Now I will explain to you the length of life and the number of years as I attempt [to compute it], because sometimes you will want to consider it in a horoscopic diagram as I will show you. […] I wanted to know the places of the haylaj among which he was born because they are five places, and none of the planets was in them except in the ascendent in which the Sun was; and it is the best of the places.
But I calculated for this nativity from the degrees of the ascendent[…]
(Dorotheus, Book III, Ch. 1, Pingree trans., 2005, p. 237-238)
I’ve written many articles dealing with death and timing techniques. It’s time I should say a little about the old hyleg/alcocoden technique for longevity. I am a critic of the Medieval form of the technique. However, there are some interesting things to try when we dig back to its Hellenistic antecedents. Here, I critique the late Medieval approach and discuss in some detail the history of classical length of life techniques.
The Amazing Medievalists
The hyleg-alcocoden approach to the length of life was controversially popularized by Rob Zoller a couple decades ago. Zoller sold some publications on it that included heavily obfuscated translations of Bonatti’s approach. Notably, even promoters of this technique have a hard time finding a few good celebrity examples in which it predicts death (or even a major health crisis).
I remember that in Zoller’s own writings, he quickly came to the conclusion that it didn’t necessarily predict death but may predict critical periods. For instance, it predicted a very short life for him and he did indeed have a health crisis as a child. Though when it came to examples, he was forced to make spurious alterations to the technique in order to force it to work. For one example, who lived half as long as indicated, he suggested a new possible critical period – the midpoint of the indication.
Roots of the Medieval Technique
There are intimations of the technique in early Hellenistic astrology. See Dorotheus (Book III, Ch. 2; note that Ch. 1 is a likely interpolation), Valens (Book III), Ptolemy (Book III, Ch. 10), and Hephaistio (Book II, Ch. 26). These techniques involve a hyleg or life-force significator and primary directions. However, the ruler of the hyleg plays a less pronounced role (Valens) or is not used (Ptolemy).
The technique changed its flavor quite sharply in the Middle Ages with the introduction of numerical weighted dignity. The Medieval approach owes a particular debt to Paulus Alexandrinus (Ch. 36; c.f. Ch. 34). Paulus combined the common approach to finding the hyleg (Dorotheus; Ptolemy; Valens) with the use of planetary years of a chart lord (see Maternus Book II, Ch. 26 and Book IV, Ch. 6). Valens had circumstances when he considered the planetary years of the bound lord of the hyleg, but it is Paulus who looked at multiple rulers and of the hyleg to find a most suitable one.
Problems with the Hyleg-Alcocoden Appraoch
There are three major problems with the Bonatti technique. First, it is a less clear version of earlier Perso-Arabic approaches synthesizing even earlier Hellenistic special techniques. Second, the use of planetary years in the technique tends toward poor results. Third, rarely does death coincide with a major traditional aspectual primary direction.
A History Lost in the Haze
The Medieval form of the technique by Bonatt is typically presented as the authoritative version. However, it is a less clear version of the technique over 400 years prior in Masha’allah’s “On Nativities”. Bonatti is already sometimes at odds with his sources. Additionally, when we dig back to the Hellenistic roots of the technique we find additional differences, both in general principles used and in variation among authors. Unfortunately, too few astrologers probe back to the sources to realize that the technique has been degraded.
Bonatti’s technique gets reinterpreted for modern audiences in ways inconsistent with its original use both in the Hellenistic period and the Middle Ages. From indicating death or maximum life span it comes instead to indicate health crises and to have a dangerous midpoint. Therefore, the technique is not only dogmatically held to in Bonatti’s idiosyncratic form but we become apologists for its lack of accuracy by inventing new theories of what it indicates.
Planetary Years Not Adding Up
The alcocoden’s indications by planetary years simply do not consistently indicate the minimum life span of a given individual. Actually, they are typically very far from it if the technique is applied in any systematic fashion. For this reason, the Medieval technique is a misleading distraction. Astrologers play games with math, changing up the methodology on each chart to try to make it work, and still have trouble.
Valens is apparently the first astrologer to have used the planetary years of the alcocoden as a possible indication. However, he himself used it as one possible indicator of maximum lifespan (provided a malefic direction to the hyleg did not cut the life much shorter).
Valens also provided rules as to when this planet should be used. Actually, for Valens there are times when the alcocoden simply doesn’t exist in the chart. Additionally, he took only the bound lord of the hyleg as a possible alcocoden, and only used its greater years (or some portion thereof; at least in the context of this particular technique). Valens instructed as to when the life can be judged to be much shorter than that indicated by the planetary years.
The Medieval technique lacks all of these features of Valens’s early Hellenistic version of the technique! These seem like some pretty important missing pieces!
Due to the numerous variables, many astrologers simply manipulate the technique to assign years to match the situation. They assign them in a different manner depending on what chart they are using to match the facts in hindsight. For more on this, one may see the comments section of the article on the death of Whitney Houston. There was a discussion of the technique relative to her chart.
Perhaps if we are to consider the planetary years technique then we should use it in one of the ways suggested by Valens, Maternus, or Paulus. There is no reason to prefer the technique of later Medieval astrologers providing variations on the Paulus technique hundreds of years later.
Primary Directing on a Prayer
Traditional primary directions to the hyleg do not consistently indicate the time of death. The Medieval form of the technique with a stress on aspectual primary directions is another misleading distraction in this sense. It perpetuates a myth about the necessity of an aspectual primary direction to the hyleg.
Valens (in the 2nd century!) explicitly noted that many die without such an aspectual malefic direction. For him, this can happen when the alcocoden is very well-placed or there is no alcocoden. Also, if there are no planets that aspect by directions without the intervention of a benefic.
Primary Direction Mania
As the Middle Ages progressed into the Renaissance, the belief that an exact primary direction to the hyleg would always signify death became more entrenched. This lead to the proliferation of novel approaches to primary directions as well. As I discuss in the article on primary directions, symbolic directions by ascensions and Ptolemaic directions dominate the first 1,500 years of traditional astrology. It isn’t until after that point that directions become increasingly complex and varied.
In Hellenistic astrology, we find a great stress placed on directions involving the Ascendant, and on the Ascendant’s direction through the bounds (distributions). In Ptolemy (Book IV, Ch. 10) and Dorotheus it is often these that are most significant for timing bodily injury. It is my experience that primary directions are significant for the timing of death. However, death can be indicated by the activation of a significant malefic in the chart as distributor of the Ascendant (or hyleg).
The belief that there must be an aspectual direction from an anaeretic planet can distract from accurately reading threat in timing techniques. I believe I’ve already provided some examples of this in some of the prior articles in this series. If the hyleg is typically the sect light, and directions of the Ascendant are often significant to health, then we may even question the value of finding the hyleg. We may cover more ground simply by paying attention to the directions of the Ascendant and sect light.
A History of Hellenistic Length of Life Techniques
The technique differs significantly from author to author in the Hellenistic period. Valens alone presents more than 3 different distinct approaches to the subject, and comments on the diversity of opinion.
One of the earliest surviving accounts is in Dorotheus (1st century CE). However, that particular book of Carmen Astrologicum is the most corrupt book of the five; one of the two chapters is likely to be an addition. Our best indications of the original Dorothean text come to us from Hephaistio’s summary in Book II, Ch. 26 of Apotelesmatics, This indicates that Ch. 2 of Book III of Carmen is most likely the original Dorothean technique.
Another, possibly earlier instance of the use of length of life technique from the early 1st century CE is found in fragments attributed to the Roman court astrologer Balbilus. However, the account is incomplete so I won’t consider it further here. For more on the fragment of Balbilus concerning length of life, see the article by Martin Gansten by clicking this link).
Ptolemy and Valens
Both Ptolemy and Valens also gave their versions of the technique in the 2nd century CE. All three Hellenistic authors vary in significant ways from each other. However, all stress some type of timing through primary directions, a key planet as indicator (apheta, hyleg, haylaj, hilaj), and little or no use of another planet that rules the apheta (kadhkhudah or alcocoden).
The two major early approaches of Dorotheus and Ptolemy, lack any use of planetary years. The approach of Valens sometimes used planetary years as one component. However, Valens used planetary years in a very different manner than their later use by Firmicus Maternus, Paulus Alexandrinus, and Medieval astrologers.
Manilius wrote the oldest complete surviving astrological text, the Astronomica (early 1st century CE). In Book III, he discussed some means of assessing length of life by assigning years to signs. His values relate roughly to the ascensional times of the signs, with Virgo and Libra assigned values roughly twice that of Pisces and Aries. However, he didn’t provide directions on how to use them.
He also assigned length of life based on the whole sign house that the Moon is in at birth. The most advantageous places assign very long lives and the so-called bad or dark places assign very short ones. For example, 78 years in 1st house and 77 years in the 10th house; 12 years in the 6th house, 23 years in the 12th house, and 33 years in the 8th house.
Perhaps the value of the sign the Moon is placed in is to be added to the value of the house, as the years assigned to the individual signs are much less (about 10-20 years). Unfortunately, Manilius didn’t explain the use of the sign values. Manilius does not use the primary directions approach, so his approach is at a variance from the typical Hellenistic approach.
Maternus (early 4th century CE) also does not use a hyleg or primary directions. Instead he based his indications on the planetary years of a chart ruler. His preferred chart ruler was the planet that rules the sign following that containing the Moon. He took this planet to be the ruler of the life in general, and a primary indicator for character. The technique of Maternus has much more in common with the technique of Manilius than those of Dorotheus, Ptolemy, or Valens.
Paulus (also 4th century) synthesized the hyleg approach with something like Maternus’s planetary years technique. This approach formed the basis of the Medieval approach.
Early Hellenistic Techniques
Dorotheus appears to differ a bit in terms of manner of discovery of the hyleg and alcocoden between the two different chapters of Book III. This is presumably due to the later insertion of chapter 1. This particular book of Dorotheus has significant evidence of corruption. Our translation is an English one, of a medieval Arabic translation, of an early medieval Pahlavi translation, of a 1st century Hellenistic text. Both example charts in Book III were dated to later centuries (4th century for the chart in Ch. 1; 3rd century for that in Ch. 2).
Two Chapters – Conflicting Approaches
Chapter 1 of Book III of Dorotheus appears to be almost wholly a medieval insertion. In that chapter, the hyleg is referred to as the governor of the nativity and the releaser. The alcocoden is referred to as the governor of the releaser.
An example chart is given (dated to the 4th century CE by Pingree) in which the Sun is hyleg but the directions are taken from the Ascendant (see opening quote of this article). Therefore, somewhat strangely, the Sun is releaser but the releasing is from the Ascendant.
Chapter 2 is subject to minor corruptions, but most of the passage on finding the hyleg and alcocoden is Helenistic. It is consistent with the summary by the Hellenistic astrologer Hephaistio who was working from the Greek. In this chapter, the hyleg is the indicator of length of life and the releaser, while the alcocoden is the house-master and governor. The alcocoden does not appear to serve any purpose other than helping to indicate the hyleg: a potential hyleg must have a governor/alcocoden to be selected.
Dorotheus looks to the hyleg as being the most significant planet in terms of signifying health and life in general. In his timing technique, the planets that become its time lord (distributors) show significant events and developments in the general course of life.
In Ch. 2, Dorotheus does not use the alcocoden at all to indicate the length of life. As noted, it is just used to verify the hyleg. In fact, the length is indicated from primary directions to the hyleg (Ascendant). However, he puts particular stress on the lord of the directions through the bounds (i.e. distributor/jarbakhtar) in delineating ups and downs in health. The time of death is indicated when Saturn’s aspect directs to the Ascendant/hyleg (see block quote below).
Finding the Hyleg
I will just provide the procedure from Ch. 2. Dorotheus would prefer to take the sect light (Sun by day, Moon by night). If the sect light is not in an authoritative place (more on this below) or not aspected by a lord (bound, house, exaltation, or triplicity), then we look to alternative possible hylegs. These alternatives are the other light, the Lot of Fortune, the prenatal lunation, and Ascendant, in that order of preference (per Dorotheus’s example and Hephaistio’s summary).
The most authoritative places are the 1st, 10th, and 11th, while its seems that the disqualifying places are the cadent ones (3rd, 6th, 9th, and 12th). As long as the sect light is not cadent, I believe it should be examined first to see if a ruler aspects. Then if its rulers don’t aspect, we move on to the remaining candidates.
Mars is the alcocoden in the example, but Mars does not indicate the length of life. Mars rules the bound of the Ascendant and aspects the Ascendant. The interest in Mars for Dorotheus doesn’t pertain to it being alcocoden, but to it being a malefic. Dorotheus suggests that death happens when either the bound lord of the directed Ascendant (distributor) is malefic, or a malefic makes an exact aspect to a degree inside that bound, without benefic intervention. A benefic can intervene by making an exact aspect to a degree inside that bound. Note that Dorotheus directs by ascensional times rather than true primary directions.
Example from Ch. 2
There was nothing obvious from which the haylaj might be found except the ascendent. The lord of the term of the ascendent, Mars, was above the earth and near the East and the four parts which have been mentioned and [in] the place of good fortune aspecting the ascendent and casting [its] rays to that term in which the ascendent is, from above it […]
[…] Because Saturn is in the twelfth degree, it indicates the last day of his life, and he will live after the twelfth degree forty-eight nights because Saturn is in the beginning of the degree [at 12; 8°].
(Dorotheus, Book III, Ch. 2, Pingree trans., 2005, p. 243-244)
In the example from Chapter II the death is shown by an aspectual direction. However, Dorotheus made it clear that death can also come about by a malefic distributor (bound lord) if no benefic casts a ray into that same bound.
For example, see my analysis of Whitney Houston’s death with primary directions. The Ascendant is hyleg according to the rules given by Dorotheus. She died while the directed Ascendant was in the Saturn bound of Taurus, which spans from 22 Taurus to 27 Taurus. There are no planets at all in her chart from 22-27 of any sign in aspect to Taurus, so no planet casts its ray into the bound. This means that Saturn took over the prorogation (distributor), without the influence of the ray of any benefic, an indication of serious threat. Interestingly, Saturn as a health threat is also indicated natally, and reflected in a number of predictive techniques at the time.
Note that her death was by accidental drug overdose rather than natural causes, so this isn’t a simple matter of indicated “health crisis”. This is simply an indication of death or at least a true threat to her life. This clarifies that the hyleg is about life fundamentally, not just ebbs and flows in the strength of health.
Dorotheus did not take the alcocoden to signify the length of life. He looked at directions to the hyleg, both in terms of bounds and aspectually, as indicating the time of death. Therefore, in the Dorothean technique the hyleg describes the life force, and the alcocoden merely aids in its identification. Timing is done by directions to the hyleg, both by bounds and aspectually. Dorotheus used ascensional times for his directions, though I’ve had good results with true primary directions.
Valens presents his own methods for finding the hyleg (“the control” or “apheta” or “predominator”) and the alcocoden (“the houseruler” or simply “ruler”). His approach is somewhat consistent with that of Dorotheus. However, Valens puts particular stress on the bound lord as being the only lord eligible under this method. There simply is no alcocoden if the bound lord doesn’t qualify.
A Cornucopia of Length of Life Techniques
The Valens material on length of life is the most complex out of all of the Hellenistic treatments, and he actually presents multiple techniques in Book III of his Anthology. There are also many more techniques in various books of the Anthology. These often involve various combinations of ascensional times with planetary years. I will be touching on a couple of the techniques only briefly here, as they relate to the hyleg/alcocoden type of approach.
Obtaining Book III
I advise careful study of Book III of The Anthology (as well as the other books) for more information. The best translation of Book III was available for purchase from Project Hindsight in ebook form for $30. The footnotes in that translation are very helpful for understanding the material. Email firstname.lastname@example.org and tell her Anthony from Seven Stars sent you. There is also a complete English translation of the entire Anthology which is available free online at this link.
Finding the Hyleg
Valens prefers the Sun by day and Moon by night as control/hyleg, but it must be well-placed. So if the Sun by day is not well-placed, then check the Moon, and vice-versa. Not well-placed means being in a cadent place (even the 9th) or in fall.
An exception is the Moon in IX and Sun in V, in which case the one that next aspects the Ascendant is preferred. Also, a Sun or Moon in fall, or Moon under the beams, is not to be taken unless it is on the Ascendant by degree.
If neither the Sun nor Moon are eligible (i.e. both cadent; or in fall) then Valens takes the Ascendant or MC. His rules imply that we want the Ascendant unless the lights aspect the 10th but not the 1st (for instance, Sun and Moon in XII), then take the MC. Strangely though, Valens gives the control to the MC if both Lights are in III.
If both Lights are together (i.e. near a New Moon) in a stake (I, IV, VII, or X) then the degree of their conjunction is the control.
Rare Hyleg Exceptions
If the Moon is on the Ascendant and will become full within a day but outside of the bound of the Ascendant, then the lifespan is marked by the distance from it to the degree of the Full Moon that day. A malefic aspecting the degree or opposing the rising sign confirms death in this case. A benefic regard can protect so there is just injury or suffering.
What is the Hyleg?
As with Dorotheus, Valens takes the hyleg as the main indicator for the life. Ascensional times to its square (or sometimes from one angle to another) indicate maximum lifespan. Malefic directions to it that lack influence from a benefic indicate a life cut short before its time.
The alcocoden (“houseruler”) is the bound ruler of the control/hyleg. Valens also instructs at multiple points that if the Sun and Moon have the same bound lord then that planet should be taken as the houseruler.
The determination of the control/hyleg is certain if its bound lord is regarded by the Sun or Moon and it is at an angle or in operative degrees (i.e. not retreating). Presumably, this means the bound lord should regard the control and itself be angular or at least not retreating. Valens in fact adds that there is no houseruler if it is turned away (presumably meaning doesn’t regard the control). We are also not to accept a houseruler in VII (setting) or if the Sun’s or Moon’s (control’s?) domicile ruler rules the bound of the houseruler and vice-versa (exchanging bounds).
Years of the Alcocoden
He does uniquely use the greater years of the alcocoden as a possible indicator of maximum lifespan. There are circumstances when it is to be preferred as the indication of maximum length of life, rather than the asensional times of the square of the hyleg. One prefers the alcocoden (when there is one) if its greater years indicate a shorter life than that indicated by the hyleg technique. Valens only uses the greater years of the alcocoden in this context. He only subtracts from them if the alcocoden is badly placed (such as in the 12th). To subtract he uses a portion of the greater years based on the amount of separation of the planet from an angle.
Medieval astrologers, like Umar al-Tabari, used quadrant house position (angular, succedent, or cadent by quadrant houses) to determine if an alcocoden gave its greater, middle, or lesser planetary years. This is often thought to originate with Valens’s quadrant divisions in Book III, Ch. 3. Valens advised to set up porphyry-style houses (i.e. tri-sect each angle zodiacally). He considered the first 1/3 after the angle to be the operative degrees, the next 1/3 to be middling, and the last (“turned away”) to be inoperative.
This chapter is in the context of his hyleg/alcocoden discussion, but does not reference planetary years at all. Instead, he introduced this manner of division just after referring to operative degrees. Presumably this is to clarify what the operative degrees are.
The passage (below) is not about planetary years but about finding a suitably strong planet as houseruler/alcocoden.
It is necessary to consider the control to be certain if the sun or the moon is in aspect with the ruler of the terms, and if it is at an angle or in operative degrees. If it is found to be turned away, the nativity judged to lack a houseruler.
(Valens, Book III, Ch. 1, Riley trans., 2010, p. 58-59)
Quadrant Division for the Hyleg
There is the possibility that it could also be used for the finding a suitable control/hyleg as indicating the houses to use for the procedure. This bit about the houses for finding the hyleg is not clear. However, many other Hellenistic astrologers resorted to a quadrant division in determination of the appropriate hyleg.
Valens advocated taking the distance in terms of ascensional times from the hyleg to the point square to it. To do this add 90 degrees to its zodiacal position and then convert that to ascensional times. However, if the hyleg is an angle, then he advises instead taking ascensions from the angle to the next angle. The sector of the square or the quadrant is the vital sector and its number of years is considered the maximum length of life. The native will live that long, provided that there is no alcocoden indicating fewer years, and that no malefic direction cuts things shorter.
Before One’s Time
Valens noted that certain aspects to a point in the vital sector or to the hyleg can cut the life short. These are aspects from Saturn, Mars, the Sun, and in certain circumstances the Moon (coming to a phase). The aspect must be within 3 degrees on either side of the degree containing the hyleg itself; a 7 degree span. Such malefic aspects bring a death prior to the lesser of the indications by vital sector and by the alcocoden’s years.
Valens also noted the importance of the terms of the malefics. This may imply use of distributors/jarbakhtars as in Dorotheus, but he never puts such into practice in his examples. The technique is very complex, so see Book III of the Anthology for more details.
Planetary Years in Valens
Valens used planetary years more than any other astrologer in predictive techniques. Yet the planetary years of the alcocoden indicate only one possible “maximum lifespan” for him. This only comes into play under specific circumstances and always involves the greater years of the bound lord of the hyleg. This contrasts strongly with a view in which the years of the alcocoden are taken as a “minimum lifespan” after which the native becomes more vulnerable to threats from malefic directions.
Valens provided some explicit examples. In the below passages “aphetic place” refers to the hyleg, and the technique involves allotting the entire ascensional time. If a malefic intervenes without some sort of amelioration by a benefic, then you deduct the portion of the arc following the malefic’s aspect degree. In other words, in that case the length of life is the arc in ascensions from hyleg to malefic aspect.
Badly Placed Alcocoden
In the example below, he suggests deducting a portion of the greater years of the alcocoden based on its separation from an angle if it is badly placed. See the Project Hindsight translation of this book for more details on how that is done.
If the sun or moon are in the aphetic place, then it will be necessary to figure the total rising times (in the klima of the nativity) from the position of the apheta to the point square with it. Having found the total time, you can forecast that the native will live as many years. This forecast will be accurate if the houseruler is in its own terms or is configured appropriately, has contact or is in aspect with the apheta, and if no anaereta applies its rays and deducts from the number of years. If the houseruler is not in aspect with the controller, but is otherwise found to be favorably configured (i.e. in the Ascendant, at MC while rising), it will allot the full span of years. If it is <not at> one of the other angles, it will deduct a portion of the arc proportional to its relationship <with the rest of the horoscope>, but will allot the remainder <as the length of life>.
(Valens, Book III, Ch. 1, Riley trans., 2010, p. 59)
The technique of using the square of the hyleg, or going from one angle to the next, becomes clearer in the many examples that Valens provided. As noted, he goes from one angle to the next if the hyleg is an angle.
An example: let a nativity in the second klima have Gemini 8º as the Ascendant, Aquarius 22º as MC. Even though the vital sector starts at the Ascendant, its ending point is by no means at the point square with it, Virgo 8º, but at IC, Leo 22º. I can forecast this total of years, unless some anaereta casts its rays. If an anaereta is in Gemini 20º, or in any degree of Cancer, or projects its rays to such a point, the native will live as many years as the number of degrees <=rising times> from the aphetic point to the anaeretic point.
(Valens, Book III, Ch. 1, Riley trans., 2010, p. 60)
Additionally, Valens presented many more methods for finding critical threats to life. One involves a “vital sector” based on a type of lot. The hylegical lot is the distance from the New Moon closest to birth (either before or after) to the Moon’s position at birth, projected from the Ascendant (see Book III, Ch. 7).
The Mediveval “pars hyleg” (prenatal syzygy to natal Moon, projected from Ascendant) appears to be a corruption of this lot. It is a corruption because Valens instructed that the lot is from the nearest New Moon rather than from the prenatal syzygy (i.e. postnatal New Moon if the birth is after the Full Moon). The corruption is easy to understand. Confusingly, Valens advised to take the lot from birth Moon to postnatal New Moon if birth is preventional, but then to project it in the opposite direction from the Ascendant toward MC. This is exactly the same as a lot taken from the postnatal New Moon to the Moon, projected in the usual manner.
This lot is used as an exact stand-in for the hyleg, in which we look to the square from it as a maximum life span (by ascensional times), compare that with the indication from its bound lord if its properly situated, and then compare that with possible malefic directions (by ascensional times) in which the malefic is strong enough to kill and there is not intervention from a benefic aspect. Again, we take the shorter indication of length of life among the three. What is common among most of the longevity techniques of Valens is that there is some sort of “vital sector” of the chart which indicates lifespan by ascensional times, either by the length of the vital sector itself or by the length from its beginning to a particularly difficult malefic aspect.
Valens also provides a technique involving the lunar nodes, and a much later technique at the end of Book III, in which ascensional times of individual signs are added to minor years of individual planets to create sums that indicate lifespan (without clear directions as to how this technique is to be used; though it is also explored in Book II and possibly in some later books). The great diversity of techniques in Valens is in stark contrast to the homogenization of the length of life approach in the Medieval period and provides many interesting avenues for further research. While Valens does appear to make use of the greater planetary years of the bound lord of the hyleg, at least in some circumstances, he does so in a way that is not consistent with the later Medieval approach, in terms of selection of the alcocoden, the number of years to assign, and what these years indicate.
Finally, Ptolemy also writes on the length of life in Chapter 10 of Book III of the Tetrabiblos (click here for a link to a translation online). However, he really has only 2 parts, a hyleg and killing point, with no alcocoden in his technique. His instructions for finding the hyleg were considered by almost all astrologers commenting on the technique in the Middle Ages, as it notably differed in some ways with the instructions given by Dorotheus. Aside from a lack of alcocoden, some components of Ptolemy’s approach to the hyleg that differ strongly from others is that he appears to have used an idiosyncratic equal house division to identify operative places and he appears to only want to accept the Sun or Moon as hyleg if they are in the 1st, 11th, 10th, 9th, or 7th place of that division. This differs from Dorotheus, as Dorotheus seems to have only taken the hyleg if in the 1st, 10th, or 11th whole sign house (he only names those in Ch. 2 and in the summary by Hephaistio, and he definitely did not permit possible hylegs if they were in the 9th whole sign house). If they are not in those places then he advises to take the planet with the most forms of testimony (domicile, exaltation, triplicity, bound, or whole sign aspect) over 3 key spots in the chart, as long as that planet has at least 3 total testimonies among the places and is in a position of greater authority than the lights. Only if this also fails does he consider using the Ascendant if the birth was by day. If the birth was by night, he takes the Ascendant if the birth was after a New Moon, but the Lot of Fortune if birth was after a Full Moon.
From there, Ptolemy determines length of life by means of primary directions involving the hyleg. He appears to direct planets and points to the hyleg as is usual in primary directions, but also suggests directing the hyleg itself if the planet or point of the hyleg already passed the MC in the daily rotation, because then you want to see when it directs to the Descendant. The Descendant is symbolic of death, being the point where planets disappear (i.e. western horizon). In any case, Ptolemy recommends the usual technique of looking for a malefic direction to the hyleg, and insists upon more accurate calculation of the direction, rather than reliance on ascensional times. Most of Ptolemy’s discussion of length of life actually involves his attempts to explain how to accurately use primary directions and why ascensional times don’t work well for points other than the Ascendant. What is conspicuously absent from Ptolemy’s technique for determining the length of life is an alcocoden and any use of planetary years. In Book IV of the Tetrabiblos, Ptolemy advises to look at directions to the Ascendant for matters concerning the body.
Conclusion Regarding the 3 Main Approaches
What is common among the three early Hellenistic authors using hyleg and alcocoden significators is that there is very little use of indication of length of life by planetary years of the alcocoden. Also, the indication of time of death is not necessarily by an aspectual primary direction to the hyleg (though many Hellenistic authors do consider this if benefics don’t intervene).
These are important points. Planetary years and aspectual directions to the hyleg became the cornerstones of the later Medieval approach. In the early Hellenistic era, when it comes to timing it is by primary directions, but may be those to the square of the hyleg (or a hylegical lot), from one angle to another, or to the Ascendant, and may also be shown by the bound lord of the directed hyleg (i.e. the distributor or jarbakhtar). Also, ascensional times are typically preferred to actual primary directions.
When it comes to use of planetary years, it is only the bound lord of the hyleg, in certain circumstances, that can indicate a maximum lifespan related to its greater years. The actual lifespan may be much shorter than that indicated by the bound lord (due to a malefic direction to the hyleg).
Late Hellenistic Techniques
As far as I’m aware, the earliest appearance of an exceptional Hellenistic technique for length of life relying heavily on different levels of planetary years (greater, middle, and lesser) is found in Book II, Ch. 26 of the Mathesis of Firmicus Maternus. This technique is only found in this 4th century Roman text and does not involve the typical hyleg/alcocoden type of features in its approach, nor does it involve primary directions. However, the technique was awkwardly combined with the techniques of Dorotheus and Ptolemy by Paulus Alexandrinus to form the foundation of the Medieval approach to the length of life technique.
The technique of Maternus is more closely aligned to that of Manilius in which some planet indicates some number of years based on its placement, but in the approach of Manilus the number of years are given by the sign and/or house of the planet (apparently the Moon for the house signification; see Manilius, Book III, #560-617), while in the Maternus technique the ruler of the nativity signifies the length of life based on its own planetary years and the strength of its position. The ruler of the nativity is the giver of life and signifies the number of years. Maternus provides instructions for finding the ruler of the nativity in Book IV, Ch. 6, and in his instructions he does appear to relate some methods that are discussed in Dorotheus and Valens in relation to the alcocoden (the likely reason why this method came to be used with the alcocoden in the Middle Ages), such as noting that some use the bound lord of the sect light as the ruler of the nativity.
Maternus advises that the best technique for finding the ruler of the nativity (and thus the giver of years) is to use the ruler of the sign following the Moon’s sign. However, the Sun and Moon cannot be the ruler of the nativity, so you must take Virgo (Mercury) if the Moon is in Gemini or Cancer at birth (i.e. you skip the signs of the Sun and Moon because they can’t be the ruler of the nativity). For example, if the Moon were in Scorpio at birth, then the ruler of the nativity would be Jupiter, as it rules Sagittarius, which is the next sign the Moon will occupy after birth. Another example is that if the Moon were in Cancer at birth, then the ruler of the nativity would be Mercury, as it rules Virgo, which is the next eligible sign that the Moon transits after birth (a sign ruled by the Sun or Moon is not eligible). The ruler of the nativity is both the single most important planet for describing the person and also is indicative of the years someone will live. For instance, a well-placed Jupiter as ruler of life will signify a lifespan of 79 years, and will make for a magnanimous character; a well-placed Mercury as ruler of life will signify a lifespan of 108 years and a learned character.
The approaches of most other Hellenistic astrologers relied upon various methods of timing through primary directions rather than upon significations by planetary years. When the approach of Maternus was taken up and combined with the other approaches to the hyleg by Paulus Alexandrinus, the preferred approach to finding the giver of life that is suggested by Maternus was dropped and instead the special ruler of the hyleg (typically the bound lord) was used instead. As with the seemingly simplistic technique of Manilius, one may question the value of the simple technique used by Maternus of putting such important significations as the length of life and main character traits into one planet that rules the sign after the sign in which the Moon is placed.
Roman astrologer Paulus Alexandrinus, in Book II, Ch. 36, of his Introductory Matters (late 4th century CE), presents his approach which combines features of the hyleg/alcocoden technique with the planetary years technique of Maternus. It is not as much of a synthesis as found in the Medieval Persian texts because while Paulus does deal with primary directions, it is in another chapter on times of crises (Ch. 34) and he advises there to look at directions to the Sun, Moon, and Ascendant, rather than specifically to a hylegical significator. In Chapter 36, he is instead interested in the chart ruler, as was Maternus, but his method of finding the chart ruler is something of a variation on the Dorothean approach to finding the governor or alcocoden rather than the preferred approach of Maternus.
When Paulus finds the planet with the “rulership”, he assesses the length of life by planetary years in a similar manner as Maternus. There are some key differences in the approach of Paulus to that of Maternus in how years are assigned (I refer to the “rulership” planet as the governor here):
1. Paulus allows the Sun and Moon to be governor (i.e. to assign years as length of life).
2. Paulus insists that any of the 5 planets (i.e. excluding the light) that regard the governor add their minor years, including malefics as long as they are well placed and in a place they rule, though the malefics (Saturn or Mars) subtract their years instead if they are not in such place. Benefics cannot subtract years, but fail to add any years if they are in hard aspect to the governor (i.e. whole sign square or opposition) and are retrograde, under the beams of the Sun, or cadent (in the whole sign 12th, 6th, 9th, or 3rd).
Therefore, in Paulus we find the synthesis of the method for finding a governor or alcocoden that is based in the approach of Dorotheus, with an assigning of planetary years to the governor that appears to be a variation on the approach of Firmicus Maternus, with the Lights now also permitted to be governor and with the 5 planets possibly adding or subtracting years from the significations of the governor. Paulus doesn’t seem to put as much stock into judging the length of life by primary directions, but does advise looking at primary directions to the Sun, Moon, and Ascendant by malefics (and the lights) for assessing points of crisis, though calculated using ascensional times (as was done by Dorotheus and Valens). The Medieval techniques can be seen as extensions of the technique of Paulus which seek to further synthesize the two approaches (such as by looking at the planetary years of the alcocoden, then also trying to direct the alcocoden) and fine-tune the rules for when planets assign their greater, middle, or lesser years and how other planets add or subtract years.
Masha’allah (8th century CE) in his work, The Book of Aristotle, makes some minor changes to the technique, but there does not appear to be a stress on planetary years in his treatment in The Book of Aristotle. Masha’allah is relatively consistent with approaches in the Hellenistic tradition when it comes to choosing the hyleg and alcocoden, stressing that the alcocoden should be the bound lord of the hyleg. However, he does stress that a planet be preferred that has more than one type of dignity (notably he states that 2 minor forms of dignity would trump having domicile only) at the position of the hyleg. There are also some differences when it comes to indicating length of life. He names four methods for calculating length of life and 3 of them involve aspectual primary directions, while the fourth is a more obscure technique involving the lot of fortune. The stress on primary directions is consistent with the Hellenistic tradition, but the stress on them being aspectual and to the hyleg or alcocoden, presages a leaning toward Ptolemy in the technique in which an exact primary direction to the hyleg came to be believed necessary as an indication of death, rather than the Dorothean approach of a malefic ruling the bound or exactly aspecting the bound with no benefic casting a ray into the same bound. To be fair, Masha’allah does acknowledge later in the section that the threat can be shown by the jarbakhtar (directions through the bounds).
A minor remark in Masha’allah’s Book of Aristotle regarding those with an afflicted hyleg and how the Sun would only grant 19 years, months, or days to such people, and similar with the rest of the planets, suggests the introduction of planetary years into the Medieval technique. Though Masha’allah in the other passages continues to stress the primary directions and does not explicitly advise the use of planetary years of the alcocoden or any planet as signifying a minimum or maximum length of life.
The Medieval technique that we know today, in which the alcocoden is used to determine the length of life based on planetary years becomes prominent in Persian astrology with Masha’allah’s On Nativities (in Works of Sahl & Masha’allah, translated by Ben Dykes), as well as in Umar al-Tabari’s work on nativities (see his treatment in Ben Dykes’ compilation, Persian Nativities II). In On Nativities, Masha’allah specifically advises that the alcocoden (or “kadukhudhah”) signifies the length of life and that it is taken by planetary years, and you judge whether to give the greater, middle, or lesser years of the planet according to the condition of the alcocoden. It appears to be around this point in time that the planetary years approach of Firmicus Maternus and Paulus Alexandrinus gets shuttled into the Medieval technique and comes to be one of its key features. Additionally, in this text Masha’allah advises that benefics and malefics in aspect to the alcocoden add or subtract years or months from its significations in accordance with the lesser planetary years of the aspecting planet and the condition of the aspecting planet. Therefore, we see the use of the addition/subtraction technique of Paulus, but already with variation from the way that he used it. When it comes to timing, Masha’allah takes the direction to the alcocoden of a malefic that impedes the alcocoden to be the indicator of timing of death. The use of the alcocoden instead of the hyleg as the directed point indicating death is at a variance from the typical Hellenistic approach.
As this is only a blog article, I won’t go more in depth into the Medieval permutations of the technique, as it is clear that it was around the 8th century CE, with Masha’allah and Umar al-Tabari, that the key features of the technique were established involving planetary years of an alcocoden added to and subtracted from by aspecting planets (variations on the method of Paulus) combined with an emphasis on an aspectual primary direction to the hyleg or alcocoden as the indication of death (variations on the method of Ptolemy). Later authors writing in Arabic echoed the stress on planetary years of the alcocoden, and this remained the mainstay of the technique in the later Middle Ages, such as in Bonatti’s Book of Astronomy.
As this technique has been taken up by modern astrologers, the later permutation involving a length of life shown by planetary years and a death shown by an aspectual primary direction to the hyleg has become the popular presentation. There is precedent in Hellenistic astrology for the latter stress on primary direction to the hyleg (or at least some significant point), but the strong reliance on planetary years of the alcocoden is much more suspect. This permutation has its roots in the late Hellenistic period but does not appear to be consistent with the approaches in the early Hellenistic period.
Additionally, certain key changes have been made in terms of the philosophical underpinning. In ancient astrology, the type of death indicated could be of a multitude of types, as internal and external factors were both indicated in the natal chart, such that the cause of death could be as varied as death by disease, death in a fire, death by execution, death by accident, etc. In modern forms, this technique is often taken to be one concerned with internal “health”. In modern times, it is often presented as one in which the alcocoden by planetary years signifies the allotted length of life before the onset of serious health crises. The original technique was couched in terms of danger and critical periods, with the possibility that afflictions may not lead to death if a benefic intervenes. They did not refer specifically and exclusively to internal health concerns, so such a reading may be inaccurate, failing to take into account other types of dangers. While modern medical advances may help to avert or remediate some internal natural health difficulties, there are also numerous additional ways that one can die by accident in the modern world; types of accidents that didn’t exist in the ancient world. In his chapter on crises, Paulus Alexandrinus even goes out of his way to specify that the crises indicated by malefic primary directions to the lights or Ascendant might not always involve disease but could be as varied as a lawsuit, a shipwreck, or being stuck in a foreign country. There is no reason to think that indications from a length of life technique need involve disease and not one of the many other possible causes of death.
This technique is not traditionally one concerned only with physical internal health, but with threats to life and limb of all varieties, with separate techniques existing for trying to ascertain the nature of such threats.
Additionally, at least for Valens, the indications of longevity pertained to “maximum lifespan” rather than to minimum. For him, all sorts of threats could end the life before this time, rather than the timing technique guaranteeing a certain number of years. It is inconsistent with the original approach to interpret the length of life indication as providing a guaranteed time frame in which one is free of serious health crises. I am reminded of Orson Welles whose life was plagued by serious health crises, particularly related to spinal problems, from a young age, yet lived to age 70 (about the time for the Moon to direct to the Descendant). Similarly, if such an early death were indicated for Robert Zoller, and this was a minimum after which he would be plagued with significant health difficulties pushing toward death, then it seems doubtful that he would have gone on to have as long a life as he has.
The hyleg/alcocoden technique re-emerged in our contemporary world as a controversial selling point for the study of medieval astrology. Occasionally, it rears its head again in that guise. However, today there are clearer translations of source texts and abundant natal data available with which to test such techniques. In light of the history of such techniques, particularly the variety and nuance we find in the Hellenistic period, a more critical applied perspective is called for.
I advise the reader to experiment with and compare the various longevity techniques proposed by Dorotheus, Valens, Ptolemy, Masha’allah, Bonatti, and others. However, beware the puffery of Medieval astrologers. There may be some great utility to the hyleg and alcocoden as significators. Yet I suspect that some permutation a Hellenistic approach has more potential than any later synthesis relying heavily on planetary years.
There is no doubt that some relatively reliable length of life techniques would be of great value. They could provide some figure for maximum life span and alert us to critical periods. While a confluence of predictive techniques always reflects the circumstances of death, it is also hard to distinguish from a general critical period. Therefore, the exploration of the foundational early approaches has merit.
As with most topics, we find Hellenistic astrology to provide a richer and more diverse set of techniques to test out. For instance, there are a variety of disparate approaches in the Anthology of Vettius Valens that have yet to be tested. Join me in future articles as we continue to probe this material.
al-Tabari, U., & al-Hasib, A. B. (2010). Persian Nativities II: ’Umar al-Tabari and Abu Bakr. (B. N. Dykes, Trans.). Minneapolis, MN: The Cazimi Press.
Bishr, S. ibn, & Masha’allah. (2008). Works of Sahl & Masha’allah. (B. N. Dykes, Trans.). Minneapolis, MN: The Cazimi Press.
Dorotheus of Sidon. (2005). Carmen Astrologicum. (D. Pingree, Trans.). Abingdon, MD: Astrology Center of America.
Manilius, M. (1977). Astronomica. (G. P. Goold, Trans.). Cambridge, MA: Loeb Classical Library.
Masha’allah, & al-Khayyat, A. ’Ali. (2009). Persian Nativities I: Masha’allah and Abu ’Ali. (B. N. Dykes, Trans.). Minneapolis, MN: The Cazimi Press
Maternus, J. F. (2011). Mathesis. (J. H. Holden, Trans.). American Federation of Astrologers.
Paulus Alexandrinus & Olympiodorus. (2001). Late Classical Astrology: Paulus Alexandrinus and Olypiodorus. (D. G. Greenbaum, Trans.). Reston, VA: Arhat.
Ptolemy, C. (1940). Ptolemy: Tetrabiblos. (F. E. Robbins, Trans.). Cambridge, MA: Loeb Classical Library. Retrieved from http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Ptolemy/Tetrabiblos/home.html
Valens, V. (2010). Anthologies. (M. Riley, Trans.) (Online PDF.). World Wide Web: Mark Riley. Retrieved from http://www.csus.edu/indiv/r/rileymt/Vettius%20Valens%20entire.pdf
Featured image is bottom portion of A Golden Thread by John Melhuish Strudwick (1885), which is in the public domain.