Ted Hughes and ‘Astrological Conundrums’

© Ann Skea 2019.
Published in the Ted Hughes Society Journal. Vol.7, Issue 2, 2019.
Those supernatural seeming dreams, full of conflict and authority and unearthly states of feeling, were projections of man’s inner and outer world’.
(‘Myth and Education’, Winter Pollen p.138)

Myths, Hughes wrote, are stories which ‘attract and light up everything relevant in our experience’. Every story ‘is an acquisition, a kind of wealth’ and if it becomes familiar ‘any fragment of the story serves as a ‘word’ by which the whole story’s electric circuit is switched into consciousness, and all the light and power brought to bear’ (WP 139-141). For centuries, we humans have woven stories around the planets, stars and constellations of stars in our skies. For the earliest peoples, the appearance in the northern skies of the prominent constellation which they identified as ‘Taurus, The Bull’ heralded the beginning of spring, renewal and regeneration. In the southern hemisphere, the Australian Aborigines identify the dark nebulae clouds of the Milky Way as a dark emu, and its movement across the sky is their guide for the hunting out and eating of emu eggs1. Everywhere, the stars have always been used for navigation on sea and on land, and the stories associated with them have been used as mnemonics for recognizing their shapes and importance.

There is a long–standing belief, too, that the images and symbols associated with the stars, especially those linked to gods, will, as with religious icons, connect us with divine creative/destructive energies2. All this, I believe, lies beneath the puzzles of Hughes’s ‘Astrological Conundrums’, and the clue lies in the astrological notation which Hughes inscribed at the end of the poem when he gave it, in an early copy of the first American edition of Wolfwatching, to his friend Roy Davids at Christmas 1990.

This is what Hughes wrote at the end of the poem:

Astrological Symbols

In astrological symbols this says that Jupiter is in conjunction with Mars and opposed to Saturn3. The sky chart below shows that this is the position of those planets in the sky over Mytholmroyd on Sunday 17 August 1930 at 1 a.m., the exact time of Hughes’s birth (I will return to my proof of this time later). It also shows the position of the Moon and of some of the other constellations which were in the sky above Mytholmroyd at that time.

Birth Sky symbols

The second sky–map (below) shows the mythological figures whose stories we, in the northern hemisphere, have traditionally associated with those planets and with the Moon and those other constellations.

Mythological Sky

The Moon is high in the sky and she, with Jupiter and Mars oppose their powerful energies to those of Saturn, who ruled the sky before being deposed by his son, Jupiter. Saturn, in the poem Hughes wrote for the christening of Prince William in 1982, is always the dispenser of firm judgment. For him, ‘balance’ is the ‘true dance’ of the solar system. Although Jupiter now ‘occupies heaven’s throne’, he still acknowledges his ‘wise father’, but the ‘old enmity’ which exists between them, and their opposition in Hughes’s birth–chart, are astrologically significant for events in Hughes’s life4. Significant, too, is the fact that in astrology Jupiter is ruler of the constellations of Pisces – the fish which for Hughes were so important – and of Sagittarius, the centaur, who, before the discovery of the planet Chiron in 1977, was believed to have shamanic powers and was known to astrologers as the ‘wounded healer’.

The Moon, (‘throned Queen’ of the sky) would be regarded by astrologers as ruler of Hughes’s birth–chart. She is the goddess whose destructive/creative powers pervade Hughes’s work and whose animals – cats, great and small – are the tigers, jaguars, lion, and puma of which Hughes wrote, as well as the ‘foxy–furry’ tailed kitten and the battered ‘tabby tom’ of his poem ‘Pets’ (CP 351). InanaJuno

Here she is as the ancient Mesopotamian goddess, Inana, riding her lion; and as Roman Juno with her cat at her feet:

All these cats are present in Hughes’s poems and there is a tiger in his story ‘The Guardian’ which is created by God’s witch–mother from the crescent moon5. There is also a young boy’s dream tiger, into which the boy seems slowly to turn, in Hughes’s children’s story The Tiger Boy6. But the tiger and the mountain lion which featured in one of Hughes’s own dreams, and which he recorded in his dream diary, are especially pertinent to the first poem of ‘Astrological Conundrums’.

Distance from Dream is Distance from the real operation’, Hughes wrote in this dream diary7. And on December 28th 1988, he recorded ‘horrible dreams. Hideous and Horror’ in which he ‘shot through the letter box, a tiger that was peering in – turned out I had killed a big female mountain lion. My guide’. Here is one of the creatures – ‘my beasts’ as he sometimes calls them in this dream diary – which he regarded as his shamanic guides8.

The first poem of ‘Astrological Conundrums’, ‘The Fool’s Evil Dream’, is very much a shamanic poem in which the fool, like the imbecile innocent in Cave Birds (‘The Scream’ CP 419 and ‘In These Fading Moments’ CP 423–4), is ‘just walking about’ in the gloom which represents his unenlightened state, when ‘a glowing beast – a tigress’ smelling of nature’s beauties, accosts him. The tigress then offers him a Faustian bargain: feed himself to her and he will become ‘The never–dying god’. Here is the shamanic call. For the shaman, dying (known as ‘becoming the skeleton’), flying to the otherworld and being reborn, is part of the ritual journey which endows him or her with god–like healing powers. In the poem, the fool does fly with the tigress, is dissolved in ‘the internal powers of tiger’, and is reborn, but his ‘sudden cry of terror’, an ‘infant’s cry’, suggests not only his rebirth but also that he is not yet mature or courageous enough to ‘feed himself to her’ completely, as did the ‘very holy man’ she had described to him. So, the ‘bright spirit’ (the tigress) goes away ‘weeping’.

The Goddess is fickle and cruel and demands complete submission. In his Vacana notebook, Hughes wrote of his Lady of the Hill: ‘your punishments are scars / The signature / of your ownership’. He also wrote ‘before I shaved myself / you carried me / through womb after womb9. The path to becoming a shaman who has the maturity and strength to channel the healing energies of the Goddess requires many rebirths.

The second poem of ‘Astrological Conundrums’, ‘Nearly Awake’, is, I suggest, another step on that path. It did not appear in the original publication of Wolfwatching but the change from the personal pronoun ‘I’ of ‘The Fool’s Evil Dream’, and in the third poem ‘Tell’ to ‘you’, makes the protagonist, Hughes and us part of the ‘Universe’ that ‘flies dark’ all around. All share the unawakened ‘twilight’ state of the protagonist at the beginning of the poem. All ‘lie, face–bedded, vegetable’, ‘helpless as grass’, with ‘prayer / Petrified into the earth’s globe’ in ‘Nearly Awake’. But the potential for prayer, the divine spark which allows for dawning self–awareness, although ‘unstirring’, is embedded within us ready for the bulls to arouse it.

As you can see in Hughes’s birth–chart, the constellation of Taurus The Bull is closely aligned with Mars, Jupiter and the Moon. In ‘Nearly Awake’, the ‘wild bulls of your mother’ are Taurean bulls of regeneration and rebirth. They are creatures of ‘blood, sperm, saliva’, full of the Goddess’s ‘storms and moon-terrors’, and their connection to Mother Earth explains why their hooves are ‘cleft roots’. Having found you newly born among ‘starry rocks’ but still ‘vegetable’, ‘helpless’, your ‘headbone’ ‘a frozen stone’, they will ‘Rasp you alive’ and ‘towel you awake with their tongues’. There are echoes here of ‘Awake!’ in Adam and the Sacred Nine, which describes the attempts of Nature (animals and plants) to make Adam move, and which, as Hughes wrote to Sagar, is about the ‘alchemising of a phoenix out of a serpent. An awakening life out of an unawakened’ (LTH 431–2)10.

The awakening in ‘Astrological Conundrums’ also has some relationship, although far less bloody, to the Orphic/Mithraic initiation ritual in Gaudete after the Reverend Lumb is abducted by ‘elemental spirits’ (G 9). Both are terrifying and both achieve an awakening into the real world. But in ‘Nearly Awake’, in these moments of petrifying fear, ‘the cry you dare not cry’ and which ‘lasts you a lifetime’, is also Adam’s cry of ‘sun grief’, which battered itself ‘Against the memorial stone of globe’: the cry of the suddenly awakened Self for the state of the Earth. And it is this cry for ‘the injured Earth’ (which, in his essay for Your World, Hughes portrayed as ‘a half–dark, many breasted precarious miracle’) which fuelled Hughes’s lifelong attempts to achieve awareness, healing and renewal through his work and through his environmental activism11. Here, in ‘Astrological Conundrums’ it is the cry of the newly awakened shaman.

The final poem, ambiguously titled ‘Tell’, is the dream of that shaman. The protagonist of this poem is closely linked to Hughes himself, who was a half–blue in archery at Cambridge University. He dreams that he is suddenly armed with his ‘old steel bow’. And his description of the bow as ‘a harp frame / So perfectly strung it seemed weightless’ suggests not just its perfection as a bow but also a connection with the magical lyre of Orpheus whose music, in Hughes’s play of that title, is the music of ‘the root of the earth and the leaf in the light / The muse of birth and death’. Neil Roberts links the poet’s interpretation of the Orpheus myth closely with ‘Hughes’s own writing career’, and this third ‘Astrological Conundrums’ poem suggests a similar link between this bow / lyre and Hughes’s poetry12. The Raven at which the archer aims is the astrological constellation of the Raven, which sits in ‘the sky river’ of the Milky Way and which is ‘at the crest of the globe’ in Hughes’s birth–chart, close to his astrological birth sign of Leo. Just as Hughes’s Crow poems flow like a banner through his work and were sometimes worked on and sometimes not, the Raven’s eye, ‘that star’ in his birth–chart, watches him ‘through the slitted fabric of the skyflow’ as the constellations rotate in their annual cycle. The paronomasia of ‘eye’ and ‘I’ also suggests how closely Raven and Crow are connected to Hughes.

As an archer and an awakened shaman, the protagonist is astrologically associated with the constellation of Sagittarius/Chiron, which although ruled by Jupiter sat, in Hughes’s birth–chart, close to Saturn. There, it is influenced by Saturn’s energies and Saturn can keep watch on the bow–wielding Centaur whose own considerable powers are described in the Astronomicon of the first–century poet Manilius13:

His bow full drawn implies, his Rings impart
Strength to the Limbs, and Vigor to the Heart
Quick active Motions, full of warmth and heat,
Still pressing on, unknowing to retreat.

Interpreting the poem in these terms, the story suggests that with Jupiter, Mars and the Moon energizing him and urging him on, the protagonist/shaman/Hughes sinks his ‘aim / Deeper into the star that had grown / To fill the Universe’. But Saturn is there to keep the balance and it is he who whispers ‘Be careful , I’m here. Don’t forget me’. The final line of the poem plays on the double meaning of ‘might’ to encompass the strength of the archer, the powerful urge to release his arrow, and the element of choice which allows him to hesitate.

The question of what this story meant to Hughes’s own life is answered by the paronomasia of ‘eye’ and ‘I’ and the identity of Raven as Crow. Writing the Crow poems, as he told Faas, was like ‘putting [himself] through a process14 (UU 207); and Crow was the ‘dirty scabby little foal’ he required for his own quest for an enlightened shamanic Self. As Hughes told Gifford and Roberts, Crow is ‘exploring his own mind and the human mind in general15. In this respect, Crow’s quest is another episode in ‘The Difficulties of a Bridegroom’, a title which had particular relevance for Hughes16. To kill Crow might, therefore, have had dangerous personal repercussions in Hughes’s life. He was wise to hesitate.WilliamTellandSon

This element of close personal danger is also suggested in the title ‘Tell’, which brings to mind the legendary Swiss archer, William Tell, who, in the cause of individual and political freedom, was condemned, with his son, to die unless he shot an apple off his son’s head with a single arrow. He, too, must have hesitated with all his might.

Yet another meaning of ‘Tell’ is linked with the death of Sylvia Plath and the eventual publication of Birthday Letters. We know that some of these ‘letters’ to Sylvia were written as early as 1972, the bulk of them much later; and we know of Hughes’s longstanding antipathy to autobiographical writing. In a letter to Sagar, after the publication of Birthday Letters, he wrote that publishing the poems was something he ‘always thought unthinkable – so raw, so vulnerable, so unprocessed, so naïve, so self–exposing & unguarded’ (PC 269-71). Here is the ‘I’ of Crow exposed and vulnerable, and here, too is the hesitation to tell.

Both Hughes’s unfinished Crow epic and his Birthday Letters poems were part of his quest for healing and wholeness. There is evidence on a fragment of paper amongst Hughes’s dream diary manuscripts that he intended to complete the Crow story using, as in Birthday Letters, a Cabbalistic framework. On a scrap of paper, in large black letters, is written ‘Seek Shekinah’ and, underlined, ‘plot the whole sequence’. At the side of the sheet is written, and starred, ‘Tithonus and his bride / Crow meets God as a cicada / Chokmah and song for a phallus17. Also mentioned are the fool, the guide, and the guardian who ‘sends him signs’. Commenting on a dream on 15 November 1983, Hughes wrote ‘I’m writing the complete Crow’. He then noted: ‘two weeks ago I started, and every time I move to anything else … my beasts begin to agitate and protest’.

On the walls and battens of Hughes’s writing hut when he died, with their exact position carefully noted by Carol Hughes, were sheets of notes and lists charting a Crow epic which begins with his birth and ends (possibly) with ‘Stone egg hatching’ a ‘human baby inside18.

Two other aspects of Hughes’s birth–chart, although unrelated to ‘Astrological Conundrums’, should be mentioned.

The first is the presence, close enough to Saturn to share his energies, of the constellation of Ophiuchus, the double–natured snake which is endlessly wrested by Asclepius, the god of healing, whose father was Apollo, and who was taught by the shamanic centaur, Chiron. Ophiuchus would turn up in Hughes’s life whenever he seemed to be making progress. He wrote to Sagar of the ‘months and years in which he had yielded to it’ and how ‘it always appeared, to the day, when I had at last managed to take a real step’(LTH 338) . And to William Scammell he wrote of the ‘perverse interruptions, the difficulties, tempting diversions and sheer obstacular accidents’ caused by this ‘Great Snake’ (LTH 648–9). In his poem, ‘Ophiuchos’ (CP 574), he links it with images of horror, although, as he told Sagar, ‘he wasn’t always ugly19.

The second significant constellation in Hughes’s birth–sky is the constellation of Gemini – The Twins. Closely linked in the sky with Mars and Jupiter, this was a constellation of which Hughes was particularly aware. The story of the Gemini twins, Castor and Polydeuces, as Robert Graves tells it, is closely linked with their ongoing wars with another set of twins over the daughters of King Leukippus20. In a rare moment of reconciliation, the four men mount a cattle raid on Arcadia (the Paradisal place of harmony with Nature) but in a quarrel over the division of spoils Castor, the mortal Gemini twin, was killed. Polydeuces, the immortal twin, was distraught and pleaded with his father, Zeus, to make him mortal so that he might also die and never be parted from his brother. In reward for their brotherly love, Zeus set their images among the stars as the constellation of Gemini.

In Hughes’s dream diary and in his work he writes frequently of his ‘other’, of ghostly doubles and of rival brothers. In ‘The Gulkana’ (CP 665–6) he ‘felt hunted’ by something he explains to himself as ‘one inside me, / A bodiless twin, some unloving doppelganger / Disinherited other, unloving / Ever–living’. But in ‘Two’ (RE 80) the astrological link with Gemini is particularly startling. There Hughes and his brother are the Two who ‘stepped down from the morning star’, which is Jupiter in early mythologies. Coming ‘with long shadows / Between the dawn’s fingers’, they ‘dropped from the woods that hung in the sky’ with their booty of poached animals ‘robbed of their jewels’. Then ‘war opened’ and one ‘flew up from the pathway // The other stood still’. In a letter to me, Hughes wrote that ‘‘Two’ is simply about my brother and myself. He was ten years older than me and made my early life a kind of paradise … which was ended abruptly by the war. He joined the RAF, and after the war he came to Australia, … The closing of Paradise is a big event21.

To return to the exact nature of Hughes’s birth–chart and the time of his birth:

In 2017 I spent days at the British Library looking through Hughes’s dream diary and other manuscripts for the dream he describes in ‘Astrological Conundrums’. There were dreams of his shamanic guides, his beasts, his ‘keeper’, and one starred dream of ‘going for a walk with some other’ and having a ‘large beautiful wolf’ – a great ‘golden wolf’ – which gambols around his feet then walks behind him with its paws on his shoulders. Hughes comments that ‘He has never been so close or so generous with himself’. There are also magnificent dreams of fish and fishing. And there was one dream in which he slept with the Queen. But I didn’t find the dream about aiming an arrow at the Raven’s eye. As I packed up my manuscript tray at 4.30pm on my last day at the library, I riffled through an old desk diary which I had examined earlier and which Hughes had begun to recycle for notes. Amongst what had appeared to be a large block of blank pages in the middle of the book, I found Hughes’s own account of the night of his birth.

I was born within a few minutes of one a.m. – of the clock striking one in the morning22, Hughes wrote. And he described how on 17th August 1930, ‘a Sunday’, his father had gone on his bike to fetch the midwife. As he returned across the river just below their house, the ‘Wesleyan clock’ had struck one in the morning and when he got home Hughes was just born. At the time of his birth his mother had been watching a bright star through the window which Hughes identified as the planet ‘Jupiter rising in 11 Cancer’. He then recorded the exact position in the sky of ‘Mars in 22nd Gemini’, the Moon ‘above again in 17 Taurus’ and that ‘she could not see Saturn sitting opposite in the West’.

He also wrote that his mother had told him that when she was carrying him ‘she repeatedly had the sensation of meeting someone as she went through doorways’. So strong was this sensation that ‘she frequently stopped in her tracks23.

So, we know exactly what the sky looked like above Mytholmroyd at the moment of Hughes’s birth, and it is clear that the energies of the mythological figures which appeared there were, over a lifetime, channeled into his work. Perhaps, too, his mother’s story about feeling an attendant, invisible presence during her pregnancy with him was the source of his interest in twins and ghostly doubles.


1. Australian Aboriginal man, Ben Flick, tells a campfire story of the traditional importance to his people of The Dark Emu: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LzFYFutiwoA

2. See my discussion of the importance of images and symbols in Ted Hughes and the Occult Tradition. Also available in the Ted Hughes Society Journal, Vol. VI Issue I, 2017.

3. This inscribed copy of Wolfwatching is held at Pembroke College, Cambridge University. My thanks to Pembroke College and to Carol Hughes for permission to reproduce this image.

4. Ted Hughes, ‘A Zodiac in the Shape of a Crown’, in George Mackay Brown, (ed.) Four Poets for St. Magnus (Stromness, Orkney: Breckness Press 1987). This poem describes Prince William’s horoscope in detail and takes the form of a Court Masque in which the Prince’s astrological ‘high godparents’ gather round is cradle and each speaks according to their particular mythological and astrological character, offering advice and gifts. A Zodiac in the Shape of a Crown

5. Ted Hughes, Tales of the Early World (London: Faber 1988). p.26.

6. Ted Hughes, The Tiger Boy (London: Faber & Faber, 2016).

7. British Library, Add Ms 88918/29/10, Diary entry for April 16, 1984.

8. British Library, Add Ms 88918/29/10, ‘my beasts’ appears in a dream on Nov.4 1983.

9. Ann Skea, Ted Hughes’s Vacanas: The Difficulties of a Bridegroom

10. ‘Awake!’ is discussed in detail in Ann Skea, Adam and the Scared Nine: A Cabbalistic Drama

11. Ted Hughes’s essay ‘Your World’ in The Observer Magazine, 29 November 1992. p.39.

12. Neil Roberts, Ted Hughes: A Literary Life (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan 2006). p.173.

13. Marcus Manilius, Astronomicon, Book 4, Page 14. This translation by Thomas Creech (1659-1700) is available at: https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/eebo/A51767.0001.001/1:10?rgn=div1;view=fulltext.

14. Ekbert Faas, The Unaccommodated Universe (Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press, 1980). p.207.

15. Terry Gifford and Neil Roberts, Ted Hughes: A Critical Study (London: Faber 1981). p.256.

16. Ann Skea, Ted Hughes’s Vacanas: The Difficulties of a Bridegroom

17. Shekinah, in Cabbala, is the ‘quasi–independent’, exiled, female aspect of God and ‘the sphere of Shekina [is] the dwelling place of the soul’. She is the primordial mother, linked with the moon, and her exile due to human sin is ‘sometimes represented as the banishment of the queen or of the king’s daughter by her husband or father’. The task of the Cabbalist is to work to expiate that sin, end her exile, and seal this with a sacred marriage which reunites the female and male aspects of God. These quotations are from Gershom Scholem’s detailed discussion of Shekinah in On the Kabbalah and its Symbolism (New York: Schoken 1996). pp.135–157. Chokmah, otherwise known as ‘Wisdom’ and ‘The All Father’, is Sephira 2 on the Cabbalists’ Tree of Life where it represents one of the aspects of Divine energy manifest in our world.

18. British Library, Add. Mss 88918/12/9

19. Hughes to Keith Sagar, September/October 1973 (LTH 338); Hughes to William Scammell, 2 October 1993 (LTH 648–9).

20. Rober Graves, Greek Myths (London: Cassell 1981) pp. 72–3.

21. Ann Skea, Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest (Armidale: UNE Press 1994). p.200.

22. When constructing a birth–chart, astrologers adjust the time of birth to accord with Universal Time. ‘A few minutes after one a.m.’, for Hughes’s birth date, therefore becomes approximately 12.05 a.m. which in a letter to Ben Sonnenberg, quoted by Diane Middlebrook in Her Husband (N.Y. Viking 2003) p. 51, Hughes called ‘solar midnight’. In a letter to Olwyn Hughes, 23 February 1957 (THL 94) he also notes the time and the positions of Jupiter ‘on the cusp of the fifth’, ‘near my Moon’ and ‘Moon opposite my ascendant’.

23. Add.Mss. 88918/10/17. 1970 Collins Desk Diary. These notes are written upside-down on the pages for December 22-31.

© Ann Skea 23 January 2019. For permission to quote any part of this document contact Dr Ann Skea at ann@skea.com

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