The Family Karmic Inheritance
“If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we would find in each man’s life a sorrow and a suffering enough to disarm all hostility.” —Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
As an astrologer I am continually struck by the potential for sorrow and suffering when first reviewing a client’s chart. However upon meeting them, I am usually astounded at how uniquely they have coped, survived and even flourished in spite of the potential for anguish. How do they thrive in spite of their history? How do they forgive and let go of their past? Longfellow must have had a sense of it when he wrote that sentence, and if we change the word “enemies” in that quote to “families” then the most important point of this chapter would be made. If we could know each other’s pain, this would indeed “disarm all hostility.” I believe that the oracle that speaks through the language of astrology teaches compassion.
It has been said that the soul is ruthless in seeking its own path home, and that the needs of the soul, not the desires of the personality, orchestrate our lives. I have been finding that there is a mystery and history to each of us that reaches back beyond our present lives directly to our family lineage. We’ve inherited a karmic legacy that reflects the victories, defeats, and hard won battles of our ancestors, for they are indeed very much with us.
Within families there is a karmic inheritance that is handed down the family line along with the genetic blueprint. We inherit deeply entrenched emotional and mental perspectives, as well as unearned propensities such as musical and mathematical talents. Yet unfortunately, we know that alcoholism, depression, abuse and certain illnesses are also inherited. We gladly accept the unearned talents—such as Mozart-like propensities, but a negative family inheritance such as the Kennedy family “curse” is not pleasant thinking.
Even if we believe that our soul “picks” our family and our karmic inheritance so that we can inherit both the gifts and the challenges needed for our highest soul growth, it’s still hard to understand. Essentially the soul’s choice of when and where to incarnate is a mystery. Yet astrologers believe that the synchronistic moment of birth is the key element in the life story, because it gives us a genetic, or karmic blueprint of the soul; a map of the psyche. By looking at our family members charts, we can decipher emotional patterns that have been playing out for generations. All that we’ve learned so far about the Nodes and the planet Pluto, figures strongly in this tale.
These karmic patterns are not in themselves innate curses or blessings, for our will, intention, and grace are always operative. But anything can behave erratically if willfully suppressed for generations. Carl Jung wrote about the personal as well as the collective unconscious, saying that both talents and troubles are to be found in the subconscious. He didn’t say how the unconscious works its way through the family lineage, but he did claim that there was gold in the “shadow” of the personal and collective unconscious. I believe that we can use the astrological technique of overlapping charts, called synastry, to help us see that gold in the family inheritance, as well as the imprint of family shame and secrets. We can become conscious of what has been hidden, and become freer by stepping out of the secret matrix of familial denial. We can then make choices to express and heal rather than to conceal. We can change the pattern for the next generation.
Everyone, not just astrologers and Jungians, are aware of the unconscious nature of family dynamics and what I call “the family karmic inheritance.” Just as we might see that we’ve inherited our parents’ tall bodies and long noses, we might also see a predisposition for sudden anger or alcoholism. We might notice too that the males in the family pride themselves, and judge others by physical prowess and athletic ability. But what happens when mental illness, greed, sexual confusion, or insatiable power and control dynamics are passed along? Isn’t it then that we question ideas of fate and destiny, wondering if we were born trailing not only “clouds of glory” but “clouds of dust” as well?
Most astrologers accept the theory of reincarnation as the basis for this inheritance, whereas other people see it more as some mix of genetic and emotional DNA. Evolutionary astrologers find the theory of re-incarnation makes sense as it resonates with a sense of justice that moves beyond the karma of one life, as it echoes back to the idea that the “sins of the fathers shall be visited on the children for seven generations.” It’s a thought or theory that I never liked, but everything I knew about the Nodes seemed to fit in---at least in theory.
Actually I didn’t choose to delve into this karmic stew as much as it chose me. One Sunday morning many years ago, I awoke with a confusing depression that had been building for months. I knew my Uranus Opposition was almost exact, and that the time for something to “come to light” was upon me. I had moved across country, to
But this morning, the grief overflowed into tears that didn’t stop. I was paralyzed; I had no psychic energy left to move me out of this mood. I glanced at my chart and saw the same line-up of planetary archetypes, the same old story. But next to my chart was a “mythic” Tarot deck I had just bought, written by one of my favorite astrologers, Liz Greene. Because astrology pulls its symbolism from myths, similar to Tarot, I had bought this as a tool to go deeper, and to amplify what I knew astrologically. Now here it was for me at my time of need. I needed an oracle, an insight, something that could bring new light to this unending situation. (It’s always hard to be objective about one’s own chart! Asking advice from other astrologers or using other similar symbolic systems can be of tremendous help when you are blocked.)
So that morning I took out the deck, pulled the Ten of Swords, and read the story about it. On a divinatory level it said that this card marks the ending of a difficult situation, and it went on to tell the story of Orestes and the curse of the House of Atreus. It is a dark tale full of conflict and bloodshed involving Athene, the three Furies, and Orestes. I remembered that Athene, as a goddess of justice, is often related to Libra, my Sun sign, and the Furies have to do with feminine fury and unrest.
I could feel a shift beginning to happen within me as I wrote down what I read: “A family curse such as Orestes has to bear is an image of inner conflicts passed down from one generation to another, where the grandparents and parents have been unable to face life’s conflicts honestly and the children must inevitably suffer until insight is gained.” It went on to say: “A deep seated and ancient problem is now forced to the surface and something must ultimately leave our lives…we can now move on not merely disillusioned, but freed of some deep canker which has its roots in a past older than ourselves, and which our own suffering has released and redeemed.”
I then went to my computer and pulled up the charts of my grandmother, my mother, my daughter, and myself—four women linked by genes and an obscure family history. I had often felt as if there was some secrecy in the family history, yet when I questioned my parents and grandparents they would speak only of their successes, or of the failings of others. The same old stories repeated; and I found that probing questions yielded little. But now I questioned the nature of this family karmic inheritance by looking at the interconnecting positions of the Nodes, the Sun, the Moon, Chiron and Pluto. What I saw in this synastry of charts was a pattern of connections that was enough to lift the morning’s depressing fog. At least now I could see—and once seeing, I could make an attitude adjustment. I could feel a mood of compassion rising.
So I pulled up my chart and had another long look at it. I knew that Pluto in the horoscope is the “Lord of the Underworld” and reflects the Law of Nature for which the Greeks had so much fear and respect. And there it was, strong and highly visible in my chart. While thinking about the mythological curse that the Tarot hinted at, I rummaged through my astrology reference books and found that a family ‘curse’ involves some violation of natural law by earlier generations. I read that one can expect Pluto to be strong in the horoscope for anyone who has the need to make peace with an inheritance from the past.
What makes Pluto strong? If you look to the chapter on Pluto you’ll see that it tends to act up when in hard aspects to the Sun or Moon or other planets, and in the watery 4th, 8th, or 12th houses. It is then that it makes a tight bond to the unconscious and the family line. Yet I didn’t have Pluto in those areas of the chart. I looked again. Pluto was the “ruling planet” of my Scorpio South Node, and Pluto squared the South Node—there it was! A powerful sign to bring to consciousness whatever was brought down the family line.
So here was the challenge. How was I to make peace with it? I pondered the charts: my grandmother, Elizabeth English, had a chart with a predominance of planets in the earth sign of Taurus and—Ah! There was the Pluto aspecting the Sun with a tight conjunction. I couldn’t tell which house it was in because I only knew her birth day, and didn’t know her time of birth. But I could see that the South Node was in Cancer, and North Node in Capricorn. I knew that she was born in 1880, and that she had been a talented artist as a young woman, and after she married she had five children and never painted again. Her husband died in his late fifties of alcoholism. With five planets in Taurus, there were issues around money, security, and values, and with Sun conjunct Pluto she would have experienced many symbolic—if not real—deaths and rebirths in her life. In fact, her mother and sister both died young from “heart problems” and when her favorite son succumbed to alcoholism as well, she retired to her room for the rest of her days. I remember that she had an inner authority and independence when she spoke, but I don’t remember anything more. She died when I was seven.
It seemed as if my grandmother, Elizabeth, never felt the serenity and security that is the touchstone for Taurus---without which Taurus folks cannot release all their gifts. The mystery of her abandoning her painting was never told to me, and her only remaining oil painting is a dark Rembrandt-like rendition of a fortune teller reading the tea leaves in a china cup to a well dressed lady at the turn of the century. The painting was done in 1903 when she was twenty-three years old, and now hangs in my astrology office. Some people see only its darkness and the sad look on the woman’s face; I however find it delightfully fascinating that my grandmother’s last painting was called “The Fortune Teller”---foreshadowing the work that her grand-daughter would do. I also saw that when I overlaid my chart on hers that my North Node was conjunct her Taurus Sun, implying that there was something about who she was (her Sun) that could be an inspiration or a suggestion for me.
When I looked at my mother’s chart and mine, I saw that her South Node, hinting of the past life story, was at the exact degree of my Libra Sun. I knew that any planet aspecting another person’s South Node is an indication that the two souls have been in relationship before in another life. Ah—yes, our enmeshment and struggles in this life felt “larger than this life” and to see that we had “danced together” in some way before was not really a surprise. In fact, it felt like a relief to see that our connections were part of a karmic dance that had it’s roots long ago in other lifetimes. I suspected then that all my work in therapy around us was more significant than I originally knew.
Then I noticed that her Capricorn Sun was within 2 degrees of her mother’s North Node. So if the North Node was a “good suggestion” for my grandmother, then something about her daughter’s life would be an inspiration for her. And indeed, my mother was able to combine motherhood with her art, and she painted up until her death at the age of 88.
I could see our wounds. There were painful issues around creativity, freedom, and ambivalent feelings about motherhood here, as well as enmeshment and co-dependence. I could see the connections though the wounded secret trail of Pluto’s pride, shame, and insecurity. I couldn’t know the secrets of my grandmother or her family or the specifics of possible abuse. But what I could see was my grandmother’s Sun touching Pluto and her afflicted Moon. Her artistic freedom was severely curtailed by raising children, like most of the women of her generation. My mother’s confusing demands for both independence and connection reflected her own Aries/Libra Nodes as she worked out the last of that struggle with me, her only child. By virtue of simply living a long life, beyond my father’s time, she struggled painfully to reach the independence of her North Node Aries. I have found this easier in my life, as I struggle to combine my art, my writing, and being a mother as well.
I then pulled up my daughter’s chart, and saw more correspondences and overlapping. It’s not hard for anyone to bring up family charts and to look at the connections between them, yet delving into this kind of astrological analysis, this “synastry,” is best done with an astrologer who is familiar with the technique. But even a glance at these intertwining aspects tends to open understanding and empathy. In all the charts, the aspects between Pluto, the Nodes, and Venus hinted of an inherited struggle with creativity and relationship. It all echoed back to Elizabeth English who fought with the competing demands of art and children, and seemed to lose. I would never know the secrets of her heart, or what pain she may have passed on to my mother, but my heart was beginning to open.
In a much more radical fashion, we can look at other charts, such as our country’s royal family the “presidential Kennedy’s” and see their history of assassinations and signs not only of great gifts but also of a family “curse.” In 1969 when Senator Edward Kennedy saw the collapse of his Presidential hopes after Chappaquiddick, it was said that he actually asked whether there was a curse on his family. And indeed, if one examines this family there are elements in the family story that suggest this possibility, though a good astrologer would never call it that.
Call it what you may, what happens with the challenges that are unconsciously inherited down the family line? Sometimes a bad seed develops, as rage and alcoholism can insidiously move down through the family genetics. Some children, such as serial killer Charles Bundy, showed signs of this when he encircled his sister with knives as she slept, showing the peculiar signs of rage at the age of three. What’s happening here?
At heart I believe we are up against a mystery, because in each life the soul has free will and can play out genetic or karmic tendencies so many ways. We may be able to see the footprints of something in a chart, but astrologer’s move into shadowy hubris when they dare prescribe “how it will be.” Free will and consciousness gives us a great chance to change patterns. We don’t have to pass these secrets and silences down to our children. Instead the “buck can stop with us” as we heal the pain of our own legacy. We don’t have to perpetrate silent crimes.
Instead we can look at the heart of astrology—the myths that the planets are named after, and we can find clues. There are certain features which appear in every myth about a family curse, and it usually begins with an individual’s abuse of a God-given talent or advantage. Something positive gets misused or distorted through arrogance and pride, what the Greeks call hubris. The abuse of creative potential, which is sometimes linked with a subtle or not so subtle abuse of children, is made worse by the denial and hubris carried on within members of the family. In generations past, we hid our shame within our families. Today we think all is out in the open because it is the stuff of soap operas and reality shows and the evening news. But shame and lack of courage runs deep.
In mythology, we see that although each generation and each person could expiate the negative family inheritance, or “curse” by accepting a certain degree of limitation in their life they don’t--- and this refusal to make what is unconscious conscious, and to make the necessary sacrifices needed, can be seen as an act of putting personal desires before the needs of the soul. The soul’s needs are ruthless, and require a transformation of consciousness to change the family legacy.
Anything consistent in our lives and which shows up in the chart, can behave like a curse. Because we have free will, our behavior can change it, although old attitudes with very entrenched roots are harder to change. In the case of the Kennedy’s, one could speculate that the arrogance, ambition, and possible abuses of “Papa” Joe Kennedy (including his choice to have a lobotomy done on his first daughter) exacerbated a karmic situation that had its roots in the history and sufferings of the Irish people. Perhaps it’s a long shot to think that way; perhaps not. But if one looks at he collective struggle of Irish against English, Catholic against Protestant, and the tragedy of the famine which drove so many of our grandparents out of Ireland we can see how this could have fueled his ambition. He may have groomed his children for political power in order to redeem, in his mind, the shame and tragedies the Irish have had to endure in the last few centuries. The flaw of his daughter would have caused him great shame, and he took powerful action to correct it.
Could this powerful man have set in motion a set of inherited attitudes that produced both great goodness and unforeseen tragedy? Was his ambition and the shocking deaths of his sons a necessary sacrifice for the greater good of our country and the Irish? Perhaps. Were John Kennedy’s (and Bill Clinton’s) sexual transgressions an act of hubris? When John Kennedy Jr died in his night flight through the fog, was he acting like the mythical Icarus when he dared to fly on a foggy night? There was a judgment he made that night that failed. Could he have avoided this by observing the limitations of flight or the cautionary limitations of the exact transiting Pluto square which he was in? An astrologer might have cautioned him from any daring acts, and called his attention to his North Node in Virgo, which demands attention to details, yet…. perhaps all this is just speculation and hypothesis, but this is what astrologers do.
The opportunity to heal the pride, shame, and painful family legacy is a challenge, and the opportunity to act on the unlived gifts of our family legacy is a gift. We do it by bringing the issues to consciousness. Not to blame, but to bring to light the repressed painful attitudes, and to bring compassion to our past. What a unique chance it is to redeem what was once lost through ignorance, lack of courage, arrogance, or willful unconsciousness. Especially at each major life passage, such as the Uranus Oppositon and the Saturn Returns we get a chance again to ponder our karmic inheritance and to bring forth all that is longing to be expressed through us.
On that particular Sunday morning, during my Uranus Opposition at the age of forty, I began to look at my maternal inheritance differently. The painful legacy of expectations and attitudes that my mother inherited from her mother was not quite a “curse” although her desperate expectations sometimes felt that way. I could see again my inherited gifts: the artistic ability and a feisty blend of persistence and tenacity. But now I had a choice. I could see what I would accept in this inheritance and what I would attempt to heal or to reject.
The simple act of seeing the reflection of pain and grace moving through the charts lifted the depressive fog. I could see that I was not alone in my struggle to free myself, but that these women had struggled too, in their time and in their unique way. The mythology behind the planetary configurations enlarged my sense of self, and it was comforting to see how the orbs of my personal mythology touched the collective mythology. My unconscious wound was really no different than Orestes’ wound or the Kennedy family’s wound. Until that morning, I had been bound in my family’s karmic web until I began to lovingly separate and untangle the knots. I could now choose what I wanted to inherit.
Perhaps I should have known that moving across the country was not going to improve my difficult family inheritance. External solutions to internal problems are the line of least resistance. It took a lot of effort to move, but Uranus, unlike Saturn, is not about “efforting.” Instead, grace comes like a sudden storm— in its own time. When I consulted with “the gods” that morning, I felt a sense of awe and a lightening of my spirit. I didn’t know any more of the family secrets, but I knew there was not only a “blood line” but a karmic bond made of similar patterns along this family line. I felt we were of “one skin.” It was a compassionate epiphany, and it was then that I changed my first name from Janet to
By looking at such family patterns one can almost hear the ancestor’s whispering: “This was my hope and fear for myself and my children; I tried to do my best.” And one gets a sense that the soul’s choices (the Nodes) are not always that of the conscious ego (the Sun.) The connection between soul and ego always has this mystery, this uncharted territory, leaving room for free will. Misfortune and sorrow is often the soul’s last resort in moving a person closer to the right path for them. And who is to say what is truly misfortune? The soul’s path is not easy to describe, and rarely simple to resolve. But we try.