The Astrology Podcast
Transcript of Episode 392, titled:
With Chris Brennan and astrologer Adam Elenbass
Episode originally released on March 1, 2023
Note: This is a transcript of a spoken word podcast. If possible, we encourage you to listen to the audio or video version, since they include inflections that may not translate well when written out. Our transcripts are created by human transcribers, and the text may contain errors and differences from the spoken audio. If you find any errors then please send them to us by email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Transcribed by Andrea Johnson
Transcription released March 17, 2023
Copyright © 2023 TheAstrologyPodcast.com
CHRIS BRENNAN: Hey, my name is Chris Brennan, and you’re listening to The Astrology Podcast. In this episode, I talk with Adam Elenbaas about the topic of fate and astrology. So this was originally an episode recorded for his YouTube channel where he put out a call for questions amongst his audience about different topics related to fate, free will. We also got into some topics related to karma and reincarnation and how those integrate into Western astrology, if at all, and basically it was just a very wide-ranging discussion about a variety of different topics. So the discussion went so well that I asked Adam if I could also release it as an episode of The Astrology Podcast on my channel, and he said that would be okay, so I’m gonna release this episode as a standalone episode of my podcast as well. So I think that’s it for this introduction. So without further ado, let’s get started with the episode.
ADAM ELENBAAS: Hey, everyone, this is Adam Elenbaas from Nightlight Astrology, and today I am joined by my friend and colleague Chris Brennan of The Astrology Podcast, and we’re going to take some questions that I did a poll for. I did a poll on Instagram the other day asking some questions that we could prepare for an interview with Chris, and you guys sent in a bunch of really good questions on the topic of fate and free will in ancient astrology. We’ve got a whole list of them. Chris, of course, is a world-renowned expert in Hellenistic astrology, author of the book, Hellenistic Astrology, the person that I initially started learning Hellenistic astrology from, so it’ll be really nice to have him here today and talk about this age-old question: Did ancient astrologers believe that everything was fated, did they believe in some elements of free will, what were their views? And Chris is here to walk us through that and also just talk about the subject in general. So, Chris, thanks for being here.
CB: Awesome. Thanks for having me today. I’m excited about this.
AE: Yeah, for sure. I’ve been on your Astrology Podcast a few times over the years, and it’s been just really cool to see how massively popular the show has become and all of the really interesting guests and topics you cover. It’s pretty much the number one reference that I have for students in my programs. If I’m like, “Hey, outside of class, what are some supplemental things you can check out,” it’s like, “Oh, every episode of The Astrology Podcast to start with.” So yeah, it’s an easy place to send people.
CB: Yeah, and it’s been great ‘cause you were in some early episodes. Like I want to say in the 50’s was one of your first appearances. So you’ve seen my progression with the podcast over the years, and I’ve also been happy to see the progression of your YouTube channel and other stuff over the years as well.
AE: Yeah, well, it was you and a few other astrologers who were launching into the podcast territory and YouTube territory that really inspired me to get going with it. So yeah, a lot of mutual love and respect for each other’s work. Well, I did an Instagram poll knowing that you were gonna be on, and knowing that one of the most popular topics that I get questions on throughout the years—both from students in programs as they’re learning Hellenistic astrology or getting introduced to traditional astrology, or maybe even horary astrology—there are always questions about fate and free will. And when you read some of the Hellenistic texts, if you people do that, they’ll also read a style of delineation when the ancient astrologers are teaching the techniques, and just the language and the tone for some people can feel sort of fatalistic. And what I find really interesting is it was actually pretty diverse. The ancient world—there wasn’t just one view about fate and free will. That’s something that I really appreciated about your book, Hellenistic Astrology—the lengths you went to to kind of outline what different people thought. There were different schools of philosophers who practiced astrology and there were different views about fate and free will, so I’m really excited to get into that today.
CB: Yeah, I mean, the ancient astrologers—we think of them as these remote people that must have been doing this occult, obscure thing, but in reality the astrological community back then was just as diverse to some extent as it is today, at least in terms of different views on the purpose or what you’re supposed to be doing with astrology. And a lot of the debates that they were having 2,000 years ago are still debates that we’re having today, so there’s a lot that’s relatable there once you get past some of the initial language and cultural differences.
AE: Yeah, well, that’s a great starting point. I think I got 40 or 50 different answers to the poll, “We’re gonna talk about fate and free will. What are the questions that you guys have?” and I put it out there to my audience. The number one question that was repeated in different ways of phrasing the question was, “Were ancient astrologers fatalistic? Did they believe that every last element of life, down to the smallest details, were fated? Was that the predominant worldview?”
CB: So yeah, maybe like 10 years ago I was trying to come up with an overview of how to answer this question, and I came up with this diagram that kind of explains things and kind of shows things in an easier manner to understand, which is the ‘Signs’ vs. ‘Causes’ debate overlaid with overlapping circles of ‘Complete Determinism’ (which are those astrologers who believed that everything was predetermined) vs. ‘Partial Determinism’ (which were a group of astrologers that thought things were only partially predetermined or partially fated), and I think this is a really good way to visualize the issue. But one of the things that’s built into that diagram that I think is really important to understand is the spectrum is complete determinism vs. partial determinism because there weren’t any ancient astrologers that thought that nothing is fated, or that there was no predetermination whatsoever.
I think the basic premise of astrology was that there is some sort of concept of fate that exists out there, and the planets, and especially astrology, are an access point to understanding that. To some extent, the entire purpose of what we’re doing here is trying to understand fate—especially the fate of individuals and what will happen in individual people’s lives—by looking at the alignment of the planets at the moment that they were born, which is the birth chart. So I think that’s really important to understand and get out of the way right from the start, that it is a very fate-oriented or fate-focused practice and that is part of the backdrop or the understanding of all ancient astrologers essentially. And that’s why I subtitled my book Hellenistic Astrology: The Study of Fate and Fortune ‘cause that was really part of my thesis of the book. Somebody came up with a system in the ancient world for studying fate and they were actually successful in doing that.
AE: Yeah. Another question that came in that would be a nice one to throw in here is, “Is there a simple definition of the word ‘fate’?” And also, people wondered if it differs at all from the word ‘destiny’. Were both of those words used in ancient astrology? And how would we define fate in the first place?
CB: Yeah, so one of the ways that the Stoics defined fate was an orderly sequence of events that’s in accordance with some sort of divine plan. And I think that’s the broadest definition that’s still relevant more or less at the basis of our definition or our understanding of that word today in a way that I think an ancient astrologer, an ancient person, would still very much understand and relate to. How would you define it, or what would you add to that?
AE: Yeah, I like that a lot. And I’m not sure I would add anything to it other than there is a sense of a meaningful ‘ordered-ness’ or unfolding of events. Yeah, and I think the reason that people often gravitate towards the word ‘destiny’ is because—I don’t know if my distinction is the correct one or not—it seems to me that the word ‘destiny’ just implies that that meaningful ‘ordered-ness’ of events is somehow special, or that it’s affirming in some way. It has a little bit more of that ring of heroic calling to it or something. But I sense that the words have been closely interrelated throughout the history of astrology and that they wouldn’t be too different from one another. What do you think?
CB: Yeah, that’s a good point. Fate—especially partially due to the Christian context of Western society—came to be seen eventually as a negative thing or as a bad thing. And it’s often associated with the repressive versions of fate or the idea of predetermination, that there’s things that are outside of your control that you can’t change or you can’t do anything about that are like the bad things in your life. And that became a point of contention with Christianity, which was very free will-oriented against some of the tendencies towards fate-orientation in ancient astrology. But there’s also positive versions of fate like meeting the love of your life or the person that you’ll spend the rest of your life with through a chance encounter, or getting lucky and meeting somebody on a subway and that leading to a career change that makes you find your life’s work or something like that is the positive version of the fate construct. And I do think we’ve used the term ‘destiny’ in order to try to refer sometimes to that more positive version of fate or manifestations of fate, but it’s still, to me, kind of the same concept essentially.
AE: Yeah. Yeah, that’s exactly how I feel about it too. I’m wondering if we could go back to that diagram and I could ask you a few questions about it.
CB: Sure. Here it is.
AE: Such a nice diagram.
CB: It’s pretty advanced in terms of my illustrator skills.
AE: So let’s go through each one. So if someone were to look at the circle of ‘Complete Determinism’, could you give a brief definition of what that would look like?
CB: Yeah, so the complete determinism would be the astrologers in the ancient world who said that everything is predetermined, and this would be very much following in the Stoic line of thought, the Stoicism in the 1st and 2nd century BC, as well as the 1st and 2nd century AD. Stoicism was very popular and it happened to coincide with the rise and popularity of astrology. And we don’t know which one was first. We don’t know if Stoicism was popular so then astrology became popular as well, or if it’s because astrology was popular that Stoicism became popular at the same time. But regardless, the people that tend to fall in the complete determinism camp are the people that tend to align with the Stoic philosophy that held that the entire universe was created as this meaningful sequence of events that unfolds from the beginning of time until the end of time.
And because it was created in this perfect way by this divine creator person—which the universe is an extension of—everything is ultimately perfect; but also it means that there’s a perfect plan that’s underlying everything, even the negative events in the world. So the astrologers in this category tended to believe that everything was predetermined and that the purpose of astrology was to study your future, so that you knew what you had to accept, whether good things or bad things. You could then approach all events in your life with a greater sense of moderation and purpose and meaning by understanding your life narrative ahead of time and be prepared for it ahead of time, so it doesn’t knock you off of your spiritual path of trying to achieve moderation in all things.
AE: Right. And I’m reminded of some of the texts in your book that you quoted where this philosophy is sort of expressed in people like Vettius Valens, where he says, “Equipped with this knowledge, we’ll be soldiers of fate,” and we’ll be able to accept the ups and downs of life. And there’s a bunch of others in that philosophical portion of your textbook that are really nice, that kind of illustrate the same worldview of let’s accept our fate. That somehow your happiness is determined by how well you can kind of accept whatever your fate is and that that’s sort of the meaning of happiness.
CB: Yeah, well, it’s this proposition that if all events are predetermined, hypothetically, then the one thing that you can really control is your internal reaction to events. And to the extent that maybe some things happen but you could take it one way or you could take it another way, ultimately it’s gonna be better for your soul in some sense if you try to adopt a greater sense of moderation and not getting too happy in the case of good things or too depressed in the case of bad things, but instead, just try to encounter all things with a greater sense of moderation. And I actually opened the front of my book with a passage from Valens where he expresses a very Stoic sentiment like that. It’s a really famous passage from Valens, Vettius Valens, who lived around the middle of the 2nd century in Alexandria, Egypt, and it says, “Those who engage in the prediction of the future and the truth, having acquired a soul that is free and not enslaved, do not think highly of fortune and do not devote themselves to hope, nor are they afraid of death. But instead they live their lives undaunted by disturbance by training their souls to be confident and neither rejoice excessively in the case of good, nor become depressed in the case of bad, but instead are content with whatever is present. Those who do not desire the impossible are capable of bearing that which is preordained through their own self-mastery, and being estranged from all pleasure or praise, they become established as soldiers of fate.”
So yeah, that is the more Stoic and complete deterministic side of things, which really goes back to a broader thing that we should talk about as just a fundamental, which is something I’ve always said regardless of ancient astrology; with the concept of natal astrology and birth charts, built into that concept is some inherent notion that at least some events in our lives are predetermined. If you’re saying that the alignment of the planets, of the cosmos, at the moment that a person is born has anything to say about their future character or events that will take place in their lives, then it does imply that some things at least are predetermined. So it just becomes a question of how many things are predetermined and that really is the point that astrologers debate about.
AE: Right. So if we flip over, in that original diagram, to the ‘Partial Determinism’ bubble, on the opposite side there was ‘Complete Determinism’; the opposite bubble was ‘Partial Determinism’. So what does partial determinism look like in ancient astrology?
CB: Sure. One of the biggest advocates of partial determinism was actually Ptolemy, and part of it was that it was wrapped up in his Aristotelian causal model of astrology where he thought the planets influenced life on Earth through these different effluxes of different qualities. But as a result of that part of his statement was that it’s not just the planets that influence us, but also different circumstances in our environment growing up, our family, and other things like that are all factors. There are many different causes that are influencing us during the course of our lives or at the moment of birth, and all of those need to be taken into account so that astrology is not necessarily the final matter or the final word on the matter. So that’s kind of like one example where he’s approaching that partially because of his causal views of astrology and how that alters his thinking.
But there were also other astrologers like Dorotheus of Sidon, for example, who didn’t necessarily use a causal view of astrology. Instead it seemed to be more omen-based and astrology acting as a form of divination, where it’s a language that’s sending signs and symbols about the future. But one of the things that Dorotheus did is in the first four books of his work he practiced natal astrology and showed you how to read birth charts, but then in Book 5, he has an entire book on inceptional astrology and electional astrology where you choose different moments in the future that are gonna be more or less auspicious for certain outcomes. And underlying that is the idea that if the alignment of the planets can indicate the outcome of something then you may be able to choose one day that’s better for something that you wanted to accomplish, or another day that’s worse. So you may be able to alter the trajectory of fate to some extent.
AE: Right. Yeah, so on the partial determinism side, in a sense, life is—rather than a straight line with all of these hash marks indicating the events of your life in a completely determined way—it’s a little bit more like a 3D chessboard where there’s parameters and the moves that you make may have some different outcomes. There’s still a sense that there’s—maybe it’s not the best analogy—but there’s a set of parameters or there are certain fated outcomes that are still guaranteed, like they’re built into the game or something. And then that kind of leads us into the other two bubbles about ‘Causes’ vs. ‘Signs’. So maybe we could flip into that really quick and just make sure people understand those two. So in the bubble on the top-half, if I’m remembering correctly, it says ‘Signs’ on the top and ‘Causes’ on the bottom. Everyone who listens to my channel or listens to me rant on my soapboxes knows that I tend to be more ‘signs not causes’. If I had to guess where I fall, I’d be signs and partial determinism. I sort of land in that camp. Not that there’s only one right or wrong, but that’s the one I stand for. Tell us the difference between signs and causes in ancient astrology, so people will understand those two bubbles.
CB: Sure. I mean, the basic premise of the signs—well, let’s start with the causes. I mean, the basic premise of the ‘Causes’ definition is just that astrology works, or the mechanism underlying astrology works. Astrology is able to be predictive or tell you things about what will happen now in terms of the alignment of the planets in the present and that correlating with events on Earth in the present. Or it can be predictive about the future in terms of looking at future planetary alignments and then being able to say accurately what will be happening at that time because the planets are literally influencing events or causing things to happen either directly or indirectly through some sort of force or some sort of physical mechanism. So that’s the ‘causes’ approach, broadly speaking, and there’s many different conceptualizations of different possible causes for astrology in ancient and modern times. And then opposite to that is the ‘sign-based’ approach, which just holds that the alignment of the planets signal or indicate or act as an omen of what will happen either in the present or the future but it doesn’t necessarily cause it. The common analogy is a clock on the wall tells you that it’s 11:57 AM right now, but it’s not necessarily the cause of it being 11:57 right now, it’s just reflecting something that is presently happening in reality. That’s kind of the sign-based view of astrology.
AE: Yeah, sometimes I also use the example because lots of the people who watch this channel are also into tarot. And I say with tarot usually people don’t make—now this is me coming from a sign-based perspective—but they won’t make the mistake of drawing the Death card (let’s say it indicates the loss of a job or maybe the death of a grandparent or something) and thinking that the card is causing that. You think to yourself the card signifies or represents something that’s happening, so that’s another way of putting it. But by saying that, I don’t mean to sit here and suggest that there may not be some causal dimension to astrology; I tend to lean in the direction of ‘signs not causes’.
But one thing that I’d be curious to hear about—people who are more familiar with your work had some questions about the overlap between these things. One person—and it was kind of a long, articulated thing, so I’m just condensing what this person wrote. So if you’re listening, don’t be offended. But it was basically like when you’re looking at something like the difference between a sign and a cause, they were wondering if a planet is a sign that’s representing something, couldn’t there be some kind of acausal explanation for how a sign is a sign but also a cause? Something like synchronicity, they mentioned. And just a few questions that came in also just wondering if you believe that synchronicity, Jung’s synchronicity has any role to play in the explanation about how astrology works in general, which is sort of like a whole can of worms, but I thought it was interesting. I’m curious to hear what you think.
CB: Yeah, I mean, I think that astrology originated as a form of divination, in Mesopotamia especially, and they were more focused on the sign-based view of things, like other forms of divination that we know of today like tarot or the I Ching or what have you. It makes more sense to conceptualize those as sending signs or omens of events or of things that you’re asking about at the time and not necessarily causing them. It gets a little complicated. One of the recurring themes with astrology is that ancient astrologers said that astrology was ruled by Mercury, by the planet Mercury. And one of the things that’s unique about Mercury in ancient astrology is anytime there’s a division between two seemingly opposite areas or opposing views—where you have benefics vs. malefics, or you have masculine vs. feminine, or day vs. night—Mercury always plays this role that’s right in the middle, where it sort of straddles the boundary between those two things. It always has one foot in each realm and can sort of go either way. Also, you conceptualize astrology more as working through signs and omens. It’s been in the back of my mind for several years now that as a mercurial art—that probably implies that when we’re looking at a division like this—even though that part make a lot of sense to us, there may be some causal components to astrology—even if we can’t fully articulate or understand them now—that may exist and may be out there, so we shouldn’t completely shut the door to that entirely, which is something I have to keep reminding myself.
AE: Yeah. And I think this person was trying to get out like, “What if synchronicity was a way of explaining that there’s some secret connection between causality and signs?” and I thought that was a really smart observation or idea. I also say sometimes to my students—because they’ll say, “Well, I really feel the energies of the transits—and one of the things I’ve said is if you flip a tarot card, the tarot card could indicate different kinds of influences or energies or sensations, or whatever we want to call them, that you are actually feeling. And so, the power of a sign to signify or represent different kinds of influences or causal forces doesn’t seem to be outside of the question. Like why couldn’t a planet represent something that you will actually feel? It’s still representing it in the same way that the clock represents sunset and the nocturnal transfer into the nocturnal space. For most people that’s an actual feeling you get. So it seems to me that, yeah, there’s room for these things to be connected. When you say that something is a sign, it doesn’t mean that there’s no sense of there being energies that you can actually feel with astrology, even if the planets are still just representing those. It’s a mysterious thing. Yeah, does that make sense?
CB: Yeah, for sure. And I think synchronicity was the best modern attempt to bring back—or one of the best modern attempts to bring back the sign-based approach and reassert that after many centuries of astrology only being defined in a causal sense, and having lost a huge part of its origins and its original identity as, to some extent, a form of divination. So synchronicity is still really important and useful to explore. I don’t know if Jung ever completely settled on something ‘cause he changed his mind several different times during the course of his life about different views on how astrology worked, and he entertained different options. So that’s something to be careful about sometimes when talking about synchronicity or Jung’s work on it in particular. Like all astrologers, he was always working with this thing, and he could see it worked, but then he was constantly entertaining different notions about how it worked and why it worked and things like that.
One of the other things is fixed stars, for example, are so unimaginably far from us, and the light that’s reaching us now was sent so long ago in the past in terms of time that that’s another one of those instances where it makes more sense conceptually to me that it’s acting as a sign or an omen of something rather than being a direct cause of something. But all I’m saying at this point is just that I’m more open now and just trying to be more open to understanding that there may be causal factors in play than I entertained previously. Like a lot of people in our generation, we’re very influenced by the work of Geoffrey Cornelius, and he made this very strong argument for viewing astrology purely as divination in his book, The Moment of Astrology. And I think there were a lot of really good points to that, but I’m just trying to also keep open some of these historical debates and that there may be many different nuances to this issue.
AE: Yeah, I agree with that. I feel that same kind of openness. Geoffrey came and spoke with my students in 2014, and he came for a week, and we had this retreat and everything. He developed and presented his view of astrology as divination and it had a huge impact on me. But yeah, it’s important just to stay open. And as someone who works with students and clients all the time, just like you do, and people offering feedback, there’s a component to everyday astrological experience that you can’t deny. There’s a feeling of an influence in the air of a Mercury retrograde or a Mars retrograde or something.
CB: Even before that, just think back to 2020 and all the outer planet energies that were happening. None of us will ever forget that Saturn-Pluto conjunction at the beginning of the year in January, or later, six months later, once Saturn went into Aquarius, and the Saturn-Uranus square. It’s like we all began feeling that instability and that rebelliousness and those different energies.
AE: Oh, yeah, yeah. Great point, yeah. Circling back around to what you said, I always get people saying, “Where can I learn more about this topic?” Well, Chris, you have done some episodes on Jungian astrology on the podcast that people could refer back to. I really recommend, if you have never heard Chris’ podcast, The Astrology Podcast, that you go check it out. We’ll have a link in the description of the video and stuff like that. But you did some episodes on Jungian astrology. There’s been some great books written, like Jung on Astrology. Was that edited or written by Safron Rossi?
CB: Yeah, Safron Rossi and Keiron Le Grice, and I did two episodes with each of them on Jung’s work. But the one that might interest this listener the most was Episode 148 titled “Jung on Synchronicity and the Mechanism for Astrology.” So there’s only an audio version of that, but if they Google it, they’ll find it on the podcast website.
AE: And then there’s a couple of books that have been written by Liz Greene on Jung’s studies in astrology, you mentioned those on the podcast before as well. So if people are interested in learning more about this interesting portion of today’s conversation, those would be some good books to check out. If you just search ‘Jung and astrology’ on Amazon, you’ll find all of the texts that we just mentioned. Well, continuing down our list—we’re probably not gonna get through everyone’s questions today, just so everyone knows in advance. I’m gonna try to pick some other ones. One question that I thought was really interesting was, “Is fate the same concept as karma?” We know that Indian astrology and Hellenistic astrology—there’s a lot that they share. There’s some big differences too, practically or in terms of techniques and methods and so forth. But this question was, “Is fate the same concept as karma, or are they just different words for the same thing? And if not, are there any really meaningful big differences?”
CB: Yeah, I mean, I think that fate is mentioned very frequently in all the Western texts and seems to have been the primary preoccupation of most ancient astrologers in the Roman Empire for many centuries. But I haven’t found any references to karma in Western astrological texts in terms of the actual astrologers until the past century when Alan Leo and some of the Theosophists started drawing on Hinduism and Buddhism and other Eastern philosophies and integrating them actively into Western astrology. So from my perspective, just from a historical perspective, that’s how I look at it with my ‘historian’ hat on. Yeah, that would be part of my answer to that.
AE: Yeah, I mean, as someone who just spent a number of years and got initiated in a yogic lineage and did a lot of reading and studying the Upanishads and the Vedas and so on, the Indian philosophical tradition is hugely diverse. So one thing to keep in mind that I would say right away is that there’s not one single way of looking at or understanding karma in India, just like there isn’t one single way of talking about or understanding fate or how much is fated and how much is open. So you almost have to think like there’s a whole philosophical ecosystem in India talking about karma, what it is, how it works. Even in the Bhagavad Gita, you have Krishna saying that not even the wisest sages understand karma. I think it’s tempting to want to make the two concepts the same, but I don’t think they are.
I mean, you see in Plato and other Western philosophical texts the idea that the soul’s actions somehow carry meaning in terms of how it takes its next birth; the idea of the transmigration of the soul and that somehow the soul’s actions have repercussions in future lifetimes. But in my opinion, in the West, the whole idea about karma and transmigration of the soul is nowhere near as developed. You don’t hear people talking about fate in ancient Western astrology as though it is the same exact thing that karma is. At least I get the sense in reading the texts and so forth of a little bit more of a concern with this lifetime.
AE: Not that there isn’t a belief in more lifetimes potentially among different schools and stuff, but I just get the feeling that the idea of fate is a little bit more about what you’re doing right now in this lifetime.
CB: Yeah, yeah. I mean, they were entirely focused on this, and the concept of fate was just in and of itself sort of applied to what is your role or what is the narrative of your story in this life. And the idea that astrology could help you figure that out in and of itself was just seen as really impressive. If you can use astrology to figure out your current life narrative for the next 60 years or what have you, and what your purpose is here, or what you’re supposed to be doing, that was kind of sufficient, and I don’t think they often went beyond that. Usually ideas like karma seem to extend concepts of fate to a mechanism of why things are predetermined now, in this life, by extending the causal chain to before you were born and the premise that there were actions that you took in the past that led to why things are now. And that’s where you get some of the ideas of karma and reincarnation even though they’re kind of separate concepts.
I actually saw a poll recently that was kind of interesting, from 2021, that said there was a much higher portion of people in modern India today that believed in karma, but there was a much smaller portion comparatively, relatively speaking, that believed in reincarnation. I thought that was interesting that they’re not necessarily always completely connected in people’s minds, that some people that believe karma is a thing in the present life, but maybe don’t believe that it extends over into past lives or something like that. So that’s why sometimes even though those are connected, it might be good to sometimes consider whether they might be defined separately.
AE: Yeah. Yeah, it’s interesting to note that as far as I understand a lot of early astrologers were probably Stoics or there was a strong connection between astrology in the Hellenistic world and the Stoic school of philosophy, and I don’t believe that they emphasized the idea of a personal soul. There’s an essence, that all souls are part of a universal or something, but I don’t believe there was quite the emphasis on the soul trying to transmigrate through successive lifetimes to reach some kind of personal enlightenment. Is that correct?
CB: Yeah, I don’t think there was. I mean, the closest you could get to that is just the idea of eternal recurrence, and the idea that the universe is so perfect in its sequence and orderliness and has this master plan that eventually the universe would sort of collapse, but then it would expand or be reconstituted at some point again and then things would repeat the exact same way over again, or something like that, in some versions of Stoicism.
AE: Right. Like there’s a different feeling in Indian astrology—not that I’m trying to represent all Indian astrologers right now. For example, the eternal recurrence of events in the universe—some Indian astrologers might describe that as samsara, that you’re supposed to try to migrate out of that cycle or something like that. So yeah, going back to the original point, I don’t think that fate and karma are identical, although they’re both really interesting and obviously have both been at the heart of what astrology’s been about in the East and West for a really long time.
AE: But I don’t think they’re identical though. I probably couldn’t hash out the differences much more than we’ve already done, but hopefully that answers this question a little bit.
CB: Yeah, and I think it’s really important karma and reincarnation provide part of the philosophical or religious backdrop that’s allowed Indian astrology to continue to flourish over the past 2,000 years. Whereas in the West, astrology became so closely linked to the concept of fate that when there was this new religion that came along that said that if you join this new religion that you’ll be freed of fate, and you’ll be freed of your birth chart, I really think that was one of the primary things that led to this massive rise in the popularity of Christianity at such a rapid pace in the early centuries of the Roman Empire. One of the things that’s been little explored is just at the time it provided an alternative to what we can say in some instances may have been overemphasis on fate by some of the early Stoically-inclined Hellenistic astrologers. Some people might have seen that as a really appealing alternative, and I think that’s something maybe to keep in mind in modern times.
With the revival of modern astrology, that’s been useful because it’s also emphasized some of the good things about free will and about humanism and having the experience of making choices, doing things consciously, trying to improve ourselves, not adopting an overly-fatalistic or defeatist attitude towards our birth chart or just accepting things without trying our best to manifest positive outcomes or outcomes that are more preferred. There’s a lot of good things there in modern astrology that I think are being blended together with some of the techniques and other philosophies that have been recovered from ancient astrology recently that are really good, and we’re creating a new synthesis now that hopefully will create a more balanced astrology for the future.
AE: Yeah, that’s a great point, and a really nice point about the popularity of Christianity and its relation to astrology, being freed from the fate of a birth chart. It’s interesting that that recurs in India in places too. I remember the purports that I read in some of the texts in the bhakti yoga tradition that I got involved in for a while and the analogy that was often used once you take to the path of yoga. It’s like you’re a fan that’s been plugged into the wall and you have electrical currents spinning the wheels of the fan, and that’s karma. Once you take to yoga, you’re pulling the cord out of the wall. Although blades will keep spinning by momentum, you’re no longer plugged in. And then also the idea was that from that point on, even though you may still be connected to a birth chart—this is Krishna bhakti, so there’s many different forms of bhakti—but Krishna will take over for the administration of your karma personally. Whereas everyone else who hasn’t given themselves to yoga will get more of an impersonal, objectivist—they’ll be ground by the wheels of their karma, by the gears of their karma.
So I think that there’s been different versions of that same idea that some kind of religious path can offer you salvation from the birth chart. Which is interesting because in that respect it doesn’t make it sound like the birth chart’s a very ‘kind’ thing. But what I find interesting is that, like you said, one of the greatest features of modern astrology is really a way of looking at the birth chart as a kind of cooperative tool for self-reflection and personal growth. So it’s like astrology always has an answer for its philosophical detractors and it’s very flexible in that regard. There was a question that came in along these lines, Chris, that was asking, “When astrology came about—speaking of the religions in the early Roman Empire and India and stuff like that—would we consider astrology to have been a religion? And if not, what was it?”
CB: Yeah, I mean, again, it comes back to the mercurial, Hermetic nature of astrology where astrology always straddled the line between science and religion, and it was neither wholly one nor the other. There were certainly practitioners that would swing more towards one direction or emphasize the other. For example Ptolemy was more of a scientist and a polymath, and he wrote major works in different fields of science, like geometry, optics, geography, astronomy, and also astrology. And so, for him, astrology was partially just an extension of applied physics or something like that. But then there were other astrologers certainly where astrology did have more religious undertones, especially as part of some of the Hermetic traditions, and astrologers like Valens or Firmicus who treat astrology as this secret knowledge that’s meant to be passed down from teacher to student, imitating the Hermetic philosophical lineages that would pass gnosis, or revealed wisdom down from teacher to student for generations as part of these Platonic dialogues.
And there were definitely some religious undertones there where they would ask you to swear an oath not to share the teachings with the unlearned or the uninitiated, so that it was almost as if it was part of a mystery tradition that was just being passed along over the course of generations and wasn’t meant for general public consumption. And I think in that context, especially when you then also add in some of the undertones of fate and just the inherent nature of astrology—that if it works to the extent that it works, it naturally raises some spiritual and religious and philosophical questions about what is our meaning and purpose in the cosmos, and it kind of implies that we have more meaning or purpose than you might think otherwise—then it naturally does have some religious or spiritual component to it.
AE: Yeah, that’s a great point. There’s a book that I read recently that reminds me of what you just said. It’s a book by a Jungian, his name is Jason Smith, and he wrote a book called Religious But Not Religious; and the subtitle is Living a Symbolic Life. The text is like an embodiment of Hermes. So yeah, I’ve grown to appreciate that more and more. Because one of the things that I reflected on recently is—and people who watch my channel know this—I grew up a very religious kid, a preacher’s kid; yeah, just a lot of exploration of religion throughout my lifetime. So recently I left a religious tradition that I was a part of, and I had taken an initiated name as everyone knows and I’ve kind of gone back to my birth name. One of the things that I am so thankful for is that astrology has this weird way of perfectly signifying and symbolizing the dive that I took into this religious experience, as well as very perfectly signifying the need to leave and go on.
And so, what I think is really interesting is that astrology seems fundamentally open to and supportive of all manners of experiences. It has a way of reflecting all the different kinds of philosophies that are out there too. And so, I think that’s one of the things about astrology that’s so unique. Its symbolic power can kind of affirm and represent just about any kind of religion or philosophy, but it also doesn’t have to get stuck in any of them, which I think is probably why it’s so attractive to so many people.
CB: Yeah, for sure. That makes me think of a funny thing. A couple of the most extreme astrology skeptics I know of, when I found their birth charts, they both had Saturn in the 9th house in a night chart. And it was so funny ‘cause it was like the astrology itself was saying, “You will not believe in astrology,” and there’s a funny kind of a thing to that.
AE: Yeah, totally. Someone asked me, “Don’t you feel kind of adrift? You just set aside your religion. You must feel a little lost.” And I was like, “No,” because Pluto in the 9th house opposing my Sun in the 3rd perfectly represented my departure from this religious experience, which, to me, just filled me with a sense of trust in the journey of my life. And there’s something about that—although I don’t have any kind of religious affiliation at the moment—that felt like a kind of religious experience. I don’t know how else to describe it. So I think that’s the magic of astrology. There’s another question along these lines that we’re talking about here, “Did ancient astrologers believe that your chart included a set of instructions or learning lessons that you were supposed to accomplish in order to evolve?” Now I’ll say that right away that ‘in order to evolve’ piece, we could tack that on or leave that out either way. Is the birth chart like a set of instructions? Whether you believe it’s a set of instructions that carries you on to future lifetimes or not, I think we’ve already established that people debate that. But was there any sense in ancient astrology that the birth chart contained a set of learning lessons or instructions?
CB: Yeah, I mean, the ‘evolve’ part just goes back to the evolution part. And I don’t think that was a component in ancient astrology at least ‘cause they were very much just focused on the wonder of being able to cast a chart and look at astrology and be able to say things about a person’s entire life and what some of the main beats of a person’s life are, or what some of the main chapters of a person’s life are and main subjects, and that in and of itself is just really impressive. It’s sometimes when people want more than that, or they want astrology to be more, to do more than that, I think of that meme of Maximus from Gladiator, when he’s in the arena, and he’s like, “Are you not entertained?” Being able to predict all these things about what will happen in a person’s future from the moment they were born until they’re 60- or 90-years-old, that’s already pretty impressive. People, let’s take that for what it is.
But otherwise, the chart itself, yeah, I mean, some of the basic placements especially, and that’s a reorientation when you’re getting into ancient astrology. Instead of looking at all the placements as being active for the entire duration of the life, sometimes some of those placements will just indicate a single specific event that will happen at some point in your life that will come to characterize—if somebody were to write a biography about your life and would write at some point a chapter about the time that that one thing happened. And sometimes that’s sufficient and it doesn’t have to be something that’s continually present and continually manifesting in the same way in order for it to be relevant. It just has to sometimes tell you something that will be significant and defining about a person’s life, and sometimes that’s what the birth chart does in some areas.
AE: Again, not wanting to be too dogmatic—and I have a tendency to get really dogmatic about the ‘astrology as divination’ thing—but a thing that I like to remind people of is that in the ancient world, to go and see a diviner—I’m just using that word loosely—but to go and see a diviner would require sometimes a sacrifice, whether that sacrifice was a long journey—like a pilgrimage or to a temple—or if it was sometimes literally, “Bring a goat,” or something like that.
CB: Like a Beyond Meat Burger or something in a modern context.
AE: Yeah, exactly. Don’t want to piss off PETA on my YouTube channel.
AE: But yeah, I think one of the things that we forget is that because we have this software at our disposal, because we have daily astrological content, because we have scrolling—we’re always scrolling—some of that’s really cool. Like I’m not at all trying to—there are benefits to all those things. But because of that, it’s also easy to want astrology to be something that we get overstimulated by and we don’t know how to unplug from it. And so, it’s kind of like, yeah, I feel like if you were to talk to your therapist every single day, therapy would sort of lose its value because it’s good to let some water pass under the bridge and then go and speak to a therapist. You don’t want to take note of every single dream you have. Even in my dream-tending classes they’ll say, “Let some dream water pass under the bridge,” and then you’ll notice that some really stand out.
And I think that there’s an art to letting a lot of things pass in life and then noticing that some things stand out. When things really stand out—experiences or events—to use astrology to help us understand them, or to use astrology to prepare us for a period of time where it’s likely that some events are going to stand out, I think that’s a really good use for it. I would call that a kind of divinatory mindset at least. But it seems like if we’re always looking for astrology to give us a set of instructions or learning lessons that are ever-present, 24/7, all the time, then I think it’ll probably disappoint us, or we might start getting obsessive about trying to improve ourselves. Whereas if you use it in the way that I’m describing I think that you’ll often find that those events will pop up with a set of implicit meaning or learning lessons or something like that.
CB: Yeah, for sure. I mean, there’s a lot there. One of the things I wanted to mention in respect to something you said at the beginning of that was that there’s more and more evidence that keeps coming out that astrology during the Greco-Roman period—especially in the early Roman Empire in Egypt—was something that was practiced, not exclusively, but it was one of the things that was practiced in the Egyptian temples. When people would come to the temples with an issue or a question there were these priests who would cast a person’s birth chart and then try to provide answers within that context using astrology as one of the forms of divination.
And so, there was a, not just religious, but a sacred component to that and much more of a sacred sense to astrology in the ancient world in some instances, which is something that in modern times, under our current context of capitalism and the commodification of astrology, we’ve lost a little bit, that probably would have been more present in the ancient world. Or even would have been more present prior to the past century when astrology was something that was less accessible to just normal, everyday people, in that you had to have a lot of really advanced training in order to access. So that was one thing I wanted to mention. And what was the last part? The second part you were focused on?
AE: Just using astrology a little bit more selectively. Astrology seems to have…
CB: Oh, yeah, just the frequency.
AE: Yeah. And it seems to provide us with lessons. Life through astrology can feel like it’s giving you some instructions or lessons. But I think that it’s really important—just in my personal point of view—that we not look at astrology like, “Well, your chart has this set of lessons that you have to learn,” but more like as you relate to your life through the lens of your birth chart, you’ll find that one of the ways in which it speaks or feeds back to you is that it provides you with a set of what maybe you’re meant to learn within the context of something, something you’re experiencing. But it seems that for it to do that you have to make sure that you’re not obsessing over it like it’s a set of instructions.
CB: Yeah. I mean, I think during the course of a student or an astrologer’s career, every astrologer that I’ve ever known goes through different periods of waxing or waning in terms of the level of frequency to which they pay attention to their own birth chart or their own transits, or the birth charts and transits of everybody around them, or the mundane transits and current world events; I think different astrologers go through different stages, especially early on. There’s a stage where everybody does that really intensely and sort of obsessively. And that’s okay to a certain extent as long as it doesn’t verge into being unhealthy, just because it’s part of the process of learning and immersion, just as if you were immersing yourself in a language. If you were trying to pick up Arabic or ancient Greek or Sanskrit or something like that, the best way to immerse yourself in the language is to go there and live there and just do that 24/7.
CB: And that’s how you really internalize something, but there can definitely be an unhealthy version of that. But for the most part for astrologers—for people that become astrologers—astrology is this code or this language that’s happening behind reality that’s sort of telling you what’s going on at any given moment in time. And sometimes it tells you things that are important pieces of information that may be contrary to what you initially think about events but then later will turn out to be true, which is a recurring surprise that I often have, even having experienced that like hundreds of times. I’m always sort of impressed when my experience of events is one way, and I expect things to go one way, but the astrology’s telling me there’s something else going on here and it’s gonna go a different way, that the astrology often ends up being true.
And where I was going with that is that there’s a healthy component to that, which is that all astrologers are using astrology as a process of studying the unfolding of their life purpose or life narrative. And during the course of your life and your career as an astrologer, you will always be digging that up in different stages and sometimes coming to new understandings or new realizations about your birth chart as part of a lifelong process of finding out who you are and what you’re here to do. And there’s something just very beautiful and very interesting about that as a phenomenon that we experience as astrologers.
AE: Right. Yeah, that’s true. I think there’s also this way in which just naturally living a life and using astrology as a way of reflecting upon it—sometimes I feel like that is more satisfying to me than using astrology to try to figure out why I’m here, what I’m supposed to do. Although I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive. Sometimes I feel like astrology’s given me this feedback about how to individuate or, yeah, what my purpose is, or what the lessons might be in any situation or time in life. There’s this other level where it’s almost as though astrology is just providing me this—like you said, “Are you not entertained?” Astrology’s just providing me this archetypal lens through which to appreciate the richness of experience itself. And so, even just being able to reflect on the fact that the way something happened took place while the Moon was opposite Mars.
AE: Oh, wow, that got heated. Then I reflect on the fact that the Moon is opposite Mars, and somehow it’s like a balloon in my chest is just blowing up and I go, “Wow.” I have to experience that and that sequence of events and the consequences, and maybe I have to make up with someone after an argument or something. But somehow astrology itself—set aside the lessons and the purpose—expands our appreciating capacity for experience itself, and I think it’s important to have that kind of relationship to astrology alongside of always mining the chart for moral or spiritual imperatives or purpose or something.
CB: Yeah, for sure. To retain that sense of just wonder that it works at all and how rich the language is, and how well it can describe these different levels of human experience.
AE: Yeah, yeah, totally. This is interesting—this dovetails with another question. So we’re talking about fate and we’re talking about instructions, things that you’re here to learn. There was also a rich practice of astrological magic in the ancient world, and there were also debates about whether or not astrological magic should be used or not. We’re not gonna be able to tell anyone what to do or not to do about this, but could you just outline for us, what were the views? Was astrological magic used by everyone? Was it used by some astrologers and not by others? What were the debates like about it? And what would be some examples of how astrological magic was used in relation to the birth chart?
CB: Yeah, I mean, I think there was a tension in the Hellenistic tradition, in the Greco-Roman period, between some of the astrologers that were more Stoically-inclined, who thought that the purpose of astrology was to learn your fate so that you knew what things you needed to accept in the future and wouldn’t be blindsided by stuff. And I think that’s really important to emphasize ‘cause it’s the one philosophical principle or precept that just gets repeated amongst almost every astrologer, so that it must have been this commonly agreed upon thing of like, “That’s what we’re doing with astrology,” or that’s one of the primary purposes. Whether you’re fully deterministic or even just partially deterministic, there’s some element where you’re trying to learn the future to know what you have to accept. But then there were other traditions going back to Mesopotamia even—because astrology in Mesopotamia in 1000 BCE, they would do it for the city or the state, but then sometimes they would do it for the purpose of then figuring out what propitiation rituals would then need to be used in order to ward off any negative things. Or sometimes they’d try to get cute with it and do things like the ‘substitute king’ ritual where if there’s a negative omen for the king then let’s switch out the king for like a week or two till that passes and then we’ll put the king back in, and different stuff like that. So there was clearly a pre-existing tradition that had some magical notions of finding out the future, so that you can try to avoid it, almost as a form of time travel or something like that, and of working with time in order to manipulate or control it. And I think that continued into the Hellenistic tradition where there was this separate magical tradition that said the purpose is to learn your fate in order to know how to change it or how to alter it, and that through different magical means you might be able to do this.
And I found this one really amazing text from I think the 3rd or 4th century alchemist named Zosimos who preserves some passages from these two astrological texts that were debating about this, and one of them was attributed to Hermes Trismegistus and the other was attributed to Zoroaster. And the Hermes text, interestingly, is the one that’s arguing for more of a Stoic position on fate that aligns more with authors like Valens, where it’s saying you learn the future in order to learn what you have to accept and that’s the purpose of astrology. And then you have this Zoroaster text that’s saying that you can learn your future or your fate through astrology, but then you can do certain magical things in order to attempt to avoid or mitigate certain things. So I think this was a debate that was happening in the ancient world with different astrologers on different sides, or at least coming from different perspectives.
AE: Yeah, students ask me about that all the time, and I think it’s for each individual to explore. And it’s not a black-and-white thing either, just kind of going into another question that was asked. “Do either of you practice or use astrological magic? And if so, to what extent? Why? Why or why not?” and I thought, well, I can speak to this personally. And, Chris, if you want to answer, you can. You can also decline. But my answer is I don’t. I read the Tao Te Ching and the I Ching, and I tend to be a little bit more about learning how to align. I would say if there’s any kind of magic in my practice, it’s an alignment-based practice. It’s sort of like using astrology as a way of helping me, maybe reflect upon if it’s the right time to do something or not, or maybe figuring out how to adjust my approach within something I’m doing. So I feel like there’s a sense of trying to align myself with the right time or the right season or the right moment, or to use the planets as a kind of feedback to walk the Tao or walk the path, or be in some kind of cosmic harmony or something.
You could call that, I guess, a kind of magic, but it’s probably a little bit closer, for me, to that sense of not trying to assert my will or manipulate anything so much. I can say that, by the same token, I spent about a decade of my life working with Ayahuasca. Working with Ayahuasca is definitely like a plant medicine. One way of describing it is that you’re using it to try to remediate things that you’re dealing with psychologically, or if you want to call it, karmically, or something. And my wife and I teach a program that we just started called Roots and Spheres, which is a monthly Moon circle where we track the astrology for the month, but we also diet a plant teacher that we feel like could help us to find that right alignment within every lunar cycle.
So I’m guessing that have probably been a lot of astrologers throughout history like this where there may have been go pick your herbal medicine under this sign of the Moon, in this sign, or use this herbal medicine for this kind of ailment, but, while broadly speaking, trying to walk a path of acceptance rather than willful domination or manipulation of astrological energies. But my point being is that I don’t think it’s black-and-white. I don’t think it’s either you just sit back and passively accept every last thing and there’s no practice of any kind—no magical remediation or anything—or it’s like you’re making an amulet every day to try and manipulate every last thing. So I’m guessing that a lot of practitioners through astrological history have sort of fallen in the middle some place. Do you want to take a swing at this question, Chris?
CB: Yeah, there’s so much there, and I like what you said. I mean, one of the things to be aware of that comes through really clear in some of the Stoic philosophers is sometimes we conceptualize fate as this external thing or our circumstances, but in the Stoic philosophical tradition your fate is not just your external circumstances but also your internal circumstances of like who you are, what your character traits are, what your proclivities towards certain actions are, your temperament, and different things like that. So it’s not just an external notion of fate, but even the notion that some of your actions and your choices might be predetermined as well, and sometimes that shows up in certain techniques like zodiacal releasing in the Hellenistic tradition. Especially zodiacal releasing from the Lot of Spirit is very much keyed in with the actions that you’ll take in order to find your career and accomplish what you’re supposed to do here in terms of the actualization of your will and your internal potential. And it’s kind of startling sometimes to see that technique objectively lining up very well with you making important decisions that came not as a result of external circumstances, but sometimes as a result of internal choices that we make that we have the experience of as being completely free will choices. So there’s a little bit of trickiness there in terms of internal vs. external fate and the potential that it’s not just your external circumstances that may be subject to fate, but there could be some internal things there as well.
But that being said, I do use one electional astrology very frequently. I had a conversation with Austin Coppock a few years ago, in late 2019, I think, on astrology and magic, and that sort of changed my views a little bit and I realized a little bit more that electional astrology really is almost kind of like magic. When you’re using electional astrology, you’re really trying to, at the very least, alter the trajectory of things and put things on a better path or a better course that’s more in alignment with the outcome that you would like to see happen, and that’s very much what people that are involved in astrological magic or just magic in general are trying to do as well. And it is kind of magical in a way to the extent that it works. Electional astrology can sometimes allow you to change things or to make things work out in a way that matches your goal or your desired outcome. And I think that’s the area of astrology that gives you the greatest sense of free will and the ability to alter or control things for the better out of anything.
But that being said, nothing will teach you about the restrictions of fate faster than trying to find a set of electional dates and realizing very quickly that you don’t have unlimited options and that the circumstances of time and location and practicality impose certain restrictions on you, so that you’re never gonna find the perfect, ideal electional chart. There’s always going to be some things in it that are not optimal or that you don’t like and that you end up having to accept as trade-offs for things that you do like. And that becomes an additional sort of interesting part of the ‘fate and free will’ dialogue, sometimes having the choice in front of you and being able to make the choice consciously of what the good things and the bad things are that you’re gonna accept on an ongoing basis—by paying attention to the moment in which you’re initiating actions and what the potential is in each of those moments every single time—really gives you firsthand experience of the ‘fate/free will’ issue and the interplay between those two areas.
AE: Yeah, it’s—go ahead.
CB: There was one last thing, which is just even if things are predetermined to some extent, or even 100%, as astrologers, something I’ve always said is we have to act as if they are not because of the limitations of being able to say 100% what will happen with astrology because astrology is a language that works through symbolism and omens there’s always gonna be a barrier. It’s not like getting out a crystal ball and looking into the future and seeing a movie that shows you exactly what’s gonna happen in terms of all the details and the sequence of events. Sometimes it’s more broad than that, even though it can be quite advanced and quite impressive how far you’re able to go with that in terms of predicting very specific things, but nonetheless, no astrologer is ever 100% certain until they get there and they see the full manifestation and the particular way that things work out.
And as a result of that, that lack of 100% certainty leaves wiggle-room where you should never resign yourself 100% to thinking that you know exactly what’s gonna take place in the future and that you should just accept, especially any negative things that you think are gonna happen in your life based on your chart or your transits or what have you, but instead we have to always try to push for the best possible outcomes and push for the best possible scenario. Sometimes, at least as astrologers, if we do that we’ll find that the outcome in the future was not as bad as we expected, or that it was much more favorable the way things ended up turning out than our initial pessimistic assumptions or thoughts about something. So I think that’s where there’s a sort of free will that lies in astrology, even if we’re adopting the most deterministic mindset.
AE: That’s a great point. I sometimes use an analogy when it comes to archetypal prediction. If, as an astrologer, you’re trying to be like David Copperfield and wow people, you’re probably trying to throw one dart and hit the bull’s eye.
AE: I think what we’re really trying to do—as a Hermetic activity, it’s symbolic and archetypal in nature, I’ll call it that—is more like taking five darts and just trying to hit the board with all five of them. The likelihood is that if I describe what Saturn opposing a person’s Venus could mean in five different ways—completely unique ways of reading that symbolic interaction—I try to keep those thematic. For example, the maturation of Venus, Venusian things—a love relationship becoming more mature, like a wine that’s aging well or something, or the death of a relationship, I describe it in different ways—it’s likely that one of those darts, when I’m speaking to a client, will have hit really close to the bull’s eye, if not bull’s eye. And there’s always someone when they are first learning about astrology that’ll go, “Isn’t that cheating?” Well, no. Not if my goal isn’t to try to impress someone with my concrete predictive success, like David Copperfield.
And I think that the other thing that that does too, when we learn to read transits or understand astrological prediction in this manner—and there’s some cases, like in horary, where maybe that’s not appropriate. If someone’s saying, “We’re trying to conceive. Will we be successful?” there are forms of astrology that I think may be more concretely-predictive, and people may or may not be drawn to those or whatever. But if work this way with birth charts then the other thing that we can do is knowing there’s is realm of Saturn-Venus possibilities that are coming in, if you say, “Well, there’s some fault lines in my relationship,” and you know this transit’s coming in the next year, if you know that you can start talking, “Hey, let’s go get some therapy. Let’s go to counseling together.” You can be proactive when you have some sense of where those fault lines are.
Or, for example, clients will come in and maybe they have Pluto ingressing into their 1st house in Aquarius coming up. And I’ve heard myself say more than a few times to people who know astrology and are worried about their health, well, don’t wait for a crisis. If there are some basic obvious ways you might be able to take care of yourself a little bit better. You know what those are, I don’t. But if you know what those are, do them now. Because what could be the harm in just taking better care of yourself? And you never know how you might also be creating an environment in which you have a little bit more resilience if you get sick or whatever. So anyway, this is just some feedback about some of those points you made. Really, yeah, I couldn’t agree more with those.
CB: Yeah, that made me think maybe there’s a way we could summarize that in a sentence. I don’t know if this is perfect, but I’m just ‘workshop-ing’ this here that the success of astrology is not in how well you predict the exact concrete outcome in each individual case but rather how well you can describe the overarching archetype. Because, really, astrology, as you said—and as Richard Tarnas says—is archetypally predictive in that it shows you the archetype that you can describe, which is like the overarching, umbrella symbolism, and then there’s gonna be many individual ways that that symbolism can manifest in specific ways. And you can access the archetype, but sometimes it’s harder to get a bull’s eye on the specific individual manifestation because of how many different factors are involved in doing that.
But again, it goes back to that thing where if you can describe the archetype, it’s still gonna, a) be accurate, and b) be really impressive that you can do that at all. Realistically, if we step outside of our astrologer bubble for a minute, that shouldn’t work. We shouldn’t be able to describe archetypally what’s gonna happen in the future based on the alignment of the planets in the present, the past, or the future. Just from an objective, scientific, modern materialist standpoint that shouldn’t work. And there’s many people that assume before they’ve actually learned astrology or studied things like transits that it just doesn’t work. However, one of the recurring experiences that every astrologer has is just this sense of astonishment and wonder that it does actually work, and then trying to see how far you can go with it, and how close to making it a sort of predictive science in terms of predicting specifics and take that as far as we can go.
But one of the things that I do sometimes is provide delineations. For each placement, I’ll do three delineations. I’ll say, “Here’s the archetype,” and I’ll try to describe the archetype as broadly as I can of a specific combination; let’s say Venus conjunct Saturn. And I’ll say, “Here’s one positive way that this could manifest in a specific circumstance in your life. And then here’s a second delineation that’s a more negative way that this could manifest in your life in a specific scenario. And then finally here’s a third one that is a more neutral manifestation.” And then that gives a sort of range of both describing the archetype, as well as trying to get more specific about different ways that it could manifest in a range of positive or negative ways on that full spectrum, and then asking the client or talking to the client about how it has manifested at this point and if it’s been on one side of that spectrum experience or another.
And I think that’s important ‘cause I saw somebody on Twitter recently, that was like a younger student, who was kind of complaining that astrologers tended to use chart examples where they already knew what the outcome was and they were focused on a placement, but then describing it in these super specific ways of this is how the placement manifested for the client in a super specific way. And they were frustrated because they said, “Would you have said that ahead of time? Would you have predicted that specific concrete manifestation ahead of time?” And I think what’s important to understand is when astrologers use these highly-specific examples and then describe the outcome, the purpose is to teach students—and also for the astrologers themselves to learn—this is a specific manifestation in a person’s life of this archetype. It’s really important for a student to learn the full range of manifestations because sometimes there can be unique ways that things can come about in a person’s life that you didn’t expect or didn’t anticipate ‘cause you just didn’t consider that as a possibility. But the more you learn about astrology and the more you consider different possible manifestations that could happen from different archetypes, the better you can be about trying to make specific predictions in the future.
AE: Right. And that goes back to something that I said at the beginning, which is that sometimes I’ll find that students of traditional astrology will say those texts seem so fatalistic.
AE: And I think some of that is actually more about language and tone and culture. If you read, for example, Firmicus Maternus, his book is just chock full of delineations: this planetary combination, or planets making aspects, and planets in houses, and so on and so forth. You’ll find all sorts of delineations in ancient texts, but I tell my students there’s no reason to believe that they were that different from us. Maybe in some cases there were people who were more super literal, like if you have this combination then it means that a wild dog will bite off your arm or something crazy, but I think you can read those texts archetypally as well.
I feel like the texts are written in a way that is teaching you about different manifestations of the underlying symbolic values or correspondences; so if you have Venus and Saturn, you’ll see a list of delineations. And when we read the ancient texts there’s a tendency to want to take that list literally, like a cookbook. And then we think, “Well, ancient astrologers, they were so narrow and limited and literal,” but I don’t think they actually were because you see how diverse those delineations were from text to text. And really the texts themselves were probably teaching students to think about symbolic interactions on a kind of underlying level. Here’s a list of delineations. But if you’re studying astrology, you would be looking at those manifestations as possibilities, not just a concrete list of ways you should always predict.
CB: Yeah. Yeah, it’s a metaphorical dog that will bite off your arm rather than a literal dog. Metaphorically eaten alive by dogs is how you’ll feel during this year. Yeah, what you said, the ancient astrological texts all seem to have this pedagogical approach to teaching where they give extreme examples. Especially astrologers, like Firmicus, who’s very over-the-top, tend to frame things as the most extreme possible manifestation for teaching purposes because those delineations are meant to be evocative and point you to the overarching archetype that’s underlying those delineations. And then the more that you can understand those evocative examples as pointing to something broader, the better chance you’re gonna have of predicting more specific outcomes or different variations of those outcomes on a spectrum that might be a little bit more neutral or even good. But any time you want to establish a spectrum, you first have to establish the extremes. So one of those extremes is like fully benefic (what is the best possible outcome) vs. fully malefic (what is the worst possible outcome. Once you’ve established those extremes then you can find the different shades of gray in the middle, and that’s really important to keep in mind when you’re reading that stuff.
That being said, every once in a while you’ll see something in the news where it’s 2022-2023 and somebody through a freak accident just got eaten by a dog or something like that, or like a pack of wild dogs or something like that.
AE: Not entertained?
CB: Yeah, exactly. Sometimes extreme, weird, bizarre either unfortunate or extremely fortunate stuff does happen in people’s lives and in the lives of people around us. And so, it’s good to be aware of those most extreme possible outcomes and what would correlate with that. Like I’m constantly fascinated by Reddit. On Reddit, there’s different subreddits where people post their stories and just these extreme human stories of human experience of extremely positive or extreme scenarios that happen in real people’s lives. And then my impulse as an astrologer is to see what correlated with that so I can understand better what that looks like in a chart and then be able to talk to people better, if it’s a client, for example, if they have something that’s just in the neighborhood or the ballpark of that extreme experience, even if it’s in a, not neutral, but let’s say lower-level version of the same thing.
AE: Yeah, yeah. And my main point, going back to the start of this conversation is sometimes people will think we’re more symbolic and archetypal now and they were just literal and fatalistic then. And I hope today what we’ve shown is that there was actually a lot of nuance in the way that ancient astrologers looked at fate, free will, the interaction between the two, magic, elections, or this kind of Stoic acceptance. I mean, it was just this really interesting cauldron of ideas. And also, the texts themselves—although there could be extremes—these texts were meant to teach people symbolic thinking, which was not limited to the scope of the delineations in the text itself. So yeah, I think we’ve established that pretty well.
One last question that I want to talk about is a lot of the times when the students come to study Hellenistic and they’ve been exposed to nothing but modern astrology, one of the things that they’ll come in with—and that I was exposed to when I first started studying too—is this idea that the birth chart is nothing but possibilities; that it’s just kind of a set of possibilities or potentials—that’s the other word I was thinking of. In what we’re talking about with the archetypal combinations it can almost sound like what we’re saying is that, well, it’s total potential. When Saturn’s gonna come in and conjoin Venus in your birth chart there’s just a mandala of possibilities and potentialities.
AE: And it sort of rests on your shoulder to get it right or something like that. Maybe we could speak a little bit about that idea and where that comes from, and, yeah, just your thoughts about that.
CB: Yeah, I think in late 20th century astrology, in the generation of astrologers especially that came into the field in the 1960s and 1970s, the integration of modern depth psychology, especially the work of Carl Jung was fully integrated into astrology in the generation that took up Rudhyar’s work—especially with astrologers like Liz Greene and Howard Sasportas and a whole group of modern astrologers. They were integrating counseling dynamics into astrology. They were so concerned about and so worried about not doing harm psychologically to people by instilling them with false fears or scenarios or other things like that that would disturb their mental state, they almost went too far in presenting an almost ‘Pollyanna-type’ view of every possible placement.
To a certain extent that was good that they talked us down as a tradition from some of the worst-case things, like always considering Saturn to be negative, which it wasn’t necessarily even in traditional astrology, or always interpreting certain things as extremely negative. There was such an extreme trend to never say anything negative that it went too far, and we really saw the opposite end of that, or the repercussions of that in instances like 2020, for example, where there were a lot of astrologers that predicted that it was gonna be a tough time for various reasons and went further or not as far than others. But one of the things I really learned from that time period in watching the community was just the downside of if an astrologer makes a philosophical choice never to say anything negative then there are gonna be some people afterwards, when a negative event does happen, that say, “Why didn’t you tell me? Why did you withhold that information? Why did you try to spin it in such a constructive light when what I actually experienced was a real time of trauma and hardship?”
And I think one piece that we have gained from ancient astrology that’s very useful is we brought back some of that ability to talk about concrete external events and be a little bit more realistic about when sometimes the experience of those energies or those archetypes are gonna be tough. And I think that’s helpful and important because I think it’s more validating for a client to be able to talk to somebody that’s acknowledging real areas of hardship or difficulty or trauma and then be able to go from there, instead of just ignoring it or trying to sweep it under the rug in some sort of misguided attempt to not harm the client by saying things that might be unsettling to them. So obviously there’s a balance there ‘cause you can go too far in the opposite direction of saying things that are negative or making predictions that aren’t gonna be helpful to the client or could be psychologically harmful, and I do think astrologers should always have the primary operating number one rule of ‘do no harm’ in the same way that they have in the medical tradition. There needs to be some sort of balance there because sometimes when things get unbalanced there can be unexpected outcomes.
AE: Yeah, that’s a great point. I remember, I think it was William Lilly in the beginning of his text on horary astrology, which is called Christian Astrology. The title is interesting, but it really has nothing to do with Christianity, per se. It’s just a great text on horary astrology that he wrote. At the beginning of that text…
CB: Right. Christian Astrology is a text that’s composed 90% of earlier Arabic Muslim authors that he was drawing on.
AE: Yeah, yeah, yeah, good point. And you’ve done some talks on that text in particular on your podcast that I really love.
AE: But I’m thinking that it had to do with the climate of religious belief in his time that he named it that, right?
CB: Yeah, probably, ‘cause there were increasing attacks during the Renaissance and early modern period from the Church that were not good in terms of trying to ban astrology or get rid of it, especially the branch that he practiced, which was horary, which is the branch that it was a lot harder to defend on naturalistic terms as a science ‘cause it’s just more obviously tarot or something like that, that just looks like a form of divination.
AE: Yeah. So in the beginning of that text, he says, “Deliver their hard fate by degrees.” I believe that’s one of the things that he says. There’s something similar that’s said in Firmicus, in his note to the students of astrology. He says something like, “Deliver the blows gently.” And I think that’s important because we might sit down and look and see—we’ve been using Saturn-Venus examples—and you might think, “Well, based on this situation, it sounds like divorce is coming,” based on what the client is telling me and so forth. But still you should treat that situation like, sell, you don’t know exactly what’s going to happen. You could outline that as a possibility among others. But I think the philosophical point I want to come back to is that even in a situation like that what you’re saying implicitly on a philosophical level is that there is no fate or destiny whatsoever, that it’s all up in the air somehow. I think that more often than not puts too much pressure on people. Because usually what comes into that possibility void is the sense that, well, it depends on how conscious you are, what you get. It sort of rides on you and how enlightened you are or something like that.
And again, going back to where we started today probably I think you and I would both land in the camp of there being sort of a partial determinism. There’s some relation between our choices and the unfolding of fate. Again, just because we may not be able to say exactly what is going to happen, or we have an archetypal realm of possibilities to work in, it’s not the same thing as saying that the future is only possible and open and completely just potentiality. So that’s where I stand anyway. I can’t go that far. Like Hermes, I’m interested in some kind of relationship between that sense of possibility/potential/choice and a very real sense that fate exists; again, otherwise, I’m not sure how astrology would have come about in the first place. And I think we have to take seriously what the ancient philosophers and authors were saying, which is this is a study of fate. That doesn’t mean that there’s no room for choice or possibility, but to go to the opposite extreme—to me, it’s like an opposite extreme. If you go ‘everything is completely fated’ the opposite would be to say that somehow ‘everything is completely open and nothing but potential’. Again, I think that Hermes probably wants to weave those things together somehow.
CB: Yeah, for sure. I mean, I think what you said at the very beginning was really important. Astrologers know to take any delineation with a grain of salt because they understand that astrology’s archetypally-predictive, and therefore, there can be different possible outcomes on that spectrum of positive to negative for any position and you don’t know 100% ahead of time. But a client doesn’t know that. And so, sometimes a client will take what the astrologer says much more seriously, and that’s where we have to be cautious with the way that we word things, and that the astrologer is careful and conscientious of how the client is gonna receive what you say. There may be different people, depending on their mental state and ability to take in different things, that may be more or less capable of hearing certain things from an astrologer without it becoming detrimental to their mental health. So that’s like a super important thing to pay attention to and be aware of.
And then with respect to your last thing—‘cause I know we’re getting towards the end of this here—I want to take the position that fate is actually a good thing. And I’m actually very pro-fate because I think we need to take into account not just the challenging things that come with certain things being predetermined or fated in terms of hardships that we experience in our lives, but also some of the positive things as well. And there’s this beautiful sort of interweaving of the positive and negative events in our lives of the negative hardships that we had to experience in order to have this positive thing later on, or this positive thing that occurred that eventually had some negative outcome, but it eventually became tied in with our overall life story.
And sometimes when people look back and think of some of those things, they realize, once they get to a certain point in their life, when things have evened out a little bit that they wouldn’t go back and change it necessarily, or they wouldn’t trade it because if they got rid of some of the hard things then some of the positive things that they were able to achieve later wouldn’t have happened. And so, it’s part of this entire calculus that you have to add up of all the totality of events in your life that created your life story and who you are, and what you’ve accomplished, and how far you’ve come. And all of that is tied in with this notion of fate as being the sequence of events according to some meaningful or purposeful sequence essentially.
Because the opposite of that that we have to contrast is the modern materialist, sort of skeptical notion of everything just being chaos and that we’re in a meaningless and purposeless universe. The Earth is just like this rock that’s floating around in space with a speck of mold on it of life that just sprouted out of nowhere, but otherwise there’s no purpose for any of our lives, and we just have to make the best out of whatever time we have floating around on this rock aimlessly in space. I think that astrology and it’s connection with the concept of fate, and it’s ability to access this realm of existence of fate—where it can demonstrate that fate exists—one of the most important religious or spiritual or philosophical things about that implication is that it implies that our lives are not random or meaningless. But each of us has some sort of life story or narrative that runs throughout our lives and all of the events within it, and also interconnects us with the lives of many other people around us: in our family unit, in our city unit, in our generational unit, and even down through human history, through the past, and all the way through the future. And, to me, there’s something that’s incredibly beautiful about that where I see that as a positive thing, a net-positive thing. Even if it has some negative things implicit, ultimately it’s something beautiful and interesting and inspiring rather than something that’s negative or oppressive.
AE: Yeah, that’s so nicely said. Such a nice way to wrap up our talk today, I think. Yeah, I don’t have anything to add. I couldn’t have said it better myself. That was so wonderfully put. I hope that today’s conversation for everyone listening has been enlightening. We had far more questions than we could possibly get to, but I tried to capture the essence of a lot of questions that were very similar in nature and bring them to this conversation today. It’s a real treat to have had you here, Chris. One thing that I’ll add as a kind of funny little anecdote is that of all of the clients that I’ve worked with, the people that I find that want the most concrete, specific information are often the students of astrology.
AE: Because I think that as students of astrology people are working with those archetypal possibilities and they can flip the jewel so many times. “Could you just help me make sense of this Venus-Saturn transit? Well, what the heck? Of all the possibilities, which one should I be really looking for here?”
AE: I find that people who come in who don’t know astrology, who aren’t into it at all, they’re so much more satisfied I’ve found in general with archetypal specificity. It’s just a funny irony.
CB: Yeah, I mean, all astrologers—we want to see how far we can take it. Almost like astrology is this car and you want to get in and you want to see how fast you can drive it. You want to see how specific can you get with making predictions about future events that turn out to be true, and I think that’s a natural tendency for all astrologers once they learn the potential of astrology. And that’s okay because all of us are constantly exploring and trying to figure that out. And I think as astrology continues to progress, we’ll continue to find different areas where astrology can do things that are surprising. And that’s been one of the great things about the revival of ancient astrology—finding some of the time-lord systems and finding different techniques in astrology that can do things that we didn’t think were possible in 20th century astrology that was less predictive in its orientation. But then also at the same time, acknowledging and recognizing some of its limits is very important as part of that conversation as well, and I hope that we can find a right balance between those two things and make room for those two things without going too far in one direction or another.
AE: Yeah, that’s really nicely said. Well, again, thank you so much for coming and speaking today. This was really fun. And I hope that everyone who listened to this will have had some good things to think about. No doubt there will be more questions, I’m sure, that come up. Maybe we’ll have to get together again and do a part two or talk again about these subjects at some point in the future. So thank you, Chris, so much for being my guest today. Really, really good to see you and talk to you.
CB: Yeah, thanks a lot for having me. And this was fun, and it’s been great to see, like we said at the beginning, the work that we’ve been doing in our different spheres and the way that that sort of complements each other in terms both of our work on Hellenistic astrology and ancient astrology in general, and just raising the public awareness of some of that great work on ancient astrology that’s been happening and the different courses that we teach and everything else.
AE: Yeah, well, I certainly wouldn’t be here without all of the work that you did to blaze the trail and all the good work you continue to do. Is there anything that I can point people to other than The Astrology Podcast? Which is where people can listen to all of your great work and maybe become a patron and things like that. But anything else that you would like to tell people about?
CB: Sure. Yeah, just my podcast. I put out four episodes a month at TheAstrologyPodcast.com, as well as the YouTube channel for that. And then my book, Hellenistic Astrology: The Study of Fate and Fortune, where I tried to write the first comprehensive overview of ancient astrology in modern times. And then I teach an online course at TheAstrologySchool.com on Hellenistic astrology that has over 100 hours of video lectures on different aspects of ancient astrology and especially gets into the practice and the techniques of looking at birth charts and making predictions.
AE: Awesome. Yeah, if people want to find your book, is it better to go on your website, or Amazon? What do you suggest?
CB: Yeah, I always joke that it’s available in fine bookstores everywhere, but it’s really something you just get on Amazon or any online astrology book retailer.
AE: Yeah, I couldn’t recommend it more highly. It’s one of the textbooks that I use in my own course. I think that if you’re gonna study Hellenistic astrology, and you’re looking for a starting point, Chris’ class and his book are fantastic places to study. Of course you can also check out my classes at NightlightAstrology.com. Really so glad, again, to have you here, Chris, and let’s look forward to doing some more collaborative work down the road.
CB: For sure. Thank you so much.
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If you’re looking to get an astrological consultation, we have a list of recommended astrologers at TheAstrologyPodcast.com/Consultations. The astrologers on the list are friends of the podcast that have been featured in different episodes over the years, and they have different specialties such as natal astrology, electional astrology, synastry, rectification, or horary astrology. You can get a 10% discount when you book a consultation with one of the astrologers on our list by using the promo code ‘ASTROLOGYPODCAST’.
The astrology software that we use and recommend here on the podcast is called Solar Fire for Windows, which is available for the PC at Alabe.com. Use the promo code ‘AP15’ to get a 15% discount. For Mac users we recommend a software program called Astro Gold for Mac OS, which is from the creators of Solar Fire for PC, and it includes both modern and traditional techniques. You can find out more information at AstroGold.io, and you can use the promo code ‘ASTROPODCAST15’ to get a 15% discount.
If you’d like to learn more about my approach to astrology then I’d recommend checking out my book titled, Hellenistic Astrology: The Study of Fate and Fortune, where I go over the history, philosophy, and techniques of ancient astrology, taking people from beginner up through intermediate and advanced techniques for reading birth charts. You can get a print copy of the book through Amazon or other online retailers, or there’s an ebook version available through Google Books. I also recently published a new translation of The Anthology of the 2nd century astrologer Vettius Valens, which is one of the most important sources for understanding the practice of ancient astrology. You can find that by searching for ‘Vettius Valens, The Anthology’ on Amazon or other online book retailers.
If you’re really looking to expand your studies of astrology then I would recommend my Hellenistic astrology course, which is an online course on ancient astrology where I take people through basic concepts up through intermediate and advanced techniques for reading birth charts. There’s over 100 hours of video lectures, as well as guided readings of ancient texts, and by the time you finish the course you will have a strong foundation in how to read birth charts, as well as make predictions. You can find out more information at courses.TheAstrologySchool.com. I also recently launched a new course there called the Birth Time Rectification Course where I teach students how to figure out your birth time using astrology when the birth time is either unknown or uncertain. You can find out more information about that at TheAstrologySchool.com.
Each year the podcast releases a set of astrology calendar posters for the coming year, and we’ve just released our 2023 Planetary Alignments and Planetary Movements Posters, which are now available on our website at TheAstrologyPodcast.com/store. There you can also pick up our 2023 Electional Astrology Report where Leisa Schaim and I went through the next 12 months and we picked out the single most auspicious date for each month using the principles of electional astrology. You can get that at TheAstrologyPodcast.com/2023report.
And finally, thanks to our sponsors, including: The Mountain Astrologer Magazine, which is a quarterly astrology magazine which you can read in print or online at MountainAstrologer.com. Finally, thanks also to the Northwest Astrology Conference, which is happening May 25-29, 2023, just outside of Seattle. This year’s conference is gonna be a hybrid conference where you can either attend online or in person. Find out more information at norwac.net.