Fake news, astrology edition

Terence P Ward —  September 19, 2017 — Leave a comment

TWH –It’s a given in some Pagan circles that at least a basic understanding of astrology is common knowledge. Given the incredible diversity represented within the intersecting Pagan and polytheist communities, it stands to reason that there are also community members who are almost completely unaware if not outright skeptical, of its tenets.

It is perhaps because of that wide variation that fake astrology news circulates under the so-called “Pagan umbrella” as easily as elsewhere.

Is there now a new astrological sign in the heavens? Did that downgrade of Pluto cast doubt on the legitimacy of astrology? While neither of these issues is breaking news — being one and eleven years old, respectively — the questions linger because they represent common misunderstandings about the nature of astrology itself.

Even asking what astrology is lead to a complex answer, according to astrologer Diotima Mantineia, because there’s two broad categories, sidereal and tropical. While each entails a knowledge of celestial bodies and their relative positions at a given time, they differ in how that information is organized.

Western astrology, arguably the most popularized style, is a form of tropical astrology. That is the type about which these questions generally arise, and that is the type Mantineia focuses on when trying to demystify the process.

Western astrology is called “tropical” because it follows the path of the sun throughout the year, during which that path drifts between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn.

This week’s equinox is when the solar path crosses what’s called the “celestial equator,” which is simply the idea of extending that imaginary line up into the sky. It marks the halfway point in the astrological year, which began on vernal equinox.

Perhaps one reasons Pagans and polytheists are assumed to know about astrology is a widespread familiarity with non-standard calendars.

Regardless, a basic knowledge of astrological principles is helpful in evaluating the questions of legitimacy and change that do pop up on occasion. Mantineia believes that if scientists who seek to challenge astrology had that understanding and perhaps did a better job applying the scientific method to astrology, the conversation might be a very different one.

In the meantime, she agreed to assist in exploring these bits of fake astrology news.

An extra constellation

Has the drift of stars in the sky had an impact on astrology? “You need to forget about the constellations,” Mantineia said, because “they have nothing to do with the matter at hand except that they lent their names to the signs.”

The signs of the zodiac are in fact 30-degree arcs of sky, and that their eponymous constellations may have drifted isn’t actually a big deal, she explains.

In her post on the astronomy of astrology, Mantineia uses a postal analogy, writing that “you may live in a house on Big Barn Lane, and back when Big Barn Lane was originally named, there was, in fact, a big old barn right there marking the intersection. The fact that the barn was dismantled years ago and moved to the other side of the property, where it was rebuilt as the new owners’ home, does not change either the name or the location of Big Barn Lane.”

That’s the reason that the constellation Ophiuchus isn’t going to get a sign: there are only 12, no matter how many recognizable constellations are on that annual solar path, which is called the ecliptic. The 30-degree pie-slice remains the same, just like the yard on Big Barn Lane which no longer features a big barn.

Astronomers often don’t understand that, as evidenced in this quote from a blog post on constellations at nasa.gov:

The constellations are different sizes and shapes, so the sun spends different lengths of time lined up with each one. The line from Earth through the sun points to Virgo for 45 days, but it points to Scorpius for only seven days. To make a tidy match with their 12-month calendar, the Babylonians ignored the fact that the sun actually moves through 13 constellations, not 12. Then they assigned each of those 12 constellations equal amounts of time. Besides the 12 familiar constellations of the zodiac, the sun is also aligned with Ophiuchus for about 18 days each year.

Implicit in that passage is the assumption that astrology tracks the apparent passage of the sun through constellations found along the ecliptic, when in fact tropical astrology tracks the passage of the sun through the sky.

A bone of contention for Mantineia is that astronomers are quick to criticize astrology, while at the same time demonstrating ignorance about it. With training as a scientist, she recognized that what little research has been done into astrology has lacked scientific rigor, because bias is left unchecked and ignorance is allowed to fester.

In short, there are 12 signs equally dividing the sky, and that will remain true no matter what stars happen to be visible in that sign right now. Ophiuchus is not a sign, but if it were made one, the name would have to replace another one for that 30-degree arc of sky.

That persistent misunderstanding is connected to the notion that it is those very stars which are directing an individual’s life, but that’s not how Mantineia sees astrology at all. She agrees that correlation is not causation, but “this fact is simply not relevant to the work I do as an astrologer.”

What matters is the correlation between celestial objects and an individual’s life, she says, leaving the question of causation to philosophers and theologians. “A reliable correlation is really all we need to have a practical, reliable, workable astrology,” she wrote in a critique of astrology’s critics.

Underworld influences

In the early part of the century, astronomers discovered Eris, a rocky mass in the neighborhood of Pluto but 27% larger. Rather than proclaiming a 10th planet, the resulting debate concluded with a new definition of “planet” that didn’t include Pluto, which didn’t even get the label for a hundred years.

Discordians have noted the chaos Eris unleashed on astronomy, but did this impact astrology, where Pluto was also recognized as a planet?

The answer is now, and that’s largely because the term “planet” is used much more broadly in astrology, and Pluto still qualifies. Essentially, planets in astrology are the heavenly bodies that move around the sky, and include what in astronomy are called planets, demi-planets (like Pluto), sun, moon, and asteroids. That differentiates them from stars, which appeared fixed by comparison.

“Small, large, dwarf planet, doesn’t matter,” Mantineia said. “What we are looking for is correlation, and we have found the correlations over and over again with Pluto.”

Observing correlations, if it is not already clear, is what astrology is all about. While Mantineia agrees that understanding how astrology functions would be interesting, it’s not necessary to know that information in order to make it function.

She even has found evidence that Carl Sagan, the celebrity astronomer of his day, agreed with that point. While he was a skeptic of astrology, Sagan, in 1975, declined to join many colleagues in blasting the discipline. “The statement stressed that we can think of no mechanism by which astrology could work,” he wrote in a letter to the Humanist.

“This is certainly a relevant point but by itself it’s unconvincing. No mechanism was known for continental drift” when it was first proposed, he went on, but the principles of plate tectonics were in force long before they were recognized, much less understood.

What makes Pluto a special case is its relatively short history in astrology. Its existence has been confirmed for just 87 years, but its journey through the zodiac takes nearly 250. As astrology is based on observing correlations between planetary positions and life on Earth, the slow progress of Pluto across the sky means that those particular correlations are generational in nature.

“Pluto in Leo generation [1939 to 1957] . . . . tend to be concerned with creativity, self-expression, and, if other elements of the chart agree, can be somewhat self-centered and navel-gazing.” For those born when Pluto was in Virgo, there is “a tendency to be more concerned with group efforts, being in service to the whole, and [they] . . . can be somewhat judgmental and critical.”

The best way to see patterns relating to Pluto, Mantineia said, is how it’s in relation to other planets in a given chart. Those aspects, as they’re called, allow deeper meaning to be gleaned through the relationships, much like a tarot reader might consider several cards together in a spread.

More ancient astrologers simply observed fewer planets, but that doesn’t mean that the correlations weren’t already in existence. Any planet not visible to the naked eye, due to the structure of the solar system, is likely to be more generational in nature, making the missing information more slow to change regardless.

Studies may show

If and when a rigorous, bias-free study of astrology occurs, questions about the mechanisms of astrology may be revealed, which could lead to a better understanding of its role in causation, if any.

Mantineia has written, “I suspect we will eventually find that there is not immediate causation so much as a clear reflection of an underlying framework of energy,” but it could be some time before that and other assertions about astrology are tested.

For the moment, those interested are encouraged to recognize when scientists wrongly wrap themselves in a mantle of expertise, but also to be wary of oversimplifications made by amateur astrologers, such as “Cancers are moody,” which references only the sign in which the sun is found.

“There are about 3,000 individual variables in any given chart,” Mantineia points out, and those generalizations are as inaccurate as any misunderstandings promoted by popular scientists of the day.

Terence P Ward

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Terence P Ward is a moneyworker, journalist, Hellenic polytheist and convinced Friend who lives in the bucolic Hudson Valley with his wife, five cats, and multiple household shrines.