March 11, 2024

Astrologer and author Joe Landwehr has written several fascinating but challenging books.  Several years ago, I that reviewed Astrology and the Archetypal Power of Numbers that you can read here.  Several months ago, Landwehr sent me his latest work: here he contemplates astrology’s relationships with science and religion over the ages and promotes a personal approach to astrology I also call “contemplative”.

I would recommend Astrology in the Era of Uncertainty to any astrology student or beginning astrologer who would like to know more about astrology’s traditions, influences, and intellectual currents.  This work is also a serviceable introduction to archetypal psychology when applied to the symbols of astrology. The seasoned astrologer may find much merit in the exploratory process outlined below.  I enjoyed reading his perspectives about the background, range, and application of astrological thinking.  Even when I disagree with the author, and I will discuss some disagreements here, working with this book has been a profitable journey for me.

Astrology in the Era of Uncertainty is illuminating, sometimes irritating, and, oddly for a work of four hundred pages, incomplete.  How could a work of such scope leave this reader wanting more?

We can start at the beginning, with the book cover.  I do not understand his choice of cover art.  More importantly, the subtitle is “An Astropoetic Exploration of Psyche and Cosmos.”  Landwehr uses “mythopoetic” to describe the first era of humanity’s astrological exploration.   He has also used “astropoetic” previously to describe his approach to astrology.  On page two hundred twenty-four (!), he gives us a definition of “astropoetics”.

“I call my particular approach to astrology ‘astropoetics’ in the recognition that the ‘facts’ of astrological interpretation are actually better understood as poetic similes and metaphors that resonate in various ways with a multi-layered truth that means different things at different times. We long to know who we are, not just in human terms, but also as souls in relation to the grand, seemingly intelligent design that permeates this vast, unfathomable cosmos.”

“Myth” is an ordinary word in ancient Greek for “story” or sometimes “command”. “Poetics” is also from the Greek, used eventually for fashioning a poem but mostly for any making something.  As we’ll see later in the book, the “astrology” referred to in “astropoetics” relies on planetary cycles and the rhythms of the sky.  Landwehr’s astrology is strongly influenced by Dane Rudhyar and Alexander Ruperti.

On page three Landwehr suggests the scope of his work:

“Is astrology a science?  An art? A language? A belief system? A religion?  A philosophy? A kind of proto-psychology? A branch of metaphysics? A spiritual practice? A socio-cultural phenomenon? Is it some combination of these possibilities? Or is it something else entirely?”

Just below the above paragraph is the heading “Astrology’s Sad Scientific Track Record.” For the first hundred pages, the author is mostly interested in the development of what we conventionally call “science” in its relationship with astrology.  From here he also surveys relationships between astrology, some religious practices, and different ways that we know of ourselves and our world.

A Different “Eras” Tour

The first part of this book is a romp through historical periods he entitles “The Awkward Dance of Astrology, Science, & Religion.”  Using a variety of secondary sources, often by astrologers, he condenses eras and cultural styles into simple categories.

Here are the titles of various eras in Part One.

  1. Direct Experience of Truth in the Mythopoetic Era
  2. Intertwining of Astrology and Science in the Mystical Era
  3. Divergence of Astrology and Science in the Philosophical Era
  4. Ascendancy of Science in the Logical Era
  5. Dominance of Science in the Empirical Era
  6. Deconstruction of Science in the Era of Uncertainty
  7. Knowing in the Era of Uncertainty

These are very broad brushstrokes.  For those who want to learn more, he provides extensive endnotes and bibliography.

Landwehr’s intent is to show continuities and discontinuities between historical accounts for astrology and the astropoetic approach he promotes. Here is a lot of good information for the astrologer about the cultures in which astrology flourished and the circumstances that may account for this.

Those of us with some knowledge of astrology’s historical background, or world history in general, will find some problems.  Landwehr clearly promotes the mythopoetic and mystical tendencies of the first two eras that roughly correspond to paleolithic times and bronze age practices from Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, and elsewhere.  I’m somewhat skeptical about his assertions of gender and class parity in our first societies. He stresses that those eras used more participatory and less objectifying ways of knowing: inner and outer worlds were more a continuity than we generally experience today.

I have a more saturnine view of our earliest cultures. In humanity’s Paleolithic era that he calls Mythopoetic, external support for survival was very fragile. Their ability to discern reality from the heavens was to meet basic survival needs, and from their observations and ritual practices they found and participated in some order and stability underlying chaos and randomness of their lives.

By the word “Mystical”, the name for his second era, this is not our usual meaning of intensely personal interaction with divinity. Instead, one used astrology to discern messages from a higher realm, one of many practices of divination that appeared at this time. Based on celestial observation and interpretation, one could engage in rituals to attract abundance and ward off evil circumstances.  Everywhere Landwehr promotes an imaginal and intuitive dimension of astrological thinking, even when, in ancient times, the processes seem less mystical than transactional. They also reflect much in contemporary astrology.

“…divinatory interpretation was not a practice of reading symbolism, as astrology has since become, but rather one involving a cultivation of intuitive, imaginal and experiential receptivity in service to a specific question for which one sought directly from the heavens.”  p.57

I will spare the reader’s attention span – and mine – an elaborate discussion of the following chapters, for it should be obvious where the author is heading.  Landwehr provides much good historical information, although his is by no means an impartial rendering – he is out to prove a point.

The author notes developments in the ancient and medieval worlds toward increasing abstraction and systemization and criticized astrology’s tendencies to rely on static rules of interpretation when we have inner resources available, yet astrologers also need basic understandings and procedures to make those inner resources available and not based on guesswork or wishful thinking.

In my view, astrology has always been based on the appearing surrounding sky, and translated as a mirror of the a sense of underlying order and coherence beneath the seeming disorder of our lives and our world.  For implications of underlying order in the visible sky, can go way back to the use of the lunar nodes to predict eclipses and, later, to the use of the tropical zodiac to account for the seasonal path of the Sun.  Let’s include here the numerical beauty of the number twelve.  These astronomical and arithmetical patterns do not move away from appreciating the surrounding sky but enhance its beauty.

Landwehr’s depiction of the medieval era ignores the pervasiveness of astrological symbolism in that era – and its application to human lives – in literature and art.  I have previously written a book on planetary and cosmological symbolism in Dante’s Divine Comedy.  Astrological symbolism infused art from ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt to the medieval cathedrals of Europe.  Were these not also astropoetics?

He continues by discussing the beginning of what we call the “scientific revolution” when our focus became a mechanized universe held together by efficient causes.  And then, toward our “Age of Uncertainty”, even empirically based science began to wrestle with an essential unknowability of reality.  We are now in a post-modern era where truth is multidimensional and rather elusive.

Although Landwehr divides the use of astrology into different ages, I suspect that there have been different versions of astrology cohabiting in the past and modern times, our era that he calls the Era of Uncertainty.  For example, horary astrology, a form of divination that has been with us from ancient times, emerged full-blown in the medieval era and the modern “Empirical” era, and is robustly used today by a variety of astrologers.  Today’s world of astrology has practitioners that relate to all the categories he divides into different eras.

Joe Landwehr and I also disagree on the relationship between astrology and its surrounding cultures over the millennia. He contends that astrology had to find ways to adapt to different cultural demands and at times lost sense of its true purpose.  In my view, astrology has always reflected its surrounding culture and has endeavored to meet its needs.  At the same time, I will add, astrology has maintained essential characteristics that range over human experience from the very ordinary to the transcendental, meeting those human needs we have always had.

The second part of Astrology in the Era of Uncertainty goes through spiritual and psychological foundations for “Astrology’s New Landscape”.   There are areas in which the author and I are in complete agreement, including his esteem for James Hillman’s Revisiting Psychology.  We differ in his minimal treatment of contributions of Alice Bailey and the New Age Movement, in his ignoring new methodological features of modern astrology, such as the work of Ebertin, the Hamburg school, modern harmonics, and locational astrology.

I fear that Landwehr, in a softer tone, echoes Rudhyar’s criticism of “event-oriented astrology” – almost all astrology before Rudhyar himself – as fundamentally wrong. An astrologer may have transpersonal and spiritual longings, but most astrology clients are interested in the outer world in which they have careers and relationships and problems.  After a few decades, the debate between “traditional” and “psychological” astrology has become tiresome to me.

Here is Landwehr’s depiction of “the true practice of astrology” that…

“.. goes beyond logic, back to a time and a way of relating to the cosmos, where the rational mind was only one tool, and not necessarily the best, for entering into a deeper conversation with the reality behind the birthchart…The logical astrology passed down to us from the Greeks can help us articulate what we know as we look at the birthchart, but to be truly useful to an evolving soul the knowing itself must ultimately come from a more mystical, mythopoetic communion with the divine intelligence at the heart of the cosmos.” p. 189

When people refer to the “true practice” or the “real astrology” my mental brakes tend to go on. Too often, one side’s depiction of the not-true or not-real astrology is based on broad negative stereotypes applied to the “other side”, whatever the other side may be.  Much of astrology, past and present, aims to help understand and solve real problems in our lives.

Personal Application of an Archetype

We now arrive at the most interesting and illuminating section of the book, the application of mythological and astrological symbolism to a person.  Landwehr also tells us how to do this, although he could have been clearer on how to apply his method more generally. He gives us a method of using astrology as a contemplative project for self-discovery and, at the end of the book, for self-transcendence.

Page two-hundred twenty-eight begins a “living example”, the author himself, and he also supplies his birthchart.  What follows is an examination that is partly cross-cultural research of tradition, and partly biography and confessional.  He applies one archetype or field of symbolism to one celestial body and one person’s life – his own.  This section would be most interesting for somebody who knows the author personally; I found it sometimes difficult to get through.

In the chapter “Opening the Archetypal Eye”, he chooses Vesta/Hestia in classical mythology in many forms as a “living archetype”, and includes her manifestations from diverse cultures, not just Greco-Roman.  Here we leave both astrological technicality and personal application and immerse oneself in a symbolic field that may shed light not only on what has been already experienced but new possibilities for oneself. This allows us to drop our standard astrological preconceptions and our stale lists of keywords and apply symbolism directly to our own lives. Landwehr gives us a brilliant first move.

The following chapter “Getting Empirical” lists his twenty Vesta returns, going in backward from the present to early in his life, and how his life conditions reflect themes uncovered in his initial investigation of this celestial body.

“Astrological Hermeneutics” brings together these twenty periods with themes that add to Vesta’s symbolism and relate to his life story. He begins to get very concrete about the circumstances of his life and his soul.

  1. Becoming a Cinder-Biter
  2. Discovering the Fire Stick
  3. Following the Golden Thread
  4. Moving in and out of Liminal Space
  5. Working at the Forge
  6. Gestating Under a Cloak of Invisibility
  7. Building a Temple
  8. Becoming a Virgin

It is only now that an astrological analysis begins. In his chapter “Astro-logic”, focusing on Vesta, he discloses further information from its placement in the natal chart: signs, houses, and aspecting planets.

“Examining Philosophical Assumptions” lists life questions that apply to each of astrology’s planets, Pluto to Sun, and ends with outer planet cycles and outer planet transits to Vesta in his chart.

“Entering the Archetypal Field as a Spiritual Practice” and the last chapter “Getting Intimate with the Cosmos” begins with a depiction of self-transformation, using the phases of his life listed above, and concludes with a depiction of personal but spiritual involvement with Vesta and some guidance on moving from contemplative toward ritual and the spiritual life.

Method and Presentation

What might one make of all this?  It first strikes me as a wonderful way to help educate the astrologer, especially at the beginning of their work, and some of their clients.  One problem, however, is a tendency to use astrological symbolism to reinforce, not establish distance from, the bubble of subjectivity. I would have also liked Landwehr to have made his depiction less about the particulars of his life and more indicating how somebody who isn’t him can use his method.

He does admit that he expands the range of Vesta’s symbolism beyond what most contemporary astrologers would use.  He moves a little too quickly from “hearth” to “forge” when that area belongs to another Olympian deity or the planet Mars.

I understand the convenience of dividing his life into Vesta returns that occur about four years apart – not too quickly like charting Venus returns nor too far apart like using Jupiter.

Over the course of our lives, we manifest planets and other features of our charts in different ways, some more positive than others.  If we focus on how one astrological symbol manifests, it is valuable to construct a life story to accompany it.  Landwehr uses cycles of Vesta to provide structure. If, for example, I was to look at my life in terms of lunar symbolism, I might register phases according to outer planet transits or progressed Sun-Moon phases.

I feel there are other worthier candidates for his archetypal examination than Vesta: Landwehr’s natal chart also contains Chiron, Sun, Ascendant, and Mercury all very closely together in Sagittarius, governed by Jupiter in Aquarius.  He was also born on a Full Moon, with Moon is in Gemini that is governed by Mercury.  I would focus on Mercury, a planet that allows for a wide range of mythical or archetypal components, applies to many aspects of his life and the workings of his mind, and, in his chart, is prominent and with many aspects from other planets.

Of smaller scope but also informative to the reader, Landwehr could have used Chiron that is also conjunct his natal Ascendant.  (Perhaps he could have divided his life into quarters of Chiron’s orbit.) I think of Chiron, between the orbits of Saturn and Uranus, not so much the “wounded healer” but the teacher who transmits received learning but also should allow others to use knowledge creatively for themselves and to pass along to others.  Clearly Landwehr works as a teacher, formally and informally.

One may also reach out beyond oneself, perhaps to discover other qualities so far unexamined.  Clearly there’s an advantage in a subjective approach if one approaches oneself honestly – and Landwehr appears to have done so.  Yet there is an intersubjective possibility that may enhance the process.  Here’s an easy example, at least for the readers of great literature among us:

When Landwehr provided his natal chart, I instantly noted many major features of his chart that are present in that of the eighteenth-century novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Looking at manifestations of Mercury or Chiron identically placed in the charts of both writers would be a fascinating introspective project. Using Mercury symbolism or that of Chiron, how are the author’s planetary placements similar and different from those of Dostoyevsky?  Possibilities abound, especially when discussing stages of their respective lives.

How has a planetary symbol manifested in one’s inner life, among one’s relationships and dealings with others, and one’s place in the larger world? Perhaps Landwehr focuses too strongly on the inner world and personality manifestations.  He glides smoothly – too smoothly?  — from the personal to the transpersonal. Are there possibilities of self-transformation by carrying this planet more fully into one’s life?


Dynamic Disequilibria

Reading over and mulling over Astrology in the Era of Uncertainty, I have been struck by Landwehr’s depictions of dualities within astrology’s field and its traditions.

He accurately points out the increased use of structures and decreased use of the visible sky from the Bronze age to the Hellenistic traditions.  As I mentioned above, noting celestial patterns – embodied in the discovery of the Moon’s Nodes and the tropical zodiac – increased understanding of the movements of the heavens.  This would have both practical and more transpersonal applications.  All of us see the transpersonal or spiritual dimension of the sky on a clear night without so much light pollution.

These days there is too great a reliance on information from computers and insufficient acquaintance with the visible sky.  The beauty of visible sky and the underlying structures in astrology should be complementary, not in opposition.

Throughout this book Landwehr contrasts dry interpretations with both the interactive field between astrology and client and fluid applications of astrological symbolism to one’s life.  This is a contrast between intuition and analysis.  Although the tone of his book favors the intuitive, or at least argues for an enhanced role, he also addresses its limitations.

In his chapter “Astrological Hermeneutics” he takes on the work of Paul Ricoeur, an eminent French theoretician from the previous century.  Landwehr contrasts the Hermeneutics of Faith and Suspicion.

He calls the Hermeneutics of Faith a yin process:

“This is an art that requires a partial suspension of analytic faculties and literal thinking, and a willingness to be surprised by the spontaneous intuitive revelations of the imagination…” p. 294-5

And the yang, that of Suspicion? The Hermeneutics of Suspicion requires weighing subjective imaginings with observation, analysis, and, in the case of astrology, with the teachings of its traditions.

“…the self’s ability to know itself in any kind of objective way is limited.  Under the best of circumstances, each of us sees only through a filter clouded by our unresolved issues, our beliefs and patterns of conditioning, and our perceptual biases.” p. 296.

These two tendencies are also reflected in the process of learning astrology.  I have often told my students that being a good astrologer is difficult, because astrology requires both left-hemisphere memorization and information gathering, and right-hemisphere intuition so that one can apply the symbolism in a meaningful way.  Too much of the former and one makes pronouncements based on abstraction and method; too much of the latter and the clarity and precision of astrology is lost.  An imbalance between the two hinders our ability to apply symbolism pragmatically to a person’s life.

There are other dualities, such as between “worldly and spiritual”, which tend to vanish in the consulting room.  Clients with specific problems are often interested in the larger horizons of their lives, and my clients who qualify as spiritually inclined want to know about romance or its lack, friends and career or belonging, family, and health.  Again, there is a need to meet people where they are and view them at a wide angle.

Finally, there is an element in astrology that is magical, and this is where an exclusively psychological approach shows its limitations.  Where is the sky is a particular body, where are its features of visibility or celestial bodies nearby?  In his elaborate discussions of Vesta, Landwehr provides no information about its position in the sky (part of the asteroid belt) or its relationship to the other bodies in the asteroid belt (second largest).  The asteroid belt is also between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter  — how might we interpret Vesta and the other bodies in this belt, distinct from the planetary bodies?

Astrology contains an inner dimension and one that is seemingly outer, the surrounding worlds we inhabit.  Is the outer a projection of our inner natures or is who we are simply one dimension of an all-inclusive field that does not admit of opposing “outer” and “inner”?  This contrast becomes pronounced when we explore the range of “event astrology” that includes much of our predictive work as well as horary and electional astrology.

Many years ago, following my studies of the Renaissance sage Marsilio Ficino who used astrology in much of his work, I read Thomas Moore’s The Planets Within.  I strongly recommend Moore’s book to those interested in Ficino’s approach to psyche and cosmos, with one reservation: the book contains too much psyche and too little cosmos.  Landwehr falls into the same category. The lives of people partake of archetypes, include worldly and otherworldly aspirations, and are also concerned with love and work in all their permutations.  Joe Landwehr’s work is a good addition to some features of astrology’s work but there is – beyond his three hundred ninety-four pages – much more to say.
























[1] At the beginning of this book Landwehr provides a large list of people who encouraged and gave him feedback on his manuscript, they seem sometime not to have served him well.   More personal to me, on the previous page he includes Gautama Buddha in a list of those who gained knowledge of the divine and their teachings “though meditation, ascetic austerities that induced altered states of consciousness, and cultivated receptivity to divine revelation.”  In the case of Gautama Buddha, only the first one applies; I cannot speak of the others.

Additionally, there’s a spelling error in the heading on page 65, and the closing of the chapter paragraph of “Spiritual Foundations” belongs in the previous section.  A closer reader will probably find other editing errors.

Authorial exhaustion is a condition I know well: one can no longer see clearly what one has written and must rely on the help of others. It does take a village to write a book. Astrology in the Era of Uncertainty, in large and small ways, shows effects of putting a book out too quickly, or without adequate revision.