The Moment of Astrology by Geoffrey Cornelius first requires an apology to its author. While I worked my way diligently through this deeply intelligent and profound book, I cannot be certain I completely followed Mr. Cornelius through every intricately researched and structured idea. I believe I understand the basic tenet of this masterly work, though, which is that astrology is a tool of divination, or understanding the will of the gods. At its ancient roots, astrology was practiced by human beings along with other rituals as they humbly brought themselves into a sacred space with the question, “are the gods willing this or that?” They sought “bidden” omens which would provide them with the answer. This act required human participation as our ancient ancestors sought not to understand the cause of what was happening in their lives, but to recognize and interpret the signs in the heavens to guide them in their actions and choices.

But astrology would veer off course. Ptolemy, a mathematician, astronomer and astrologer who lived from 100 to 170 AD, saw the stars and planets moving in an orderly way through the heavens and believed they were ordering our affairs on earth through a kind of “mediating ambient,” or ether. This created a deterministic role for the practice which once opened up human beings to the possibilities of the divine, and his theory of astrology gave the astrologer the power to dictate what one’s life will be, based on the chart set up for the moment of birth, which became a kind of ticking, remorseless clock. And this misdirected use of astrology would continue for the next 2,000 years. You may even sense it today, when an astrology friend laments, “My Mars makes me hot tempered,” or “Saturn is really messing with my finances.”

This deterministic model of astrology would also make the practice vulnerable to attack from very intelligent thinkers throughout the centuries. It’s almost as if Ptolemy placed a “kick me” sign on astrology’s backside. In the Renaissance, Pico della Mirandola, a leading writer and intellectual light of the day, viciously attacked astrology, stating that of course the planets do not cause the events which occur on earth. He called astrology a “deterministic pseudo-science that threatened the dignity of man,” writing at a time when human beings were discovering the power of the individual to grow and create and become a unique self. Three leading astrologers of the day responded by reading Pico della Mirandola’s birth chart and predicting Pico would die before his 33rd year. Pico did in fact die at the age of 31, poisoned by arsenic, it would much later be proved. Historians speculate he had angered the powers that ruled his city at the time, and they wanted him gone. While Pico’s chart shows Mars, ruling the house of open enemies, opposing the Moon in his house of death, Cornelius points out that this aspect is merely a sign that Pico della Mirandola could face powerful enemies in his life. This aspect did not cause his untimely death. What was caused in this scenario, Cornelius believes, was a kind of sickness, “a shadow” settling over astrology as astrologers used this sacred tool to vent their own spleen. In reading a curse in Pico’s chart, they in a sense cursed astrology.

Five hundred years later, a group of 186 well known scientists brought a similar charge against astrology, concerned that a belief in a deterministic universe made us all “anxious and unquiet.” Astrology, they wrote, was “unethical, weakening human dignity and spiritual freedom.” Astrologers through the next decades worked tirelessly to use science to “prove” the validity of astrology. Through very well-structured trials and studies and experiments, they followed their quest for scientific proof. But nothing panned out. One remarkable study was the “suicide study” in which astrologers blindly were given charts of those who had died from suicide and those who had died from natural causes with the intent that astrology could predict suicide. It cannot. Astrologers can see signatures in charts which sometimes indicate suicide, but not always, and there are many various signatures which can indicate suicide. Cornelius jokes that in this study, astrologers in a sense committed suicide.

So, here we are, Cornelius tells us, with a deterministic model for astrology that cannot be proved to work – and yet astrology works for those of us who practice it. How? He turns to the practice of hoary astrology, which does not, like natal astrology, begin with the point of origin. The astrologer sets up a chart, not when the event in question begins, but when the astrologer receives the question. And how the astrologer does this varies. It may be when the letter or e-mail is sent, or when the letter or e-mail is opened and read by the astrologer. It may be when the querent contacts the astrologer for an appointment, or when the appointment begins. An astrologer in Massachusetts receiving a question from a querent in California may set up a chart in either Massachusetts or California. Yet a trained and insightful astrologer may use his or her own method of setting the chart to seek an answer for the querent.

And astrologers have found that the question does not simply come and the answer is found objectively in the chart as if it were some kind of crystal ball, but that the process requires participation from the querent, and sometimes even an action on the querent’s part. Cornelius tells a story from a book written by astrologer William Lilly in the 17th Century. A young lady consulted Lilly because she had received an offer of marriage from a much older man. She was uncertain whether she should accept the offer. Lilly set up a hoary chart for the moment of her question and studied the signs. He could see by the chart’s ruler, Mercury, representing the young lady, in square to Mars in the 8th house that the young lady’s affections were not engaged. She wanted someone more Mars – young, virile, perhaps a military man. Was this the case? he inquired. Lilly wrote that the young lady’s tears gave him an affirmative answer. Again, looking at Mars in the 8th house, Lilly asked the young lady if material security was what was making her hesitant in turning down the offer. This was a man with some property. The young lady confessed this was the case. Then, Lilly advised her, ask your suitor to provide you with a “jointure,” which would settle his estates on her should he die. Then you will know if this marriage will provide you with the security you seek. The young lady did so and reported that her suitor said he could not provide her with a jointure because his estates were “encumbered,” he was in debt. This confirmed what Lilly had suspected because in the hoary chart, Saturn was also in the 8th house, ruling the proposed partner’s property.

In hoary astrology, then, astrologers are able to enter into the sacred space, that moment of astrology, when they use their gifts from the divine, to read the symbols as best they can for the benefit of their clients. Medical astrologers also may use a kind of hoary since there is very little way of knowing the exact moment a client took ill. Mundane astrologers, too, are often reading aspects for events that had no clear beginning. Just something as basic as the chart of the United States has many different iterations, some based on contemporaries’ descriptions of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The Sibly chart, based on a brief description of someone who was present at the signing and later rectified by Dane Rudhyar, came to life on September 11, 2001, as the Pluto Saturn opposition fell across the chart’s Ascendant Descendant line. Other USA charts, however, also have shown validity.

What is most disconcerting, Cornelius reports, is that even wrong charts can speak meaningfully. He uses as an example the chart of Lady Diana Spencer, who would become the Princess of Wales after marrying Prince Charles. Once the engagement was announced, astrologers fell eagerly on the birth time provided by the palace and set up a chart with Libra rising, a true mirror of this beautiful young lady who was destined to marry her Prince Charming, represented by her Cancerian Sun shining in her 10th house. Later, however, it was discovered that the birth time provided was not correct. She was a Sagittarian rising Princess who over time learned to speak her own truth. Her Cancerian Sun was struggling for its identity in the house of others, and her Prince Charming would be setting the expectation for how she should be. What is interesting is that the first “wrong” chart portrayed the image the world had of this fairy tale princess, and the second chart gave us the real Diana. Even more startling, Cornelius reports, is that when the interview Diana gave revealing the sad state of her marriage was published, Uranus in Capricorn was exactly in square aspect to the Libra Ascendant of the “wrong” chart, exploding forever the image held by the public of their romantic Prince and Princess.

A natal birth chart, then, is “an image of birth.” Its symbols may be read to reveal matters about the native’s challenges and gifts and tendencies, but it is not the actual person. We are not our charts. Our destiny is not dependent upon the moment in time when we were born. Our destiny evolves as we seek the will of the divine and then do our best to carry on with what we have learned. Astrology is not an all-powerful tool, Cornelius tells us. It is a gift, both objective and subjective. We are given the planets as well as the mind to construct a means of divination, a science of learning and an art of interpretation.

And from where does this gift originate? It is in “the mysterious field of the soul wherein astrology grows,” Cornelius writes. Astrology tells us not what “will” happen but what “should” happen if we choose to listen to the will of the divine. We have the choice, establishing that we live our lives with the “human dignity and spiritual freedom” that so concerned the 186 scientists in 1975. Astrologers, by tapping into the “moment of astrology” and bringing the signs they perceive to their clients, are conveying a priceless gift.