I admit that I believe in odd things. I’m a polytheist and a diviner. The world is filled with numinous spirits and wonder, shot through with life and sentience. I am, in short, an atheist’s nightmare: the benighted Pagan. I laugh and embrace it. Who would want to live in a cold, distant world filled only with loneliness and machines?
But one thing I don’t believe in: astrology.
This comes up periodically, as half of the acquaintances in my Facebook feed blame every small happenstance on “Mercury retrograde.” Computer problems? Have an argument with a friend? Mercury retrograde. Step in gum on the sidewalk? Slip on the ice and have a fender-bender? Mercury retrograde.
And it’s not just the period in which Mercury appears (erroneously) to be traveling the wrong way on a one-way street. Before that moment, there is “foreshadowing.” Afterwards, you’re still in the zone. In short: anything and everything that happens, you can blame on the stars.
Bullshit. And I saw that not just because I’m a Taurus.
When I was 16, I saved up my allowance and purchased the astrological classic: Llewellyn George’s The New A to Z Horoscope Maker and Delineator. I spent the summer at our picnic table, shielding my eyes from the golden light as I bent over charts, calculating the relationship of planets. I rejoiced when I found a siderial chartbook in my local library. I drew many lines and puzzled over geometric shapes.
I learned several things:
- Being skipped directly from algebra to calculus was a bad thing. I never learned geometry or trigonometry as a result, and that has always held me back in math. The honors program in my local high school really should re-evaluate their setup for honors math.
- As a result, I could never put together the chart correctly and knew it. I rectified this in college, when I picked up a handy program that does the math and creates charts for you.
- The meaning of planets and stars is individual. It depends on their relationship with each other — classified in both degree as well as either beneficent or malevolent — and with the chart as a whole, which is divided up into twelve houses, each ruled by a sign of the zodiac.
- These houses are determined by the exact time and location of your birth. In short, the chart embodies the exact picture of the sky the very moment you entered the world.
- If you look up the meanings, everything is pretty damn vague and, thus, never really wrong.
As it happens, my interest in the stars is as old as my interest in all things mystical. As a kid, I repeatedly re-read Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. I can describe the illustrations and examples in detail to this day. I had books of constellations and lay on my Jersey lawn at night, profoundly disappointed that the orange sheen of mercury vapor streetlights completely drowned out everything except the fiercest stars: the constellations of Orion, the Big Dipper. I could recite the qualities — physical qualities — of the planets, and briefly considered studying astronomy in college, until I realized that the setup of my honors math program made me completely unsuitable for the academic work.
So, my cosmic answer to Mercury retrograde:
- Mercury never really reverses; you’re not hearing the back-up beep. It’s an optical illusion based on our position on Earth. The planets continue on their merry courses, which are fascinating in and of themselves. Why does space, for example, seem to resolve into flat planes? There are mysteries there, but not the kind that come with computer screw-ups and petty disagreements.
- You really can’t see Mercury anyway. It’s too close to the sun for common viewing.
- The meaning of Mercury retrograde in an astrological sense would depend entirely on its position in your chart, both current and birth, and its relationship to other planets, both current and birth. This would involve a good deal of calculation which, thankfully, you can get a computer program for if you so desire. By the way, this is the reason that newspaper horoscopes are a load of bullpuckey, too; they’re not individually calculated. (Assuming that they’re calculated at all, and they’re not spawned from the brain of Joe the Bullshitter sitting in an office somewhere.)
- If you look up the “meanings” in the Big Blue Llewellyn Book, you will always find something vague enough to suit your circumstances.
There are two other points I’d like to make as well. One is observer bias. If you are expecting to see something, you will see it and ignore the evidence to the contrary. This is why I am very careful when I do divination for others; I don’t want people to take my word as gospel, since it isn’t.
On a non-divinatory note…. My life, both professional and musical, brings me into contact with technology and its related problems on a regular basis. I will admit that there is a pattern to technological issues, but not one set by the stars. New equipment, such as my new music recording computer, often brings issues. Intense use of equipment, both new and existing, sparks issues. So do power outages. Mostly, though, it’s just the nature of life that things don’t always go as planned.
The same with human relationships: there are flash points such as life changes, anniversaries of events both blessed and baneful. Unlucky circumstances, such as accidents or illness. Groups periodically flare up because humans are primates with a hierarchical social structure that requires periodic challenges and adjustments. Are there meanings hidden in these issues? Absolutely, but they’re not of the cosmic sort.
And finally, I’d like to go into the real reason I reject Mercury retrograde and astrology overall: the idea that life is a book already written, that all outcomes and issues are determined by cosmic forces beyond our control. I’ve frequently told tarot clients that I believe the future is a process of dynamic co-creation; we are presented with forces and circumstances, yes, but the decisions we make can alter them. And sometimes they can’t, but we still have some involvement, some responsibility, in the process.
Life is neither “create your own reality” nor “the book of fate has already been written.” It’s weirder, murkier, messier. And while I shrug off astrology, life reminds me of the creation of astrological charts that summer: the focus of the calculations, the feeling of reaching for something beyond my mathematical knowledge base, the constant use of the eraser. And above all, the many beings and qualities and circumstances above and around that sheet of paper: the tacky redwood stain on the picnic table, the mosquitoes I wave away from my face, the tomatoes reddening in the sun, the monkey-flower in the garden, the graceful birch draping its leaves. The dog at my feet, panting and hoping for a walk. My parents talking in the house.
Somewhere above that, the sun is turning helium into other elements, spewing rings of flame into the murky black. Quasars wink. Mercury dances in its orbit, turning its sun-blasted face slowly, so slowly, that a day lasts longer than a year. Venus broils and Mars freezes while Uranus revolves gaily on its side. Comets swing through the icy black as, somewhere distant, clouds of dust spawn new suns.