As Above, so below: talking human orbs and planetary proxemics

As Above, so below: talking human orbs and planetary proxemics

Nature is an economical goddess. Every single one of her innovations is first put to countless uses and, then, endlessly repackaged and recycled. Truly I wonder sometimes how we recklessly wasteful humans can possibly share her blood! But never mind. The point is that, given all this ceaseless repurposing, we live in an iterative world of repeating patterns. And what this constant repetition does it tell us useful things about the structure of the world. In old world terms, this gleaning of specific qualities and relationships from appearance (or smell or behaviour or whatever) is called the Doctrine of Signatures. The idea is that, during creation, God helpfully marked everything existent with instructions for use and, thus, the doctrine belongs to the belief that we live in a communicative and forthcoming world. All we have to do in order to understand the communicative efforts of all things is observe for similarities so that we understand through analogy what they’re telling us. Therefore, this observance of similarities is not only the root from which human language evolved but is also the basis for all divinatory methods: if you like, Language and Divination are identical twins while the worldview underlying the Doctrine of Signatures is their mother.

These twins can be understood in terms of the Divine Twin mytheme – another eternally recurring pattern – where one sibling is divine and the other human. What we won’t necessarily agree on is which is which: is Language divine because it’s The Word? Is Divination divine in being divinely-inspired? It’s hard to decide. Either way, it’s Language that tends to have the most to say for itself in terms of Gold Standard Communication when, honestly, it’s a minor player.

The fact is that, even vis-a-vis human-to-human communication, language forms barely a third of what flows between us. This is because most of what’s going on is non-verbal. And one means of non-verbal communication involves the use of proximity. In other words, we extrapolate meaning from the amount and quality of space that exists between one thing and another.

As newborns, we arrive in the world bereft of personal space but, over time, each develop an orb of influence. It is an orb with spatial qualities – i.e. it is horizontal and vertical – and simultaneously real-world and symbolic, and only breachable so long as certain conditions are met. For instance, horizontally-speaking, you may only enter my intimate space if you are my friend, my lover or my child. If you are none of these and wander in uninvited there may be consequences. If I invite you in, you’ll be received with warmth into my sunshiny heart! In this, I’m no different from anyone else. However, in other respects, orbs are culturally and individually personalised. This is an example of the vertical orb and demonstrated in the Chinese concept of Face where a personal sense of worth is derived from how well an individual maximises personal dignity within the bounds of their social position and sphere.

Now, given the economy of nature, you’ll be unsurprised to find that we humans are not alone in having personal orbs. For example, the sun and moon have them too – as do the astrological planets, at least insofar as we accept the Doctrine of Signatures. And these orbs are similar to our own inasmuch as they are simultaneously real-world and symbolic, and only breachable at some cost. Plus, the orbs describe the area over which the planets exert a certain quality or, if you like, influence.

Similarities do not end there because, just as the size of the human orb has been measured in sociology, so the orbs in modern western astrology have been awarded rule-of-thumb values too. These seem to result from the melding of two factors: the importance of the planet (the sun is the most important so is awarded the largest orb); and the type and strength of an aspect (numerical fraction of the circle) relevant to the moment. This means that an astrologer’s decision about what size orbs to use in order to determine a level of applied ‘influence’ has the appearance of an abstract mathematical equation much influenced by esoteric notions regarding number. And this confuses us into thinking things about astrology which are presently unsupportable like, for instance, that it is a science, or that it is gnostic wisdom. But, d’you know what? I think it possible that there’s a more Gaia-centric, grounded and experiential explanation of planetary orbs of ‘influence’. But if you want it, you’ll have to come out with me first, figuratively-speaking, into the astronomical twilight where we’ll salute the rising sun together. Afterwards, armed with what we’ve seen, we’ll consider what all this orb-talk might boil down to.

Astronomical Dawn

OK, so here we are. It’s about 4:30 (GMT) on the morning of 28th September 2016 and our location is nearly 53 degrees north and just over 3 degrees west. Morning astronomical twilight has just officially begun because the geometric centre of the Sun has reached 18° below the horizon. The old balsamic moon has already risen in parallel to Sirius and, just one sign distant from the sun, traces the finest curve in the south-easterly heavens. Plus Mercury is rising. And we can see all this because the sky is still fully dark enough for all points to be visible. Nevertheless, morning is coming because, from now on, the thick soupy darkness will become increasingly thin.

First Light

Now, soon after 5am, the sun is just 12° below the horizon and it is first light. Ghosts fade and phantoms retreat as outlines begin to resolve into landscape features and a gloom-smudged horizon reappears in the east. There is also a corresponding violet Earth shadow in the antisolar west, the height of which exactly opposes the degree of the rising sun, and it sets as the sun disc rises.

Civil Twilight

Time has moved on again and it’s now about 6:20am. The sun is just about 6° below the horizon. Like Cetus, as he rises, he swallows morning-star Mercury whole. Then he chases after Sirius and hunts the hunter, Orion, but, being close to the zenith, these fight him off a little longer and make it to about 6:30. We too will shortly leave the twilight zone as crimson rays bleed up into the morning sky and soak clouds into bloody rags. But, for now, it’s 7ish and a phantasm of the upper limb of the sun disc predicts its imminent rising even whilst the true solar-centre is still 50 arc-minutes below the horizon (thanks to the fact that the image is refracted by the atmosphere).


But now the sun is risen. And he is so beautiful in his heavens that, for once, Language has nothing to say: he and Divination can only stand and stare…

Still, we can notice things like, how, where we are, the sun doesn’t rise on the perpendicular but at an angle tracing to the right in order (at this time of year) to maintain the line of the celestial equator, although it’s already deviating south. And we can try to hold sight of the fading silver curve of the moon even though it keeps floating out of view amongst fronded cirrus and lumpy cumulo-maculi which are tangles of fish-scales and seaweed in a celestial fishing net. And we can notice the onset of unsettled weather as signed by lower-altitude lenticular clouds, stained rose-pink and spun by shearing winds which have been all shredded and cut to ribbons by rows of ragged Welsh mountains.

But, night and shadows finally banished with the sunrise, we’re now in a position to say something about the meaning of celestial ‘proxemics’, or orbs, because the astrological concept of combustion has come to mind.

Combustion is what happens to a planet when it strays too close to the sun and enters into ‘corporal conjunction’ with it within a 17° orb of influence. This, according to ancient wisdom, is the greatest misfortune for a planet because the sun’s rays are so very powerful that the planet is obscured and burned. However, there is a brief moment of glory for the planet in conjunction with the sun when it reaches Cazimi which is like the planet has become a phoenix rising from the ashes! A recent example came with the sunrise on Monday 26th September (GMT) when the sun rose with Jupiter at his heart and them both at 3°Libra 36’. But, either side of Cazimi (which is between zero and 17 minutes of arc) all astrological prognoses run along a continuum from miserable to dire.

The point is that there are degrees of combustion. When a planet is anywhere between eight and a half degrees and seventeen degrees from the sun, it is ‘under sunbeams’ or, in other words, feeling the heat and weakened. Remembering back to astronomical dawn, being under sunbeams correlates with the gradual fading of the stars and the reappearance of the horizon and, thus, the dying rule of nocturnal things as the sun reasserts his sovereignty. When a planet is anywhere between 17 minutes of arc and eight and a half degrees from the sun, it is combust and has something like a third-degree burn. In a decumbiture chart, it is a sick person overpowered and unto death. The outer boundary of this level of combustion is when Mercury disappeared into the predawn rays. As the sun came closer to the horizon, so the rest of the stars were outshone and only the palest, sickest moon survived sun up, although barely so. But the marvellous good fortune of Cazimi is illustrated in the moment that the sun breaks the horizon: to rise in the reflected glory of the solar disc is to achieve the divine status that Jupiter found on Monday.

So, then, the astrological orb of the sun and the rules relating to combustion are at least analogous with the real-world experience of the sunrise – and, in reverse, the sunset, when the sky illustrates how a planet might regain its strength following a period of combustion. And it all bears comparative analogies with human sickness and health, and human social organisation in matters of invitation and violation, social dominance and submission, outshining and being outshone.

But Hermes said it better in his Emerald Tablet. So (severely edited):

What is above is like what is below, and what is below is like that which is above. To make the miracle of the one thing…

Its father is the Sun, its mother is the Moon.

The wind carried it in its womb, the earth breast fed it.

It is the father of all ‘works of wonder’ in the world.


Shining Moonlight on Communication and Language

Shining Moonlight on Communication and Language

In ancient times, the old men say, humans walked the earth with the gods for company and conversation. That’s what all the creation myths tell us.

And they may well be right because we know they reach through the mists of time to before the world became as it is today. We have the evidence. For instance, the Mesopotamian Enûma Eliš has its roots at least in the region’s Bronze Age and the First Babylonian Dynasty when the god-king, Hammurabi, held sway. It was truly a time of wonders because, besides rubbing shoulders with him, people mingled with other gods like Apsû (fresh water), and Tiamat (oceanic waters), Enlil (the wind), Emesh (the vegetation) to name just a very few. And they had the wise Nanna, too, the father god who, being the bright and shining moon, attracted the epithet “Illuminator”.

All the gods had their specialties and illuminating Nanna was no different. His area of expertise was astronomy/astrology – the two amounting to the same thing in the ancient world although they’re stringently differentiated now: astronomy is the respectable study of the material universe while astrology is a pseudoscientific bastard child given to the interpretation of celestial signs or influences.

In order to partake of Nanna’s wisdom, one had to observe his appearance and phases. With his waxing and waning, so his name developed. When he reached his crescent, he was Dnanna. At full moon, he became the magnificent Sabattum. You might justly feel as though you recognise this last name because it’s cognate with the Hebrew Shabbatwhich is, of course, Judaism’s day of rest which begins with Friday’s sunset and ends with Saturday’s nightfall. This is itself, apparently, some kind of relative to the BuddhistUposatha, their day of fasting and rest coinciding with the new and full moon and the two quarter phases (or, alternatively, just the new and full moon depending on time and place). Just like the Jewish Shabbat, times when food preparation is allowed are restricted during Uposatha, albeit that the rules are a little different: through Uposatha, no cooking or eating is permitted during the hours of sunlight. During Shabbat, eating is allowed but no food preparation. An important difference though is the standardisation of the Shabbat so that it no longer necessarily coincides with the moon’s phases. In contrast, Uposatha days remain tied to these and their Pali names are based on the Sanskrit names of the nakśatra, which are the lunar mansions (or constellations) through which the moon passes as it makes its way through the lunar month. Consequently, each Uposatha day has its own distinctive quality as defined by the moon and its celestial back-drop.

But since wisdom was Nanna’s thing, let’s explore the word. It’s etymologically related to vision since they both have at their root the Proto-Indo-European *weid- which is both “to know” and “to see”. But, over time,  wisdom developed connotations of “custom, habit, manner,” and “condition, state, circumstance,” and these allowed its now common use as an adverb, an add-on, giving additional information about modal ways of doing things (as in clockwise, where something moves, like a clock, circularly to the right). And what these developments of meaning describe, in terms of language in general, is how, originally, wisdom was ostensive: in other words, wise was the individual who was able to receive a visual signal and interpret and respond to it correctly. And they describe how, in time, wisdom became a vehicle of convention: in other words, wise was the individual who was sufficiently grounded and educated in the theory of signs so that they could conceptualise about them. This drift of meaning was obviously important for the history of our understanding of the nature of wisdom but, also, it’s the development of the overarching human conceptual system we call “language” in microcosm.

This is because it’s thought that, once upon a time, before human language developed, the communication of our predecessors matched the system that animals and plants still share. This guileless system is characterised thus: one individual signals a sign which another individual receives and responds to. However, as homo sapiens brains developed, human language piggybacked this earliest communicative system as the first humans learned to structure their thoughts in creative ways using internal language as their tool. This internal language was not honest in the same way as the primal communication system because internal conversation tends to be allegorical and representative. So, what they eventually externalised through spoken language were figurative concepts. In time, they constructed the first symbolic realms out of these private dreams and imaginings; later shared these; later still, reified them into the conventions and beliefs by which the earliest civilisations were organised and on which all other civilisations have built.

Foundationally, then, much of human language belongs to the symbolic realm which is where we continue to create models of the world in all its complexity and then make these models concrete through language. Thus we, being many, have created multiple symbolic realities all competing for legitimacy. And, needless to say, these symbolic worlds compete with the natural world and even take precedence because they rise above it. For this reason, perhaps, any additional meaning attached to the moon besides the hard scientific fact that it is a dead lump of rock, has come to be seen as metaphorical. Astrologers are as guilty of this as anyone else, not least because all day long we gaze at symbolic skies (i.e. astrological charts) rather than real ones. Accordingly, astrology has developed into a source of conventions of psychological, esoteric knowledge. This astrology is a joy to me but it is also a shame because the moon is foremost in the great heavenly sign-system and the source of much practical meaning for life on earth.

The thing is, we humans live in a communicative and networking universe where animals and plants engage in inter- and intra-species mutually-beneficial signalling, although our retreat into symbolic realms has given us the impression that we are not of this world. Nevertheless, we’ve always known about this signalling and it is knowledge that has come down through history as The Doctrine of Signatures. And this signalling – or offering up of signs – is, as we have seen, honest in a way that human language has developed not to be: a signaller offers a sign to a recipient which would be potentially advantageous to both parties if the recipient responds: for instance, a human comes across a stripy red snake which hisses a warning; the human steers clear in the understanding that this snake is poisonous and will strike if further annoyed: both live to fight another day. There are no tricks in this natural system: what you see is what you get. But, in addition to mutuality, a sign might only exist in relation to an agent (a person or thing assuming an active role) only the rule remains that a response from the agent will likely benefit them. In the natural world, the moon is an example of such a sign.

However, in modern western astrology, the moon is not strictly seen as a sign because we don’t tend to look to it directly for information. Instead it has evolved into a symbol. What this means is that it is metaphorically representative of something else and, consequently, becomes essentially ambiguous and in need of imaginative interpretation. For example, in modern astrology, the moon conventionally symbolises all that is considered feminine and symbolic of the mother and other nurturing relationships. However, say in someone’s natal chart, the detrimented moon in Capricorn opposes its detrimented ruler, Saturn, in Cancer: well then the symbol of the mother is not even remotely nurturing. But this is not understood by a direct view of the moon rising in Capricorn while Saturn sets in the west. It takes an imaginative effort which pictures two elementally uncomfortable celestial signs standing against each other, whilst putting together lunar, Capricornian, Cancerian and Saturnine characteristics and coming up with a mother who has anything other than a warm and nurturing breast.

Obviously, this illustrative symbolic moon is very different from the Mesopotamian masculine moon and god, Nanna. Nanna was a fluid god too but his changing appearance offered visual signs which were unambiguous and, therefore, available to be used for pragmatic, organisational purposes: when he appeared in the sky in the regalia of Sabattum, it was a signal for the people to take their monthly rest. Through these two examples of moon meaning, it is indisputable how, in astrology, this has shifted away from the physical world into a symbolic one and how astrology has grounded in the psychological and creative conventions of human language. But it is also clear how natural astrological signs belong to the deeply complex communication system by which the natural world conveys and understands meaning.

Nanna, the wise and illuminating, does everything anyone could want from a god since he instructs, advises, informs and warns. He reveals and places his signature, or mark, on things thus establishing a kind of ownership (which is at the root of the association of the moon and the mother via the menstrual cycle and the length of the human pregnancy). Accordingly, he also presents evidence and signals intentions and so on. Furthermore, Nanna’s wisdom is to be understood contextually. This is because he is part of nature and offers natural signs which are causally related to what they signify.

The best example of this, in respect of the moon, is the meteorological sign. I had a lovely example of one of these recently when a ruddy red moon rose signifying the wind that came the following morning. Of course, this sign was a regional sign which relied on local weather conditions for existence. It won’t have appeared to anyone to whom these didn’t apply. In regard to this, there’s weather-lore which says that when the moon crescent appears as a boat with its horns pointing up, it’s a “wet” moon, predicting wet weather. But a boat/wet moon only appears in equatorial regions because it is dependent on the orientation of sun/moon’s apparent path to a given location: the earth’s tilt in respect of the sun is made apparent by the appearance of crescent moon in higher than lower latitudes than the equator. This is to say, in the northern hemisphere, its curve points left; right in the southern hemisphere; at the equator, it lies neutrally on its back. Important, though, the boat/wet moon is seasonal (being dependent on the earth’s tilt). Therefore, the boat/wet moon coincides with monsoons. When these are done, the moon sits up on one of its horns for the dry season. Thus, the idea is that the wet moon fills with water while the dry moon allows fluid to drain out, although it can be seen the other way round. Away from the equator, the earth’s tilt is illustrated by the tilted appearance of the lunar crescent which, in these more temperate regions, signs a constant flow so we have rain all year round, albeit that sometimes it is less, sometimes more.

As we saw, in ancient Mesopotamia, Nanna signalled appropriate timing which meant that the moon had an organisational function. As such, the moon remains religiously and culturally relevant even today since, in Christianity, Easter is set for the first Sunday after the “paschal full moon” which is the one to fall on or after the northward equinox. He also has an affiliation with menstruation through a shared cycling of filling and emptying, and human pregnancy through the fact that this lasts for approximately 10 synodic months (a synodic month is the period from new moon to new moon)…

…It goes on but these examples demonstrate how illuminating Nanna, the great father god, shows himself as the preeminent heavenly sign. And that’s the truth (to coin a folkloric ending!).

But I haven’t quite wrapped up. So…Once upon a time, humans walked the earth with the gods for company and conversation…Well, actually, we still do. It’s just that our marvellously creative human-language skills have allowed us to speak over them constantly so we don’t hear what they have to say. Regardless, these gods remain countless and chatty although they are growing quieter and becoming fewer as we deplete the world’s ecology. But, still, enduring amongst them are the fresh and oceanic waters, the wind, the vegetation, the moon…And none of these are so much above us as they aren’t prepared to communicate with us through signs. And neither are they generally into games and riddles because they are fundamentally honest: a snake signals its venomous nature by its colour; a plant offers itself up as a snakebite antidote by having flowers that looked like snake fangs; a rising wan and watery moon warns of rain on the way…But, far back, in the mists of time when the world was very young, humans abandoned the real world for the symbolic multiverse so that, now, when we ask for signs, sad to say, we get mystifying symbols. But please don’t think I’m saying it’s all bad because beneath our obfuscating abstractions is the bottomless well of stories and dreams from which all human language (and all its specialisations, of which my beloved astrology is one) continuously evolves.

The Lunar Eclipse: a Harvest of Regrets

The Lunar Eclipse: a Harvest of Regrets

Tomorrow, at around 19:05 GMT, the moon will wax full in Pisces. But, instead of rising in all her glory, she’ll be eclipsed and hiding in the earth’s penumbra. In other words, in my location at least, she’ll rise looking sick and grey.

She’ll be more-or-less on the ecliptic and, also, approaching the celestial equator. She’s moving northwards in declination while the sun is rising pretty-much due-east since he’s coming to the September equinox. In a week’s time, he’ll begin to head southwards like a migrating northern bird. Thus, the sun and moon will cross paths of declination, the moon leaving the descending node, and the sun leaving the ascending node: it’s a brief joined moment and then a parting of ways.

The moon will be fleet in motion and apparently going somewhere, since she’s moving towards her perigee. But her path across the heavens contradicts hopes of glory since she will never reach dizzy heights. She is also so combust as to be burned to ashes, and will leave this separation for the lonely wandering of being void of course. The sun is similarly forlorn: he’s slow and moving towards Libra which is the sign of his fall where, the summer all gone, he steadily weakens. Loss and regrets are finely balanced on both sides.

From my point-of-view, tomorrow, as the moon rises, Acumen – the Scorpion’s sting – will be at the zenith. As the sun sets, Hamal, the malevolent yellow star on the Ram’s brow, will rise. And the sun will remember W B Yeats’ words, while Donne’s will be as distant to memory as the summer solstice:

Never Give all the Heart by W B Yeats

Never give all the heart, for love

Will hardly seem worth thinking of

To passionate women if it seem

Certain, and they never dream

That it fades out from kiss to kiss;

For everything that’s lovely is

But a brief, dreamy, kind delight.

O never give the heart outright,

For they, for all smooth lips can say,

Have given their hearts up to the play.

And who could play it well enough

If deaf and dumb and blind with love?

He that made this knows all the cost,

For he gave all his heart and lost.


The Sun Rising by John Donne

Busy old fool, unruly sun,

Why dost thou thus,

Through windows, and through curtains call on us?

Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run?

Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide

Late school boys and sour prentices,

Go tell court huntsmen that the king will ride,

Call country ants to harvest offices,

Love, all alike, no season knows nor clime,

Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.

Thy beams, so reverend and strong

Why shouldst thou think?

I could eclipse and cloud them with a wink,

But that I would not lose her sight so long;

If her eyes have not blinded thine,

Look, and tomorrow late, tell me,

Whether both th’ Indias of spice and mine

Be where thou leftst them, or lie here with me.

Ask for those kings whom thou saw’st yesterday,

And thou shalt hear, All here in one bed lay.

She’s all states, and all princes, I,

Nothing else is.

Princes do but play us; compared to this,

All honor’s mimic, all wealth alchemy.

Thou, sun, art half as happy as we,

In that the world’s contracted thus.

Thine age asks ease, and since thy duties be

To warm the world, that’s done in warming us.

Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere;

This bed thy centre is, these walls, thy sphere.

Is there anything right about the left-hand path?

Is there anything right about the left-hand path?

I’m one of the 10% of the global population who are left-handed. Well, truthfully, my handedness is a little more niche than that because I have cross-dominance or, in other words, I favour my left-hand for some things and my right for others. I’m not ambidextrous; I can’t chop and change. But, all in all, my left side is strongest.

Still, arguing such a point is to split hairs! The fact is I’m cack-handed, so my granddad used to tell me affectionately. And, as a child, I loved to write stories and they were often appreciated but it was like, “Lovely story, Helen. But your handwriting! Blimey! And look at your hands!” – because my writing was horrible and, to this day, my hand drags behind my pen nib in the wet ink. And I was an untidy little girl, and clumsily always dropping things because I just had to ‘look’ with my fingers.

Moreover, I have always had a very mild stammer which, it seems, is associated with my handedness too (something to do with the increased activation of my brain’s right hemisphere). But things could have been worse. If I’d been born any earlier, someone might have deemed it necessary to strap my left-hand behind my back to prevent me using it. Or they might have beaten left-hand use out of me because allowing one’s left-hand to dominate has been – and in some places still is – a bad thing, a devilish thing, even.

So, like I say, I’ve been lucky because, as a kid, my smudged handwriting and general awkwardness irritated others but they didn’t overtly ascribe evil to my left-handedness because this was, by then, a superstitious and irrational thing to do. It was all just me being Heleny – slapdash to the point of double-left-footedness! But, whatever, I heard pro-right propaganda like a dog-whistle. And I wanted to know, why was being left-handed to be branded with a mark of misfortune? I didn’t start to answer this question with etymology as a kid but I will now.

For the vast majority of the population, the left is the weaker hand. Therefore it’s no surprise that the word “left” derives from the northern Old English lyft meaning “weak” or “foolish” or, as in lyft-adl, “lameness” or “paralysis”. This all relates to the East Frisian luf which has the meaning “worthless”.

Meanwhile, the more common Old English for left-hand is winstre/winestra which means, literally, “friendlier”. But this apparent positive is a euphemism that was used to avoid invoking the unlucky forces of the left. The Greeks were also amongst those who used a flattering smokescreen to confuse malevolent left-handed spirits: For “left,” they had aristeros which means “the better one” (there’s another reason too, but we’ll come to that).

But the English word “right” is straight-up and unambiguous and related to Germanic words for “to straighten”. In terms of right-handedness, we also get “dexterous” from the Latin for “On the right hand”. The Latin dexter is to be skilful and is at the stem ofdexteritatem which is “readiness, skillfulness, prosperity”. Thus, being skilful (and right-handed) lies behind good fortune and, sure enough, the Gauls had Dexsiva for their goddess of fortune. Historically, at the Proto-Indo-European root of everything is*deks – “on the right hand” – which is as much a spatial reference as anything since it refers to one’s south when one is facing east (we’ll come back to this too!).

No wonder, then, that left-handedness is thoughtlessly disparaged in common language. To start with, we have the approving “ambidextrous” which is as good as can be since it means that one has two powerful right hands. Its antonym, though, is “ambisinistrous” which is clumsily “left-handed on both sides” just as we have two left feet if we can’t dance. Universally the word, right, carries connotations of being simultaneously about the hand, the direction, and what is correct, whilst what is left is, at once, the hand, clumsiness and, frankly, to be aligned with the devil (as in the Portuguese, canhoto, which means left-handed but was once that arch-villain’s name).

This association of the left with the devil or an alternative path carries through into religion with modern paganism self-identifying as the left-hand path. Jesus, of course, sits at God’s right hand, whilst the avenging Gabriel sits to the left. And, in Ecclesiastes 10 v.2, we have, “A wise man’s heart is at his right hand; but a fool’s heart at his left.” Thus, Biblical wisdom is that the right hand is synonymous with intelligent authority. And so it is in the heraldic tradition too since, in the case of marriage, the dexter half of the husband’s arms is located alongside the sinister half of the wife’s, thus placing him on (and in!) the right. What is sinister on heraldic arms may also indicate illegitimacy.

To be right or left-leaning in a political sense came into English usage in the mid-1800s probably as a loan-translation from French when the aristocracy took their seats to the President’s right while the The Third Estate (which is to say, the 98% of the population who was neither clergy nor nobility) sat on the left, thereby creating order out of legitimised hierarchy.

And this bias toward the right-hand is also in the keep-left rule which is traceable back to ancient Greece, Egypt and Rome where it was ground into the archaeological material record by ancient horses and carts. It’s all to do with the logistics of leading a horse and cart when one is right-handed.

So this right-handed bias is a complicated thing which is not least about the right-handed person’s experience of the weakness and clumsiness of their own left hand. Also, as my own experience demonstrates, it arises from a right-handed person’s observations of the clumsiness of left-handed folk in a right-handed world where tools and western writing systems are exactly the opposite of what they can easily manage. But, still, there is the thing about brain lateralisation: the fact is, I know that my brain is a chaotic one in which worlds collide.

Lateralisation refers to the specialisation of each hemisphere and there is evidence that this was a very useful evolutionary adaption. For instance, it allows feeding birds one eye on their food whilst the other scans for predators. Of course, there is nothing to stop left-handed creatures from having lateralised brains that are simply a reversal of the normal way of things but this may not be the case. For instance, in having cross-dominance, I show signs that my brain is not particularly lateralised. And, in any case, such reversals can be physically undermining. An example of this is in the congenital condition, Situs inversus, where the major visceral organs are reversed as if they were placed inside by a maker using a mirror!

So, right-handed bias has some basis in the history of humanity’s organisational efforts and some in understandings of good health. This makes it understandable that left-leaning became predictably unfavourable. And that’s exactly how it is in divination: the Roman augurs saw misfortune in bird flights to the left. And their baleful interpretations of flights in a sinister direction reflected the earlier Greek practice of facing north when observing omens. However, there wasn’t complete agreement on this – as Cicero points out in his De Divination – because, when augurs faced south, they judged the left favourable. This takes us back to the etymological sense of sinister having a secondary sense in Latin of being auspicious but, given the about-turn, we’re still with the right hand!

In astrology, it matters if, when a planet aspects (forms an angle or fractional division) another, this is in a dexter or sinister direction. This is because, predictably, a sinister aspect is weaker than a dexter one. Therefore, noting this allows the astrologer to offer a little more depth of analysis with regard to outcomes. If you don’t know astrological terminology, a sinister aspect is one that manifests in the order of the signs – like for instance, if a planet in Aries aspects another in Leo. If, instead, that planet in Aries aspects another in Sagittarius, their aspect would be a dexter one and stronger than the former. The reason for this is because, when the planet casts its rays in the order of the signs, the aspect is contrary to the diurnal movement of the sun and it is this that makes it weak, since it betrays the natural order of things.

So now we’re at the crux of why left-handedness has always been viewed as weak and potentially evil. To move left is to move from west to east, and this is to move under the sun’s burning rays which, in astrology, is to move into combustion and profound weakness. Moreover, it’s plain wrong. The right and proper direction is sunward, or clockwise, east to west, and the sun shows us the way. The moon and stars rise in the east and set in the west too and thus the skies set the example. The only time the planets falter is when they go retrograde and then we’d better watch out! And the winds, in their contrary motions, also show us how, when customary order is violated, bad things happen. In the 19th century, the Prussian physicist and meteorologist, Heinrich Wilhelm Dove wrote The Law of Storms and noted that we can expect fair weather when the wind follows the sun’s movement. This is an ancient observation about which the Greek philosopher, Theophrastus, also said, “The cycle of the winds, when they cease of themselves (i.e. without being disturbed by opposite winds) is a continuous transformation of a wind from one quarter into a wind from the adjacent quarter, following the direction of the (diurnal) movement of the sun.” And, thus, he said, hurricanes generally happen when winds conflict each other.

In the end, right-handedness is right because it has the majority vote: heaven and earth are in agreement. In contrast, left-handed people are marked by a signature of sickly weakness and seditious waywardness. Accordingly, it can be predicted that some species of chaos will follow in our wake. So it is that, out of love and compassion, doting parents and dutiful teachers have ridiculed, beaten and forcibly restrained their left-handed children and charges for millennia!

The Relation of Qi to the 1st September Solar Eclipse

The Relation of Qi to the 1st September Solar Eclipse

From what I can discover, 1331 CE was an unmemorable year in the scheme of things. But one thing from that year reaches out across the ages to touch us this week. On July 5th 1331, as the northern midsummer sun dipped oh-so briefly into the Norwegian Sea, it was fleetingly eclipsed by the moon. The ripples from this eclipse, in the form of Saros Series 135, have expanded with time and will reach us on 1st September 2016. The Saros Series are eclipse cycles and Saros Series 135 is just past mid-cycle. It will be a 39th generation annular solar eclipse that hits the coast of western Africa on the equator on Thursday, and then tracks across the continent and Madagascar before ditching into the Indian Ocean and disappearing into the night.

But back to Norway and that progenitor of Saros Series 135. This was an ephemeral wraith that emerged, like Venus, out of sea-foam. At that time, the moon was in Cancer and had the ascending lunar node nearly sixteen degrees behind her. In other words, her shadow only grazed the sun. But then, one saros later or, to put it more finely, after the passing of 14 common years, 4 leap years and 11.321 days (or 13 common years, 5 leap years and 10.321 days) another came which shared characteristic similarities in the geometry of the Earth-Sun-Moon system. It was followed by another, then another, and another…and so it will carry on until the year 2593 which is when the last in the line of these 71 self-similar eclipses will dull the sun’s disc.

The coming solar eclipse will be in the 10th degree of Virgo and the retreating moon won’t fully obscure the sun’s disc but, instead, produce an annular eclipse with the sun’s rays surrounding her in a halo. Astrologically-speaking, the defining feature of the eclipse is its mutable T-square. The sun/moon conjunction will oppose Piscean Neptune and square Mars and Saturn in Sagittarius, with the last on the royal star, Antares, the scorpion’s heart. It’s an eclipse of rueful defeats and ignominious withdrawals, and of volte-faces and regretted, hasty, star-crossed actions. We are all, to a large degree, products of our ancestry and an eclipse is no different. So perhaps all this negativity is traceable to the mother of all Saros Series 135 eclipses which, remember, was born in 1331 out of frigid northern waters.  This had Neptune on the south node just as it is now and a joyfully excessive opposition between Venus and Jupiter torn asunder by a square from an undignified, unwise, rather stupid Saturn. This was a mother who could ignite a cause that would send people careering off in defence of some principle or ideal only to find (sometime nowish) they were always on a hiding to nothing.

So, with the possibility of a trying eclipse in the offing, I think it might be an idea to put our small lives in the context of a bigger picture which takes in the sun and the moon and the space between them – which, from our perspective is us and our earth. Seeing a wider view requires a special lens. And the lens I’ve chosen is the Taijitu – the yin/yang symbol.

There’s an idea that this symbol describes polarity and all that is contrary – light/dark, good/bad and so on – but, rather than duality, it describes a trinity. This is because, whilst it’s true that there is active, initiating yang on one side and passive, receptive yin on the other, and that these can be antithetical to each other, nevertheless, they are only two-thirds of the story. This is because between them exists potential, spiralling, iterative space. And in terms of what goes on between the moon’s yin and the sun’s yang, that space is us: life on earth is the spiralling iterative space between the two. This means our turbulent small concerns are the Qi, or the life-force, energising the universe.

In the words of the ancient Tao Te Ching, “The One begets the Two, the Two begets the Three, and the Three begets the 10,000 things.” And so it was in the formation of our solar system. In the beginning, 5 billion years ago, a shockwave from a supernova triggered the formation of the sun by creating a super-dense region within the giant molecular cloud that was hereabouts. This collapsed under gravitational strain and formed the solar nebula…then the sun…the protoplanetary disk…the planets…our moon…And, in time, life on earth developed too. And, from this earthly perspective, it was very clear from the beginning that there was an extra-special relationship between the sun and the moon. Moreover, it was also apparent that this relationship was significant to us on earth in countless meaningful ways. Often in religious narrative the sun and moon are the earth’s parents. This, in terms of the tides, earthly growth, reproductive behaviour and so on, placed us all in a tug-of-love between them. So it is that we are continually pushed and pulled between the sun and the moon with a fluctuating strength dependant on the forming and dissolution of their angular relationships.

But, returning to notions of earthly spiralling and iteration, I want to start again with the founding solar eclipse that began a unique spiralling path from north to south 685 years ago. It was followed, as we know, one saros later, by a homologous eclipse that was clearly the offspring of First Generation Saros Series 135. However, its path had veered west so that it fell over Canada, on the south-western coast of King William Island. And then, a saros later, the series’ path took that eclipse east so that it fell, unsung, in the desolate Siberian wastelands. That’s what the Saros Series do: they spiral the earth as their eclipses evolve. With regard to Saros Series 135, this finally reached middle age and full maturity in 1962 with the sun and moon conjunct the north node. From now on, each saros will see the eclipses die a little. Their intensity will decline until, on 17th August 2593, the whole series will die in the Southern Sea off Northern Antarctica. The series’ swansong will be an opposition of Neptune and Uranus which might suggest that in 577 years’ time all the idealism and hasty action in the first half of Saros Series 135 has humans seeking out new territory where the grass might still be greener…

…Who knows? But, whether true or false, meaning has always attached to eclipses. Perhaps this is because their spiralling shows that this is intrinsic to them. Their spiralling is the most basic, primal and ubiquitous energy that is found right across the universe at macro and micro scales. It’s a pattern which occurs when two adverse forces move against each other, simultaneously attracting and repelling. Spiral energy is a rhythmical mathematical dance between what might get along but can’t. In terms of eclipses, each is a point of intersection resulting from the moon’s monthly, and the sun’s annual, oscillations between the north and south nodes. They are also due to the fact that we have monthly new and full moons. The eclipse seasons are biannual because it takes the sun 6 months to travel between the nodes. Thus, half of the Saros Series roll southward and half northward with two or three eclipses each season, at least one of which will be moving south and one north. This means that, at any time, around 40 families of eclipses are enmeshing the earth in patterns of withheld light which are either double or triple helices. And helices and spirals, as we know, are patterns of life: they are in DNA and collagen, they are in worms and flowers, ferns and finger-prints, whirlpools, hurricanes, galaxies…

So eclipses and their series are meaningful because they are reflective of meaningful universal patterns. But they are also meaningful to foraging animals which change their feeding patterns on account of the darkened sun or moon. Furthermore, they have meant much to us humans culturally too, in the constructing of our calendars, our understandings of celestial mechanics, in our religious behaviour…

But, as much as eclipses have meant they, like everything else, will one day be gone. As the aeons pass, so the moon inches away from us and, one day, when it’s too small in the sky to obscure the sun’s disc, people on Earth won’t see total eclipses any more. I’ve been thinking about this in the knowledge that we’ll entertain three ages of eclipse series during this season: 1st September solar eclipse is in its middle years whilst on 18th August we had dying Lunar Saros 109 in Aquarius and, on 16th September, infant Lunar Saros 147 will darken the moon. It’s as though the illusion of immortality that midlife stability conjures is being challenged on both sides by reminders of birth and death and the message is this: Our small concerns are not only big to us but are also important in the scheme of things since they are the manifestation of the Qi, or life-force, that moves between yin and yang forces. But the importance of our individual failures and successes can deny neither the fading of all that matters to us, nor our own transience. There again, the transience of life forms will never deny the immortality of the life-force.

Translating the Light: a Lesson in Cloud Interpretation

Translating the Light: a Lesson in Cloud Interpretation

As a rule the UK is a shrouded archipelago and we live here under a blanket of clouds and mist. But this week many of us enjoyed a few days together of clear blue skies. I don’t mind clouds but I do love the sun too so, when it’s shining, nothing keeps me from worshipping it. And, accordingly, I spent the greatest part of the week in the garden where I lay drowsily under a celestial dome of deep-blue. An occasional fleecy fair weather cumulus did drift across the sun now and then and then I’d wake from my dose and read or lazily observe whatever fell in my eyeline.

So it was that, as the sun dropped on Tuesday evening, I was lying on my back taking in swifts flying high in the heavens, twisting between cirrus cloud tresses high up in the atmosphere. And it was in following the acrobatics of one of these that I noticed an inverted rainbow grinning at me wickedly from the zenith.

These wonders of the heavens, which are more properly called circumzenithal arcs, are not rare here in the UK, although they’re relatively rarely spotted since we don’t tend to look up very much. They aren’t really rainbows either, but halos produced by light interacting with atmospheric ice crystals. Another thing they are is portents. They tell us, along with the sun dogs that flanked the sun under that iridescent arc on Tuesday, that there is change on the way. Enjoy this while you may, they warn, because in a few days there will be storms. Moreover, they say, watch this space because with each hour a new messenger will arrive bearing updates.

The next morning was unexpectedly clear but the wind had cooled and veered easterly so that it wasn’t so easy to idle under the sun. And, now, curling mares’ tails had appeared to say that it was a warm rain-bearing front that was approaching. And, in the evening, a ruddy almost-full moon rose, heralding wild winds as part of a strung-out bad weather spell.

Yesterday was wet. Fluffy cumulus and fronded cirrus clouds had homogenised into heavy, diffuse grey conformity. They’d fattened and spread horizontally and vertically and the only features across the sullen skies were the breakout here and there of shafts of precipitation. So now we had constant light rain interspersed with heavy angry bursts. But, dull and featureless as they appeared, these nimbostratus clouds were nevertheless charged with their own message which was to confirm the moon’s: wind would arrive in their wake.

And here it is this morning: the wet and wild storms that were written in Tuesday’s drowsy summer sky have arrived!

Vyakarana: the joy of grammar

Vyakarana: the joy of grammar

“Grammar” so said Aunt Josephine in A Series of Unfortunate Events, “is the greatest joy in life, don’t you find?”

OK, that’s one way of putting it.

But then there’s the other side of the argument put forward by Jeremy Butterfield (2008) in his Damp Squid: The English Language Laid Bare. In this view, quite apart from being joyous, grammar is actually what’s objectionable about language. And this is a point of view which is so much easier to find sympathy with since grammar is much more obviously text books wittering on about declensions, and conjugations; and it’s interminable hours testing oneself on tenses, past, present and future and all those in between; and it’s being embarrassed because you have tea when you should be having dinner. It is, in fact, a million ways in which your own words – and their order – betray you…And all for what useful purpose, I mean, really?!

So that’s my question here: what is the purpose of learning grammar? And I’ll begin to answer it by looking at the etymology of the word.

The word came to us via classical Latin from the Greek grammatike which means the “art of letters”. And this art referred to philology (which is the study of structure, historical development, and relationships in one or more languages) and literature. So to be a classical grammarian was to be someone educated and versed in learning. But this classical Latin understanding of grammar overlaid an older one where knowledge of grammar was to be a magician and a seer who understood the science of right-timing (astrology) and could conduct rituals, and appreciate the magical properties of prosody (patterns of rhythm).

And this is an understanding of grammar which is traceable right back to the 2nd millennium BCE, Iron Age India, Sanskrit and the hymns of the Vedas. In these times the Vedic Rishis (sages) transmitted divine knowledge held in the Vedas (sruti – “that which is heard”, what has been known from the beginning and was authored by God) orally. This suggests that the study of grammar has its roots in the responsibility of ancient Indian sages to perform and transmit the divine word with minute accuracy.

But, as writing developed, a new body of knowledge began to grow which complimented sruti. This was smriti – “that which is remembered” – which is a vast pool of texts written by humans (as opposed to God) exploring the Vedas and expounding on the laws of the cosmos and the intrinsic nature of all things. And it was the job of grammarians to seek explanations of these metaphysical truths which were hidden in the Vedic sruti and smriti.

Grammar – Vyakarana – as a developing science, was one of the six supporting disciplines in Hinduism necessary for deep study of the Vedas. These were the Vedangas – “limbs of the Vedas” – and, besides Vyakarana, included:

  • Shiksha: phonetics, phonology, pronunciation.
  • Chhandas: prosody.
  • Nirukta: etymology.
  • Kalpa: ritual instructions.
  • Jyotisha: auspicious time for rituals through astrology and astronomy.

The earliest extant writings of any grammarian, Sanskrit or otherwise, are those of Yaska, from around the 4th BCE. But he was neither the first of his line nor alone in his work because, according to his writings, he was offering theories of grammar in competition with other schools of thought. His contentious major premise was that words are created through the dynamic interplay between external and internal reality, which meant to him that sometimes words have verbal roots and sometimes they don’t. But, he said, all language evolves through the six modifications of Kriya (action) andBhava (dynamic being). These modifications are being born, existing, changing, increasing, decreasing and perishing. He asserted that both the meaning and the etymology of words are always context dependent. His views remain very obviously relevant.

The freshness of Yaska’s work notwithstanding, grammar has travelled a long way with us over these millennia. This means that, just as we humans are many, so are our grammars. And these many grammars and their developments tell the human story. For example, the demographics involved in the development of the dialect now known as Anglo-Norman French in England in the years following the Norman Invasion of 1066 show us the dynamics of a growing middle-class. Another illustration of grammar as a means of social stratification is in language standardisation where, in England again, we had, until fairly recently, Received Pronunciation – a mixture of a London accent with elements from East Midlands, Middlesex, and Essex – as the most prestigious accent and, thus, the source of “correct” pronunciation. And, as the human story has evolved into one of self-determination, we have constructed languages like Esperanto. The purpose of its creator, Ludwik Lejzer Zamenhof, was to unite us all through a common tongue and a single grammar that we could all get behind.

So, back to my question, what useful purpose does learning grammar serve? This is my short answer: Once, the study of grammar was about seeking to know the mind of God. To grammarians in these times, like Aunt Josephine, grammar was the greatest joy in life. Now, it is a method of torture by means of which teachers torment school children and language students. To these, teachers and students alike, grammar is all that is objectionable about language. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose!