Since the 1990s there has been a relatively constant war in astrological communities along the lines of modern practices vs. more ancient ones. This sentiment has become more pronounced in areas where the two practices comingle. You find it in astrological forums or groups online, writers will bash the ideas of others in books or articles, and you can find it in little jabs written into a lecture. This sort of spirited rivalry is common among many fields and is a relatively healthy thing when working properly. Rivalries like this are meant to keep each group honest with itself and with the general public. Unfortunately, the general public isn’t really looking into astrology that deeply to see it as two different camps fighting for their place on top, but merely see it as contradictory sets of rules within a supposedly unified system of astrology. The common man isn’t aware of the discussions going back and forth in astrology any more than they are aware of competing theories in physics. The absence of the general public’s awareness is what makes it a problem. Without an unconnected group to watch out for the traditional vs. modern dichotomy becomes a much more personal war within those astrological groups and really just divides them for the sake of division.
We can go on all day about the current state of astrological literature. One only needs to look at the table of contents for most major astrological periodicals (such as The Mountain Astrologer magazine) to see that the majority of things being written are clearly from a more modern or psychological point of view. Where we are now or where we will be in the future isn’t really that much of a concern; something much more interesting is understanding how we got here.
I’m sure most know the story. Astrology can trace a straight line through Babylon, Egypt, Greece, the Middle East, then the whole of Europe until the Enlightenment essentially wiped it out. The theosophists retooled it later on to sort of fit the more “high demand” aspects of it. This isn’t a real history lesson, and there’s much more you can look into if that’s what you’re interested in. Instead, I’d prefer to focus on the 1970s, this is really when the New Age movement became popular and people started to adopt more spiritual – but not necessarily religious – attitudes. What the New Age movement spurred was an increased focus on the self. Now, more modern practices of astrology have always been focused more on the self and its own development as it had to skirt the waters of anti-vagrant or anti-fortune telling laws which punished astrologers from foretelling future events. The advent of the New Age also brought us new ideas about magic and mysticism through various Neo-Pagan traditions (which, ironically, were no more traditional than anything else) which conflicted not only with the more orthodox religions people were raised with, but also with the older ideas of magic.
For a while in high school, I subscribed to the Wiccan faith. In Wicca, practitioners are told that the magic is inside themselves. The tools that they use are just objects with no special powers but the practitioner brings those powers to the tools through their own practice. It is something inherent in themselves that they then pass on to something else. It’s not quite a “your mind makes it real” type of scenario as much as it is a “you give it power” situation. A similar phenomenon occurred with Eastern ideas, t’ai chi ch’uan and other internal martial arts have had their internal qualities so over emphasized that many people are unaware that there are external, martial qualities to it.
This really highlights the different worldviews that make reconciling ancient and modern practices impossible. For ancient techniques in both the East and West, powers existed outside of people. The planets did not need us to give them names and significations, they already had them. Plants, rocks, and animals didn’t need us to categorize them into groups based on similarities they had, they merely exhibited those similarities naturally and belonged. Whereas the Hermetic mystic learns and respects the powers of the planets as their own entities, New Age ideas lead us to believe that these powers can’t harm us anymore than we allow them to.
It’s difficult to not like the more modern ideas of magic and astrology. If you don’t like your situation, you can change it because the expressions of those planets is entirely within you, no outside force is stopping you from standing up and saying “Enough!”. It’s also a very selfish worldview where it’s easy to demonize others for their bad luck in life. If they were really upset by their situation, they would just change it, right? Nowhere is this idea more evident than the idea of the Secret and the Law of Attraction. This philosophy states that we create our own reality by choosing to either focus on positive or negative experiences which will attract their own kind to manifest future events. Is that a bill or a check in that envelope you pulled out of the mail today? That’s up to where you land on the sliding scale of optimism vs. pessimism.
That’s not to say that the more ancient ideas don’t have their own positives and negatives. On the one hand, free will is a concept that more or less non-existent when thinking about ancient ideas of magic. If things outside of you have their own power, then they can impose that on your will and leave you few, if any, options to alter it. Though, on the other hand, this is probably the more realistic scenario, even if it can lull the more weak-willed into a sense of hopeless complacency (“Who cares? It’s all preordained anyway?”). Even in mundane life, others impose their will on us and our goals in life. Want to buy a house? Better hope the bank clears you for the loan. Fortunately, more Hermetic ideas of magic and astrology give us ways to alter our fortunes by using the powers of the planets against themselves. By working with the planets in the form of Hermetic or ritual remedies, we can encourage them to work with us.
This idea that the differences in understanding magic and where the power of it lies also relates to another conflict within astrology; do the planets cause events, or do they signify them? Jung established the idea of “synchronicity” which most modern practitioners of magic or astrology have adopted as their own philosophy towards their practices. This is that two seemingly unrelated events that are unlikely to occur together do occur together in a meaningful manner. This is an elegant answer to a rather difficult problem for modern practitioners. How do we say planets have no power themselves but yet seem to cause things? Well, synchronicity. They don’t really cause things, they merely happen alongside events in a meaningful manner.
That is not to say that non-causality in astrology is a modern idea, it’s a debate that has gone on through most of astrology’s history. Many different writers have their own opinions on it influenced in some way through their own history or religious beliefs. Some writers were Aristotelian and believed that astrology was causal and effected everything. Others were Platonic and believed that astrology was still causal but that people could rise above it and make their own decisions through awareness. There were also writers who were Stoic and believed that astrology was causal and predeteriminism was high and the purpose of astrology was to fortify ourselves against the future. Finally, the Hermetics which believed a lot like the Stoics, but people could overcome it with Hermetic ritual and sympathies.
I’d like to take a brief reprieve from discussing the Western world and its ideas of magic or inherent power and focus on the East. Chinese Taoism holds that the Tao is not a concept that can be explained or named by humans, it is something that exists outside of us and can only be experienced – but not owned – by us. Tao is not its name, but it is only what humans call it. Taoism emphasizes humility and instructs us to mimic the natural world (as nature inherently understands and experiences Tao) to reach enlightenment. Due to this philosophy we are instructed to be still like water to reflect heaven, to be constant like the evergreen pine tree, to be flexible like bamboo in the wind, and (my personal favorite) to be imperceptible yet shaping like a comb. A great emphasis is put on the spirit of tools in Taoism and Chinese martial arts. You don’t mess with another person’s tools or weapon without their consent or knowledge as through their practice the tool or weapon and practitioner have essentially merged souls. It’s also noticeable in the Chinese practice of feng shui where the emphasis is on living in harmony with the natural world around you. Feng shui remedies are not given their remedial powers by peoples’ expectations of them, but by their own nature. Fortunately, the Eastern ideas have remained more or less true to form.
Switching back to the West, there are some practices in the Neo-Pagan traditions that are reminiscent of the more ancient, Hermetic philosophies. The idea of sympathetic magic (where one uses terrestrial objects, colors, sounds, etc to assist in their practice) is very much akin to the ideas of celestial sympathies. Unfortunately, this new wave of sympathies is very obviously modern and doesn’t seem to have any connection with those Hermetic practices it seeks to replicate. For instance, the color green is used to help in wealth spells. Why? Green is a Venus color, wouldn’t it make more sense to use blue or purple for Mercury (business) or Jupiter (wealth)? You use green because money is green. Red is used to assist in love spells even though using a Venus color is more appropriate than using a Mars color, but red is utilized because of its connection with the color of heart. It’s in these ways that modern magic is obviously very individual and culture based and lacks any sort of real backbone to assist its practitioners.
This discrepancy is the biggest rift in the astrological community as it filters down to influence everything we think about the subject. Unfortunately it’s far too ingrained and personal to change easily, and no amount of proselytizing is going to change anyone’s mind. Those who follow New Age ideas will see the lack of free will as too fatalistic, while those who follow more ancient philosophies will see the emphasis on the self as playing make-believe. The most we can do is simply be respectful, though it almost seems too bad to say that realizing that this sentiment dooms the community in half.