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Star of Bethlehem

The Christmas celebration always has a certain irony for astrologers. Having spent the rest of the year being derided for 'following the stars', we marvel as the entire western world takes time out to celebrate the birth of the Christ child, whose coming was shown by wise men following a star. Sunsign astrologers may pass as pretty poor Magi, but it has to be admitted that somewhere along the line, we are all part of the same camel train.

In the gospels, the story of the Magi is found only in Matthew, ch 2:

"Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, where is he that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him."

Herod sent the wise men to Bethlehem, the place which the priests said had been predicted by the prophet:

"and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary the mother, and fell down and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh. And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way."

Most astrologers now recognise that the Star of Bethlehem was probably a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn which occurred three times in 7 BC. The definitive modern argument for this possibility is given by David Hughes in The Star Of Bethlehem Mystery [1], a study which received acclaim in academic circles. Hughes, an astronomer at the University of Sheffield, looks at all the possible celestial phenomena which could be taken as the Star, ranging from bright stars, planets, comets, supernovae and other celestial appearances. He matches a variety of possibilities with the politics of the time, the logistics of wise men making a journey from the east, and the need for the Star to have symbolic import as King (Jupiter) of the Jews (Saturn), and concludes that only the Jupiter-Saturn conjunction fits all the criteria:

"It was possible to predict the conjunction, and Babylonian magi had done just that, as the cuneiform tablets testify. The phenomenon had an inherent astrological message which equated it with 'his star' (Matthew 2:2). No comet, nova, fixed star, fireball or whatever could justify this appellation. It was long-lasting, long enough to be seen when the Magi were in their own country, while they were on the journey and on the final leg from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. Historically, it occurred at the right time, in 7 BC."

Having argued the case for Jupiter-Saturn as the Star, Hughes cannot resist "stretching the evidence" in order to speculate on the actual birthdate for Christ. The most impressive sighting of the conjunction would have occurred at its acronychal rising (rising as the sun sets), a moment of rejoicing for the Magi because this was when the Star first re-appeared in the night sky, in the lead-up to its final conjunction. This is the day which Hughes believes the Magi would single out as most important, and which leads him to the delightfully precise conclusion in the last sentence of his book: "This means that Jesus was born on the evening of Tuesday 15 September 7 BC." [2]

So why was the Jupiter-Saturn in Pisces of that year so important, when we know that these planets join every twenty years? Firstly, the conjunction was unusual in that it occurred three times, which Hughes dates as 27 May, 6 October and 1 December. A modern recomputation in fact gives the date of the last conjunction as 5 December. The discrepancy may come about because Hughes, who published in 1979, appears to have used the 1962 Tuckerman Tables which do not calculate Saturn to better than 9' arc accuracy. Given the slow-moving nature of the conjunction, this explains the discrepancy of a few days.

In the account of the Nativity, Matthew does not say there were three wise men, but since the wise men bring three gifts, this is why the Christian tradition seems to have settled for three Magi. My own view is that the triple conjunction is the key to the three Kings. The story of the Nativity became mythically convoluted as it was passed down over time, and a Star that appeared three times, followed by wise men, became three wise men following a Star [3].

The 7 BC conjunction also occurred during a transition phase, as a series of Jupiter-Saturn conjunctions moved between water and fire. These conjunctions also brought to a close an eight hundred year cycle of twenty-year conjunctions through the zodiac. Within this cycle, for around two hundred years, the conjunction is made in the same element. During the transition phase, the conjunctions undergo a 'mutation' between the elements, and surrounding the 7 BC conjunction we find the following: 66 BC water (Pisces), 46 BC water (Scorpio), 26 BC fire (Leo), 7 BC water (Pisces, triple conjunction), 14 AD fire (Sagittarius), 34 AD fire (Leo), 54 AD water (Pisces) and 74 AD fire (Sagittarius). After this, the conjunction settled into fire.

The Jupiter-Saturn conjunction is normally only one contact, so the fact that it occurred three times in 7 BC, due to retrograde motion, singles it out as the only triple conjunction during the mutation phase. The final conjunction on 5 December was exact at 15 Pisces, and I have set a chart for its culmination on the midheaven at Bethlehem. This symbolically reflects the story in Matthew, since we are told the Star came to rest overhead, above where the Christ child lay. What can a chart for such a moment show us? We would be on strange ground if we tried to read the chart in terms of our usual horoscopy; it would seem absurd to reduce the Star of Bethlehem to a reading based on houses, aspects and similar craft criteria - Virgo on the IC, born in a manger, mother was a virgin; Sun in Sagittarius, visited by foreign kings, strong religious inclination, and so on. The symbolism demands a different order.

There are several factors which seem to show at another level. The first is the relative strength of Jupiter in relation to Saturn. In his own sign of Pisces, Jupiter is the final dispositor and disposes Saturn, suggesting that the Star heralds a spiritual, rather than a material empire. However, Jupiter is part of a T-square involving the Sun and Pluto, and I take these as the three gifts from the Magi, put before the Christ child to see which one he would choose, and thereby to determine the true nature of his kingship. Gold was the gift for a king; frankincense the gift for a priest; and myrrh, a healing herb and burial ointment, a gift for one who would overcome death. Jesus took all three, since he was King, God and Redeemer. We can see the signature of the three gifts in the T-square: gold (Sun, king), frankincense (Jupiter, priest) and myrrh (Pluto, death and resurrection).

The symbolism of the chart also seems to give a broad showing of a key issue which Christianity must face, in the opposition of Jupiter and Saturn to Pluto, a modern planet not known to the Magi. Hidden on the IC, (and, it must be noted, next to Chiron) [4], Pluto's position strikes me as relevant in terms of the shadow cast by the Christ symbol. This is something that Jung amplifies in Aion [5], how the Christ figure is so pure that, by the law of psychic balance, it inevitably casts a shadow, and a dark opposite emerges in the form of the devil. This is the problematic good-evil divide within Christianity, and it raises the issue of theodicy, that is, how an all-good God can allow the existence of evil. So it is very striking to find that as the Star of Bethlehem culminates, the shadow of Pluto is constellated on the IC, Hades (the shades, shadow), the underworld, and all that is of the 'anti-Christ'. This symbolism, of course, can only be relevant for us as moderns, as it is we who see Pluto, not the Magi.

This brings us fully to Jung's work on Christ and the Age of Pisces, in which he discusses the history of Christianity against the background of the Pisces symbol. Christ and the Church have always been associated with fish symbolism - the disciples were called 'piscisculi', little fishes, and many were fishermen. Looking at this astrologically, Jung maps the backwards motion of the Spring Equinox point onto the constellation of Pisces. I have written about this extensively elsewhere, especially in Jung & Astrology [6], so I will give only a brief summary here.

Beginning with the star Al Rischa, the knot which joins the cords of the two fish of Pisces, Jung shows how the Spring Equinox point fell at 0 Pisces, conjunct Al Rischa, around the time of the birth of Christ. Christianity flourished as the Vernal Point moved backwards along the ecliptic, against the stars of the first fish, the fish of spirit which swims vertically away from the ecliptic. However, as the Vernal Point passed through the cord binding the fishes, heretical doctrines began to challenge the Church, until around 1818, when the Vernal Point reached the tail of the second fish, the fish of matter which swims horizontally along the ecliptic and forms a cross with the first fish. If the first fish is Christ, the second is anti-Christ, and Jung sees this as manifested in the scientific revolution and such anti-Christian philosophies as those of Marx and Darwin.

The coming of the Messiah, therefore, is indicated both by the Star and the precession of the equinoxes, but to return now to the Star. It was the great astronomer Kepler who first established the identity of the Star as a Jupiter-Saturn conjunction. He was moved by a Jupiter-Saturn conjunction during his own time, which he began to observe on 17 December 1603. He watched it for about ten days, and it must have seemed magical, to see such a 'star' in the sky over the Christmas period. Kepler's interest was slightly broader than Jupiter-Saturn, however. He was on the track of an 805 year cycle which brought Mars broadly alongside Jupiter-Saturn, and to him, this was a 'triple conjunction' of three planets which he was using to date great historic epochs, from Adam, the Flood, Moses, Christ and the Reformation. He particularly noted a triple conjunction of Mars, Jupiter and Saturn in September and October of 1604, and a supernova which exploded next to these three that same October.

From the Arabic astrologers onwards, Jupiter-Saturn conjunctions were the staple of mundane astrology, and we can see both this, and the influence of Kepler's work, in William Lilly. He was particularly interested in the 1643 conjunction in Pisces, but there appear to be two connected levels of its symbolism in his practice. Concerned with its import for the politics of his own day, in his Englands Propheticall Merline (1644), he discusses the mutation conjunctions between different elements in relation to the English monarchy. According to Lilly, English kings flourished under earthy conjunctions, but the two conjunctions prior to 1643 had been in fire. The high-handedness of the 1603 fire conjunction, shown in James I, the Stuart monarch who came to the throne that year, would find its come-uppance in Lilly's day under the water conjunction, traditionally said to bring misfortune to English kings. However, beyond this mundane showing, Lilly used the 1643 conjunction in Pisces to illustrate the frontispiece of his magnum opus, Christian Astrology, thus pointing to his awareness of it as the Star of Bethlehem. In so doing, he is gesturing to a more profound understanding of astrology's symbolism, and hinting at the sacred nature of the astrologer's role to reveal the divine, but in a land crawling with Presbyters, an astrologer had to be careful.

As we enter Epiphany, astrologers are placed in the most peculiar situation. The Church has consistently rejected astrology as divination and seen it as devil's work, and for Catholics, it remains a cardinal sin. The Christian position can accept the Star of Bethlehem as a miraculous sign, given by God, but not as an astrological sign of the divine. But as astrologers celebrate the greatest religious festival in the western world, and mark the Nativity, we know that when we cast the horoscope and seek signs of the soul from an infant's nativity, we continue to do so under the shadow of the Star. The Star of Bethlehem gives astrology great spiritual authority, and yet, how very little we have made of such a marvellous cultural and collective symbol. Astrologers have accepted a far lesser and more materialistic role for astrology, which falls short of any claim to be modern day Magi. Instead, the astrological determinism which has attached itself to our mainstream practice has allowed astrology to carry the shadow that Christianity so readily wants to put upon it. We have let ourselves be cast in the shadow of the Star, rather than in its light.

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[1]. David Hughes, The Star Of Bethlehem Mystery, (pub J.M. Dent, 1979).

[2]. A horoscope for the apparent acronychal rising of Jupiter-Saturn can be cast for a time of 6pm20 LMT, 15 September -6 (7BC), Bethlehem, (Asc 25 Pisces, Moon 6 Gemini 47). John Addey speculated on a horoscope for Christ and arrived at 22 August 7 BC. This chart has all the inner planets in dignity, with the exception of Saturn in Pisces. See discussion on this in Hughes' book.

[3]. When this idea first struck me, I looked at the clock, thinking I should perhaps do some kind of chart about this, and was bemused to see that the time was 3:33. Very funny, cosmos. I'll take that as a 'yes', then. The chart has a Jupiter-Saturn opposition, with the Moon applying to the opposition of Jupiter, then conjunct Saturn. The Sun applies to the trine of Neptune - mankind's mythological mind, or just a fanciful moment? [3am33 BST, 6 May 1991, Twickenham].

[4]. Chiron wants to be on the IC here, in even closer opposition to the Jupiter-Saturn conjunction than Pluto. With its wounded healer symbolism, it will no doubt delight Chiron fans as much as it irritates those, like myself, who have been trying not to include it in their symbolic language.

[5]. Jung, Aion - Researches Into the Phenomenology of The Self CW9 Part II.

[6]. Maggie Hyde, Jung and Astrology (pub Aquarian 1992).

from a lecture given at the COA on 11 December 2002





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