Sexing the Sky
“As above, so below.” Western astrology, which was mapped out and written mostly by men for men, likes to sex, gender, and rank the planets.
Earth, Moon, and Venus are female and feminine, while the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto are all marked male and masculine, in their names and their associated imagery. Interestingly, Mercury, the lowest of the heavenly bodies, is androgynous, associated with Hermes, hermaphrodites, and is able to change sexes (see Ptolemy’s Tetrobiblos (who was also a great geographer), and Tester’s A History of Western Astrology). Mercury is also an androgynous substance in alchemy — it’s water and fire.
We read in Ptolemy that the male planets or “bodies” occupy the upper ranks of the planetary hierarchy while Mercury and the female bodies like Venus and Moon are situated in the lower ranks. And guess who dwells in the lowest rank of them all. Who is literally under our boots? Mother Earth, along with her humans and all our dead ancestors. In The Color of Angels, historian of the senses Constance Classen points out that each planet is also linked with one of the traditional “ages of man.” The feminine Moon, Mercury, and Venus are associated with the periods of childhood and youth, while the masculine Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn govern the ages of maturity and wisdom. In this worldview, then, the feminine represents our past, and the masculine represents our future.
The Sun is male, thus hot and dry are quintessential male qualities. Gender opposites were contrasted as planetary opposites by Ptolemy, Facino and other ‘natural philosophers’ who also spoke of the “moist sensuality” of the female Venus and the “dry consciousness” of the male Sun. The Sun is also always linked with sight, which is masculine. For the western mind, the human senses are also all gendered, ranked, and correlated with the planets’ “senses.” Gender penetrates everything.
Quintessentially feminine, Moon and Venus are cold and moist. These bodies are associated with the sea, with menstruation and reproduction, and in the case of Moon, with lunacy. That the Sun is masculine and the Moon is feminine is problematic also because it places maleness in the daytime and femaleness in the nighttime. Men get associated with consciousness and women with unconsciousness. Men are rational, women are irrational; men are awake, women are dreaming. Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.
Planetary positions at conception determine the sex of the child, and the alleged temperature of the planets was key. Historians of the senses document how one of the most prominent differences associated with the sexes in Europe was based on temperature, and people contrasted the essential “coldness” of women with the essential, God-given “heat” of men. In Making Sex, Thomas Laqueur documents how females were also deemed to be “half-baked” males — undercooked and imperfect results of an insufficient amount of heat during the process of conception and gestation. We were, for a long time, two types of ‘one sex.’ These ideas about sex differences in temperature were drawn from Aristotle, Galen, Pliny, Ficino, and other ancient authorities, who were also writing about the planets and stars, and who supported contemporary scholarship, folklore, and entire worldviews which echo into our thoughts and feelings today.
It’s not just the sexing but the ranking of the planets that harms us. We see it in popular astrology as well as in ideas like Jacob’s Ladder or staircases of angels: it’s a persistent and oppressive vertical axis. The dream ladder reflects downward into the corporate ladder, into sports teams and universities, governments, cults, television— perhaps all western history is the translation of Jacob’s ladder from the dream sphere into daily culture. Peter Sloterdjik: “Where there was dream hierarchy there shall be real hierarchy.” Just as the angels stand above one another in ten ranks, so do the planets, and the members of the actual church stand above one another, a pyramid of men extending downward until at last they touch the women below. Within the Catholic Church, female bodies are never invited into the higher positions of power — that of cardinals, priests, and popes. Sisters serve those functions anyway, every day, just unofficially. Male bodies are ranked superior. Did you know that there was once a female pope, Pope Joan – cross-dressing, gender fluid – who would have been great, but she was eventually caught, tortured and then killed. Because of her, a legendary chair, the sede stercoraria, “the throne with a hole in the seat,” was installed at the Vatican to make sure the pope indeed always had male genitalia. Cardinals lined up to cop a feel and say, “Testiculos habet et bene pendentes!”
Considering how sexing the sky reinforces oppressive gender relations, maybe we should retire the gendered names of the planets. What do you think?