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The Observer Observed (Part 1) Date Published: 1/01/2001 by Bill Sheeran


Editor’s Introduction

Bill Sheeran is well known in the European astrology world, has written numerous articles, and is particularly well known for his work in mundane astrology. A citizen of the newly resurgent Ireland, the history of his native land quite naturally holds his attention and inspires much of his research. He can be reached at

The editor hopes that the passion, pungency, erudition and clarity of his writing may inspire more astrologers to investigate mundane astrology. This article expands the discussion begun by Mary Downing in "Will the Real Birth Chart of the U.S.A. Please Stand Up?" which appeared in an earlier edition of "Astro Talk Online Astrology Magazine." In addition, the discussion impinges upon the question of whether astrology can (or should) ever have an objective and scientifically “respectable” basis – a matter of great concern to astrologers who wish to enhance society’s perception of this discipline, many of whom believe that scientific respectability is or should be the main avenue for accomplishing that improvement in status.

Authors Introduction

This is a two-part essay. The first part, which is the text below, can be read on its own. However, it will be followed in Part Two with an example of an astrologer in action. This first part emphasises the crucial and central role of the astrologer in horoscopic or judicial astrology. The choice of charts and techniques is an individual act which either suits or reflects the astrologer's psyche. This is a very personal thing.

For the second part [forthcoming, not in this issue of Astro Talk – Ed.], I will be using a striking example from my mundane political work to demonstrate this principle, and show how a chart I have chosen to work with—a lunar eclipse in 1791- acts as a root horoscope for the story of the quest for Irish independence and the eventual setting up of politically autonomous structures. This eclipse happened two days before a meeting which is retrospectively considered to have inaugurated the movement towards Irish independence. It is not in itself, though, a timed horoscope for the birth of anything, and yet it was still singing loudly up to 1994 at least.

The overall approach I will be using in that story brings together the traditional mundane use of an eclipse chart (whose relevance extends over 200 years!) plus horoscopic event charts with what might be considered national horoscopes. I will present ideas on what I think these national charts mean. One interesting feature which emerges is the re-appearance of tight degree zones containing similar symbolism in horoscopes for milestone events which describe an historical lineage in the story of Irish Republicanism. This is what led me to coin the term 'structural coupling', which describes how planetary transits, etc. activate a whole family of historically linked charts at the same time.

This work provides an example of how I think as a mundane astrologer—a window onto a stylistic approach which is personal and effective for myself. It may have no necessary intrinsic value for another astrologer other than to make them reflect on their own style. But that in itself is important. Or it may resonate constructively with others on a theoretical and/or practical level. Or it may simply be of interest to a casual observer pondering astrologers rather than astrology. The second part is not a crash course in Irish history, rather, an exploration of a thought process. I think there is room for articles on how astrologers work, rather than how astrology works. The diversity of styles is so huge that I believe it is fruitless to try to model astrology without acknowledging this and factoring it into the hypotheses. There is no universal method as is the case with science. While individual scientists may not be considered a variable in the scientific method, astrologers sure as hell are.

Part One

We each have a birth chart or horoscope with which we are associated. The dominant form of astrology today—natal astrology—is concerned with revealing meaning in such charts. For the most part, natal astrologers focus almost exclusively on the singular horoscope drawn for the precise moment of birth. While occasionally supplementing it with charts for events such as marriage, solar returns and so on, these never supersede the overriding significance given to the horoscope for one's birth moment.

Astrology however is multifaceted and covers a wide field. Many astrologers also engage in other branches of the craft, such as horary, financial or mundane astrology. The latter two practices in particular entail working with multiple charts or a family of related horoscopes. They also often require working with non-horoscopic elements (see below). Anyone who has worked in these fields realises that the situation pertaining in natal astrology—the focus on a unique birth chart—is a special case in the broader astrological scheme of things. Because a human life is a self-contained and easily differentiated unity with a beginning, middle and end, it lends itself to such an approach.

The astrology of national groups—of their political and social processes—presents some challenges to modern astrologers in this regard. The logic of natal astrological practice, should it be applied to this branch of astrology, would naturally lead one to try and identify a unique national horoscope associated with beginnings. In recent times, much effort has been expended in trying to identify such charts. There are problems though. If astrology operates continuously on a collective level, then how do we describe and explore the astrological situation of a national group prior to the date of the chosen national chart? For the national group itself has no birth date. What horoscope do we use to explore the astrology of the people living in America prior to 1776, for example? And if we can postulate one, in what way can we rationalize the extinction of its validity when it is superseded by a new horoscope or birth chart as the national group experiences a major societal or political symmetry break? One has to ask what exactly it is that such unique national birth charts represent, and question whether the concept has any real value. Are they simply an erroneous artefact of the application of natal astrology perspectives to the collective level?

Nicholas Campion, in his thought-provoking introduction to The Book of World Horoscopes, explores this issue in great detail. He mentions that the concept of the nation state itself only really evolved into its current form from the end of the 19th century. It is perhaps not surprising then that the concept of national horoscopes is also a relatively recent one. Traditional techniques entailed using ingress and lunation charts set up for capital cities. National differences were elaborated upon using Ptolemaic style zodiacal rulerships, whereby, for example, England was given to Aries, Scotland to Cancer, Wales to Gemini, and Ireland to Taurus. At the same time, national events such as coronations or political elections were marked out and charts cast for them, while much attention was paid to the horoscopes of political leaders and monarchs. However, there were no such things as horoscopes for moments when nations gained independence, which is how national horoscopes are generally perceived today. This evolutionary leap was precipitated by the glaring failure of astrologers to predict the onset of the Second World War using the traditional methods.

In the same introduction, Campion rightly name checks Geoffrey Cornelius, the author of The Moment of Astrology. The concepts central to this radical and highly important work provide a foundation from which Campion has been able to elaborate his own perspective on national mundane horoscopy, and ask questions born from his own practical experience as well as his spirit of enquiry.

Natural and judicial astrologies

Returning to a long-standing thread in astrological thinking, both authors focus on the division within astrology between its natural and judicial forms, while acknowledging that these are not mutually exclusive. The former is largely non-horoscopic in nature, being based on real time cyclic relationships and celestial events such as eclipses, comets, sun spot maxima, and so on. The primary emphasis is on passive observation, and making interpretative correlations to potential worldly events based on previously recorded experience. Such an approach informs earthquake and weather predictions, certain financial forecasting techniques, and so on. In a way that is reminiscent of the ideally neutral and observational role of the scientist, the astrologer working in these areas remains somewhat detached in their consideration of the astrological information. What they are observing and reporting on is astrology in action. Much of this work can be done using a graphic ephemeris combined with a reference book such as Neil Michelson's Tables of Planetary Phenomena, or the software equivalents. Horoscopes do come into play of course, but these are likely to be for planetary ingresses, lunations and so on, as opposed to charts for human-centred birth moments whether individual or collective.

Campion and Cornelius both agree that judicial astrology lies in a different category of practice from natural astrology. They identify its roots in what they call ‘provoked,’ as opposed to ‘unprovoked’ divination. The latter is based on the passive interpretation of omens as they naturally occur, while the former requires the participation of the diviner to initiate the divinatory process. For example, the diviner might choose to cast lots or examine entrails in order to illuminate a question. Similarly, when an astrologer casts a horoscope and proceeds to judge and interpret it, what is happening is akin to a provoked divination. The horoscope itself is a symbolic pattern, no more and no less, and it bears only a tenuous relation to objective celestial reality. In contrast to the situation with natural astrology, judicial astrology presents the power of the astrologer in action

To me this distinction makes sense both logically and experientially. At either end of the spectrum which astrology covers, from the modern and more rational physical astronomy and general mundane work on the one hand, to the pre-modern non-rational Mesopotamian astral divination on the other, we find non-horoscopic natural astrology dominating. As is often the case however, the greatest complexity, creative potential, and ambiguity resides at the flexiblev interface or exchange boundaries between opposite and interpenetrating poles of a unified field. Judicial astrology inhabits a middle ground in the rationality / non-rationality spectrum, its form being fertilised and sustained by the participatory involvement of the consciousness of the astrologer. This is the territory where the horoscope and all its inherent symbolism is queen, providing the pinnacle of the astrological art in all its complexity. A pronounced ambiguity emerges because of the inevitable diversity which exists between the psyches of individual astrologers. This relativistic element in horoscopic astrology is the bane of efforts to rationalise the mainstream practice along the lines of traditional scientific logic and methodology.

On the face of it, it may not seem obvious that the astrologer is central to natal astrology. We like to think of the horoscope as indicating the potential associated with a seed moment, and drawing on biological metaphors, we extend this into a covert determinism which mirrors contemporary genetic theories, and particularly the coding associated with DNA. It's all in the genes for a reductionist biologist, but it's all in the horoscope for a natal astrologer, who just has to be good at decoding innate meaning. This metaphor is both highly seductive and illusory, as well as being more palatable to modern sensibilities than the earlier culturally entrenched clockwork metaphor.

Honest astrologers will admit that they have occasionally provided useful readings while inadvertently working with the 'wrong' horoscope for the context at hand. This should alert us to the possibility that the astrologer (or astrologer/client combination) is perhaps more important in the astrological process than a factually accurate horoscope. All the arguments about which house system we should use, whether the tropical or sidereal zodiac is the correct one, or whether this technique or that technique is valid would evaporate if it was taken on board that the astrologer is the key to astrological interpretation. Cultural conditioning though leads us to assume that there is to be found a universally applicable astrology, the essence of which transcends the individual astrology practitioner. One does not have to be an anthropologist to identify the impact of scientific philosophy here, mediated by education and social consensus.

We work with the techniques that we do because they feel right for us as individuals. To some, the sidereal zodiac makes more sense than the tropical zodiac. In which case, the tropical zodiac will not 'speak' to them as judicial astrologers. And why should it? It is only symbolism, and symbolism speaks to the individual psyche. In a similar vein, many of us today require that the data we use is accurate and precise. While I am one such person, I would nevertheless speculatively argue that this prerequisite arises because our modern psyches remain disturbed in the presence of dirty data or temporal ambiguities. Charts based on such data strike a dumb note or a cognitive dissonance due to the culturally induced psychological barriers we place in front of them. On the other hand, ignorance is bliss, and if we don't know the horoscope is based on erroneous data and carry on engaging with the symbolism regardless, it will often sing to us.

Accurate birth data collections are a fantastic resource for astrologers today, because they allow the psyches of contemporary astrologers to engage with the symbolism the charts contain. As do accurately timed births for clients. The more precise the time of birth, the more accurate we assume the interpretation can be. Nevertheless, one might ask exactly how concerned our astrologer ancestors were about this issue, given that fairly accurate clocks only appeared on the European scene as astrology started to decline in the 17th century. We are ruled by clock time, whereas they were not (at least not to anywhere near the same extent). We do not eat when we are hungry, but when the clock tells us to.

The cultural obsession and importance we give to clock time could be seen to underlie the extent of significance attributed to precise angles and house cusp positions in our astrology. Similarly, the tacit prohibition placed on working with charts for unknown times mirrors the same emphasis, even though such charts reveal a huge amount of useful information. These kind of restrictions are not innate to astrology, but are imposed (or not, as the case may be) by the astrologer, who is operating out of a particular cultural milieu. This again highlights the governing role of the astrologer in the astrological process.

Unlike the past, the modern mundane astrology of nations is horoscopic and judicially based, thereby rendering highly significant the participatory involvement of the interpreting astrologer. As Campion noted, astrologers' assumptions about the nature of the nation state, their expectations, the questions they pose and the answers they hope to find, all these inform the approach to interpretation. I would add that the psychological need for accurate horoscope data (to the satisfaction of the individual astrologer) is relevant here too.

“The question we pose of various national horoscopes should therefore not be ‘is this the correct horoscope?,’ but 'what is the significance of this horoscope?.’ … If divinatory astrology is a language, dealing with signs, it follows that significance should be the primary means of judging whether a particular horoscope is relevant or not. Firstly, the historical event for which the horoscope is cast should be significant. Secondly, the planetary picture within the horoscope should itself be significant. And both historical and astrological significance can only be judged by the mundane astrologer. That is, there is no horoscopic mundane astrology independent of the astrologer's ability to select, judge and discriminate.”

Following on from this, I would add that the charts the astrologer works with also have to exhibit some life (prove to be radical to the astrologer's satisfaction), and provide useful insights, whether they be predictive, retrospectively illuminating, or revealing in other ways. But what might be satisfying in this respect to one astrologer may not be satisfying to another, if only because they may be using completely different interpretative techniques. As with science, the methodology, techniques and instrumentation used constrains and even creates the body of data available for interpretation and symbolic mapping. This being the likely case, one has to get arguments between astrologers about which chart constitutes the correct national horoscope in perspective. There is no birth chart for a nation, only charts for significant moments in the unfolding of a nation's political and societal processes. And which of these 'speak' to a particular astrologer says as much about that person's perceptions, contextual understanding and the way they practice the craft as it does about the essence of the craft itself.


Go to Part 2 ⇒


© Copyright: Bill Sheeran





Other articles by Bill Sheeran:

Sheeran, BillThe Observer Observed (Part 2)

Sheeran, BillThe Observer Observed (Part 3)



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