Modern psychological astrology struggles to find roots for its philosophies and in this struggle the practitioners have had to come up with their own answers for various astrological techniques and realities. While the ability to find your own answer to questions or concerns isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it can be a bad thing if there are already correct answers out there of which one is not aware. Traditional astrology typically comes with philosophies and explanations built in to it which makes it easier for practitioners to understand the reasons why various concepts and techniques are the way there are, but psychological astrology doesn’t come with these systems of thought. It does, though, come with an interesting foundational philosophy, but these ideas are not enough to explain the principles of astrology with and practitioners will often find themselves having to use other forms of thought for explanation. We’ve all seen the astrologers who speak about the planets as if they were taking part in some Greek tragedy and whose constant use of Greek myth to synthesize astrology would lead one to believe that astrology began and ended in Greece.
Another way this manifests is when astrologers use Chinese philosophies to explain particular parts of astrology usually with gratuitous usage of the words “yin” and “yang”. While it can be interesting to try to find overlap between two distinct systems of thought, it doesn’t always work out very well and the mess that’s created around the similarities makes the effort not worth the discoveries. This article is going to be a combination of a rant and a discussion on what some Taoist concepts mean and their relationship to Western astrology as well as the way they are being popularized by modern astrologers today.
Probably one of the biggest ways this is used today is when discussing masculine and feminine signs. In an effort to draw the focus off of the sex of the signs, the astrologer will say that “masculine signs are like yang”. The problem with this statement is that it doesn’t really mean anything on its own. Yin and yang are concepts that only make any kind of sense in a comparative fashion and lack sense in an identifying statement. Nothing can be “yang” if there isn’t something that is “yin” to directly compare it to. For example, a bright sky would be yang in comparison to a cloudy sky, but if there was an even brighter sky to compare to our first bright sky, then that first bright sky would be the “yin”. One could argue that the essence of yang is motion while the essence of yin is stillness, and that’s probably the most accurate one can get. Another problem this idea brings up is that many people don’t realize that yin and yang eventually turn into one another in Taiji theory. There really isn’t a way to make this work in relation to masculine and feminine signs, as their functions are really quite set and they won’t “turn into” one another in any sense of the phrase.
In reality, masculine signs can literally refer to males while feminine signs can also literally be a reference to females when trying to identify unknown people. The best way to think about masculine and feminine signs is that masculine signs show things that someone goes out and does (often to the world or other people) and feminine signs show things that happen to that native, often as a product of other people. One could also draw the focus on the active/passive dichotomy between the masculine and feminine signs, but an astrologer doesn’t typically discuss masculine and feminine signs at the same time in an interpretation. The astrologer is focused on one planet while diving into what that planet will do for a native. The polarity of another planet’s sign won’t have an effect on it.
Another way modern astrologers like to use Taiji theory is in reference to the four elements. They’ll often divide fire and air as the yang elements and earth and water as the yin elements. This is actually pretty interesting, much more so if they go farther to define air as a moving or young yang element and fire as a stable or old yang element while also making water the young yin and earth the old yin. Unfortunately, this is precisely where the idea falls apart. Yin and yang transform into one another. Old yang becomes young yin and old yin becomes young yang, however, there is no mechanism that makes fire (the supposed old yang element) become water (the young yin element).
However, there is a second version of the above idea that deserves a mention. In this set up, the stable (or old) yang element changes from fire to air. This would make a fire –> air –> –> water –> earth –> fire cycle that would work according to the philosophy of the temperaments. The problem arises, though, at a very basic level. In what world is fire more mobile than air? Air needs no fuel and can only be contained with great difficulty, but fire requires fuel and can be trapped with relative ease. This would also make air and water opposites, or else would force Earth to be the moveable “yin” element to fulfill its usual role as air’s opposite.
The western elements themselves have their own interrelatedness that’s seen mostly in temperament theory which was predominate in the medieval period. In this theory the four elements were themselves broken into pairs of four possible qualities; one of either hot and cold, and one of either wet and dry.
Western Elements and their Qualities and Relationships
In the above picture, the elements are made of the qualities immediately to their left and right. This puts wet and cold water opposite the hot and dry fire and the hot and wet air as opposite to the cold and dry earth, which is the arrangement we’re all pretty familiar with. This also puts the focus on the transformation of each element into the other through a transformative process that one of the qualities undergoes to become its opposite. The warm and moist air dries up to become fire; the hot and dry fire cools down to become earth; the cold and dry earth moistens to become water; and the cold and wet water warms to become air. This is mimicked in the cycle of the seasons and the diurnal motion of heaven (but is different from the Aristotelian idea of Natural Place).
That being said, there are some interesting similarities between the Taijitu and the Aristotelian idea of Natural Place in regards to this idea which we will get into later on. When it comes to Taiji and elements, it’s probably best to leave it to the actual system of Wu Xing (the Five Phases) which is basically China’s own elemental system which has mechanisms to account for elements becoming one another in true Taiji fashion. Whereas the Western four elements system is basically a pair of opposites, the Chinese Wu Xing is an interactive web of relationships between energy at various stages of growth or being.
Chinese Five Elements in their Creation, Destruction, and Controlling cycles
Where the Western system only has one way for the elements to interact, Wu Xing has three; Creation, Destruction (often referred to as Controlling), and Controlling (often referred to as Insulting). In the Creative cycle fire becomes earth (ashes), which becomes metal (because metal is formed underground), which becomes water (condensation), which becomes wood (water makes plants grow), which becomes fire (timber gets set on fire), and the cycle repeats indefinitely. This also relates to the cycle of season, diurnal motion of heaven, and the life cycle of individuals. Wu Xing also has a lot of application in Traditional Chinese Medicine and Feng Shui as well as some styles of martial arts such as Baguazhang.
After the Creation cycle is the destruction cycle where wood harms earth (absorbing its nutrients), earth harms water (by absorbing it), water destroys fire (by extinguishing it), fire hurts metal (by melting it), and metal hurts wood (by chopping it). The reverse of these relationships is known as the Insulting cycle where the elements basically fight one another for domination. The Destroying element wins, but Insulting element gets some blows in. Fire melts metal, but due to the high melting point fire is exhausted, for example.
Moving away from popular usage, there are some interesting similarities between Taiji theory and the western astrological system; it relates to solar mythology and its representation in the horoscope. Firstly, though you may have seen it many different ways, but there is a proper way to orient the Taijitu.
A properly oriented Taijitu. Not a yin-yang.
In this orientation, the white half is on the left while the black half is on the right. At the same time, the large white area is on top while the large black area is on the bottom. This set up mimics the cycle of seasons and the sun’s daily path around the Earth. If you recall, this also matches up with the diurnal motion depicted in the horoscope wheel and even has some implications similar to Natural Place, but lacks the mechanism for turning Fire into Water or Earth into Air as was mentioned above.
Comparison of the rationale for the Taijitu’s proper orientation with the horoscope wheel’s season, time of day, and Natural Place assignments
For those interested in using a system of astrology with other systems of Chinese thought, there is Four Pillars of Destiny which is a system of Chinese Astrology that is often used with other systems of Chinese astrology to foretell the future of an individual. These do account for Wu Xing and Taiji theory and can be just as eye opening as Western Astrology. In fact, difficulty or insufficiency in particular elements or yin and yang can be remedied throughout life through the utilization of other Taoist concepts such as feng shui and internal alchemy much like traditional Western astrology has its astrological magic or Jyotish astrology has it’s mandalas and gems.
Basically, it’s okay to want to study different systems of philosophy, but there has to be an understanding that these philosophies are different and developed differently with different cultural contexts behind them. This is especially true when it comes to astrology because so much of the philosophies and rationales for the way things are are already explained to us in the older sources. We need to understand these sources and what the author is trying to tell us about them to better understand the techniques and to better utilize and interpret them. We’re not helping people by trying to sound deep by saying feminine signs act like “yin” because at the end of the day this information helps nobody and offers nothing to the interpretation. We are, after all, astrologers. If we can’t explain astrological techniques and their interpretations using the philosophies and rationales of astrology then why are we learning it? What good has it brought us? How much of it do we really understand?