As a viewer of True Blood and similar shows and movies depicting supernatural beings (Cronos is high on that list, as is Interview with the Vampire ), something occurred to me about that powerful trinity of vampires, werewolves, and shapeshifters. It’s a wonderful way for beginners to grasp the essential nature of the malefic planets; what is meant by the term “malefic”. In this post, I indulge the beginner and ask for you to imagine Saturn as a vampire, Mars as a werewolf, and Mercury as a shapeshifter.
What does it mean for a planet to be malefic?
In ancient astrology, certain planets were noted as being “malefic”, because they tended to signify more difficult or extreme types of things. We can relate to this from a subjective perspective in terms of two main types of unpleasant emotions: a state of fear or a state of agitation and anger. Also, few matters in life are more unpleasant than those of death, the macabre, and darkness (Saturn), or violence, explosiveness, and invasiveness (Mars).
Here we are getting at the heart of the malefics, Saturn and Mars. Saturn is dark, and slow, but arriving certainly, like death. Saturn signifies matters of death, cold, fear, isolation, depression, rot, doubt, rigidity, poverty, imprisonment, breaking things down to basics, and energy loss. In comparison with the certainty of Saturn’s looming threat, Mars is erratic, wild, and unpredictable. Mars signifies matters of violence, burn, inflammation, violation, anger, competition, sport, conflict, and an overload of energy.
Ptolemy, a prominent second century Hellenistic astrologer best known for his highly developed geocentric model, differed from the other ancient astrologers in that he described the basic nature of the planets not so much in terms of the topics they signified, but rather seemed to view these topics as derivative of the basic Aristotelian qualities of hot/cold and wet/dry. To him Saturn and Mars were malefic because they represented extreme states, Saturn bringing extreme cold, Mars bringing extreme dryness. Jupiter and Venus were most benefic, being more temperate and moist, and thus fertile.
The Sun and Moon also tend to be viewed as more benefic, signifying fortunate or desirable matters, in ancient astrology.
Mercury is the most neutral planet, being strongly influenced by that which connects with it. In other words, Mercury has a broad range and can change forms quite readily. However, the Lot (or “Arabic Part”) associated with Mercury in Hellenistic astrology is one that has overwhelmingly negative significations, so aside from Saturn and Mars, Mercury is viewed as next most capable of bringing unpleasantness. Mercury signifies cleverness, intellectualism, commerce, symbols, language, and so forth. All of these things involve a fair amount of complication and ambiguity, a ready basis for deceit, manipulation, misunderstanding, and trivial contention.
What does it mean for a malefic to be accidentally benefic?
The identification of Saturn and Mars as malefics, and of Mercury as ambiguous, in no way entails that they are just “bad” and have no value. It is recognized that these signify important and powerful facets of life, and that they serve a productive purpose. Additionally, it is recognized in ancient texts that the circumstances of the chart can make Saturn, Mars, and/or Mercury signify very positive and fortunate things in the person’s life, despite their natural signification of more difficult matters.
Below is Julius Firmicus Maternus (4th Century C.E.), excerpts from Book II, Chapter VII, “The Conditions of the Planets” (p. 38, Mathesis, Bram translation), illustrating an emphasis on sect and place. On diurnal planets:
Therefore, in diurnal charts, if they are in favorable positions, they indicate good fortune.
On nocturnal planets:
Favorably located in a nocturnal chart they indicated good fortune, unfavorably in a diurnal chart, the greatest evils.
Vettius Valens (2nd Century C.E.), excerpt from Book I, Chapter I, “The Nature of the Stars” (5P, Riley translation).
The benefic stars which are appropriately and favorably situated bring about their effects according to their own nature and the nature of their sign, with the aspects and conjunctions of each star being blended. If however they are unfavorably situated, they are indicative of reversals. In the same way even the malefic stars, when they are operative in appropriate places in their own sect, are bestowers of good and indicative of the greatest positions and success; when they are inoperative, they bring about disasters and accusations.
Different ancient astrologers had their preferred factors that they thought made a planet more benefic or malefic. In the Hellenistic period sect, place, and regard by other planets were commonly at the forefront of such considerations, while later astrologers of the ancient, medieval, and later periods tended to put more emphasis on sign-based rejoicing conditions, such as whether the planet was in the sign that was its domicile or exaltation or its place of fall (or detriment, a concept that appears be absent in Hellenistic astrology). These sign-based considerations became a system of “dignity”, and a weighted system of dignity pointing, which I am highly critical of on empirical grounds. For instance, I briefly discuss some of the history and problems associated with dignity here and I give a poignant empirical show of how misleading the approach is here.
The factors that make a planet more benefic or malefic in a chart (i.e. accidentally – specific to the chart circumstances) are often referred to as “qualitative” considerations, as opposed to factors that make a planet stronger or weaker in power and pervasiveness of effect, which are more “quantitative”. Qualitative may be a bit misleading though, as all kinds of factors may change the quality of the planet’s significations, without being very relevant to signifying more fortunate or unfortunate matters. I prefer to refer to them as factors that make the planet more fortunate/unfortunate, or even associated more strongly with “good” or “bad”, as subjective and judgmental such an outlook may seem.
A planet is never wholly good or bad though, and everyone’s chart will show a unique range of pleasant and unpleasant possibilities associated with any planet, ready to manifest at various times, with varying degrees of inevitability, and perhaps affected by the person’s own will and consciousness. All the same, when Saturn, Mars, or Mercury signify positive things, they will still do so with a sense of their own nature, such as Saturn showing success through control, discipline, fear, and difficulty, and Mars showing it through atheleticism, competitiveness, and sheer drive. Saturn can show a certainty fortified against negative possibilities and Mars a courage that can surmount the most difficult of obstacles.
The public image of the malefics
The malefics have been ostracized, and sometimes we may even try to ignore them out of existence. Ancient astrology has a language that encompasses the full good/bad, pleasantness and unpleasantness of this world. Try as we may, we can’t ignore the fact that murder, violence, war, death, disease, oppression, poverty, and deception exist in the world; that they are natural elements of existential reality. We also can’t ignore the human tendency to ostracize these things, to hate them, to view them as abominations, as existential errors, caused by an original sin, or a flaw in the system, or an indication that God doesn’t exist. In other words, on a fundamental level we view certain categories of things as naturally malefic, evil, devilish, and at the very least unpleasant and undesirable.
The supernatural creatures of vampires and werewolves, as well as shapeshifters, strike a chord when it comes to understanding the malefics. I particularly like their representation in True Blood, in which they are all of nature, but nature fashioned to feared and dangerous extremes. As they are extreme, they are ostracized and largely of the hidden world, pushed into a sub-conscious realm. In addition to malefics showing things objectively harmful to the individual, they can also signify things that the individual may be comfortable with but which society doesn’t accept or approve of. The depiction of the vampires, werewolves, and shapeshifters in True Blood really resonates with the spirit of Saturn, Mars, and Mercury in traditional astrology. Such a mythological personification helps flesh out these forces (or perhaps the forces help flesh themselves out in our mythologies?) and gives us insight into these more extreme and super-natural aspects of being human.
Saturn the Vampire
Vampires are dark, cold, and dead, like Saturn. Vampires and Saturn are about the dark side of things, about fear and the macabre, and an exploitation of the limitations, vibrancy, and uncertainty of life. The key concept with both vampires and Saturn is the idea of sucking the life out of something, the need to control out of fear of the unknown, and an identification with the dark. Ironically, Saturn is of the diurnal sect, fitting in with the more respectable and principled order of day time, and Saturn is made tamer and more beneficent by day. However, like a vampire, Saturn becomes most dangerous by night. Saturn is in touch with the past, with history and tradition, the soil, real estate, things less alive, but more certain, and more tangible. There is a dark humor, a cynicism, and deep knowing that there is nothing new under the Sun, and that eventually everything dies and is lost.
Mars the Werewolf
I particularly like the portrayal of the werewolf in True Blood. The werewolf is presented as rough, naive, instinctual, aggressive, and lacking manners, unlike the refined vampire that is desensitized and matured to such an extreme of control and refinement. Saturn’s temperament, like that of the vampire, has been characterized as melancholic, while that of Mars, like the werewolves of True Blood, is choleric. Mars is of the nocturnal sect, led by the Moon. Mars seems more animal-like, connected with the hunt and predation. We all know Mars types who like machismo, sharp objects, dangerous things, getting their hands dirty, and hanging out with their “pack”. Mars rules over the gangs and bikers of the world. Werewolves hunt in their packs, where violent initiation is the norm. They are not particularly “bright” but they have strong instincts and reflexes. They tend to be involved in work with sharp or dangerous things, enjoying working with tools and affecting material things whether by building them or blowing them up.
Mercury the Shapeshifter
Less ostracized than the more malefic vampire and werewolf, the shapeshifter is still viewed with suspicion. Mercury’s involvement with intellectualism and commerce is not uncontroversial. Stereotypes ostracizing those involved with business and even with language or intellectualism as deceptive tricksters abounds (for instance, in racist views of Jewish people). Mercury is also associated with theft and con artistry in ancient astrology. We see these themes play out in True Blood with Sam, who is the major local business owner, previously was a thief, and has a brother who is a thief and a liar. Mercury, like the shapeshifter, can be a bit too clever for his own good. Mercury is both the magician, as well as the trickster. The portrayal of the shapeshifters in True Blood really seems to bring out these qualities of the planet.
What mythological creatures, gods, or spirits do you most readily associate with Saturn, Mars, and Mercury? I’d love to hear your opinions in the comments.
Maternus, J. F. (1972). Mathesis: A fourth-century astrological treatise. (J. R. Bram, Trans.). NY, NY: New York University.