' messenger. Thus Mercury is the mind, the rational faculty that clothes divine ideas in everyday words. Not only is it the power of the spoken word itself, but also your manner of thinking and speaking, the style and quality of your communication.
Mercury is the childlike curiosity that drives your urge to know and matures into the ability to reason and analyze the information gathered. At its most developed, Mercury is eloquence and persuasiveness. In ancient Greece, honey was sacrificed to him as the literal God of Sweet-talk. Mercury encompasses the sophisticated art of rhetoric, the glibness of a car salesman, the sly subversiveness of a town gossip, and the propaganda of a political machine.
In Latin, mercari means "to engage in business," and Mercury rules trade and commerce—the selling, bartering, and negotiating of the marketplace, and the merchant class that arises from it. The negative side of Mercury is a cleverness that succumbs to trickery and deceit—and at an extreme, to lying and outright thievery. Mercury is the Trickster, a god who plays games with human beings, sometimes for sheer sport and sometimes to shatter their self-generated illusions.
The first myth told about Mercury is that on the very day of his birth, he stole Apollo's cattle. Forced to return them by his father, Jupiter, he placated Apollo with a gift. He created the first lyre by taking a turtle's shell and stringing it with nine linen cords, in honor of the nine Muses. Apollo was so impressed with Mercury's inventiveness that he gave him the caduceus, a rod with two serpents entwined around it with wings on top. The caduceus has become the symbol of the healing profession. Esoterically, it may also represent the risen kundalini, the energetic fire of the body that surges up the spine through the dual channels of ida and pingala, and creates an energy field that heals all who sit within its range. The caduceus is the inner wand of the true magician, whose powers derive from an illumined consciousness.
Mercury not only bestows ordinary knowledge, but also whispers hidden truths. Part of the esoteric magician's special knowledge is the ritualistic use of language, a reflection of the creative Logos that literally brought the world into being through the spoken Word.
Mercury not only relayed messages from heaven to Earth, but also (as Hermes Psychopompus, his Greek name) conducted souls from Earth to the underworld. Because of his unique ability to cross boundaries, he became the patron of travel and the god of roads. Herms, or pillars, are often found at crossroads, especially where three ways intersect.
Mercury is often portrayed as androgynous. He is the still somewhat-undifferentiated offspring of the Sun and the Moon with both male and female physical characteristics. As the alchemical hermaphrodite, he may also represent not just the unredeemed matter of the alchemist's early experiments but the final outcome of his efforts—the marriage of the Sun and Moon, the restoration of all dualities into one.
Excerpted from The Weiser Concise Guide to PRACTICAL ASTROLOGY by Priscilla Costello. Copyright © 2008 Priscilla Costello. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
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Introduction by James Wasserman
A Brief Overview
Part One: The Theory of Astrology
1) The Planets: The First Piece
2) The Signs: The Second Piece
3) The Houses: The Third Piece
4) Aspects: The Fourth Piece
Part Two: The Practical Application
5) Understanding a Chart
6) Example: Oprah Winfrey's Chart