Astrology and Family Patterns: Critical but Largely Ignored

How important is an understanding of family culture to interpreting your own astrological chart, or, if you are an astrological consultant, that of your client? Graduate school and thirty years of working with clients have shown me the importance of considering family patterns, over and over.  This year’s summer course at Kepler College evolved from last year’s program on “Systems and Astrology” conducted by Enid Newberg and me. This summer we’ll bring together systems and families and astrology. You’re welcome to join us for this program: register here.

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What is the place of family background within the scope of an astrology consultation or when consulting his or her own astrological chart? This leads to a broader question: what are the dimensions of astrological consultation? Where does family background fits into the larger framework?

The Scope of Astrological Consulting

Consider the areas of a person’s life he or she brings into a consultation or why one consults his or her own natal chart and transits, etc. During in the foreground and what’s in the background?  What are the explicit and implicit areas of concern?Often the most immediate is the situational level: a current problem or perplexity, perhaps a crisis when a decision must be made.  Many a consultation begins with the question, “why are we here today?” Sometimes it takes an hour of conversation before the answer becomes clear. To address a current situation the astrologer brings in current transits or progressions or directions or solar returns to look at the trajectory of a current matter and its outcome.  We may also cast a chart on the spot to answer a specific question—a horary chart – or use electional astrology to choose a chart propitious for an event anticipated in the near term.

We also look for the background to a current concern, for there are many patterns one could look at.

This is often the core of an astrologer’s work, looking at the natal chart for patterns that manifest in different ways over a lifetime, one of which may be current.  As one looks at an astrological chart, a ninety-minute appointment becomes a pathway to a person’s entire life.

  • There are the many outer mandalas of a person’s life.  We all know that a client’s social and financial condition lingers in the background even if it is not explicitly spoken of.  More generally is one’s political or cultural background; how one participates in a larger and evermore interconnected world. These are factors we sometimes take for granted or skip over, while unconsciously making all kinds of assumptions.

Here’s where we may consider one’s family cultural background, for they impact all the considerations above.  Ideally this will include one’s nuclear family of origin, larger extended family, and members of one’s own “family of procreation”. Here we may look for patterns of vocation, relationship, addictions and other physical/mental illnesses, and more.

The larger picture includes ethnicity, social and economic factors, generational and historical change in the larger society. Outer conditions that surround the family history can be depicted by mundane astrology, especially generational outer-planet configurations and movements of outer planets through signs. 

3. The final level to consider are transcendental or metaphysical factors that may relate to past and future lifetimes, karmic possibilities and obligations, vocational choice or significant relationships as providential or karmic.  I do a six-week course on this for Kepler College.

What’s a Family?

You may think it’s simple but it’s not. Despite our modern depiction of the “nuclear family”, a family has no fixed center or circumference – even in intensely patriarchal societies. Nor is there a family structure that remains fixed over time. Instead there’s a web of interrelationships and interdependencies within individual life paths that must respond to changing conditions as they occur.

When we consider a family’s role in raising a new person and supporting his or her entry into the larger world, as a milieu for personal differentiation and sense of belonging, and as a first articulation of a person’s origins and goals in life, we are considering a large portion of who we are.  We miss a lot if we don’t inquire into these facets of a client’s or our own lives.

Let’s start with the larger field of ancestry and ethnicity.  A European whose family has been in the same area for centuries will have a different perspective than an American whose ancestors came from different parts of Europe or south of the United States over the past century.  One’s ethnic background will inform relationships, communications within relationships and among the genders, attitudes toward others in society, and sense of place in the contemporary world and in history. 

Who is in a family?   This also may be strongly influenced by ethnic origins. Modern “Anglo” families try to stay nuclear; Irish and Black families may include distant relations or other “kin”; Chinese families may include distant ancestors.  In our present culture, we should also account for distances between current family members: here in Rhode Island I know many people whose families all live within a twenty-minute car ride, although my family members are all over the country.

It’s been said that marriage is not between two individuals but two families.  Sometimes these families, with all their background assumptions about cultural and economic factors and gender roles, are compatible, and sometimes not. For example, my paternal Irish side is more matriarchal, and its families tend to be less closely-knit, than the patriarchal and more insular Italian part of my mother’s background.  These differences may account for many problems within a marriage relationship but can also elicit opportunities for something new.  I may have had the same astrological chart – but what if my mother had married the better-off Anglo she was dating before she met my future father? 

Where’s the Astrology?

 We use houses, planets, dignities, and aspects, of course.  To look at the dynamics of family relationships (between siblings, parent and offspring, with those of one’s extended family), synastry often helps but so does placing charts alongside to compare them to each other.  

To depict ongoing family issues, astrological patterns may emerge when looking at charts of several family members.  If one has access to the necessary information, hopefully including several generations and beyond the conventional nuclear family, this can be invaluable.  We use a wide angle to look for patterns that manifest within a family: are there strong Saturnine/Capricorn or Gemini/Mercurial or (hopefully not) Pluto themes?  This can be difficult within the context of a “one-up” astrological consultation but useful when working with a client over several sessions.

Traditional and modern astrology sometimes focuses on the Fourth House/Tenth House axis to depict parental units. Our previous astrological training might have given to Father the Fourth House, since traditionally this was the “House of the Father” and therefore the Tenth was given to Mother, as the Seventh from the Fourth.  More recently the Fourth House has been allied with the sign Cancer and therefore Mother, the Tenth with the sign Capricorn and Father.  I feel that both approaches are incorrect.

My view, in line with a growing consensus, is that the Fourth House, including planets within this house and the planet governing this house, indicates one’s heritage and family of origin.  The opposing Tenth House indicates what one makes of this heritage, including family of procreation. This formulation seems more in keeping with the traditional meaning of the Fourth House as “Father”.  Since the earliest cultures for astrology were patriarchal, the family location, property, and identity were passed on through the male. I also exclude designations based on the “Twelve Letter Alphabet” from consideration, since Cancer is not affiliated with the Fourth House nor is Capricorn affiliated with the Tenth.

Traditionally the Third House was that of “brothers” that we now extend to include all siblings – no issue here.  Usually the Fifth House stands for one’s children, although we also need to consider the role of children in a family business or enterprise (e.g. politics, entertainment, or the ministry); we may also need to look at the Sixth or Tenth Houses.

The Sun and Moon can represent parental units. Since the luminaries cover so much ground in depicting a person’s life, I tend to tread lightly here.  Traditional astrologers sometimes use Venus for day births for mother, Saturn for night births for father.  I don’t do much with these designations, nor do many modern astrologers except perhaps for some Freudians among us.  I have gotten interesting results, however, from the ancient Lots of Mother (from the distance between Moon and Venus or the other way around) and Father (from the distance between the Sun and Saturn of the other way around.) This is a matter for examination later but certainly worth experimenting on with from your own natal chart and those familiar to you.

Dyads and Triangles

One’s ties with a parent often constitute the most intense and influential relationship in one’s life. It can be helpful to compare the astrological charts of a client or oneself with a parent, yet these relationships always have a larger context, like the other parent.  Sometimes it happens that a fused or unstable dyadic relationship with one parent will draw in the other parent to form a triangle that may stabilize or form an agenda, for good or ill, of a parent-child relationship.  Other entities may also triangulate a parent-child relationship or another intense relationship between two family members. This pattern may continue over generations

Triangulation is a common feature of many romantic relationships from “dating” to marriages and may involve a family or family member of one of the partners. Since a good portion of a consulting astrologer’s practice concerns the vicissitudes of romantic relationships, it’s good to have a thorough grasp of third entities brought in to regulate the partnership, for good or for ill.

An example is provided in a genogram that depicts the marriage of Franklin Delano and Eleanor Roosevelt, we note a strong relationship between youngest sibling and most-adored son Franklin and his mother – indicated by the three solid lines – and a distant relationship between Eleanor and her mother-in-law. 

This genogram doesn’t show that Eleanor, the oldest, had a strong relationship with her father, an alcoholic who left the family when Eleanor was young, and a distant relationship with her mother who died shortly after her father’s death.

First-child Eleanor also had a difficult relationship with her first-born daughter Anna, although later in life they both worked to develop a closer relationship. (Another genogram would show that Eleanor’s father’s brother was Theodore Roosevelt who conspicuously officiated at Franklin’s and Eleanor’s wedding and “stole the show” from the newlyweds.)

What do we find out from Eleanor Roosevelt’s chart? Her Fourth House Pisces, like her First House Sagittarius, is governed by Jupiter that we find in sect, oriental, and conjunct the royal star Regulus. She certainly came from political royalty and stayed there throughout her life. (The importance of the Fourth House and Jupiter are further emphasized by the Lot of Spirit being in the Fourth.) 

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We see a close square between Sun and Moon. The Sun is in fall in Libra but in the strong Eleventh House and is in close sextile with her Ascendant degree in Sagittarius. Also depicted by the conjunction of Sun with the North Node, father was a larger-than-life figure to her daughter but who was otherwise weak and troubled.  The Moon has the opposite problem: Moon is dignified in the sign Cancer but is in the weak Eighth House, being strong by nature but unable to influence Eleanor in a positive way.  Both luminaries have strength, but both are compromised – in different ways.  

For more information about Eleanor Roosevelt, two years ago I chose her as the first in my Exemplary People series

Eleanor’s example contrasts with that of Mary Ann Evans, a.k.a. George Eliot, the great British novelist from the 1800’s, who was not born from royalty but also has Jupiter in the Fourth House.

Mary Ann was the youngest daughter of three, but her birth was followed by that of twins who died when she was two years old.  Her father’s marriage was a second one and she had two half-brothers much older than she.  Mary Ann had an older sister who was allied with her mother and would lead a conventional life. She was strongly attached to her brother Isaac but he was much less attached to her, and he cut himself off from her later only to re-emerge toward the end of her life. Mary Ann was close to her father who often took her along to his job taking care of rich people’s estates and took care that his “plain” daughter was well-educated beyond the standards for women at that time in her country.

What can we glean from Evans/Eliot’s natal chart? We can begin with Jupiter in Aquarius in the Fourth House with sextiles from Venus and Mercury in Sagittarius; we her loyalty to her family roots despite the many limitations they put on her.

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Note the position of her Sun that is in the First House and governed by Mars in the Tenth in Leo.  As one who handled the estates of the area’s wealthy, her father Robert Evans modeled a restraint of expression (Scorpio Sun) with strong ambition (Mars in Leo in the Tenth).  George Eliot’s life work as a novelist allowed full play to the Sun and Mars together.  Her Capricorn Third House contains siblings and, with the Moon there, also mother.  Both mother and siblings conducted themselves along traditional lines; father and younger daughter Mary Ann were unconventional but presentable in “polite” society.

I’ve written much more about the novelist recently in my current “Exemplary Individual” series on my website. See Mary Ann Evans (a.k.a. George Eliot) and the Harvest of Experience.

Both Roosevelt and Evans/Eliot show the importance of sibling position, gender differentiation among siblings in traditional families, and, in larger families, groupings by age among the different siblings.  What about people we know better, like ourselves?

 In my family, for example, my two sisters were born shortly after me, there was another sibling who died before his second year, and several years later a brother and another sister were born, constituting two groups of sibling-peers.  How would my adult relationships have changed had I three brothers and one sister, instead of the other way around? What if all my siblings were born many years after I was born? I hope, as you read this, you’re thinking about your own family.  We all have stories to tell, hypotheticals to consider that may give us greater understanding of ourselves and those close to us.

Family Life Cycles

Think of events that ripple from one individual through an entire family system: marriages, births, deaths and divorces, retirements, crises in the life of one family member.  How is an entire system involved when one member undergoes important changes in life? When you are going through an important life transition, who among your family members are going through ones that are different but also important? We need to consider the “Family Life Cycle”, a process that conventionally begins when a person is “launched” from his or her family of origin and proceeds through the lives of those in the “new” family. Many astrologers work with this intuitively but it’s good to bring it to the foreground.

Too often we focus too much on ourselves or our client whose chart we’re looking at and miss out on parallel or contrasting events in the lives of important family members (and partners) who we affect and are affected by us.

The Bottom Line

For the consulting astrologer, it’s important to ask a lot of questions about the people in somebody’s life: this allows us to give advice that is more relevant to a client’s current conditions of life.  This also means that, in general, there’s a division of information between client and astrologer.  The astrologer knows the symbols and how they manifest in a person’s life and can ask great questions; the client knows his or her life and those close by and can provide the relevant background information.  Together astrologer and client explore context, interpret specific symbols, and together they find relative insights and creative interventions.

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