The Planets: Rulers & Interlopers

The seven visible ‘planets’ of astrology — the Sun and the Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn — are considered the key elements of traditional astrology.  The frameworks of description that astrological source materials have built up for more than 2000 years give them qualities called ‘rulership’ or ‘exaltation’.  The metaphors most often used to describe the planets in various signs or houses are drawn from the idea of leadership and kingship in ancient and medieval eras — times when the idea of princes ruling over countries by decree of God or of the gods were common — but capturing and holding kings for ransom was equally devastating.  The planets were conceived of as princes in the sky, visiting and communicating with one another, and engaging in the same diplomacies and wars as their earthy counterparts.  It’s easy to slip today into the same metaphors, because of these historical comparisons.

But then what are we to do about the three outermost planets of the solar system, and the asteroids, and other bodies that astronomers have discovered in the centuries since astrology’s divinatory framework was first conceived?  Uranus was located by astronomer William Herschel in 1781. Neptune was discovered in 1846 by Gottfried Galle, Urbain Le Verrier and John Couch Adams.  Finally, Pluto was identified as a planet by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930 (it’s been downgraded and upgraded ever since).  Over one million asteroids and five dwarf planets have been discovered since the beginning of the 19th century, including Chiron, Pallas, Eros, and Ceres.

There have been numerous efforts in astrological circles to build the three outermost planets into the rulership scheme of traditional astrology, with Neptune for example being given rulership or co-rulership over Pisces with Jupiter, and Uranus taking the rulership of Aquarius alongside Saturn.  I’ve come to the conclusion that this is a mistake.  As a middle school history teacher, I taught world history and ancient history for most of a twenty-year career.  In all that time, world history was largely the story of kings and princes doing horrible things to one another; emperors ordering the enslavement of whole peoples and barbarian warlords putting the wealth of cities into sacks and their populace in chains. Rulership — the capacity of individuals to organize and manage large groups of people — was the principal skill and faculty of the makers of history in the past.

Since the 1780s, that has changed. There has been a growing fascination, both in the field of history and in the popular imagination, with the ordinary person — and particularly the people that are outside the norms of leadership and rulership.  Inventors, discoverers, technologists, scientists, storytellers, movie-makers, business leaders, and all sorts of artists have all become much more noticeable in the annals of history. Even as we notice these individuals in the popular imagination of the present, we find ourselves reaching back in time to notice them coming forward in our lives in interesting ways.  Figures who were not rulers, princes, kings, emperors, or their wives or mothers have become more important in modern stories about the past, in a way that they were not recognized in the sixteenth century CE or earlier. 

Additionally many astrologers have recognized that Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto have generational effects, and that their major conjunctions and aspects tend to produce figures who are not rulers in the traditional sense of the word — but who are disrupters of the established order.  Uranus tends to produce inventors, technologists and scientists; Neptune tends to create encounters with the arts, like musicians, poets, playwrights, and persons of mystical or spiritual significance; and Pluto tends to produce super-wealthy billionaires, hard-hearted economists, vicious warlords, and supremely wealthy or powerful individuals outside the established political and economic order. The three outermost planets, in other words, tend to produce characters, figures and movements that arise out of the mass bodies of people who are not princes or rulers — and likewise these planets represent the political, economic, social, and philosophical movements related to popular action and the madness of crowds. 

In the course of writing this almanac, I’ve come to the conclusion that the visible planets should keep their traditional rulership scheme — rulers have a tendency to remain on top even after decades. The richest families in Florence, Italy, are the same families that were the richest in the late 1400s AD; the descendants of the first families in the United States, the survivors of the Mayflower expedition and colony, continue to be among the most influential and wealthy families in America today; descendants of Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors, recipients of grants of land from the kings of the Iberian Peninsula, continue to hold power in Central and South America in substantial numbers and represented through control of land.

But the three outermost planets are the interlopers. They represent popular opinion, and popular movements, and popular delusions.  They elevate billionaires through control of wealth, and their aspects coincide with discoveries and inventions that transform millions of lives in an instant. They cause the disruptions that send thousands of migrants on the move, or push millions of refugees across international borders.  They are not the rulers — they are the disrupters of rulers.

It takes a lot of people to overthrow, shift, or otherwise change an established order.  Established orders, whether they are constitutional governments or the administration of a prince with the divine right of kings, have tradition and stability on their side. That usually translates into money to pay troops and bureaucrats, prestige to put their names and portraits on buildings and currency, and ceremonies and theatrics to reinforce their dignity.

But change still happens.  And so that’s how I’ve chosen to interpret conjunctions and other aspects between the traditional rulers of the Zodiac, and the transpersonal planets — as potentially risky interactions between the sky’s traditional rulers, and the ‘rulership’ of popular reaction which cannot be ignored.  

The Rulers

The glyph of the Sun (a dot inside a circle), in black on a yellow background.

If the sky is a kingdom, then the ruler is The Sun.  Of course.  All things that live and move and have their being right now, today, are dependent upon the Sun. Humans and animals live by consuming plants and other animals for food, and the plants turn sunlight into the sugars and starches that are their food.  The sunlight brings heat that creates survivable (and sometimes unsurvivable) temperatures on planet Earth; the places where the sun does not shine tend to be not very favorable to life and organisms have to develop extreme modifications to live without the Sun.  Ancient and medieval authors thought of the Sun as generous, hot, dry, blond, healthy, and representative of professions like king and huntsman, prince and goldsmith.  Even so petty an officer as village alderman carries something of the leadership qualities of the Sun.  He is always the ruler of the whole kingdom, and by daylight at least half of it obeys him.

The glyph of the Moon (two half circles of different curves, designed to resemble a waxing crescent moon), in gray on a purple background.

The Moon, in this extended metaphor, is the queen. Ruling half the kingdom by mirroring the Sun, her power wanes in daylight and waxes by night when she reflects the king’s decree to the rest of the world.  Softer and moister, cooler and well-mannered, she learns from all tradespeople the nature of their business, and is ever-present in the moment.  Where the king takes a full year to travel through the kingdom, she makes her circuit once a month, reporting back to the king in their innermost bedchamber in complete darkness, and always openly represents the king’s plans in the farthest reaches of his realm when he cannot be there.  At eclipses, she either overshadows him or he outshines her, and their quarrels are many — but so are their reconciliations.

The glyph of Mercury (a half-circle on top of a circle that has a cross hanging from the bottom of it) in red on an orange background.

Mercury is the king’s herald and spy-master.  Of uncertain gender, or perhaps it’s best to say of all genders and none, they are happy to be addressed by the singular ‘they’ as their pronoun.  Quick moving and constantly changing direction, they are always either riding ahead of the king to the next sign, or riding away from the king to the previous sign — like an advance team preparing the way or a support team following up on the king’s business after the king himself has gone on to the next matter to be addressed — or riding in the king’s immediate entourage.   Shifting back and forth between what must be done ahead, and what must be finished behind, they travel the sky carrying the king’s decrees and bearing messages back to the Sun before embarking on another errand.

The glyph of Venus (a circle with a cross hanging from the bottom of it), in gray on a dark green background.

Venus is the king’s official mistress — or perhaps his daughter, or maybe the princess from a foreign land but a ward in this court.  If the Moon is the older woman in the royal household of the planets, Venus is the younger woman, adopting different roles at different times based on her relationship to the Sun.  When she stands close to him, she becomes invisible beside him.  When  she is an evening star, she lights up the court and creates evening entertainments long after the king has gone to bed.  When she is a morning star, she appears before the king rises from his bed, and having exhausted him all night, she has her way with his kingdom and sets his servants scurrying to tasks he would not think to perform. In this role, she creates beauty and order in the world, and arranges marriages between the kingdom’s many subjects, which is to say, us mortals. In all her endeavors, she uses beauty and charm and wit to achieve her aims, which are never as aligned with the king’s as he might prefer.  Unlike Mercury, she travels farther afield, and rarely spends as much time with the king as he would like. Some would see her as scheming or manipulative, but it is better to think of her as having agency.  She will not be ruled by others nor slavishly follow their decrees; rather she will do as she thinks best, sometimes bowing to the will of others and sometimes acting alone or in concert to further her own plans. 

the glyph of Mars (an arrow coming out to the upper right of a circle) in black on a red background.

Mars is the king’s war-leader and chief general.  His loyalty is to the kingdom first, and perhaps not to the king. Ranging independently of the king, he meets threats where he sees them and travels far on his inspections around the kingdom. He does not go where the Sun orders him to go, like Mercury does, but checks into each castle and fortress to ensure that equipment is at the ready and that the soldiers are properly drilled.  Wherever he goes, there is always excitement, trouble and confrontation, for he stirs up agitation and conflict, and he is never satisfied with the current state of readiness.  Some see him as a trouble-maker, but others regard him with equanimity, for they know he has the best interests of the kingdom at heart, even if he is sometimes misguided in his decision-making.

The glyph of Jupiter (a fancy, calligraphic number 4) in black on a dark blue background.

Jupiter is the king’s most loyal adviser.  At times he is the kingdom’s most senior duke, vizier or prime minister.  Maybe he is the archpriest of the most prominent religion in the kingdom (whatever that may be).  In all matters, he is the wise counselor and elder statesman, the chief diplomat and the leader of the faction that cannot be ignored in the kingdom’s politics.  He stands for the law in its most merciful and generous forms, and seeks to create order and good governance through the happiness of the citizenry rather than through fear.   The king and Jupiter only meet in person once a year, and on rare occasions three times in short order, but their aspects represent letters sent back and forth. Sometimes the king sways his duke to a course of action, and sometimes duke Jupiter has the upper hand in negotiations. 

glyph of Saturn (a semi circle with a curling tail, hanging from the right side of the bottom of a cross) in white on a black background.

Saturn is the king’s most conservative and fierce adviser.  He stands for the most conservative and harshest interpretation of the laws, and the firmest stance on the maintenance of boundaries and hierarchies.  Ancient beyond measure, and slow, he also meets with the king in person only once a year, and in special circumstances three times a year when a retrograde makes him circle back to the king to get in one more word in a long running argument.  The nature of this argument should be obvious to anyone who’s had a chance to observe it for long enough — the king intends a long life and happiness for all his subjects, and promises an eternity of greatness for the kingdom.  Yet Saturn knows that all things die, that misery and suffering are common-enough experiences, and that weakness and old age follow vigor and youth.  The one cannot exist without the other, and even the kingdom will not last forever.  Saturn urges planning and preparation against those fateful and fatal days ahead, and none hear his counsel without a mild shiver up their spine.  Time and time again, Saturn is proved right, regardless of how much the king heeds or avoids his counsel.  

These, then, are the maintainers of order in the kingdom: the king himself; his older queen; his intelligent and quick-witted spy-master; his clever and astute mistress; his general; and his two counselors, one of whom is generous and open-hearted while the other is calculating and cold.  Their roles and reputations in the heavens, and in carrying out their duties in various parts of the sky, are essential to the well-ordered functioning of the kingdom.  

The Interlopers

We turn now to the interlopers,  or maybe it is better to think of them as the masses.  Every kingdom has its subjects, and in every kingdom some of those subjects are contented with their lives and other are discontented.  The disaffected, the aggrieved, and the malcontents are forces of upheaval and of gradual change.  Through invention, invective, and lèse-majesté, they change the rules of what is possible and what is allowable.  They make new rules for themselves, and the king and his senior courtiers sometimes are able to establish their own rules — and sometimes they must bow to the inevitable.  

Glyph of Uranus (two semi circles joined with arms facing outward, attached to a cross rising out of a circle), in teal on a gray background.

Uranus stands for the revolutionary forces in the kingdom of the sky — sometimes these are political, sometimes economic, and sometimes technological.   Sometimes Uranus is an inventor who produces a new gizmo or gadget or widget that changes the established order; sometimes it’s a new innovation in finance or corporate management;  sometimes it’s a few upstarts in the king’s legislative council or parliament.  One way or another, Uranus stands for sudden, swift change and an upheaval in the established order.  This includes disasters, like earthquakes and typhoons that disrupt the status quo.   And some of these disasters include republicans (small-r, mind you) setting up barricades in the streets to overthrow the monarchists, or anarchists throwing bombs at the stock market (as happened in New York City on September 16, 1920, when Uranus was retrograde at 2° Pisces), or floods covering acres of good farmland.  One way or another, Uranus represents the power of the world to create sudden upheaval by movements of people or elemental forces.

Glyph of Neptune (a trident rising out of a cross) in dark gray on a pale blue background.

If Uranus is the revolutionary power, Neptune represents the slow dissolutive power.  Sometimes the norms of government and social order are overthrown in a sudden revolution, and sometimes they are dissolved or loosened without any upheaval taking place.  The social mores and norms that used to be widely accepted are suddenly, simply no longer present.  Widespread prohibitions against drug use in the Anglo and European worlds were not destroyed in law by a popular uprising; they were simply ignored by vast numbers of people, long enough to prove that those rules didn’t matter as much as political and economic leaders and lawmakers and philosophers thought they did.  People just did what they wanted, regardless of the laws.  The social order as determined by top-down forces directed by the king and courtiers was gradually undermined by vast numbers of people ignoring their directives.  That’s an example of Neptune’s power.  If Uranus is a hurricane or a cyclone or a revolution or a new invention, Neptune is climate change, an artistic movement, the salinization of the water table, or the cultural shifts that occur forty years after the invention is in widespread use.  It’s a set of slow and gradual changes that cannot be controlled and can’t even be seen until it’s too late to stop the shifts in energy and attention.

Glyph of Pluto (a circle floating inside a semi-circle which expands out of a cross), in pale green on a dark green background.

We’ve now looked at sudden upheaval and slow dissolution of norms, and we can turn to a third interloper, a third power that changes the norms of the kingdom of the heavens.  This is Pluto, the accretive power, the force that manipulates and changes the social fabric through accumulation or transfer of energy.  Some astrologers have noted that Pluto’s aspects are prominent in the charts of numerous 21st century billionaires — men (almost always men) of extraordinary wealth, with access to riches so vast that they could not possibly spend all of it.  With almost dragon-like precision, they gather tiny amounts of coins to themselves, until they can sleep on a vast hoard of gold like Smaug in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. The accumulative power is also found behind the logic of atomic power: put enough atoms of uranium or plutonium into a tight enough space, and they will both explode with a force and fire like ten thousand suns.  Concentrate enough particles of COVID-19 virus in one set of lungs, and the disease will burst forth full-blown in a person’s body, confining them to a sick-bed for weeks or months.  Pluto’s power represents tiny changes gradually accumulating over time, until a tipping point is reached, and the king and kingdom must make changes in order to re-establish the social fabric and prevent upheaval and dissolution.  Because Pluto’s power is one of slow growth resulting in huge shifts in power, it may be compared with compound interest, whose rules are inexorable and steadily shift wealth away from the have-nots, and toward the haves.  This may be the reason why efforts to downgrade Pluto from a planet to a planetoid or dwarf planet haven’t really stuck in astronomy or in astrology. Pluto is an accumulator of strength that results in transformative power that shifts nations and shatters cities.

The Fixed Stars

The Sun, as we know today, is the central celestial body of our solar system. He does not orbit the Earth, but instead the Earth and all other planets orbit him.  Yet from the vantage point of someone standing on Earth, who cannot feel the motion of the planet below her feet or the swift revolution of the planet driving the wind that combs and tangles his hair, the Sun appears to move.  Every day, the Sun moves about 1° across the sky, and this shifts the position of the background stars ever so slightly as the Sun sets each night.  One night after sunset, you may look up in January or February this winter and see Sirius (at about 15° Cancer) or Rigel (at 16° Gemini 50’) gleaming in the southeast portions of the early evening sky; some months later, you find them much closer to the southwest; a few months later, you find them completely gone from the evening sky, only to rise before the Sun some months later still.

When the Sun rises in early June, he is almost on top of these stars, and since they are dim relative to his brightness, they both vanish in the daylight sky.  As I write this on November 1, 2020 at about 8:45 in the morning, Rigel and Sirius are much further west, past the middle heights of the sky, and sinking toward the west.  Neither star will emerge from the eastern horizon again until after 11:30 pm, and both may be hidden behind trees or hills until midnight or later.  

Rigel and Sirius are part of the fabric of stars that astrologers call “the Fixed Stars,” and which ancient and medieval cosmologists might have called “The Firmament” or “The Vastness” depending on what portions of Greek and Roman vocabulary they inherited after the fall of the Roman Empire.  For ancient astronomical theorists, the cosmos was made of a series of crystalline spheres nested inside of one another like onion layers, each carrying a planet on its natural course around the Earth.  

The outermost sphere was different:  Plato, in one of his dialogues called the Timaeus, described this outermost sphere or shell as the skin of a living being.  For the ancients, the universe was a living creature, whole and entire.  From the perspective of us on Earth, then, the stars were immortal spirits riding on the inside of the skin of this creature as parading actors or heroes in chariots, forming a vast procession of slowly moving lords and ladies surrounded by their entourages and their chariot-pulling beasts.  These gods know that they are in a parade, and so make an effort to keep to the same course year after year, and to process in concert with one another, keeping appropriate distance one to another.   Yet even as immortal gods, their courses wander, just a little bit, and this was Plato’s way of accounting for the small yet recognizable changes that build up over time in the position of the Fixed Stars relative to one another.  For the Creator, dwelling somewhere beyond the Firmament, these immortal gods in their chariots were like so many blood cells pulsing just under the skin of the universe, or helpful allied bacteria serving to keep the universe alive and healthy, in all its myriad forms and manifestations.  They were necessary to life, and necessary to our lives, and continue to be so.

For Plato and other writers, it was these gods who played with the essential building blocks of reality, which they called Fire, Air, Water, and Earth. With these, they brought into existence all mortal life:  trees and leopards, bacteria and bony fish, lizards and lounge lizards. Anything that lives and dies in the world has its origin in the immortal charioteers of the Fixed Stars.  They send their transforming fire through the universe, and where their fires touch down, new forms of mortal life spring forth, seeding the living body of the universe with all of the possible forms of life which it is possible for her to have and to contain.  Every star brings forth a different kind of child. Some send forth fish, and some plants; some send out lizards and others primates; some produce birds and others mushrooms.  One way or another, the Fixed Stars generate the multitudinous forms of life in the cosmos.

Thus it’s not possible, from astrology’s point of view, to list or number all of the ways that the Fixed Stars affect or transform the nature of life on Earth.  For one thing, even for the ancients, the Fixed Stars were incredibly far away.   Eratosthenes, who is the first person known to have measured the diameter of the earth at about 26,000 stades, thought that the Firmament was more than 600,000,000 stades away: more distance than even a great runner could ultra-marathon-race in a single lifetime. 

Today, we know that the distance to the edges of the visible universe is more than 13 billion light-years — a distance so vast that to see that far out from our own planet is to look back in time. Even our nearest stellar neighbor, when sending us love-letters in the form of light today, expects that the postman will not deliver their notes to us for another fifty-one months. Modern astronomers and astrophysicists assume, of course, that these fixed stars are not immortal gods riding in chariots surrounded by entourages of supporting spirits, intelligences, demigods, daemons, archangels and angels, but stars like our own star — a sphere of flaming gas and super-heated matter, blowing itself up in a constant nuclear explosion, and possibly surrounded by rocky and gaseous planets, planetoids, asteroids, and comets.  

Yet C.S. Lewis wrote in the Chronicles of Narnia,”Oh that is only what a star is made of, but it is not what they are.”  From astrology’s perspective, each star in the sky is an immortal being (or at least a being with an unimaginably vast lifespan compared to our own mayfly existences), surrounded by an entourage of equally long-lived beings that we could call planets, but could equally identify as demigods, intelligences, or spirits.  Modern researchers, from James Lovelock of the Gaia hypothesis to novelist Philip K. Dick in VALIS have reached the conclusion that our planet somehow is a living intelligence — a notion that Plato extended not simply to his own Gaia beneath his feet, but to all beings in the sky and below it and above it — all things everywhere, alive and complete and infused with both intelligence and soul.  

It’s a remarkable vision of a living cosmos, and whether deliberately or not, it underlies most of astrology as an unseen but firm foundation:  you are a grandchild of the Creator, and the child of the deathless gods, and they have a stake in seeing you be healthy and happy — but even more in seeing you grow up to be the person you were meant to be, a person of intelligence and soul who knows their place in the cosmos.

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