The Fixed Stars: Fate or Transcendence?

A Review of Oscar Hofman, Fixed Stars in the Chart: Constellations, Lunar Mansions, and Mythology Wessex Astrology, 2019

by Joseph Crane

Bringing “traditional” or “classical” astrology into an era of psychological or spiritual interpretation can be a daunting task, especially because such endeavors may find few friends by either the traditional or modern astrological communities.  This promises to result in new experiences and applications of our ever-renewing vocation.  The latest entry is Oscar Hofman’s recently published work applying fixed stars, long a mainstay to traditional astrology but confusing for the modern astrologer.

Based on two workshops conducted by the European astrologer John Frawley, Oscar Hofman has produced a work full of technical surprises and interpretative creativity.  If you have some background in traditional astrology and fixed stars, this book is well worth studying, especially if you apply mythic motifs to your astrological interpretation.   Hofman’s work contains a great deal of useful information, has flashes of brilliance, yet also feels like an early stage of a longer process. 

As does the author, I will move from the theoretic and cosmic to practical application.  It would be difficult to convey the sparkle of his narrative style as he recounts the stories that relate to stars, constellations, and lunar mansions, or of his applications to the natal charts of famous people.  These alone can make the book a good read, even if you also find theoretical difficulties and inconsistencies. 

I will begin with the cosmological/metaphysical background that he applies.  If all this seems a bit too theorical to your practical motivations, feel free to scroll down a bit.

Theology, Cosmology, and Astrology

The book contains many surprises beginning with the first sentence of the first chapter, “The Spiritual Background”: “The basic theme of the fixed stars and constellations is to indicate how mankind can escape from a state in which he is overly bound to earthly desires and wishes, like success, pleasure, money, power, sex and status – in fact everything that stands in the way of detachment.”  In developing detachment, he states, we gain freedom for ourselves.  He continues, “The stars and the constellations give an indication of the field of variations and possibilities related to this process of detachment.”  On the following page depicts a relationship of the fixed stars to planets: “If the ‘star work’ is done they are an escape route out of the material life governed too strongly by earthly passions, and in a way you could see the planets as precisely those passions.”

Hofman places this distinction within the hierarchical cosmology of antiquity: in the center is Earth and the four elements, outside are the spheres of the planets, then the fixed stars and finally the Empyrean where God lives.  The closer to earth the more we are mired in the material; the fixed stars are like a passageway to divinity, or at least greater freedom.  (You may recognize shades of Dane Rudhyar’s similar treatment of the outer planets in The Sun is also a Star: Galactic Dimension of Astrology.)  Hofman also makes the distinction between the stars within their constellations, including those corresponding to the signs of the zodiac, and the tropical zodiac itself.  The circle of the zodiac is placed “higher” than the fixed stars in this cosmology as “the 12-fold energy girdle, of the 12 invisible signs or zodiacal Towers.”  Although the Sun is somewhat the exception, this renders the planets corresponding to our patterns of attachment and worldliness.

Traditional cosmological thinking would take exception to this. Certainly, astrology’s planets depict tendencies we have as physical, cultural, and political beings, yet may be transformative by their own nature and even present modes of the spiritual life.  Hofman may be relying on a passage in the Corpus Hermeticum whereby the virtuous individual sheds attributes of the planets on his way up the spheres. There are also ancient sources, like Macrobius in his commentary on Cicero’s Dream of Scipio, who describes the gifts that the planets bring on the way down through the planetary spheres into earthly incarnation. 

Additionally, in Dante’s Paradiso that uses this cosmology as its background, the lives of the saved are depicted corresponding to the sequences of the planets, so that the four spheres from Sun to Saturn correspond to the Four Cardinal Virtues of wisdom (Sun), courage (Mars), justice (Jupiter) and temperance as contemplation (Saturn).  Nor does Dante make the distinction between the realm of the fixed stars and those of the zodiacal signs – indeed he and Beatrice are astride his Sun sign Gemini when interrogated on the nature of the Three Theological Virtues of Faith, Hope, and Love.  I can recommend a fine book (link) on the subject.

Ancient and medieval sources are somewhat vague on what lies beyond the sphere of the fixed stars: for Dante the Ninth Sphere is the Primum Mobile, establishing the priority of the First Motion (diurnal) of the Fixed Stars over the Second motion through the zodiac.  Hofman would place the zodiac here.

Hofman’s work brings me back to Plotinus (Ennead 2:3 Are the Stars Causes?) where he argues that if the sphere of the planets is higher in nature that we down on earth, how can they be malevolent or male-fic? In his depictions many are of this nature. Plotinus would make the same objection to a planet being essentially debilitated: how could Aries be difficult for Saturn or Pisces for Mercury if the zodiac was metaphysically above the moving bodies and fixed stars?

In this context you may ask about the outer planets Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto.  Hofman calls them “star-like factors”, even though they move more like planets than are relatively fixed like stars.  To his credit, Hofman goes back to the original myths surrounding the names for these, so that Uranus is the “castrated primordial sky god”, Neptune the “bad-tempered sea god”, and Pluto the “malefic ruler of the underworld.”  He continues with his main theme, depicting Neptune as flooding dry land (will and consciousness) with his element, “the wild waters of desire.”

Positing the duality between desire and the transcendence of desire, Hofman examines the symbolism of the Milky Way, the Lunar Nodes, and the use of antiscia, symmetries that converse on the Cancer/Capricorn axis.  These are very interesting discussions even if he seems to be measuring them to fit his bed of Procrustes. He does a fine take-down of the precession of the equinoxes producing an Aquarian Age.

Sun and Moon, Zodiac and Lunar Mansions

Many modern astrologers have worked to apply traditional lunar mansions (Indian, Chinese, Arabic-medieval) in their research and practice and this is one of the most interesting features of Oscar Hofman’s work.  He brings together nicely a cosmological outlook, mythic motifs and practical applications. You may not agree with some of his assumptions, but he lays out his reasoning clearly and compellingly.

In all systems there are 27 or 28 mansions or places of daily lunar travel that are marked by fixed star positions.  This band is analogous to the zodiac that he rightly considers solar in nature. Beyond the seven spheres of the planets, the lunar mansions the eighth sphere, the zodiac the ninth.

 The solar zodiac, he thus asserts, is a divine imprint; the lunar mansions, reflecting the Moon’s worldly symbolism, are filters through which the original impulse (signified by the Sun and the zodiac) pass for concrete manifestation to occur.  One’s lunar mansion, he tells us, gives an individual core mythology, the “core business of your earthly existence.”  In his natal charts he confines the Lunar Mansion solely to the Moon.

Hofman adopts the Indian Lunar Mansions and Reappraises their Interpretations.

Since the Moon’s sidereal orbit is 27.4 days, so how many lunar mansions should there be?  neither 27 not 28 fit exactly.  He argues that 27 is better, since 27 emphasizes the earthly quality of imperfection, whereas 28 brings out a “metaphysical rigidity”. 

Since the lunar mansions use a sidereal zodiac, and since that moves through the centuries, where does the first mansion begin?  Hofman’s solution is to begin opposite Spica that is currently 23 degrees of Libra.  Why Spica?  This important fixed star is affiliated with harvest and the point opposite would signify the beginning of a process. Spica is also associated with the Virgin Mary, “through whom the divine was born on Earth”, according to Christian symbolism. This is supported by the traditional Vedic god of this mid-way mansion, “the constructor of material reality that acts as a veil between us and the divine.” 

He depicts 27 lunar mansions using some Vedic mythology but mostly through the filter of the Western traditions.  He tells them well and I’ll leave it to those more expert than I to respond to the details.  Listing the Lunar Mansions, he gives sidereal positions only, telling the reader to advance 7 degrees and go one sign back.  I suspect this will not come naturally to every reader, especially if one begins with one’s Moon’s tropical position, and I would have wanted him to include current tropical positions.  I found myself penciling them into the text for easier reference.  One could format both sidereal and current tropical positions while not confusing the reader.

Constellations and Mythology

Hofman first depicts 37 constellations with traditional drawings and presents their stories without reference to location in the sky. 

Oscar Hofman is an expert storyteller and can weave mythic motifs and astrological technique together well.  He also picks and chooses among different possibilities from the western tradition and some others.  Since this work is not one of scholarship but of astrological vision and practice, it’s not necessary for him to detail every choice he has made.  However, Hofman gives no sources or citations that could allow the reader greater access to this material and greater ability to respond critically to his selections.

As an example, we’ll look at the fixed star Alcyone, the dominant star in the cluster of the Pleiades, with a current zodiacal longitude just into Gemini. Alcyone is close to the ecliptic and is a third-magnitude star.  This is the constellation Hofman calls “The Weeping Sisters”.  Although many traditions have different stories related to the Pleiades and Alcyone, Hofman writes of  one, the seven daughters of Titan Atlas and devotees of the virginal Diana or Artemis, and are chased by the “cosmic hulk Orion” (an epithet Hofman uses several times).  

The Pleiades on a Very Clear Night

He uses a Vedic story in support, according to which these seven are wives of the seven sages of the Great Bear of the circumpolar stars, who were seduced and fell downwards in the sky toward the zodiac, hence the theme of disappointment and being cut off.  Hofman briefly alludes to the Pleiades’ traditional association with blindness.

Together with that seven is also the number of the visible planets, this constellation and main star therefore have a strongly material nature and “are factors that pull you into the material world.”  Alcyone cuts us off from what we really want, “the divine dimension behind the planets.” 

For easy reference, in italics Hofman summarizes the constellational motifs.  For the Pleiades its theme is disappointments, tears, things going wrong, confrontations with blunt material reality, problems in the family, blindness.

Alternative stories are possible within many different traditions.  Other interpretations of Alcyone are possible, as Bernadette Brady uses the trope of blindness or eye difficulties (cited for nebulae and sharp places in constellational images) to cite “a strong desire to seek inner knowledge.”  Hofman’s choice is his prerogative but others are possible.

If this set of fixed stars binds one more closely to the material world, this appears to contradict his idea of the spiritual place of the fixed stars, and no path is given beyond the disappointment and “weeping” implied by this star placement.  This is a problem with much astrology that casts itself as spiritual; Alice Bailey’s work seems to be the exception.

If there are zodiacal positions that interest you, as in your own astrological chart, Hofman gives positions for over a hundred stars in the order of zodiacal degree closest to that star.  Then, with that information, you can check his perspective on the stories and interpretations of that star.

Fixed Stars in Application

Hofman gives over a hundred fixed stars one could use.  To apply to the natal chart, he considers only conjunctions by zodiacal degree, using a one degree orb (one and a half on an angle) for stars of magnitude 2-6, two degrees for the stars of first magnitude, and three to four for his “royal” stars that are Aldebaran, Antares, Regulus, South Scale, Pollux, Spica, and the “extremely malefic” Algol.  Since astrologers who apply zodiacal conjunctions with fixed stars use one-degree orbs, his charts will contain more relevant fixed star position.

One should consider latitude (the farther from the ecliptic the less important) and magnitude.  If two stars are close to the same position, consider first the more dominant star or the one closest in zodiacal position.

Let’s continue with Alcyone and the Pleaides, now applied to the chart of Frida Kahlo (1907-1954), a painter from Mexico who had some international success, whose life has become better known and her art more admired over the past few decades than during her lifetime. 

Hofman titles this first case study as “Frida Kahlo – The Weeping Sister”.  He begins rather grimly, depicting the star and constellation as malefic and Kahlo’s life as correspondingly difficult. 

As you can see from the accompanying chart, Moon at the last degree of Taurus conjuncts Alcyone closely.  This is a strong Moon, especially in its sign of exaltation, but, Hofman states, is also less positive since she is the ruler of Kahlo’s twelfth house of “loneliness, self-destruction, addiction, and misery.” (This move is characteristic more of Vedic than Western astrology.)  

Frida Kahlo’s Natal Chart using Hofman’s settings

This combination of Moon and Alcyone allowed Kahlo to express her suffering through art as a positive effort at emotional stabilization.  Hofman depicts her artistic style as “surrealist”, watery and lunar, opposing saturnine forms of reality.  I don’t entirely agree, finding an expressive concreteness in her art that appears grounded in a Taurus sensibility and drawing widely on the folk art of her home country. Hofman also asserts that Kahlo expressed both the Pleaides (as the companions of Diana) as an independent feminist and the Orion side through her sexual activity. 

Because Hofman uses large orbs for important fixed stars, he finds places in Kahlo’s nativity for Algol, Scheat, Terebellum (unfamiliar to me), Procyon, Pollux, Sirius and the equally difficult Praesepe.  Except for Jupiter being on Pollux, he interprets Kahlo and her life as unremitting misery.  He caps this off citing the Part of Illness (a Mars-Saturn arc as you might imagine) and the lunar mansion that is also associated with the Pleaides and the theme of “separation, cutting off, and battle”.

Frida Kahlo’s Self-Portraits Depicted Personal and Human Suffering.

As you have noticed from the chart supplied here, Hofman does not use Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto. Most of today’s astrologers would note that Kahlo’s Sun is next to Neptune, Mars next to Uranus, and Pluto next to Venus.  Since the author reframes the meanings of two of these three planets, it would have been interesting to see how he would consider the role of these three.

Hofman tells us how the fixed stars depict some of her difficulties in life.  How do they provide the means to gain wisdom, or as Hofman would say, detachment? 

Another consideration: would Kahlo’s life purpose have been better served by her being more detached?  Her role in history – God’s plan for her, even – was to be the proverbial canary in the coal mine.  Frida Kahlo transformed the personal into the universal and, in a very particular way, became a messenger of truth to the world.

Further Considerations on Case Studies

For stars – or anything else in the natal chart – to be depicted as having spiritual dimensions, one must show how they enhance spiritual development.  Since every saint has a past and every sinner a future, it’s important to depict an ongoing process that embodies spiritual values. Instead astrologers who incline toward spiritual interpretations tend to be more binary – are you manifesting on a “higher” or “lower” plane? This seems more evident in how astrologers write and teach, instead of how they conduct their work with real people and their lives.

Instead of focusing on Hofman gives us still-lives of famous people with fixed labels: we’ve seen Frida Kahlo as the “Weeping Sister”, followed by Adolf Hitler as the “Crushed Crab.”  Of his depictions, a favorite is Margaret Thatcher as “Atilla the Hun”, but there’s also Mick Jagger as “The Gorgon” and Silvio Berlusconi as “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.”  Hofman’s affection for Princess Diana is clearly articulated, yet she had an interesting development as an adult that would have been interesting to narrate.

I would have preferred he use some exemplary individuals, people with a developmental spiritual arc who could have shown us possibilities of specific fixed star placements.  For obvious reasons Hofman has chosen celebrities and individuals we mostly know of.  It’s understandable but there’s a cost, for also missing is a case study of a typical astrology client that may be helpful for today’s consulting astrologers.

Some Words on Sources

Oscar Hofman’s book contains a short bibliography (including Ptolemy, Al Biruni, Lilly) but no footnotes anywhere.  As a traditional astrologer, I’m always interested in sources in the tradition.  When I encounter the idea of halb – different from hayz – it would be helpful to know where this appears in the literature.  This especially the case when Hofman includes a planet’s opposition to the Sun being a combustion.  That surprised me and I’ve never seen it before.  I would have preferred to check citations to learn more about astrology’s traditions, as check out what has influenced the author.

An Appendix lists many keywords for various stars and their conjunctions with planets.  He states that they are based on Vivian Robson’s depictions in his book on fixed stars, yet most of them are simply copied from Robson’s text.  For example, for the depiction of the Pleiades with the Moon, Hofman gives us “injuries to the face, sickness, misfortune, wounds, stabs, disgrace, imprisonment, blindness, defective eyesight.”  Except that Robson uses the word “sight” and goes on a bit longer, the words used are identical.  Robson’s are at variance with Hofman’s previous description and application of Alcyone and the Pleiades. For the sake of consistency and application of his ideas to the combination of stars and planets, the author should give us his own formulations.  This is not an easy task.

Final Words

This work by Oscar Hofman feels like the first step in a longer process. In the future, another version of this work would be more consistent between overall spiritual vision, reframing stars and constellations within that vision, and applying them consistently to astrological charts.  This is an enterprise well worth taking. 

I applaud Hofman’s effort to communicate the importance and possible use of fixed stars, his continuing to plumb the roots of astrology as they may relate to human happiness and the spiritual life.  The reader may disagree with him about this or that, but that’s part of the book’s value, for this may stimulate your thinking and investigating as it has done mine.

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