There is still a need for a quick and dirty introduction to pre-Medieval ancient astrology. In this series of posts, I hope to present things in such a way that even someone with no prior experience with astrology will be able to very quickly start reading charts from a Hellenistic perspective, understand future articles on this site, and start exploring primary source material. For those itching to go further, I highly recommend buying Ben Dykes’ Introductions to Traditional Astrology to keep as a reference work and Chris Brennan’s affordable Introduction to Hellenistic Astrology Course for gaining a solid foundation.
A Little History
You can skip this section and come back to it later, but it is important to have some understanding of the historical context of ancient astrology, and here I present only the barest-bones look at the history of astrology.
By ancient astrology I mean that type of astrology which arose around the last couple centuries BCE, in the Mediterranean region, particularly around Egypt. Prior to the advent of this new system, astrologers had read omens in the sky for thousands of years, with particular intensity in Mesopotamia (i.e. Babylonian astrology). However, this new system, reflecting a meeting of Babylonian, Egyptian, and Greek knowledge, used a chart of the planets in signs which was interpreted for all manner of inquiries.
One of the key innovations to come out of this revolutionary system was that it fixed the sky to a specific place and time according to the sign of the zodiac that was rising in the east, called the horoskopos or horoscope. Maps of the positions of the signs and planets relative to this sign were drawn, allotting certain life topics to each sign, and applying a handful of new principles of interpretation. This astrology became very popular and widespread through Egypt, Europe, Persia, and even India, transforming each culture’s omen lore tradition into a “horoscopic” tradition; an Astrology 2.0 if you will.
We refer to the original strata of horoscopic astrology as Hellenistic astrology because it originated with peoples who wrote in Ancient Greek (the scholarly language of the time around Alexandria, Egypt and the Mediterranean). Texts quickly also appearing in Latin, Pahlavi, and Sanskrit, but even in these other languages the “system” as it was practiced prior to the Early Middle Ages may be called Hellenistic astrology. The systems spread to India (see Yavanajataka) transformed the astrology of the region, giving birth to the Indian horoscopic tradition of Jyotish, though sophisticated non-horoscopic astrology existed in India for thousands of years prior.
There is a great deal of material in Hellenistic astrology, and it is very diverse. There is a common foundation, but different authors stressed different techniques and provided varying insights from even the earliest surviving sources. Most of the material has seen its first translations into modern languages like English in just the past couple decades. One of the most important works, the nine volume Anthology of Egyptian astrologer Vettius Valens, just saw release of the first complete English translation of the text in 2010 (by Mark Riley). The oldest surviving complete works date back to the 1st century CE, but are already quite large, refined, and referring back to earlier source material. In fact, both large surviving complete works from the 1st century, those of Manilius and Dorotheus, were written in verse, an indication of thorough prior familiarity with the material.
While there are over a dozen notable surviving texts from the Hellenistic period, there are five texts that are particularly pivotal:
- Dorotheus wrote the large and influential Carmen Astrologicum in the 1st century, which had 4 books on interpreting charts for birth time (i.e. natal astrology) and 1 book on choosing auspicious times to undertake activities (i.e. electional astrology).
- Ptolemy, a notable “scientist” (natural philosopher) of the day, wrote the large Tetrabiblos (2nd century), notable mainly for its birth chart material, but also containing material on interpreting charts for weather and political events (i.e. mundane astrology).
- Valens wrote what is probably the most information-packed text of the era, a voluminous text citing numerous ancient authors and techniques (especially predictive ones) which would otherwise be unknown, in his Anthology (2nd century), which deals in depth with natal astrology (birth chart interpretation), especially with methods on predicting timing of important life events.
- Maternus wrote a text equally as voluminous as that of Valens but more focused on reading the natal chart than on the time of the things it indicates, called Mathesis (4th century).
- A great reference text of definitions by an author named Antiochus (2nd century or earlier) is now lost but its important definitions were copied into the Introduction to the Tetrabiblos of Porphyry (3rd century) and the Compendium of Rhetorius (7th century), making these two definitive texts for accessing the early “rules” of the game.
From Hellenistic to Persian Medieval
After the decline of the western empire, intellectual work in the region strongly shifted from the Greeks to their neighbors, the Persians. After the Persians were conquered by Muslim Arabs in the 7th century CE, they translated Greek and Pahlavi material on astrology, natural science, and philosophy into Arabic. Very concentrated work in astrology was taken up by some of the greatest Persian and Arabic minds of the age. They worked on developing Hellenistic astrology but there were sufficient changes and additions to transform the way a chart is interpreted, thus I typically refer to astrology for that region from the Middle Ages as Persian astrology or Perso-Arabic astrology, to distinguish it from the Hellenistic astrology that came before it and the European Medieval astrology that followed. The Carmen Astrologicum of Dorotheus was a major influence upon the astrology of the Persian period, particularly in the development of a sophisticated body of work on choosing auspicious times (election astrology) and answering an importat question based on indications from the chart of the time the question was asked (horary astrology).
From Persian/Arabic to European/Latin Medieval and Renaissance
During the High Middle Ages, Arabic material became translated into Latin, particularly around Spain. This translation wave saw the reemergence of Hellenistic scientific and philosophical thought into Europe, leading eventually to the Renaissance. While some of the greatest minds of the European Middle Ages and Renaissance worked on this astrology, it came to resemble a somewhat watered down version of late Perso-Arabic astrology, rather than a return to Hellenistic astrology. This was due to a combination of factors, including selection, quality, and availability of translated texts, as well as varying degrees of social pressure against astrology from the church and some in the intellectual community.
Some of the distinct features of the late European tradition include assigning topics/houses by numbering spacial divisions (i.e. quadrant houses) rather than by assigning such topics to the signs themselves based on their order around the chart starting with the sign on the eastern horizon. There was also very little use of the “lots” (special derived points in the chart based on distances between certain planets being projected from the point of the eastern horizon). Other features included strong reliance upon the angular quadrant houses for assessing a planet’s strength or prominence (the angular quadrant houses are the spaces a planet is in relative to the earth at the times of day when it is approaching the local horizon or meridian), emphasis upon aspects between planets by degrees rather than by sign relationship (with use of “orbs” of influence to assess when planets were in aspect), the use of signs of “detriment” (detriment being when a planet is the in the sign opposite to one of its home signs) to indicate a weakened planet which was not a basic distinction in Hellenistic astrology, and strong reliance upon a pointing system that had been invented in the Perso-Arabic period, both for analyzing quality and for assessing planetary relevance over a topic or special signification. There was a gradual eroding of the astrology throughout this period, as some key concepts like sect (sect is the idea that planets experience some changes in signification based on whether it is day or night) became less important while some marginal distinctions like whether a planet is in “detriment” became very important. In any case, there were a handful of very notable astrologers in the latter part of this period, such as in the 17th century, when reformers such as Johannes Kepler, sought to reformulate astrology according to their own ideological preconceptions. Today’s traditional astrology groups, and most traditional astrology popular texts, tend to revolve around the late European tradition, though this is changing as more people discover the earlier Hellenistic and Persian works. Hellenistic and Persian material has been largely neglected until recently, as most of it was not available in modern languages until the last two decades, and still tends to be under-read and ill-understood.
From Renaissance to New Age Babble
In the late 19th century and throughout the 20th century, astrology basically became reformulated under the influence of theosophy, modern psychology (especially Jungianism), and a number of self-styled gurus. The mainstream of modern astrology, comprising almost all of the astrology books in popular bookstores, may be termed “psychological astrology”. Unfortunately, very little pre-modern astrology is available from popular outlets, with nearly all popular astrology being modern reformulations that I’ve come to see as distortions and oversimplifications of a select few traditional interpretive principles.
Ancient Astrology vs. Modern Astrology
You are probably familiar with newspaper horoscopes, Sun sign books, and maybe even more detailed modern astrological works (those looking at Moon sign, Rising sign, planets in signs, planets in houses, planets in aspect, etc.), all of which claim to provide information about personal traits like character and compatibility. Clearly the stress in modern astrology is on exploring the character, preferences, and “psyche”. The process for doing this in modern astrology tends to involve what may be termed as modularity of psychic function, i.e. different planets or other factors represent distinct functions or modules operating within some type of psycho-spiritual realm (note: this is a rather prevailing view but there is a variety of particular perspectives). The cosmos is viewed as the movements of the individual and collective psyches, with such movements sometimes externalized in actual events, sometimes not, but always at least “real” in some psycho-spiritual realm.
As all factors are parts of the psyche in such a system, the most powerful factors, i.e. the Sun and Moon, come to represent the central components of the person’s psychological makeup and character. Thus the Sun in modern astrology is the popular go-to factor for analyzing character based on the sign it occupied at birth (the Sun sign). Horoscope columnists even attempt large scale prediction for all those born with the same Sun signs. Books providing very elaborate personality delineations based just on the Sun sign (such as Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs) and/or compatibility between Sun signs (“love signs”) continue to be very popular with the public. However, both the over-emphasis on the sign that Sun occupied at birth and the interpretation that this sign signifies primarily about the person and their personality core or ego are inconsistent with ancient astrological principles of chart interpretation.
This preoccupation with personal and even unconscious realities in modern astrology should be contrasted with the focus in ancient astrology on reading in the chart indications about any and all facets of life, not just about the person themselves and their personality. The chart in ancient astrology speaks to life, in total, internal and external, personal and impersonal, subjective and objective. In short, in one person’s chart the Sun may connect very strongly and specifically with indications regarding the personality but in another person’s chart it may pertain more to the person’s career, spouse, boss, father, or leader. Not everything in the chart provides indications about the internal functioning of the person’s personality. For this reason, there is the misconception that ancient astrology is about “external” reality and says little about personality, belief, spirituality, and fulfillment. Actually, many ancient astrological authors address the topics of personality, spirituality, morality, and so forth, both at great length and with the type of subtlety and complexity that better captures the diversity of human experience than the 12 Sun Sign personalities approach and other over-simplistic modern astrological character delineations. In ancient astrological interpretation, there may be 3 planets with strong ties to the mind and personality, each with very different significations, and they may even be in tense conflict with each other, with indications provided for when one becomes more prominent than the others and when conflicting or harmonious relationships between them will tend to manifest. The wider vocabulary of ancient astrology is a welcome move away from the type of astrology that insists that Walt Disney, Josef Stalin, Jimi Hendrix, Brad Pitt, Ted Bundy, and Miley Cyrus all have the same core personality (or main ego drives, etc.) because all were born with the Sun in Sagittarius.
While the signs of the Sun and the Moon are the primary factors for character in modern astrology, planets rather than signs are the key focus for character in ancient astrology. The Sun and Moon are powerful in ancient astrology as well, but in a general way, signifying power and prominence and being influential over the life as a whole. If the Sun and/or Moon had a strong influence over character then they’d symbolize bolder and more vibrant character, but the Sun and Moon are not typically the central factors for determining the nature of character. Rather it is the eastern horizon, called the horoskopos, Ascendant, or Rising point, that is most symbolic of self in ancient astrology. This is the point where the vast sky, symbolic of the infinite universal soul, rises up out of the ground of the earth, symbolic of the finite personal body, like a soul peering through a body. Planets ruling or otherwise influencing this point (i.e. planets ruling or in the rising sign) take on particular relevance for interpretation pertaining to the specific individual.
The degree of the Ascendant is based on the earth’s rotation, so the degree of the Ascendant changes about every 4 minutes, compared with the Sun sign which changes once a month. In this way, ancient astrology links the self with the most individual part of the chart which is dependent upon the particular moment and location of birth, rather than a factor which is the same for everyone born in the same 1/12th of any year anywhere. The rest of the chart may be seen as symbolic of the circumstances around that individual throughout life. Predictive techniques animate the symbols to symbolize the individual put into contact with various circumstances, including even the possibility for some development and change in the personality itself.
The Planets – Terminology
The terminology of ancient astrology is sometimes confusing because ancient astrologers were also the first astronomers, thus with the advent of modern astronomy over the last few centuries the terminology of ancient astrology has been appropriated often with a change in technical meaning and application, but one that is slight enough to evoke confusion. It helps to think of the ancient astrological terms as being based more on visual considerations while their modern astronomical equivalents are based on physical considerations. For instance, in ancient astrology a ‘star’ is basically a glowing heavenly body, and thus included not only the stars in the modern astronomical sense which are defined by their composition, but also the planets and the Moon. Therefore, ancient astrology distinguishes the “fixed” stars from the “wandering” stars.
The term “planet” causes more confusion than any other because not only does it have a different meaning but also modern astrologers have tended to use the term in the astronomical rather than the astrological sense. For instance, in ancient astrology the “planets” are the seven wandering stars, seen to wander in a regular path along the ecliptic moving from west to east. They include the Sun and the Moon, though the Sun and Moon were given special status among them as the Lights or Luminaries. However, they don’t include the modern astronomical outer planets Uranus and Neptune and the dwarf planets like Pluto and Eris. These so-called planets are not even stars in the ancient sense, let alone wandering stars (i.e. planets), because they are not visibly apparent glowing heavenly bodies. For this reason, some modern-day traditionalist astrologers who like to use the so-called outer planets have taken to calling them “the invisibles”, or simply “the moderns”, to distinguish them from astrological planets.
The Planets – Order and Symbols
The 7 planets of ancient astrology are typically ordered in terms of potential speed. This order was conceived of as spheres around the Earth which were the domains of each planet. At birth the soul would descend from the fixed stars to Earth through each planetary sphere, from Saturn, thru to the Moon, and then Earth, taking on different physical and spiritual qualities along the way in parallel to fetal development. At death the soul would ascend from the Earth upwards through the spheres of the Moon, Mercury, and so forth, tested at each sphere and shedding some worldly attribute (possibly influencing the Christian conception of the seven deadly sins according to some scholars). This order is sometimes called the Chaldean order of the planets. Typically the order starts with the slowest planet, Saturn, marking the farthest sphere. Here I list the planetary spheres from fastest/closest to slowest/furthest:
- The Moon
- The Sun
There are a couple things to notice about this order that will help you to remember it. First, The Sun is in the center of the list, dividing the rest of the planets into “inferiors” (Venus, Mercury, The Moon) and “superiors” (Mars, Jupiter, Saturn). The extreme closest to the Earth is the Moon, while that furthest is Saturn, which can be remembered by thinking of the crescent of the Moon and rings of Saturn, as both being wispy circles on either end of the list. You may have heard the expression that men are from Mars and women from Venus, Mars pertaining to masculinity and Venus to femininity, and here they flank the Sun on either side, Venus being the organ in the direction of Earth while Mars the organ pushing out to the stars. The giant Jupiter is out toward Saturn and the tiny Mercury in toward the Moon.
The glyphs for the planets can be seen here. The glyphs for the Sun and Moon are pretty easy to grasp. Many are also familiar with the glyphs for Venus (like stick person, think “female”) and Mars (a circle with an arrow, think “erection”). The glyph for Mercury is pretty easy to grasp, as it looks like a stick person with a winged hat – Mercury is the messenger. The symbols for Jupiter and Saturn are most confusing for beginners, and they are derived from the Greek Z for Zeus and K for Kronos respectively. Jupiter looks like a 4: think 4 corners and peace of mind; Saturn looks like a cross with a tail: think cross to bear and a little devilish.
The Planets – Core Significance
The seven planets are the most important symbols in the astrological language. Your ability to read a chart will depend upon being able to get a sense for their core significations and associations, as well as their quality on an energetic level. It is very easy to be mislead when reading a chart if you do not have a clear idea of the meaning and distinctness of each planet. These are your 7 notes to play in astrology.
As I explain the significance of each planet our first practical application of astrology will be in trying to describe people, their personalities, and general things in life using the planets as adjectives.
Saturn – Ancient, dead, land, raw resources, dark, fear-inducing, lack, obligation, duty, macabre, cold, doubting, restrictive.
Jupiter -Lofty, opportune, joyous, generous, open, fertile, popular, teaching, warm, trusting, expansive.
Mars – Fiery, intense, aggressive, dangerous, bold, pack-animals/swarm/march, very hot, disagreeable, explosive.
The Sun – Vibrant, powerful, prominent, rational, leading, pioneering, hot, influential, attention-getting.
Venus – Beautiful, pleasurable, friendly, sensual, sexual, mysterious, intoxicating, wet, agreeable, soothing.
Mercury – Clever, skilled, complex, cunning, numbers, language, business, transporting, dry, knowledgeable, informative.
The Moon – Primal, powerful, idiosyncratic, irrational, natural, familial, nurturing, journeying, wet and changeable, personal, intimate.
Thinking in Planets
Let’s think of a few well-known figures and what planets we’d associate with their lives and personalities. There are no right or wrong answers in this exercise, as long as one is able to keep the planets distinct and think of why they feel some signification applies to a certain aspect of the life or personality.
Einstein – He doesn’t strike us as very dark and foreboding (Saturn). His personality seemed a bit Jupiterian, i.e. lofty, joyful and expansive. He doesn’t strike us as hot-tempered at all (Mars), but he did deal with themes in his professional life of intense energy. The genius, pioneering, and attention-getting significations of the Sun seem to pertain very strongly to his life’s work as a whole. He doesn’t strike one as particularly sensual or artistic (Venus) but he has more of a mysterious friendliness than a gregarious Jupiterian friendliness. Mercury seems to have had a major impact on his life’s work as a whole as it very much was concerned with numbers, knowledge, complexity, and information, though his personality doesn’t strike us as a dry informative Mercurial type. As far as scientists go he seems more lunar than typical in his personality, in that he seems more natural, idiosyncratic, intimate, and embracing of the irrational. Overall, it would seem that his legacy is particularly well-described by Mercury and the Sun, while his personality seems more lunar, Jupiterian, and possibly Venusian.
Bjork – Bjork strikes me as very lunar in many ways as her art seems to stress a certain natural, primal, intimate, and irrational side of things. She is an artist which automatically brings to mind Venus but in her style and approach she seems to stress attention-getting vibrant creative genius (Sun) and intimate personal expression (Moon).
James Randi – It’s hard to imagine the guy as anything but a dark, duty-bound, doubtful figure aiming to strike fear into con artist New Age gurus, which is Saturn all the way. As a magician, he’s clever, an entertainer, and an attention-getting rationalist, so Mercury and the Sun also come to mind.
Barack Obama – As a leader, the Sun definitely comes to mind as having a prominent role to play in the life. Personality-wise he seems somewhere between Jupiter and Saturn, between open and gregarious Jupiter and the cool formal sternness of Saturn. His general tendency to be attended by luck and popularity is consistent with Jupiter.
A Couple Useful Planetary Groupings
There are some ways of grouping or organizing the planets that are particularly useful and meaningful.
One of the most important groupings is by tendency to signify pleasant or unpleasant things. Two of the planets (Jupiter and Venus) tend toward signifying the most enjoyable types of things while another two of the planets (Saturn and Mars) tend toward signifying the most unpleasant and challenging things.
The Benefics tend toward fortuitous balance.
- Jupiter – Temperate, fertile, joyous, high, opportune, sweet.
- Venus -Temperate, fertile, pleasurable, beautiful, satiated, fatty.
The Malefics tend toward unpleasant extremes.
- Saturn -Cold, depressed, slow, extremes of lack of life and activity.
- Mars – Hot, angered, overloaded, extremes of violent energy.
The Lights tend toward prominence and influence, which is neutral but often desired.
- The Sun – Attainment, honors, leadership.
- The Moon – Depth, naturalness, subjective significance.
Mercury is amoral, complex, combining. It is the most neutral but also tends toward argument, contention, and dryness, so was considered by some to tend toward slight displeasure.
Another very useful and important division is called “sect”. Three planets are more associated with the day and the sky (i.e. above the horizon), and three with the night and the ground/underworld (i.e. below the horizon), while Mercury is neutral, affiliating with sects based on specific circumstances. Each sect is led by a Light and has one benefic and one malefic.
The Day or Diurnal sect is led by The Sun, with the benefic Jupiter and the malefic Saturn. These planets are also more associated with the realm above the horizon, which is more sky-like, soul-oriented, or abstract, so they tend to signify along more social, mental, and spiritual lines.
The Night or Nocturnal sect is led by The Moon, with the benefic Venus and the malefic Mars. These planets are also more associated with the realm below the horizon, which is more earth-like, body-oriented, or tangible, so they tend to signify along more familial, physical, and resourceful lines.
All of the planets can signify along either abstract or tangible lines, but generally Saturn would be more likely to signify something like imprisonment and Mars something like assault. Similarly, Jupiter tends toward things like getting a job or receiving wisdom, while Venus would tend to signify a delicious dinner or great sexual experience.
Sect will be dealt with at much greater length in future lessons, as it is an extremely important factor in astrological interpretation.
Think about the significations of the planets that I’ve provided. Which planet or planets play the greatest role in your life? Which ones best describe your personality? Ask yourself these questions about loved ones as well.
The planets can span nearly any topic in life, so also think about people, place, things, and events in general in terms of the planets. If someone goes on vacation think “Moon”, as she journeys. If someone is frequently commuting, think “Mercury”. Seeing a major CEO, think “Sun”. A homeless person should make you think “Saturn”, and a lottery winner should make you think “Jupiter”. An attractive musician should have you thinking “Venus”, while muscles and tattoos should have you thinking “Mars”. A computer database is “Mercury”, an explosion is “Mars”. Practice thinking like this and in the next lesson I’ll address one way to find the general prominence or “volume” (as in loudness) of a planet’s significations in someone’s life.