|Lesson One: Introduction to the Planets|
The Solar System
The astrological tradition is thousands of years old, originating from the meticulous observations and careful recordings by the Mesopotamian priest-astrologers of the ever-changing positions of the seven planets visible to the naked eye, both in relation to each other and against the backdrop of the stars and constellations. A 'horoscope' (or time map) is a representation of the positions of the planets as viewed from the earth at a particular time and place on earth. Astrology has always been and remains a geocentric system since, although the Sun is in the centre of the solar system, the earth is nevertheless our home, and it is from the earth that we take our bearings.
Audience: So it was basic observation and record keeping which was the origin of astrology in the first place?
Clare: That's right. Mesopotamia has always been referred to as the birthplace of western civilisation, and it was here that the art, craft and science of western astrology were first forged. Mesopotamia is a largely flat desert land with wide horizons and huge night skies. It is therefore not surprising that the first myths are often celestial stories or that the heavenly bodies were considered to be deities - living powers whose relationship to human beings was both obvious and taken for granted. Now that we no longer look upwards or watch the planets moving through the night skies, we have lost our instinctive connection to these living gods and collectively we have ceased to take astrology seriously. It is sometimes said that the planets have stopped speaking to us because we have stopped listening to them, but if you have ever been in a place far from anywhere and looked up at the night sky, you will have experienced something of the majesty and power of the stars and planets.
As students of astrology, one of our first tasks is to get to know and understand the very basic astronomy and mechanics of the solar system. This is the foundation of our art and of our craft and if you can learn this now, it will stand you in good stead throughout your astrological studies. So let's look at the order of the planets from the Sun. The anatomy of our solar system is not necessarily well understood. But it is extremely important for us, as astrologers, to know, not only because an understanding of the orbit periods of the planets and of their relative speeds is crucial when we come to study the planetary cycles and forecasting techniques, but also because the physical characteristics of the planets tell us a great deal about their astrological meaning.
We see from this diagram that the orbital periods of the planets depends on their distance from the Sun. The first planet out from the Sun is Mercury, which moves very quickly, with an orbital period of only 88 days. Most of the time Mercury is obscured from view since it is either in front of or behind the Sun. When we do see it, it is only for a brief period as it darts round the outside of the Sun, now one side, now the other. Even the astronomy of the planets can tell us something about their astrological personality. Venus has an orbit of 225 days and has always been known as the Morning Star when it rises with the Sun in the east, and as the Evening Star when it sets with the Sun in the west, representing two faces of this great Goddess. Mercury and Venus are known as 'inferior' planets, since their orbits lie inside the orbit of the Earth. Because of this, they appear to accompany the Sun on its annual journey around the birth chart, sometimes ahead of and sometimes lagging behind the Sun, with Mercury never further than 27º and Venus never further than 48º from the Sun.
The Earth's orbit falls outside Venus and, as we know, its apparent orbit around the Sun takes 365.25 days, or a year. The Moon is the Earth's satellite and takes approximately 28-29 days to orbit the Earth. New Moons occur every month (or 'Moonth'), when the Moon is between the Earth and the Sun, and Full Moons occur every month, when the Earth is between the Moon and the Sun, as in the diagram above.
Mars is the first 'superior' planet, lying outside the orbit of the Earth, and takes 687 days, or roughly two years, to orbit the Sun. With its red colour, it has always been associated with bloodshed, anger and war, and with its two satellites Phobos and Daimos (meaning 'terror' and 'fear'), it is known as the God of War. With its extremely elliptical orbit, Mars appears to grow in size and power as it advances towards the Earth and is at its closest when the Earth is between the Sun and Mars. It then appears to retreat until it reaches its furthest distance from the Earth, on the other side of the Sun. Known as the god Ares by the Greeks, the Roman month of March (when the Sun is in the sign of Aries) was named after this planet.
Outside the orbit of Mars lies the asteroid belt, a wide belt of rocks, considered by some to be the fragmented remains of an exploded planet. The asteroid belt is an astrologically significant boundary, since it marks the division between the five 'personal' planets - Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus and Mars - and the two 'social' planets - Jupiter and Saturn. The personal planets describe our individual characteristics, whereas the social planets describe how each of us relates to the wider social and cultural context into which we are born.
Jupiter, with an orbital period of 11.86 years, is the largest planet in the solar system, ten times the size of the earth. With its huge magnetic field, it radiates more energy into space than it receives from the Sun. With its family of Moons, permanent storms, great red spot and axial rotation of about 10 hours, everything about Jupiter is active, turbulent, stormy and larger than life.
Saturn, with an orbital period of 29.46 years, is the second largest planet and its icy, clear ring system makes it one of the most beautiful objects in the solar system. As the furthermost and slowest planet visible to the naked eye, Saturn remains the outer planet in the solar system from the point of view of our senses, and this fact, together with its perfect ring system, has meant that Saturn has always been associated with boundaries and time, and the limitations of our existence. Psychologically, Saturn is related to the development of strong ego boundaries, which keep us safe but which also confine and restrict us.
The 'trapped asteroid' or 'planetoid' Chiron was first discovered in 1977 and remains a misfit in the solar system. Originating from the Kuiper Belt, which lies outside the orbit of Pluto, it is not known how long this visitor to our solar system will remain with us. With an extremely elliptical orbit of 49-51 years, Chiron's astrological function appears to be to link the outer planets with the 'old world' planets, since it fluctuates almost as far from the Sun as Uranus, and yet it passes within the orbital sphere of Saturn. Although Chiron has by no means been universally accepted into astrological lore, I want to include it from the beginning because, as a psychological principle, it appears to be particularly relevant to us in this particular period in history.
The three outer planets, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto, belong to a very different order indeed. Their discovery was only made possible through the development of scientific instruments, such as the telescope, and appears to reflect a corresponding expansion of human awareness and consciousness. The discovery of Uranus in 1781 doubled the size of the solar system overnight and shattered the old world view - a profoundly shocking, unexpected and exciting development, which immediately tells us something about its astrological interpretation. Neptune's discovery in 1846 and Pluto's discovery in 1930 have heralded the current era, with all its tremendous potential for collective evolution and collective destruction.
Audience: There is a lot to learn, isn't there?
Clare: Yes. Learning astrology is very similar to embarking on an apprenticeship. Astrology is a practical craft which cannot be mastered 'with the head' only. We each need to find our own unique relationship to astrology, and our hard work and dedication is repaid when we find ourselves tapping into the living astrological tradition, at which point the subject, and each chart we study, begins to come alive for us. It is the apprenticeship which prepares us for this magical moment, when we first find ourselves in a dialogue with the living cosmos.
Copyright ©2005 by Clare Martin.
More Information about the Book.