And now for something completely different! This is the first in a series where I talk with witches from walks of different walks of life about who they are, their spiritual practices and what advice they would give to aspiring young people. Today I talk to my long-time collaborator Ada Pembroke about different astrological paths, divination, and the generational evolution of online witchcraft.
Welcome Ada, thanks for agreeing to talk to me today! To start things off, would you please introduce yourself for the people at home who don’t think we’re secretly married?
Hey Lee! Thanks for having me! I am a polytheist, Druid, and astrologer from the Pacific Northwest (United States). I also work on this little publication called Aquarius Moon Journal with [checks notes] Lee Escher Lífþrasir?
I am reliably told that’s how it spelled, yes.
I copied it off your website, so it better be right.
Thank goodness for that! But, now that we have the introductions out of the way, I invited you here to talk about your experience as an astrologer. To start things off, how would you define the type of astrology that you practice, in your own words?
The official story is that I’m currently in a transitional place between two types of astrology. The truth is that I’m a boundary-walker in every other area of my life, so it was only a matter of time before I started becoming a boundary-walker as an astrologer, too.
I started out practicing a branch of psychological astrology called evolutionary astrology. Evolutionary astrology looks at the locations of the planets at the moment you were born and sees them as a shopping list of the types of character traits you want to develop during this lifetime, things like courage and diplomacy and emotional honesty. Evolutionary astrologers help you to figure out what your areas of focus are, and they look at your past lives to help you tell a story about why you care about learning those lessons, anyway.
And I’m correct in thinking that evolutionary astrology is close-ish to what the casual reader might know from reading a fashion magazine?
I think one of the founders of evolutionary astrology, Steven Forrest, used to do a column for Elle, but, as a rule, no. Pop astrology - which is what you tend to see in magazines - is interested in predicting the future or stereotyping personality traits, and evolutionary astrology isn’t really interested in either of those things.
Evolutionary astrologers are very interested in free-will. All of the astrological symbols are very complex, and they have a range of potential expressions. Scorpio can be dark and brooding and sexy, and Scorpio can be interested in psychology and intrigued by Lovecraftian monsters...or a billion other things. Evolutionary astrologers don’t try to predict what Scorpio will mean to people. They try to help people figure out what particular manifestation of Scorpio is right for them.
Evolutionary astrology does work with predictive techniques, but instead of trying to predict the future, evolutionary astrologers think more in terms of the challenges and choices you’ll need to face at the moment. Instead of saying, “You will meet a dark, handsome stranger at midnight,” an evolutionary astrologer would say, “Midnight is a very good time for thinking about what makes you happy in relationships.” You might find yourself at a bar locking eyes with a hottie at midnight, but that isn’t the important thing. The important thing is: What do you do? Do you decide that the dark, handsome stranger will hopefully, probably, most definitely make you happy? Or do you decide that the dark handsome stranger sleeping in your bed at home is more appealing to you in that moment than the hottie at the bar? The choice you make says a lot about what you want from relationships.
Thanks for clearing that up! I think a lot of people - I know myself included, once upon a time - assume that all astrology is “you will meet a dark, handsome stranger” and never look any further, so your insight is definitely appreciated.
I had a lot of anger with astrology for a long time. I mean, it’s still cool in many circles to hate astrology on principle, but I always felt like pop astrology stereotyping didn’t resonate for me at all, and I resented being told that as someone with a Taurus sun, I am lazy and inclined to eat too much ice cream when that isn’t how I move through the world at all. It was a relief to learn that there are other ways to be a Taurus, some of which I could quickly identify as growing edges for me.
Overall, I’m still a psychological astrologer. I’m more interested in life-cycles and what’s going on in people’s heads and less interested in the mysterious workings of fate, but recently, I’ve been getting dissatisfied with the metaphysical side of evolutionary astrology, and this is where the boundary-walking comes in that I mentioned earlier.
Evolutionary astrology assumes that there is a reason why you have the birth chart you do. Most evolutionary astrologers believe something like “you chose the birth chart you have.” That idea doesn’t jive with me. More importantly, I don’t think it’s helpful. Does it matter if God or your soul in its infinite wisdom decided that being born with something that makes you miserable would be good for you? If you’re suffering, you want to know how to fix it, and insight and will-power aren’t enough for everybody. If there’s anything that’s been put in sharp relief for me over the last few months (between Covid and the Black Lives Matter protests) it’s that quality of life for most people has very little to do with how much they try, and the lives we live are largely determined by the lives we were born into.
So, lately, I’ve been exploring different schools of astrology looking for a model that helps me help my clients see the places where they have potential for growth and happiness and the places where they need to stop banging their heads against the wall and learn serenity. I’ve started to incorporate traditional techniques like dignities and debilities and time lords, and I’m finding that it’s helping me model the forces of systemic injustice much better in my readings.
On the subject of readings, I know that when you first introduced me to astrology, you told me you considered it a form of divination. From time to time I come across the argument (or more often statement) that it isn’t. What are your personal thoughts on the divide in opinion?
I think that if you go to an astrology conference with a t-shirt that says, “Astrology is divination. Fight me!” You will quickly find out who in the room has a lot of Aries in their charts, and you’ll probably end up with a sore throat and mentally black and blue. Say the same thing in some pagan circles, and the same thing will probably happen but for the opposite reasons.
There is a division between astrology and divination - especially with Boomers and older Gen-Xers - that is really interesting to me. Most astrologers over a certain age are either psychological astrologers or were influenced by psychological astrology in the early days. There is actually quite a lot of overlap between psychological astrology and psychological practice. A lot of the big names are therapists or practice counseling astrology as part of a practice of spiritual direction. Even in the community of astrologers who have gotten more interested in predictive astrology in recent years, I think psychology still influences the way they see astrology. It is primarily humanist at its core. People might be privately pagan (or Buddhist or Christian), but they don’t really bring it into their practice in the same way that you can have a pagan therapist who never talks about what they’re doing for Yule during your sessions.
On the other side, pagans over a certain age tend to associate astrology with the New Age movement of the 1970s. They find it hard to take astrology seriously, not realizing that the astrology they know...frankly...was a fad that doesn’t really exist anymore. There are New Age astrologers still, doing readings in the same reading rooms as Tarot readers at metaphysical shops, but the people who stayed with astrology after it stopped being trendy last time tended to be people who went deep with it, to the point that the astrology they practice now has little to do with the fluffy, shallow, love and light stuff from fifty years ago. There will always be people who aren’t interested in a subject enough to go deep with it, but there are practitioners who would have been classified as “New Age” decades ago who are doing very rigorous practice now.
I think the boundaries between what used to be called “New Age” and paganism is a lot more blurry than it used to be, and it’s common to find people who bring a psychological approach to Tarot cards or who look at the stars through a pagan lens. If you’re already bringing your spiritual practice into your astrology, it seems natural - at least it does to me - to start wondering if the gods you believe in might use your birth chart to get through to you about some things.
Witchcraft is going through a revival at the moment - though, I think it is less trendy now than it was a couple of years ago, and the people who are still interested in it are going to be in it for the long haul - and it looks very different than it did when witchcraft went through a revival in the 90s or the 70s. I think one of the differences is that divination has a much bigger presence in the movement than it did in the past - divination and astrology, for those who insist on seeing them as different things. Young people today are, I think, more risk-averse than previous generations. The psychology community is wringing its hands over increased anxiety in Millennials and Gen-Z, and I think cautious wisdom and anxiety can be two sides of the same coin. If you are disinclined to just jump in and cast a spell and see what happens, practicing divination can help you to figure out ahead of time if casting a spell is the wisest thing to do in the moment.
I definitely see a lot of caution in the community; both from people who want to make sure they’re doing it “right” and from people who are worried that they’re doing something inappropriate. It’s a big part of why I wanted to interview younger people in the first place. I think it’s good - as you’re demonstrating here - to see how you can mix and match different things to find a path that works best for you.
Absolutely. I see a disconnect between older people trying to teach magic and younger people trying to learn. The older people are like, “Dive in and make mistakes. I did!” And the younger people are like, “I don’t want to make mistakes. I would rather do my homework first and do things right the first time.” I think there are pros and cons to each. There are some things you have to learn through experience, but it’s a sign of wisdom to not have to make all of your own mistakes.
Very sage advice. So how do you incorporate the two in your own spirituality?
To me, there isn’t a strong division between spirituality and psychology. I see individuation as spiritual work. I’m a witchy Druid. I use magic to get things done, and I’m going to do crappy magic if I’m un-self-aware and undermining myself all the time.
Astrology helps me to reflect on who I really am and what I really want. It helps me understand my values, and it helps me find the best paths for me to uphold those values.
Steven Forrest says that you can do all of the personal development work of astrology in other ways - like following a spiritual path. Astrology will just help you get where you’re going faster. I think that astrology helps me to be a better Druid. When I work with the elements as a Druid, understanding them as each having three aspects represented by three signs helps me to see nuances it might take me years of experience to see otherwise. I also know where in my life I’m trying to learn how to work with the elements because of how they’re laid out in my natal chart and transits.
That’s how astrology helps me spiritually. My spirituality also helps and informs my astrology practice. As a polytheist, mystical experiences of the gods and nature spirits are foundational to my practice. I often go into a trance when I do astrology readings. My patron is Dionysus, and my work has a definite ecstatic edge. Combining channeling and astrology isn’t unheard of - Tom Jacobs is a famous example - but I think he would say he takes a metaphysical approach, and he works with the ascended masters and spirit guides. I work with pagan gods and spirits, and I operate from a pagan worldview.
Another example of boundary-walking?
Yes, I think so, but I think it’s a common one. Putting it in astrological terms, spirituality and psychology are represented in astrology by Neptune (spirituality) and Pluto (psychology). In most periods of history, these two functions are treated separately. There are examples of people in every spiritual tradition who were very spiritually evolved, but they were horrible human beings. Since around the 1950s, both of these planets have been joined together (in an aspect called a sextile). This coincides with the rise of spiritual psychology ala Jung, and it has been impossible since then to imagine being spiritual and having mommy issues at the same time. This alignment isn’t going to last forever. It technically ends in 2032, so it will be interesting to see what the world will be like in 12 years when those two functions aren’t fused in everyone’s psyches.
I read somewhere recently that not being able to pin down your time of birth, if you were born in 1995, can fundamentally change how you’re affected by the generational planets. Would 2032 be a year like that?
What astrologers are trying to say when they say that is that not knowing your birth time makes it very difficult to narrow down where events are going to play out in your life. In astrobabble, your birth time tells you where your rising sign is, and if you don’t know where your rising sign is, you don’t know where any of the other houses are.
For example, there’s a big planetary to-do going on in Capricorn right now that a lot of people are saying corresponds with the Covid crisis. I have Capricorn in the 6th house of work and daily routine. I have been taking the hit from the crisis hardest in that area of my life. My partner has been working from home when he usually works out of the house, so I felt more self-conscious blasting Nine Inch Nails and dancing around the kitchen while I made breakfast this morning than I would have if he was at work. I’m being light here, but it gives the general idea. Big disruptions to my routine. The 6th house is also the house of health, so I am, preventatively, being particularly cautious about not putting myself at risk of catching the virus. It’s one of the reasons I’m here right now instead of protesting in the city.
My partner is experiencing the same transit in the 11th house of future, goals, and colleagues. He has a lot of big questions about the future of his career that are being put on hold while it’s impossible to connect with other people in his field in the way he usually does. He’s having to get creative, find work arounds.
If you don’t know your birth time, you don’t know where to prepare for big transits like this. You could need to pay attention to your relationships or your job or your health. You’d have no idea.
So in short, the more you know, the easier working things out is going to be. Glad I have my birth certificate at home with me!
Jumping back a little, if you were going to combine astrology and, say, Tarot, to see how the future may go for you, what would that look like? How would someone looking to incorporate the two begin?
Future prediction is one of the most complicated things to learn astrologically. If you are going to take a traditional approach, and attempt to do things like predict literal events like rises and falls in the stock market, there is an immense amount of study to be done before you have enough of a grounding in the techniques to begin to be remotely accurate. (This is one of my big pet peeves with people who flippantly dismiss astrology. You have to study for at least a solid year before you have enough information to make an informed assessment of the field. Or read Cosmos and Psyche. If Tarnas’s experiments don’t convince you, you’re not going to be convinced.) I have a book by Demetra George on my shelf that is part one of a basic introduction to traditional techniques, and it is so thick and heavy, it will be the first thing I reach for if I need a blunt object to wave over my head and intimidate a home invader with. (Yes, I would choose that book over Game of Thrones.) If you want to get started in that direction, I recommend studying with Chris Brennan, Demetra George, or Austin Coppock.
The other big school of astrological future prediction is archetypal. This is the perspective you get in Tarnas’ Cosmos and Psyche. This school of astrology doesn’t attempt to figure out exactly what is going to happen. It is more focused on general, archetypal trends. It says things like “Pluto, Saturn, and Jupiter are coming together in Capricorn in early 2020. This means there will probably be some kind of social unrest during this time, and the things that happen will do a lot to determine the type of society we live in for the next 50 years or so.” It also looks back at other times those planets have come together to figure out the types of things we can expect. In this case, we look back to 2011 (the Arab Spring) and the social unrest of the 1960s. This type of astrology isn’t going to make you rich, but it is also much easier to learn. Cosmos and Psyche is only 600 pages, and it gives you most of what you need to know to begin practicing.
If you are going to combine future prediction and Tarot, I would say that your awareness of larger astrological trends would inform the way you read the cards. For instance, if you were reading for someone, and the Hermit came up, you’d recognize that there is a connection between the Hermit and Saturn and Capricorn, and you’d look at what’s going on with Saturn and Capricorn, both in the world, and in the chart of the person you’re reading for.
I combine these two techniques all the time. I draw cards to help me narrow down what areas of the chart to look at, and I use the chart to help me understand how a person is likely to relate to the cards.
This has been a really interesting interview, thank you. Before we close up, what is one thing you’d like to say to aspiring young astrologists who might be inspired to get into the field of study, especially at a crazy time like this?
Thank you for having me, Lee. It’s been a pleasure to talk with you, as always.
My advice for young astrologers: If you think that any particular astrological symbol - planet, sign, or house - means only one thing, your knowledge of that symbol isn’t remotely deep enough. And if you read someone saying that a symbol means only one thing, you should assume that they are either drastically over-simplifying, or they are taking into account other factors that they aren’t mentioning for the sake of not making your head explode. In Cosmos and Psyche, Tarnas has a section where he gives dozens of keywords for each of the planets, and this is still a simplification. Do not mistake basic tools the entirety of the practice. Most of what you read on the internet is designed to get you in the door, not teach you how to be an astrologer. It is over-simplified on purpose, so your eyes don’t glaze over. Astrologers aren’t being greedy fish-oil salesmen when they label their 2-year intro courses “Introduction to Astrology.” You cannot study astrology for six months and ethically charge people for astrology readings. Optimistically, it takes at least a year of full-time study (3000 hours of practice) with books and a teacher to even begin. But take heart. I promise it’s worth it.
Ada Pembroke is a professional astrologer and polytheist Druid from Portland, Oregon. She is a Bard in the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids and has been studying divination obsessively since 2010. She co-founded Aquarius Moon Journal and organizes the Diviners Anonymous Discord server with Lee. When she is not puzzling over the synodic cycle of Venus, she writes channeled poetry and grows ingredients for her own blends of herbal tea. She shares her astrology research with patrons on Patreon, offers astrology and Tarot readings, and can technically be found on Twitter @adapembroke.