On Astrology, Ancient and Modern

Spinning their eternal solitary dance in the endless void, the burning stars fall forever around the galaxy, dropping, as they go, a few precious photons into our eyes. Each tiny light-droplet is thousands, or millions, or billions of years old; and it has traveled almost six trillion miles in each of those years. Today an astronomer can catch such a precious photon on glass, place it under a microscope, and know how old its parent star is, how large, what elements are burning in its core, how fast and how hot it is burning, and how many years remain before the star collapses into ash, or explodes into a galaxy-blinding supernova.

Long ago, our ancestors looked at the stars and learned different things. They learned about themselves.

The Dance of the Crystal Spheres

physviolenceWe have the hubris to look up at the ancient, perfect stars and name them — the Dog Star, the Pole Star, Ship’s Prow, Swan’s Head — and group them into constellations — the Lion, the Virgin, the Scales, the River, the Dragon. These constellations are meaningless collections of unrelated stars, except when viewed from Earth; from where we stand, they form pictures of Earthly animals, objects, and heroes, and they spin round us, rising and falling in a subtle pattern dictated by the motion of the Earth around its axis and around the Sun. Twelve of those constellations form the Zodiac — the “circle of animals” — the girdle around the sky, the wide path of the Sun, Moon, and planets.

We count seven planets (excluding the Earth) today, but for most of human history only five were visible: tiny Mercury and blazing Venus, never far from the Sun in our sky; red Mars, which takes two years to circle the Zodiac; bright Jupiter, which takes twelve years, and distant yellow Saturn, which takes thirty. The word planet comes from Greek and means wanderer, referring to the wandering of the planets against the apparently motionless background stars of the Zodiac. The Greeks counted the wandering Sun and Moon among the planets as well. The Sun takes a year to circle the sky, and the Moon, a month.

Why Should We Care?

Well, today, most people don’t. With electric lights drowning out the sky every night, very few can tell you what phase the moon is in, or what even time the sun will set. Unless you are an astrologer or astronomer, the stars are completely irrelevant… apparently.

It wasn’t always so, of course. The ancient and medieval astrologers (and they were all astrologers back then) considered the heavens to be evidence of the perfection of God’s creation. In the geometric circles and epicycles, in the interlocking nested crystal spheres, they saw an eternal dance in praise of the Heavenly Father. In the ancient world, from Vedic India to the Pythagoreans of Greece, and perhaps for the Druids as well, it was thought that the motions of the planets and stars gave essential insight into the underlying structure of all creation, a reflection in perfection of the imperfect muddied manifestation on the Earth’s surface. And prior to that, all over the world, the planets were seen as gods indeed — or at least, as reflections of the gods, indicators of the gods’ moods and goals.

Perhaps it was for this reason that the first stone circles in the British Isles were erected five thousand years ago. These circles were of all different counts and orientations, but many of them were situated so that prominent stones stood to mark the rising or setting Sun and Moon at equinoxes, solstices, and other important times. It is also possible that the rings may have been built to coincide with reoccurring crop circles. By 4,000 years ago, circle-building was at its height, and included ‘henges’, larger structures with demarcated entrances and exits, earth and timber works, and concentric rings. With the advent of the Bronze Age, henge and circle building became less popular, and — as far as we know — had essentially stopped by the time written history began.

The March of the Celts

Around 2500 years ago, new people began to arrive from the east — people who rode tame horses and used bits, whose cartwheels had spokes, who brought new goods, new wealth, new cloth, new ideas, and new words from thousands of miles away via an extensive trading network. There is no evidence that they invaded with fire and slaughter; their invasion was a cultural one, and their weapons were wealth, prestige, and knowledge. Their society was tripartite, consisting of farmers, warriors, and priests. Today we call them the Celts (from an old Celtic word related to Gaelic); and their priests we call Druids, (roughly) the tree wise. At its height, Celtic culture extended from Ireland and Spain in the west to the Black Sea in the east; and closely related cultures — descended from the same ur-society — extended north into Scandinavia, around the Mediterranean to the south, and across the steppes of Russia to the Indus Valley. All these cultures were almost certainly in frequent contact through trade, horse messengers, and spoke-wheeled carts.

Very little is known directly of what the Druids thought of the stars, since it appears they believed sacred knowledge should only be passed on orally, never committed to writing. But this geas was not observed in all things, and it was not followed forever, and it was not followed elsewhere in the continent-spanning social network. We have, for example, the silver Gundestrup Cauldron, dated to perhaps 100 BC, which may well show a stylized version of the Druidic Zodiac. And we have the Coligny Calendar, from perhaps 200 AD: a calendar of 60 months, which lined up the Moon and Sun in a five-year cycle by adding an extra month every two and a half years. Can it be coincidence that the closely-related Vedic culture of India used the same calendar? The Vedic astrologers saw the planets, Sun and Moon as gods and guides, guardians of spiritual energies that could be bestowed upon people on Earth. The Sun brought truth; the Moon, love; Mars, courage; Venus, oneness; Mercury, sentience; Jupiter, power; and Saturn, authority. And as the planets danced through the Zodiac they formed patterns and cycles of life and rebirth that could be calibrated, measured, and meditated upon.

The Architecture of the Soul

Is any of this relevant to the modern world?

Ancient astronomy was never just about counting days, keeping track of rituals and plantings, or even predicting the future. It was about the human soul — its architecture, form, and purpose. The planets do not just rule random emotions or events, but essences, the atomic units of the human psyche. Human life is a dance between the four elements (earth, air, fire, water), the three qualities (cardinal, mutable, and fixed), and the seven planets, spurs of growth (truth, power, love, oneness, authority, courage, and sentience), and the relationships between them (truth and fire, love and cardinality, authority and earth…). Within the geometry of the Zodiac and its wanderers are deep truths about the unfolding of human life.

The study of the stars shows us that we do not live in a chaotic universe, in which anything may happen at any time. Empires rise and fall, eclipses come and go, trees grow tall and topple and rot, each in their season, according to the eternal rhythms; and we can learn these rhythms, through study, meditation, and gnosis. At the same time, we are free beings: though we live on borrowed time, eating borrowed food, breathing borrowed air into our borrowed bodies, still our choices are ours alone, forever. Spiritual energies pulse and beat around us, and we can choose whether to ignore them, or move with them, or against them, in time, syncopated, or counterpoint.

If you would know where to place your feet in the dance of life, hearken to the music of the spheres.



  1. You make plain that you find astrology moving and beautiful. Do you also find it accurate?

  2. Jeff Lilly says:

    Kate, short answer: yes. Long answer: in my own personal experience, I’ve found astrology most helpful in personality analysis, i.e. going by someone’s birthtime and birthplace, getting a good snapshot of their personality and the major issues they’ll be working with in their lives. It has also been very accurate for me in predicting future events, but not universally so. It may be that astrology doesn’t work as well for predicting the future, but it may just as well be that I’m not as good at predictive astrology. 🙂 I certainly would not call it accurate in the sense that physics is accurate; but then, it very rarely makes rock-solid predictions that can be measured with precision. It makes predictions like “you will experience a time of tension between authority and creativity”.

  3. Hmmm … if I didn’t know that you no longer charge for things, I’d ask: “How much do you charge for a horoscope?” and suggest that you do mine in order to post it here and allow me to comment on what I find accurate or otherwise. In case that appeals to you, my birth data follow — March 19, 1963 at 7:24 AM (Eastern Standard Time) in Brooklyn, New York.

  4. Jeff Lilly says:

    Kate, that certainly does appeal to me! Unfortunately, of course, doing horoscopes takes time. If you’re curious and want to try for yourself, I can recommend astro.com. You can go there, insert your information, and it will generate a bunch of automatic astrological information for you, free. It’s not as good as getting a real astrologer to look at it — there are general patterns visible to humans that are very difficult to put into a computer program — but it might be interesting for you.

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