Welcome to another installment of Coffee With an Expert! Today, we’re having coffee with Amy Herring, a professional astrologer and an expert in Western/Tropical astrology (as opposed to Chinese or Vedic/Indian astrology). Amy has been a professional astrologer for more than 20 years, and has written two books: Astrology of the Moon (2010) and Essential Astrology (2016). She has served on the board of her local astrological organization and has been a returning speaker at the Northwest Astrological Conference. Her articles have appeared in publications including Dell Horoscope, WellBeing Astrology, and Llewellyn’s Moon Sign books. You can find episodes of her popular 10 Minute Astrology series on YouTube, and on the web at Heavenly Truth. All questions have been asked by our readers and the Sweatpants & Coffee community. Amy, thank you so much for chatting with us!
1. What is the difference between your specialty (Western/Tropical Astrology) and Chinese/Indian/Vedic astrology?
Each system has fundamental variances given how and where they developed over the centuries. Underlying attitudes and applications also vary, depending on the individual applying these systems of astrology but also the cultural beliefs in which they were raised, the time in history that they are being applied in, and so on.
On a more practical level, one fundamental difference between Western Astrology and Vedic (Jyotish) Astrology is in how the twelve signs divide the sky. Each system starts Aries at a different point in the sky and calendar, for example. Western astrology and Chinese astrology also vary fundamentally in their zodiac, using animals such as rat, tiger, and rooster rather than Aries, Virgo, or Gemini.
2. Are signs really supposed to dictate your personality? If yes, have you met anyone who in NO way matches their sign?
The answer to the first question may vary among astrologers, given their personal beliefs and how they perceive the universe around them, so I can only share a commonly held opinion which I agree with: The signs do not dictate personality, they reflect it. We don’t really know precisely what makes you YOU, do we? It’s likely some combination of brain chemistry, genetics, life, and family experiences, and so on. The idea is that the natal chart reflects your makeup, which is what an astrologer tries to communicate when “reading” the symbol combinations in a chart. Like the psychoanalyst and friend of astrology Carl Jung said, “We are born at a given moment, in a given place, and like vintage years of wine, we have the qualities of the year and of the season in which we are born.”
In regard to the second question – Yes, all the time (at first glance)! This is why I never try to guess anyone’s “sign” — most people only know their sun sign anyway, and it’s most common to observe someone’s rising sign at play upon first meeting, so if I was guessing right, they might not know it! Also, a person’s astrology chart is made up of a great many combinations of symbols, and it is in synthesizing these combinations that the complexity and nuance of astrology really shines through. No one is the epitome of a sign; we all reflect faces and portions of all the signs that are most active in our natal chart, and they interact with each other to reflect a more unique and complex personality than a pure sign archetype.
3. What’s the difference between your sun sign, rising sign, and moon sign? What about you is each supposed to determine? How does one figure out what their moon and rising signs are? (Besides looking them up on the internet, what does it mean?)
The sky looking out from every direction on earth is divided into twelve sections we call the signs. The sun, moon, and every planet are always somewhere against that backdrop, which is what it means when a planet is in a sign. The rising sign, or ascendant, is different. It is the section of sky that was rising over the eastern horizon when you were born.
The sun and moon, just like all other planets placed in signs, symbolize different aspects of a basic human personality and are representative of the basic, driving needs we all strive to meet as part of living. The sun represents our basic sense of self and identity—the core things about us that we identify with when we think of who we are. The moon represents the emotional, intuitive self. The signs that these “planets” fall in (astrologers refer to them as planets for convenience, not out of ignorance) will describe the style in which we fulfill these needs. The rising sign represents how we interface in a basic way with the world every day. The ascendant represents the first characteristics about us that people observe on first encounter, sometimes even before they’ve spoken to us. It is our contact point with the world and vice versa. If you were a building, the ascendant would be your front door.
There’s a lot more to what these three represent and I wrote about them in detail, as well as the rest of the planets, in my books. There’s really no way to know what signs your sun, moon, and ascendant are without looking them up and it’s important to use a reliable calculation program or website as it’s easy to get it wrong. Despite best efforts, no book can tell you this just using your birthdate; it is a combination of precise birth time, date, and place that zeroes in on what the heavens looked like from your location at the time of birth. It’s rather like finding Neo in the Matrix that way, but hopefully not as traumatic (unless you do the calculations by hand)!
4. What on earth does “Mercury is in retrograde” mean, other than that everyone blames everything on it?
When astrologers say “Mercury is in retrograde,” they mean that the planet Mercury is moving in apparent retrograde motion; essentially, it looks like it’s going backwards for a few weeks. Does Mercury really change the direction of its orbit around the sun spontaneously? No. Like cars on a racetrack, all planets, including earth, orbit the sun in their own individual “lanes.” We’re all running around the same celestial track but it takes some of us longer to get around the sun than others. If we watch our planetary neighbors closely when we pass them, we would see that they appear to be moving backward but this is an illusion. Try observing this on the freeway when you pass a car in the lane next to you – just be sure to pay attention to where you’re going so you don’t drift out of orbit!
Everything that we observe about the heavens can be considered symbolically meaningful by astrologers. When a planet appears to be moving backward in the sky, the symbolic meaning of that planet may also seem to “move backward.” To astrologers, Mercury symbolizes information, thought, and communication, including all the things we do and all the devices we use to enable communication processes. Following the symbolism then, when Mercury “is in retrograde,” it is more likely that our fax machine will break, we will drop our phone in the toilet, appointments will be more easily mixed up, and our computer will crash.
We are all more susceptible to suggestion than we usually acknowledge, of course. If we are told that something will happen, we tend to pay closer attention to look for it, and more easily see it occurring than if we hadn’t been told to look for it. The popular hype around Mercury retrograde has some people panicking unnecessarily. Mercury appears to move retrograde about four times a year, for a duration of about three weeks each time, and we seem to survive it each time!
Astrology is most helpful when we think about how we can work with the energy, rather than hide under our bed until it’s over. Working with Mercury retrograde can be a great time for journaling, writing, double-checking things to ensure there are no misunderstandings, as well as clearing up misunderstandings that usually surface during Mercury’s retrograde period.
5. What’s the deal with cusp babies? What’s the cusp? How would being born on the cusp affect you?
To be “born on the cusp” in astrological terms typically refers to being born at the time in each month when the sun is either about to change signs or just has changed signs. A cusp in this example is defined as the boundary dividing any two signs.
Astrologer’s opinions vary regarding the level of the importance of this, but typically the cusp issue is made out to be a bigger deal than it is. Many people who are exposed only to sun sign astrology may mis-attribute being “born on the cusp” as to the reason why their sign doesn’t fully accurately describe them. This is less likely due to the fact that they are born on the cusp and more due to the fact that their natal chart, not just their sun sign, is reflective of their personality and all its nuances.
The beginning and end of signs is distinctly defined; there really isn’t a wide window of ambiguity about which sign the sun is in at any given time. Unless someone is born when the actual “body” of the sun is truly in the moment of crossing over the line, the fact that it is near one side of the sign boundary or another is not ambiguous.
6. How do you respond to skeptics about your profession or people who question the validity of astrology?
It can be difficult to practice astrology when so many people consider those who do so to be undiscerning or unintelligent, but I understand where it comes from. The skeptic in me cannot explain astrology and I give that part of me full reign to disagree with the part of me that finds astrology enchanting and meaningful. I don’t try and prove it to people and I am not a champion for adopting astrology as a science. I don’t believe it is a science and I don’t believe it should be measured by science’s rules. For me, it is a question of fact versus value. Astrology is meaning through symbolism, not fact, myth and story, not repeatable experiments. I feel that skeptics and astrologers alike can often get sidetracked into the argument of trying to prove it or disprove it – skeptics missing the point and astrologers fighting the wrong battle in their effort to be respected and valued. Despite documented attempts to prove astrology’s assertions, I honestly think astrology ultimately fails in those arguments, losing a game in which it shouldn’t even be a contestant.
An article that addresses this question excellently was featured in a previous issue of The Mountain Astrologer magazine: Why Astrology Works. That said, there are a few classic arguments against astrology that are often repeated by those who argue against astrology without actually investigating it. I don’t have patience for these arguments as they are usually not offered in a spirit of critical thinking or investigation but in a lazy attempt to discredit and mock astrology from an uneducated point of view. I appreciate informed arguments or honest questions and I welcome skeptics who want to question when that is truly the case.
One of the popular arguments against astrology employed by astrology’s critics has to do with the concept referred to as axial precession, more commonly referred to as the “precession of the equinoxes.” Essentially, for astronomical reasons too long to go into detail here, the constellations and the signs have been moving out of alignment for centuries and although they overlap somewhat, they do not align perfectly. The basic dates for Aries, for example, are March 21 through April 19, which means that the sun was moving through the sign of Aries on those dates, and does so every year.* However, critics usually don’t know enough about astrology to realize that the signs and the constellations are not interchangeable.
In western astrology, which is what we are most exposed to here in the United States and many other countries, the signs and their positions are aligned with the equinoxes, not the constellations. The 30-degree section of sky known as Aries begins at the vernal equinox, not when the sun moves into the constellation of the same name. This is the tropical astrology method. The sidereal method is an alternate system that is more in alignment with the constellations and its sun sign dates reflect that. Vedic astrology uses the sidereal method.
This is related to the hubbub that goes on every few years when people seem to suddenly “discover” that there is a thirteenth sign, Ophiuchus. An excellent article explaining the 13th sign claims — and why they are incorrect — has been written by astrologer Deborah Houlding, which goes into further detail about these differing ways of dividing the signs of the zodiac.
*This may vary slightly from year to year due to the adjustments we make in our calendar, and the sun moves into and out of a sign at slightly different times of day each year – sometimes moving a day earlier or later in individual year cases.
7. Does a belief in astrology necessitate a belief in destiny? i.e., if you were born under a certain sign, are you “destined” for one thing or another?
What a fabulous and complicated question! Any astrologer who looks into the future, even with just an eye to speak to upcoming ‘trends’ as widely and open-endedly as possible, can’t turn around then and say that destiny or fate is completely out of the equation. Astrologer Jeff Jawer put it well when asked about predictive astrology and it’s interaction with fate and free will: “All astrology is predictive […] because we’re making assumptions about a person’s character and their psychological story and perhaps even their spiritual journey based upon a birth chart. That’s a prediction; we’re projecting into the future based upon a given moment in time.”
Jeff and I both share the belief that the way it is presented can make all the difference in how useful (and accurate) any prediction is. We can’t really know if we have free will simply because we feel we do, but it’s a “useful fiction,” as they say. I always operate under the assumption that we do have free will and that the motion of the planets doesn’t dictate our choices. If we define destiny as “the events that will necessarily happen to a particular person or thing in the future,” I don’t think a belief in astrology necessitates a belief in that rigid of a definition of destiny. I never predict events or outcomes, but I will speak to the energy of the upcoming seasons, how we might feel or what we might feel prompted toward in those times, and give suggestions about how to work with the “vibe” of those seasons. What a person chooses to do in response is where free will comes in most.
8. Does a transit through a particular house ever signify a great time in your life to build a home?
Yes. Astrology has many uses and applications and one of them is called Electional Astrology. Electional Astrology seeks to find the best time to undertake something, such as marriage, or opening a business, initiate medical procedures, and yes — buy or build a home. It is usually never just one indicator, but several that compile together, which would signify the best time to do something. This doesn’t guarantee success, it’s more along the lines of “stacking the deck,” so to speak, to select the best timing to aid success.
9. What are the houses and what do they mean?
The houses are a significant portion of an astrology chart but are almost completely unknown in popular astrology! A natal chart is often presented as a circle with it being understood that earth is in the center of that circle. The circle represents the heavens all around. Just as the twelve signs divide that circle, so do the twelve houses. The planets move within the circle and therefore within the signs and houses. This part of your natal chart is calculated by your position on earth at the time of birth.
The signs represent different styles, traits, and needs in how each planet acts, but the houses represent the arenas of life, such as home life, relationships, career, and so on. Activities, life situations, actions – these are all the territory of the houses. WHY we might want to do one thing over another is more tied into signs.
To show a practical example, we can place a planet in a sign and house. Venus is the planet that, among other things, most represents our need for relationship and connection with others. This is a common, even primal need in humans. The style in which we relate to others and the kinds of traits we find attractive in others would be represented by the sign our Venus is in in our natal chart. But the activities we most often participate in regarding relationship can be symbolized by the house it lies in. In the 10th or 6th houses, which deal with the work and career arenas of our life, we might find someone who looks for a huge relating element in their chosen careers, such as a counselor might, for example. That doesn’t mean we won’t have any personal or private relationships, only that a large element of relating in career might be more prominent for this person than someone with Venus elsewhere in their chart.
10. Do you believe that astrology serves a practical purpose? If so, what/how? (How is it useful to us?)
I do. I’m sure everyone’s answer to this might be different and reflect their own values and beliefs. I believe its use comes primarily from the peace of mind, validation, and clarity that people feel after a reading. Sometimes it’s as simple as knowing when an intense period of your life is likely to end that can settle someone’s mind, or having part of you described and understood in a way you might never have felt you have the words for. I always hope to leave someone with a sense of empowerment, motivation, and (self) acceptance after a reading.