The Signs They Are A-Changin

Modern astrology is built on the foundation of the psychological meaning of the 12 signs of the zodiac. This is where most modern astrologers start, and we still refer back to it as a kind of quick astrology shorthand.

Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs is a good and typical example of modern sun sign astrology, and her book still reads quite well. Full modern astrology is quite a bit more complex and nuanced than that book, and yet there is a certain core of meaning there that is a kind of foundation, a simple base.

We describe or identify people with their Sun Signs – Hi, I’m a Leo, what are you?  At an astrology gathering you might then be asked to add your moon sign and rising sign, but the core is still the meaning of the Sun sign. That is what you are.

This is very much a twentieth century phenomenon.

I want to take a walk through the history of astrology, looking at how the meanings of the signs has changed and evolved over the last few centuries. I am going to focus on the sign Aquarius for my example, since this sign has Saturn as ruler for traditional astrologers, and a different ruler, Uranus, for modern astrologers.

My premise is that the meanings we give the signs changes as we associate different rulers with them, and as we put astrology in different spiritual or psychological contexts.

In older traditional texts, there was no emphasis on the signs as indicating personality traits.

As an example, for William Lilly who was active in the mid 1600’s, the descriptions of manners and of temperament, the psychological traits, are all given to the planets rather than to the signs. The whole idea of a sign having meaning or power apart from planets really didn’t exist.

There was no emphasis on Sun sign as primary identity. A great deal of focus was placed on the Ascendant – but instead of looking primarily to the sign on the Ascendant for meaning, in traditional astrology you would look for the planet which is the Lord of the sign, and any planets on or near the Ascendant. The focus is on planets and rulerships rather than the meanings of signs.

For example, if you had Capricorn as your rising sign, instead of interpreting the meaning of Capricorn, you would find Saturn in your chart, what house and what condition it is in, and describe the person’s character in terms of the expression of Saturn.

Planets rather than signs were the primary sources of meaning.

Getting closer to our own day, in some Western texts prior to the modern psychological era of astrology, you do find some brief descriptions of character and psychology based on the sign.


As an example here I want to quote the British astrologer Raphael – circa 1877. This is representative of the period, and I am aware of at least another 3 or 4 books from the same general period which give similar descriptions.

Aquarius:  Disposition: Stable, good, kind-hearted, scientific; fond of learning and recreation; gentle, and temper even.

Then, a little later, a section on Sun in Aquarius, in with descriptions of body and appearance:

“in disposition good and just; obliging, but rather proud.”

That’s it for a psychological description of the sign.  I think those two descriptions are a mixture of a fixed air sign with the characteristics of its ruling planet, Saturn. In the second quote on Sun in Aquarius, being rather proud is mixing the Sun in with the main context.

With our next astrologer we turn a corner and enter the modern era.

Alan Leo

I think we can fairly call Alan Leo the inventor of modern astrology. Leo was the first to have “canned” mail-in astrology chart interpretations, and the first person to describe the meaning of astrology in primarily psychological terms.

Alan Leo was a theosophist, so his astrology is underlaid by the belief in the long-term, ongoing evolution of humanity from a base physical condition to an advanced, selfless and spiritual state.

Given that there was very little in traditional sources to build on, how did he come up with the meaning of the signs? Let’s read some of his writing here, and see what we find.

Aquarian individuals are determined, patient, quiet, unobtrusive and faithful. They have the power of concentrating their thoughts,  and are generally philosophic and scientific. They incline toward the unconventional, and thus make excellent reformers… When fully individualized, they have a great love for all humanitarian undertakings and concerns that produce harmony for the many; this gives them marked social tendencies,  and makes them delight in giving pleasure to others.

Notice this builds on the nucleus, the short phrases that were in Raphael. Also notice how much meaning he is spinning out from thinking of Aquarius as fixed air, but also notice the 11th house meanings being worked in – humanitarian, social, love for others.

As far as I can tell, it is Alan Leo that began the process of really associating the meaning of Aquarius with the 11th house. These high, humanitarian ideals and undertakings, producing harmony for all, are Leo’s own highest spiritual values. Aquarians here are intellectual and spiritual reformers leading us in the march towards our own spiritual perfection.

Next I want to look at some writing from a man not normally associated with astrology, who has had a far larger influence than many people realize – the British occultist and poet Aleister Crowley.

Aleister Crowley

Crowley’s astrology writing comes from 1915-1916 while he was living in New York. It is pretty much accepted that Crowley ghost wrote most of Evangeline Adams’ two main books on astrology. These two books were enormously popular and influential here in America.

Evangeline Adams’ work is really building on the popularity of the modern astrology that began with Alan Leo, so Crowley would be consciously writing within that vein.

Crowley did not accept the modern rulership of Aquarius by Uranus; he stayed with the original rulership of Saturn. Also, Crowley favored the earlier writers like Raphael, and recommended them to his students.

This excerpt from Crowley’s description of Aquarian people is typical of his approach. The emphasis is mine.

The genius in every department of progress is bound to be a revolutionary, for nature progresses by excesses, but Aquarius always tries to progress without upsetting existing conditions. He has a great sense of realities and does not shut his eyes to facts, but his tendency is to bring existing facts to flower by submitting them to the operations of a kindly wisdom, rather than by challenging things as they are and by breaking new ground. Thus there is never anything of the fanatic of this type.

Note how very Saturnine this entire description is – not upsetting conditions, great sense of realities, kindly wisdom – calm, dispassionate, patient. Nothing at all Uranian here.

Max Heindel

Max Heindel was Theosophist and occultist, and founder of the Rosicrucian Fellowship, which he describes as an association of Christian mystics. His astrology background was strongly influenced by the philosophy and spiritual aspirations of Theosophy, and what you could describe as an occult form of Christian symbolism, one that most mainstream Christians would not recognize. His main book on astrology was published in 1927.

The children of Aquarius are of a rather shy, retiring nature…. it has a tendency to breed melancholy and make them recluses.

Aquarius is an intellectual sign and its children usually have a good mentality, because the Saturnine rulership gives depth to the mind, and the Uranian ray gives them intuition and an inclination towards, science, literature and philosophy.

As Aquarius is the 11th sign it partakes also of the qualities ruled by the 11th House; therefore the children of Aquarius are usually well liked among their associates and have many friends…Their principal fault is that on account of Saturnine traits they are somewhat given to worry.

Note the strong predominance of Saturnine traits again. Note also that Heindel is consciously building a meaning by mixing the fixed air sign with Saturn, with the 11th House, and with some Uranian traits. With Heindel being a Theosophist, Uranus would be considered a higher vibration, spiritual planet, which is why he links it to intuition here.

The sign’s meaning is being built up from its associations with its rulers, its element and mode,  and with the corresponding house.

Charles Carter

Charles Carter was a successor to Alan Leo as head of a major Astrology organization in Great Britain, and he was also a member of Theosophical Society. Carter has roots in traditional astrology, but also follows Leo, carrying on and developing the work and perspective of relating astrology and character.

This is from his main introductory astrology textbook, published in the 1920’s.

The purely Saturnian Aquarian resembles the Capricornian in his seriousness and grave outlook on life, but he is as a rule less practical; the mind is more idealistic and may spend much time in abstract thoughts…On the other hand, there is nearly always kindness, sympathy and refinement…The native tends to be attracted to societies, clubs, associations, groups of people, and ‘movements’ of all sorts, easily merging his own personality in ’causes’.

Uranus resembles Aquarius in a lack of conventional bias, but it is more uncontrolled in its hatred of restraint, having a Martian resentment and energy that seems foreign to the usually friendly and sympathetic Aquarian.

Here the predominance of 11th house kinds of ideas is strong, but still with that fixed air, Saturnine framework. We are still in the same general world of meaning as with the short quotes from Raphael. Even where Carter speaks of the resemblance of Aquarius and Uranus, he then contrasts Uranus as being much more Martial and less Saturnine than is the sign Aquarius. The planet Uranus and the sign Aquarius have not yet started merging in Carter’s mind, and yet they are commonly enough associated that he considers the two together.

Carter’s work is a good example of mainstream early 20th century astrology. In the next post we will look at how the meaning of the sign Aquarius changed with some later astrology writers.


The Signs They Are A-Changin — 1 Comment

  1. Being an Aquarian myself, I found this article most fascinating, and
    very educational. Reading about these great thinkers that came before
    us, only makes me think that at that time in our evolution, genius thought
    was in abundance. Thank you for your genius and sensitive awareness to
    the astrologer’s need to learn and grow in these subjects.
    Sincerely, Adele

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