Z is for zodiac

Having started the Pagan Blog Project with “A is for astrology,” I finish it off with a post on the zodiac. Really, what else could be more appropriate?

Along with the planets and the houses, the twelve signs of the zodiac are a basic component of Western astrology. The word “zodiac” comes from the Greek ζῳδιακός (zōidiakos), meaning “circle of animals.” Only eight* of the twelve signs are animals, though: Aries (ram), Taurus (bull), Cancer (crab), Leo (lion), Scorpio (scorpion), Sagittarius (centaur), Capricorn (goat or sea-goat), and Pisces (fishes). That leaves three human signs (Gemini, Virgo, Aquarius) and an inanimate object (Libra: scales). Unlike the Western zodiac, the Chinese zodiac (Chinese: 生肖, Shēngxiào) is composed of twelve animals. Calling it the Chinese “zodiac” is a translation of convenience for us Westerners, though. Shēngxiào comes from words meaning “year of birth” and “appearance,” and has nothing to do with either circles or animals.

Zodiac Clock
The clockface on the Torre dell’Orologio in the Piazza San Marco, Venice.

You’ll note, by the way, that I’ve been talking about the signs of the zodiac, not the constellations. It’s easy to think they mean the same thing since they have the same names. The constellations are what we’ve been taught they were: groupings of stars. The twelve zodiacal constellations are the ones that lie on the ecliptic, which is the apparent path of the sun through the sky. As we’ve just seen, most of the twelve represent animals, the ecliptic is a circle: voila! A circle of animals. Since the constellations vary in size, the amount of the ecliptic each constellation takes up varies as well. The signs are more of an abstract concept: the division of the ecliptic into twelve equal segments.

Just to complicate things further, even excluding the Chinese zodiac, there are still two zodiacs: the tropical and the sidereal. The starting point for both is 0º Aries; the difference is in where that point is said to be.  In the tropical zodiac, 0º Aries is the sun’s position at the moment of the spring equinox in the northern hemisphere. In the sidereal zodiac, 0º Aries is the beginning of the constellation of Aries. The two systems coordinated about 1,700 years ago, but since the tropical zodiac moves slightly each year in relationship to the constellations via the precession of the equinoxes, they’re now about 24º off. While many people think that their Sun sign is the constellation the sun was in when they were born, most Western astrologers use the tropical zodiac. As a rough approximation, unless you were born in the last week that the sun was in your Sun sign, your sidereal Sun sign is probably the one before the one you’re used to. Most people born in tropical Aries are sidereal Pisces. Two-thirds of tropical Virgos are sidereal Leos. Vedic astrologers use the sidereal zodiac, but my understanding is that Vedic astrology is different enough from Western astrology that this doesn’t change things as much as it sounds like it would.

Every few years, someone realizes that the constellation of Ophiuchus the Serpent-Bearer crosses the ecliptic as well and announces that there’s a thirteenth sign of the zodiac. The media goes wild: Oh, here are all these astrologers claiming that the stars and planets determine your fate, but they don’t even know how many signs there are, and hey baby, are you an Ophiuchus? Yes, using the constellation boundaries set by the International Astronomical Union in 1930, Ophiuchus crosses the ecliptic. But since the signs of the zodiac are twelve equal sections of 30º each, which do have the names of twelve constellations but are not constellations themselves, Ophiuchus is irrelevant.

Yes, but what do the signs actually do in astrology? Like adjectives and adverbs in language, signs modify the planets and houses. For instance, by itself, Mars shows how you get angry. Mars in talkative, communicative Gemini expresses anger with cutting words, a verbal slice-n-dice. Mars in Scorpio, a quieter, emotional sign, holds grudges and may not act for a long time. A more involved astrological interpretation will use the signs to determine where in a chart the planets have the most influence. Without the planets and houses, the signs are simply a coordinate system and a collection of personality traits. With them, they are astrology.

(Done! Made it all the way through the Pagan Blog Project! Yay!)

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*A centaur is half human though, so we may be down to 7½ animals.

Photo: Marcelo Teson [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Y is for yin and yang

I don’t remember when I first heard of yin and yang, but I can imagine what it was like. I’m guessing that it was presented as a Chinese concept of dualism—maybe a fancy word like dualism wouldn’t have been used, but the thought would have been there. I’m sure that early on, I’d have read something about how the two dots of opposite color in each teardrop-half show that yin and yang are interrelated, and I know I would have been impressed by that, since all the opposites I knew about were more along the lines of oil and water or fire and water: if they didn’t cancel each other out entirely, they had nothing to do with each other, and there was certainly none of this squiggly, boundary-threatening interrelating going on. (Let’s not even get into the idea that maybe those two halves are complementary rather than opposites—way too complicated!)

Yin-yang symbol.
You were expecting a different graphic for this topic?

I probably first started “using” yin and yang after I read Astrology for Yourself by Douglas Bloch and Demetra George. Like most books for beginning astrology students, Astrology for Yourself explains basic astrological concepts like signs, planets, and houses. But unlike most of the beginner books I’d read, the authors used yin and yang to describe the sign polarities rather than the traditional terms feminine and masculine. It was the right idea at the right time for me. I knew what astrologers meant by feminine and masculine, but they were such loaded terms that I was uncomfortable using them. Writers could explain all they wanted to that they didn’t mean female and male, but the words are just too similar in English for me to not make the connection. Sometimes I came across writers who used the terms negative and positive. But again, even though I knew they meant that in the sense of electricity rather than value judgments, the “wrong” meaning was just too ingrained to overlook. Yin and yang had the advantage that I knew no other meaning for them except that of complementary interrelated opposites. It helped me see the yin signs as the same as the yang ones in a certain sense, not as some vaguely defective variant of them. Yin made it more likely that I would think of these signs as having receptive qualities or being inwardly-oriented, rather than tying them to femininity. Yang gave me an idea of outgoing, conscious, and individual that had nothing to do with masculinity per se.

I’m sure I don’t have a full understanding of yin and yang. I’m no expert on Daoism, and what I’ve always gotten is a Western interpretation of a Chinese concept, subject to translation errors, cultural crossed wires, and historical misinterpretations. My understanding is that the original meanings of yin and yang have to do with the shaded and sunny sides of a hill, so there’s been plenty of change even to reach the basic definitions that are common today. But however imperfectly I’ve grasped this concept, I appreciate that it’s given me alternatives to the dualities and opposites I was raised with, and enriched my astrology, divination, spirituality, and philosophy.

X is for (e)xamination and (e)xplanation

Not surprisingly, I haven’t thought of anything to write about that is both Pagan-themed and starts with an X. Even reading over last week’s posts wasn’t enough to trigger inspiration. So this is a look back at this year’s Pagan Blog Project.

20131128-085258.jpgPragmatically, I’m glad I opted for posting every other week instead of weekly. I probably would’ve burned out back around March if I’d tried to keep a weekly posting schedule. With only one post per letter, I’m a bit frustrated that I didn’t write about some topics because I wanted to post about other topics starting with those letters even more. But really, it’s not that I can’t write those posts; they just won’t be part of this. This has been a great year for coming up with Pagan-focused blog prompts. Thanks to being in the Pagan Blog Project, I’ve now got a list of potential topics, both ones I came up with and ones that other people blogged about that I’d like to write about someday.

I now know that I can follow through on a writing commitment of this length. (Probably. I haven’t written my Y and Z posts yet.) My challenge next year will be to remember to post here more frequently. Without a schedule, it’s really easy to let this blog drift, I’ve noticed.

Would I do this again? Probably not if it just meant another year of working my way through the alphabet. For some letters, the post I wrote was the only one I had in me. But I write more and hopefully better with some constraints like deadlines. Participating got me to write posts that otherwise would never have seen the light of day and my blog benefitted from my paying it more attention. I’m glad I made the commitment and participated this year; if there were a future Pagan Blog Project that had some other theme to it, I’d seriously consider joining up. Although maybe not next year. I need a break.

I branched out as a reader as well as a writer this year. I found new blogs to follow—I will never catch up on my reading! I made new blogging friends and read blogs that I never would have heard of otherwise. I ran into viewpoints that are so not the way I understand life and found many of them interesting as all get-out, argued articulately and passionately. People are really imaginative and find responses to blog prompts that catch me completely by surprise.

I’d known going into this that I’m not comfortable writing about personal issues in public, which is why so many of my posts were mini-lectures, and even then, I feel more confident going on about astrology and divination than I do about other more obviously Pagan topics. During the year, I grew more confident that I was an archetypal/humanistic/naturalistic Pagan (still deciding on the best terminology), but due to that aversion of mine for opening up online, that barely made it into a year’s worth of Pagan blogging. Oops. Yet reading other people’s personal accounts was often what I found to be the most interesting part of the Pagan Blog Project. I’m happy so many of you don’t share my reluctance!

So, what have you gotten out of the Pagan Blog Project, as either a writer or a reader?

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photo credit: brainware3000 via photopincc

W is for waxing and waning

Waxing and waning are terms that mean “growing” and “shrinking” respectively. Neither is limited to an astronomical context (“As he waxed eloquent on his own magnificence, her interest in him waned.”), but they often refer to the monthly changes in the apparent size of the Moon as it moves from new to full (waxing) and back again (waning).

montage of the waxing and waning moon

Planning activities to coincide with the waxing or waning Moon is an easy form of magical timing. Many everyday calendars show the phases of the Moon, so you don’t need buy a special book or bookmark an obscure website. The idea is, start activities related to growth and increase during the two weeks of the waxing Moon. If on the other hand you’re trying to reduce or diminish something, then time it for the two weeks that the Moon is waning.

Lunar gardening makes extensive use of the waxing and waning Moon, although it gets a little more complicated than just growing and reducing. For one thing, stuff that goes on above the ground is related to the waxing Moon, while that which happens in the ground is related to the waning Moon. You can refine the system even more by paying attention to which sign of the zodiac that the Moon is in, since some signs are considered fruitful and others barren. 

Sample activities for a waxing Moon:

  • Cut your hair if you wish it to grow faster. Similarly, you’d mow your lawn now if you wanted it to grow faster, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone say they wanted that to happen. Maybe if you’d just seeded your lawn, but then you wouldn’t have anything to mow yet.
  • Sell things for the best chance at a good price. While selling something means you’re getting rid of it (waning Moon), you’re focusing on what you can get for it, which relates to the waxing Moon. Centuries ago, the astrologer Dorotheus of Siddon concluded that the second quarter is better than the first for getting a good price, so this is when I haul books to the used book store.
  • Plant annuals. Usually we’re interested in their flowers, fruit, and/or leaves, which counts as above-the-ground.
  • Harvest herbs for their flowers and/or leaves.

Sample activities for a waning Moon:

  • Cut your hair if you wish it to grow slower. Ditto for mowing the lawn, only I bet this will be a much more popular time.
  • Declutter a closet, clean out the garage, etc.
  • Plant biennials, perennials, bulbs, trees, and root vegetables. The waning Moon favors the roots, and you want good root structure to support these plants for years—or to make great potatoes and carrots for this year.
  • Harvest herbs for their roots.
  • Weed the garden.
  • Prune trees and shrubs.

But does it work? I…don’t know. I choose to act as if it does. I prefer the idea of a cosmos in which energy moves in accordance with planets, where waxing and waning moons have observably different effects. It’s a major part of the “magical lifestyle” I want. At a practical level, it gives me deadlines to work to: clean out the refrigerator before the Moon begins to wax again, remember to sell these books before the Moon becomes full or be stuck with them for another month. And if that gets me to do something that needs to be done, a lot of the time, that’s enough.

V is for Vesta

When I was writing about Juno, I mentioned how astrologers often use mythology to figure out what a newly discovered asteroid or other body might symbolize. But unlike the other Olympians, the few myths featuring Hestia don’t have much of a storyline. Over the years, I’ve read that Hestia was the first-born of Kronos and Rhea, making her the first swallowed and the last regurgitated. She had a throne on Mount Olympus, but when Dionysus came and there weren’t enough thrones to go around, she voluntarily surrendered hers, saying that she was content to sit by the hearth. I’ve read that Apollo and Poseidon wanted to marry her, but she turned them down, vowing to remain eternally a virgin. (What myths might have been told had she accepted one of those proposals?) The Roman poet Ovid tells a myth of Vesta, in which the goddess was almost attacked by Priapus as she slept, and was saved only because a nearby mule brayed loud enough to wake her. (He also describes her as Saturn and Ops’ youngest daughter—mythology is rarely consistent about details.)

Vesta.
Vesta. (Photo credit: nasa.gov)

Looking over Vesta’s rulerships, I started wondering how many of them came directly from the mythology of the goddess and how many came more from what we know of her Roman priestesses, the Vestal Virgins. Now one way or another, every planet and asteroid has something to say about your sexuality, but issues involving virginity, celibacy, sublimation, and so on tend to be Vesta’s territory. Certainly Hestia was a virgin goddess, but when writers describe her, they usually start with “goddess of the hearth” and get to her virginity later. But the very title of the Vestal Virgins puts their virginity front and center, as do the descriptions of the priestesses’ lives and their roles in Roman society. By comparison, Athena is also a virgin goddess, but I haven’t read much about virginity in descriptions of the asteroid Pallas except for occasional references to sexuality sublimated into creativity.* Whether it’s from mythology or archeology, Vesta’s astrological meanings often have a sense of the spiritual threading through them: dedication, devotion, solitude, sublimation of sexual energy into spiritual practice.. Vesta is perhaps most often summed up as “focus,” which comes from her principal role as goddess of the hearth: the Latin word for hearth is focus.

The astrological glyph for Vesta.
The astrological glyph for Vesta.

I’ve only recently started understanding how Vesta may work in charts. It’s one thing to read about focus, dedication, and self-integration, or Vesta’s downsides of alienation, burnout, and inhibition. It’s another to try to see how that plays out in real people’s lives, including my own. My Vesta conjuncts my Midheaven, but it took me the longest time to realize that that might mean that I needed solitude and opportunities for single-minded focus in my career, not that I should be considering becoming a nun. In general, I think Vesta’s house location shows areas of life in which we need to be alone periodically, areas in which we commit ourselves without reservation to what we’re doing, in single-minded focus. Vesta’s sign has been harder for me to understand in charts. My Vesta is in Scorpio, and various astrological writers have said that means focusing on discovering secrets. Sure, I’ve been known to try to ferret out secrets; I’m sure many people have, regardless of how many planets they have in Scorpio. And I’m also capable of focusing on my knitting—which isn’t a specifically Scorpionic activity—as well as many other things in life. So I have a ways to go yet in understanding the astrological Vesta, but I figure at this point, it’s a matter of quietly paying attention and watching for the insights. Which sounds completely appropriate to Vesta.

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*I don’t know enough about the minor asteroids to know if Artemis’ virginity has anything to do with the asteroid Diana’s astrological meanings.

U is for the unconscious

Surely there is some irony in this situation: writing consciously about the unconscious. But even though I decided some time ago that this was going to be my U post, my own unconscious hasn’t shown much interest in it—no nifty sentences have popped into my mind, guaranteed to explain it all to you—so my conscious mind must make do.

Your basic iceberg metaphor. But it works.
Your basic iceberg metaphor. But it works.

Most of my various Pagan and alternative interests deal with the unconscious, although it’s often not called that. When I was taking my first Pagan baby steps, I read The Spiral Dance. This was my introduction to the idea of the unconscious mind’s role in ritual and magic. I remember (accurately or not) Starhawk’s naming the unconscious “Younger Self,” and her explanation that ritual needed to involve all our senses because that’s what interested Younger Self, not wordy speeches. Presumably it’s the conscious mind—Starhawk’s “Middle Self”—that prefers the latter. The contrast between Pagan ritual and the low church Protestant services I was familiar with—complete with 20-minute sermons—could hardly be higher.

The unconscious showed up in my astrological studies in a different manner. I’ve been intrigued reading transcripts of seminars in which Howard Sasportas and Liz Greene discussed subpersonalities. As the name suggests, these are multiple selves within oneself, many of which seem alien and “other” to the ego/conscious mind (surprise!). I’m sure other people came up with the original idea; Greene and Sasportas’ work stuck with me because they suggested that the natal chart could be used to identify the subpersonalities, which sounded a lot more efficient than trying to work out from scratch what they might be.

Practicing tarot and other forms of divination was another way to access the unconscious mind. I figured that that flash of intuition that let me make sense of a reading was the unconscious at work. It took me a while longer than that to realize that beyond just having a reading, this might be a way to deliberately communicate with the unconscious. Since I was already leaning towards seeing the gods as archetypes, after a while, divination became like prayer. The way to communicate with the gods and the way to communicate with the unconscious were the same.

The unconscious mind is constantly influencing the conscious mind, which scientists are just now really researching. Reading Free Will (Sam Harris), Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior (Leonard Mlodinow), and other books along those lines has taught me various fascinating things about how the brain works and wondering how much independence the conscious mind really has. If your unconscious mind is truly in the driver’s seat and it’s part of you even if it’s, well, unconscious, do you have free will?

Although I’ve found all these viewpoints on the unconscious to be fascinating to think about, more than once I’ve hit an attitude I can best describe as “unconscious good, conscious bad.” The dichotomy seemed a mite harsh. So I was relieved and supported to run into this in Inner Work (Robert A. Johnson): “Just as the ego needs to balance its viewpoints by going to the unconscious, so also does the unconscious need to be balanced by the attitudes of the conscious mind.” I thought this makes sense, since my unconscious mind is the same age as my conscious mind, and surely it hasn’t attained perfection yet any more than my conscious mind has. I (whoever “I” is in this case) continue to try to keep my two minds (several subpersonalities?) communicating as well as possible in the hopes that this will lead to growth, learning, and/or really keen divination skills someday.

T is for tarot

I saw my first tarot deck—at least the first one I remember—when I was about seven years old. My mother had brought me along while she ran some errands, one of which was to a store called Cloud 9. Cloud 9 was one of those stores with an ever-changing stock of small gifts, knickknacks, tchotchkes, and so on, and on that day we were there, they were selling tarot cards. The sealed box was in a display case, with no sample cards to be seen, so it wasn’t nearly as interesting as it could have been, and yet I still felt an instant attraction. Not so my mother, who flatly told me no when I said I wanted it. I’ve never figured out if she was disturbed by their being tarot cards, or she just meant she’d had enough of a tired child wanting tarot cards, a new toy, ice cream, or anything else that afternoon.

Fast forward to college: a new state, a new school, and new friends, one of whom owned a tarot deck and could do readings. By this point, I’d already taught myself a fair chunk of astrology, so it wasn’t like I was totally unfamiliar with the occult, but this was my first exposure to divination. Like that deck back in my childhood, it was instant like. But suspecting my parents wouldn’t approve (it was clear they were waiting for me to outgrow the astrology; adding tarot probably wasn’t going to help any), it took me another two years to work up the courage to buy a deck of my own. I waited until I was living in my first apartment, and I ordered it from the Science Fiction Book Club, because I didn’t know where to look for one locally.

A favorite card: the Ace of Pentacles from the Robin Wood Tarot.
A favorite card: the Ace of Pentacles from the Robin Wood Tarot.

I could wish that that first deck hadn’t been my first. The Major Arcana didn’t do a thing for me artwise, and the Minor Arcana was unhelpfully traditional, with pip cards instead of scene cards. Like most beginners, every reading involved laboriously looking up each card in the accompanying book; unlike many beginners, I couldn’t move past that stage because my intuition refused to have anything to do with that deck and all learning just slid right off my brain. Despite all this, tarot has turned out to be one of my life-long interests. Skip to the present day: my tarot books have overflowed the bookcase I dedicated to them, and the decks themselves are piled high under tables and on shelves.

My thoughts tend to scatter when I try to explain why the tarot has stuck with me (or I’ve stuck with it) all these years. The art helps, of course; I find divination itself fascinating, but the tarot (and oracle cards) do have an advantage in the aesthetics department. The tarot is another way for me to exercise my (also life-long) love of the four elements. Different readers may disagree as to which element goes with which suit, but the popular assignment of wands/fire, cups/water, swords/air, and pentacles/earth is fine with me. And then there’s their sheer versatility: sure, you can use them for divination, but they also work for magic, artistic inspiration (both visual and verbal), psychological exploration, and even card games, if you want to take them back to their origins. They’ve been one of the most useful things I’ve encountered in my life, which is perhaps what I dimly recognized way back when, staring at that little box in the glass case at Cloud 9.

S is for significators

The bone-dry definition of significator is a tarot card that represents the querent in a reading. It may be chosen ahead of time or drawn during the course of the reading, and many spreads don’t call for one at all.

The Queen of Swords, my usual significator.
The Queen of Swords, my usual significator.

I have resisted using significators from my first days in tarot. Usually I don’t feel a need for them. I read for myself most of the time, which means I know perfectly well who the reading is for: me. For those times I read for other people, it’s often for a friend who is in the room with me, and that’s enough for me to focus the reading on them—if the significator represents the querent, and I have the querent themselves, why use the significator? Which means that I’m most likely to use a significator for a reading for another person when that person isn’t present. It reminds me that even though I’m alone, just like when I do readings for myself, this really is for another person entirely.

My second objection has been harder for me to work around. Taking the significator from the deck and placing it in a fixed position in the spread feels restricting to me. I can’t help thinking that if I’d left that card alone, it might have shown up in the spread naturally and been the key to interpreting the entire reading, but here I’ve gone and chained it to the “S” position where it can only mean THE QUERENT. One solution for that would be to use a card from another deck as the significator—and believe me, I have more than enough to choose from (deck glut!). It sounds like a good idea, but I haven’t tried it yet, probably because I rarely feel like I have to use a significator in the first place.

(Neither of these issues is unique to me, of course. The second one, especially, is one of the most common objections readers have to using significators.)

But okay, sometimes I do want to use a significator. Then the issue becomes how to select it. The three methods I’m most familiar with involve 1) choosing a Court Card that describes the querent physically 2) choosing a Court Card that matches their personality, and 3) drawing the significator from the deck as part of the reading, same as all the other cards in the spread.

Physical appearance. Over time, each of the four suits of the Minor Arcana have become associated with some general physical traits, while the four ranks of the Court Cards have been assigned genders and ages. Pair the hair and eye color of your querent with the right age and gender Court Card, and you have yourself a significator. Reading for a blond white man in his twenties? Knight of Wands. Middle-aged African-American woman? Queen of Pentacles. This system has the advantage of being simple as all get-out if you have any idea of what the querent looks like, but it strains to include everyone who isn’t white (they’re all Pentacles, along with those white people who have dark hair and eyes). Also, it suggests that all mature adults are definitely male (Kings) or female (Queens), children (Pages) aren’t, and male teenagers and young adults are more decidedly male and older (Knights) than their female counterparts (Pages). Even if I didn’t find this offensive, it’s still a messier system than I’m willing to put up with.

Personality traits. The four suits can be associated with personality characteristics, often based on the four elements. A simple way to choose a significator is to match the Sun sign of the querent to the corresponding suit and then choose the rank of the Court Card using the same genders and ages as for physical appearance. So if that middle-aged African-American woman has her Sun in Sagittarius, the Queen of Wands would be her significator. I think this is slightly more individualistic than physical appearance alone, but it’s still pretty rigid as far as age and gender are concerned. Or you could try choosing the Court Card closest to the personality of the querent. Unfortunately this only works if you know the querent well, which is hardly practical when working with strangers. (Although I’m not beyond asking querents who are familiar with the tarot if they’ve got a preferred significator for themselves.)

Drawing a card. My favorite method right now is to draw a significator from the whole deck, not just the Court Cards. I figure this shows something important about that person in the context of this reading, rather than always use the same card to represent the entirety of a human life. I mostly use this method when I’m reading for myself, but it’s harder when reading for someone I don’t know well since the card chosen may not convey a situation more than a personality. It does let me dodge just about every other pitfall of the first two methods, though.

I’ve tackled the second problem by choosing a significator but not pulling it from the deck. If it shows up as one of the cards in the reading, it pulls my focus to that position, like a neon sign saying This is important! It feels more personal and individual to me than the weight that comes from a Major Arcanum in a spread. When I use the Queen of Swords as my significator, this is my favorite method, and it also works in spreads that don’t call for a significator. And a flexible system like this, with plenty of options, is the most likely way to entice me into using significators with any regularity.

R is for retrogrades

Coming into the Pagan Blog Project, I thought there would be a few letters that would be a challenge to write for. The obvious ones were Q, X, and Z. (Indeed, any letter with a high value in Scrabble is a candidate for being challenging.) As it has turned out though, I thought of something right away for Q, and I have something lined up for Z, although X is still a vacuum as I write this. Meanwhile, it was letters like F and N that have thrown me. For this week, my mind got stuck on R (a letter with a value of 1 in Scrabble—it should have been easy!). I could think of nothing to add beyond what others had posted on the Rede or ritual, nor did I have anything to say on the topic of reincarnation. I was wrestling with a potential post on rulerships which just wasn’t working, when I realized that retrograde starts with R also. And so here we are.

A planet is retrograde when it appears to be moving backward in the sky. While this happens to all the planets, I pay the most attention to the retrograde periods of Mercury, Venus, and Mars. The other planets from Jupiter on out stay retrograde for longer periods of time. I think we get used to that, and it’s harder to see differences between their direct and retrograde periods. With these three faster planets, there’s more contrast.

As with many other topics in astrology, there are different opinions about what it means when a planet is retrograde. In traditional astrology, being retrograde is one of the debilities, a condition that makes a malefic planet nastier or a benefic planet less helpful. A retrograde planet may be considered weaker in Western astrology, but I’ve heard that in Vedic astrology, retrograde planets are said to be stronger because this is when they’re closest to Earth. Modern psychological astrology tries to avoid dualistic “good/bad” language: the energy of a retrograde planet is seen as turning inward and being less noticeable as a result. Personally, I’ve found that the psychological interpretation works best when describing natal planets that are retrograde. When we’re talking about the effects of a transiting retrograde planet, often the conversation turns to what’s been happening in our lives, and lots of the time, what we’re talking about is what has gone wrong—the traditional descriptions still seem to work for events. (And often I’ve noticed that the problem started well before the retrograde period, sometimes months or years earlier, but it comes to light when the planet goes retrograde.)

Mercury rules communication and perception, so when it goes retrograde, we tend to notice right away. Its retrograde cycle is fairly even, lasting about three weeks every three months, each period falling a few days earlier than it did the year before. Entire books (plural) have been written about Mercury retrograde, the best known of the retrograde planets. In terms of events, this is a period famous for delayed travel, glitching computers, misunderstandings, and having to redo and revise a lot.

Venus’ retrograde periods last about 40 days; Venus goes retrograde about every 18 months. The most dramatic case of Venus retrograde I’ve encountered involved two of Venus’ traditional rulerships: relationships and beautiful things. A person had surgery and their coworkers started their customary collection to buy flowers for them. As it turned out, this person had alienated so many of their colleagues that not enough money was collected to buy even the smallest flower arrangement. After more money was secured, the coworkers ordered an arrangement to be sent to the person’s home. It was misdelivered to a neighbor who wasn’t on good terms with this person and refused to hand over the flowers. (The florist accepted responsibility for the delivery error and replaced the flowers.)

Like Venus, Mars doesn’t go retrograde every year. Its retrograde periods are about 2 to 2½ months. When I first decided to watch Mars retrograde, I wasn’t sure what to look for. Would wars go badly? Wars tend to go badly for someone even when they’re going well—that wasn’t going to work. In a list of traditional astrological factors to take into consideration when timing elective surgery, avoiding Mars retrograde periods was one suggestion. That made sense: Mars traditionally rules iron and steel, as well as weapons. Surgeons, who use steel scalpels and knives to inflict controlled wounds (which is what surgery is) are Mars’ by association—and you wouldn’t want anything glitching during surgery if at all possible. And its Mars’ rulership of iron and steel that I’ve noticed the most when Mars is retrograde. I had a computer die abruptly when Mars was retrograde: the hard drive fried. Along the same lines, a friend had severe car problems stemming from rust during Mars retrograde.

And if you want to do some observing of your own:

2013-2014 Retrograde Periods

Planet Goes Retrograde Goes Direct
Mercury October 21, 2013 November 10, 2013
February 6, 2014 February 28, 2014
June 7, 2014 July 1, 2014
October 4, 2014 October 25, 2014
Venus December 21, 2013 January 31, 2014
Mars March 1, 2014 May 20, 2014

Q is for qualities

The four elements are fundamental to Paganism and occult studies. However, just as the atoms of the chemical elements contain smaller particles (protons, neutrons, electrons), the metaphysical elements have components as well. These are the four qualities: hot, cold, wet (often called moist), and dry.*

The qualities may be seen as active and passive. The active qualities are hot and cold; the passive ones are wet and dry. “Active,” in this case, means capable of acting (on other qualities), while “passive” means susceptible to the influence of the active qualities. That sounds kind of circular; what it means in plainer English is that the hot quality can make something drier, while the cold quality can make it moister—but the dry quality can’t make something hotter and the wet quality can’t make it colder.

The qualities and the elements.
The qualities and the elements.

The elements are more than just literal fire, earth, air, and water, and the qualities are more than their literal counterparts as well. Hot and cold describe how energetic something (or someone) is, how much vitality it has. For example, as a conflict heats up, it’s more likely to become violent. But if you take a break from an argument to cool off, you’re trying to be less passionate about it and calm down. Or compare people who are “hot-blooded” with those described as “cold-hearted.”

Wet and dry describe how discrete, formed, and hard things are. Wet means without a fixed shape, amorphous, pliable. Things which are wet by nature are flexible, supple, changeable, and resilient…and fluctuating and unstable. Dry things, on the other hand, are formed, defined, distinct, and firm…and inelastic and brittle. Not having much in the way of boundaries, wet things join together, while dry things tend to stay neatly compartamentalized. A conspiracy theorist could be described as strongly wet, seeing links and connections between events that their opposite, the (dry) skeptic considers completely unrelated. All the qualities are on a spectrum, though, so while a rubber ball is drier than a cotton ball, it’s wetter than a marble

Elements consist of two qualities. Although you can make six pairs out of the four qualities, pairing the opposites (hot/cold, wet/dry) cancels them out. This leaves four combinations, and in each element, one quality is stronger than the other:

  • air: hot and wet
  • fire: hot and dry
  • earth: cold and dry
  • water: cold and wet

Pairing them this way means that each element is a combination of an active and a passive quality. Ancient writers often used these paired qualities to describe the seasons. Spring is hot and wet, the qualities associated with growth. Summer is hot and dry. Fall is cold and dry, the qualities associated with dormancy. Winter is cold and wet. As you can see, the seasons—and the elements, for that matter—change one quality at a time (this reminds me of those doublets word puzzles, the ones where you change one word into another by changing just one letter in each step).

As with many of these bits of esoteric knowledge I come across, I’m not sure if there’s an easy way to incorporate them into Pagan practice, or if there’s even any need to do so. The first thing that comes to mind is the quarters of the circle. Often in Wicca and Paganism, we associate air with spring and the east, fire with summer and the south, water with fall and the west, and earth with winter and the north, and these associations are reflected in our circles. Using this system with the qualities, air and fire have the same seasonal associations, but earth and water trade places. This would make a circle where opposite elements lie opposite to each other, yet the elements progress both clockwise and counter-clockwise. I appreciate the symbolism of the classic circle, but I must admit this other version appeals to my sense of order.

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*The modes are also called qualities, but they were the subject of my M post.