Op-Ed: A Reflection on Disability in Astrology
by Michael MacLafferty
DISABILITY IS A THEME that appears in astrology usually in reference to a hardship or mishap. For example, tuning in to one of my favorite podcasts, I was a bit taken aback by a guest saying that having a disabled child was one of “these very tragic experiences” that can happen within families.1 It’s not uncommon to portray disability as tragic, and to focus the narrative on the negative impacts on surrounding, non-disabled people. This is not a problem specific to astrology, but a reflection of views pervading the dominant culture. As a disabled person, I would like to see disability treated as an identity, intersecting with other types and levels of privilege. As a psychotherapist, I want to see disability destigmatized, to be recognized as a unique and valuable perspective in society, and for awareness to grow around the language that is used to describe it. As an astrologer, I want to see disability humanized and conceptualized as a multivalent archetype, not merely existing on a list of potential sour transits.
Disability is not a uniform or monolithic experience. Disability consists of an extremely diverse set of cultures. It includes differences of physicality, cognition, sensory processing, and psychological function; some are more readily apparent than others, and there are wide continuums within each. The connecting thread is that disability occurs when appropriate access is not provided by society (according to the social model of disability, in opposition to the historically predominant medical model, which views disability as an inherent problem within an individual body). I am physically disabled (diagnosed with cerebral palsy), and a wheelchair user, so my public access needs primarily revolve around wheelchair access and mobility. Here, I will be speaking very broadly about disability, only scratching the surface of this topic, and do not claim to speak for all disabled people. I am also white, cisgender, and heterosexual, which have also shaped my experience of disability, and conferred a certain amount of privilege, contributing to the opportunity to philosophize and critique the subject I am about to address.
I think it is important to pay attention to the words we use as significations and interpretations, especially how they may belie histories of oppression, and/or reinforce ableist notions. Words like crazy, invalid, mad, infirm, insane, crippled, idiot, maniac, lunatic, and moron have been used by various state agencies in an attempt to exclude, isolate, institutionalize, and eradicate people with physical, developmental, and psychiatric disabilities in the us.2 Many of these words are used casually today as pejoratives and expletives. Astrologers need to be aware of the bias that they are speaking or writing from, and acknowledge the privilege that comes with referencing groups of people they do not identify with.
Throughout his work, twentieth-century astrologer Reinhold Ebertin uses many significations that are problematic in contemporary terms.3 Even though he wrote nearly eighty years ago, it is worth a modern critique because not only are many of the social ideas of his day still alive and well, but they have informed the way we understand planetary archetypes today.
The negative descriptors Ebertin very commonly used in relation to combinations of Neptune are sensitivity, weakness, and illness. I think this betrays a deeply ingrained belief about how the idea of strength is constructed and why it is so valued in society. The implication is that if one is overly sensitive then they are weak by nature, not capable of withstanding the demands of the world, eventually succumbing to some physical or psychic illness, thus impeding them from being a productive member of society. Here we see a sexist bias that values physical power and endurance (conflated with mental/emotional capacity), overlaying the capitalist ideal of deriving a person’s value from their ability to produce.
What is needed is a new appreciation for sensitivity. Many modern astrologers do cast the sensitivity of the Moon and Neptune in a positive light,4 highlighting enhanced access to intuition, creativity/inspiration, or psychic phenomena (and here there is a danger of objectifying or exotifying psychiatric disability). But what about people we deem “too sensitive”? This is a label often hurled at women (and people of color, and any other marginalized group that tries to speak to oppressive language) to excuse behavior that had a negative impact. If there is a strong dissonance, they might get labeled “crazy.” What about the young boy who often cries at disappointment? What about the person who gets migraines from certain types scents or lights, or who needs certain conditions to have a calm nervous system? These are the people who would get slapped with Ebertin’s label of “pathological sensitivity.”5 But what is pathology except a comparison to what we deem normal?
It also strikes me that Ebertin’s negative significations are commonly moralistic. Here are some related to combinations of Neptune: insane, mad ideas, unstable character, pathological tendencies, mental disturbance, weak constitution, mental or emotional illness, epilepsy;6 Venus/Mars/Saturn: abnormal sex, polygamy/adultery;7 Venus/Neptune: wrong ways of love, wrong or misdirected love sensations, sexual aberration, perversions.8 It has ever been the Western way to dominate and marginalize difference from an idealized “normal” by moralizing against it, and it is no coincidence to find supposed physical and mental defects juxtaposed with supposed character deficiency. It should be easy to see that the same reasons for applying a queer critical lens hold up for a disability-focused critique as well. The term “abnormal sex” could easily be applied to the pleasure of either group; disabled sex, inasmuch as it challenges heteronormative ideals, is perverse by definition!
When I first became interested in exploring disability and astrology, I thought that a planetary signature might be found. After hearing Christopher Renstrom speak about the history of searching for “the gay signature,”9 I was sure disability communities shared the mark of Uranus with queer culture.10 What other bodies might be involved? Chiron? Saturn? When I looked to my own birthchart, I saw an exceptionally close Sun-Chiron conjunction, Uranus opposite Mercury/Venus/Chiron/Sun, Moon square Pluto, and a nearly unaspected Mars in Taurus. Undoubtedly the manifestation of disability in my life was an expression of these and other natal complexes. But there did not seem to be an obvious connection between my chart and those of other disabled folks that I could see. I was also inadvertently following a conventional line of thought about disability significations, which I will discuss below.
As I learned more about identity in the birthchart, I became more convinced that disability could not be divined from a chart any more than gender, race, socioeconomic status, sexual identity, or any other personal identifier, sometimes referred to as co-determining factors. Co-determining factors provide contextual elements for archetypal manifestation, and therefore are invaluable for making interpretations. Indeed, it is the extent to which we try to understand the factors outside our own experience that make us effective multicultural astrologers. The foundation of such an orientation is to not make assumptions or rush to conclusions about what a person’s life circumstances mean to them, and to keep from assigning our own.
Chiron—More Wounded than Healer?
Chiron has become one of the most important celestial bodies in astrology outside of the standard planets and luminaries, and the one most closely relating to disability. Mythologically he is a centaur, mentor of Achilles, and extremely skilled in hunting and medicine. He becomes poisoned accidentally, and cannot heal himself, despite his great skill as a healer. He sacrifices his immortality (and physical form) in exchange for Prometheus’ freedom, and is honored as a constellation in the sky. From a disability justice perspective, this myth is problematic, raising questions about the value of life with disability/illness, euthanasia, and life purpose being derived from serving/inspiring those not disabled.
Archetypally, Chiron is known as the Wounded Healer, which has associations with shamanic functions. Chiron symbolizes our deepest egoic wounds, where we often experience difficulty and shame. As we work through and attempt to heal our core issues, we gain wisdom and compassion that can then be of benefit to others.
Finding the cure in the cause is a psychospiritual principle I believe in. However, I find it interesting that we often cannot talk about the wound without immediately going to the “healing.” There is a compulsion to get past pain, challenges, and vulnerability, and assign a positive meaning—which can be a constructive and profound spiritual process. But I think we need to be very careful as counselors when we make meaning of other people’s suffering. Again, our preconceptions determine our interpretations, and if our bias causes us to speak about our client’s life in a way that they do not identify with, we run the risk not only of being offensive, but of aggravating and reinforcing a wound that likely has a societal element to it.
Health and Wholeness
Since astrologers are often in the position of facilitating personal healing and transformation, what is also called for is a revision of our concepts of health and wholeness. These are ideas that are commonly the goal of any kind of healing or transformative process; integrating what has been fragmented, uniting what has been separated. It would be a mistake to think of disability as antithetical to this process. As I have already mentioned, it is common to conflate physical, mental, and spiritual states of being. Using myself as an example, some might consider a cure for cerebral palsy necessary for me to be healthy and whole. As far as I am concerned, I am already whole; I think of myself as physically healthy as the next person. What I seek to heal from emotionally and spiritually are the side effects of living in an ableist world. In fact I could be considered healthier in some ways, since I am not zealously attempting to attain medical or mainstream physical ideals.
It is also important that we do not confuse healing with cure. As queer, disabled writer Eli Clare states, “Cure rides on the back of normal and natural. Insidious and pervasive, it impacts most of us. In response, we need neither a wholehearted acceptance nor an outright rejection of cure, but rather a broad-based grappling.”11 Anyone who has gone through any kind of recovery, healing, or transformation knows that you do not come out the other side the same as when you went in—a return to a previous or ideal state is not the goal. However, this idea is subversive coming from disabled people. Yet this is the very reason disability should not be eradicated: it holds a very important perspective for a world that is so concerned with materialism, productivity, and perfection.
Another issue I wish to highlight is one that Chris Brennan has raised multiple times on The Astrology Podcast, which is, the danger of modern astrology to lean too far in the direction of free will and personal agency to determine the outcome of people’s lives. The idea that every difficult transit or natal aspect can be handled or manifested gracefully, implies that when it isn’t, the fault lies with the native. I point this out because on the one hand, able-bodied people love “inspirational” narratives of disability,12 in which one bootstraps themselves into overcoming their circumstances—thereby negating any unpleasantness that might haunt the audience, and treat it as a passing phase. I have had people helpfully suggest that if I just tried hard enough, I could walk better—or in other words, be more normal. The other side of this coin is the idea that misfortune is deserved, perhaps even due to “karma.” Nondisabled people always want to know, “what happened to you?” as if to ascertain the tragedy of it, and evaluate how well you are coping. Perhaps I will be seen as exceptional, making the most of my life despite disability, erasing the ways that disability has guided me where I am, as well as the great majority of my life that is quite normal and cliché.
To complicate things even further, there is a prevalent spiritual idea that those who are incarnated into more adverse circumstances are farther along in their soul’s development or taking an accelerated path. The harder the life, the greater the spiritual lesson. I admit this is a notion that eases the discomfort that comes from witnessing the struggles of life, bolstering a sense of structure and fairness in the cosmos. However, I have to say that I think it can also be a way to place disabled people in the exceptional category, seeing them as extraordinary—anything but ordinary, over which the able-bodied have dominion.
All this is to say that disability is not something to be overcome on an individual level (as if that were possible), and to think so ignores the countless ways in which those complex circumstances shape one’s character and outlook on life. It is also not the result of a divine punishment, nor is it necessarily a mundane foible. In Robert Hand’s seminal Planets in Transit, he described several transits of Uranus with the potential for physical accident and injury, if handled incorrectly.13
In cases where disability has an onset, it can be located in time. Incurring an acute injury or trauma, receiving a medical diagnosis, or self-identifying as neurodivergent are all examples of major events that would have to be reflected in one’s transits. But what you would look for as signifiers of those events (as well as natal elements) are completely determined by your beliefs about disability. If you believe disability commonly results from accidents or mismanaged energies, Hand’s Uranus signifier may first come to mind. If you see becoming disabled primarily as the end of a life of freedom, then Saturn may be what you see. If you are afraid or uncomfortable with the idea of disability, then perhaps Pluto would be the signifier for you.
Seeing the Whole in the Fragment
As a society we need to change our concept of disability, and part of that process is changing how it fits into our cosmology. The tendency to associate disability with the malefic side of planets like Saturn and Pluto comes from the perspective of seeing disability as limitation and suffering. Except being disabled is not a perpetual state of suffering. Suffering can be involved though, especially as one confronts the expectations of society without the support to meet (or critique) them.
Each human experience contains all of the archetypes within it—this is the beauty of the holographic nature of existence. Like the Buddhist metaphor of Indra’s Net, any piece of reality has every other aspect reflected within it. This is why it is difficult to reduce any experience to one archetype. For example anyone could agree that war is under the purview of Mars. But isn’t Saturn present in the discipline of armies, Mercury in battle strategy, Jupiter waged in the name of a just or holy cause, Venus in acts of mercy and importance of appearance, etc.? Whatever broad archetype you begin with, the others come to light as you dig deeper and flesh out the actual phenomenon. Staying with a single archetype leads to pigeonholing and stereotypes.
Disability is no different. Yes, Saturn is embodied when I want to enter a building that only has stairs, but I invoke Jupiter when I speak to injustice and hope for a more equitable future. I encounter Pluto when I receive the projections of the shadow of society, as abnormal, pitiable, undesirable, or incapable. I channel Mars when I pursue my passions and face my challenges. I am Venusian when I exercise patience when I don’t get my way, extend compassion for others who have their own life struggles, or find peace in a lover’s touch that I do not take for granted. I mind-meld with Uranus when I encourage myself and others to redefine ideas of health and normalcy. All of these characteristics can be traced back to my birthchart, yet all of them have been shaped by living with a disability.
As I stated previously, I have an exact Sun-Chiron conjunction. Since Chiron is a disabled archetype, you could infer that combination has a lot to do with my identity as a disabled person. Also, since I see my “wounds” as more psychospiritual than physical, it has a lot to do with my identity as a therapist—which, in turn, is informed by my experience of being disabled. Uranus opposing my Mercury, Venus, and Sun/Chiron could be seen as a disruption of “normal” ways of relating and communicating. It is true that some people relate to disability in ways that can be jarring to me. Beyond that, Uranus in my chart is my feeling of not belonging to the mainstream, and my stolid rebelliousness. Pluto squaring my Moon relates to a deep and complicated relationship with my mother as my primary caregiver until adulthood, a deep sensitivity and tendency towards feeling shame (about being disabled and many other things), as well as the resulting opportunities for transformation which allow me to provide a strong container for my clients’ emotions and not shy away from their shadowy parts.
My Mars in Taurus is also an interesting placement to explore; it seems a particularly apt analog for physical disability, Taurus being so carnal and Mars being the way we move through life. In my experience, patience is required for physical tasks. I often have to find my own way of doing things that works for me, and they get easier the more I practice. Slow determination is often most effective. Mars is in its detriment in Taurus, a debility—in other words, disabled. It is in a place of reduced access, and thus less able to express itself with ease. In order to do the same amount of work as a planet with the privilege of better access (in its domicile, exaltation, or a neutral sign) it must put in more effort, and sometimes be creative at finding ways of being effective. Because of that, a planet in detriment can end up being very skillful and self-aware with some work put into it. If it receives aspects from other planets, there is an interaction, perhaps an interdependence at play, so that it can benefit from the privilege of others, making a more cohesive and unique whole. So if one stops at the surface interpretation of a planet in debility being ill-placed and disadvantaged, they miss out on the potential benefits. In this way, disability has actually been inscribed into traditional astrological principles, and perhaps unsurprisingly, it can be seen with nuance, or simply as ill fate.
I hope that with what I have related here—through the example of my own chart and lived experience, as well as my reflections on our community and how it handles disability in our social spheres and in our personal cosmologies—we can understand with more nuance how disability weaves in and out of the archetypes and aspects, and start to apply more awareness when addressing these topics, both with our clients and in our daily lives.
[Editor’s note: This article appears in the second volume of our journal, The Ascendant.]
1 The Astrology Podcast, episode 104, (April 17, 2017), produced by Chris Brennan.
2 “Disability History: Timeline,” The National Consortium on Leadership and Disability for Youth, accessed March 22, 2018. For example: “1907: Eugenic Sterilization Law Spreads Like Wildfire: Indiana becomes the first state to enact a eugenic sterilization law—for ‘confirmed idiots, imbeciles and rapists’—in state institutions. The law spreads like wildfire and is enacted in 24 other states.”
3 Reinhold Ebertin, The Combination of Stellar Influences, trans. Dr. Alfred G. Roosedale and Linda Kratzsch (1940; Repr., Tempe, AZ: AFA, 2004).
4 Though “lunacy” is a word I still hear used by contemporary astrologers to describe the “crazy energy” of a full Moon, as if Luna would approve of the way we treat those assigned her epithet.
5 Ebertin, Combination of Stellar Influences, 64.
6 Ibid., 64–98.
7 Ibid., 176.
8 Ibid., 188.
9 Christopher Renstrom, “The Problem of the Gay Signature: Unearthing the Queer Archetype in Astrological History and Culture” (presentation, Queer Astrology Conference, San Francisco, CA, March 21–22, 2015).
10 Michael MacLafferty, “Similar in Our Difference: A Call for Inter-Community Solidarity,” Michael MacLafferty (blog), April 7, 2015.
11 Eli Clare, Brilliant Imperfection: Grappling with Cure (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2017), quoted in Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, “Disability is Not a Deficit and Other Truths in an Ableist World: A Review of Brilliant Imperfection: Grappling with Cure,” Bitch Media, March 28, 2017.
12 Stella Young, “I’m Not Your Inspiration, Thank You Very Much,” TEDxSydney, April 2014.
13 Robert Hand, Planets in Transit: Life Cycles for Living, 2nd ed. (1976; Atglen, PA: Schiffer, 2001), 376–95.
Michael MacLafferty is an astrologer and a Registered Associate Marriage and Family Therapist* based in Oakland, CA. He has written about the intersections of psychology, disability, and esoterica on his blog and has contributed to Psyched Magazine. He has an increasing interest in working on Plutonic themes with clients, including childhood trauma and feelings of shame. You can find out more about his work and writing at www.archetypal-wellness.com
*(IMF# 83155, supervised by Rawna Romero, MFC# 41466, at Grateful Heart Holistic Therapy Center.)