Few techniques are more hyped in traditional western astrological circles than primary directions. This is probably because they became a very popular predictive technique in Renaissance and late classical or early modern traditional astrology, during a time when the complexity of an astrologer’s mathematical abilities were more important than the veracity of her predictions. I frequently encounter the beliefs today that with primary directions one will have the number one key to predicting the timing of a person’s death, that some specific type or combination of types of primary directions will time out the major events in a person’s life to the very day that they occur, and that, because of the last belief, birth times need to be rectified, even if recorded with a stopwatch at birth, such that the important events in life line up with certain primary directions to the very day.
While primary directions are a bit over-hyped, they were used by various Hellenistic and Persian astrologers, and can be an important addition to the astrologer’s predictive toolbox. Directions through the terms and directions to angles, especially the Ascendant, are particularly powerful and useful, and are the earliest types used. I feel that it is best to start from the beginning, with the way it seems that primary directions were used in early Hellenistic astrology, and progressing gradually from there. I will not be getting into the incredible diversity in direction approaches that arises after the first millennium, but I’m of the rather cynical opinion that the reader will be better off for that. In fact, according to Martin Gansten (2009) who wrote the definitive text on Primary Directions, prior to the 15th century directions were always in the zodiac (in zodiaco as opposed to in mundo), without latitude, using semi-arc proportions, and without any relationship to particular systems of quadrant house division (p. 61).
What are Primary Directions?
As you’ve probably heard, the Earth spins, and it takes 24 hours for it to make one such spin. The planets rise, culminate, and set with this spin. But what if we were to freeze the positions of the planets in the sky relative to the Earth at birth, and then watch the planetary conjunctions and aspects that occur in the sky relative to this as the day goes on with the planets continuing to rise, culminate, and set? If we did this we would see the primary directions, and the clock time that it would take for these conjunctions and aspects to occur would be the timing of these directions (for instance we may equate 4 minutes of elapsed time with 1 year of life).
The 24 hours of spin is given a constant measure called Right Ascension (RA), such that 30 degrees of RA passes over the Meridian of the location in exactly 2 hours of clock time; 360 degrees = 24 hours; 24 hours = 1,440 minutes; each of the 360 degrees corresponds to about 4 minutes of clock time (i.e. 1,440/360=4). In other words, if a planet were to culminate 8 minutes after birth, then we’d convert this to degrees of RA as being a direction to the MC 2 degrees (of RA) after birth.
Annual Key: To convert these degrees of RA into a point in the life, we use the key 1 degree of RA = 1 year of life. This key is sometimes called the Ptolemaic key, even though it was not Ptolemy that originally used it. This is the annual key used for primary directions until about the Renaissance, and thus it’s the only one we’ll use. Remember, 1 degree of RA = 1 year of life = 4 minutes of clock time.
Smaller Units of Time: We now know that 1 degree of RA is symbolic of 1 year of life, but there are 365.25 days in a year, so how much RA is a day? 1 degree is equivalent to 60 minutes of a degree which is equivalent to 3,600 seconds of a degree. By dividing 3,600 by 365.25 we get that a day is about 9.86 seconds of a degree of right ascension. We really don’t need that sort of precision, as primary directions are not really the appropriate technique for timing to the day anyway. We’re especially not concerned with precision at this point, and when we do want greater precision we can let a good software program do the calculation for us. It was common practice in the ancient world to use approximate the year as 360 days, giving an even approximation of 10 seconds of a degree for one day (i.e. 3,600/360=10) and 5 minutes of a degree for one month (i.e. 10 seconds * 30 = 300 seconds = 5 minutes).
Estimating Primary Directions to Angles with Astro-Clocks
Because about 4 minutes of clock time is equal to a year of life in the system of primary directions, one can actually use an astro-clock to look at the time it takes from birth to when a planet conjoins or aspects an angle of the chart. Take the time, divide by 4, and you will get a rough approximation of the year (and quarter) when an event is likely to occur. Out of all primary directions that are aspect-based (as opposed to the very important time lord discussed below), these directions to the angles are most pivotal, especially the direct hits, so it is handy to be able to approximate these with one’s astro-clock or by manually time adjusting a chart.
For instance, the divorce of Kurt Cobain’s parents when he was seven years old is often cited as a very influential event in his life. Looking at his natal chart we see that Jupiter is the ruler of his 4th of family, and that Venus (a significator of the mother by day) is conjunct Saturn in his natal chart. This Venus-Saturn conjunction was a particularly significant combination in his musical career, his marriage to Courtney Love, and his suicide.
Sure enough, about a half hour (about 30 / 4 = about 7.5) after Kurt’s birth Jupiter, ruler of the 4th, exactly aspects the Descendant, and Venus conjoins the Descendant. The setting of Venus is more significant here because it is a direction to the horizon itself, rather than a direction of an aspect of a planet to the horizon (the Jupiter direction is from the trine of Jupiter to the horizon). While a traumatic parental separation may not strike one as a particularly Venus and Jupiter type of event, Jupiter, in Cancer and ruling the 4th shows the emphasis on parents, and Venus, being conjunct Saturn, shows the effect on his sense of relationships, and the loss and weight associated with that.
At age 12 his mother granted full custody to his father. Age 12 would correspond to about 48 minutes after birth (4*12=48), and sure enough Saturn sets in the chart about 48 minutes after birth, rounding out the impact of this very powerful Jupiter-Venus-Saturn configuration coming due by direction to the Descendant.
I invite the reader to take a few minutes to play around with this on one’s own chart and other working charts to get a rough idea of when directions to angles occur in the life, especially those that are complex configurations involving a series of hits over a few years. Think in terms of natal significations that could be unlocked by the prominence that lining up with the axis (horizon and meridian) of your birth location can bring.
Early Primary Directions
According to Gansten (2009, p. 11) there is evidence of use of primary directions dating back to at least the 1st century CE, in the Carmen Astrologicum of Dorotheus and possibly also in a paraphrase of the early 1st century CE astrologer Balbillus.
There are three things that you should know about the earliest primary directions:
- There is an exclusive focus on the Ascendant (though Dorotheus in his length of life technique appears to advise to direct from various points, so Gansten may have overstated this point).
- The rising of the bounds of a sign give rise to a time lord of the period as bound lord which sets the tone.
- Directions of planets to Ascendant and planetary aspects to Ascendant mark more transitory events.
This second point about directing the Ascendant through the bounds is often overlooked in today’s traditional circles where primary directions tend to used more like some a suped-up set of transits than a system giving time lords. However, this was a critical facet of this technique from the beginnings in the Hellenistic period right on through the Persian period, where the bound lord is given the technical term, jarbakhtar (distributor of time, much like the Greek chronocrator). Of course, you can try to rough estimate these by astro-clocking as well, noting when the Ascendant passes into another bound. The bounds used were the Egyptian bounds (the “Egyptian” bounds were the only set widespread and independently attested in multiple Hellenistic sources, in addition to appearing to be rooted farther back in Mesopotamian astrology). You can find a table of Egyptian bounds online at Altair Astrology’s blog here, or download a free pdf of the bounds and more from Project Hindsight here. This is arguably the most important use of primary directions, and appeared to have been given more stress than the aspectual ones, so the time has come to show we can obtain this important time lord quickly and easily with free software … but first, let’s talk ascensional times.
Estimating Ascendant Directions with Ascensional Times
The ecliptic is at an angle to the horizon, so signs rise somewhat diagonally, which is why they take more or less than 2 hours to rise, rather than a steady 2 hours per sign for all 12 rise in a 24 hour day. The length of time it takes for a given sign to rise depends on the latitude of the location, and this length of time is measured in Right Ascension (RA). You will recall that 1 degree of RA is basically 4 minutes of clock time. Therefore, if a sign rose uniformly, then all 30 degrees of the sign would rise in 30 degrees of RA or 2 hours (30 degrees RA * 4 minutes clock time = 120 minutes clock time). If the sign took longer to rise, called a sign of long ascension, and let’s say it rose in 3 hours, then we’d call this 3 hours its “ascensional time” for that latitude, but we’d want to convert it into RA. 2 hours of clock time is 30 degrees RA, so 3 hours of clock time would be 45 degrees RA, and the ascensional time for such a sign at that latitude would therefore be 45 degrees.
The ascensional times of the signs at the latitude of birth is an important thing to know in multiple Hellenistic predictive methods. The ancient key of 1 year for each degree of RA was used in multiple ways in Hellenistic astrology. For instance, an activation of the sign in the chart was thought to occur around the same number of years as the ascensional time of the sign. In our 45 degree sign example, we might expect some special activation of that sign around the time that natives of that latitude turn age 45.
Additionally, the ascensional times were used to estimate primary directions pertaining to the Ascendant (and sometimes also for a sort of rough symbolic direction of other points, even though it is not astronomically correct to use it for directing other points). Gansten (2009, p. 14) mentioned that at least Valens and Paulus Alexandrinus employed this short cut method. The method is as follows: Take the ascensional time of the sign, divide it by 30, and use that as a conversion unit for converting zodiacal degrees into right ascension.
To better understand how this is done, the reader will have to first obtain a table of sign ascensional times for the latitudes. One such table is available from Project Hindsight for free as the last pdf link on this page. Please download that table at this time and refer to it for the discussion in the next few paragraphs.
Let’s return to Kurt Cobain. He was born at about 47 North, for latitude, and his Ascendant is Virgo. At the intersection of latitude 47 and the sign Virgo, you will find the ascensional time of 40°29′. Dividing by 30 we get 1°21′ or 1.35°, which is our conversion factor. In other words, while the Ascendant is in Virgo, we pretend that 1° of zodiacal longitude is equivalent to 1.35 years of life (about 1 year, 4 months, and 1 week). Kurt’s Ascendant is at 20 Virgo in the bound of Jupiter but the bound switches to that of Mars in a degree, and thus at about age 1 year, 4 months. Mars rules that time in the life until the Ascendant enters the bound of Saturn which starts at 28 Virgo, 8 degrees past the Ascendant, so 8*1.35=10.8 years, or about 10 years and 9 1/2 months old. In other words, from about age 1 1/2 until almost age 11, Mars is the lord of the time, and should be more in focus and setting the tone. This Saturn bound lasts for 2 degrees, or 2.7 years (1.35*2=2.7), until he is about 13 1/2. After that point the Ascendant enters the first bound of Libra, which is another Saturn bound. When entering a new sign we then have to find the conversion factor for the new sign as well. However, in this case it is easy, because Virgo and Libra have the same ascensional times, and thus the same conversion factor. That Mars and Saturn as time lords set the tone during Kurt’s childhood for the other directions is significant, particularly in relation to our speculations about the meaning of the Jupiter and Venus directions above.
We can do the same thing for aspects to the Ascendant. The Ascendant is at 20 Virgo and Saturn is at 28°44′ (about 28.75) Pisces. When 28°44′ Virgo rises this direction of Saturn opposite the Ascendant (same direction we mentioned as occurring around age 12 above on astro-clocking) will be complete. Therefore, we are interested in the age that corresponds to about 8.75 degrees of zodiacal longitude. Multiplying by our Virgo conversion factor for this latitude of 1.35, we get 11.8 years of age, which is pretty close to the estimate we got by astro-clocking – emphasizing a focus on that Saturn at about 12 years of age.
Hopefully, you now have a good idea for how these sign conversion factors can be used to convert zodiacal distance within a certain sign into degrees. This is simply another rough estimate method because of course the conversion factor is not in reality constant throughout a sign, but rather the speed of the signs rise changes continuously, so it is not precisely accurate to equate any arbitrary zodiacal degree of Virgo with the same particular unit of time. Imagine that you don’t have a program that can calculate primary directions or even an astro-clock to estimate important hits and aspects to the Ascendant, then you can at least approximate important directions through bounds and to the Ascendant with nothing more than the ascensional times of the signs under consideration which you divide by 30 for a conversion factor.
Directing thru Bounds with Free Software
In a future post of this series, I’ll give more details about primary directions, their use, and their calculation with free software. However, I want to leave the reader with at least the chance to create and print off tables for the Ascendant jarbakhtar periods of any chart. This is done with the free open-source traditional astrology program Traditional Morinus.
I won’t get into the details of installing the program and entering basic chart data here because I’ve addressed it in this prior post, and further in this one. If you are new to Morinus, please check out those posts, download, install, and get a chart in there, before continuing on.
OK, now that you have a birth chart up, you should have a screen that somewhat resembles the following:
First, let’s set the Key. Click Options, then Primary Keys. Make sure Static is selected and select Ptolemy from the list, then click OK.
Second, let’s set the other Primary Directions options for some traditional Ascendant through the bounds type of directions. Click Options, then Primary Directions. Make sure your selections look as follows by deselecting pretty much everything and then selecting the options shown (remember that semiarc and zodiacal without latitude are pretty much the only approaches prior to about the 15th century) and hit OK:
Now we are ready to calculate the tables. This is done by going to Tables, then Primary Directions. You might as well check 0-100. Make sure only Direct is checked. Converse here are actually not traditional converse primary directions at all, but a sort of reverse primary direction where we imagine that the signs are moving across the sky in reverse (i.e. moving opposite the primary motion), so they are a very weird modern experimental thing which we we’ll ignore, always choosing Direct.
When you hit OK, you should end up with a Table of primary directions of the Ascendant through bounds. Also included are directions of the Descendant through bounds which you should just ignore as they were not a part of the technique (though I’m not sure how to disable them in the software).
For the example below, I pulled up the jarbakhtars for Whitney Houston from Age 25-50.
Remember again that the ones that say Dsc are irrelevant and should be ignored. One thing that we notice is that for the period from April 18, 2009 until March 3, 2013, the Ascendant directs through the Saturn bound of Taurus (22 to 27 Taurus). This tells us that Saturn is jarbakhtar for the period and sets the tone as a time lord, activating potentials related to her natal Saturn, which is located in her 12th House, opposite her natal Sun. For some more on the importance of Saturn in the timing of her death, please see my recent post on that matter.
It’s my hope that I’ve given some insight and encouraged use of some new predictive techniques among readers with little to no background in primary directions or those that have found certain elements of primary directions to be confusing or overly intimidating in the past. When I get around to the next post I’m hoping to diving a little deeper into the way directions were used by various astrologers predictively in the first millennium of the common era.