The Oracle and the Family Curse
by Liz Greene
Apollon, December 1999In 1969, when Senator Edward Kennedy faced the collapse of his Presidential hopes after Chappaquiddick, he asked whether there was a curse on his family. Over the decades, a great many people have asked the same question, privately and in print; the history of this extraordinary clan does make one wonder whether some daimon of misfortune dogs its members. The recent death of John F. Kennedy Jr. has once again roused speculation about why the male Kennedys seem to be picked off like wooden ducks in a fairground booth, not to mention the drug-related hospitalisations, virulent divorces, and other human messes which, although more private and less florid, are perhaps no less tragic for those involved. No generation of this powerful family has remained unscathed. Naturally, the Kennedy horoscopes have been pondered by astrologers from every perspective. Anyone who has studied them can recognise factors in each individual birth chart which might reflect, at least in part, the tragedy of that particular life. Yet here is a sequence of tragedies which are strangely coherent in their continuity. Can we link these astrologically? Do they make sense psychologically? Are we looking at what the Greeks meant by a family curse? Are we looking at the products of a lethal but very human mixture of ingredients - a dysfunctional family driven by obsessive ambition and habitually involved with echelons of power and corruption that, sooner or later, would involve danger and possibly violent death? Are we viewing coincidence? Or, as Ian Fleming would have suggested, is it "enemy action"? And if so, what, and where, is the enemy?
The word "curse" conjures up images of witchcraft, black magic, Dennis Wheatley novels, and B-grade films about reanimated Egyptian mummies. It is a word which, understandably, we do not like to use these days, and any mention of the Curse of the Kennedys tends to provoke uneasy laughter. But the ancient mythology which underpins our Western culture and permeates our Western psychology took the concept of the family curse very seriously indeed, and did not associate it with witches or malevolent occult rites. The English word "curse" has obscure origins, but my etymological dictionary suggests that it derives from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning "wrath". The first known example of the word occurs in the 11th century: Goddes curs, the wrath of God. A curse is thus something inflicted by a wrathful deity in response to human wrong-doing. Its roots lie in the past, but it predetermines the future. Most of us do not think in terms of our families being "cursed", whatever difficulties we experience with and through them. Some families exhibit clearly repetitive patterns, but these may involve gifts and good fortune as often as they involve misfortune and pathology. But there are some families which seem to bear more than their share of tragedy, albeit on a less grandiose scale than the Kennedys. Repeating generations of broken marriages, alcoholism and drug addiction, suicide, financial ruin, and functional disease dog many families. Sometimes these patterns are deeply disturbing in their consistency and precision. Lynn Bell demonstrates, in her excellent book, Planetary Threads, the ways in which particular attitudes and experiences, embedded in the family psyche, can unconsciously dominate behaviour over several generations, sometimes emerging only when each individual reaches the precise age at which his or her predecessors themselves re-enacted the ancient story. Family therapists call this "the anniversary syndrome". Astrologers, accustomed to the cyclical nature of transits and progressions, can map it with precision, but its meaning may be more elusive.
An important question for the astrologer is whether family tragedies can be seen in nascent form in the birth chart, and counteracted before they have a chance to repeat. For if we take seriously the possibility of a destructive psychological inheritance, we are forced to consider the implications for astrological prediction. A family curse, in myth, demands an expiation of some kind, without which it continues to unleash its wrath on subsequent generations. The future of an individual, in this context, is dependent not on his or her conscious choices, nor even on his or her birth chart, but on something from the past which lies buried beneath the surface of life and influences or conditions future choices and consequences. In other words, the family curse makes us live the placements in our individual charts in particular ways which are not entirely our own. Our special pattern of planets and signs and aspects, so unique and so full of individual potential, becomes the unwitting vessel for a larger, older, and often inimical collective daimon. John F. Kennedy, before he went to Dallas in November 1963, was reputed to have received many warnings, amongst them several from astrologers who did not like the look of the configurations being triggered in his birth chart. He chose to disregard these warnings. John F. Kennedy Jr., before he took his fatal flight in July 1999, was warned not to attempt it in the prevailing bad weather conditions, especially in light of his inexperience and his injured foot. He chose to disregard this warning. Is "chose" perhaps the wrong word to use here? Later I will look very briefly at John Kennedy's chart, as well as those of Joseph P. Kennedy Sr., Robert Kennedy, and John F. Kennedy Jr. First I would like to explore in greater depth just what the Greeks might have meant by the family curse, and how this could be relevant to us psychologically and as a pattern of destiny within a family.
The family curse in Greek myth
In Greek myth, the family curse is presented as a punishment inflicted by an angry deity on the descendants of an individual who has offended that god. The curse or punishment is also intimately connected with Apollo's oracle, and most of the family curses in myth involve one or another member of the family consulting the oracle for help or a revelation about the future. The curse, although a legacy from the past, is also a destiny, and involves prophecies of what is to come. It has the power to overrule any potential individual development, rendering the person a mere vehicle for the unfolding of the curse. Only in understanding the words of the oracle, accepting the fate decreed, and performing expiation according to the god's will, can the curse be lifted or neutralised. Inevitably, the figures of Greek tragedy neither understand nor accept the oracle, nor do they perform the expiation required. Each person is either ignorant of the curse or feels he or she is exempt, and thus meets a destiny which is both imposed and chosen - inherited consequences interwoven with present choices to create a predetermined future.
For example, the curse imposed upon the mythic house of Thebes begins with King Laius, who manages to offend both Apollo and Artemis, the divine protectors of children, by raping a noble youth who is the son of his friend. Laius is warned by the oracle of the god he has offended that, should he have a son, he will meet his death at this son's hands. The wrathful deity, although ready to inflict punishment, also simultaneously offers the possibility of expiation through that punishment. Since every human must meet death one way or another, and given the nature of Laius' offence, the expiation might be seen as just. Laius, however, will not accept the sentence. He interprets the oracle as a warning rather than an opportunity for expiation, and attempts to avoid the punishment by avoiding intercourse with his wife. But his shame makes him secretive, and he neglects to tell her the reason for his sudden aversion to the marital bed. Because Jocasta is ignorant of the real cause of the rejection, her feminine pride is offended, and she seduces him while he is drunk. She becomes pregnant, and when the child is born, Laius again tries to cheat the oracle by leaving the newborn boy on a hillside to die. The deities' wrath is thus compounded, and the entire city of Thebes now comes under their curse in the form of the monstrous Sphinx.
The child is, of course, Oedipus, whose name means "swollen foot" because his father, determined that he should die of exposure, has nailed his feet to the ground with a spike. But Oedipus is rescued by a kind shepherd and survives, and spends his youth believing he is the son of the King and Queen of Corinth. Then he, like his father, consults Apollo's oracle, which informs him that he will become his father's murderer and the husband of his mother. The possibility of expiation is no longer offered. Because Laius has exacerbated the gods' wrath by compounding his crimes, the curse has crystallised into an irrevocable future. Oedipus, like his father, tries to flout the oracle, flees Corinth, and runs straight into the arms of his destiny - a destiny which is both irrevocable and self-architected. Here is a strange blend of hubris (an arrogant effort to cheat the gods), innate character (he kills Laius on the road in a fit of uncontrollable temper because the unknown older man has blocked his way and spoken to him in an abusive fashion), heroism (he courageously confronts the Sphinx and breaks the curse imposed on Thebes, thereby winning both the kingship and, unwittingly, his mother, as a reward), and a genuine wish to remain a decent human being. Yet even Oedipus' terrible expiation does not alleviate the curse, for after he blinds himself and dies outcast, the curse moves on to his children. It is only when every member of the House of Thebes is dead that the curse is at last spent. This mythic family inheritance is shocking in its relentless brutality. Yet we can see that individual choice and individual consciousness are as relevant to the outcome as the workings of deity and the predeterminants of the past.
There are certain consistent features which appear in every myth about a family curse. In a way, they form the criteria for what defines a family curse. These features may help us to understand what we are looking at psychologically.
In viewing psychologically inherited patterns
from a mythic perspective, I am not attributing some literally supernatural
agency to the kind of repeating sorrows which so often plague families.
Rather, I am thinking symbolically. The features listed above suggest
that the family curse is a psychologically predetermined set of
behaviour patterns which require consciousness and inner struggle
if any kind of transformation or expiation is to occur. We inherit
not only our ancestors' genetic blueprints, but also certain deeply
entrenched emotional and mental perspectives. Perhaps we also inherit
certain complexes - inherent "stories" or archetypal enactments
which are not, in themselves, malevolent, and may involve gifts
and talents of a special kind. These inherent family perspectives
and archetypal patterns are not difficult to trace in the horoscope.
We can glimpse their outlines in the parental significators in a
birth chart, and in the repetition of signs, planetary aspects and
house placements which are so common in every family. These patterns
are not in themselves suggestive of a "curse", but anything in the
birth chart can behave like a curse if it has been handled destructively
or wilfully suppressed for many generations. It is not clear just
how we inherit these things. Dedicated geneticists would suggest
that human character, like the human body, is a matter of DNA, and
if alcoholism or depression runs in our family, we stand a good
chance of becoming alcoholic or depressed because it is in the genes.
At the other extreme, archetypal psychology postulates the reality
of the family unconscious and the unity of the collective psyche
of which every individual is a part. Perhaps the truth lies in a
combination of the two. But whatever the means of inheritance, physical,
psychic or both, something seems to pass down the generations in
response to the repeated abuse of some natural law. This "something"
appears to have a morality of its own, whether we attribute this
morality to God, the psyche, the Self, the instincts, Nature, or
Even given the fact that there are a great
many Kennedys and that therefore, statistically, their chances for
a list of tragedies such as this are greater, the males in this
family do seem to have suffered more than their share of catastrophes
and early deaths. Could all these people have been afflicted, with
Criterion No. 4 - with hubris, a refusal to alter the inherently
destructive or arrogant attitudes which are part of their psychological
inheritance? We could certainly say this about some, if not all,
of them. Even JFK Jr., who eschewed the political limelight and
seems to have been a well-liked and relatively innocuous individual,
insisted on flying his plane with a broken foot and in weather conditions
that would daunt even an experienced pilot. It is
unnecessary to elaborate on the kind of world in which John F. Kennedy
and Bobby Kennedy moved; one does not need to postulate family curses
to recognise that members of the Mafia tend to shoot people when
they are crossed and, just possibly, so do members of the American
military, the FBI, and the CIA. And ambition, power, and great wealth
can generate their own kind of curse. We do not need to imagine
some dark ancestral daimon to understand why cocaine addiction or
alcoholism might afflict a member of this family. Taken individually,
each tragedy is explicable in its own, very human terms. Taken together,
they present a rather more disturbing picture.
In John F. Kennedy's chart it is the 8th house, rather than the 12th, which carries the emphasis. This is, to me, no less a house of family ghosts. But the ghosts do not quietly and surreptitiously possess planets in the 8th; their haunting is more precipitous and often enacted through ferocious compulsions and dramatic events. Here, too, is portrayed the unhappy family inheritance carried through the maternal line, reflected by Saturn in Cancer at the MC conjunct Neptune in Leo. This echoes Joe's 10th house Chiron in Cancer, and implies an enormous unease in terms of worldly position and acceptability, as well as a powerful messianic need to be the redeemer of his family and country. We might wonder how such an apparently confident and well-loved man could ever have ever worried about being inferior and coming from inferior stock. But what do we really know about him? And what did he really know about himself? We are told that he was sexually driven, that he could not resist flirting with some of the darkest criminal elements in American society, that he could be ruthless and manipulative like his father, and that, whether he wished to or not, he was driven from the moment of his brother's death to aim for the Presidency and the fulfilment of the family dream. I do not interpret planets in the 8th as indicators of a "violent death". I have had too many clients who have lived to ripe ages with full 8th houses to interpret the subtleties of Pluto's world on such a literal level. But planets in the 8th suggest powerful unconscious forces of an impersonal or nonpersonal kind, usually linked to secrets in the family past, which erupt into the daylight world in the form of compulsions and crises which demand a relinquishing of control and an acceptance of the invisible dimensions of life. The 8th can convey great power, strength, and insight, if the conscious attitude is humble. But if there is too much arrogance and a refusal to look within, then planets here may sometimes behave like avenging Furies - or like "enemy action". Like his father, John Kennedy was disinclined to do any relinquishing of any kind, let alone engage in the kind of introspection the 8th house requires. Like Atreus and Thyestes, he followed faithfully in the family footsteps. We do not need to think in terms of a family curse to see that JFK's political activities would win him virulent and powerful enemies. But we may need to think in these terms if we wish to understand why he was driven to such activities. The Sun conjunct Venus in Gemini, with Libra on the Ascendant and the Moon in Virgo, all suggest a flexible, refined, and easy-going nature. This chart makes me think of a wolf in sheep's clothing; but the wolf is not the man himself. Rather, it is the family inheritance.
Bobby Kennedy's horoscope presents us with Pluto in a position of power, virtually exactly at the IC in Cancer. Here it is not diffuse ancestral ghosts so much as father writ large and archetypal - a dark Plutonian inheritance coming down through the father's line. The 10th house is heavily tenanted, but by a benign stellium of Moon-Venus-Jupiter. Bobby was probably far more comfortable enjoying money, power, and status than his brother and father. But Jupiter and Venus oppose Pluto, suggesting a ferocious inner struggle between his individual nature and his inheritance which turned him into a fanatical crusader against evil in the world. One wonders whether the dark forces he hunted in society, and which ultimately destroyed him, were really the dark forces at his own roots. On some level I believe Bobby Kennedy deeply hated and feared his father, but projected this Plutonian figure onto the criminal elements he perceived gnawing away at the roots of American society. Uranus and Chiron are in the 12th, although Chiron is close to the Ascendant; bitter family wounds as well as messianic family ideals drove him from within. More importantly, the Sun is close to the 8th house cusp, telling a tale similar to that of his brother. His individual nature and aspirations were constantly invaded by the unconscious compulsions of the past. Insight and humility are required for the Sun to shine its light from the 8th. But a Kennedy upbringing does not usually encourage insight and humility. As a Scorpio, Bobby may also have been driven by a spirit of personal vengeance, and this craving for vengeance, common to so many figures in Greek myth, is not conducive to making peace with a wrathful deity or easing the strictures of a family curse. But most of all, it is the angular Pluto which suggests the intrusion of the ancestral past into the present. Had the father not appeared as a figure of such compulsive power in this chart, much might have been different. Politics might well have been Bobby's choice as well as his family's. But he might not have invoked the enemy without quite so virulently if he had understood better the nature of the enemy within.
Finally, we can look very briefly at the chart
of John F. Kennedy Jr. No compulsive flirtation with the darker
echelons of power appears to have afflicted him; it seems he truly
did not want to follow in his father's footsteps, but was content
to live the pleasant Jupiterian life of a playboy and dilettante.
The 10th house is empty; evidently he did not feel impelled to change
the world or make his mark on it in any mythic way. We might well
hope that, in relinquishing the voracious demands of the family
daimon, he might have avoided that courtship of a tragic end which
destroyed his father and his uncle. Yet he had a tragic end anyway.
What in the world made this man choose to risk his life, and the
lives of three other people, in such a blind and foolish way? We
cannot ever know what was in his mind - or perhaps more to the point,
what was at work on the unconscious level - when he made this decision.
Uranus and Pluto are placed in the 12th, with Pluto close to the
Ascendant and conjunct the north Node. Once again the family ghosts
make their appearance, colouring his perceptions of the outer world
with the compulsions of the past. Pluto is also square the Sun,
which is in the 3rd but conjunct the cusp of the 4th. It seems that
even this likeable and exuberant puer aeternus was required to grapple
with his Plutonian inheritance if he wished to fulfil his individual
potential. Glenn Richter states in his article that JFK Jr's fatal
flaw was arrogance. No doubt that is partly true; he, too, fits
Criterion No. 4. But there are other factors in this chart (particularly
Venus conjunct Saturn, Mars opposite Saturn, and Moon and Chiron
exactly conjunct) that describe considerable inner pain, loneliness,
and struggle - perhaps not entirely conscious, but all the more
destructive for being so carefully denied.