An Interview with Darby Costello

Originally published in The Mountain Astrologer April – May 2004 edition (114)
by Garry Phillipson

This interview was conducted at Bath Spa on the 7th of October, 2003.

Darby Costello was born and raised in Massachusetts, USA. She took a degree in psychology before studying astrology with Isabel Hickey and later Frances Sakoian and Louis Acker in Boston. Longing to get her feet on the ground (or earth?) after the heyday of the ’60s, she went to Africa in 1971. In South Africa, she found what she had been seeking, working with tribal healers under the auspices of the Museum of Man and Science in Johannesburg. During that time, she developed her astrological practice, which was, in the early days, deeply informed by ongoing dialogue with tribal healers from various parts of Southern Africa. Darby has always had the capacity to include diametrically opposed viewpoints within her orbit. She returned to the Northern Hemisphere in the early 1980s, in search of a deeply rooted astrological community. She found it in London and has spent the last 20 years exploring the various and different ways astrologers experience and practice their art.

Darby is a working astrologer. She has a thriving astrological practice in London and has been a tutor with the Centre for Psychological Astrology since 1988. She is a frequent guest teacher at the Faculty of Astrological Studies, particularly at the week-long summer schools in Oxford. She also lectures, teaches, and counsels clients regularly in several European cities. After a “25-year writer’s block,” she became an author in 1996. Dialogue, imaginal language, and speaking from the heart characterise all of her books. Her first book, Astrology (for Dorling Kindersley’s pocketbook series in 1996) was written with Lindsay Radermacher. After that, Darby wrote The Astrological Moon, Water and Fire, and Earth and Air (all for the CPA press). She co-authored The Mars Quartet (also a CPA press edition) along with Lynn Bell, Liz Greene, and Melanie Reinhart.

In 2004, Darby started the programme leading to a master’s degree in “Cultural Astronomy and Astrology” at Bath Spa University College (BSUC).

Garry Phillipson: One striking thing about your background is the time you spent in South Africa studying with the sangomas. I wonder if you would explain something about who they are, what they do, and what your involvement was?

Darby Costello: I went there [to South Africa] in 1971, after studying astrology in Boston. I had been working in the psychiatry department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, as a secretary. At some point, one of the psychiatrists said, “Why don’t you go to Africa and find witch doctors. I’m sure you’d have a fascinating time with them.” We must have been talking about “other dimensions” and astrology or something. They were very tolerant of my interest in astrology, oddly enough. He said this in quite an offhand way, but I thought, “What a good idea – I wonder if I could.”

And then it suddenly felt like time to leave and find my life, my destiny. I’d been completely immersed in astrology, but I’d learned all I could for the moment. I was filled up but also tired of the ’60s (even though it was 1970), and longed for a new environment. Around this time, I read Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, and the title, if not the book, ran round in my mind and I thought, “I’d rather be a stranger in a strange land than a stranger in my own land.” But where should I go? Then, someone I’d met in Europe a few years before sent me a letter saying, “When are you coming to visit me?” He lived in South Africa, so I thought, “Now!”

I arrived in June of 1971 after many adventures and with truly less than a pound in my pocket. I found some work and lost myself for a while but always kept the idea of the witch doctors in my mind. And then – as these things happen – I ended up in Botswana. There, I met a man who changed my life. His name was Adrian Boshier(1), and he was attached to a small museum in Johannesburg – it was called the Museum of Man and Science. We talked all day and all night. He was deeply connected to the African tribal healers, sangomas. He invited me to visit him when I returned to Jo’burg. He said he thought the sangomas (witch doctors) would recognise an interesting, unexpected, quality in me. If they did, he would like me to come and work there – with them. He was collecting all the stories, the lore, and the traditions, because they were being lost now, and so quickly. He could find and record the men’s stories, but not the women’s side. I returned to Jo’burg soon after that and went to see him.

GP: And what then? Did you go into the bush looking for sangomas right away?

DC: No. For six or seven months, I worked at the museum and in the evenings I did charts. I’d left Boston, needing other languages of the mind and heart, but by this time I was longing to be back in the world of planets and stars!. Gradually, I started doing charts for people, and it just carried on and on. Everywhere I went, I talked astrology, and the friends I made during that time became familiar with the language and, surprisingly, began to give me new and unexpected insights. So, my life was divided between the days at the museum – fossils and artifacts, archaeology and anthropological journals – and the evenings doing charts and getting to know all kinds of people.

GP: So, how did you meet the sangomas?

DC: One day, one of them came to visit. They would do that – just appear, and spend hours or days with Adrian, and then go off again. This man who came was very powerful, in full regalia, very formal, dramatic, articulate in many languages – a Zulu. We met and he said, “You must come work with us now.” All sorts of strange and magical things happened, lighting up our path towards working together, and I ended up tearing up the plane ticket I had to return to England, (where I had gone for a time, on my way to Africa.) From this point I gave my life over to what truly felt like my destiny. That part of it – working with the sangomas and becoming an astrologer – lasted seven years. I became particularly close to three of the women I met, and spent hours and days in town and in the bush talking and listening and recording. At first, I thought I would learn about herbs and “throwing the bones” and how to interpret dreams. But in the end, those were not the things I loved learning most.

GP: You must surely have wanted to learn those things, though.

DC: I did, at first, but I wasn’t really interested enough. Spent a lot of time in the fields collecting herbs and having conversations, about men, children, mothers, life, death, God, ancestors, fear, money, and health – we certainly talked about health a lot. We were always ailing, one way or another, all of us. Dorcas, one of the women I became close to, was wise, kind, and very shy and had a glorious smile. I still keep many of the things she said in my mind. She had a way of saying things – clearly, perfectly. She said we couldn’t do this healing work without suffering, that the spirits were too hard on our bodies, the work too demanding, but (sigh) it was our work. It was so restful to be with people who didn’t think everything could be solved, would be fine, should be perfect. We complained a lot together, wept at times, laughed a lot too. And I learned so much from them.

Inkla Lenil

GP: What did you learn?

DC: About people, about attending to something internal, tracking a particular thread of attention when doing the work. About how to be kind and still tell the truth, as far as one can know it. About entering the place of “the spirits” as soon as the patient (or “client,” in my astrological practice) comes into the room, so they can enter it too. Dorcas used to say that everybody came for three things: love, work, and health. Of course, people come to us looking for something that opens their hearts, their spirits too – something unstated. Perhaps, they were looking for something lost, too – a connection with the ancestors that was getting lost. I recognized that I wasn’t doing anything different with my clients. I was seeing people every day who came to me looking for assistance and information. I was hunting for the causes of trouble and pain and seeking ways to help people sort things out. It was just culturally different. N’dlaleni was the person I was closest to. She and I spent the most time together; Dorcas was her aunt. N’dlaleni and I were around the same age, and she had finished her training as a healer around the same time I had left Boston. I would watch her throw the bones for someone, and after some time I began to see that she was seeing patterns and finding ways to articulate them to her patients, using the language of her culture and training. I saw how our work was connected.

GP: What do you mean by “throwing the bones.” What are these bones, exactly?

DC: Each sangoma had their own bones. They were bones and stones and little artifacts found along the way, collected over time. In the highly charged state of post-initiation, certain things glowed with meaning. So, they would gather these things, and when a patient came, they would throw the bones, on a mat or on the ground. Then, looking at the patterns made by the throw, they would begin to speak. I could see that I was doing something akin to that, with the chart. But there was more earth in what they did – they threw the bones on the earth, and the ancestors spoke through the patterns that
arose in the trained diviner’s mind. As N’dlaleni and I got to know and trust each other more, we asked a lot of questions, as you can imagine. She once asked, “Why is it, Da, that when you go to a white doctor, you have to tell them what’s wrong with you? Why doesn’t he know?” For a sangoma, that was really strange. It was her work to know why someone had come, to find out using the bones. As I said, I was beginning my astrological practice at the time, so I got into the habit of trying to do that, too. The client would come in, and I’d sit them down and tell them not to say anything until I’d gone as far as I could with the chart alone. I’d start following the threads that appeared in my mind, as I looked at the chart, and when I felt I had seen everything I could, I’d ask if I was on the right track. I grew to appreciate how the sangomas trusted their spirits in their way. I cultivated the habit of trusting my ‘intuition’in a similar way. I watch how they were trained to listen to their spirits. I absorbed some of tha training and discipline and learned to listen to mine. . I thought, ‘If I can’t tell the person something true and real before they open their mouth, why should they trust me?’

GP: What you’re saying reminds me of a quotation which I really like, from your article, “Desire and the Stars”: “I learned that it was possible to create a private, sacred space in which my clients felt something happen that shifted their attention in such a way that they could see their lives in a different perspective. Spending so much of my time with diviners helped me to find ways to access that space more readily. When the energies were right, it became a space of transformation for both my client and myself, a space in which desire was put to rest for a moment.”(2) How do you create that “sacred space”?

DC: It’s a slow building of the container, and each step creates it. Just turning on the tape recorder and starting to delineate the chart is a part of it. If we are not together in that space after that, then I have missed something and have to hunt for what is missing. In the early days, in South Africa, I “zapped” people. I said something very fast to get through quickly. “Your mother is short and very fierce,” I remember saying to a woman who was tall and fluid. She had Moon in Aries square Mars and trine Neptune, and somehow that image immediately arose. I don’t fly in like that now; England has softened me – the rain, the grey sky, the English. Also, I don’t have to shock anyone – they are not coming to test me; I’m not a novelty here, as I was there.

GP: What do they come for?

DC: They come to learn about work, love, and health, just as Dorcas said. And also for connection to that other dimension that is so hard for me to articulate.

GP: Do you use astrological language with clients who are not familiar with it?

DC: Yes, that’s part of it, for me. I use astrological language all the time. I say, “You have Sun in Scorpio and Moon in Libra, and this indicates …” I go on to weave together the aspects, house placements, and angles, getting more specific, seeing things as the words arise out of the images generated by the patterns. It’s as if the words give the images, the information. By the time the chart is woven together in some sort of picture, in those first 15 minutes or so, we are both in the astrological space. We are talking about their chart, which reflects their life, but we are also talking about life and how it is particularised through them. When I’ve gone as far as I can, our conversation begins. If anything I’ve said jars them or doesn’t make sense, I need to know about it, because I’ve been interpreting in the dark, up to now. So, we may need to correct the picture, or they may need me to go farther with something and say more about it. And perhaps that’s partly how this space I call “sacred space” is created. Whereas the witch doctors would put down the cloth, sit the person across from them, hold the bones, blow on them and then throw them, or give them to the person to throw – I just sit the person down, give them a glass of water and paper to take notes if they wish, and then I enter the chart. I’m a bit distant at first, but after that first part, we begin talking together and from then on, they lead me where they want to go, tell me what they want to explore.

GP: There are two or three things going on there. You’re shattering their preconceptions of how things are going to go, from the first moment, because they think they’re going to tell you about themselves. Instead, from the beginning, they are in the position of passive observer.

DC: And I’m delivering information which can bring them forward, so they can say ,”Aha! I recognise this.”

GP: It would seem that locating it firmly in astrological language takes away the self-consciousness. They are no longer talking only about “me, my pain, my heartbreak,” but are able to look at it as if from the outside.

DC: Absolutely. Articulating it that way is exactly right, because we, together, are looking at this particular world and the best way to navigate it – whatever the client is dealing with at that time. I have this notion that, every day, different worlds walk into my room. I am invited, through the chart, to enter their world and look around. I have a torch, and I can say, “Isn’t that interesting! Look at that. Have you seen it this way before?” And they say, “How would you describe my relationship with my mother. What
do you see there?” So, for a time, we are observing this inner world and their connections to others. That has effects. Then, they go away, and do whatever they do with it. But at least for a time, there is a rest from being so in it.

GP: When you interpret charts, what technique are you employing – modern, traditional? What influences might a fellow astrologer recognise in what you do?

DC: Well, I’m definitely modern, because I learned astrology in the late ’60s in Boston. I studied for a time with Isabel Hickey and then with Frances Sakoian and Louis Acker – so whoever influenced them influenced me, too. The first astrology book I ever read was by Dane Rudhyar, in a field somewhere in New Hampshire, in 1967 or early 1968. It was The Pulse of Life – and I wept; I’d never read anything like it. It seemed to give the world order, underneath all the chaos I felt; it was so elegant. Then, I went to Africa and was alone – no other astrologers around. One day I came across one of Liz [Greene’s] books – Saturn – and I felt I had found someone whose mind lit up my mind in a way I hadn’t imagined possible. I think her books led me to [Carl] Jung, and I had long conversations with her, in my mind,
years before I met her, about Jung’s notions of the chart as a map of the psyche. I began to read Jung and then James Hillman. I fell in love with words through Hillman’s writing. Later, I met a woman who was re-educating her own mind with Jung and Hillman, and we steeped ourselves in their imagery and
language. She later went to Zurich to become an analyst. I came to London and continued reading Jung and Hillman and began having real conversations with Liz and slowly, other astrologers. My astrology was nourished by these conversations.

GP: Are you a psychological astrologer?

DC: Yes, I work with the psyche, the inner landscape – and how inner and outer landscapes weave together and transform each other endlessly. But, privately, I call myself a navigator. The chart is … well, this is my way of saying it, a starchart for navigating the various dimensions we inhabit. If I use the [astrological] elements, I’d say my work is to assist others, as best I can, to navigate the spiritual, physical, mental, and emotional dimensions of their lives. With the chart, we are navigating by the stars. Perhaps I am a psychological navigator.

GP: Moving back to the question of modern and traditional approaches to astrology for a moment: Which planet rules Pisces, as far as you’re concerned?

DC: Both! Neptune and Jupiter. In America in the ’60s, Neptune was the ruler of Pisces, Uranus ruled Aquarius, and Pluto ruled Scorpio. We didn’t really think much about the old rulers, as far as I can remember. Much later, when I came to England, I got involved in translating old astrological texts from Latin into English with a group in the Company of Astrologers. The group was run by Graeme Tobyn, and it went on for seven years. Some members of the group were fluent in Latin (not me); I clunked along, but it was so satisfying. The texts got me into the habit of using the old rulerships. So, now, when I’m teaching, and we’re looking at a chart, I’ll say, “Look at Jupiter first, and now look at Neptune.”

GP: That’s quite a remarkable diagnostic on its own, I think. Because there you are – you’ve got the background in modern/psychological astrology, and you’ve also put in a lot of time with the traditional Company of Astrologers approach as well.

DC: That’s my Gemini Sun – two heads! [laughs] It’s so comforting when the two heads work for the good of the whole. So often they seem to be pulling apart! The process of learning always brings them together for me. It’s interesting watching the two rulerships – the play between the two – when you get to know people. You feel the Jupiter restlessness in Pisces, the adventure calling through their Jupiter. And then, the sweep of Neptune, the diffusion, loss of self, the call to something beyond that evades articulation. And with Aquarius, the play of Uranus and Saturn is fascinating. It’s inconceivable to me to read an Aquarian chart and not know that Saturn is demanding something of each Aquarian, according to their particular Saturn placement, but then Uranus is the reach.

GP: How do you mean that, exactly – Uranus being “the reach”?

DC: Let me think for a moment… When I look at an Aquarian chart, I’m looking to find where this person is seeking to manifest ideas that will be useful to the community; where they come up against inner or outer authority; where is the line that cannot be crossed, or the sense of restriction, the boundaries within which they work to become fully human – individuated, if you will. What are they called to do within their community? And then there’s Uranus, the leap beyond what is manifest – the call to something beyond, outside the walls of the community, the village, and the world they know in time. How do they reach for that? Where do they experiment with life, connect to that numinous “idea” that is part of their generation? How do they disrupt themselves and others so that the traditions do not become stone, bone, fossil and so life doesn’t become dragged down into nothing but rules and laws. Without the laws, there can be no shapes; without the disruption of the laws, there is repression and stagnation. There is a notion I like in chaos theory about all life being “on the edge of chaos.” I think of Saturn and Uranus when I read that. If you go too deep into Saturn’s realm, it is all rules and laws: This is right and that is wrong, and there’s no freedom, life slows down, darkens, and freezes. But if you move too far away from that, anarchy breaks everything apart, and things cannot bind enough for life to happen. Life is change, but if nothing stays stable for any length of time, then there is no container in which life can change.

GP: Why isn’t there a Darby Costello school of astrology? Is it that you find it so easy to get along with existing groups? Presumably, you don’t feel any great drive to start your own group, because you’d be very well qualified to do so, if it appealed to you.

DC: It just never occurred to me, not even in Johannesburg. There were a couple of older astrologers there when I arrived, but they were hidden away – and quiet. People would occasionally ask, “Will you teach us?” And I’d say, “Sure – get a group together, and I’ll do it short period of time.” Then, when I came here [to Britain], all I wanted to do was learn from and interchange with and have conversations with every single astrologer I could find. I don’t think of myself as a leader – or a follower either, so I don’t know what I am! But it doesn’t exist in here [gesturing to her heart and head] to do that. Whereas, for some people, it’s just so natural. For Liz, it was natural to create this extraordinary place, the Centre for Psychological Astrology. And it suits me so well to be able to be part of that. It’s home for me here in London, as an astrologer. I love teaching at the Faculty as well, and I love teaching at other schools in Europe and America. But the CPA is home. I have learned to play there and to think out loud with the students, to play within and at the edges of the boundaries of the realms of each planet, to experiment with how to navigate the aspects, to sink into the depths and explore the ranges of the signs. It’s a demanding place, for students and for teachers, because everyone is … well, you could say “on the edge of chaos” a lot of the time, right in the heart of the process of transformation. The students come from all over the world, a wonderful combination of people. And the teachers come from so many different countries – it’s very exciting. I think anyone who teaches there ends up feeling that way. And Liz created it, just because it’s natural for her to create a place like that. And it’s natural for me to throw bridges across ravines. We were talking, earlier, about the Saturn/Uranus paradox in Aquarius. Those two planets are strong in my life, and I feel their dimensions and the paradox intensely. I like Rick Tarnas’s notion of Uranus as Prometheus, bringing fire to humankind. When building things up and making them stable, Saturn’s realm is evoked, but Uranus comes like a lightning storm when the order and stability have begun to decay within and atrophy without. Navigating between the two fields is a fearsome business, but then life is a fearsome business.

GP: If we could just go back to that quote of yours which we looked at earlier. You talk about “a space in which desire was put to rest for a moment.” I wonder if we can unpack that a little – explore the significance for astrology of “putting desire to rest.”

DC: Since I spent so much time with the sangomas, when I was beginning my own practice, the notion of creating this space for the spirits to speak became natural. It wasn’t constructed; it wasn’t thought through. When a person comes in – as soon as I open the door, we have begun to create this space. From the beginning, I have certain ways of settling my clients down. These are my rituals, you might say. It’s nothing overt. An overt ritual would not be natural to me, so it would put both of us into a slightly false position. But there is a … shall I say … routine, and after a time, the space has been defined quite clearly, and we are both contained within it.

When the space is defined like that, it seems to me, both of us can be open to inspiration – in this case, inspiration from the stars, you could say. That’s what I learned by watching the witch doctors: I learned that each of us does this in a different way, because each of them did it in a different way. And I learned that the steady intention of the practitioner is the strongest factor in the session. And one can only aim for perfect clarity and perfect service, expecting that it will be reached only rarely. When it works best – and it does enough of the time, thank heavens – my client and I reach a certain point together. We’re discussing whatever it is – sometimes it will be a very painful subject, or even something trivial. And the client looks to see where the meaning is. “How can I bear this?” is the heaviest question, and the most common question is perhaps, “Can I get this? Do I want this?” But always, underneath all of that, something is saying … well, I wish I could put words to it I know what that space feels like when we’re in that space, we talk on whatever level we can together, and then suddenly we’re both talking about life itself. It starts with something particular, private, personal, and then shifts or slips into something universal. We both register it, but its unstated, we both relax into it. And that is where desire is at rest.

GP: That probably covers the other quotation which I wanted to discuss: “I wondered what was the unspoken desire contained within the question I was so often asked, ‘What do the stars say?’ … I learned that people came to see me … with their desires and longings around love and health and work and their success and failure, and that underneath these questions there were other levels that had to be addressed if any peace or healing was to take place.”(3)

DC: Yes. And, you see, sometimes there is no answer to the question they came with. But as we search for the answer, they may see more deeply into their own hearts. And that leads to the answer to something under the original question. And in addressing that, the hunger is assuaged. Of course, sometimes it is much simpler than that. GP: Would it work to say that the client has shifted their perspective from that of somebody who is being “done to” by the universe, to somebody who is participating in it?

DC: That’s it, but it’s not just the client – it’s both of us. . I arrive at that place, which I am calling peace or healing, too – I am part of it, the astrologer and the questioner are together in this space. Because we seek this place through the question and the dialogue: “Well, Mars is here, and it’s going to transit this, and I think the door opens in June next year …” We go through all that stuff: “Oh, yes. This is your husband. That’s interesting; his Jupiter is on your Mercury …” “Well, he just gave me an encyclopaedia …” So, we do that, and of course, more painful versions of that. And the starting point is: “My boss is doing this to me.” So, we have to get past that. Then, “Life is doing that to me.” We have to get through that, too. And we do it through conversation, with the chart in the middle. And there’s a point where, yes, I am part of this. But there’s another point, where it’s more than that. It’s can be sad or even funny – you are looking at a play. For a moment, you are just watching. It’s so hard to talk about that, though!

GP: Here’s something that’s difficult to articulate as well. My PhD is about the epistemology of astrology – the views about its value and validity which are evoked when people use it and evaluate it. I’ve been trying to devise a set of questions to excavate the attitudes of astrologers. What I have here is currently my best bet. Can I run it by you?

DC: Yes, absolutely!

GP: Were you inclined to believe that astrology would work, as soon as you heard of it?

DC: That was a long time ago. I was probably slightly inclined towards thinking that it might work. I was not closed to it, had no background of scepticism towards it, had always known my time of birth. And I remember reading the Sun-sign columns about Gemini, even then, and trying to see if it fit me. Of course, it was the ’60s, which helped. We were open to so many things during that time in America.

GP: Were there any particular experiences which then convinced you of astrology’s validity, or made you doubt it?

DC: My first experiences made me slightly doubt it. The first thing I did after reading The Pulse of Life was to find an astrologer, who looked at my chart and said, “You should be an astrologer.” So, I mistrusted it completely! Particularly because he was a young guy and seemed much too enthusiastic: “Yes, you should be an astrologer – come study with me.” And I thought, “Well, that’s a new one. Does he want me to see his etchings, too?” So, I didn’t really take him seriously. Then, I was in Mexico, with five people in the Yucatán, in a very remote spot. We had ten books between us. I’m a Gemini, and there were only ten books: This was serious! About the seventh or eighth book that I read was by Jess Stearn. It was one of his early books – it could’ve been A Time for Astrology. He had written it as a sceptic but had fallen in love with astrology whilst writing it. I read it in a hammock, outside the house. Read it in one go. Got out of the hammock, went into the house and said, “I have to study astrology.” And from that moment on, that’s all I wanted to do. Odd to think of it now. It didn’t occur to me, reading Dane Rudhyar, that one could become an astrologer, and the reading I’d had made me sceptical, but that book just did it for me. Perhaps because it mentioned astrology classes, and it had never occurred to me there was such a thing. Then, I went back to Boston and found Isabel Hickey, who looked at my chart and said, “You should be an astrologer.” And I thought, “My God, do they all say that?” [laughs]

GP: It sounds like it was more of an emotional decision than an intellectual one?

DC: It was simply recognition – is that emotional? By the second reading, I was aimed like an arrow: Desire had been lit into flame Soul had put a “lure” in my heart, and the lure was learning astrology. [sorry I added something to that and then deleted it – it was fine the way it was.] It was an imaginal
event. I’d studied psychology, philosophy, and theology at university. And I’d planned to go on for an MA and a PhD. Then the ’60s burst into song, and I thought, “Hmm, I’m not sure I want to continue down the academic road.” Then, astrology was there, and that was far more interesting, intellectually
and imaginally. I was nervous about going on in psychology, because I thought it would shut down my heart, but I wanted to continue studying. When I started studying astrology, I felt my mind reaching out, opening up. So, it was an intellectual fascination, but it was also an imaginal connection.

GP: Are there any case histories which you feel you could repeat – with no names, obviously – which might convey to someone of a skeptical persuasion why you would be so convinced that astrology was working for you?

DC: Oh, I don’t think I’d do that. I suppose I would have done, years and years ago. But now …

GP: Is it that you don’t want to engage with the skeptics?

DC: No. I do want to; that’s why I’m doing this course [MA programme at Bath Spa]. But I want to engage with interesting skeptics. I don’t want to engage with skeptics who want me to show them tricks, because though I enjoy tricks, I mistrust them. Anyone can say, “I saw that my client would meet a man and fall in love and marry the following year, and she did!” Any astrologer can rattle off the wonderful moments of clarity, prescience, the magical synchronicities, but I’m not excited by those stories as argument, as persuasion – so I don’t have the heart for it. I enjoy exchanging those sorts of stories with friends, of course – then, they are fascinating. But not as arguments with skeptics. No.. I’m interested in the big arguments. Or the very simple ones. I want to engage with those who have wrestled with astrology and have objections to it. The arguments of Cicero, Plotinus, and St. Thomas Aquinas … Particularly Aquinas, because we studied him when I was in college. I’m looking forward to reading him again – with a very different mind.

GP: So, are you wanting to discuss astrology’s potential validity from first principles? To be able to say that, given the nature of the world, it is entirely plausible that astrology would work?

DC: Yes. That’s much more interesting. And, also, then I can engage in a conversation without trying to prove something. I don’t like the energy of conversations where proving and justifying are going on. It’s too distracting. As soon as somebody starts trying to prove something to me, I something happens; – my attention drifts off and I have to wait until they stop before I can turn back and carry on the conversation. My outer ear withdraws, and I start scanning them – hunting for why they are trying to prove something to me. I become fascinated with the emotional quality – why they would want to prove this or that to me.

GP: Maybe this goes back to that point about the astrologer and the client needing to reach a place of “no desire,” because if you’re trying to prove astrology, there is desire.

DC: That’s intriguing. Perhaps that’s it But I do see that for other astrologers it is different. Some people have the heart and mind for emotionally charged debate – it can be very exhilarating. There are moments when I do have that, but I often rather avoid it, as I find myself feeling all the underlying emotions too strongly: the unstated emotional needs beneath the surface. These days I don’t tell people I’m an astrologer unless I’m fairly confident that it’s going to lead to a stimulating conversation. It doesn’t have to be an intellectual conversation. Some of the most satisfying conversations are very
simple – but there’s respect between us, or something like that. I used to fight for astrology all the time, get on a soapbox at the drop of a hat – but not anymore. Now, I think something like, “Will the fact that I’m an astrologer lead us to something mutually interesting, rich, satisfying?” If I think it might, I’ll take a chance. But it’s a quick thought, almost a feeling, an instinct. In a group of people, desire seems to swirl around – mostly unstated, certainly at the beginning – and we meet and talk with each other, and our souls are mostly hunting something, known or unknown. When we’re young, we’re usually hunting mates, of course, but after that need is satisfied, we find we are still hunting, but for something more subtle, perhaps. “Soul puts lures in things by which we will be drawn …” That’s from Ficino, translating Plotinus. I love that notion; it’s so rich with images. There may be some souls who are not desiring but are still alive and vital; I meet that rarely, though. So, in a group of non-astrologers, my soul is lured by the possibility of a conversation that nourishes myself and the other person – where it feels like our souls are engaged, if only for a short time. If their knowing I’m an astrologer might make that happen, I’ll bring it in. If not, I won’t. I’m sure I am wrong sometimes, and perhaps it’s always wrong not to say it – but I like feeling touched by another person. Sometimes, that happens from a wild ride through intellectual concepts and theories or from something much more down to earth, stories the other person and I tell each other. I always seem to answer you the way people with Mercury in Scorpio do! I think of Mercury in Scorpio as circling round and round before answering a direct question. But, then, my Mercury is square Pluto, so … But I wish I could just answer your questions directly! Okay, I’m going to try to answer at least one question straight! [laughs]

GP: Well, since you’ve mentioned your chart … You’ve got Jupiter in Leo nine degrees from the Ascendant, in the 12th house. Do you find that operates as a 12th-house or a 1st-house influence?

DC: Definitely 12th house. Except by progression, where it’s on the Ascendant now. But it feels as if it’s in the 12th house; I can feel it there. I’m aware of it on the Ascendant now in some ways: I like going in and out of visibility, being very present, visible in my environment and, then, still being there but almost invisible.

GP: And how has 12th-house Jupiter expressed itself in your life?

DC: It feels like a guardian angel. In spite of having lived through some very dramatic things, traumatic things, and in quite dangerous circumstances at various times, I feel like a child with a guardian angel. I’m not always confident of that angel, though perhaps that is unwise – one should trust one’s angel – but it has been a real factor in my life so far. When I’m really in danger, not just imagining that I might be, it always felt like a golden presence. And also, being alone is very magical. That’s 12th-house Jupiter in Leo, I think. I don’t have a lot of time alone (not so far in my life), but the time I’ve had has been the best of monastic life.

GP: Do you see the 12th as the house of the spirits?

DC: I like that: “the house of the spirits.” I call it the house of the unremembered dead. The water houses are so fascinating, aren’t they? In the 4th house seem to live memories of childhood; or in childhood, memories of one’s parents’ childhood. The 4th house seems to evoke memories of childhood, don’t they? When we are children ourselves we absorb our parents’ memories – when we are adults we have our own memories. The 4th house is where I look for these sorts of things. And in the 8th house, we visit our family’s graves, we perform our rites for our dead, and consciously or not, we are touched by the ghosts of our remembered dead. But the 12th house seems to contain the ancestral ghosts that come to you through myth, story, and dream. Another way of saying it might be that they have slipped into the ancestral pool which becomes Jung’s ‘collective unconscious.’. With planets in the 12th we are connected to one or another of our ancestors in some mysterious way. With planets there, we are pushed or pulled to live something out that was perhaps unfinished – to resolve or dissolve something. But I also see the 12th as the monastery. I see it as the incarnation that was spent in the monastery, if you take it that way. Or the ancestor four or five hundred years ago who lived in the
monastery – and his or her threads are woven into my psyche, so I must deal with them. Perhaps, if one of the planets is Jupiter, the ancestor lived a rich life in that monastery or convent (in one way or another), and it now functions as a secret feeling of faith or abundance, or as a guardian angel!

GP: A much more positive take on the 12th house than one finds in the traditional approach!

DC: Oh, I also see it as the madhouse. And I see it as the place where you remember too much. You can wind up with an absolute inability to navigate the world, and you have to be locked up and taken care of because your mind cannot close down to all the things that have happened long ago beyond your personal memory. But you asked me about Jupiter in the 12th, and mine is in Leo, so I saw the brighter side of the 12th.

GP: You mentioned two alternative ways of seeing past influences: either as one’s own former incarnations or as ancestral influences. How do you see this?

DC: When I started out, I was strongly influenced by reincarnational astrology, so I used to interpret people’s charts in terms of other lifetimes and their connection to this one. I might say of a mutable Saturn in a cardinal house, “You have tended not to take responsibility for things in recent lives, and in this life you are living now, you need to learn to take appropriate responsibility for your decisions and actions. This is one of the places where a word is translated differently in England and America. Interesting. Here it seems to have the notion of ‘claiming due authority’. But then I went to live in Africa and spent so much time with people whose connection with the ancestors was very direct, and somehow the two lines mixed in me. And in the last 25 years, I have become interested in the new sciences, so the contemplation of time and space added another ingredient to the mix. Today, I still conceive of “other lives” but don’t quite have the language to say precisely what I mean. Not simply ancestral, not simply past lives, something else – but still, other lives along the continuum that is oneself.

GP: How about this: We’ve been talking about an imaginal approach to the world, but as you’ve just started the MA course at Bath Spa, I guess you must feel that there are issues in astrology that can usefully be addressed at an academic, intellectual level. How did this come about? And how have you found the course so far?

DC: I came to a point where I was asking things like, “What am I supposed to do now?” And I had not said that in years: One step had led to the next for 20 years but, then, there was a pause. So, I waited (impatiently, I might add), kicking and screaming a bit. Then Nick [Campion] started telling me about Bath Spa, and the lure took shape. Then Patrick [Curry] and I talked about it. I’ve always appreciated how these two practice astrology – I love their work. But, for months, I thought it would just be too difficult to go back to school. Not enough time or space for it. But the idea wouldn’t go away. I waited a year before applying – let it roll around in my imagination. Eventually, I realised there was no question: I just had to do it. It wasn’t a false lure; it was a true one. Well, now I’ve started, and what an adventure it is! It feels like opening up a whole new landscape inside, one that takes me back through other times and cultures, looking at how each culture related to the sky and what that meant about them and for them; looking at the big debate about astrology and how and where various peoples and cultures have
carried on that debate; deepening our sense of what astrology is. I hardly know what to do with the joy of it! I came to Bath Spa with a certain amount of astrology’s history in my head; I had become familiar with the early Renaissance through the Company’s Latin translation group. But there are huge swathes of time I know almost nothing about, so to have so much available here is absolutely wonderful! Being at Bath Spa is like having access to a wonderful, luxury island. Sitting in a room with a group of astrologers from different backgrounds and cultures and generations, learning things together about how various cultures in the past and present saw, and see, the relationship between the celestial bodies and our terrestrial life on Earth. And looking at our own culture, its historical relationship to the sky, and its present relationship to the sky. I’m writing my first paper now, looking at cultural perceptions of the Moon in light of 16th- and 20th-century science. In the 16th century, we began to realise that we were not the center of the cosmos, that the only celestial body going round us was the Moon, that we were just another planet – like Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn – all going around the Sun. It was such a shock! We just about got used to that, and then two-thirds of the way through the 20th century, we were standing on the Moon sending back pictures of Earth from outer space. We began to see Earth as our home planet, and that image is growing in us and changing our perceptions – of ourselves, the sky, and the universe. We’re getting used to that picture now. I’ve been curious to see if our poetic vision of the Moon has changed and how it has changed. So, I’ve started investigating 16th- and 20th-century poetry, to see if the changes in perception show up there. We’ve just started planning our papers; each of us is following our own trail, investigating something that interests us. I chose the Moon because I’ve always loved contemplating it, whether through astrology or through the night sky. It’s so delicious to be studying again, and this way! A luxury island – that’s what the MA course feels like! Where you have to do incredibly hard work, like an archaeological dig on a wonderful island. It does feel like that, doesn’t it? Why is it so very satisfying, do you think?

GP: It gives us all the things we’ve never had before as astrologers, doesn’t it?

DC: Yes, we’re learning the history, discussing the various approaches to astrology, how astronomy and astrology were woven together, then how they pulled apart, the relationships with various sciences, religions, politics; the skeptics, the theories. Then, during the tea break, we continue the discussions and suddenly, “That’s an interesting thought. Where is your Mercury?” “Yes, well, Saturn is on it now … “Ah, doing the MA is a good idea now with that … ” We become astrologers discussing our charts again, and then back to the cultural discussion – back and forth. We’re doing something new together and learning at the same time.

GP: Yes, so it’s much more focused than conferences, which is where astrologers usually get together. Conferences are always a bit scattered, aren’t they?

DC: Well, I do love conferences. A conference is a party, a feast, whereas this is working together. And it feels as if I’m involved in something historical – that astrology might be coming back into the main cultural conversation.


We have looked at how astrology has been out of the cultural conversation in the West for nearly 300 years. Learning to see astrology and its place in various cultures and times – including our own – is a way of entering the conversation again. I like that astrologers are developing relationships with colleges and universities in various parts of the world. Some astrologers are worried: If we go in this direction, will we stop doing charts? Will we get entirely caught up in ideas and history and abstract discussions? Will hierarchies develop among so-called educated astrologers and uneducated astrologers? I’m wary of that. Doing charts for people is my deepest vocation, my particular service to life. I love the surprise of every chart – how we are all the same and each so different. I love the exploration of that and the work of it, sometimes so difficult and complicated, sometimes so high and bright. I’ll never be good enough at it; I’m always aware of how easy it is to fail someone, but, as Dorcas (N’dlaleni’s aunt) said, “It is the work of your spirit and you have to do it,” and it nourishes my soul. But, on the other hand, having a place where one can have a conversation with other astrologers that goes all the way back to the very beginning of the conversation in time – that is exciting, too, and the MA course encourages that form of interchange.

GP: There’s a French philosopher, Pierre Hadot, who writes that philosophy has become a purely intellectual, academic exercise. His point is that it hasn’t always been that way. The Stoics, for instance, did not put forward ideas about the world as speculative opinions about the way things might be, but as ideas to work with. A person would actually work at seeing the world in Stoic terms, as a type of spiritual exercise. Hadot says that a lot has been lost by philosophy degenerating into a purely intellectual exercise. It seems clear that, if the same thing were to happen to astrology, it would be a tremendous loss.

DC: We astrologers who do charts and whose lives are guided by the stars would feel that, too. I know many people who don’t necessarily do charts for other people, but they learn astrology and use it for guidance in their own lives. It adds another dimension to their lives, to navigate by the planets and stars. I’m not talking about the negative ways in which we get caught – that happens too: “His Moon quincunxes my Moon, and that’s why he doesn’t treat me right,” that sort of thing. That diminishes astrology – and us. But when we use it for guidance, clarity, wisdom, then it adds another dimension to life.

Darby Costello typing

GP: How long do you take to prepare for a chart reading?

DC: 20 seconds. [laughs]

GP: That’s good!

DC: In the beginning, I used to prepare for days. But over time, the preparation got quicker; that’s natural, I think. Part of my preparation is hand-drawing the chart. I put it up on the computer and then draw it by hand. I tried working from a computer chart, but I don’t like it as much. But once it’s drawn, I put it away until the client arrives. That’s when I begin finding my way into it … Then I look at it as deeply as I am able.

GP: How did you arrive at that way of doing it?

DC: Just by doing charts day after day, year after year, I imagine. In the early days in Johannesburg, I would pore over books, making endless notes, sweating over ways of interpreting this or that aspect. But I noticed, over time, that when the client arrived, all that fell away, and the chart came alive and evoked its own story. Something like that.

GP: Did you reach a point when you found that it actually went better if you didn’t do all of that work beforehand?

DC: Yes, I think so. But also, I just got busier and couldn’t afford the time anymore. Necessity is a great stripper – it forces you to eliminate the non-essentials. There came a point when all that preparation became indulgent, and I had to jump away from the security of it into the unknown. It’s the same process you find in any discipline. But also, in the early days, after a chart reading, I’d sometimes cry for hours. The person I was closest to at the time said, “You’ve got to stop this or you’ve got to stop doing charts; this is ridiculous.” He said something like, “When I’m here, I want you to pay attention to me, not someone you spent the last few hours with.” He was only half-joking. So, first of all, I had to learn to be stricter about how long the reading lasted. At first, I spent two-and-a-half hours with clients – it seems so long now, but then I was new and had a lot of stamina for it. Then, it became two hours; now it’s an hour and a half. It’s like a door closes after that time, and I’m not available any more. If I am to do this as long as I live, I have to be very respectful of it. I can’t afford to be careless – it’s a gift to myself and to others – as long as I am respectful. In Soweto, when I was visiting one of N’dlaleni’s companions, there was an old man sitting by the stove, and I asked who he was. She and her friend laughed and said he had been a great sangoma once, but he had lost his gift and now just sat there, day after day. I remember the laughter; it had scorn, kindness, and pity and a touch of fear in it. I don’t remember if I asked how this had happened, but I do know it left a mark, like a warning: Guard this gift! It may be a hard gift, but it’s a gift.

GP: Interesting! Could you say more about that?

DC: Once, in the African bush, I was with a sangoma named Lena. She was another aunt of N’dlaleni, as Dorcas was, but on another side of the family. She was small and lean and had amazingly long hair, tightly braided all down her back, woven with beads. I adored her. She was tough and funny and … well, many things. We were plastering a hut that we were building for a ceremony. She’d taken me out to collect cow dung in the morning, and we were plastering the hut with that. (Don’t ask!) Yes, it wasn’t a good day for the nose. But I got used to it. I’d woken up distressed and anxious and had gone into the
field and cried, for no discernible reason. I asked her about it: “Lena, why do I suddenly get like that? I don’t understand it.” She said, casually, “Da, it’s your gift.” I turned to her and asked: “What? What kind of a gift is that?” She said, “I didn’t say it was a present. I said it was a gift! God gives a gift and that’s that. And it’s hard.” Wonderful reply. Stopped me in my tracks. After that, I thought of this ability to do charts as “the gift.” I think the ability to even see astrologically is a gift – not a present, but a gift. It has beauty in it, and it adds such richness and depth to life, but it has a price.

GP: Why the crying?

DC: I think it was the impact of other people’s lives, the intensity of being so intimate, so fast, with another person, but on an imaginal level. The client would walk out, and I’d still be swimming with the images, and I didn’t know how to get rid of them. It wasn’t because they were all sad. We were all young; I read only for my own generation at the beginning. Again, hanging out with the witch doctors helped me with this. They were so sensible and practical: “Well, Da, wash your hands and brush your hair after you see a patient.” And that’s good advice. You might do something else instead of washing your hands, but the point is to do something very practical. So, I learned to do certain small things after the client left, to get myself out of that person’s images. It’s especially difficult when people come with very hard, powerful emotions that they are going through. They leave at the end, and I’m left wondering if I will ever be good enough with this work.

GP: Is this, then, the other end of the process of opening up a sacred space? That you have to close it off again at the end?

DC: Absolutely. And if somebody’s very Neptunian, particularly if it’s their first visit, I’ll make a point of telling them as they are leaving: “As you go down the stairs, pay attention to your feet, and your body, and your breathing. Then, when you get to the street, you’ll be back in the world again. Because we’ve been here talking, and it’s been very intense and very safe. So, now you just want to get yourself absolutely back into your body.” And money is a great way to seal off the session. I used to not want to take money, and it was partly the sangomas who got me to do it. I was told that I couldn’t tell them I was doing it for free, which is what I wanted to do: I was a ’60s person, after all. I thought it should be purely spiritual work. And Adrian [Boshier] said, “You can’t tell the sangomas that, because they won’t respect you. You were given that gift to serve the spirits and to live on the Earth. Because if you’re not earning your money by the gifts God gives you, God takes those gifts away.” It may not be true in other cultures, in other times, but it was true for them, at that time, and I took it on board.

GP: Are there any changes you’d especially like to see in the world of astrology?

DC: I’d like astrologers to be more naturally integrated into other communities and discussions. Bridges are being built now, and I do hope they will be good ones. My heart is engaged in the work of supporting them, in whatever way I can. I have ongoing conversations with physicists, biologists, philosophers, theologians, the clergy, business people, teachers, writers, therapists, all sorts of people – but these are private conversations, sometimes chart readings, sometimes outside of that. We are enriched by each other, and the conversations inform our relationships within our own communities. I would like to see that conversation become a natural one, less unusual. The people who come to me (and my friends in various other disciplines) are still unusual because they value an astrologer’s thoughts and opinions. I hope that, in the next generation of astrologers, when people get together to discuss things, cross-community, an astrologer is naturally included as one of the voices. So that knowing one’s chart and using it for certain kinds of navigation, interior or exterior, becomes natural, just part of life for a wider range of people. But, not for everyone – I don’t think there is anything that could (or should) be useful for everyone. Many people come to me once a year. I am part of their team, one of their advisors; they know how to use the sort of information I offer – any working astrologer will say the same thing – but these people are unusual, to have the conversations that they have with me. I saw a panel the other night on television. There was a theologian, a doctor, a community care worker, and a sociologist discussing various social problems, where we are now and have been, and where we are hoping to go with solutions to these problems. I would like to see an astrologer naturally included, as part of the process of keeping us in dialogue, working to keep people aware and alive to the work of living in the world, to keep life ensouled and vital.

GP: You said, right at the start, that the witch doctor talked about having “the spirit.” Do you believe that astrologers need to have the spirit?

DC: A “spirit” for the work. That means different things to different people. I want my doctor to be a healer, my MP to care about his community, a king or president to care about his country and the world, which includes other countries and other people. I want astrologers to have soul’s full of passion for the work; I want them to care about the world, about people, and their interactions with others and with the natural world. Well, I’d like everyone to have that. This is idealism, of course, but it’s not a bad thing – as long as I remember that it’s a goal to strive for and not “the way things should be.” I think it’s mad how we carry on, thinking we are right and everyone who sees things differently is wrong. I hate it when people try to justify horrid notions and horrid behaviour because they think they have right on their side. I think that the world is guided by something mysterious and beyond our understanding, and no one person knows very much, no matter how clear it might seem to be. I even mind that people have become so fervently anti-smoking; it reminds me of prohibition in the 1920s. But these things come and go, and everything changes.

GP: Darby, thank you for finding time in your busy schedule to talk about your work and your unique perspective on astrology. I wish you the very best of fortune with your work and your studies.

1. For Adrian Boshier’s story see “Lightning Bird: The story of one man’s
journey into Africa’s unknown past” by Lyall Watson
2. Darby Costello, “Desire and the Stars,” in The Astrological Journal, Vol.
45, No. 4, July/August 2003, p. 6
3. Ibid., p. 5

© 2004 Garry Phillipson – all rights reserved

Garry Phillipson has been studying astrology since 1976. His book, Astrology in the Year Zero, is on the syllabus of courses at Kepler College, Bath Spa University College, and the University of Kent. Garry is currently studying for a PhD in Astrology and Cultural Astronomy at Bath Spa University College. He can be contacted at:;
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