Archetypal Astrology

Archetypal Astrology

In his book Cosmos and Psyche: Intimations of a New Worldview, Richard Tarnas presents a sustained case for the contemporary applicability of the ancient art of astrology. The first hundred pages or so are devoted to an exposition and critique of the modern mechanistic world picture and the adumbration of what Tarnas believes to be a more adequate conception of reality. This conception appears to be some form of Jungian panpsychism, combining the panpsychist position that consciousness is fundamental to reality with the Jungian view that reality is inherently meaningful and structured according to archetypes. This new worldview, Tarnas claims, is in fact very old, being rooted in ancient astrology. Astrology associates the heavenly bodies with corresponding archetypes and takes the geometric relationships that obtain between them to signify significant interactions between those archetypes. The remaining five hundred pages or so of the book attempt to use this astrological framework to understand the cycles and development of world history.

Though Tarnas presents his book as an argument, I think it is best understood as an invitation to take up the astrological perspective as a useful heuristic device. This can be seen in his parable of two suitors. He asks us to imagine two suitors both seeking to understand their beloved. One of them tries to do so using only objective measurements, completely ignoring the beloved’s mental states and feelings. The other approaches on the assumption that the beloved has a rich internal landscape and is capable of communicating it. Tarnas’s intuition is that the latter will be more successful than the former. Similarly, if the cosmos is indeed ensouled as Tarnas believes, the best way of coming to understand it will presuppose that it is inherently meaningful and capable of communication. He admits that, taken individually, each of the correlations sets forth in his work could be dismissed as a mere coincidence, but he maintains that the sheer number and repetition of these meaningful patterns through history is indicative of the fruitfulness of his position.[1]

            Tarnas’s framework does not employ some of the standard components of western astrology such as houses and signs. Instead, he focuses only on the relations between planets, their so called aspects. Likewise, though he mentions many of the traditional planets, his work focuses largely on the outer planets which were discovered only fairly recently. These planets have slower transits and so are more useful in delineating larger historical epochs. Furthermore, he notes that unlike some streams in traditional astrology, astrological correlation is archetypally rather than concretely predictive.[2] He doesn’t think that the heavenly bodies cause concrete affairs in the world, but rather that, like Leibniz’s pre-established harmony, there is a correspondence in archetypal meaning between the two. “The planetary positions are indicative of the cosmic state of archetypal dynamics at the time.”[3] His framework is thus Jungian in two crucial respects. First, it appeals to Jung’s account of synchronicity to explain this meaningful non-causal correlation between events. And second, it avoids concrete determinism by employing the Jungian doctrine of archetypes. For archetypes, according to Jung, are multivalent and can express themselves either positively or negatively, being “not so much defined as evoked.”[4]

            This archetypal framework allows Tarnas to observe, for example, that the French Revolution occurred when Uranus (associated with a Promethean archetype) and Pluto (associated with Dionysian archetype) were in opposition (1787-1798). This era saw “widespread radical social and political change and often destructive upheaval, massive empowerment of revolutionary and rebellious impulses, and intensified artistic and intellectual creativity.”[5] Or again, this framework allows him to note that Uranus and Neptune (associated an archetype of unitive vision and spiritual ecstasy) oversaw the ministry and death of Jesus (16-32 AD, opposition), the height of the Italian renaissance (1472-1486 AD, conjunction), and the age of Romanticism (1814-1829, conjunction). “This was the age of Hegel at the peak of his vision and prominence with his immensely influential articulation of Absolute Idealism and his conception of history as a vast evolutionary movement that ultimately integrates all opposites—spirit and nature, human and divine—in a higher synthesis.”[6]

            I found his most interesting correlation to be that of the Axial Age and the triple conjunction of Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto. The axial age is puzzling in its grandeur. It saw the beginnings of Greek philosophy, the emergence the Hebrew prophets (who presented a more moral and universal conception of God), and the birth of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and Zorastrianism. This was a remarkable epoch in world intellectual history. And, Tarnas points out, it corresponded with a unique astronomical event. “This was the only era in recorded history in which the Uranus-Neptune cycle, the Uranus-Pluto cycle, and the Neptune-Pluto cycle coincided in such a close triple conjunction. All three planets were within 2o of exact alignment near the middle of this period, in 577-576 BCE.”[7] Likewise, the archetypes at play precisely characterized the character of the era. “Virtually all the characteristic themes of the Uranus-Neptune cycle [with its emphasis on spiritual revolutions]… are visible here, but, appropriate to the triple conjunction with Pluto, they seem to have been expressed in a spectacularly seminal manner—massive and profound, deeply evolutionary, transformative on a vast scale both temporally and globally.”[8]

            I won’t attempt to summarize all the correlations that Tarnas points out in his lengthy book here, but I will conclude by looking at one cycle that appears to have been at play recently: the Saturn Pluto cycle. According to Tarnas, the Saturn archetype is associated with:

“the hard structures and limitations of material reality and mortal existence, contraction and constraint, deprivation and negation, division and conflict, gravity and gravitas, necessity and finality, the endings of things. Saturn presses things to their conclusion and defines them in their finitude. It expresses itself in such existential realities as aging and maturity, dying and death, labor and duty, suffering and hardship, the weight of time and the past, the wisdom of experience. It governs authority, solidity, security, reliability, established tradition, the status quo, order and system, that which endures and sustains.”[9]

Tarnas associates the Pluto archetype, on the other hand, with the Dionysian aspects of life:

“Pluto is associated with the principle of elemental power, depth, and intensity; with that which compels, empowers, and intensifies whatever it touches, sometimes to overwhelming and catastrophic extremes; with he primordial instincts, libidinal and aggressive, destructive and regenerative, volcanic and cathartic, eliminative, transformative, ever-evolving; with the biological process of birth, sex, and death, the cycle of death and rebirth; with upheaval, breakdown, decay, and fertilization; violent purgatorial discharge of pent-up energies, purifying fire; situations of life-and-death extremes, power struggles, all that is titanic, potent, and massive. Pluto represents the underworld and underground in all senses: elemental, geological, instinctual, political, social, sexual, urban, criminal, mythological, demonic. It is dark, mysterious, taboo, and often terrifying reality that lurks beneath the surface of things, beneath the ego, societal conventions, and the veneer of civilization, beneath the surface of the Earth, that is periodically unleashed with destructive and transformative force. Pluto impels, burns, consumes, transfigures, resurrects. In mythic and religious terms, it is associated with all myths of descent and transformation, and with all deities of destruction and regeneration, death and rebirth.”[10]

The Saturn Pluto cycle will thus involve an elemental and often violent intensification of Saturnian gravity. These are eras of profound social change, but change through contraction rather than expansion, “eras of international crisis and conflict, empowerment of reactionary forces and totalitarian impulses, organized violence and oppression, all sometimes marked by lasting traumatic effects.”[11]

“An atmosphere of gravity and tension tended to accompany these three-to-four year periods, as did a widespread sense of epochal closure: ‘the end of an era,’ ‘the end of innocence,’ the destruction of an earlier mode of life that in retrospect may seem to have been marked by widespread indulgence, decadence, naivete, denial, and inflation. Profound transformation was a dominant theme…but here the transformation was through contraction, conservative reaction, crisis and termination.”[12]

Psychologically, this often took the form of an awareness of powerlessness before natural, political, and economic forces beyond one’s control, and the pursuit of power and domination in response to these threats. Often groups would order themselves in a series of oppressor victim relations. “Experiences of deep humiliation caused by violence, violation, and defeat were thus often accompanied by a compensatory need to prove one’s steely strength, invulnerability, and capacity to retaliate with lethal potency.”[13]

            This archetypal dynamic governed both world wars. “The first Saturn-Pluto conjunction of the twentieth century coincided the immediate buildup to and eruption of World War I in 1913-1916.”[14] They went into exact alignment in Aug, Sept, and Oct of 1914, a time when the powers of Europe were rapidly declaring war on one another. The first square between the planets occurred in 1921-1923 which saw the emergence of totalitarianism. Mussolini and Stalin rose to power and Hitler took part in the beer hall putsch in Munich during this time. The planets went into opposition from 1930-1933 which saw the rise of Nazism and Hitler’s dictatorship, the Japanese invasion of China, and Stalin’s ever more totalitarian control of the Soviet Union resulting in the Holodomor—the genocide of “over seven million Ukrainians.”[15] The closing square then presided over the beginning of World War II in 1939-1941. They went into 1o of alignment in Aug and Sept 1939 “as Germany invaded Poland.”

“This alignment continued through the darkest period of Nazi dominance in Europe, the blitzkrieg, the fall of France and most of the other nations of western and northern Europe, the harrowing Battle of Britain, the massive German invasion of the Soviet Union, Hitler’s formulation of the Final Solution, and the beginning of the Holocaust. It was also in this period—Aug 1939, when the alignment was first exact—that Einstein, fearful of German nuclear research signed the fateful letter to Roosevelt urging the U.S. government to develop an atomic bomb (which he later considered ‘the greatest mistake’ of his life). The Manhattan Project began in the ensuing months during this alignment.”[16]

            The Saturn Pluto dynamic also ruled over the events of Sept 11. Saturn and Pluto went into opposition from 2000-2004. As the planets went into 15o in 2000, the supreme court intervened to bring George W. Bush to power. “The subsequent further empowerment of the Bush administration and the Republican right in the immediate aftermath of the events of Sept 11, 2001, and the systematic intensification of their efforts on behalf of a more extreme conservative agenda coincided precisely with the Saturn-Pluto opposition’s reaching exactitude. The period of greatest empowerment, including the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003, coincided with the following two years when Saturn and Pluto were positioned in closest alignment.”[17] This was a time where people pushed for ‘traditional family values’ and fundamentalist sects violently clashed, justifying carnage as God’s righteous judgment. It was also a time of incredible restrictions on civil liberties under the so called Patriot Act overseen by a Christian fundamentalist attorney general.[18] This era saw “increased calls for moral rigor and social constraints, censorship and repression, puritanical standards of conduct, severe punitive judgements (such as the increased use of the harsh Shariah laws in the Islamic world or the imposition of the death penalty in the United States), and wars against enemies perceived and described as evil.”[19]

            It is interesting to consider this archetypal cluster, since Saturn and Pluto went into exact conjunction recently on Jan 12, 2020. Many of us were not expecting what would unfold, but it seems that we are now feeling the weight of this archetypal Zeitgeist.[20] At this point it is important to remember Tarnas’s point about astrology being archetypally rather than concretely predictive. We have a choice regarding how these archetypal energies will be expressed. Will we act with consciousness and wisdom or merely react in unconscious violence? Tarnas notes that the unconscious psychological process typical of these eras is that of splitting, strictly dividing the world into pure good and pure evil, and identifying oneself with the good while projecting all evil onto an external other. Societies thus come to see the world “exclusively as a war between good and evil, perceiving and uncompromisingly enforcing simplistic dichotomies, seeing others as morally and mortally dangerous threats, and identifying particular individuals or states as evil enemies.”[21] It is then not long before ancient enmities erupt and scapegoating ensues. People end up acting in ways they previously would have deemed grossly immoral, rationalizing their behavior on account of the enormity of the perceived evil of their alleged enemies and the existential threat they are taken to represent. What was once inexcusably vicious brutality now comes to be seen as righteous self-defense.[22]

“In theological terms, evil subtly appropriates the motivations of the soul that identifies itself exclusively with God and the good, and that then performs its dark actions in self-deceiving but absolute confidence that it is morally obligated to act thus against such a manifest evil. Thus the God-fearing parent cruelly punishes the wayward child ‘for its own sake.’ The inquisitor tortures and burns at the stake a person whose beliefs are perceived to differ dangerously from his own. The committee on public safety, the department of covert activity, gathers its information, trains its death squads, undermines elections, foments and assassinates to make certain that good prevails in the world.”[23]

This tendency must be resisted. If we turn instead to the moral tenacity of our traditions (Saturn), we can bring about a transformation (Pluto) unlike what was seen in 20th century. In these times, we must lean more than ever on our ideals of universal compassion and love for even perceived enemies. I’ll end with the parable of the good Samaritan. Note that at the time Samaritans were perceived as ethnic enemies of Jesus’ audience.

25 And, behold, a certain lawyer stood up, and tempted him, saying, Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life? 26 He said unto him, What is written in the law? how readest thou? 27 And he answering said, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself. 28 And he said unto him, Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live. 29 But he, willing to justify himself, said unto Jesus, And who is my neighbour? 30 And Jesus answering said, A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his raiment, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead. 31 And by chance there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32 And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side. 33 But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him, 34 And went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 And on the morrow when he departed, he took out two pence, and gave them to the host, and said unto him, Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee. 36 Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbour unto him that fell among the thieves? 37 And he said, He that shewed mercy on him. Then said Jesus unto him, Go, and do thou likewise. (Luke 10:25-37 KJV).

Peter Yong, Ph.D.


[1] At times he also suggests that the failure to explain these multiple meaningful coincidences by any kind of straightforward causation also evinces his position. For example, “there would seem to be no apparent necessary relationship between social-political revolution and scientific-technological revolution and thus no reason why the two should regularly coincide with each other so consistently during the exact same historical periods. Yet from an archetypal perspective, a definite underlying coherence connects the two categories of phenomena—a coherence of meaning, of formal causality rather than efficient causality. Of course, what is most intellectually challenging within the context of current cosmological assumptions is the possibility that this synchronistic archetypal coherence in historical phenomena also bears a systematic correspondence with planetary movements.” Tarnas, Cosmos and Psyche: Intimations of a New Worldview, (New York: Viking Penguin, 2006), 209.

[2] Ibid, 94.

[3] Ibid, 104.

[4] Ibid, 118.

[5] Ibid, 184.

[6] Ibid, 468

[7] Ibid, 506-507.

[8] Ibid, 507

[9] Ibid, 264.

[10] Ibid, 131

[11] Ibid, 262.

[12] Ibid, 262.

[13] Ibid, 263.

[14] Ibid, 266.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid, 267

[17] Ibid, 283.

[18] Ibid, 286.

[19] Ibid, 287.

[20] It is interesting to note that the Saturn Pluto cycle has also governed plagues such as the black death (1348-51, conjunction) and the aids epidemic (1981-84 conjunction, 2000-2004 opposition).

[21] Ibid, 292.

[22] Ibid, 294.

[23] Ibid, 296.

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