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Astrology in the Era of Uncertainty
Review by Sarah R. Diamond for Facing North

with my response

I waded through much of author Joe Landwehr’s new book because he’s been studying astrology for about fifty years, he has written previous books, and because I respect the reputations of a couple of the people who wrote blurbs for this one. This book has some useful information and interesting observations about the history of astrology as a subject of study and practice. But the book is long, sweeping, and unwieldy, and it’s not that easy to figure out what exactly the author’s point is. When I pick up a book of 445 pages, I want to know: What’s it about? Is it about the philosophies underlying and/or opposing astrology? Is it about how to work with charts? Is it a critique of modern science’s critique of astrology? Is it a memoir?

 

The book presents a history of the co-evolution of science and astrology, as well as of their divergence in the 17th century.  In the last part of the book, I show how astrology might reinvent itself in a postmodern era as a way of knowing in its own right, apart from science.  I use my own relationship to the asteroid Vesta as an extended case study, including excerpts from my journal, to demonstrate a less interpretive, more exploratory approach to astrological self-knowledge.  

 

The book has an intriguing title. We’re definitely in an age of uncertainty now, and has that not always been true?

The title is a reference not only to the uncertainty of our times, but also the uncertainty inherent in scientific research, increasingly revealed in the last 100 years or so, as we move more deeply into the quantum era.  This meaning of uncertainty is documented in some detail in Chapter Six: The Deconstruction of Science in the Era of Uncertainty.

The subtitle, for readers who know astrology, seems to be a play on the phrase “Cosmos and Psyche,” the title of Richard Tarnas’ foundational and now-classic work of mundane (worldly) astrology. 

 

He begins with a critique of astrology’s scientific track record and what he calls “the astrological community’s ambivalent embrace of science.” This is a subject that deserves its own treatment, and it has--most recently and most thoroughly in Bruce Scofield’s 2023 book The Nature of Astrology (reviewed in March 2023 on facingnorth.net.) The saga of whether astrology is scientific does not begin with the 1950s statistical “Gauquelin studies,” which is where Landwehr begins. For millennia, astrologers and astronomers were the same people, which is why astrologers used to be called “mathematicians.”

 

I mention Gauquelin in my introduction, because even 50 years after the research was done, it remains the gold standard for astrological research to this day.  Elsewhere in the introduction, I state that:

 

Astrology and science have, for most of their history, co-evolved together, along with religious thought, political developments and the ever-mutating cultural zeitgeist in which these various threads have intertwined and differentiated.

 

Before we validate astrology’s contribution on different grounds, then, it will behoove us to look back to that forgotten time at the beginning of the story, when the question of whether or not astrology could be considered a science would not have made any sense to ask. Indeed, for most of our human history – that is to say, for all but the last three or four hundred years – this would have been the case.

In subsequent chapters, I discuss in great detail the "millennia (in which) astrologers and astronomers were the same people."  That the reviewer seems not to know this makes me wonder if she actually read the book.

Currently, there’s work being done to test astrology’s propositions in at least somewhat scientific ways (see for example the work of David Cochrane.) I did not find such work mentioned in Landwehr’s book.

 

I am aware of David Cochrane's work, and David and I have had mutually respectful conversations about the relationship between astrology and science.  I did not mention his work specifically, because this is not primarily a book about astrological research.  It is about why astrology is ill-suited to a scientific paradigm, and incapable of being measured by the tools science has to offer in a way that is actually useful to astrologers. 

 

Scientifically minded astrologers continue to look for "somewhat scientific ways" to demonstrate that astrology is a science, and these continue to fall short of actual scientific standards.  Ultimately they only serve to perpetuate the notion that astrology is a pseudoscience.  Rather than encourage more research, my intent was to show how astrology might go its own way as a professional discipline without trying to prove itself scientific.

 

Regardless, Landwehr’s central point, which he seems to begin to make about mid-way through this book, is that his own approach to astrology is what he calls astropoetics. ”It is “the recognition that the ‘facts’ of astrological interpretation are actually better understood as poetic similes and metaphors that resonate in various ways with a multi-layered truth that means different things at different times.” It is a valid point. And, I can think of no astrologer, in either the traditional or modern psychological schools of practice, who doesn’t consider astrological symbols to be multivalent. For any placement of a planet in a house, sign, and by aspect, there are many possible meanings. But there are meanings, and there are boundaries between one thing and another.

I have no argument with this statement.  In Chapter 14: Astro-Logic, I discuss how the rules of symbolic logic applied as a matter of course by practicing astrologers serve as natural boundaries to what can and cannot be astrologically true.  This, however, is only half the practice of astrology. 

 

Landwehr asserts that “Traditional astrology – and most contemporary astrology as well – aims at an ‘objective’ understanding of the symbolism – what this means, not just for you or I, but in general, as a statement of astrological truth. As it is routinely practiced today, astrology has become largely a matter of rationally decoding signs that have become short-hand notation for known qualities.”

The other half is allowing a deeper meaning to emerge slowly and more intuitively from within the range of "logical" possibilities - often in a way that proves surprising and that arises out of the living context of the person behind the chart.  This is where the art of astrology departs significantly from anything that might be labeled scientific.  Even the more logical approach to astrology would only be considered scientific according to an antiquated definition of science that hasn't been in use since the 16th century.

 

It’s true. Astrolog(ies) – there’s not just one astrology – are systems or languages that help humans interpret correlations between alignments in the sky and the qualities, events, and processes experienced by individuals and collectives on Earth. Someone, for example, with natal Mercury in Virgo is not the same kind of thinker and communicator as someone with Mercury in Scorpio.

This statement refers back to an earlier point I made in the Introduction, and seems to misunderstand it.  Here, I was not talking about different signs placements.  I was talking about totally different approaches to the same birthchart.  What I actually said was:

There are and have been many astrologies, some serving for a time within a certain era or culture; others competing with each other within the same era or culture. Vedic astrology references an entirely different zodiac than Western tropical astrology, based on the precession of the equinoxes through the constellations, rather than fixed seasonal reference points. A multiplicity of house systems within Western astrology gives a shifting range of planetary placements within the houses. Traditional astrologers use only the Sun, Moon and five visible planets; most contemporary astrologers use the transpersonal planets; cutting edge astrologers use minor asteroids, centaurs, Trans-Neptunians and Kuiper Belt Objects; Uranian astrologers use hypothetical planets. Some astrologers use minor aspects; others don’t. Some use wide orbs; some use narrow orbs. Some astrologers use declination, midpoints, harmonics, antiscia and other more esoteric techniques; others don’t. Natal astrologers reference the birthchart and its derivatives; horary astrologers work with a chart calculated for the moment a question is posed. Evolutionary astrologers, shamanic astrologers, and archetypal astrologers all work with different techniques and come to different conclusions. Even astrologers working within the same basic approach do not always see the same thing in a given birthchart.

 

All of these discrepancies cause those who attempt to view astrology through a scientific lens to throw up their hands in despair.

What might be an alternative? Landwehr proposes that “astropoetics seeks instead to discover unknown sensory, emotional, psychological, imaginal, mythological and spiritual correlates to symbols, and the images that embody these correlates, along a path that is unique to the individual….”

 

With all due respect, that’s not exactly how astrology has evolved and why it’s useful, and here’s why: Astrology is like poetry in that it can be beautifully inspirational and in that it is more of an interpretive art than a hard science.  But if anything can mean anything – i.e. “unique to the individual” – then anything can mean everything, or nothing at all. Just look at some of the poorly informed internet astrology to see the pitfalls of disconnecting from well-trodden systems of meaning. Such astrology turns to mush.

I am certainly not suggesting that we practice an astrology in which "anything can mean everything of nothing at all."  In my book I clearly state that good astrology begins with a solid mastery of basic principles and a seasoned working astrological vocabulary,  From there, however, any astrologer worth her salt will tailor her presentation of the information in a way that is "unique to the individual." Otherwise she will not be offering anything to the client that can not be gotten from an astrological cookbook or a computer-generated report, a one size fits all generic interpretation that may or may not address the individual's needs.

 

Ultimately, the best readings are conversations in which the astrologer responds to what the client presents, and interprets the chart in the context of a unique life.  As astrologer Steven Forrest once noted, the chart for Christ would be exactly the same as it would be for a cockroach born under the manger at the time of his birth.  While this is an extreme example, it makes the point that you have to know something about the subject of a birthchart before you can even begin to interpret it.  This necessary knowledge makes an interpretation of each birthchart unique to the individual.

If this is true, then this opens a space in which it is possible to discover something new about how the symbolism of the birthchart presents itself to you.  It is this possibility that I explore in the last third of the book, using my relationship to Vesta as a case study.  it is not an exploration in which "anything can mean everything of nothing at all."  It is an rather a slowly evolving understanding that is rooted in my own experience of my birthchart.  It is guided by the astrological principles by which the chart might be interpreted.  But it also moves beyond that into my own discoveries of how the archetype of Vesta makes herself known to me  This is not at all the same as interpreting Vesta's placement in my chart to mean "anything can mean everything of nothing at all." It is about developing an understanding of my chart that is somewhat "unique' to me.

 

As for how astrology has evolved, the rational rules of astrological interpretation developed by the Hellenistic astrologers in the first few centuries of the common era are only a relatively late part of the story.  Before that, in the Mesopotamian cultures, astrology was more intuitively mystical.  Going farther back to the Neolithic period, proto-astrology was marked by a more immediate experience of the primal forces that were eventually symbolized as the planets of the birthchart.  This was an approach to cosmos in which information was received not so much intellectually as it is now, but in sensory, emotional, imaginal, and mythopoetic ways, a way of knowing called participation mystique by anthropologists.  I document this history in the first two chapters of my book, and in the latter part of the book demonstrate how it is possible to begin to reclaim these lost faculties in our practice of astrology.  

 

Evolution is ongoing.  This book shows where we have been - how astrology has evolved to this point, how it has co-evolved with science, and how it is now free to continue to evolve in ways unrestricted by ill-fitting scientific strictures, or even by its own past.

 

I could go on to pick various bones with this book, and I'm not going to, except for one thing.  It’s good when astrologers discuss the other systems of knowledge that inform their astrological work. For Landwehr, this includes his experiences with “kundalini yoga,” which is fine. What I found odd, in 2024, is his lauding of two now-deceased, disreputable gurus whom he seems to still respect: the notorious “Yogi Bhajan” and Swami Muktananda, both of whom preyed sexually and even violently on their students. Bhajan ran a cult and criminal enterprise packaged as “yoga” and the Indian Sikh religion. His crimes, including rape, were well-known as early as the mid-1980s. Bhajan’s cult continues, smaller, twenty years after his death. His “kundalini yoga” has been discredited as a thing he made up. I don’t get how referencing Bhajan or Muktananda has anything to do with advancing the field of astrology.

In no way do I condone the sexual misconduct and abusive behaviors of Yogi Bhajan and Swami Muktananda, and I state this in my book. 

 

Having said that, during my time studying with them, which ended around 1980, I learned a great deal about working with kundalini energy.  Kundalini yoga was not invented by either teacher, having been mentioned in Vedas as early as 1000 BCE, although each teacher had their own approach to the practice.  Those who consider only the allegations against these men, as apparently this reviewer is doing, will also tend to condemn everything they have taught, when in fact, the actual reality of those who studied with these men is more complex than that. 

 

In Yogi Bhajan's case, this is evidenced in the Olive Branch Report, commissioned in 2020, after the allegations of Pamela Dyson in her 2019 book Premka: White Bird in a Golden Cage, published 15 years after Yogi Bhajan's death. The report confirmed the truth of her allegations, after reviewing "statements from 299 'reporters': 96 of these identified as victims or “reporters of harm,” 140 refuted any allegations of wrongdoing by Bhajan, and 63 stated a position or made comments that fell outside the scope of the investigation" (https://www.yogajournal.com/yoga-101/abuse-in-kundalini-yoga/).  The hard-to-swallow truth, is that not everyone who studied with either teacher was abused.  In fact, many learned and grew spiritually.  I was grateful to be one of those.  The fact that there are still those who practice what he taught 20 years after his death suggests that there is value in the teachings, despite the inexcusable behaviors of the teacher.  This appears to be the nature of many spiritual teachings, taught by flawed human beings, often accused of sexual misconduct by their followers.

Again, in no way do I condone the reprehensible behavior of these teachers. 

 

I do consider it possible to extract something of value from the teachings themselves.  After all, the teachings of the Greek philosophers are still widely accepted today, despite the fact that many of them were pederasts who routinely engaged in sex with their students.  No one negates the teachings of Carl Jung, who sexually abused at least one of his clients, had affairs and was often accused of being misogynistic.  Likewise with Mahatma Gandhi, who slept with nubile, naked women, supposedly to test his sexual restraint, and was called "a most dangerous, semi-repressed sex maniac" by one of his critics.  The uncomfortable and inconvenient truth is that many spiritual teachers, including Trungpa Rinpoche, Ragneesh, Lama Surya Das, and on and on, have been taken to the carpet - and rightfully so - for abusing their students.  Yet, at the same time, all of them have left legacies and teachings that continue to positively influence many today.  As it turns out, I learned something valuable from a couple of such teachers, which I have incorporated into my work.

 

As for what this has to do with astrology, I was speaking about my experiences with these teachers in relation to the asteroid Vesta, which a number of astrologers, including Demetra George have associated with kundalini energy.  For me, doing kundalini yoga was tending the sacred flame - part of what I would consider my own "unique to the individual" understanding of the archetype Vesta.

 

Astrology is a serious subject, deserving of credible publications. Unfortunately, I found this book to be less than fully credible.

I suspect that is so for three reasons: 1) I am presenting arguments about the nature and scope of astrology that contradict what this reviewer already believes to be true; 2) I am suggesting a deviation from standard astrological practice that may be unfamiliar and seem untested, even though its roots go back to the very origin of our capacity to know anything at all; and 3) because I was a student of a discredited teacher, and thus guilty by association.

This is unfortunate, as I believe it has led to an unfair assessment of my book.  Although the reviewer appears to agree with me on several points, she seems determined to nitpick those points with which she disagrees.  In some cases, she ascribes a point of view to me that I do not hold, and that I did not espouse in my book.  In other cases, her comments lead me to believe she may not have actually read the book, or read it very thoroughly.

In any case, I would ask you - the reader - to decide for yourself.  To get a better idea of whether or not this might be worth your time, you can read the entire preface, introduction, table of contents, and other reviews by going here.  And if you'd like to read more, you can purchase a copy of the book here.

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