Monday, October 3, 2011

Venus and Friends

Part of what I'm interested in doing with this blog is making the language of astrology more accessible to people who just want to learn about it in a desultory way. Not everybody is ready to sign up for a class or commit to some serious book-learnin'. One of my first teachers, Karen McCauley, used to have me just feel the energies of the planets we discussed, or meditate on them, which, at the wise old age of nineteen, I assumed was a waste of time. But in the many years that have passed since those first classes, I've found that when studying astrology, just vibing with the energy of a particular archetype is the perfect complement to reading about the planets and the parts of our lives that they rule. You can't even really begin to use astrology in any personally meaningful way unless you can connect to how the different planetary energies feel.

Today's lesson is dedicated to Venus. When we think of the planet Venus, we typically think of love, and that's a good place to start. But romantic love can draw on a lot of other parts of our psyches that are not strictly Venusian. Sex (Mars), power (Pluto), high romance (Neptune), trust (Saturn), emotional neediness (Moon), and exchange of ideas (Mercury) are some of the many other components to a relationship which might get us into a Venusian mood in the first place. We're not usually inclined to kiss someone that we don't trust, or to whom we're not attracted! So what is Venus really about?

Venus makes us feel good, plain and simple. It's an integral component of the equation for attaining those elusive states, FUN and HAPPINESS. In astrology, Venus is given rulership over two signs, Taurus and Libra. In Taurus, we see the face of Venus that is primarily concerned with PEACE. In Libra, we meet the part of Venus that is given over to BEAUTY. I think peace can sound a little dull to younger ears, like a still-point, a no-action zone, an emptiness. Think of Venusian peace instead as those periods in your life, or those moments of the day, when nothing is wrong. For chronic worriers like Cancer and Virgo, or ambitious signs like Aries and Scorpio, or intellectually restless Gemini, such moments may be rare indeed. But we need them, desperately - they are balm to the soul, the everyday graces that make us feel like life is running smoothly and going according to plan. Another simple way to connect with Venus is to think about those parts of life that are easy for us. Do you have a beautiful, comfortable home (Venus in Cancer)? An effortless faith in God (Venus in Sagittarius)? A dynamite relationship with your co-workers (Venus in Virgo)? Or a seemingly endless fund of artistic inspiration and creativity (Venus in Aries)? In each of the examples named, it's all too easy to overlook the magnitude of the gifts we've been given. Venus in Virgo: "Sure I have an easy time at work, but I'm not cute enough to attract a partner." Venus in Aries: "Sure I'm burning up with ideas, but when will the recognition - and the money come?" The trick to mastering Venus is to find contentment in the things that are going right. Venus is about wanting what you already have.

If Venus is sounding a little lazy or unambitious, then you're cluing into another facet of the planetary energy. Laziness can be a danger of too much Venus, and foster the sense that we're so beautiful that we don't have to look after our health, or the conviction that the values handed down by our parents were good enough and don't require any adjustment, or the belief that life is just fine the way it is and there's no sense in trying to make it better. Venus can become stuck and resistant to change, just like the rest of the archetypal energies. But it's my firm feeling that in the West, we don't place near-enough emphasis on the higher expressions of Venus. Sure, lots of people get addicted to money and security (the negative stereotype of Taurus), but then these people aren't really connecting to high Venus either: they're not enjoying what they have beyond the having of it.

You'll notice that the Empress card in the Rider-Waite Tarot deck features the Venus glyph. In the Tarot, the Empress augurs a time of sensual indulgence and relaxation, a period in your life when there's time to make love and cook a sumptuous meal, and chat the night away with good friends and a bottle of wine. Take a break, the Empress says. Smell the roses. Come home from work early and look your lover in the eyes. Though Venus can function as shorthand for money in the chart, most of the activities I just listed don't cost very much. Human connection is free. Ditto the beauty of the natural world. Playing with a child or a beloved pet just takes time, as does cooking a delicious meal. There's something to the old adage, "The best things in life are free." High Venus is a state of mind, an attitude which allows us to see the beauty in the things that are right in front of us, and to discover peace and joy in the way things are.

One of my favorite Venus words is "local." We might dream of one-day storming the New York literary scene, but Venus is about being satisfied with being the best poet in Peoria. Healthy Venus is thinking that the local offerings of people, entertainment, and opportunities are just as good where you stand as they would be in the next town, or across the ocean. Wise Venus knows that you can just as easily get enlightened in Fresno as Tibet. Venus is the "here" and the "now" in Ram Dass's immortal formulation, "Be Here Now." Astrologers wax eloquent about the spiritual capacity of Neptune, Saturn, and the Moon, but what about chipper little Venus and effortless, everyday happiness? How spiritually advanced or juicy can we really be without ease, grace, and personal comforts? How much would our lives change if we really loved all of who we are, however humble or small we judge ourselves to be? To quote Oriah Mountain Dreamer, "What if the question is not why am I so infrequently the person I really want to be, but why do I so infrequently want to be the person I really am?"

As you can see, we've wandered from romantic love to self-love, which is another way of describing the state of being happy with who you are. Venus is associated with romantic love because it allows us to see our own beauty through another person's eyes. Some people just make us feel good - or wonderful or gorgeous or hilarious - and typically we have Venus contacts with these people in chart comparisons (called synastry). So does Venus rule over those heart-pumping grand passions that lead us to dramatic, Romeo-and-Juliet-style expressions of our love? Well, perhaps, with a little stimulation from the trans-personal planets or the South node. But sustainable Venus in action is more along the lines of, "Every time Billy comes into the coffee shop where Carrie works, it puts a smile on Carrie's face." Billy sees the best in Carrie, so Carrie sees the best in Billy. "She's so easy to be with ..." is something we hear a lot from people who are falling - and people who are still - in love. It's another way of saying, "I can open up my whole self and she still likes it! And I reward her for this generosity of spirit by allowing her to be who she is." We don't usually think about any of this consciously, of course. But we get a clue to how Venus operates in our lives when we notice the activities - and people - which put us in a good mood.

I've been sustaining some pretty heavy outer planet transits to my Venus these past few years, and so I thought I'd share my own personal story of taking Venus gifts for granted. Several years ago I did a chart reading for an acquaintance who has since become a celebrity. She's drop-dead gorgeous, so much so that I could easily put aside my own Venusian pride in my appearance when I was in her presence, because it was just so thrilling to orbit her radiance. When I'd tool around Los Angeles with her, the reactions she got were incredible. Not only men but straight women would fawn all over her and make every effort to please her. I'll call her Star for the sake of convenience. Even before Star was in films or on magazine covers, she was treated like a celebrity, and she graciously accepted this treatment.

I was tickled when I cast her chart and saw that sexy Venus in Aries was smack-dab on Star's Ascendant. Venus in the Mars-ruled sign of Aries gives off epic sex appeal, and Aries ain't shy about putting it out there (neither is Star). The placement of Venus on the Ascendant just ups the ante in terms of how widely that sex appeal is going to radiate. The Ascendant is one of the most visible points in the chart, and so any planet there is on prominent display: in Star's case, her feminine endowments were her calling card. A first house Sun in Taurus contributed to this charismatic picture (first house planets can't hide their light), with earthy Taurus softening the potential for masculine harshness that comes with Aries rising.

So here I was, in truth fawning a little bit over Star and singing the praises of her Venus rising, and noting how neat it was that the goddess of beauty was elevated in her chart, since Star herself resembles Venus incarnate. Now I had noticed that gloomy Saturn in Cancer was squaring that Venus in the natal chart, but Star was happily married, and about to embark on a career in which her Venusian body was the key to getting jobs. I read the Venus-Saturn square as the challenge of turning personal beauty into a business, and thought that that was that. Overall she was very happy with the reading, but when I asked Star if there was anything else she wanted to talk about, she floored me.

Her face and mood changed, and a note crept into her voice which told me that this was one of the deep pains of her life: "Why can't I keep any female friends?" All in a flash I had one of those astrological revelations which let me know that my own filtered perspective had crept into the reading and led me to miss something. I have Venus in its own sign of Libra, in the outgoing fifth house and trine expansive Jupiter. I have to struggle not to make friends so I keep enough time for myself and my projects. Friends? It took me a moment to even comprehend Star's question. Friends? Who except the extremely smelly and socially inept has a problem making friends? I'd never thought about making friends before. I can be stiff, shy, and stand-offish, and I still make and keep friends in spite of some natural awkwardness. How could a woman who looked like Star help but have a whole gaggle of friends? As it turned out, she'd had so many negative experiences with female friends, and suffered so many betrayals, that she was extremely reluctant to trust women at all (Saturn square Venus). I stumbled through an answer to her question but probably made a mess of it because I was so shocked.

I learned a lot about Venus that day. I learned that one of my own natural Venus gifts is the ability to attract and keep friends. As proof that I'd always taken that talent for granted - I'd never thought about it before Star confessed her own struggles in the world of friendship! I'd never had to. I'd set up my life so that I always had a ring of people to celebrate my accomplishments with, or commiserate with me over my woes. I never lacked for folks to invite to movies or parties or happy hours. A fifth house Venus in Libra can mean a lot of things - like a dangerous propensity for falling in love with love - but it wasn't until after Star's reading that I really appreciated my own Libran friendliness and gift for forming relationships.

Now the savvy astrologer will have already noticed that the Aries, first-house emphasis in Star's chart can be productive of diva syndrome - Aries is extremely self-focused, while Libra, its opposite, is other-focused. Saturn in Cancer in Star's chart also makes it difficult to show tender feelings and neediness. So without knowing exactly how all of Star's friendships went south, it's easy to guess that her natural talent for self-promotion (her very star quality) struck her friends as self-centered, and her Saturn in Cancer would have prevented her from letting those friends know just how much she cared. It's easy to feel eclipsed by Star's radiance, and so the friends in question might have betrayed her out of jealousy, spite, or anger over their unmet needs. Star's Saturn in Cancer also tells me about her high sensitivity level, and how these broken friendships probably wounded her in a way that might not have phased someone with more social experience. In spite of her exaggerated Venusian beauty, Star seemed to be lacking in that higher octave of Venus - balance and reciprocity in relationships - as suggested by the placement of her Venus in competitive Aries.

Friends are usually not the first thing astrologers think of when discussing the role of Venus in a chart. We're far more focused on Venus as an indicator of romantic relationships, self-esteem, personal resources and even hobbies (i.e. what you like to do for fun). But I think our friends tell us a little something about all of the above. In most cases, your romantic partner is also your best friend, and the values of our friends reflect what we think is important about life. For the first time in my own life, I've really had to think about what kind of friends I want, and why, and how one goes about attracting them. Check the status of Venus in your life by thinking about your relationship to your friends. Do you feel at home with them - at peace and relaxed? Do your friends reflect your values - at least in part? Do you feel like you have no friends at all, or so many you have no time for yourself? Just a little reflection on your own experiences with friendship can yield loads of information about how much Venusian joy you're letting into your life. We work out a lot of karmic baggage in partnerships, but friendships are supposed to be fun - that is, Venusian - most of the time. If your friends aren't stimulating your personal sense of peace and beauty, then perhaps it's time for an upgrade. Change your friends, change your life. And if you take nothing else away from this post, remember that no one person can have Venus everywhere in the chart, and that even the pretty people have Plutos and Saturns.

Friday, September 30, 2011

History Pocket: Nineteenth Century Astrology

When I worked with the Caroline Myss book, Sacred Contracts, I was simultaneously annoyed and relieved to discover that one of my twelve archetypes is the scribe. The scribe can explain why I've spent the bulk of my life poring over things that other people have written and offering my own dry commentary, but come now, a scribe? It sounds crabbed, and peevish, pedantic and petulant. Decidedly not sexy.

(Fortunately I slotted some fun archetypes in there, like Anais Nin. Oh yes I did. No, she's not a goddess or a type but - oh well then, isn't she? I'd make the argument that she lived her life on the mythic level. Zora Neale Hurston is one of my twelve archetypes too. No, I didn't follow the rules. So sue me.)

For the scribe I had some cartoon version of Ebeneezer Scrooge in my head, crouched over a table and squinting under the light of a single candle, wrecking his hands with the repetitive motions writing involves (regrettably I resemble this image all too often - I'm currently folded up in my desk chair, squinting at my computer). Then my sub-conscious mind took over and intoned the epic word, THOTH. Oh yes, Thoth is a far-sight better than the impoverished Clerk of The Canterbury Tales. The Greco-Roman (and Western astrological) archetype of writing, Mercury, didn't work for me as well as the ancient Egyptian scribe and god of magic. Mercury is too saucy and immature. He's also a thief. But Thoth is a Merlin. Or a Comte de Saint Germain.

And because I'm a Thoth, at least in part, I'm going to scribe for you, not minding that the old-timey font I've selected deploys backwards quotation marks (OK I mind a little). Someone needs to write a book about the history of American astrology. (Note to publishers: this person could be me). Astrologers in history are extraordinarily difficult to track down, not least because by-and-large their trades were illegal. Usually we know of their existence only because some unlucky few ran afoul of the law. Or because a prominent writer made fun of them; thus Ben Jonson immortalized the notorious career of the Elizabethan astrologer, Simon Magus. A 1767 play by Thomas Forrest, The Disappointment, narrowly missed becoming the first American theatrical production written by a native talent. And it tells us that eighteenth century Americans were conversant with the core language of astrology - if they hadn't been, no one would have gotten the play's jokes, which lambasted astrology by botching its esoteric terms.

Tonight I scribe for you the first entirely positive portrayal of astrology in early America that was not written by an astrologer. George Lippard was the best-selling American writer of the nineteenth century prior to Harriet Beecher Stowe's monumental success with Uncle Tom's Cabin (the only book more popular than this one in the entire century was the Bible). Lippard had an astrologer friend named Thomas Hague, and Lippard based a small but pivotal role in The Quaker City, his most popular book, on Hague. I'm not sure I've ever read anything like Lippard's portrait of the astrologer before. In his depiction, there is no mystery, no chicanery, only a plain, honest man who knows his craft. The astrologer also makes an uncannily accurate prediction which drives the entire novel. I read several of the passages excerpted below to a small group of astrologers at one point, and I do believe their eyes glazed over. But someone needs to do the painstaking work of collecting the physical traces of our psychic history, and weaving them into a coherent frame. Someone like me. A scribe.

From The Quaker City (1844-1845) by George Lippard, U-Mass edition, I give you-

The Astrologer

In a small room, remarkable for the air of comfort imparted by the effects of the neatly white-washed walls, the floor, plainly carpeted, and the snug little wood-stove roaring in front of the hearth, sat a man of some forty-five winters, bending over the table in the corner, covered with strange-looking books and loose manuscripts.

The light of the iron lamp which stood in the centre of the table, resting on a copy of Cornelius Agrippa, fell full and strongly over the face and form of the Astrologer ...

There was nothing in the dress of the man, or in the appearance of his room, that might realize the ideas commonly attached to the Astrologer and his den. Here were no melodramatic curtains swinging solemnly to and fro, brilliant and terrible with the emblazoned death's-head and cross-bones. Here were no blue lights imparting a lurid radiance to a row of grinning skeletons, here were no ghostly forms standing pale and erect, their glassy eyes freezing the spectator's blood with horror, here was neither goblin, devil, or mischievous ape, which, as every romance reader knows, have been the companions of the Astrologer from time immemorial; here was nothing but a plain man, seated in an old-fashioned arm chair, within the walls of a comfortable room, warmed by a roaring little stove.

No cap of sable relieved the Astrologer's brow, no gown of black velvet, tricked out with mysterious emblems in gold and precious stones, fell in sweeping folds around the outlines of his spare figure. A plain white overcoat, much worn and out at the elbows, a striped vest not remarkable for its shape or fashion, a cross-barred neckerchief, and a simple linen shirt collar completed the attire of the astrologer who sat reading at the table.

The walls of the room were hung with the Horoscopes of illustrious men, Washington, Byron, and Napoleon, delineated on large sheets of paper, and surrounded by plain frames of black wood; the table was piled with the works of Sibly, Lilly, Cornelius Agrippa and other masters in the mystic art; while at the feet of the Astrologer nestled a fine black cat, whose large whiskers and glossy fur, would seem to afford no arguments in favor of the supposition entertained by the neighbors, that she was a devil in disguise, a sort of familiar spirit on leave of absence from the infernal regions.


And thus turning from page to page, he disclosed the remarkable fact, that the great, the good, and the wise of the Quaker City, who met the mere name of astrology, when uttered in public, with a most withering sneer, still under the cover of night, were happy to steal to the astrologer's room, and obtain some glimpses of their future destiny through the oracle of the stars (26-27).

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Perfume Corner: 40 Notes

I'm exhausted from a long day of writing on other projects, and so I thought I'd post something from a while back. This is the review I wrote for my personalized experience with the lovely Miriam of 40 Notes Perfume. Enjoy!

It’s such a pleasure for me to relive the sessions I had with Miriam, in her elegant atelier, when crafting a custom scent for my wedding day. I honestly can’t imagine a more sensuous, indulgent experience! During the first session, Miriam encouraged me to list the qualities I wanted my wedding scent to convey. From these initial ideas, a lush and three-dimensional creation was born, and it was fascinating to watch how a little bit of inspiration was transformed into a complex, finished product over the months we worked together. The first time we met, Miriam had me sample a number of notes from her impressive collection of essences. I think the most enjoyable part of this session was knowing that Miriam was having absolutely as much fun as I was, nosing around in these gorgeous florals and heady botanicals. I was, literally, astounded, when Miriam showed me an essence of Palo Santo, a wood sacred to Peruvian shamans and an important part of my spiritual practice with my husband – we burn it often as incense. No other note could so uniquely capture the bond I have with my husband, and I think the fact that Miriam produced this exotic essence, on a whim, is a testament to her keen, intuitive sense of her client’s vision. We quickly decided to make Palo Santo the keynote of my custom scent, and to this rather intense base, Miriam added soft musks and mellowing cedar wood. I also wanted my perfume to be sexy and round, and so for the mid-notes we selected juicy mango leaf and the luscious spice of white ginger flowers.

Palo Santo Wood

In follow-up sessions, Miriam shared her alchemical process with me, and had me provide input on several blends so we could get the final product just right. The top-notes came as a bit of a surprise – sharp, green kumquat expressed the bracing feel of the first day of Spring (the day we selected for the wedding), while white grapefruit gave the blend the lightness and lift of a sophisticated fragrance. When I tried on my wedding scent for the first time, I immediately dubbed it “Serpentine” because of the sinuous way the natural essences developed on my skin, and because its bright, green notes reminded me of the green stone, serpentine – a perfect complement to my non-traditional wedding dress – also green!

I couldn’t be happier with the finished product, or with the memorable hours I spent in Miriam’s studio, an experience that was relaxing and vivifying all at once. Serpentine was everything I’d dreamed it could be – a scent appropriate to the solemnity of our ceremony, but also soft and feminine and befitting a bride. Playing in Miriam’s atelier was akin to taking a scented trip around the world – I felt like we searched the four corners of the globe to discover the far-flung ingredients that best expressed my unique “scentual” desires. Scents are famously hard to describe in words, and I was impressed with how Miriam was able to translate my feelings, wishes, and subtle reactions into a holistic vision which meshed with my own. I would recommend Miriam to anyone looking to craft a custom scent for any occasion. Miriam brings her expertise and artistic, intuitive sense to such a collaboration, but the emphasis is firmly on the client’s individual vision. The process of creating a personalized perfume enhanced the magic of my wedding day tenfold. I was walking on air – and clothed in an aromatic cloud of exotic woods, sexy florals, and the piquant promise of a bright, green day.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Astrology will surprise you ...

Recently I was at a gathering at which a young astrologer wailed, "Uranus is opposing my Moon during my prime child-bearing years!" Now I don't want to shame her, there's reason to be concerned here. The implication of her lament was, "Uranus, god of accidents and sudden change, will prevent me from getting pregnant (symbolized by the Moon) or from bringing a child to term." Or worse, heaven forbid. But should that Uranian transit prevent her from trying, if she's feeling the call of motherhood? The evolutionary answer is - no! Don't let the projection of the transit's worst manifestation stop you from actualizing your heart's desire.

Here's why: astrological transits rarely conform to our expectations of worst-case scenarios. If they did, we'd all be dead. Many people have lost their mothers, suddenly, under this transit's influence, and others have lost children to accidents so bizarre they seem "fated." This is sensitive territory. But I would guess that just as many people fell in love during this transit to their natal chart - for the first time with someone of the same gender! Or finally managed to swing a job at a not-for-profit company. In the first case, Uranian (progressive, surprising) sexuality is opposing (coming from the outside, often symbolized by the impact of another person) one's emotional life and sense of home. I realize this is somewhat of a non-standard interpretation - in the astrological literature. But in practice, astrology is truly a Uranian art in that it will surprise you with the myriad and endless ways energetic symbolism can come to life on the material plane.

In the second example, political consciousness (Uranus) has welled up to the point in the individual that he feels pressure (the opposition) to feed his soul and sense of home (the Moon) by switching to a career whose basis is an ethic of care. A transition at work - with a Uranus/Moon transit, the by-the-book astrologer asks? Sure! Many natal Moons feel at home at work (Virgo, Capricorn, Aries) and airy Moons (Gemini, Libra, Aquarius) could be stimulated by this transit to become more authentic (Uranian) to their inherently humanitarian natures.

Confused yet? That's part of the point. I've found, increasingly, that transits manifest in individual lives as uniquely as dream symbolism is to the individual psyche. Though the transits always carry a piece of the inherent symbolism (in this example, Uranus opposing the Moon), the transit's specific manifestation might be unrecognizable from one individual to the next. The energies we are working with here are vast and cosmic and pure; manifestation on the material plane, conversely, is small and narrow and, for that reason, infinitely variable.

Let's play a game. What are all the bad things that could happen to you when Uranus transits your Moon by opposition? Lightning strikes your house and burns it down (Uranian shock to the lunar nest). Your husband leaves you (someone else's Uranian independence whacks your sense of security). In the case of my friend who's concerned about getting pregnant, let's really ramp up the negative imagery. Expensive, intrusive technology will be required to facilitate the pregnancy (Uranus is associated with cutting-edge lab work). The mother will suffer an accident while pregnant. The fetus will be diagnosed with a debilitating illness and she'll be forced to terminate while it's in the womb. The baby will be born with two heads. And a tail.

Writing that bit of sorcery felt absolutely awful . But isn't it better to state our worst fears than to let them fester because a nay-saying astrological tradition waved its finger and said, "don't get pregnant right now"? Shame on us astrologers, I say, for not having more creative and constructive interpretations for this transit. Let's think of five WONDERFUL things a Uranian transit could mean in the context of pregnancy. 1) The baby is born premature, but healthy, and the parents are continually shocked and surprised by all the odd and capricious ways the little bundle finds to express itself. 2) The mother develops psychic communication with the child after getting pregnant, and talks to its spirit. The onset of this skill is sudden (Uranian) and permanently alters the mother's emotional mood (Moon). Uranus is weird, after all, and symbolizes New Agey phenomena that the Muggles can barely get their heads around. 3) The mother can't conceive, but by a strange chain of events she is good friends with her husband's ex-girlfriend, and the ex-girlfriend is willing to be a surrogate, and even though just - nobody - understands this arrangement, all the major parties involved are happy and pleased with the outcome (Uranus = strange and progressive social relationships). 4) The poor way the mother is treated at work after getting pregnant inspires her to become a legal advocate for the rights of pregnant women in the workplace (the politicization of motherhood). 5) And, finally, the least exotic and therefore one of the most likely outcomes of pregnancy under a Uranus transit: The woman in question gets pregnant and suddenly feels free. What - you cry! Free! When saddling herself with twenty years of work and more? Yes, free. She's always done it everyone else's way, and now she's got her own kid and is the ultimate authority over that child's life. She's free to express her beliefs and understanding of the world, free to try her own educational methods on the child, free to open up the nurturing side of herself that had been dormant up till now. Paradoxically, pregnancy and motherhood prompt a radically authentic expression of her emotional nature.

I think it is the ethical astrologer's job to let astrology surprise us. Every day. You'd be shocked at how often astrologers discard perfectly rich and legitimate information from the client because it doesn't fit a textbook description.

Engage that part of your mind you would open up at an art gallery, or a Mahler concert, or a dream group, and let the symbols speak.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Perfume Corner: Evan Healy

A few years ago, I taught a class which explored the relationship between alchemy and perfume.  Just as modern chemistry grew out of the medieval science of alchemy, so perfume technology developed alongside advancements in chemistry.  Alchemy is the metaphorical heart of perfuming, a process which involves transforming raw ingredients (flowers, plants, and resins) into an ethereal substance worth a King's ransom for how it makes us feel.  Alchemists quested for centuries, and slaved in smokey laboratories, in search of the Elixir of Life and the Philosopher's Stone.  It was said that a little sliver of the Philosopher's Stone could transform any stone into gold, and just a few grains from the Elixir of Life could add decades to one's life.  Though no perfume can claim as much (at least not yet!), perfume affects me with a powerful euphoria which gives me a visceral sense of the divine and our closeness to God.  It's no wonder that the primary use of incense and perfumes in the ancient world was religious; the odor of perfume in the air connotes the invisible (and sweet!) presence of the divine in our lives, and the smoke from burning fragrant woods and incense carries our prayers to heaven. 

Once upon a time, people believed that everything in the natural world had a corresponding principle in heaven.  Those of us familiar with the idea of "sympathetic magic" in folk traditions will understand this principle.  For example, to add love and intimacy to our lives, magical traditions like Santeria advocate rituals involving sweet foods like honey and cakes to propitiate the Venusian deity Oshun.  Like attracts like; the sweetness of honey attracts the divine principle of sweetness - love!  In the Western magical tradition, particular herbs and plants have a sympathetic correspondence to the celestial bodies or planets.  But how were these relationships determined?  The principle of energetic "sympathy" or the likeness between things of earth and things of heaven led to a planet's rulership over a physical substance.  In alchemy, Saturn, lord of limits and the dross of the material world, was given rulership over one of the heaviest metals, lead.  Conversely, gold in alchemy was symbolized by the Sun, not only because of its bright, shiny, yellow color, but also because of its exalted position as the most sought-after and expensive metal.  Gold was the primary object of the alchemical quest, just as in astrology, the Sun is the most important principle in the chart for overall health and well-being.   

Once you get the hang of this principle, it's really very simple.  In our modern world, we're very removed from the medicinal functions of plants in our life, but people who lived in more intimacy with nature would have had a simple way to categorize herbs according to their planetary correspondence.  For example, herbs which soothed the digestive tract or assisted in childbirth would most likely have been given a lunar rulership, since the Moon symbolizes women and the stomach organs in astrology.  I'm thinking of another simple example that's appearing in yards all over Eugene, Oregon right now - sunflowers!  They're big and yellow and they thrive in the summer heat, so it's pretty easy to give sunflowers a solar rulership.  Understanding the basic principle of sympathetic magic can authorize you to be more creative in practicing magic at home.  Want to increase the solar principles of centered-ness, health, and self-esteem in your life?  Place sunflowers on your altar.  Don't their large, happy faces and impressive size put a little spring in your step, and give you a boost of confidence in the grandiosity this physical world can support?  That's sympathetic magic in action.

Which brings us back to perfume.  Using essential oils in ritual or for personal adornment can activate this principle on the sub-conscious level.  It's no secret that wearing a sweet perfume with say, a vanilla base, makes you feel sweet and sexy, an attitude conducive to attracting lovers.  Voila!  That's sympathetic magic.  Wearing pure essential oils is not always practical, not only because they can be hard on the skin (they are potent chemicals, after all), but also because they don't always smell, well, perfumey.  Patchouli is great for attracting money and resources, but slathering on a headshop-grade oil is probably not going to endear us to our co-workers.  Fortunately, both the natural and commercial perfume industry has developed so much in the past few decades that there are, literally, endless possibilities for drawing on the magical properties of fragrance and still smelling sophisticated.

My obsession of the moment is Evan Healy's Saffron Attar, a natural fragrance oil which lifts my spirits at the same time that it delights my senses.

Natural saffron

There's something about Evan Healy- I think she's a true alchemist!  I was first introduced to her products via her face-care line.  As a long-time acne-sufferer, I was always searching in vain for a face cream that would soothe and smooth my skin without causing break-outs.  Nothing worked quite right - light moisturizers controlled the acne but left my skin dry and thirsty, and this became of increasing concern as I aged.  It was great not to have the acne, but now I had to worry about wrinkles!  I took one look at Evan Healy's rich and thick Blue Chamomile Day Moisturizer, and thought, "Yum!  But it would never work for me."  I gave it a chance though, all the while convinced that the heavy cream was going to clog my pores.  The first time I put it on my face, something happened.  My skin cheered!  I'm particularly sensitive to plant energies and resonances, and I actually felt the synergistic activity on my skin as the herbs soothed the surface and the natural oils nourished my face.  The appearance of my skin changed dramatically with repeated use, with the calming herbs controlling the acne and the other ingredients restoring much-needed nutrients and anti-oxidants.  There's even shea butter in this cream and it doesn't cause me to break-out!

Now part of what Evan Healy got right was the science of dermatology (her company slogan is, "the skin breathes"), but I'm also convinced that she is a master-blender, and that part of what impacted me the first time I used the Blue Chamomile face cream was the consciousness and intention that went into gathering these healing herbs.  So when I heard she sold fragrances too, I jumped at the chance to experience them.

Saffron is a solar herb, an attribution that derives not only from its warm, sunny colors, but also from its healing properties.  The ancients used saffron for a variety of purposes, among these as an aphrodisiac and mood enhancer.  Nicholas Culpeper, the seventeenth century English herbalist, wrote the book on the correspondences between planets and plants - literally.  His incredibly popular texts, The Complete Herbal and The English Physician, tell us much about the history of medical astrology and how it was practiced.  Culpeper has this to say about saffron: "It is an herb of the Sun, and under the Lion [sign of Leo] and therefore you need not demand a reason why it strengthens your heart so exceedingly."  Just as all life on the planet would cease without the Sun, human life is dependent on the beating heart, and so the heart in the body corresponds to the Sun is astrology, and the sign of Leo.  One of the most expensive spices in the world, highly-prized golden saffron (remember the Sun's rulership of gold!) is naturally a solar herb.  As a further illustration of how this principle would be applied astrologically, Culpeper explains that saffron "quickens the brain, for the Sun is exalted in Aries."  Each planet or celestial body is said to be unusually strong in a particular sign, and the Sun finds this "exalted" expression in Aries (modern astrologers still refer to these ancient dignities, by the way).  Aries rules the head in medical astrology, and so the solar herb saffron also has a strong application for the brain.

I will tell you that the first time I applied Evan Healy's Saffron Attar, it quickened my brain and strengthened my heart exceedingly!  This perfume is definitely a mood enhancer, and activator of the solar principles of centered-ness, confidence, and a sunny disposition.  So many perfume companies invent bogus, metaphysical properties for their perfumes - but in this case, the claim is not bogus!  Beyond the emotional lift Saffron Attar gives you, it smells heavenly, and I mean that with all the spiritual inflection of the term.  Evan Healy's fragrance line is called Puja, derived from the Sanskrit word for ritual offering.  I think this is one of those rare companies which perfectly hits the mark of combining pleasing scents with sacred purpose. 

Describing a perfume is a sophisticated art, almost as rarefied as the craft of perfumery itself.  It involves being initiated into a certain vocabulary of fragrance families such as floral, oriental, and citrus, and occasionally draws on more exotic terms like chypre.  For myself, I've never found descriptions with these pseudo-scientific terms to be very helpful in grasping the essence of a scent, because smell is such an intensely personal and non-linear sense.  Saffron Attar smells like dawn in a woodland retreat.  It's decidedly not green, but it is reminiscent of the promise of a new day among a circle of sacred trees.  True to its solar nature, the saffron note is bold and loud and vaguely strident, but this fiery note is mellowed and contained by the base of a heart-breakingly beautiful sandalwood.  I've never cared much for sandalwood before, finding its oily components a bit too close to the odor of semen for my taste.  But this is a perfume ingredient which varies widely in quality, and Evan Healy's sandalwood smells like an ornate wooden chest - with the saffron adding an accent of faded red paint.

Fire and earth: saffron and sandalwood.  This is a perfume not for dreaming but for being, for capturing the focus of your solar purpose and planting it in the bosom of a soft and welcoming world.  Saffron Attar smells remotely (and naturally) of India, where its materials are sourced.  The slightest hint of food in the attar is due to saffron's ubiquity in Indian cookery, and this subtle connotation is fully overpowered by saffron's bracing, herbal quality.  The entirely feminine sandalwood balances the masculine singularity of the saffron with a lovely dry-down, both powdery and ethereal in the way it calls to mind the onset of evening in an ancient market-bazaar.  It's not flowers, it's not France, it's not particularly sexy or spicy, just a gorgeous woody perfume which yet works well on a woman.      

Find more on Evan Healy's fragrance line here

I just checked and it looks like many of the fragrances are sold out because they are made in small batches and availability changes with the seasons.  Please keep in mind that Evan Healy's ingredients are of impeccable quality in addition to being all natural, a combo which, while it delights the senses, makes a considerable dent in the pocket-book.  The bottles are small, but worth every golden copper you will pay.  Saffron Attar: a way to enjoy the Sun, even in Winter.  Now go out and make some magic!

Friday, September 23, 2011

Reflections on the Autumnal Equinox

Last night, my husband and I celebrated the Autumnal Equinox.  We were married six months ago in the Spring, in the exact moments when the Sun passed over the ecliptic from Pisces into Aries.  So it was an anniversary of sorts.  It was also rather disappointing.  

We were up late, too late, because we know that the conscious mind unspools as the body draws closer to sleep, and we are more receptive to the Powers That Be when the analytical mind is restful.  But perhaps we passed by that magic moment, from receptivity into exhaustion.  I also thought it necessary to clear the air before the ceremony, to vent the grievances that have been sticking to us like psychic glue as Saturn transits build up steam in our respective charts: Saturn opposes my husband's Aries Moon later next month, and squares my Moon in Capricorn.  As any astrologer will tell you, you can feel the heavy feet of Saturn marching toward you several months before the transit is exact.  

So with the last gasp of the Sun in Virgo, conjunct Mercury for some added verbal sharpness, I critiqued my husband's behavior, and he critiqued my complaints.  Edgy Mars conjunct the Moon in Leo meant that emotions were at war, and Venus in a rather wide conjunction to Saturn prompted us to do the hard work of asserting boundaries before any harmony could be reached.

We soldiered on, and called the directions, and the Goddess and the God.  It was the first Mabon that my harvest altar was blessed with the fruits and flowers of the hands of my household.  A bowl of juicy tomatoes and my husband's pepper crop reflected the candlelight.  Potatoes and squash gilded with our garden dirt mussed the golden-purple altar cloth.  David drummed and I rattled, to shake out the heavy energy.  Yet Venusian peace and harmony eluded us.  Wasn't David neglecting the thanksgiving nature of our celebration, by airing personal problems in sacred space instead of heaping gratitude on the Goddess and the God, for the roof over our head and the fruits of our harvest?  My Virgo mind complained.  David fell asleep during the meditative portion of our ritual, as he always does, and I grew fretful.  Why doesn't our personal connection add to the power of the rituals we create?  Why are we at cross-purposes?

I sent him to bed, and unsuccessfully tried to scry with an obsidian crystal ball.  Why wouldn't the magic come?  The night was hot and humid, not reminiscent of The Mists of Avalon at all!  There was no crispness in the air, no winds of change to whip up the static, no October smell of fire and Fall.  I guess we'll have to wait a bit for that.

Earlier yesterday evening, two of my friends gave an astrology talk at a bookstore here in Eugene, Oregon.  How do we apply astrology to our own lives, the audience wanted to know.  How indeed.  I have seen astrologers falsely inflate the importance of quick transits by Venus and Jupiter, and falsely demonize long transits by Uranus and Pluto.  How indeed.    

A priestess friend phoned me yesterday, to check on the transits for an upcoming dance performance.  The Sun was trining her natal Mars on the day in question.  "Beautiful," I said.  "Your public identity is in easy flow to your physical ability and coordination, just perfect for a performance.  You'll appear strong and vibrant."  Yet I felt that she wanted something more from me - a prediction, a guarantee.  For those astrologers like myself who don't believe astrology makes anything happen, but only articulates energetic possibilities and trends, it can be difficult to speak to the question of just what astrology can offer as a life-tool.  

For myself, I find astrology extremely effective as a post-mortem, such as I performed on our Equinox ritual last night.  No, the gods are not disappointed in me, No, my marriage is not in trouble, we were simply feeling the effects of dyspeptic Mars and stick-in-the-mud Saturn on the warm-fuzzy feelings associated with Venus and the Moon.  One of the most powerful, visceral truths astrology has to offer us is, "This too shall pass."  No life situation or the feelings it caused can last forever, because the planets keep moving and stimulate new places in the natal chart.  The energy always moves, and astrology can help us find the hidden treasure in the hard times.  Ugh, Saturn, we all with good reason say, and yet nothing beats Saturn for competence and professional acumen.  I woke up this morning and was motivated to initiate an astrology blog, a move that will hopefully contribute to increased recognition and respect in my field.  Praise Saturn.  Saturn is a businessman, a careerist.  The energies that were damping my affection for my lover last night are the same ones that are pushing me to come out as a worldly authority. 

We are co-creators with the Divine on the one hand, and on the other we are pinioned to the Wheel of Fortune.  A successful life is not one in which we manifest everything we've ever wanted according to our exact specifications.  That is a Western dream of flat perfection.  Flat perfection is a dead-end; if you're honest, you'll notice that the accolades that come too easy do not feed your soul.  It's the hard tasks, the ones that take everything out of us, of which we are most proud.  Sure, you might be the CEO of a successful company - but forgiving your mother has been a life-long journey and adds untold richness to your life when you finally get it right.  You might be an effortlessly glamorous woman who has coasted through life on her looks; finding and knowing your inner value gives you more confidence than that genetic lottery you won.  

The astrology I practice, Evolutionary Astrology, looks beyond flat perfection and mastery of the material world to the bumpy places in the road, to the karmic hang-ups and wounds which keep us from finding joy in the now.  Some astrologers focus on manipulating energetic possibilities to achieve material success.  I honor them and they find the clients who need them.  Though I daresay that letting Uranus prevent you from starting a business is a questionable choice, or that pinning all your hopes on Jupiter for financial success is not entirely sound.  In other words: predictions are often wrong!  A predictive astrologer might caution against starting a business when Uranus is on the ASC because the results could be unpredictable and short-lived (could being the operative word).  An evolutionary astrologer might tell you to go for it anyway, because the business is fresh and ground-breaking (Uranian), and represents an important bid for authenticity in your personal development.  So what if the business itself crashes and burns?  You just made a great leap forward in consciousness, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that would have been missed if you'd spent it twiddling your thumbs and waiting for the planets to align. 

Just as ships at sea are subject to the whim of the elements, so we are alternately batted and soothed by planetary configurations.  The green deck-hand might have a reactive response to the changing tides and weather, and be forever scrabbling all over the ship to attend to its shifting needs and speeds, and find himself feeling rather overwhelmed by the sudden alternations.  But the Captain sees all in advance, he reads the subtle changes in the sea and knows the various procedures to prepare for calm and for storm and for strong wind.  Astrology can transform you from the deck-hand into the Captain.  The Captain doesn't control the weather, but he knows how to care for his ship, when to batten 'er down and when to open 'er up.  But sometimes even the master of the ship has to gulp and pray and hope for deliverance; astrology doesn't rescue us from Fate.  It just gives us a map and a language, sometimes a lantern and a rope.  And in those most vulnerable moments, astrology gives us something else, something astrologers don't talk about near enough: holy humility before forces much larger than ourselves, and a tremulous awe in Divine Plan. 

The little Sunflowers that I grew from seed were clipped and vased for the Equinox; the liquor bottle I stuck them in tipped over on the altar and shattered the lithium crystal with its pink and coral threads.  Energy was released; the wobbly integrity of the one was transformed into the pointed focus of five strong shards.  Of the two Larch trees given us on our wedding day, one died, and one remains to be properly bonsai'ed.  Here we go a'sailing ...