When you utter the word astrology, people tend to have visceral reactions.
Usually, they fall into one of two camps: either they’re faithfully committed to tracking moons and planets in transit and their effects on the emotions and timing of our lives, or they’re dismissive and cynical about the so-called pseudoscience, rejecting it as debased and – for lack of a better term – false.
But people want to talk about astrology, and its lasting presence in both western and eastern cultural traditions means it deserves a fighting chance.
Astrology is a practice that dates back to at least the second millenium BC. It’s used to glean information from the positions of celestial bodies, which correlate to various parts of the human psyche or experience.
It stems from the desire to make sense of who we are, and of the motivations and qualities we possess. As more and more young people turn away from traditional religious systems and practices, the desire for guidance, stability and comfort seeks expression in different ways. There is comfort in finding a vessel through which to understand life. Some find that meaning through astrology.
The most commonly known facet of astrology – which frequently sets eyes rolling skyward – is the much-satirised daily horoscope, or the sun sign descriptors that claim to know all about your personality based on a month-long birth range. Everyone has a sun sign based upon their date of birth and the corresponding month-long periods separated by the 12 signs that embody the western Zodiac, a system ruled by celestial bodies and their placement in the sky.
Accordingly, as most of us have experienced, you can go on any advertisement-ridden website or flip through any trashy magazine and find vague advice for the day or week, generalised and diluted to the point of making any prescriptive comment applicable to the widest array of readers. I am an Aquarius, with Capricorn as my rising sign and my moon in Libra. Whatever that means.
When astrology is watered down to ambiguous aphorisms, as commercial forms demonstrate, the whole of astrology is watered down along with it
When astrology, which is fundamentally intended to provide unique and specific insight to each individual, is watered down to ambiguous aphorisms, as commercial forms will demonstrate, the whole of astrology is watered down along with it.
But contrary to what the sceptics will have you believe, there’s more to astrology than these kinds of platitudes.
Dublin-based astrologer and psychotherapist Margaret Gray knows intimately the link that astrology can have with that elusive sense of peace, and her experience in psychology plays an important role in her astrological work. A liberal arts graduate from Trinity, Gray works with clients professionally in both psychotherapy and astrology, sometimes in conjunction if patients show interest, and teaches astrology workshops as part of Astrology Ireland.
She tells me that she will often ask her psychotherapy clients if she can look at their astrological birth charts, so even if astrology is not brought into the session, “I use it in the background to inform my psychotherapy work if I have their permission”.
For Gray, astrology was an early calling, and she began drawing up birth charts to help her gain a deeper understanding of people’s mental health and emotions. She says that astrology works similarly to psychotherapy, in the sense that it acts as a tool to help people gain an insight into themselves.
“Looking at someone’s chart reminds them of who they are. Over a lifetime, over the years, we cover that up. And then it’s like peeling back the onion, with the chart, to the bare essence of who somebody is – their very best potential, most expansive potential – and I think that’s very reassuring because … it allows people to connect with who they are. It’s a reminder of who they are, without all the adaptations and things we do in order to fit in.”
For an accurate reading, a person’s birth information must include not only the date but the time and location as well, which alters the ruling planetary formation from the point at which the person was born. Then, in addition to viewing one’s sun sign, astrologists will look at rising signs, moons and how the planets appear in different signs.
The sun sign, the primary sign with which most are familiar, determines your identity and “role” in life. The rising, or ascendent, sign refers to the sign that was rising on the horizon at the time of your birth, and acts as the mask others perceive when they meet you. Your rising sign can manifest in your style or your energy.
The moon rules emotions and moods, and is likely the sign you will see yourself as, since it reflects the internal personality. The various planets – Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto – represent individual aspects of who we are, and, based upon your exact birth information, each falls into one of the 12 signs of the Zodiac.
To complicate matters further, there are 12 houses within the Zodiac, which is divided into segments like a clock. Each house is associated with a set of traits, personal or otherwise, and is ruled by a sign. So, the first house is representative of the self – in terms of image, first impressions, attitude, identity and more.
In any case, sun sign astrology is not astrology at all. It’s barely scratching the surface.
Gray has mixed feelings about the surface-level horoscopes, easily found online, that are most commonly representative of the practice. “I think on the one hand what’s great is that it popularises astrology so that people actually realise that it’s there. It’s good, though, for people to be discerning as well, to realise what is good astrology and what isn’t good astrology. A real chart-reading takes a lot of time to prepare. It probably takes me at least a couple of hours to prepare a chart before I actually meet the person.”
Martha Clarke is an Irish astrocartographer based currently in the US. She holds a certificate in counselling, which she says lends itself substantially to her work in astrology. Her particular line of astrological work is based around location and how certain planetary lines fall across various regions in the world for a given person, based on their unique birth chart.
Though it’s a lesser-known feature of astrology, Clarke says locationary astrology often makes more sense to people as they can see the planetary lines moving across a country, as it did for her when she moved to Italy. Astrocartography works as a guide for where in the world a person can find themselves most fulfilled at a given period in their life.
It’s like peeling back the onion, with the chart, to the bare essence of who somebody is – their very best potential, most expansive potential
“It really empowers you to find the true you. It really brings you back to the essence of yourself and to who you are, and it can really empower you and give you the courage and the confidence to make decisions you never thought you’d make.”
Such is the strength of the chart reading mentioned by both Clarke and Gray, it gives people permission to be who they are, to live out their own chart and stop trying to fit another. Gray has had clients delight in having what they already knew about themselves reinforced, finding themselves liberated simply by the validation of being recognised.
In many cases, the chart demonstrates at a glance what lessons an individual is here to learn. Gray says this manifests in different ways for different people: for some, it is relationships, others, their career.
While most people familiar with astrology are acquainted with the western system, an entirely separate system exists in the east. Originating in India, Vedic astrology – or Jyotisha – is far more predictive than its western counterpart, and cannot be analysed with any accuracy without the exact location and time of birth.
The Vedic system is intimately linked to the fundamental spiritual beliefs of Hinduism, stemming from the idea of reincarnation and using karmic potential as a guideline for prediction.
Marc Boney, one of the world’s leading academic Vedic astrologists, has written 16 books and over 50 articles on the topic. In college, Boney studied English and psychology, all the while fostering a keen interest in why people behave the way they do.
It wasn’t always this way – Boney began as a flagrant sceptic of astrology. But in his quest for understanding of emotional and psychological behaviour, he adopted astrology as a hobby, giving chart readings to friends and contacts while remaining involved in other pursuits.
Boney acquired a degree in counselling psychology and also worked in management consulting and executive coaching, among other corporate professions, before devoting himself full-time to astrological work after his retirement in 2012. He used to consult people on their birth charts, but currently teaches online workshops to students around the world and continues to author texts on the subject.
As Boney writes on his website, Vedic astrology springs from the spiritual view that “your soul is moving along an evolutionary pathway through a series of reincarnations, each determined by your thoughts and actions in prior lives. The fruits of your past actions are your ‘karma’, and this is what your astrological birth chart reveals. The emphasis, therefore, in ‘Vedic’ astrology is on understanding your soul’s karma in this lifetime”.
Like Clarke and Gray, Boney is familiar with the link between psychology and astrology as someone who seeks to understand people’s motivations and inclinations. Vedic astrology goes further, though, dealing with how you were born to those particular parents, in that particular family system, which is where the idea of karma comes in.
“I like to use the words ‘karmic potential’. I use the analogy of a seed. A seed represents a set of potentials that, when planted and nourished, those potentials will unfold in a certain pattern in time … and so there’s that certain set of potentials that a birth chart represents, and then they get activated at different times in a person’s life.”
Boney wasn’t invested in Vedic astrology from the outset of his astrological pursuits, but rather spent his first 20 years practising the more familiar western form. He had heard that Vedic astrology was more powerful, more predictive, and attended a seminar in which a highly skilled teacher of Jyotisha called KN Rao was teaching people how to time the birth of children using this system.
It’s good for people to be discerning as well, to realise what is good astrology and what isn’t good astrology
Before a room of people, Rao looked at Boney’s birth chart and started rattling off a series of statements about his life, such as that he had five sisters but was the only son, and that he’d studied literature, points with an intense level of specificity to be intuited solely from the Vedic natal chart.
“This wasn’t like ‘you’re a Pisces, so you tend to be emotionally sensitive’”, Boney laughs. “So of course that piqued my interest.”
Boney ended up making his first prediction of the timing of a childbirth sometime following the seminar, and it turned out to be correct.
“There’s a timing mechanism in the Vedic system that doesn’t exist in the western system. It’s one of the reasons I got attracted to the Vedic system, and it’s more predictive … even with regards to events like marriage and child birth and that sort of thing, which I’ve predicted many many times over. It’s a very complex technical system, you’d be surprised, and it’s not one that someone learns even in a few years. In order to become a good predictor it took me years and years.”
To describe his transition from western to eastern astrology, Boney uses the analogy of moving from a typewriter to a computer. The implication is clear: he saw in Vedic astrology a deeper capacity to learn, predict, and understand aspects of the human condition.
Specifically, a more powerful tool.
“Western astrology got very psychological – specifically in terms of personality, characteristics and inclinations – and I got very good using western charts to describe that to people, but it was rather limited in terms of being actually able to predict events at times in a person’s life. Jyotisha has an enormous methodology for doing that, and you can’t do that using [the western] system.”
Astrocartography works as a guide for where in the world a person can find themselves most fulfilled at a given period in their life
Boney says that if you maintain the integrity of each system, both can be valid, but they don’t work if components from each are interchanged. While there are numerous similarities between the two, the primary difference is in the use of separate Zodiacs, which have a difference of roughly 25 degrees, so your sun sign in the Vedic system would be different from what it would be in the western.
Recently, Boney taught an advanced class on predicting major life events, ones he himself has predicted multiple times, such as periods of educational achievement, periods of professional distinction, marriage, childbirth, purchase of a home, or extended periods when a person settles abroad. He emphasised that, unlike in western astrology, these aren’t psychological predictions or readings, but specific happenings in a person’s timeline.
In terms of predicting various such momentous life events, Boney never wants to play god, and doesn’t view the chart as being explicitly black or white in terms of its forecast. Much like Gray, he sees chart reading as a useful tool above all else.
“Astrology taught me that there is a magnificent order to the universe … it gave me a much better framework to understand my own experience, other people’s experience, [and] again just the idea of karma.”
What usually sparks people’s interest, Boney says, is enduring very difficult experiences, and consequently seeking answers and comfort to make sense of what’s happened. Clarke and Gray say the same, noting astrology’s capacity to provide a comfort that other tools cannot.
As far as nonbelievers go, Gray says she rarely comes across them, and if she does, she leaves them to their own opinions. “[Astrology is] one of many tools, and if people don’t find it helpful, or don’t want to try it, that’s fine! I don’t think it’s a belief system – it’s not like a religion or spirituality. I think it’s just a tool, and if astrology isn’t your tool, that’s great – find another that works for you.”
Boney would like to convince nonbelievers to take a closer look before passing judgment.
“If they really understood true astrology, and the idea of an individual birth chart based on an individual birth time, then they would have a different view of it. But the idea that anyone born in a 30-day period is going to be the same is of course a ridiculous idea.”
Clarke even offers to view my own chart, and gives me a brief reading during our interview as she maps my planetary lines across Ireland. I moved from my home country to live here, so I’m eager to see if the planets agreed with my choice.
I think it’s just a tool, and if astrology isn’t your tool, that’s great – find another that works for you
“Your Uranus line goes right through Ireland, straight through the middle, which means you’re within radius of your Uranus line anywhere in Ireland. Uranus is all about genius and innovation and being different, and the moon trines your ascendent right through the centre of Ireland too.”
This, apparently, implies that I am very likely to flourish here. I ask Clarke if she can map my planetary lines across my home, the place I left behind because it no longer felt like the right fit for me. I want to see if there might be any indication that these two places were in fact different in their capacity to fit my needs at a given time.
There are no planetary lines across my home city. None. And, whether rationally or irrationally, I feel affirmed. Maybe my choice to come here was not simply a baseless intuition, but one that was preordained somehow, written in the sky, and accordingly, into my gut. Maybe the choices we make from our intuition are not baseless at all, but connected to something bigger.
Of course, in order to fully understand what the planetary lines correspond to, from which sign, to which angle, to which conjunction, to which planet, to which house, a professional reading is necessary. The relationships between these various aspects are intricate and correlational, and certainly not easily summed up in a horoscope blurb. The same goes for any thorough interpretation of one’s birth information. A chart reading will provide the most accurate and detailed answer.
“I think young people are very intuitive”, says Gray. “Energetically, the younger generations are different to us older generations, and I think you are all much more intuitive, much more psychic, and looking for tools that are avenues to channel that information, to get that information across, and I think we need it.”
For Clarke, Gray and Boney, the journey to understanding more about yourself begins here, with the spiritual. And for young people, that journey’s call is louder than ever.