31 March 2011

Here We Go Again

Here we are, at the beginning of another Mercury retrograde cycle. As everyone starts to blame poor Mercury for everything that could possibly go wrong for the next 3.5 weeks, I thought I'd take a closer look to see what traditional sources say about Mercury retrograde periods. I looked specifically at Guido Bonatti (Liber Astronomiae, 12th century, Dykes transl.) and William Ramesey (Astrologia Restaurata, 17th century), since each of these works is about - Ramesey in whole, Bonatti in part - Mundane Astrology, i.e. astrology about events happening in the world (rather than Natal Astrology, which is based on birth charts). Bonatti also has a complete section on Natal Astrology, as does William Lilly, a contemporary of Ramesey, so I looked in those sections as well. While these authors clearly are not exhaustive, their texts are (esp. Bonatti and Lilly) encyclopedic, and stand as summaries of the Art at two distinct points in history, 500 years apart.

After spending most of the afternoon scouring these texts, and working through indices, where available, I can report that these classical authors had absolutely nothing to say about what happens for the 24 days that Mercury goes retrograde each of three times per year. That's right. Nothing. Certainly, they have a lot to say about interpreting how a retrograde Mercury in a chart will affect the outcome of whatever that chart is about. But they don't seem to make any attempt at classifying or qualifying a moving period of time under this influence. It seems that until very recently in the history of astrology, no one was really interested in interpreting the meanings of astrological phenomena outside the context of an actual chart. The chart in question often covered a period of time (e.g. the Aries ingress chart was often used to predict world/mundane events for the coming year);  but that chart was then moved through time on a symbolic level as well as watching how the planets continued to move. But these planetary movements were always related back to that chart for the purposes of the interpretation at hand. Nowhere do they seem to have said anything like "when Mercury goes retrograde, the world tends to go wonky."
(If anyone knows of any classical sources that address this issue I would appreciate the reference in order to do more research.)

Does this mean that Mercury retrograde has no effects? I don't think so; I have witnessed some of them myself. But I think that far too many negative events are attributed to Mercury than he deserves. As a matter of fact, far too many things are attributed to Mercury than should be.

Some speculation, based on classical tradition
First, let's consider that even some classical authors thought that a retrograde Mercury could be improved by being connected to the benefic planets in a chart (Jupiter, Venus, sometimes Moon). And if we look at this particular Mercury retro, we see that Mercury is in Aries, where he is middling in terms of dignity (that is, he's neither well dignified nor ill-dignified). Until April 13 (EDT) Mercury is heading right at a well-dignified Jupiter in Aries. The Moon makes a few contacts along the way as well. But Jupiter is a benefic, and does well in the fire signs. This would seem to indicate that the negative affects of Mercury will be much lessened until at least the 13th. However, one must also consider that during much of this period, Mercury is combust - conjunct the Sun. Classically this is a great debility, not because it makes Mercury do "bad" things, but rather because the Sun burns up any power that Mercury may have. So while Mercury itself may be fairly ineffective during this time, it may be helped a bit by Jupiter.
For the next (and final) 10 days of the retrograde, Mercury is in opposition to Saturn (a malefic) in Libra. Again, this will be interrupted off-and-on by aspects from the Moon. But these last 10 days look as if they will be the worst part of the retrograde due to the Saturn influence.
Of course, as the title of this section implies, this is speculation on my part, but based on what is written in the classical authors on this subject, rather than a mere exercise in free-association of ideas.

Mercury Rulership
I have seen recently some pretty fantastic (as in "fantasy-based") lists of what Mercury rules, with no citations. Lee Lehman, in her Book of Rulerships, scoured nine major classical astrological authors, from Ptolemy through the 17th century, and compiled lists of what rules what based upon their texts. Using her book, here is a partial list of what Mercury rules or is associated with:
Accountants, Affairs, Arithmeticians, Astrology, Attorneys, Bankers, Bargains, Birds, Business(men), Buyers, Cheating, Clerks, Coins, Commerce, Contracts, Counterfeits, Curiosity, Dexterity, Divination, Educated People, Fairs (flea markets, bazaars), Hurricanes, Imagination, Intellect, Journeys, Logic, Mathematics, Memory, Negotiations, Poetry, Printers (the people), Rationality, Reason, Schools, Scribes, Secretaries, Servants (non-contractor employees today), Speech, Teachers, Tradesmen, Writing.
We could extend this list logically to modern areas that are developments and newer versions of older things. For example, Printers refers to the people but by extension to modern printing machines (since Mercury also rules inventions and writing). Given Mercury's rulership of Writing, Logic, Inventions (etc.), computers are clearly a Mercury-ruled area.


(Note that "Communications" is not an area that is listed among the nine classical authors that Lehman surveys, yet somehow this is the first thing that we often think of when we think of Mercury retrograde. A few authors gave rulership of Messengers to Mercury, but not universally; others gave it to the Moon, and "Messages" was given to the Moon, or to the 3rd or 5th houses in a chart [depending on what kind of message it is]. This points out the modern astrological tendency to invent rulerships without grounding them in the Tradition.)


Now while the classical authors don't delineate Mercury retrograde specifically (other than to delineate Mercury debilitated by any means), Bonatti (and others) refer to retrogrades in terms of  complications, distresses, defects, destruction, disagreement, loss, lack, reversals, etc. So a logical conclusion might be that there would be setbacks of these types in these Mercury-ruled areas. But not automatically; the "right" (wrong?) connections must be made.

So I'll repeat what has at times almost seemed a mantra: calm down, people. You will survive this retrograde as you have survived all the ones before it. Leave yourself some extra time and be a little extra careful, and you'll be fine. And when this retrograde is over, and life still isn't perfect, I hope that we all realize that we've been making Mercury our scapegoat/whipping-boy for far too long; there are other things going on in the sky, and they're worth some attention too.

21 March 2011

Alphabet Soup


One of my ongoing complaints is the lack of clarity in Modern Astrology. Nowhere is this more manifest in the technique that is referred to as the 12-letter alphabet. This is a thoroughly modern concept which was first introduced in 1973 in Finding the Person in the Horoscope by Zipporah Dobyns, who is widely credited with having invented it. (Note that Dobyns held a Ph.D. in psychology, and like most modern astrologers, focused on astrology as psychology, not as a predictive art.) This seems to have been an attempt to simplify astrological associations so that it would be easier for beginning students to learn (which is a problem in and of itself; after all, it's not an "easy" subject, it shouldn't be "easy" to learn).

The idea is that the first sign of the zodiac, Aries, is like the first house in the chart, and they are both like the planet that rules Aries, Mars. So Aries=1st House=Mars. I'm not sure where to begin with how wrong this is historically, and how this confuses and conflates based upon near-complete misunderstandings of a number of concepts. First of all, the planet are not the signs of the zodiac. Planets were/are considered divine energies that resonate/associate with all things sub-lunary (on Earth); the physical planets themselves are "merely" a physical resonation/representation of the divine energy of that particular planetary deity/angel/etc. So it's not the rock that we call "Mars" that "causes" martial things on Earth; it's the energy behind it that resonates to the planet and all things on Earth that we associate with Mars (aggression, war, drought, assertiveness, red, iron, etc.). The Signs have relationships with the planets. Each planet is essentially in charge of the affairs of one or more signs, or portions of signs. This relationship is complex, and we determine the details of it in the essential dignities' scheme. Aside from each planet ruling one or two signs, each of the the planets is considered to be exalted in one of the signs; each one has a special relationship with the triplicites (e.g., the fiery triplicity is all of the fire signs: Aries, Leo, Sagittarius). And so forth. Dobyns cavalierly discarded Exaltations based not upon an understanding of the principle of Exaltation, but rather based upon her own inadequate interpretations of how each planet acts in its sign of exaltation.

While it's true that each sign of the zodiac moderates or filters the energy of the planet, the sign rulerships and exaltations were not originally assigned based upon any particular planet being like any particular sign. There are similar energies between some of them, but a planet is the ruler of a sign because it is the most appropriate planet to dispose of the affairs of that sign. So Mars rules Aries, not specifically because Mars is like Aries (though it is, in fact, somewhat similar); but rather because Mars is the planet that takes care of the affairs of Aries in a chart, regardless of whether Mars happens to be in Aries at the moment.

Houses are indicators of different areas of life. For example, if a chart has Mars in the first house, then Mars will directly influence the physical body, the health and happiness of the native. If Mars is in the second house, he will directly influence the native's money and movable wealth, but will not influence health and happiness, unless he is otherwise linked to the first house. This ability to discern and distinguish that one thing is not another is critical in delineating a chart, and especially in attempting prediction based upon it. And getting the connections and relationships correct is paramount.

Yet somehow, the idea quickly developed that there is a "natural" chart. That is, that the first house has an "underlying" Aries energy always, regardless of what sign actually appears on the first house cusp in any particular chart. Let's see how this would work.
Imagine that Gemini is rising (and therefore on the cusp of the first house), and that Mercury, its ruler, is in the third house in Leo. The Sun, which rules Leo, is in the eighth house in Capricorn.
So in this chart the:
1st house = Gemini = Aries (as the underlying, "natural" energy of that house) = Mars (as the ruler of Aries) = Mercury (ruler of Gemini) = 3rd house (where Mercury happens to be in this chart) = Leo (on the cusp of 3rd) = Sun (ruler of Leo) = Capricorn (where the Sun is in this chart) = 8th house (Capricorn is on the cusp) = Saturn (ruler of Capricorn) etc...
Without even starting to delineate the meanings of these planets, signs, and houses, one can see how bloody confusing it all is. When one gets to the point where anything in the chart is equal to nearly everything else in the chart, it's impossible to extract any real meaning from it. This has also led to the fallacious re-assigning of certain house meanings. For example, traditionally, the fourth house is associated with the Father of the native. However, since Cancer is the fourth sign of the zodiac, and is feminine and associated with mothering or nurturing, modern astrologers have simply switched the meaning. After 1900 years of tradition, with no empirical or observational bases upon which to do so. Other changes that are a result of this in the last few decades are the negative associations of the 8th and 12th houses, being associated with Scorpio and Pisces, respectively. Virgo, the 6th sign, is now somehow about "healing" and "service," since the 6th house is associated with potential illness and servants. Venus is now supposedly connected to money, since she rules Taurus, which is the second sign, and the second house is about money (the traditional ruler of money is Jupiter and the 2nd house). There are other mis-associations, but the reader should have the idea by now that the current state of modern interpretation is at best confused. This is one of the reasons (but only one) why we find that modern astrologers don't even attempt to predict; the bottom line is that if one's associations and relationships are all wrong, it will be impossible to achieve clarity and any sort of real-world accuracy.

Dr. Dobyns uses the term "alphabet soup" in her own book, however, detractors of this method have turned it back onto the technique in the attempt to show that when everything equals everything, then the result is really nothing.