As of mid-June 2017, Mars is transiting through the astrological sign of Cancer. Cancer is the sign of Mars’ fall, a position which, in traditional astrology, signifies difficulties – a planet feels weak and struggles to express itself in the sign of its fall, which may give rise to over-compensation or dysfunctional behaviours.
In the case of Mars, planet of war, aggression, destruction and desire, this can play out in very unfortunate ways – at worst, in individual charts, it may give rise to gangsters such as Al Capone (Mars in Cancer), and on a world stage, the most appalling manifestation of Mars in Cancer is shown by events such as the recent, tragic Grenfell tower fire in London: Mars, signifying fire, out of control in its sign of fall, Cancer (the sign ruled by the Moon, associated with homes and residences).
At the time of the recent Grenfell fire, Mars had recently entered Cancer and was making a special aspect to Saturn called an opposition by antiscion. This carries all the stressful resonances of an ordinary opposition aspect in astrology, but with the added meaning of having secret or hidden factors involved. It’s also possible that Saturn was in the early degrees of Cancer in the tower’s inauguration chart, as Grenfell tower construction was completed in 1974, and Saturn moved into Cancer in April 1974. This would mean that not only was Mars opposing Saturn in the sky, but it would be transiting over Grenfell’s own Saturn placement, too. Amongst other things, the astrological Saturn symbolises coldness, containment, planning, structures and skin.
After the event, it has emerged that poorly designed cladding (Saturn) was responsible for the fire’s rapid spread, and the fire began in a faulty refrigerator (Saturn) on the ground floor. The antiscion may also describe the hidden nature of the initial fault, and possibly how invisible defects in the cladding (and planning) allowed the fire to rage (Mars) uncontrolled (in fall). Yet this is the very worst example of a malefic planet in fall; every planetary placement, even the more ‘difficult’ ones, also bestows certain innate gifts – even if, in some cases, you may wish to retain the receipt.
Traditional astrology’s view of Cancer
According to the 12th century astrologer Ibn Ezra, Mars’ own essential planetary significations are ‘hot, dry, burning and destructive’, including ‘everything that has venom’, and the qualities and tendencies of ‘speed, courage, victory, strengths…dispute…debauchery, every wicked deed…robbing of money, digging through wells and opening doors to discover any hidden thing’ (Ezra, 1148). The famous English astrologer William Lilly assigned to Mars the professions of ‘Soldiers, Physicians, Apothecaries, Surgeons, [and] Alchemists’ (Lilly, 1647). Herbalist and astrologer Nicholas Culpeper assigns to Mars the significations of the Appetite (for food, and desires in general), the left ear and gallbladder, and migraines, wounds, and ‘frenzies’ (fits or fevers). (Culpeper, 1655).
The sign Cancer is described by 7th century Islamic astrologer Abu Ma’shar as ‘cold and moist, watery, phlegmatic…belonging to it of the body of man are the chest, the two breasts, the heart, the stomach, the flanks, the spleen and the lungs’ (Ma’shar, c.850).
Like all water signs, Cancer was designated a fertile, mute sign; of the water signs [Cancer, Scorpio, Pisces] Cancer is the Moveable (Cardinal) sign, and the sign’s particular affinity with the Moon and Jupiter (domicile and exaltation rulers) connote extra fecundity, and some affinity with the Lunar realms of altered states and visionary or delusional intoxication (moonshine, lunacy and the menstrual cycle). Physiologically, the Moon signifies the brain, the sinuses, the stomach, bowel, and bladder.
According to the Roman astrologer Firmicus Maternus, a planet in fall imputes a person ‘wretched, poor, of low birth, and constantly plagued by bad luck’ (Maternus, c.346). In the foreword to his compendium of Sahl and Masha’allah’s astrological works, Dr. Ben Dykes summarises the medieval Arabic conception of planets in fall as representing persons or things of low class, which are brought low, or of reduced prominence and influence, so the indignity of fall refers primarily to difficulty with status and perceived value. Masha’allah describes Mars in Cancer as a person who ‘will serve princes, [and]…suffer many evils, and his infirmity will be diverse, in the belly and in a hidden place; and the infirmity of his mother will be prolonged, and he will have or give great harm, and he will have fear of a sudden death’ (Masha’allah, 9th century, trans. Dykes). In this delineation we see the debilitated Mars in the Moon’s sign – the Moon, which reflects the light of the Sun, signifies royalty lesser than the king (‘princes’), the mother, and the belly, with the fallen state of malefic Mars bringing about various forms of suffering. Although Firmicus’ own description of Mars in the sign of Cancer is missing from the surviving text, his book does include a reference to special attributes of Mars in the 9th house:
‘in the [sign] of Jupiter, or his exaltation, the natives will be violent towards the gods and despise all kinds of oaths. They will be feared by all demons and at their approach depraved spirits will flee. They free possessed men, not by force of words, but only by their appearance…These men are called exorcists’. (Maternus, c.346).
Firmicus’ description would be true of Mars in Saggitarius, Pisces, or Cancer in the 9th house, but again illustrates two points: first, that the essential nature of the ruler of the sign the planet occupies strongly influences the signification of the planet; and second, that whether a planet is essentially dignified or debilitated, it will have particular virtues (or vices) relevant to the specific meaning of the combined symbolism of its house placement, its ruler, and itself.
Mitigating Mars in Cancer
There are also various forms of mitigation in traditional astrology (aside from aspects and house placements) which can alter a planet’s signification to a great extent, and Mars in Cancer is just such a position. In Nocturnal charts , Mars gains dignity by Sect and Triplicity .
Firmicus says that ‘Venus, Mars, Mercury and the Moon rejoice by night’ and gives many examples of how planets’ divinatory significations are improved by being in charts of the ‘correct’ Sect. Although there is no consensus between contemporary astrologers on what Sect precisely denotes, it appears that planets in Sect signify more constructive outcomes; in a sense, they are enabled to bring about the best of what they represent.
For example, Robert Hand speculates that Mars may represent more altruistic characteristics and actions in night charts, as the unifying moisture and sedating coolness of night assuage Mars’ bitter, egocentric nature. Triplicity, the essential dignity most strongly related to Sect (as the rulers change by day and night, and its logic is determined by the physics of Sect) is defined by Bonatti as being ‘like a man among his allies, his people, his ministers, followers who obey him and follow him but are not related to him by kinship’ (Bonatti, 1491). So the person represented by Mars in Cancer is more thoroughly dejected by day, but by night his condition is made more tolerable as his desires are somewhat mollified, and he is given followers and supporters to help him.
Mars in Cancer in the charts of Robin Williams, Sid Vicious, Noel ‘Razor’ Smith and Marcos Patchett
Looking at four charts with Scorpio rising and Ascendant ruler Mars in Cancer may help to illustrate this: the late comedian Robin Williams, former ‘Sex Pistol’ Sid Vicious, bank robber and author Noel ‘Razor’ Smith, and my own chart (herbalist and astrologer).
In traditional astrology, while the Ascendant signifies the body, the Ascendant ruler has greater signification of the native’s mind, particularly the native’s lifelong intentions or preoccupations. While all four nativities (and lives) are otherwise very different, the first house rulership by Mars in Cancer describes the natives’ 9th house inclinations towards travel, seeking knowledge, and broadening horizons, but in all cases emotional struggles or mental health issues with anger/stress [fallen Mars representing something of the native’s mind] are likely to feature (and presumably also powers of exorcism, according to Firmicus!) It is notable that both the natives with diurnal charts ended up being drug-related suicides (Williams & Vicious). Robin Williams was extremely successful as an actor and stand-up comedian – publicly exorcizing his own and other’s demons with laughter – but struggled with mental health problems, feelings of inadequacy and drug dependency. In fact all four natives used drugs (in my own case, a history of recreational drug use segueing into a profession primarily concerned with teaching and using plant-based medicinal drugs in University and clinical settings).
In a sense, all four natives could also be said to be ‘exorcists’ through Mars in Cancer means of emotionally relating to people’s trauma, and ‘cutting through’ it; as Bonatti says, in a perfect description of the process of empathy, water signs ‘pour forth and take’: Williams via comedy (his films: Mrs Doubtfire, Awakenings, Good Morning Vietnam etc.), Vicious through music (in the anti-establishment punk band, the Sex Pistols), Smith through the book he wrote while imprisoned (‘A Few Kind Words and a Loaded Gun’), and myself through work as a herbalist (the profession once described by the word leech, a water-dwelling haemovore once used medicinally to painlessly drain ‘bad blood’).
Mars in Cancer symbolism is apparent in each case. Scorpio rising can use this potential to constructive or destructive extremes, having a reputation for surgery or butchery, and Mars’ Fall in Cancer may exacerbate Scorpio tendencies to emotional retaliation, in which state the consequence of feeling disempowered may be best described by the idiom ‘cutting your nose off to spite your face’. In each chart the aspects to Mars and the other planetary placements influence which way (and by what means) the knife is liable to cut.
Noel ‘Razor’ Smith ended up being imprisoned most of his life – the applying opposition from Mars to a strongly dignified nocturnal Saturn in Capricorn, co-ruling the 12th house cusp (Saturn is the exaltation and decan ruler of 11° Libra) has a lot to say about this, as the 12th house signifies prisons and self-undoing. John Ritchie a.k.a. Sid Vicious is known for murdering his girlfriend Nancy Spungen then taking a lethal overdose of heroin before the case went to trial, and the square from a 12th-sign Moon (emotional instability) to Mars, and 7th house ruler Venus conjunct the crazy-making malefic fixed star Algol are descriptive of this potential. So both a diurnal (Vicious) and a nocturnal (Smith) Mars-in-Cancer-ruled chart here represent criminal notoriety. So how, exactly, is the night-time Mars in Cancer any better?
The difference between nocturnal and diurnal Mars in Cancer charts are not so much to be found in the circumstances of the life (as it is not to be expected that all people with Mars in Cancer born during the day will commit suicide, for example), but more, I suspect, in a feeling that nocturnal Mars in Cancer natives (those born at night who have the Ascendant, Moon or perhaps the Sun in Mars-ruled signs, with Mars in Cancer) may have: the night-born Mars in Cancer feels like they ‘found their people’. Mars-ruled people in water signs at night feel more ‘in their element’ and have followers and supporters who they trust. ‘Razor’ Smith was part of a loyal criminal fraternity with close family ties all his life, and always had supporters and allies in and out of prison; and amongst herbalists, herbal students and astrologers (and formerly nightclubbers and artists) I have a similar feeling, that of being supported by a clique, or having a ‘family’ of supporters, despite feeling ‘niche’ or ‘alternative’ (ruling planet in Fall). Vicious and Williams both had legions of fans and were more generally successful – Mars is, after all, ‘heated up’ and given more energy during the day – but both felt alienated and disconnected (signs of greater dryness) in spite of this, as Mars is both out of Sect and lacks Triplicity dignity.
Mars in Cancer’s fall from grace
So Mars in Cancer is a challenging placement, and may perhaps be compared to the Tobacco plant – a popular plant, once lauded as a cure-all, now fallen from grace. Tobacco was historically used for ailments of the stomach and digestive tract [ruled by the Moon], including external preparations on wounds [Mars] and swellings [Moon – ruler of Cancer], and has a ‘soothing’ [Moon] but ultimately stimulating [Mars] effect. It effectively suppresses appetite – traditionally, Mars signified appetite, so a plant ruled by Mars in its fall may be expected to do that.
Metaphysically, tobacco has an association with visionary intoxication, transformation into nocturnal spirit animals, and as a food for the spirit world: the realm of the Moon was traditionally associated with altered states, and Cancer, as a domain of both Moon (the sign ruler) and Jupiter (exalted in Cancer) is a sign particularly associated with magic, altered states and shamanic work [along with Pisces, the watery sign ruled by Jupiter].
Shamanism itself may even be described by Mars in Cancer specifically, as a marginalised belief system (a fallen state) associated with acts of spiritual or magical battle and ‘psychic surgery’ (Mars in a water sign associated with the Moon and Jupiter). Mars in Cancer may cure infirmity or emotional pain through suffering and empathy. Mars is Exalted in well-boundaried, pragmatic Capricorn, and Fallen in boundless, emotional Cancer; in Cancer, Mars is the wolf in sheep’s clothing, bearing a face of maternal kindness and a soft touch, concealing a ravenous hunger.
Tobacco’s use in traditional medicine, wherein it could cure tumours and assist in curing many infections when applied locally and used appropriately, led to massive overuse as its strangely compulsive action caused millions to become unwittingly addicted – a regular smoker does not want a cigarette, they need one, a very Mars-Moon feeling. This compulsion seems linked to a hunger [Mars] for rapid emotional connection [Cancer] which smokers regularly feed with tobacco – but in so doing, they only generate greater hunger, because Mars is never satisfied.
As with all planets in Fall, Mars in Cancer has particular virtues and uses, but the sign’s ruler is perversely obliged to carry out the fallen planet’s true agenda. Here the Moon, the chief luminary of the night, mother of tides, emotional ties, and magic, is obliged to host burning, violent, antagonistic Mars. A wreath of narcotic smoke is exhaled; hungers are assuaged and simultaneously silently stoked. The hungry spirits are fed, and sleep for a while; but, recalling the words of the Elizabethan royal herbalist John Gerard in his entry on Tobacco, ‘a well doth never yield such store of water as when it is most drawn and emptied’.
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