How to tell when you’re gonna die: Astrology for Writers

»All forms of language – from Ancient Greek and Hangeul, to mathematics and quantum mechanics – are attempts at divination.« In the following text, writer, artist, and astrologer Johanna Hedva shares the story of how they became an astrologer and what they mean by saying  »I come from a family of witches.« Hedva invites us to think through the entanglements of divination as a tool for articulation: of narrative as prophecy, writing as a curse tablet, cause and effect as interchangeably noun and verb. »Any language we use to describe the world also creates the world,» they say. »It makes, it unmakes. It articulates, it obfuscates.«

Johanna Hedva — Mrz 17, 2021

How to tell when you’re gonna die: Astrology for Writers. »Tell« is the most important word in this title. You tell the future as you tell a story as you tell time as you tell me your name. For divination is nothing but an articulation of the future; and the future, as we know, does not exist as such, but is the shimmering cast off by the past and the present. Divination is simply the devotion to this shimmering, a devotion that expresses itself through craft.

Language creates the world as much as it breaks it; this often happens at the same time. Begetting and informing each other, both cause and effect, creation happens because of destruction, through it, by it, in it, and vice versa. In this way – the way that goes more than one way – there are many selves in one person, many meanings in one sentence, many fates in one future.

The raw material of astrology is fate. Astrology is like any other craft – this particular craft applies itself to crafting fate. Yes, astrology can tell you when you’re going to die, as it can tell you how to live. But what can it teach you to tell? How can astrology be used as a storytelling device? When fate and time are approached as malleable and multiplicitous, rather than monolithic and fixed and singular, if they are internal as much as external forces, agencies as much as conditions, they become material like any other: a medium of communication, transmission, content, and form.

There is the question of whether or not astrology is »real,« if it’s a »fact«. I’d propose that the more interesting question to ask is how we understand facts to be facts at all. How do we decide collectively that a system of meaning is real or not? And when we do, whom does it benefit? To what end? When the poet Morgan Parker was asked by The Believer magazine to discuss the state of the fact, Parker responded: »Facts are white.«1 In a talk with Arthur Jafa at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, Saidiya Hartman stated that history is fiction with state power.2 I think of these statements often; they ring in my mind like a kind of bell.

»The one true real fact that I feel I can rely on is that things – and the languages we use to describe them – change.«

As a writer, I primarily understand the world through language. Articulation, description, observation, critique, elegy, bathos, pathos. I am a writer who works in many genres – essays, poetry, fiction, plays – and I am an artist who works in many forms and media – video, performance, print and book design, installation, music, sound – but all of these are forms of writing to me, because I work with the definition of writing that it is language embodied. Writing is the craft of creating a body for a language, to structure it with spine and skin, to animate it with a persona, a face, to let it speak with a voice on a page or housed in a throat. Whenever I talk about bodies, I’m also talking about devotion: My practice is devoted to the many different kinds of bodies that are possible.

I am also a practicing astrologer, and have been reading for clients since 2014. Thus, I want to suggest that astrology is a language like any other language – ancient Greek to the written form of Korean, Hangeul, mathematics to quantum mechanics, art and philosophy and poetry – in that it is a system that humans have invented to try to make meaning out of our experience on this planet.

Since the Enlightenment, astrology has been systemically removed from the canon as a valid system of meaning. It has been denigrated and maligned and disqualified as a worthwhile field of knowledge. For thousands of years before that, however, it was a system of meaning that was used alongside medicine, physics, science, and literature. Indeed, it was developed concurrently with those systems, which is to say, that those systems were developed because of and through astrology too. They informed each other, they made and unmade each other. As any astrologer knows, there is no one, true, real astrology, just as there is no one, true, real science or literature. There are many, and they have been constructed within their specific contexts, traditions, cultures, places – and as they are practiced, they become, they are becoming.

I was once asked how I would link astrology with politics. I would say that any system of meaning is political because meaning is power, especially when it is used to police: when it is instrumentalized as a weapon. But, as we all know, meaning is capricious and promiscuous and shape-shifting. You can say that something means this, and you can say that something means that. What is important here is the system that corroborates which meaning has been designated as the normative one, the one consolidated by power. Studying astrology and its history has brought me to a constant questioning of the systems we’ve decided to use to understand and articulate our world. How did we decide to use these, and not those? What were the conditions that led to such decisions? Crucially, what are the consequences of those decisions?

When mathematicians reach a limit with mathematics, in terms of what it can cover as a language, they must invent new mathematics: the numbers pi, e, the square root of -1. The number zero is an invention – and it caused a scandal when it first emerged.3 The paradox of Zeno in Ancient Greece broke the world. »How can nothing be something?« Many of the tenets of math, physics, and astronomy, when they were first conceived by humans, were condemned as outrageously incorrect, blasphemously evil, laughably stupid. I think about this every time someone tells me they don’t believe in astrology. I ask them what they think astrology is, exactly, and they respond that it’s the horoscope you can read in the newspaper. And what did your horoscope tell you? I ask. Mine says I enjoy attention, but that’s so wrong, they say. Right, I say. And if you read a book you don’t like, does that mean literature is not real? What about the books you’ve never heard of? Are they not real? What about books written by people who don’t look like you, whose language you’ve never heard of? What have you been told about those people? Are those qualities real, true, facts? Says who?

It’s always amusing to me to hear that people don’t believe in astrology but they believe in money. Or time. These are all equally arbitrary inventions. It’s just that some of them are backed by institutional power, and some are not. Even this, I’d like to suggest, is not permanent. Generally I’m a pessimist, and I’m pretty against the reliance we place on hope, but I sometimes allow myself to hope that, as astrology’s institutional power was disqualified at one point in time, perhaps the institutional power behind money, capitalism, ableism, racism, all these demons, will be removed. Perhaps there will come a time when people ask, »But is money actually real?« The one true real fact that I feel I can rely on is that things – and the languages we use to describe them – change.

2.

How did I come to be an astrologer and a witch? For me, being a witch means being in a respectful relationship with the energies and forces of the natural and supernatural worlds, particularly the ones we can’t see or measure or explain with normative systems of meaning. A witch is always someone without institutional power, a condition elucidated most brilliantly by Silvia Federici. In Caliban and the Witch, she traces the historical scope of how witches came to mean what they do, as cultural, mythological, and political figures. The figure of the witch that we in America and Europe know today was born in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Europe, and she was constructed at the same time as capitalism was taking root. This is no coincidence. She is unmarried: she answers to no man. She is a childless woman who lives at the edge of civilization: she does not participate in the reproductive labor that capitalism needs to survive. She has a reverent relationship with the plants and animals around her: she does not exploit the land for capitalist production. She does not defer to the Church for her spiritual practice, and she can make things happen without working for them. For all these reasons, she is dangerous, deviant, ungovernable, lawless. We can see how such a figure would come to be meaningful for oppressed people living in contemporary capitalism. The witch shows a path of resistance, a practice that pushes back.

I was raised in a family of witches, by which I mean that my mother and her sister, my aunt, were witches in Los Angeles, and on my father’s side is the tradition of Korean fortune-telling. Because my father’s mother emigrated from Korea to America during the war, and spent her entire American life trying to assimilate and blend in to her adopted country, the practice of fortune-telling carried on in secret, and was ultimately lost – something that is true for so many whose people have been shaped by imperial and colonial migration.

Until very, very, very recently, practices of witchcraft and folk magic have had to persist fugitively, passed down as furtive oral traditions, shape-shifting so as not to get caught. The threat of persecution has been dangerous and real. This is why there is no one true form of witchcraft; no authentic practice of it upon which a canon of the kind built around, say, mathematics, can be raised. This is knowledge passed between women in a kitchen, slaves in the cotton field, foreigners in alleyways, refugees in a camp. It comes alive in fugitive spaces; to survive, it must slip outside the mainstream, persist away from places of acceptable, normative visibility. The value of practices like this is always determined by a market beneath and behind the one that those in charge wish to see. It is underground, in shadow. The question is: why? Who – what – put it there?

My aunt and mother were not initiated into any proper order; they practiced at home, in the kitchen or the backyard, blending their witchcraft with the Catholicism they were raised in as a kind of folk magic. Because they were white working-class women raised in the 1960s and 70s in Los Angeles, which meant that the witchcraft they learned came from whatever books were for sale at the local hippie store, I sometimes joke that they were »sloppy Wiccans.« Wicca, invented in England in the 1950s as an amalgamation of various Pagan and Celtic magics, was the most recent Anglo-European trend in witchcraft at that time, and with its obvious middle-class whiteness, was the most acceptable to the market.

But if you had asked my mother and aunt what kind of witchcraft they practiced, or what lineage they studied, they wouldn’t have known how to answer your question. We’re witches, they would have said. What else is there to say. No one, of course, would have asked them such a question. Back then, I didn’t go around telling people that my mom and aunt were witches; I would have been ridiculed and laughed at, or dismissed as nuts. They didn’t announce themselves either.

For my mother and my aunt, being witches didn’t mean glamorous rituals with long robes, or dozens of glass jars full of bizarre materials for spells, or posting photos of their crystal grids to social media, or anything devised, designed, displayable, or expensive. Rather, it meant being in tune, agnostically and humbly, with something not human but very much alive in the earth and nature and of the stars, and taking care to notice and listen to the invisible energies in each room. It gave them a sense of agency in lives where they often felt they had none. Alone, they practiced rituals and beliefs that, from what I can tell, they invented on their own and which rarely overlapped with each other’s. They didn’t share their devotions with each other, and I never heard them talk about doing magic together, or even discussing it, but they were both animated by their practices and formed by them. I can’t imagine either woman without her magic.

My aunt’s magic was the kind that had a warm, cozy house around it, with a huge herb garden out back. Her library had books on astrology, witchcraft, Wicca, and different spiritual and occult practices. I remember how she read from a book that collected Native American songs and prayers, many of them dedicated to plants, animals, and the earth. She had altars in every room, collections of objects that were meaningful, beautiful, and arranged with care. On the full moon my aunt would drag me outside to stand in her backyard barefoot. We’d look up at the moon while pulling energy up from the earth through our feet and thank the Goddess for her wisdom and guidance. My aunt urged me never to sleep with my hands open and upward because it would leave me vulnerable to the intrusion of unwanted energies. »The palms are very sensitive, they’re like doorways,« she’d say. »When you meet someone, you touch palms, and when you pray, you touch your own. A lot of power is in your palms.« She told me to put my hair across my palms while I slept, to ward off nightmares. »Your hair is your protection, your power,« she’d say. She threw salt over her shoulder while cooking, and spoke of the corner in the living room where my grandmother’s ghost still sat (it had been her favorite part of the house when she was alive). We made recipes from The Wiccan Cookbook, and always had a feast on Samhain. When her cats’ whiskers fell off she collected them. There was a little ritual to it. You made a circle around your nose with the whisker, counterclockwise, three times, while thanking the cat for its magic, and then saved the whiskers on your altar. My aunt is 72 years old, and has had numerous cats in her life, and so the bundle of whiskers that has accumulated on her altar is by now as thick as a new pack of toothpicks.

»For me, being a witch means being in a respectful relationship with the energies and forces of the natural and supernatural worlds, particularly the ones we can’t see or measure or explain with normative systems of meaning.«

My mother’s magic was more sensitive, unstable, psychic. Hers was the kind that drifted in, rippled through the air into her skin. She had big, watery, unguarded blue-green eyes, and they swelled with tears whenever she spoke about her feelings, and when she stared silently out a window, which she did often. She never fit into normative life, was always stuck outside of it, peering in. In her library she had books on dream interpretation and tarot, the Wizard of Earthsea series, and the Dragonsinger books by Anne McCafferty, about the young woman who can sing to dragons. I have the sense that, because she could hear them and didn’t know how to shut them out, ghosts and other energies tormented her, crowding in, making noise at her, crashing on her like waves. She’d tell me to leave anywhere if I got a bad feeling. As a teenager, if I went to a party, she told me that, if my intuition told me it wasn’t safe there, I should leave immediately, just run out the door and into the street and not look back. She told she could hear me if, across town or in another city entirely, I screamed in fear. »Call for me,« she’d say, »I will come get you. Even without my body.« She strung dozens of sun-catchers in each window, so that rainbows danced on the walls of our house. She collected piles of seashells and kept them in jars and baskets and bowls in every room, and the walls of our house were coated with images of the ocean that she’d cut from magazines, the paper yellowing and curling at the corners, a kind of old magical skin. She talked to animals more than humans, speaking to the birds who passed through our patio, translating what our cats were thinking. She said the Hail Mary during crises, like when her car broke down on the freeway. She cursed my father when she was hurt or angry. She took omens from the color of the sky. Once she got a job in a bank, handling money behind a plate of glass. But holding all that money in her hands, feeling where it had come from and what it had taken from its owners, was too much. She quit after a week. My father mocked her for being incompetent. All of the men that I saw her come into contact with said she was crazy, spoiled, weak.

3.

When I was a teenager, I rebelled against all of this. I wanted to be an intellectual, respected and admired by people who were smart and important. Witchcraft was bullshit. Magic was crazy. Astrology wasn’t real. Look what it had done to my mother. I went to college and studied physics for two years, with the aim to get a PhD in astrophysics and work at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory down the street from my aunt’s house. I studied mathematics and computer science and, even though I loved it, I was terrible at it, far behind all the other students who had brains wired for numbers and logic. I remember going to the computer-science lab for help on a problem, and when I showed my notes to male tutor, of how I thought I could solve a coding problem, he looked at me skeptically and said, »Did you come up with this? You didn’t come up with this.« I had, in fact, come up with this; his bland sexism made me even more determined to succeed in his world, on his terms. I spent days, eight hours, ten, in the mathematics lab; I took extra classes in geology and astronomy; and when not in school, I read every book I could find on the difficult, fascinating scientists who had discovered »beauty« and »truth« in the world and communicated it in numbers, like catching lightning in a bottle. I was hard and critical about anything that couldn’t be proven scientifically. I praised empiricism. I used a vocabulary that had been codified by the academy, and I never thought twice about why it was codified, and for whom.

This lasted more than ten years. And then in my late 20s, my health collapsed. I’ve written elsewhere about that experience, so I won’t rehash it here.4 But suffice to say, I was totally annihilated, physically and psychically. I moved back home to my aunt’s house. I couldn’t get out of bed for two months. I couldn’t speak or read or see anyone. And every visit to the doctor was a battleground. They heaped diagnoses on me. Medication after medication. I felt broken open, that a version of myself had been smashed to pieces. It wasn’t just that none of what the doctors told me about myself made sense, but very little of it actually helped me feel better. And none of the knowledge I’d worked so hard to learn helped me at all either. Rational empiricism failed me. Logic disappointed me. The language of the medical-industrial complex didn’t articulate my experience at all. What I’d come to understand as knowledge brought me little in the way of understanding.

One day I found myself going through my aunt’s bookshelves. I found a book I’d read as a kid, a popular astrology book from the 1970s. I read through it again. I learned that I was currently going through my Saturn return, a time in life that is harrowing and full of challenges, if not full-blown crisis. It begins at age 29.5 and lasts nearly three years. Many different cultures recognize this period as a rite of passage; ancient peoples celebrated it with rituals that offered guidance and instruction. I read more. Turns out my natal Saturn is in the 12th house, which is the house of secrets, sorrows, self-undoing, illness, isolation, suffering, mysticism, sleep, and sanctuary. It is the worst place for Saturn, because it’s where the Ancient astrologers said Saturn has his joy. They call Saturn the greater malefic: he’s the force of evil and bad fortune in astrology. Based on the ancient Greek god of time, Cronus, in astrology he is the principle of time as a linear grind in one direction: decay, age, responsibility, struggle. So when a guy like that is having his joy – well, it’s a different kind of joy than one would imagine. Think of Goya’s painting of Saturn devouring his son – this is the asshole who currently was having his joy in my life.

The more I read, the more I found that astrology explained things in a way that made sense to me; it was a language different from what I’d had at my disposal so far, but which spoke to the complications in my life in a way that, rather than flatten them into incomprehensible failures, made them sing with meaning, context, possibility. Astrology spoke of cause and effect without narrowing it to one’s individual capacity of choice and mistake; it spoke of life not as a thing that happens in a straight line. Instead, astrology cast life against a vivid backdrop of many different forces in convergence and divergence with each other. It proposed that an individual’s own internal forces are always in communion with external forces that are interpersonal, social, political, cosmic. For example, astrology’s conception of illness was the opposite of how capitalism explained it: rather than being a product of my own moral failing, measured by my incapacity to work according to capitalist terms, astrology simply said that illness was a part of life. I wasn’t sick because of something I’d done, or not done. It wasn’t my fault. It simply was.

Since then I’ve come to learn that astrology is one of the most robust languages that humans have invented to articulate what is difficult in life, and this propensity to account for suffering brings a sense of expansion, a feeling of support. Rather than denying or evading it with prevarication, astrology has made an eloquent and powerful language for pain and struggle. It speaks of malefics, lesser and greater; debilitated planets; cadent houses; the Via Combusta. There is a house »hostile to future activity,« and a house of »bane and toil.« There are ways to account for enemies, misery, prison, debt, disease, adversity, sorrow, and death. There is a gate to Hell – two in fact. Astrology accounts for these forces as being parts of the universe like any other – and it is just as vibrant and nuanced a language when it comes to describing good fortune. There are greater and lesser benefics, dignified and exalted planets, planets and signs that are helpful to each other; there’s a Part of Fortune, and a House of Joy and Pleasure.

What catches and holds me is that the articulation that astrology affords is one of complexity, rather than simplification. I love how complicated it is. It teems with possibility, with the poetic, and there is never just one answer, or reason, or cause. Empiricism here is many-layered, a body with different shapes that changes depending on your perspective, on how you approach it, on what you need and expect that body to do. It is a language that is alive, and this is one of the reasons it’s so supple in describing life: because it is living. True, it has been shaped by different points in history, bent to the needs of that Zeitgeist, and sometimes those needs have been nefarious, but isn’t that true of any language? Like any language, it can be pulled and pushed and formed and deformed, and this shape is dictated by the intent behind it, which is to say the infrastructure that holds it up matters, which is to say the meaning it produces is always enmeshed with power.

Another way of saying this is that the answer changes depending on the question you ask. And the question you ask depends on what you are willing to know.

 

This text is based on a lecture given at the Studium Generale Wxtch Craft lecture series 2020–2021, Royal Academy of Art, The Hague. See: https://www.kabk.nl/agenda/online-studium-generale-lecture-johanna-hedva (accessed January 27, 2021)

Johanna Hedva is a Korean-American writer, artist, musician, and astrologer who was raised in Los Angeles by a family of witches, and now lives in Los Angeles and Berlin. Hedva’s practice cooks magic, necromancy, and divination together with mystical states of fury and ecstasy. There is always the body – its radical permeability, dependency, and consociation – but the task is how to eclipse it, how to nebulize it, and how to cope when this inevitably fails. Ultimately, Hedva’s work, no matter the genre, is different kinds of writing, whether it’s words on a page, screaming in a room, or dragging a hand through water.

Akademie Schloss Solitude - How to tell when you’re gonna die: Astrology for Writers

Francisco Goya, Untitled, known as Saturn Devouring His Son (1819-1823), the painting is part of the »Black Paintings« series and depicts the Greek Myth of Cronus. Collection: Museo del Prado, Madrid (wikicommons).

  1. Joshua Wolf Scheck: »The State of the Fact« in: The Believer, May 1, 2018. Available online at: https://believermag.com/the-state-of-the-fact/  (accessed February 17, 2021).

  2. Hammer Museum: Saidiya Hartmann and Arthur Jafa, YouTube video, 1:38:02, uploaded by »Hammer Museum« on June 10, 2019. Available online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YGxZQ3Py4-A (accessed February 17, 2021).

  3. »Zero: Biography of a Dangerous Idea,« Wikipedia, last modified January 21, 2021, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zero:_The_Biography_of_a_Dangerous_Idea (accessed February 17, 2021).

  4. Johanna Hedva: Sick Woman Theory, http://johannahedva.com/SickWomanTheory_Hedva_2020.pdf (accessed January 27, 2021).

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