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|The Repression of the Feminine in Astrology
by Shelley Jordan
Introduction: Astrology's Hidden Agenda
Anyone studying the techniques of traditional astrological interpretation with eyes open will inevitably be struck by its prejudicial assumptions. Most astrology texts state flatly that certain factors in the birth chart lend themselves to either ease or difficulty of life and expression. For example, detriments, exaltations and the like still send chills of fear or excitement up and down the spines of many astrologers. After all, isn't it supposed to be 'good' to have a planet in exaltation and 'bad' to have a planet in detriment? And in spite of a recent well-intended and humanistic stretching of definitions, aren't certain planets still considered fundamentally preferable to others?
Even more pervasive and persistent in its judgmental nature is the evaluation of the aspects as either 'good' or 'bad'. An insidious dichotomous thinking surrounds aspect interpretation, which, at its roots, is both sexist and racist. There is a largely unknown historical, numerological basis to this dogmatic but unrecognized prejudice that precludes the possibility of reform and evolution in the field of astrology.
The major Ptolemaic aspects, the trine, sextile, square and opposition have traditionally been divided into two general categories. Trines and sextiles are typically considered favorable, desirable, harmonious, easy, creative, and soft. Squares and oppositions are described as discordant, afflicting, stressful, frustrating, challenging and hard. Astrological erudition has, until very recently, been dominated by cookbooks representing trines and sextiles as patently good, squares and oppositions as inherently negative. It is commonly asserted that a chart for an auspiciously blessed life will preponderate with trines and sextiles between beneficent and well-placed planets. The infelicitous and the unendowed will have baleful squares and oppositions to afflicted bodies. This superstitious and erroneous litany regarding the dangers of certain astrological conditions permeates nearly the entire corpus of astrological literature.
The Indo-Europeans and the Number Three
The sources of this dualism lay in the milieu in which astrology developed. After its earliest days in Mesopotamia, astrology ripened in the Hellenistic, Indo-Europeanized environments of Greece and Alexandria. The Indo-Europeans play a mysteriously pivotal role in the formation of astrological concepts.
These elusive peoples were originally a vast warring, tribal nomadic culture designated by some scholars as the Aryans, although this inflammatory name more specifically and accurately refers to the Indo-Iranians. The Indo-European culture, from a very early period on, made a significant contribution to the substratum of Western, South Asian and Middle Eastern civilization. Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, the Romance languages, German, English and numerous other tongues originate from the Proto-Indo-European language. Greece in particular had a recondite connection to the earlier Indo-Europeans. Many of the familiar deities of classical mythology emerged from the Indo-European tradition.
The Indo-Europeans were a migrating patriarchal, pastoral culture which may be traced to the great steppe regions stretching from Poland to Central Asia. Their patrilinear society was organized around a tripartite social and theological hierarchy. This marauding three-leveled culture would prove to be exceedingly important to the development of astrological symbolism and interpretation.
The three classes of Indo-European society were: priests at the top of the social ladder, followed by warriors, with herders at the bottom. Each class had its own specific ruling sky gods, with goddesses for the most part conspicuously absent from the pantheon.
The domestication of the horse was one of the great achievements of the Indo-Europeans. This enabled them to conquer many agricultural, matriarchal, goddess-worshiping societies, including those on the Peloponnesus during the second millennium B.C.E.
The Indo-Europeans both politically dominated and became absorbed into these cultures. The defeated goddess-worshiping peoples, who were frequently darker in complexion, were forced to assimilate as the subservient fourth class in this three-leveled system. They subsequently became the subordinate peasant class, considered racially and spiritually inferior by the tall, fair-haired, blue-eyed Indo-European aristocracy.
The number three, then, was characteristic of the Indo-Europeans, who were the ancestors of the Greeks. The number three plays a significant role in Indo-European and subsequent religious symbolism. For the Indo-Europeans three represented masculinity, ideal order, light and divinity. The number four became representative of the conquered indigenous peoples - the racially different goddess cultures.
To the Indo-Europeans, the number four symbolized femininity, weakness, darkness and evil. Three was rational, elevated, spiritual, and associated with the heavens. Four, redolent of the chthonic goddess cults, was considered base and inferior, emotional and irrational, associated with the earth and the despised and defeated agrarian populations.
This concept was predated by, and therefore supported by an ancient pervasive view that odd numbers were masculine and even numbers feminine, as seen for instance, in the I Ching.
I I - feminine providing space to be filled by
I - masculine
This subtle, biased numerical symbolism was firmly but furtively imprinted in the unconscious minds of the Hellenistic Greeks who geometrized astrology. It appears that the Greeks developed aspect theory and assigned the aspects their traditional interpretations, which have barely altered over time. The Egyptian astrologer Manethon is credited by Bouché-Leclerq in the classic L'astrologie grecque with assigning the attributes and meanings to the aspects.
The major aspects were generated by dividing the circle of 360 degrees by specific numbers. Division of the circle by one, the first male (odd) number, produces the conjunction. While, according to Ptolemy, the conjunction is not technically considered an aspect, it has evolved into its current role as the most potent of all aspects. The Greek Pythagoreans, who were numerological philosophers, considered the number one as the masculine supreme source of all goodness, life and being.
Dividing the circle by the next male number, three, creates the trine, traditionally considered the 'best' or most favorable aspect. Divide the circle by three once more and the sextile appears. The sextile is another 'positive' (male) aspect.
Now let's look at the so-called feminine numbers in relation to aspects. Two, considered by the Pythagoreans as the source of all strife and evil, when divided into 360 degrees, generates the opposition, widely viewed as a difficult aspect. Dividing the circle by two once again produces the dreaded square, long considered the most problematic aspect.
Consistent with his patriarchal heritage and the misogynous values of that historical period, Manethon's major complaint about the square was that it allowed a mingling of the sexes to occur, something that was considered highly undesirable in his day. In other words, signs in square aspect are of different genders. For example, masculine Aries squares feminine Cancer.
Very basically stated, dividing the circle by the masculine, luminous number three, the light-skinned, patriarchal Indo-Europeans' most sacred number, produces the most favored aspect, the trine. The division of the circle by the despised and dark feminine number four, the number representative of the dark-skinned matriarchal indigenous population, creates the least desirable aspect, the square.
This deeply ingrained psychological attitude toward the trinity and the quaternity is reported abundantly in the literature of Carl Jung. He describes this socio-cultural bias as manifesting collectively in the repressed fourth function of the human psyche. The trinity, according to Jung, represents completion at the level of conscious awareness. But the number four, which he calls the number of the goddess, is the number of completion and wholeness in the unconscious. This wholeness remains unacceptable to the conscious mind due to powerful cultural conditioning and repression.
Sexism and the Elements
For a moment, let us consider the impact gender identification has had on elements and houses. Elemental theory originated with Empedocles. It was then adopted by Aristotle, who, by the way, viewed women as defective or incomplete men. The elements were assimilated into an already syncretic astrological method, and at some point, assigned gender in a manner that is consistent with the animistic gender mentality that dominated early science and philosophy.
Fire and air, the masculine elements, naturally rise upward toward the domain of the father sky god. Water and earth, designated feminine, move in a downward direction, their physical and visible qualities condemning them to confinement in the material plane.
The ancient Ptolemaic cosmology, which incorporated the four elements, maintained its foothold on European science until Copernicus, through its adoption by Aristotelean Scholasticism. In this system earth was placed at the center of the universe, with a supreme patriarchal god located in the upper limits of the sky, as far as possible from the earth plane. This geocentrism did not by any means glorify the earth - in fact, the very center of earth was the location of hell, completely and totally removed from God and godliness.
Even the alchemical symbols for the four elements describe this contrary skyward vs. earthbound antagonism. The symbol for fire, the principle of disembodied energy, is a triangle pointing upward. Air, representing gaseousness, is a similar upward-pointing triangle, with a horizontal line running through it. Water, or liquidity, is a triangle pointing downward. Earth, the symbol of matter and solidity, is a triangle pointing down with a horizontal line through it. Thus, the elemental symbols themselves represent the hidden agenda of a covert philosophical sexism in ancient science. Masculine fire and air rise up towards God; feminine earth and water fall downward to the base realm of the material world.
This gender bias continues in the system of houses, which came to analogously resemble the zodiacal signs when the template of the zodiac was superimposed onto the twelve sectors. The traditional view of the houses carries some of the onus associated with gender, particularly with regard to the water houses. Specifically, the 8th and 12th houses, which correlate with Scorpio and Pisces, carry the stigma of prejudice against the odious feminine. The 8th house is traditionally connected with death. The 12th house has been known for centuries as the realm of hidden enemies and self-undoing. Even the 4th house, with its association with Cancer, designates the family, but also, the end of life, which implies that it is another house associated with death. The 6th house, the analogue of earthy Virgo, is the sector of disease. These are certainly less attractive and desirable areas for planets to occupy than the benign 1st house of life, analogous to fiery Aries, or the appealing 9th house of philosophy and higher learning, cognate with Sagittarius, or the 11th house, ambiguously tagged as hopes and wishes.
We have all read subtle, and at times, blatant evaluations of various signs and houses as being superior to others. As I mentioned, the water signs and houses, and to a lesser degree those of earth as well, have historically had less savory and glamorous designations than the fire and air signs and houses. There are obvious cultural preferences for the allegedly virile and manly virtues of courage and vitality (fire) or intellect and reason (air). Less prized are their feminine elemental counterparts: irrational emotion (water) and orderliness and sensuality (earth). An exception is the tenth house. While it is correlate with earthy Capricorn, it has the distinct advantage of its elevated position in the sky, closest to God, and as far from the vile earth as possible.
Returning then to the aspects, it is now clear that ancient astrologers used a system of numerology that was symbolically reflective of a sexually and racially slanted culture. What they considered to be sacred truth can be seen today as an arbitrary mathematical bias that has surreptitious bled into the various facets of astrological interpretation. These presuppositions of good and bad geometrical relationships have ubiquitously penetrated not only natal chart interpretation, but the areas of transits, chart comparisons and all other astrological arenas that utilize aspects.
If astrologers were to suspend judgment and look at all aspects as neutral synergistic interactions between planets and angles, without superimposing a Procrustean template of good and evil geometry, a new astrological paradigm would emerge. The purpose of this article is not to present an alternative to traditional aspect theory, but rather to shed some light on limiting and antiquated thought-forms that generate fear in the astrologer and interfere with objective, empirical observation of astrological fact. The dualistic 'good vs. bad aspect' assumption is not only erroneous, it is actually damaging to astrology, its practitioners and those seeking information from professionals. The good vs. evil mentality, whether referring to planets or aspects, gives to investigative scholars the impression that astrology is hopelessly stupid and unworthy of close examination.
This dualism is inappropriate to contemporary astrology. It breaks down at the level of harmonics and arc transforms (see the pioneering work of John Addey and John Nelson). Aspects like septiles (51.4+ degrees) or aspects of 22 ½ degrees cannot be categorized as even-odd, male or female, or even euphemistically as soft or hard. Cosmobiology, a fascinating and effective school of German astrology only employs squares, oppositions, conjunctions, semi-squares and sesqui-squares, although it leans heavily on the concept of malefic and benefic planets.
Is gender necessary?
Certain implications and questions are then raised by this historical perspective that are too numerous to be thoroughly addressed here. For the moment, one might wonder if it is even valid to assign gender to numbers at all. And if so, why call the number one a masculine number and two a feminine number? An argument could be developed that number one should be feminine since the process of creation itself requires one egg to be inundated by many sperm. Therefore, one could be representative of the feminine, and two, the traditional number of diversity and multiplicity, could be masculine.
That is not to say that this argument is accurate, but rather, that classical gender assignment to numbers may ultimately have been arbitrary, or an historical manifestation of cultural identity, not a truth grounded in sacred fact. Perhaps at one distant time this perspective of male and female numbers was reflective of a relevant socio-spiritual value system, but it certainly is no longer appropriate to contemporary culture which is moving away from sexual stereotypes and developing an increasing balance in psycho-sexual roles and expression. Astrology, as a meaningful reflection of evolving culture should mirror this developmental process.
Unfortunately, astrology's tendentious habits of evaluating good and bad influences, its claims of predicting the future, and the pigeon-holing of character based on rigid cook-book, state-trait typologies have for the most part alienated serious intellectual and academic inquiry. And in general, these habits have stultified and interfered with potential growth and evolution in the field. Only astrology, among all the major sciences, failed to make a successful transition during the scientific revolution of the 17th through the 19th centuries. It has subsequently lingered in a darkened closet for centuries in a developmentally frozen state, remaining a fossilized and formulaic cosmological technology that continues to reduce personality and behavior to narrow and confining definitions. Astrology has had pitifully few great minds drawn to it since Kepler, who observed nearly four hundred years ago that there was no difference between the various aspects, and who announced the great need for astrological reform.
Sadly, many practitioners still fervently cling to dogmatic astrological practices, unquestioningly adhering to an almost religious astral orthodoxy. Challenging the orthodoxy has, at times, generated a contemptuous and hostile witch hunt mentality, because many of astrology's devotees tend to be threatened by innovation and reform. At the other end of the reaction continuum, innovative concepts are largely ignored. The responses to Gauquelin evoked both these extremes.
With the advent of computer applications of astrology since the 1970's, we are presently able to study tens of thousands of birth charts, many of which have been painstakingly collected by pioneers like Michel Gauquelin and Lois Rodden. Compare that to the limited number of accurate charts available for observation in the past. If one takes the time to objectively observe the information contained in the endless number of charts we now have access to, how can it possibly be denied that many of the claims of traditional astrology are simply invalid? For every chart that conforms to traditional astrology's formulae, there are numerous others that completely contradict the textbooks. Al-biruni and Kepler were well aware of this even without computers. They were both highly critical of the astrological dogma that they were confronted with in their own eras.
Toward a Redefinition of Astrology
I have been a practicing astrologer for nearly three decades. By no means am I rejecting astrology or its fascinating capacity to offer insight and illumination. Nor am I denying the existence of the many talented and gifted astrologers who are helping multitudinous people throughout the world. On the contrary, I embrace astrology for myself and my clients and find it most rewarding and stimulating. It has helped me enormously in achieving a happy and fulfilling life. I learn something new from every chart that I look at, and am endlessly amazed at the surprises and unexpected conditions that an astrological chart can present. Neither am I denying the transformative contributions made by brilliant astrologers such as Dane Rudhyar and Zipporah Dobyns, and the successful interfacing of astrology with psychology.
However, I am suggesting that astrology is held back by its own denial and superstitions, and needs to be renovated and purified of many of its deep-seated assumptions surrounding areas like aspects, malefics, exaltations and prediction. The language of astrology must be closely scrutinized and cleansed of the hidden biases and innuendoes that are deeply embedded in its rhetoric. Astrologers need to rethink what can and cannot be determined by a birth chart. The question must be asked "What are the limits of astrology?".
Astrology never has been and never will be an exact science. It is a unique sacred, intuitive technology that is inseparable from the condition of human free will, both at the individual and at the collective levels. Astrology, therefore, as a body of knowledge, should not be permitted to stagnate yet further into a ponderously outmoded orthodoxy. Astrologers should not hesitate to continually examine and redefine the basic assumptive sets of our science, and to do so with ruthless determination to eliminate everything rigid, false and obscuring.
Paradigms of reality, whatever they may be, are cultural metaphors. When the paradigm of astrology developed, it inherited the attitudinal precepts of its culture, which were essentially dualistic, patriarchal and repressive of the feminine. The androgynous equalizing of sexual energies and the redefinition of gender currently occurring in our present era call for a similar balancing and reassessment within our own astrological discipline. To do this requires intellectual courage, an open mind and a loosening of one's hold on traditional interpretive approaches.
The time has come to storm the sanctuary of ignorance. The presumptive authority of astrology's past must finally be confronted. There may be a temporary period of uncertainty and doubt until a new and fresh perspective takes root, but the birth of a new Gestalt is certain to appear as part of the natural rhythm of change.
- Barton, Tamsyn; Ancient Astrology, London and New York, Routledge, 1994
- Bowden, Mary Ellen; The Scientific Revolution in Astrology: The English Reformers, unpublished doctoral dissertation, Yale University, 1974
- Bouché-Leclercq, A; L’astrologie grecque, Paris, 1899
- Eliade, Mircea; A History of Religious Ideas, vol. 1, London, The University of Chicago Press, 1978
- Guthrie, Kenneth Sylvan; The Pythagorian Sourcebook and Library, Grand Rapids, MI, Phanes Press, 1988
- Hutin, Serge; A History of Alchemy, (trans. Tamara Alferoff), New York, Walker and Co., 1962
- Jung, C.G.; Alchemical Studies, (trans. R.F.C. Hull), Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 1983
- Jung, C.G.; Mysterium Coniunctionis, (trans. R.F.C. Hull), Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 1989
- Jung, C.G.; The Practice of Psychotherapy, (trans. R.F.C. Hull), NY, Pantheon Books, 1966
- Jung, C.G.; Psyche and Symbol, (ed. Violet S. De Laszlo), Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 1991
- Lindberg, David C.; The Beginnings of Western Science; The European Tradition in Philosophical, Religious, and Institutional Context, 600 B.C. to A.D. 1450, Chicago and London, The University of Chicago Press, 1992
- Mallory, J.P.; In Search of the Indo-Europeans: Language, Archaeology and Myth, London, Thames and Hudson Ltd, 1992
- Martin, Luther H; Hellenistic Religions, New York, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1987
- Read, John; From Alchemy to Chemistry, New York, Dover Publications Inc., 1995
- Shumaker, Wayne; The Occult Sciences in the Renaissance: A Study in Intellectual Patterns, Berkeley, Los Angeles, London, University of California Press, 1972
My sincere thanks to historian John Reynolds for his valuable help and input during the research phase of this project. (S.J.)
Note: Shelley Jordan received a B.A. in Astrology, Loretto Heights College, Denver, Colorado, 1974 and an M.A. in South Asian Studies (Sanskrit, South Asian religions) University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1980. She is a counselor, educator and writer, whose work on the history and psychological applications of astrology has appeared in numerous American and European publications.
All rights reserved © 2000 Shelley Jordan