Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Looking at Stars and Charts by Hand?

Today I wanted to talk about a couple of issues that come up occasionally. I've learned that the best thing to do when this happens is to write up my thoughts and post them as a blog or on my website.

The first has to do with the actual physical observation of the stars and planets. This is an area where the basic confusion between astrologer and astronomer comes in; a mistake that amuses astrologers, but enrages astronomers. An astronomer studies the physical makeup and characteristics of space and celestial bodies. An astrologer looks at the relative position, speed, relationships, etc, of celestial bodies and makes predictions based on them. The basic tool of the astrologer is the horoscope or astrological chart. Until 1700 astrologers needed to be able to do some astronomy, they had to be able to calculate orbits and positions of planets and stars in order to create charts. Some astrologers even did physical observation of the movement of planets because logging these positions over a long period of time is how an ephemeris, which is a book containing the daily position of the planets is created. By the 17th century however, reasonably accurate ephemerides existed and most English astrologers just looked up planetary positions, rather than doing actual observation.

Again until around 1700 most astronomers were also astrologers and did prediction as a matter of course. Nowadays, astronomers almost froth at the mouth when confused with astrologers and have absolutely no knowledge of or desire to make astrological prediction. Recently I told someone in Iowa City I was an astrologer and then asked me if I worked at the University of Iowa! I was amused, but not apoplectic.

Ok, this leads to the next issue. As noted the key tool of the astrologer is the horoscope or astrological chart. This is a very accurate representation of the position of the planets, specific fixed stars, etc., at a particular time, date and location on Earth. A chart is a flat two dimensional representation of what you would see three dimensionally if you were actually standing at that particular time, date and location (with no clouds, other obstructions or the Earth in the way for objects below the horizon). In this the astrologer is much like a radiologist. They rely on x-ray or CAT scan or MRI charts which they use to interpret the health of the patient, but never see the actual patient. Similarly, astrologers don't need actual observation which is a good thing since we couldn't look at birthcharts without traveling all over the world or going back in time.

It is not uncommon for potential students to insist that they have to create astrological charts by hand and I have had potential students refuse to study with me out of concerns about using computers for astrology. Ironically all these potential students corresponded with me via e-mail!

Ok, I think there are a couple of issues mixed in here. First, a certain number of people are computer-phobic or find software difficult to use. While not a Luddite, I am not exactly a whole hearted fan of the unbridled use of technology. I tend to be a late adopter myself. I am also sympathetic to the endless effort necessary to learn new software and then keep up with it as the tech gods endlessly change it. Nevertheless, astrological software is a godsend!

Let's look at what is necessary to create a chart by hand. First you need a chart blank and a pencil to mark in the planetary positions. Then you need a book of tables, which includes the the necessary tables for houses and explains how to do the calculations. You also need an atlas that has accurate longitude and latitude information plus information on timezones and Daylight savings time changes, usually you need a US plus International Atlases. Plus you need an ephemeris that gives the daily position of the planets. You need to convert the time for the chart into local/Sidereal time, then calculate the house cusps, then interpolate the position of the planets. In my Michelsen Book of Tables, there are 22 pages of instructions!

As you can imagine these calculations are time intensive and if you make a mistake you mess up your chart. Very early on in my astrological career I calculated a few charts by hand, it took me about 45 minutes to an hour. I think if you got good at it you could perhaps do a chart in 15-30 minutes.

Compare this to using astrological software. All you need to do is enter the time, date and location. The software looks up the location, checks the timezone and DST and in less than a second gives you a super accurate chart. And there are FREE online chart drawing programs like Astrodienst pick chart drawing, Ascendant!

William Lilly, the famous English astrologer, used to send his charts out to be calculated by another astrologer. He would have loved astrological software! And since what an astrologer needs is an accurate chart, how it is produced is really irrelevant.

Now, the anti-astrological software partisans tend to fall into two camps. The first are typically non-astrologers who dislike computers. While I am sympathetic, in this situation, for the reasons stated above, I wholeheartedly embrace astrological software.

The second camp is represented by astrologers who learned astrology before the advent of astrological software. Pre-1980s you had no choice but to calculate charts by hand. Thus these older astrologers learned the laborious process of hand calculation and were loath to give it up. I have heard astrologers insist that calculation by hand was important because you learned from it. However, the process of hand calculation just teaches you how to calculate by hand, it does not teach you much of anything about celestial mechanics or anything else.

There is a valid point that computerized chart interpretation, commonly known as "cookbooking" cannot substitute for individualized interpretation by an astrologer. Very true! But this has no bearing on how the chart is created. I do 100% of the interpretation of all my readings individually, but I use charts created by computer. This gives exactly the same result as far as the interpretation is concerned as if I created the chart by hand.

So, yes when wide accessibility of computers ceases, astrologers will have to return to hand calculation. I have stockpiled all the necessary reference materials for chart calculation, but actually without a computer I'd probably shift to geomancy and I ching. Until that point, however, it is highly advantageous to use astrological software. Interpretation is not affected at all, and in fact likely enhanced by the accuracy of computer generated charts over hand calculations.

Additional Comments: I wanted to add some thoughts triggered by comments on this post. No reflection on the commentator whose points are good!

The issue I wanted to comment on was, "doing charts by hand is good for you" This is another point that I have seen raised with regard to charts by hand, but also to being fluent in Latin or Greek or Arabic, or any number of other useful or potential useful skills or types of knowledge. There's a whole lot of things that if you knew how to do might be useful as an astrologer. For example, I am an attorney with 25 years of practice which is very helpful in doing legal horary questions.

The problem is mistaking useful for vitally necessary. Latin would be nice since you could read all those untranslated astrological works. It is not necessary since you can learn and master traditional astrology just reading English. Using my example, sure it helps when doing legal horaries to be a lawyer, but it certainly is not necessary to be lawyer to judge a chart with a legal question. What I do as a teacher is to strip down the material to the bare minimum necessary to function as a traditional astrologer. I do this because this bare minimum is a pretty significant amount of knowledge and technique, that all by itself takes a good deal of time, energy and determination to master. Start throwing in the merely useful, and you are loading students with extra, unnecessary obstacles.

1 comment:

Eric said...

I do think it is good for everybody to cast a few charts by hand; I know that it helped me better understand the influence of latitude, rising times, and daily planetary motion. Plus when I was first teaching myself astrology as a young teenager it helped me cultivate a bit of patience - instead of jumping right in I had to slowly put down each piece of the chart at a time and watch the picture unfold. Granted, even though this was the dawn of the 21st century my family didn't have a proper computer yet, so my hands were tied either way!

That being said, the key phrase is "a few" charts. Once a person knows how to do it and why they do each step, I don't know if there's much more to gain from doing the practice every single time - especially for a horary chart which will only be looked at once! I can imagine there are some astrologers who find calculating the chart helps them better understand it, and perhaps for them it's almost a meditative act to do it by hand. Personally I'd rather spend the time I save using computers reading Lilly or Masha'allah!