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Freewill Astrology

I have taken the title of this seminar from Bessie Leo, who declared that she and Alan Leo were "freewill astrologers". Her statement reflects Alan Leo's life-long effort to get away from a fated, predetermined astrology, in favour of one which had a spiritual dimension, upholding his Theosophical belief that "character is destiny". A similar effort to free astrology from determinism was made by Dane Rudhyar, in his development of humanistic astrology. The Company has sometimes been rather scathing about Rudhyar's humanistic approach in so far as it moves astrology away from the world into a transcendental realm, and abandons the nitty-gritty realities of money and jobs, lost pets, love affairs and house prices.

But both Alan Leo's freewill astrology and Rudhyar's humanistic astrology, may be trying to do something that the Company also aims to do, that is, to shift the frame of astrology, moving it away from one which binds and limits us, especially through the shackles of time. To investigate this further, it is helpful to consider other forms of divination which are less bound by time and determinism. By taking a look at what happens when we work with them, it becomes easier to see astrology's binds.

For example, even if you know nothing about Tarot, look at the cards spread for the question "What should we do about negotiating Tarot readings? Should we make a friendly approach?". This reading concerned an incident when the Company had a stall at a mind-body-spirit type festival, several years ago. The stall was expensive to hire, but an excellent way to advertise courses, so to fund it, the Company had to give on-the-spot astrology and Tarot readings to the general public. However, another stall complained to the festival organiser about our Tarot readings on the grounds that we were officially an astrology group and should not be taking business away from stalls which practised other forms of divination. The organiser had requested us, via a messenger, to stop doing Tarot. This was problematic because Tarot is far more popular and lucrative than astrology in such settings and without it, the Company was sure to make a financial loss at the festival. A group of us on the stall therefore did a Tarot reading, asking if we should make a friendly approach to the organiser, explaining our situation and pointing out it was reasonable to carry on when the Company taught Tarot as well as astrology.

Using a Celtic cross layout, the card representing us is the friendly King of Cups, a radical significator, but we are crossed by the Devil - the mess we will be in if we can't do readings, as well as the people who have tried to stop us. Behind us, the ten of wands, the financial burden we carry. The organiser is beneath us, the King of Wands, the person on whom the matter rests, fundamental to the outcome. Above us, that which we aim for, is the three of coins, a card of craft and cash, the money for readings. Having located significators, we take the next step, and are shown, in making our friendly approach, to walk right into the ten of swords - a dead man, stretched flat-out on the ground, literally stabbed in the back, as we had already been by our competitors. Attempting to negotiate with the organiser for permission to continue our Tarot readings is clearly not a lively option.

Tarot spread

The katarchic moves ahead of us, shown by the column of four cards to the right, reflect our initiative. These cards are ghastly. If we take a friendly approach, we become like the Tower, a card of disaster, and moving through the deceptive Moon, we head ultimately to the top card, the defeated five of swords. The only helpful card in our environment is the four of swords, an image of actively waiting. On the basis of this, we decided not to approach the organiser, and to carry on doing the Tarot, waiting to see if he approached us again. We knew how busy a man he was, like the King of Wands. He did not ask us again to stop, and we eventually squiggled through the festival and covered our costs.

Showing Ourselves Symbols

I have digressed from my theme of freewill astrology with this Tarot example in order to point out that, with this form of divination, we are in no doubt about what is going on. We have a set of symbols, a context, a question, an issue. We have a querent asking the question, and an interpreter (in this case the querent), who is reading the symbols. We work through the symbols, reflecting on them and mulling them over, to get a sense of their meaning and arrive at a truth. When we arrive at this and have an understanding, we then take action. We decide, on the basis of the divination, what to do about the question. The whole process is within a frame; it is purposeful, and active at every point. To sum up the process, we have shown ourselves these symbols, in order to do something. We are bidding omens, and we then take on the responsibility of acting in relation to the omens we have bidden.

This process is fundamental in divination, and there is a lovely description of it in Philip Pullman's Dark Materials trilogy. In the first book, the heroine, Lyra, is a young girl who possesses a rare instrument, an alethiometer or truth reader. She has taught herself to read the complex layers of symbols on this instrument, "like climbing down a ladder at night, you put your foot down and there's another rung. Well, I put my mind down and there's another meaning .. there's a trick in it, like focusing your eyes". The process is not random:

"Farder Coram was a chess player, and he knew how chess players looked at a game in play. An expert player seemed to see lines of force and influence on the board, and looked along the important lines and ignored the weak ones; and Lyra's eyes moved the same way, according to some similar magnetic field that she could see and he couldn't." (p.152, Northern Lights, Scholastic Press).

We will return to Lyra later, but meanwhile, let us ask what happens when we read astrology. Like Lyra, and like reading Tarot, we take it upon ourselves to show ourselves some symbols. But there is an immediate difference. Unlike the Tarot, we are not shuffling the cards and laying out the spread, and unlike Lyra, we are not watching the swing of the needle over various symbols. These are the frames and forms of those types of divination. In astrology, we are still framing and forming, but we use planetary placings, and although these are beyond our means to shuffle or spread, we are still casting ourselves in a specific frame. We frame ourselves a certain way, but instead of realising that we are creating the frame, we imagine, because we didn't get to do the shuffling, that the frame has an objective truth, transcendental to our act of framing. In so doing, we mistake the certainty of planetary motion for a supposed certainty of fate, binding ourselves, through the illusion of time, into a predetermined fate that is aligned to the predeterminable movement of the planets. In this way, we lose our free will and lock ourselves into our destiny, as if things are fated to happen. I have discussed this issue extensively in Jung and Astrology, especially in relation to the assumptions of both classical and modern, psychological astrologers who "use the physical world in a ritualised framework to discourse on the human condition, and then assume that the physical world embodies an objective truth pre-existent to man, which they have uncovered about man." (p165).

In this fallen state, we then start to fix the reality of the symbols wholly outside of ourselves. Saturn in Gemini really was opposite Pluto across the US horizon when the twin towers were destroyed. It really did happen, at that time, yet we too easily forget that, as with the cards and the alethiometer, we have shown ourselves these symbols. But with astrology, what has happened to the action bit? I said earlier that we show ourselves the symbols in order to take action, to do something, but what is the point in action if, in encountering the astrological symbol, we identify the certainty of its planetary motion with the unfolding of our fate? We have lost any possibility of action, in favour of a passive condition. We have put ourselves in that frame, fated ourselves, and here we come across a vital difference between an active and a passive approach to divination.

Yes but ... the really real is really real

To look at this further, I would now like to take up a problem we all know well in our astrological practice. Say, for example, that we see a Saturn transit. We know it is Saturn, and not Jupiter or Venus, and that it is a definite transit, at that time, of a specific natal placing. Because it is Saturn, we also know that even if it is not symbolic of dire suffering, death, disaster and the grim reaper rapping on the door, it is certainly going to be Saturn-like in its nature. It may show hard times, I might have to knuckle down, do my duty, get good structures, be responsible, and so on. In general, most astrologers would agree that I am not going to have a giddy, fun, happy-go-lucky time. Saturn is Saturn, and not Jupiter. But does this mean I have no free will, in that there is a predetermined meaning inherent in Saturn? As Margaret Hone might have put it, under a Saturn transit, I am still fated to have trends and potentials pertaining to Saturn, and not those which pertain to Jupiter. The inevitable next step is one which believes there is a really real world of transcendental meaning out there, one which distinguishes objective Saturn transits from objective Jupiter transits.

What this argument forgets is that, as astrologers, we have created the whole frame in the first place, by agreeing to be part of the big picture astrology game which contains all of human life and death within it. Like life, the symbols in the astrology game have the good, the bad and the ugly. When we play it and read it, all of these come into the frame for us, and it's important to remember what we started with, and why we are playing the game and divining: we show ourselves these symbols in order to do something

So, you might ask, why would you show yourself a miserable, end-of-the-road Saturn symbol? Only because it is appropriate. Moreover, there is no point showing yourself Saturn, or any symbol, if you are going to adopt a completely passive position. At the end of the Dark Materials trilogy, Pullman makes a vitally important point about the nature of divination. Lyra discovers, to her horror, that she can no longer read the alethiometer: "an unhappy bewilderment spread gradually over her... those invisible ladders of meaning down which she'd stepped with such ease and confidence just weren't there. She just didn't know what the symbols meant." She realises that divination only works when she needs it to: "it just came when I needed it, for all the things I had to do" (p518, The Amber Spyglass). In the safe parameters of her Oxford world, there is nothing for her to do with it. It is not lost; given by grace, she can tune into it again, in a different way, but only through work and study.

Having a passive attitude is, perhaps, the reason why divination of any sort does not come to life. As soon as you accept you are being shown a fate about to unfold, and adopt a passive stance, you have fated yourself. In astrology, we do this by binding ourselves into the frame of time, the 'machine of destiny', determined for us by planetary motion. This assumes we are living in a world of 'continuous correspondence', where the planets, through their motion, continually churn out a preordained destiny (see Geoffrey Cornelius, The Moment Of Astrology, p95,110). For this reason, the Company emphasises katarche, using the term for its horary correspondence course, but also in relation to finding the katarchic move in all our astrology, natal, horary or otherwise. By accepting that astrological divination is katarchic, that is, concerned with initiative and action, and that 'destiny is negotiable', we can seek ways to cut through astrology's time-bound spirit, rather like Pullman's 'subtle knife', cutting through realities. Here is the impetus behind Alan Leo's Theosophy and Dane Rudhyar's humanistic astrology. But now, understanding clearly what we are doing, we seek to practice an active, enlightened and divinatory astrology, fully realised in the world.

Note - Tarot retake: Although this was not my original intention, it now seems obvious that the Tarot reading I have used in order to demonstrate other divinatory forms lends itself to a retake on the whole issue of deterministic astrology.

From a seminar at the COA on 16 January 2002

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