Astrology, the study of the movements and positions of celestial bodies and their influence on people and the natural world, has gotten a bad rap for a few hundred years. Before then, however, it was used to measure, record, and predict the changes in the seasons, and there’s some evidence that lunar cycles were noted as much as 25,000 years ago, which means people were using the moon, following its connection to tides and rivers. (And let’s not forget that our own bodies are overwhelmingly made up of liquid.) Early civilizations followed agricultural cycles according to the placement of celestial bodies, they linked the movement of these bodies to the gods, and they used the position of the star Sirius to predict the flooding of the Nile. But if you look up astrology these days, you’ll see that it’s referred to as a pseudoscience. Astronomy, once the cream in astrology’s coffee, is still considered a science, no pseudo- prefix. The definition of astronomy includes the “scientific study” of the universe and the objects that exist in space.
In order to better understand what “astrology” means these days, I thought I’d talk to a couple of astrologers. After Googling one afternoon last week, I half expected them to be wearing flowing sheer black capes embellished with glittery silver stars. I needn’t have worried. Island astrologers Arlan Wise and Kathie Gibbs both seemed friendly and knowledgeable, no wands or crystal balls in sight.
Both Arlan and Kathie told me that they grew interested in astrology after having their own astrological reading.
“I think it was when I went to my first astrologer and went wow! Then I had the three kids’ charts done, and decided this was useful information,” Arlan said. Her first study of astrology was with Laurel Lowell, niece of Percival Lowell, the astronomer whose exploration of what he called “Planet X” eventually led to the discovery of Pluto. Lowell advised her to “read mythology and study charts,” so that’s what Arlan did.
Kathie had her first astrological reading when she was in her mid-30s, during a time of transition in her life, and said she was amazed by the experience. “I studied with Margorie Marquis, who was a student of Isabel Hickey,” Kathie told me. “She would have Friday night classes with 30 people in class, this was outside of Boston. She was my astrologer and mentor for a long time, and then other people have come into my life.”
Kathie said she took up astrology seriously as a profession around 2000, some years after she moved to the Vineyard. Arlan got her start in the late 1970s, after moving to the Island. “In 1978 I went to my first astrology conference, and that was right after we moved to the Vineyard,” Arlan remembered. “I thought, ‘I know what these people know,’ and did the first step by doing a chart and getting paid for it — I had been doing friends’ charts for nothing.”
Both women have shelves filled with books about astrology, the planets, stars, and the sun and moon in their offices. They have hefty tomes containing graphs and charts in tiny print, a leftover from the pretechnology days. Now they can plug birthdate, time, and location of birth into their laptops and pull up certain aspects of a chart right on their computer screens. That’s a huge timesaver, they both said.
In Arlan’s case, she also has a lot of books about writing and editing that she showed me when I visited her Chilmark home. She said this was because she’s a Leo who has Mercury in Virgo. I’m a Virgo, so I could relate to her keen interest in where a comma should go. I asked her what she “believed” about astrology.
“I see it as a language, as an information system so that it gives you tremendous information about self-knowledge — who you are, what’s going to happen, and why it happens when it does, when it will begin and when it will end, and what the purpose is,” she said. “It’s not something you believe in as much as it is something you use.”
Kathie gave me a good example about how planets can affect us. When you turn around 30 years old, that’s the time when Saturn is returning to the position it was in when you were born, she said. That’s why you might be looking at making more responsible decisions, you look at the first part of your life before you move into the next third of your life. Then when you turn 60, it happens again.
“Thirty is a sort of astrological coming of age, taking that experience of the first third of our lives and applying it to the next third,” Kathie said. “That’s when we’re thinking about raising a family, pursuing a career. When we’re around 60, we’re having a second Saturn return, and taking all that 60 years of experience and we’re beginning to share that information with the people coming up behind us.”
Their clients come to them for all different reasons, they said. Some are curious, some want insight about a particular aspect in their lives — a career move, a new relationship, how to better understand their current partner.
“Some people are just curious,” Arlan said, “and a lot of people have something going on in their life and they need another perspective on it. Some people come back every year or two years for updates. A lot of times you read someone’s chart and it’s a validation of who they know they are, but no one has told them.”
Neither Island astrologer is interested in making predictions or fortunetelling; in fact they both said that’s not a characteristic of true astrology.
“I’m not someone who would say, ‘Xyz is going to happen tomorrow,’ but I can say this is the challenge for you in the next few days,” Kathie said.
“Predictions are not what we do; it’s not fortunetelling,” Arlan said. “You can say you’re headed into a difficult time, and how you handle it depends on how you handle it. You can’t make predictions. That’s what bad astrology is.”
Mercury was in retrograde when we visited; I asked what that means, and if we should all just stay in bed when it happens. Arlan had a simple explanation that included understanding the concept so that you might know what to expect. We perceive that Mercury moves backward, but it’s really because we are observing the motions of Mercury and all the other planets from a geocentric point of view. Thankfully, March 28 marks the end of this current period of Mercury in retrograde.
“Mercury rules communication, transportation, travel, commerce,” Arlan said. “It’s not a bad thing, it’s just a time to review. Mercury is the gatekeeper between the right brain and the left brain, and he’s gone on vacation and left the gate open, so you’re fuzzy and not as direct as you would be. People forget things, appointments and things like that.”
Kathie explained that planets never go backward, and it’s our perspective of the planets’ movements here on Earth that makes it seem as if Mercury is going backward.
“Mercury is the trickster, and he always fools us,” Kathie said. “It’s a good time to finish what you started. Communication, emails, telephone calls, messages, automobiles, transportation systems can be affected. It depends on someone’s chart; if Mercury is more important in your chart, it may affect you more.”
Once you understand how astrology works, it can become a useful tool in your toolbox, both Kathi and Arlan agree. There’s medical astrology, financial astrology, natal astrology, psychological astrology, and more. Kathi said she enjoys natal astrology and relationship astrology the most.
“If someone has Mercury in Pisces, for instance, the way they take in information will be more intuitive than, say, someone with Mercury in Aries, who is very forthcoming,” Kathie explained. “Aries is fast and ‘let’s do it,’ and Pisces is more ‘wait a minute, I have to think about this.’” Information like that could help two people better understand their relationship.
“You might discover that [your partner, parents, etc.] are not criticizing you all the time, that’s just the way they talk,” Arlan said. “It can be very good for couples counseling.”
Astrology can change a person’s perspective. “It can let people know when a difficult time is going to be over. You might feel like you’re in the bottom of a well now, but the sun is going to come out and you’re going to see a ladder,” Arlan said.
Your natal chart is sort of like a map of the work that you have to do in this life, Kathie said. And in astrology, timing is everything.
“Time, place, and date are the three coordinates to set up an accurate birth chart,” Arlan said. “The moon moves a degree every two hours. The wheel is turning a degree every four minutes, which is why the accurate time locks it in.” If you don’t know the exact time you were born, you might find it on your birth certificate or by calling the hospital where you were born, Kathie explained.
Of course, I was curious about my own astrological chart. Arlan plugged my information into the computer (I had only an approximation of my time of birth), and by the time she walked me through what she saw, we figured I’m exactly where I’m destined to be.
Arlan Wise will give a talk about astrology at the Chilmark library on Wednesday, April 17, at 5 pm. For more information about astrology, contact Kathie at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit Arlan’s website, arlanwise.com or email her at email@example.com.