Precession (continued)

Precession: The View From The Ground

Let's start from the basics once again. We've talked about three separate motions of the Earth and the symbols that relate to these motions. In each case, the symbols ultimately flow from the actual appearance of these motions from the ground, that is, from the point of view of people on the surface of the Earth living, watching and imagining as they stare at the sky.

First of all, there was the daily rotation. The experience we all have of rotation is not that we are moving. Instead, we see stars and planets rise in the east and set in the west. In particular, the risings and settings of the Sun define our experience of day and night. The only exceptions are the stars near to the pole, which circle the pole in endless circles, never touching the horizon. The "pole star" is unique: it appears to be the still point at the center around which all other stars rotate. This role of "the center" of rotation makes the pole star a natural candidate for a mythological symbol as the axis mundi, especially in older, shamanic cultures. The number of examples of this symbolism are simply too numerous to mention.

Some of the spatial symbolism associated with rotation includes the four cardinal directions. The north is where the still center lives, the east is the point where the light arises, the south shows the light in its glory (it's also the direction of the "underworld"), the west is where it dies. These four directions on the circle of the horizon create the powerful image of the quartered circle, one of the most universal symbols of the center. Astrologically, rotation is represented by the house positions of the planets in a horoscope chart.

The phenomena associated with the Earth's orbital motion around the Sun are quite unmistakeable. Combined with the tilt between this orbital plane and the Earth's poles (the obliquity of the ecliptic), this orbital motion creates the climatic cycles we call the seasons. The circle of life, of spring, summer, fall and winter, is so basic an experience, it's hard to imagine life without it. Since the seasons are driven by how much heat we receive from the Sun, attention is drawn to the Sun in order to understand this pattern. We observe the Sun moving against the stars along a circle that we came to know as the ecliptic. Due to the obliquity, this pathway takes the Sun higher and lower in the sky each year. The key points in this cycle are the equinoxes and solstices, which bear an undeniable relationship to the seasons. Once again, the circle is quartered. A new center is declared.

Actually, four possible centers are defined, each with their own unique characteristics. We seem to be especially drawn towards the spring equinox, since it is a time when the world is reborn. However, in the ancient world, many cultures were drawn towards the winter solstice as the time of rebirth. To the mythic mind, as the Sun/God sank lower and lower in the sky, it seemed inevitable that the light would disappear completely and all beings would die in the process. What a relief it was to see it slow down, stand still a few days, then slowly start to head higher in the sky again, the promise of new life to come. It is no coincidence that religions around the world all have festivals of light and birth in December, including Christianity's Christmas. The winter solstice is when gods are born.

This framework of equinoxes, solstices and the ecliptic poles forms an extremely valuable scaffolding for comprehending the motions of the Sun, Moon and planets. It draws us out of our terrestrial concerns, bringing us into contact with the entire solar system, the realm of the classical gods. It widens our perspectives. It introduces us to a new center, the Sun which stands in the middle of this system. Astrologically, this symbolism evolved into the tropical zodiac.

The phenomena related to precession are slow and subtle, not anything that the average person would even notice. Yet in the grand scheme of things (which is what myth inevitably tries to come to grips with), precession is a cataclysmic force. The most obvious observation is that the pole star changes. The star at the still center, the "immutable" axle of the world that holds it together, becomes unhinged and wobbles off its pedestal. The circumpolar stars and constellations, such as the Big and Little Dippers, lose their place in the heavens and drop to Earth, falling below the horizon. The polar center is seen to be a false god, or at the very least, an extremely temporary god (a concept that offends our sense of eternity). Less obvious, but still observable over time, is the movement of the stars near the zodiac. Just like planets, though much slower, the stars and constellations move through the framework of the equinoxes and solstices. The stars that are near these seasonal quarter points took on extra importance in each era, because those constellations became the controlling myths of that time. When one group of constellations left these quarter points and were replaced by another group, the world changed. The old gods became demons, to be replaced by new gods, a new order, a new creation. Symbolically, precession became associated with the creation and destruction of world ages.

(Curiously, the phrase "four corners of the world" had nothing to do with our planet in ancient times. The real world, the perfect ideal that was the model for all creation, was the zodiac. The four corners of the world were the equinoxes and solstices.)

So the basic phenomenon of precession is that the stars move around the tropical zodiac, meaning that myths change with time. It has nothing to do with whether the tropical or sidereal zodiac is "more real" or valid. Precession is the slow movement of the sidereal world through the tropical zodiac. Our attention is drawn out of the solar system and towards the stars, and not just towards the stars in our immediate neighborhood. In fact, there is little that distinguishes the nearby stars in our neighborhood from stars farther away. The next cosmic organizational level (what scientists might call the next dynamical system) is actually the entire Milky Way galaxy. We are not drawn just to the few stars we can see in the sky. We become connected to the giant pinwheel of some hundred billion stars that form our galaxy. And the central point that is unique to the galactic system is the Galactic Center, the still point around which all the stars orbit.

The Galactic Center may seem like a grand abstraction, a figment of gravity and our imagination. Yet astronomers have found something remarkable there. They believe it's a massive black hole millions of times heavier than our Sun, a literal rip in the fabric of spacetime in our galaxy. Astrologers are slowly becoming aware of this point (again). In my experience, it is an incredibly powerful center, though many people may not be aware of its effects.

Precessional symbolism thus has two faces to consider. First is the movement of the stars and the evolution of myth. The other is our relationship to the galaxy.

The Precessional Ages

Precession is like a giant clock for humanity, defining a relationship between our immediate world and the realm of the gods in the stars. As stars slowly precess through the zodiac every 26000 years, certain stars are brought to prominence by their proximity to the equinoxes, solstices and poles. Since stars, like planets, are bodies that have astrological influences on us, the entire world and every person on it are being subjected to powerful, slowly shifting subliminal energies that affect us on a global scale. Also of great importance, the constellations near these points (and not just the stars) also receive prominence. Thus the myths in the sky that most affect us change with time, influencing the directions of entire cultures. This in the basis of what are commonly called precessional ages.

Modern astrology takes a very limited notion of what these precessional ages are about. In particular, we simplify the picture by looking only at the vernal equinox, ignoring the other five points in our tropical framework, not to mention the circles that connect these points. Thus we focus on only one constellation at a time. Our time is known as the Age of Pisces, because the vernal equinox is firmly in the constellation of Pisces still. Roughly every 2148 years on average, the equinox shifts from one constellation to the next, causing a change of ages to occur. The constellation describing an age is thought to describe the broad outlines of the cultures in ascendency during that time. Astrologers that argue for this kind of symbolism usually point to the religious symbolism and imagery used in various cultural periods. For instance, in the age of Taurus, much of the iconography involved bull or cow images. This was followed by the age of Aries, represented by sheep-like symbols: the "lamb of god", the scapegoat sacrifices, the "good shepherd", etc. Many paintings and sculptures of the prophet Moses picture him with little goat horns on his head. Curiously, Aries also has potent military symbolism and many of the great military empires came to power during this age: the Persian, Greek and finally the Roman empires, among others. The age of Pisces probably started around 100 BCE, bringing about numerous new mystical movements. The most enduring religions of this period are Christianity and Islam, currently locked in a battle for the world mind. Metaphorically speaking, these twin religions, in conflict but joined at the hip through their common patriarch Abraham, could well be viewed as the two fishes joined by a cord that we envision as the constellation Pisces. Further, the themes of sacrifice, faith and self-abnegation, all Pisces themes, are the cornerstones of these religions. And let's not forget how the fish has emerged as an important Christian symbol. As for the myths of the coming age of Aquarius, those symbols haven't arisen from the collective unconscious yet. We haven't dreamed those dreams and must await their time.

Which leads to the question: When does the age of Aquarius begin? I've heard dates for the "dawning of Aquarius" ranging from 1844 to about 2600 AD, so it's pretty obvious we don't really know what indicates the start of an age. I've been saying it's when the equinox is "in a constellation", but by now you must realize that could mean any of a number of interpretations. The most sensible interpretation is to consider the equinox being in the territory of a constellation, relying on the boundaries that the astronomers laid down. Or you could say the equinox is in the picture or star pattern. More precisely, that the longitudes ("zodiac position") of the stars overlap the equinox. Of course, there's nothing to keep two pictures from overlapping in longitude, or to have big gaps between adjacent pictures, meaning we could potentially be in two ages at once or in transition between them or even in no age at all. Either of these definitions leads to unequal ages, some longer and some shorter. It seems most writers on the issue assume the ages are all the same length, about 2148 years. That would indicate they were using sidereal signs, not the constellations, to determine the precessional ages. In that case, all you need to do is check the ayanamsa: new ages start when the ayanamsa is a multiple of 30 degrees. Of course, that gets back to the problem of different ayanamsas, spread out over a 400 year range. Interestingly enough, all these various definitions indicate we've got 200 to 500 years to go before Aquarius starts, despite having a theme song ready to go. Another definition I've read about checks to see when the stars in the picture of the next constellation cross the equator from the southern hemisphere (mythically "the underworld") to the northern hemisphere ("emerging into awareness"). By this standard, we are already in Aquarius. In short, nobody really knows how to answer this question of when the new age starts, because we don't know what the question means. Maybe we need to simply wait until a new mythology emerges and becomes a dominant force in society. We may be seeing the first inklings of this process, but I doubt it has already happened.

The ancient people had a much more robust view of these ages than we do now. They were more adept at thinking mythologically than we are and capable of responding to several myths at once. They didn't focus only on the vernal equinox, but examined the entire framework of the world. For instance, in our present Piscean Age, the summer solstice is in Gemini, the fall equinox in Virgo, and the winter solstice in Sagittarius. The equinox may describe how our culture expresses itself, but the winter solstice is the underlying "root cause" of our behavior. Does the Sagittarian myth of freedom, unbridled expansion and a search for higher wisdom describe the motivations of our age? I think a strong case could be argued for this. The summer solstice is the highpoint or outcome of this cultural process. The Gemini traits of duality, increased communication, superficial knowledge of the world, etc. seem to describe the world we've actually built, regardless of our original intentions. The fall equinox is the "other", the "underworld", the things we are estranged from or disown, the way we treat others. There's no better gauge of this point than our views of the physical world and our own bodies in particular. The last age had Libra, the sensual and aesthetic appreciation of the world, on this point. We have Virgo. At the risk of perpetuating a very limited and demeaning image of Virgo, I think our "practical" view of the material world as something to be exploited and our disembodied "puritanical" view of our own bodies are typical symptoms of our age. As the ancients knew, when the constellations at the four corners of the world changed, our world (which is simply "in the image" of the celestial realm) would radically change. Religions, art, mythology, culture, the gods themselves, everything was overhauled at the change of the age. We see this in our own past over and over again.

Further, the north and south pole were also important for the ancients. The region around the north pole (and I'm being a northern hemisphere chauvanist here) is "the heavens", the part of the sky that never touches the earth. These "circumpolar" constellations are remote and distant gods for us, somehow set apart from our affairs on earth. In particular, the north pole itself (and whatever star it's near at any given time) is the "sacred center" around which the entire heavens rotate, the axis mundi of creation. The constellations near the pole are indicators of the kind of god(s) we envision as standing in the center of creation. In recent millennia, the pole has been moving from Ursa Major to Ursa Minor (the great and lesser bears), passing through Draco the dragon. The bears are symbols of the Mother Goddess in many old mythologies. The next polar constellation (in about two to four thousand years) is the unassuming Cepheus the King, a masculine symbol. While our symbolism of these northern constellations is nowhere as advanced and detailed as the zodiac symbols along the ecliptic, I think there's much food for thought going on at the north pole. And finally, the circumpolar stars near the south pole never rise above the horizon. They are unseen, beyond our awareness, in the underworld or the unconscious. There are currently no bright stars (such as Polaris) near the south pole. In fact, the south pole is in the constellation Octans the octant, one of the "modern" constellations invented in the 16th century to take up empty space. However, the old star pattern called Eridanus reaches from Orion's foot (near the equator) to very near the south pole. Eridanus is a great mythic river, simultaneously a kind of moat around the world and a river leading to the underworld that plays an important role in myths around the world. Perhaps this river is a symbol of our need to fathom our own darker nature.

While the poles change with time, moving from star to star, there are two points in the sky that "never" move because of precession. The north and south ecliptic poles are the still points of precession, the axle on which the great wheel of precession turns. The northern point is near the head of Draco, unmarked by any bright stars. It seems to point towards empty space, sometimes known as the Open Hole in the Heavens. The southern ecliptic pole is curiously next to the Large Magellanic Cloud, a small galaxy that is a close neighbor of the Milky Way. As such, it literally points us away from our own galaxy and towards the first stepping stones of intergalactic space. I'm not certain what to make of this "coincidence", but it feels highly significant to me. The SEP is also frequently associated with the bright southern star Canopus nearby, a star with many connections to the underworld. However, even these sacred centers move (due to planetary precession) to a small degree. All still points can be transcended, our awareness drawn to a greater level.

The Whirlpool and the Millstone

While modern science expresses its understanding of the world in the poetry of mathematics, ancient knowledge was expressed in the language of myth. This includes not only the stories of heros and gods, but the mathematical myths that number and geometry are the basis of reality. "Myth" is a dirty word to the modern mind (as in the dismissive "it's merely a myth!"). We think of it as nothing but vague and misguided metaphors that don't resemble "the real world" we believe in. ("The real world" is our modern myth. However, a ruling myth is always invisible and never recognized as a myth, because it is "obviously true".) Our acquaintance with the great myths of old are often little more than a few paragraphs of disembowelled synopsis, not the full blooded and lengthy narratives full of juicy detail that was in the original. Mythic language is neither vague nor wooly-minded. When faced with a myth, we are conversing with people as capable of deep, perceptive thought as ourselves, except that we are talking in a language they understood and we no longer do. These stories often "encode" profound technical information that we would normally call science, if only we understood what we were reading. Contrary to our modern preconceptions of the past, it is we who are the "ignorant savages", not our ancestors.

Two very common mythic motifs concerning precession are the Whirlpool and the Millstone. The daily rotation of the Earth was viewed as the entire cosmos rotating about our heads, much like the rotating millstones used to grind grain. These cosmic millstones were not only a symbol of regularity and order in the universe, but were revered as the mills that ground out the fates of men and gods. The axis of this mill was the north pole itself, the creative center that represented divine power. Unfortunately, due to precession, the cosmic millstone sometimes broke its axle and fell into disrepair. Quite often, this broken mill fell into the ocean (a metaphor of the underworld), disappearing into a giant whirlpool to the center of the earth. The whirlpool could be either pre-existing or caused by the falling millstone itself.

While these stories often sound as though the whirlpool was in some terrestrial sea someplace, the content of these stories is thoroughly astronomical and the whirlpool must be placed in the sky. The movement of constellations through the tropical zodiac was frequently described as "emerging from the sea" and "disappearing into the whirlpool", so the language of precession is completely tied up with the whirlpool. In typical mythic fashion, however, there is no one "place" for the whirlpool (or any other mythic element), but a multitude of places that reinforce a common symbolism, a mode of thinking that currently baffles our modern, overly concrete way of understanding. In fact, there are various ways to fall into the whirlpool and it will save us much confusion if we understand some of these ways.

First of all, there is literally a place in the sky known as the whirlpool. In the myth of Phaethon, the son of Apollo, he asked his father to let him drive the chariot of the sun across the sky. To make a long story short, Phaethon lost control of the chariot and was endangering the earth with incineration. To save the world, Zeus blasted the boy with a thunderbolt and his body plunged into the ocean and down the whirlpool. Phaethon was immortalized by being placed in the sky as the constellation Auriga the charioteer, just above the head of Orion. With the exactitude of detail you find in "technical mythology", Auriga is placed in the Milky Way, just north of where it crosses the ecliptic. The Sun was formerly considered to move along the Milky Way in "olden times", and this white streak across the sky became known as the scorched path left behind by Phaeton's joy ride, while the ecliptic is the "new" path of the Sun. At the foot of Orion, at the start of the river Eridanus that leads to the underworld is the "Zalos" or whirlpool, below the equator. At one level, this myth is the story of a changing of the ages and their gods because the path of the Sun had changed and a new order of the world had been established.

Alternatively, the northern hemisphere was the dry land and the southern hemisphere was the ocean or the underworld, making the equator the mythic equivalent of sea level. When a star would precess past the vernal equinox and cross the equator, it was said to emerge onto dry land. When it headed south past the fall equinox, it fell into the whirlpool. Many mythological references can be understood in this context.

More commonly, however, the whirlpool was associated with the phenomenon of the heliacal rise. A star or planet was in heliacal rise when it appeared above the eastern horizon just before the Sun rose and blotted out the night sky. Particularly important were the stars and constellations that rose heliacally when the Sun was at the equinoxes or solstices. Over time, as those stars precessed, they rose nearer and nearer to the Sun, eventually disappearing into the early dawn light and then moving below the horizon. This process was also known as falling into the whirlpool. In fact, it is one of the easiest observations for naked eye astronomers to make in order to verify the reality of precession and was most likely one of the ways precession was originally discovered.

(I'm reminded of a talk I heard as a kid by an astronomer from the University of Minnesota on the Star of Bethlehem, the "star" that the Magi "saw in the east" and followed to the Christ child. He traced the star to a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, known as "the King Star" to ancient astrologers, in the constellation Pisces, which was associated with the Jewish nation. The phrase "in the east" that appears in the Biblical story is a bad English translation of a dubious Greek translation from the original Aramaic text. The Aramaic word that was used was a technical astronomical term meaning heliacal rise, not the vague "in the east". With all this technical information the astronomer was able to precisely calculate what astronomical phenomena contributed to the Star of Bethlehem.)

Anyway, it can be confusing when astrologers talk of "stars disappearing", since it can mean many things. Reader beware!

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