Astrology of the Great American Centaur Novel

With all the serious issues of our present moment, why write about the astrology of an old novel? I had put aside initial observations until I noticed that this week’s Aquarius New Moon marked the sixtieth anniversary of The Centaur’s publication, February 4, 1962. Coincidentally that date was an Aquarius New Moon too – and an eclipse, and so much more!

The Centaur, an award-winning novel by American author John Updike, is an unexpected artifact of Centauric timing. Published fifteen years before the discovery of Chiron the planetoid, Updike’s magico-realistic romp through Ovid’s Metamorphoses reimagines Chiron as a twentieth-century American everyman. The father and son Caldwells narrate their chapters as symbolic Chiron and Prometheus (even though these are not mythic father and son). It can be read with as fine an allegoric lens as you’d like – it turns out all the characters are meant to be mythic stand-ins (a point Updike makes bold in an appendix). If I had read this novel before I found astrology, it would have been where I first laid eyes on the words Chariclo and Pholos, each featured in its early pages. Even Okyrhoe is mentioned by name! 

From the dust jacket: “Seeking to pierce the shadow-line that separates human experience from the mythical dimension, the author …translates the agonized centaur’s search for relief into the incidents and accidents of three winter days spent in Pennsylvania in 1947.”

It is remarkable how the tribulations of protagonist George Caldwell – convinced of his own impending death, and troubled by fatherhood and career – are lived through the milestone of age fifty. Prefiguring the orbit of minor planet Chiron, the struggles recounted in this story would surely be read by a modern astrologer as befitting one’s Chiron Return. If we indulge in fictional astro-bilbiomancy, Updike gives his character a birthdate of December 21, 1896. Chiron is in Scorpio, with Saturn-Uranus conjunct in late Scorpio; Okyrhoe at the North Node in mid-Aquarius (this is foreshadowing), with Chariklo just into Aquarius too. Transits of January 1947, when the action unfolds, would, on top of the impending Chiron return, give death-obsessed George a mutual transit of the North Node to Pluto, Pluto to South Node. A doozy of Sisyphean proportions. Uranus to natal Mars-Neptune; suffice it to say that re-reading the book with these transits in mind “would track.”

George Caldwell’s fictional transits of mid-January 1947, True Nodes, no birth time.

An initial synchronicity from the press: Kirkus Reviews (February 1962), heralding this new book by “the most conspicuously talented younger writer of the decade,” notes how “…it reflects the effects on [the son,] as his orbit, physical and spiritual, closes in and stretches away from his father whom he senses needs a defender.” Such eloquent if accidental description of our undiscovered, eccentrically orbiting Centaur planets!

If an astrologer were consulted to help publish a book, two factors would be seen as avoidable: retrograde Mercury, and eclipses. Better find an easier time! The Centaur was published on February 4, 1962, and would win accolades, and critiques, despite or because of both astrological factors. (Although it was given the National Book Award, some have seen that as directed at his previous works, and not this one as such). This book was published against a backdrop of a rare Aquarian pile-up: the New Moon, at the lunar South Node – a Solar Eclipse; and Venus conjoined a Retrograde Mercury and Jupiter, with Mars and Saturn in-sign. Thus all the traditional planets were in Aquarius.

The Aquarius Solar Eclipse Stellium of February 4, 1962

An astronomical event like this one did not escape public notice: the week’s headlines include “World ‘Survives’ Cluster of Planets and Eclipse,” reporting that astrologers in India and Europe alike were predicting the worst. “The evil Rahu swallowed the sun as predicted today, but things came back to normal,” reported the Associated Press (Feb 5, 1962) about a convergence in Aquarius some thought might cause a pole shift, or even the “Age of Aquarius”!

But what is more amazing, is that this also marked the conjunction of Centaurs Pholus and Chariklo – tightly under the eclipse as well, within a degree of the Sun. (The undiscovered Centaurs had conjoined two weeks before on January 14, at 13° Aquarius 25′.) Their synodic cycle was newly opening; after a dry century, these mighty Centaurs were preparing to meet thrice in fifty years (1962, 1989, 2014). Excluding quick Okyrhoe, 2014’s synod of Chariklo and Pholus would be the first post-discovery conjunction made by either of these planetary bodies with another major Centaur. So they conjoined first on an unprecedentedly Aquarian stellium-eclipse, then again just prior to their discovery, and then once again following their arrival into our known Solar system.

I’m writing on the heels of the Aquarius New Moon at 13°, conjunct “George Caldwell’s” Venus-Node-Okyrhoe, and perhaps more importantly, the 1962 Eclipse Stellium itself. Chariklo is nearing a return to that position, too (having also just marked “Caldwell’s” own second Chariklo return). That is to say, the book, and protagonist who imagines himself to be Chiron, are astrological precursors of our own transiting Chariklo (and, as I’ve noted before, this finds Chariklo elevated at her planetary North Node).

Who is our unwittingly Centauric oracle, this Mr. Updike? Born March 18, 1932, his natal chart strikes several quick Centaur notes at a glance: Moon at 8° Leo 26′ and North Node at 26° Pisces 11′ are each within 2° of the future discovery places of Chariklo and Okyrhoe, respectively. Birth Sun conjunct Vesta is not far, in late Pisces. Chiron is strong near the Midheaven, direct in Taurus and within orb of conjunction to its ruler Venus, also direct in Taurus. Part of Fortune conjunct Pholus in Capricorn brings that named character into view as well. Okyrhoe is also angular, in Placidus Tenth House Gemini. Mercury, conjunct Uranus, t-squares Juno-Chariklo-Pluto and Ceres. Mercury in Eighth House Aries gets a boost from its trine to Jupiter, and from being found in its own Egyptian term, giving essential dignity to Updike’s own “writer’s star.”

Transits to John Updike (March 18, 1932, 3:45PM, West Reading PA – AA chart) on February 4, 1962

At the time of this lauded publication, Uranus was exactly conjunct his precisely timed Leo Ascendant (conjunct bright star Regulus, the king maker). The eclipse and all the rest were exactly opposed his natal Twelfth House Jupiter, and in sextile to natal Mercury. (Uranus passed over his Ascendant between October 1961–August 1962, in the lead-up and afterglow of publication).

In line with an “eclipsed Jupiter” transit, Updike won the National Book Award in 1964 for The Centaur, rather than for his better known Rabbit, Run (which, incidentally lost to a book named The Waters of Kronos, suitably nympho-Titanic!). The Centaur was also panned as awkward, heavy handed, and sex-obsessed. Whatever its literary value, the book stands as a premonition of things to come, eerily aligned with as-yet-unknown planetary bodies, speaking its titular creation into being and timed alongside its own Aquarian Age.

(Fascinating side note, because what else is astrology good for, the same date in 1962 was more famous as the founding of St Jude’s Hospital by Danny Thomas, an actor who had made a vow to that saint that if he became successful he would create a shrine in St. Jude’s name. On that day he exclaimed, “Anyone may dream, but few have realized a dream as gargantuan as this one.” Born January 6, 1912 with Chiron at 3° Pisces 36, this event celebrated his recent Chiron Return, with the Centaur then at 4° Pisces 53!)


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