What’s your Sun-sign?

The question usually means someone is trying to pick you up at a party. Or perhaps that you’re in the presence of some self-proclaimed wizard who, upon getting an answer, attempts to describe you as if you were one of twelve varieties of breakfast cereal.

Our intellects reject astrology as simple and superstitious. Our hearts rebel at the determinism. But is this all astrology is? Just a parlor game? How did a science that once occupied a seat in the major universities of Europe wind up on the comic page of the daily news? Is it only a vestigial belief system from the Middle Ages trying to pass itself off as a science? We reject it, yet remain curious. Is there some element of truth behind all the sideshow?

Steven Forrest began asking himself these questions long ago. One of a new generation of astrologers, interested in making astrology a self-awareness tool rather than a tawdry excuse for fortune telling, he has coined the term “evolutionary astrology” to describe a more mature approach which recognizes that people grow and change, and that accepts the indeterminate and unpredictable. Steven believes one of astrology’s biggest mistakes is to confuse the map — the birthchart — with the territory, an actual person always changing. “To really experience what the astrological mind map represents,” he says, “we need to lace up our boots and start exploring. We must put the birthchart away and confront the mind itself. There is no other way.”

He developed an interest in astronomy as a young boy, peering at the night sky through his homebuilt telescopes. Then, when he was still a teenager, he had an amazing meeting with a European palmist who accurately read his palm and introduced him to the world of symbols. From then on, his world was never quite the same, and he soon began reading astrology books with a voracious appetite. After graduating from the University of North Carolina with a degree in religion in 1971, he began doing astrology as his full-time career.

He has just published his first book, The Inner Sky (Bantam Books), and it’s definitely not your usual dull astrology text. He breathes new life into the subject without a lot of confusing technical jargon. Maps in hand, Steven takes the reader on a fascinating journey through astrology’s language and symbols, and presents a way of learning astrology that not only makes sense, but is downright entertaining. The book is full of rich imagery and it sparkles with his offbeat humor. For instance:

“A bomb goes off in a puzzle factory. A thousand puzzles blasted to smithereens. A million pieces, scattered like confetti. Two mad geniuses, both on Methedrine, attack the problem, each one swearing to have five hundred puzzles assembled by dawn. Imagine it. That’s Gemini.”

Steven is a busy man. He has just finished writing his second book, The Changing Sky, and together with his wife, Jodi, is about to begin a third, which will deal with the astrology of relationships. He is co-founder of Astro-Lyra Astrological Services (P.O. Box 2345, Chapel Hill, N.C. 27514) which holds regular classes and offers astrology readings by mail. Besides doing daily sessions for clients, teaching, and writing, he also finds time for his two other loves, sailing and playing guitar.

On a recent trip to Chapel Hill, I managed to catch up with him, and he generously granted me a long interview. Since he and his wife (who is also a professional astrologer) both work out of their house, their living space is always humming; sometimes it’s a classroom, other times an office or a computer center. On this cold drizzly Winter morning, Jodi was taping a reading in one room, and Steven and I were ready to start the interview next door. After brewing some tea, he was eager to talk about his work and the changes happening in astrology.

— Michael Thurman


SUN: Let’s begin at the beginning. When did you first become interested in astrology?

FORREST: The first thing I recall wanting for Christmas was a telescope, so I could look at the stars. I remember one Christmas morning being quite disappointed because my parents had bought me a spyglass, and I was expecting Mount Palomar. I don’t think they understood I wanted to look at the stars.

So it goes way back. I was an amateur astronomer through my early years. From the time I was eleven or twelve I had astronomical telescopes, little ones, but I used them a lot. When I was thirteen I met a sixteen-year-old girl, a German immigrant, while on vacation at Lake George in upstate New York. She knew palmistry. I knew what palmistry was but that was about it. In a playful way, she taught it to me and the other kids in our group. I got good at it. I just seemed to have a knack for it. It seemed real, accurate.

I led a rather schizophrenic existence through my teenage years. I had been basically a scientific little boy. My interests were very objective. But I also had this fascination with palmistry, which led to a more general interest in old symbol systems, and somewhere along the way it fused with my interest in astronomy. When I was eighteen I bought my first astrology book, and never stopped after that. I became increasingly obsessed with it.

SUN: What was it like having your palm read that first time? What influence did that have on you?

FORREST: A sense of wonder. A sense of amazement that so much that seemed valid about me could be seen in the shape of my hand. And even more importantly, I think — since my identity was still quite malleable then, I was only thirteen and insecure — to have somebody tell me about myself made me feel more clear about who I was. It helped me formulate a myth of myself.

SUN: Was there a conflict for you, coming from a scientific background and then going into astrology?

FORREST: Absolutely. I was taught, of course, that astrology was superstition. Virtually everyone I respected held that opinion, yet I saw that it worked. In a sense I was being lied to or misinformed by people who were sincere and well-meaning. It was pretty stressful. But I was very introspective and I think rather immune to the pressures from the exterior world. I lived very much in the inner world.

SUN: What was your religious background?

FORREST: Protestant. Calvinist humanitarian liberal inner-city Protestant. My mother had been raised Catholic, my father a Protestant. When they married, my father became an agnostic and my mother became a Protestant. Each one slipped a notch.

SUN: Has astrology changed your spiritual beliefs?

FORREST: Oh yes, very clearly. The notion that life is a series of lessons, that we’re here to grow — these have almost become cliches. It’s easy to let them go in one ear and out the other. But astrology clarifies and objectifies these concepts. It becomes impossible to escape the idea that life is a series of lessons, that we are growing toward a spiritual goal. It has affected my spiritual beliefs very deeply.

SUN: Has it changed the way you view yourself?

FORREST: My own birthchart suggests that I began my journey with a lot of self-doubt. I was a shy little boy. I found that through internalizing the astrological pictures of who I was, I gained a special sort of confidence — confidence with a real basis — in the fact that I was here to be a writer and a teacher, for example. Confidence that I had something important to do with my life that would affect the public somehow. And my chart said that even though I had such a destiny, I was a late bloomer. I was going to have to work a long time to find it and I should be patient.

SUN: So it gave you a perspective on your weaknesses, as well as your strengths?

FORREST: A perspective and a set of formulas for coping with the weaknesses. A perspective of the time rhythm of the unfolding of my own being, so that I didn’t fall into the desperation of being twenty-three and not knowing what I was going to do with my life. That desperation can so often lead to desperate decisions, which are bad decisions.

SUN: Clearly, astrology has been useful for you. Why is it that astrology has gotten such a bad name?

FORREST: It deserves it. It has earned its rotten reputation. Astrology is, by and large, a corrupt system. There’s a renaissance going on and astrology is rising from its own ashes — but even today the mainstream of astrology is extremely rigid and fatalistic. It does tend to put people into pigeonholes. Psychologically it’s superficial and trite. “This means you are meticulous, careful and would make a fine librarian” — that kind of stuff is typical of modern astrology, unfortunately. And intelligent, sensitive people reject it for those reasons and I don’t blame them.

SUN: What do you mean by a renaissance?

FORREST: It’s cultural. Beginnings are difficult to trace, but I would emphasize the work of Carl Jung, a very influential thinker of this century. He took astrology seriously; he took symbol systems in general seriously and he understood them in a very sophisticated way. There was also the British mysticism of the nineteenth century — the Theosophical Society, for example. As Britain conquered India and opened lines of communication with that region, the Hindu and Buddhist traditions began to come back into Great Britain and they fertilized a spiritual renaissance. Out of the collision of Eastern and British psychology came an energy which had a great influence on the corrupt and virtually dead European astrology. It revitalized it. That energy then got transported to America. Most of the people at the cutting edge of the new astrology are working in North America, though there’s important work also being done in Europe.

SUN: In what way is the new astrology different from the old?

FORREST: The fundamental difference is that the new astrology assumes the essence of life to be change. We also assume that there can be no certainty about the nature of the changes — that human will and choice interact very strongly with human destiny. We no longer look at the birthchart as the symbol of the personality. We could say that the chart is a symbol of a thousand personalities, all of which are possible for that individual. Which one they will choose is astrologically unpredictable. The old style astrologers would say, for instance, that all Geminis talk too much. And we might make a case for it; we often do find a lot of talkative Gemini people. But the modern astrologer would see the nervous chattering behavior not as the true nature of Gemini, but as a Gemini disease, a risk that consciousness takes when it works with the Gemini energy. There are other ways to express that energy. It can be expressed at a higher level and come out as an unending intellectual curiosity, a fascination with the world. The modern astrologer would encourage the person to make the stronger response, and caution him or her about the weakness.

SUN: Do you have any problems classifying astrology as an “occult” science?

FORREST: That term bothers me. Occult means hidden. I don’t think of myself as an occultist because in a lot of ways I’m scientific. I think anything that’s true can be demonstrated to be true. And if it can be demonstrated then it’s no longer occult, no longer hidden. I’m confident that astrology can be demonstrated to be true. There’s a great deal of statistical work now being done which supports astrology as having a valid basis. The work is being done by scientists rather than astrologers. Michel Gauquelin, for example, a Frenchman, set out to debunk astrology in the Fifties. It was basically a cheap master’s thesis in statistics that he was after. He got the charts of about 900 doctors. He wanted to prove that there was no consistent pattern among them, and to his dismay he discovered there was. He, along with his wife, has since made a career of studying the correlation between certain professions with the rising and setting of planets in a birthchart. They’ve found statistical correlations in more than 25,000 cases that were running against million-to-one odds. And that’s just the work of two people. There are many others I could name.

SUN: Would you say that astrology is a science, then, or an art?

FORREST: I call it an art-science because it’s a little of each. Perhaps that’s one reason why there aren’t many good astrologers around. It’s hard to find the disposition of the artist and the disposition of the scientist in one flesh. Astrology is very technical; there’s a lot that you have to learn, a lot of rote work. It takes an orderly, objective mind. But ultimately, the art of interpreting a symbol is the crux. Symbol reading in many ways is a lost art, and I think the astrological renaissance is bringing it back. Symbols are very powerful things. We read them with our intellects, but we read them with our hearts too. We read them with the intuition. A symbol has to speak to us. If we don’t find ourselves emotionally aroused by the symbol then we’re not getting the message. As a result, all really effective astrologers have the artistic temperament that allows them to respond emotionally to what they’re seeing

SUN: You would agree with Jung, then, when he says that we primarily give meaning to our world through symbols.

FORREST: Yes. The world itself is a symbol to each of us. One person looks at the world and sees a dog-eat-dog place where the fit survive and the weak die. Other people look at the world and see Christ operating against the Devil, or a world of randomness and indifference, or one created by a benign and loving God. The whole world is a symbol — an ink blot test.

Astrology is, by and large, a corrupt system. There’s a renaissance going on . . . but even today the mainstream of astrology is extremely rigid and fatalistic. It does tend to put people into pigeonholes. Psychologically it’s superficial and trite.

SUN: Do the symbols of astrology relate to Jung’s idea of archetypes?

FORREST: Yes. In fact, in the Inner Sky, the notion of archetypes is central. Each of the signs and planets is an archetype. Saturn is the wise old man, for example. Mercury is the curious youth, and so on.

SUN: If astrology is a way of symbolizing our world, then isn’t it easy, when using such a system, to mistake your symbol or your map for the territory, for the world itself?

FORREST: That’s the ultimate danger of using any symbol system. Astrology — or any set of symbols — is just a finger pointing at reality. Sooner or later we have to look where the finger is pointing instead of studying the finger.

SUN: Sounds very Zen-like.

FORREST: It is. The purpose of a symbol system is to simplify. We use astrology because life is so complicated. We need a blueprint, a schematic drawing, and astrology provides that. But in any kind of representation there’s always distortion. Astrology cannot ever be perfectly accurate any more than science can, as Einstein and Neils Bohr have certainly proven. There are limits to what we can know because ultimately the only thing that can symbolize reality perfectly is reality itself, and then we’re back to square one.

SUN: How would you advise people who are interested in astrology to distinguish between real astrology and fortune-telling or hype?

FORREST: It’s easy. Pick a book off the shelf, open it up and ask, “Are there rigid statements here? Is this person putting me in a box?” Does it say, for instance, that a negatively aspected Venus means promiscuity? That’s the old stuff. If it says something like, “With a Venus involved with aspects of tension, one of the possibilities is promiscuity, but there are others. One can respond in higher ways too,” then that’s the new astrology. In the new astrology we don’t know what people are going to do. I pity the old astrologers. They put themselves in a terrible spot. It’s a very anxious role to play — you sit with a stranger who expects you to tell what has happened to him and what’s going to happen to him, to say how he is and how he behaves. The old astrology is accurate enough so that you’re going to be right some of the time, but you’re also going to be wrong a lot. It’s a great way to get an ulcer. In modern astrology we don’t even try to play that game. We have recognized that life means uncertainty, life means freedom.

SUN: In your book, you quote Rodney Collin, who says, in effect, the source of all madness lies in the inability to distinguish between the essence of ourselves and our personalities. How can astrology help us to see that difference?

FORREST: That’s a central question. Human consciousness is inherently complex and ambiguous, and in order to function in the world in a way we call sane, we need to streamline our consciousness into something simpler; we call it our personality. We can’t be aware of the whole world at once, and personality becomes a practical necessity for living. The personality is a myth, a construct, a symbol. We all have a need for that myth of self. Our culture supplies us with lots of myths and says, “Pick one.” Do you want to be like John Wayne, or Albert Einstein, or Ram Dass? We have heroes, but the hero myths never fit us quite right. With astrology, through the birthchart, we come to terms with probably the most perfect myth of the self we can ever find. It’s the myth that creates the minimum of friction between the essence of self and personality.

SUN: In the book you speak of our shadow self or dark side. What does that represent to you?

FORREST: Fear. It’s the part of each of us that believes we are random cogs in a random universe in direct competition for dwindling resources. Each of us responds differently to that and I think we can determine to some extent the nature of that response by looking at the birthchart. One person might respond with megalomanic qualities and try to take over the world. Another might quickly resolve to be dead by taking a passive, defeatist kind of attitude. We can see those escape hatches, those negative responses.

Sometimes I imagine life as one of the inner circles of hell, a pool of flaming effluvium of one sort or another. And then I imagine a greasy rope hanging straight down from heaven into that pool. We can climb that greasy rope to heaven, but it’s tiring to do that. If we get halfway up the rope and get tired of climbing we can just hold on, but sometimes it takes a lot of effort just to hold on. If we get lazy we’ll start slipping back down into that flaming pool.

I think that’s a pretty good metaphor for understanding the way astrology works. There’s no such thing as a good birthchart or a bad one. Any birthchart can be corrupted or it can be perfected, theoretically. We warn about the specific nature of being at the bottom of the rope by looking at the chart and saying, “When you’re lazy, when you get out on the wrong side of the bed, this is what it looks like.” For one person it’s temperamental outbursts, for another it’s depression, for another it’s workaholism, or spiritual power-tripping. We warn about the bottom of that rope, and then we talk about how those energies can be transformed — how we can climb the rope and what it looks like at each stage of the rope. And then ultimately we talk about heaven, what it would look like if you were enlightened or self-actualized. It’s abstract, but it’s helpful for people to know where they can go.

SUN: You say in your book that astrology shouldn’t concern itself with metaphysics. Yet all through the book I keep seeing a theme of the soul learning lessons, of fulfilling some karmic purpose. Can you really separate the two in practice?

FORREST: Hard question. No, you can’t. Metaphysics asks, “What does life mean?” Astrology, of course, brings us head on with very similar questions. Like the separation of church and state it’s probably impossible to do completely. But it seems helpful to make an effort to keep a little distance between the two. I think to some extent astrology has been corrupted by metaphysics. Some people decide that certain astrological configurations suggest spirituality and others don’t. It’s the same old determinism and doesn’t leave you any openness or space to grow. There’s another reason even more fundamental in keeping the two separate. Each of us lives in a different reality. Each of us has a different perspective, a different purpose, a different viewpoint. We have to honor those differences. The function of astrology is not to thrust my view on someone else but to help another person see whatever it is they need to see more clearly. If I become a Buddhist astrologer because I’m a Buddhist, or a Christian astrologer because I’m a Christian, then I’m letting my own metaphysics interfere with being an effective astrologer.

SUN: How do you reconcile the basic question of whether the world is totally deterministic or whether we have free will?

FORREST: Imagine two people in a violent, passionate argument. One believes the universe is utterly rigid and fatalistic, that the future already exists. The other believes that people are absolutely free and that everything is uncertain. And up above them imagine an angel laughing. Something in the way we phrase that question misleads us, like asking, “Is light a particle or a wave?” You can prove quite objectively that it’s either one, and if one is true then the other one’s false. With the question of fate and free will it’s the same thing. Astrology really contains both views. One way of looking at it is that the eastern half of the chart is the side of life which seems less determined; we have more freedom there. The western side of the chart tends to refer more to factors that come from the outside, that shape us and give us circumstantial structures which we need to deal with. Astrology gives us certain material to work on; that’s fate. The chart might say that you’ll always be working on the issue of responsibility to other people, that you’re learning to be your brother’s keeper this time. Maybe you’ll run away to Ecuador because you don’t like that responsibility, but when you get there you’re going to find yourself in exactly the same situation. But then the chart brings in freedom: how you respond to that situation is up to you. You can keep running away, keep creating the same situation and keep getting to square two only to do it over again like a broken record. That’s within your freedom. We don’t know what you’ll do, only that responsibility issues will keep coming up. You may accept them as they are and do a good job with them — learn humility and service and self-sacrifice. Each individual, of course, has his or her own issues. In astrology we simply say, “Here’s some stuff to work on. That’s fate. What are you going to do about it? That’s freedom.”

SUN: It seems as if we keep seeking some all-encompassing system to explain every unknown. Some astrologers look for undiscovered planets to account for a phenomenon they can’t explain. Yet we always come up with holes in our cosmic nets. There is always the unexplainable. Will we ever have a system complete enough to fill all those holes?

FORREST: Never, and to me that’s exciting. Astrology has grown vastly more precise. Since the eighteenth century we’ve discovered three new planets, three new dimensions in human consciousness. We locate the position of the planets with much more accuracy than we could a thousand years ago. But the holes are still there, and will always be there. Again, it comes down to an understanding of what symbol systems are: just a finger pointing at reality, not reality itself.

SUN: After doing so many charts for people, do you still feel a sense of awe about the process, a sense of mystery, or is it easy to feel that you’ve got it all sewn up?

FORREST: If I ever lost the sense of awe I would have to stop doing astrology. In order to read symbols, I must respond emotionally, with excitement and enthusiasm. If I lost that, the door would be closed.

SUN: Is there a psychic factor in the way you do readings for people or is it all strictly by the book?

FORREST: For years I rebelled against people calling me a psychic. I was often accused of being a psychic and I would say, “No, no, it’s the symbols.” Reading symbols stimulates one’s ability to perceive information in ways that go beyond the normal, the logical; that’s part of the territory. The study of symbolism is probably the shortest route to developing or sharpening the intuitive faculties. I know that I have said things to people in readings that go way beyond anything that the symbols could ever give to me. I can’t understand that fully, but I think I understand it at a deeper level now than I did years ago. I don’t experience myself as a psychic, but I do know that I’ve had psychic experiences in readings. One time I was telling a story to a woman in which I had to invent a social security number, and the number that I made up was indeed hers.

SUN: The whole number?

FORREST: Yes. It surprised me more than it surprised her. I say this with some hesitation because I’m afraid people will read this and say, “Oh, he’s psychic, that’s how he does it.” It’s a touchy area for me because I don’t want people to be able to explain astrology away by saying that we’re psychic. It’s just that astrology is inherently a system which stimulates the psychic faculties; we understand the chart intellectually, emotionally and psychically.

SUN: Is it hard for you not to play the role of guru? Do people put you in that role?

FORREST: Yes, to some extent, and that’s been difficult at times. I’m much better known now, so you’d think the temptations would be much greater. In the past I was more susceptible to thinking, maybe they’re right. But now I know myself well enough to know that I’m nobody’s guru. I’m working on myself just like anybody else. When people try to put me on that kind of pedestal I just inwardly laugh and try to squirm my way out of it. I make every effort to sound as human as possible in the readings, and since I am human I do a pretty good job, I think.

For years I rebelled against people calling me a psychic. I was often accused of being a psychic and I would say, “No, no, it’s the symbols.”

SUN: Are you interested in other symbol systems besides astrology? Do you find any correlations between them?

FORREST: Yes. Astrology is the one that I resonate with most strongly. I’ve worked some with the Tarot cards and found the symbols very evocative, but I don’t understand why they work. I don’t understand why a random layout of cards should be so relevant to questions and situations. I’ve recently discovered the old Celtic book of Runes. It’s a divination method that’s indigenous to Europe. These I find very powerful. I’m a neophyte with them — I only discovered them a few months ago — but other than astrology they work better for me than any of the rest.

SUN: What advantage does astrology have over other symbol systems?

FORREST: Holism. Astrology, at least healthy astrology, never answers a question in a vacuum the way the Tarot or the I Ching [Book of Changes] can. Astrology always sees life as an interrelated system. Your relationship issues are tied up with your money issues and your creative issues and all of those are related to your ultimate sense of what life means. It’s impossible to grasp one without the other. Astrology by its very nature forces a person to stretch beyond the errors that can arise from a question that has been defined too narrowly.

SUN: Astrology could be said to have given birth to the new age, since it was astrologers who coined the term, “Age of Aquarius.” Does that concept have any validity for you?

FORREST: Yes. There is an astrological cycle based on the procession of the equinoxes. It’s a simple idea. When you spin a child’s top and it’s starting to run out of energy but it hasn’t yet fallen over, you see the top slowly start to wobble backwards against the cycle of its spin. The earth’s axis is doing the same thing, although there’s no evidence of it falling over. It takes 26,000 years to spin all the way around, pointing at each of the signs one by one, taking a little more than 2,000 years to point at each sign. Around the turn of the century — there’s a lot of argument over just when but 1900 is a pretty good guess — the axis quit pointing to Pisces and started pointing at Aquarius; we ended a Piscean age that had started sometime between the births of Buddha and Christ. We are now in an age of individuation. The thrust in Pisces was that I will submit myself to something higher. It had mystical dimensions and you find the births of many world religions during this period. There was also the concept of submitting oneself to the concept of a nation: “I am a German or I am an American or I am an Englishman.” It sometimes had positive results and sometimes disastrous ones. Even on a smaller level, “I submit myself to this marriage. He and I are now this couple, this institution.” Now we’re in the Age of Aquarius and there’s much more focus on “I want to be myself. I don’t want to submit to anything.” This is a sign of rebellion and revolution. So we find women’s liberation, black liberation, liberation of the old colonial countries. We’re just at the beginning of it. It’s going to continue to grow and take hold.

SUN: What role would you like to see astrology play in our culture in the years ahead?

FORREST: I would like to see it widely used, widely accepted and understood. I would like to see everyone have their own astrologer and to go see that astrologer every year or two.

SUN: Like your dentist?

FORREST: Right. Just like your dentist. You go and talk about what you’ve done for the last year and what you would like to do for the next one — spiritually, materially, in your relationships — just to get that larger perspective. I would like to see astrology as an ally to psychotherapy, to see those as the two legs upon which sanity stands, so to speak. Regrettably, people often feel that in order to see a counselor they must be crazy. That’s the common myth. Fortunately, most people don’t feel that in order to see an astrologer they must first be crazy. That’s one advantage astrology has over psychotherapy. I would like to see astrology integrated into people’s idea of living in a healthy way, by getting the big picture.

SUN: Do you see a reconciliation between astrology and the so-called “hard sciences” in the future?

FORREST: Yes I do, but I’m not holding my breath. It’s inevitable, I guarantee it. Science, even though it’s flawed, has as its ideal the pursuit of truth. The weight of objective evidence for astrology is growing day by day. The scientists don’t want to see it, but it will continue to gain in power. Truth endures; lies don’t. And astrology has truth.