Let’s face it: sometimes things happen to us that we like, and sometimes things happen to us that we don’t like. All of our lives are peppered by ups and downs, highs and lows. To reflect this fact, astrology has traditionally identified some planets and planetary configurations as bringing high period and things we like, and some as bringing things low periods and things we don’t like. Those planets and placements which bring positive circumstances are called “benefic,” and those which bring negative ones are called “malefic.”
Whenever I teach a class in astrology, I always ask: would you rather your romantic partner gave you flowers or syphilis? One of those is clearly benefic and something we like (clearly Venus), and the other is malefic and something we would rather not have (in this case, Mars).
This seems very straightforward – almost unremarkable. But in point of fact, this notion of labelling planets and planetary configurations and placements as either good or bad has come under fire in the last century from a variety of sources. The theosophists such as Alan Leo and Alice Bailey were the first to scrutinize this doctrine at the turn of the 20th century, claiming that a natal chart could say nothing about the events and circumstances in a person’s life but could only outline the character and evolution of the soul. Calling events or situations good or bad was ineffective simply because it didn’t work. But notions such as “good” and “bad” don’t in any way pertain to a soul’s journey or cosmic evolution (which is all we’re really interested in anyway), and so we may as well discard them.
Bringing this more down to earth, psychological astrologers such as Dane Rudhyar and Liz Greene began to incorporate some of the mythic psychological insights of Carl Jung and James Hillman into a psychological/humanistic type of astrology. In this model, astrological significations delineate psychological types and attitudes, nothing more or less. Indeed, such language as “good” or “bad” in labelling someone’s psychology would be abysmal in a therapeutic practice, and for that reason these terms were flung out the window.
And today, astrologers trained in these two models – the evolutionary model and the psychological model – have mostly dominated the scene. Many contemporary practitioners and students of astrology regard the notion of labelling a planet as “good” or “bad” as antiquated, an artifact of a culture preoccupied with material results and predicting the future. At this point, many psychological and evolutionary astrologers have completely dropped the terms from their vocabulary. I have even heard some say “we have evolved beyond the notions of good and bad in astrology.”
Consequently, the majority of astrologers frame a natal chart reading in terms of inner experiences and lessons for spiritual growth. The malefic planets Saturn and Mars have been relegated to “boundaries and structure” and “willpower and sex drive,” and the square and opposition aspects simply provide more opportunity to grow. An old adage of astrologers in the 70’s and 80’s was that a natal chart cannot show anything that will happen, only what the individual will experience. So a Saturn transit to the 7th house, which would have normally meant “problems in the relationship” will be interpreted as “the native will want to bring structure to his relationship and may bring want to set up more boundaries.”
A kernel of truth lies within everything I mentioned above, and parts of these doctrines I count as genuine contributions. Let me start by saying that astrology can successfully investigate the transcendental soul and the human psyche. Astrologers have used astrology successfully in this way and continue to do so. Some of the writings of Stephen Forrest, Stephen Arroyo and Liz Greene specifically are particularly apt at dealing with the dimensions of the human person. I myself use some modern psychological techniques when giving a reading on natal charts, such as using lunar phases to determine personality traits.
I only take issue with these approaches when the practitioners limit the field of astrology in general to their own idiosyncratic subject-matter. When the theosophists and their progeny choose to emphasize the human soul in an astrological reading, that’s fine, but I object when they discard the other dimensions and fields of astrology and call them futile or antiquated. Historically, they only touted the ineffictiveness of prediction because they had already gutted and reshaped astrological techniques to suit to their own agenda and couldn’t do anything concrete with their new astrology.
In point of fact, these more contemporary topics do not compose any sort of limit on astrological investigation. If anything, they are subsidiary and derivative to (certainly antedating) a form of astrology that was rooted in concrete prediction and facts – classical/traditional astrology.
And any type of astrology that rooted in prediction and facts as opposed to human psychology must employ the benefic/malefic distinction in order to work. This applies to almost every other branch of astrology besides natal astrology: electional, horary, and mundane astrology all require appeal to this distinction in order to be effective. This reveals itself to me especially as an astrologer who works primarily with business owners - where the success of a course launch, business partnership, or anything else for which I’m consulted requires my predictions to be rooted in truth and objectivity. If for some reason an astrologerfoolishly places Saturn in the first house squaring the sun in an electional chart for a course launch, they cannot simply say “too bad you didn’t make too much money, but hey, you learned some important lessons, right?” That business owner’s most valuable lesson would be to never hire that astrologer again. This constitutes the first reason that I encourage people to use the malefic/benefic distinction.
But the malefic/benefic distinction idoes not just support an astrology that works with concrete predictions, it likewise has a fair amount of power in natal astrology too - the second reason. Now many astrologers will decry the use of terms like “good” and “bad” in labelling people, but ultimately we all have strengths and weaknesses, highs and lows, good times and bad times. Some people feel a lot of joy at life and living, while other people live through life with chronic physical and emotional pain. Some die in privately owned prisons, some die on privately owned yachts.
Our astrological language must meet the person whom comes to see us. Many times people come to astrologers who are hurting and searching for answers. If we choose to white-wash their problems and frame every difficult placement in their chart in terms of its positivity and spiritual potential, then our clients will not feel seen and their needs will not be met. What a disservice! If a client comes to you with transiting Pluto and Saturn conjunct over their natal sun and life has become very difficult for them, a surface-level reading which frames this transit in terms of “spiritual growth” or addresses all the other good things in a chart will provide at most a little fleeting encouragement.
Ultimately, the incorporation of the malefic/benefic distinction honors the myriad dimensions of human experience. Both joy and suffering cohabit our live, and the stars reflect that. Mars does not rule willpower and drive – he also rules war and destruction, and sometimes the events that he brings to people’s lives through natal placement or transit can be devastating. By acknowledging and talking about the difficulties in natal astrology (in a tactful way, of course!), we have the potential to deepen the level of a reading and provide a cosmic explanation of our client’s troubles.
There’s a couple keywords I want to leave you all with to round out this discussion. The first is honesty. If you ever find yourself reading a chart for someone else, there are going to be configurations in the chart that are absolutely stellar (pun very much intended) and some that are quite the opposite. As I said above, white-washing difficult placements and configurations does the client a disservice by not revealing the whole truth. I once had a client come to me with a synastry request for her and a potential partner. I notice that Mars and Saturn in the partner’s chart were squaring the sun in my client’s chart. I explained that sometimes this synastry configuration can create very intense arguments and generally cultivate a fear of mistrust, and that sometimes these relationships can become abusive. While I didn’t bluntly spew out all that, I did gently point to this aspect and explained that Mars and Saturn configurations like this one could create difficulties. I was practicing honesty, and she learned more and was given sounder advice than if I would have sugar-coated the configuration.
The second keyword is duty - a word we dislike confronting in our more obligation-free, should-free world. But at the bottom line, true astrologers have a duty to convey the truth to their client. Chances are, a client approaches an astrologer seeking illumination and clarity on their life from a higher source – akin to what people want whenever they see a practitioner of any kind of divination. When an astrologer assumes the mantle of responsibility that comes with speaking on behalf of the stars in a native’s life, they also adopt the obligation and duty to tell them what they need to know. In my example above, I had a duty to tell me client some of the dangers I saw. If I were to see a danger like that and choose to say nothing, I would not have practiced some sort of evolved post-good-and-bad discretion, I would have been negligent.
Astrology is tremendously fun, but astrology is also true – and that gives it power. When we reduce astrological symbolism to a series of indicators for positivity or potential opportunities for growth, we begin to declaw and defang a doctrine that has the potential to inform us of our fate, administer to us our spiritual lessons, and initiate us into some of the deeper mysteries of the universe. Let’s keep the tradition of astrology intact – both the good and the bad.