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The Astrological Anatomy of a Very Bad Day

On Sept. 26, 1940 a group of people in southern France were hurrying on foot across the mountains that separated that country from Spain. Among them was a German intellectual named Walter Benjamin. In later years Benjamin would become somewhat famous for his writings on subjects ranging from politics to art criticism, but on that day he was just another Jew fleeing the Nazi occupation of France.

By this time of his life Benjamin had probable grown used to bad breaks. Though a brilliant student, he had been unable to secure a teaching position at any German University. He had married and had a son, and yet he and his family had lived with his parents until he was 38. Then, in the divorce settlement, his wife got to stay in the house and he was forced to move out. He had published widely in various German and French publications but was always short of money. Finally, he was among the first German Jews to emigrate to France after the rise of Hitler only the have the Nazis march into Paris and chase him out of his refuge.

It is clear from his horoscope that Benjamin was an impulsive character. (Click on Walter Benjamin to see his chart.) Even though he was a Cancer by Sun sign, he had the Moon in fiery Aries just below his Aries Ascendant, and Mars, the ruler of Aries, is opposed to his Mercury. This indicates an active mind, but also a tendency to think his way into trouble. The fact the Jupiter is square his Sun adds to this tendency to take himself too seriously and overstep bounds.

During the weeks leading up to Sept. 26, Benjamin had been hiding out with some of his friends from Paris in a farm house. The friends had gone to Marseilles hoping to attain the paperwork that would allow them to leave France legally. Against all odds, they had succeeded and returned to their hiding place with documents for Benjamin as well. However, when they got there they found that Benjamin’s restless mind already led him in a different direction. He had joined some other refugees hoping to sneak across the border. While his friends were hurriedly packing their belonging, the somewhat flabby, middle-aged Benjamin was dragging a suitcase that contained some his manuscripts up a mountain toward what he thought would be safety.

On Sept. 26, 1940 transiting Mars was conjunct transiting Neptune. This is an aspect for crossed wires and messed-up plans. It is also an aspect for chasing after illusions. The illusion was that this group of desperate people would be able to cross the Spanish border unchallenged. That illusionary bubble was burst in the village of Port Bou, where Spanish border guards stopped Benjamin and his companions.

The exact intention of these guards is unknown, Perhaps they were surprised by this exodus and were waiting for instructions for someone higher up or perhaps they just wanted time to go through some bureaucratic procedure. However, Benjamin immediately jumped to the conclusion that they intended to send the refugees back to France and into the arms of the Gestapo.

At the time transiting Uranus was trine Benjamin’s natal Mars. It’s no wonder that Benjamin was unable to wait for his friends to return from Marseilles. With this aspect he felt the need to act quickly, and to do something radical and unexpected. Since the aspect was a trine he felt good about what he was doing. It felt “right” to him. And then those stupid border guards had to get in his way.

In Benjamin’s secondary progressed chart the progressed Sun was square Pluto. This aspect aptly described Benjamin’s situation. The Sun represents our identity, our self, while Pluto signifies power beyond our control. Benjamin was a lonely individual who felt that he was about to be crushed by the power of war and Nazism. Pluto is also associated with extreme behaviors. Benjamin was desperate and ready to do whatever it took to avoid falling into the hands of the Nazis.

That night, all of these aspect came together. The confusion of Mars conjunct Neptune met the impetus for immediate action of transiting Uranus trine Benjamin’s Mars which in turn operated in the context of the fearful and desperate influence of his secondary progressions. Feeling trapped and certain that he was about to be sent back to France, Benjamin decided to take his fate into his own hands. He had a large dose of cyanide in his possession (more evidence of his progressed Sun square Pluto) and that night he dug it out of his suitcase and swallowed it. He died the next morning.

The next day the border guards decided to let the little band of refugees cross into Spain. It might have been that Benjamin’s suicide shocked them into this action, but no one knows for sure. Despite the fact that he was a Jew and had committed suicide, Benjamin was buried in a nearby Catholic cemetery. His friend, traveling legally by train, heard about Benjamin’s fate and stopped at Port Bou to rescue his manuscript. This and many of the writings he had previously published eventually gave Benjamin the recognition that he had previously been denied, but he wasn’t around to enjoy it.

Ancient astrologers thought they could predict the time of a person’s death. The idea is tempting even for modern astrologers. However, my experience has been that death is more like an accident, a confluence of transits, progression and factors in the natal chart with circumstances and a person’s physical condition. There is nothing in Walter Benjamin’s horoscope that says he was destined to kill himself on Sept. 26, 1940, but there were strong indicators that it was going to be a very bad day for him. It was his reaction to that bad day that caused it to be his last.