Vampires and similar supernatural beings are very popular these days. From the TV show True Blood to movies like Cronos and Interview with the Vampire, these fearsome beings continue to probe our imaginations.
Watching True Blood one day, it occurred to me that the powerful trinity of vampires, werewolves, and shapeshifters connects strongly with the astrological malefics. Viewing malefics this way allows beginners to easily grasp the essential nature of the malefic planets. Furthermore, it fosters and understanding of the term “malefic” itself. In this article, I ask the beginning student of astrology 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”, namely Saturn and Mars. These malefics tended to signify more difficult or extreme things. Subjectively, they relate to two types of unpleasant emotions: fear (Saturn) and anger (Mars). Objectively, few matters in life are more unpleasant than those of death, the macabre, and darkness (Saturn) on one hand, and violence, explosiveness, and invasiveness on the other (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 contrast to the certainty of Saturn’s looming threat, Mars is erratic, wild, and unpredictable. For example, Mars signifies violence, burn, inflammation, violation, anger, competition, sport, conflict, and an overload of energy.
Ptolemy on Benefic and Malefic Planets
Ptolemy, a prominent second century Hellenistic astrologer, best known for his sophisticated geocentric model, differed from the other ancient astrologers in the way he described the planets. He described the basic nature of the planets in terms of the basic Aristotelian qualities of hot/cold and wet/dry. According to him, Saturn and Mars are malefic because they represent extreme states. Saturn is an extreme cold. Mars is an extreme dryness. By contrast, Jupiter and Venus are considered benefic because they are temperate and moist (fertile).
Sun, Moon, and Mercury
The Sun and Moon also tend to be more benefic in their symbolism. However, they weren’t regarded as the benefics. The Lights, as they were called, are symbols of power and influence. As such they can signify fortunate or desirable matters.
Mercury is the most neutral planet, being strongly influenced by other planets that connect 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. Therefore, aside from Saturn and Mars, Mercury is viewed as the next most capable of signifying adversity.
Mercury signifies cleverness, intellectualism, commerce, symbols, language, and so forth. All of these things involve a fair amount of complication and ambiguity. This complication is a ready basis for deceit, manipulation, misunderstanding, and trivial contention. For example, think about con artists and propagandists. They use language and complication to deceive and manipulate.
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 their significations are just “bad”. It is recognized that they signify important and powerful facets of life which serve productive purposes. Additionally, it is recognized in ancient texts that the circumstances of the chart can make Saturn, Mars, and/or Mercury signify positive and fortunate circumstances. However, their more natural signification is of difficulty.
How Malefics Gain Benefic Significations
Different ancient astrologers had their preferred factors that they thought made a planet more benefic or malefic. In Hellenistic astrology, sect, place, and regard by other planets were commonly at the forefront of such considerations.
Maternus on Sect and Place
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). He emphasized sect and place as factors that affect the benefit or difficulty associated with planets.
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 indicate good fortune, unfavorably in a diurnal chart, the greatest evils.
Valens on Sect, Place, and Regard
Vettius Valens (2nd Century C.E.) also noted the important sect and place, as well as the influence of other planets. This excerpt is 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.
Astrologers of the Medieval and Renaissance periods tended to put more emphasis on sign-based rejoicing conditions. Chief among those was whether a planet was in the sign that was its domicile, exaltation, fall, or detriment (note: detriment was not a distinct concept for the major Hellenistic astrologers). Eventually, 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’ve discussed some of the history and problems associated with dignity. Also, I’ve given a poignant empirical show of how misleading the approach is. Therefore, I don’t recommend using so-called dignity by sign to judge whether a planet is made more benefic or malefic.
Qualities and Quantities
The factors that make a planet more benefic or malefic in a chart are often referred to as “qualitative” considerations. That is, they affect the quality of the planet, making it indicate along more productive or destructive dimensions. These factors include sect, place, and planetary influence by configuration (regard and rulership). Often, I refer to them as factors that associate the planet with “good” and “bad”, as subjective and judgmental such an outlook may seem.
These factors can be contrasted with those that make a planet stronger or weaker in power and pertain to prominence or pervasiveness. Such factors are more “quantitative”. Additionally, factors such as advancement, stations, and phasis act to accentuate and draw attention to the importance of a planet’s indications.
Mean and Range
A planet is never wholly good or bad. Everyone’s chart will show a unique range of pleasant and unpleasant possibilities associated with any planet. These are ready to manifest at various times, with varying degrees of inevitability. Perhaps they are even 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. Saturn may show success through control, discipline, fear, and difficulty. Mars may indicate it through atheleticism, competitiveness, and sheer drive. Saturn can show a certainty fortified against negative possibilities. Mars can show a courage that can surmount the most difficult of obstacles.
The public image of the malefics
The malefics have been ostracized. We may even try to ignore them out of existence. By this I mean that we tend to view horrible things that happen in this world, such as genocide and plagues, as against the natural or spiritual order. However, ancient astrology has a language that encompasses the full good and 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. Clearly, they are natural elements of our existential reality.
Furthermore, we can’t ignore the human tendency to ostracize these things and to hate them. We view them as abominations, as existential errors, caused by an original sin, a flaw in the system, an indication that God doesn’t exist, or the work of a devil. In other words, on a fundamental level we view certain categories of things as naturally malefic, evil, devilish, or bad. At the very least they are unpleasant, undesirable, and challenging.
The supernatural creatures of vampires, werewolves, and shapeshifters strike a chord. They help us to understand the malefics. I particularly like their representation in True Blood. In that show they are part of nature but fashioned to feared and dangerous extremes. Furthermore, they are ostracized and pushed into a hidden world, a sub-conscious realm. Similarly, malefics can 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 mythological personifications help flesh out these forces. Or perhaps these forces flesh themselves out in our mythologies? Importantly, they give us insight into the 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. They exploit 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. They 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. Saturn is made tamer and less malefic by day. However, like a vampire, Saturn becomes the most dangerous by night. Saturn is in touch with the past, with history and tradition, the soil, real estate. In other words, Saturn is less alive, but more certain, and more tangible. Furthermore, there is a dark cynical humor behind the knowledge that there’s nothing new under the Sun, and everything will die and be lost.
Mars the Werewolf
I particularly like the portrayal of the werewolves in True Blood. The werewolf is presented as rough, naive, instinctual, aggressive, and lacking manners. By contrast, the refined vampire is desensitized and matured to a controlled extreme. Similarly, Saturn’s temperament, like that of the vampire, has been characterized as melancholic. By contrast, that of Mars, like the werewolf, 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. Werewolves involve themselves in work with sharp or dangerous things. They enjoy 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 a source of suspicion. Mercury’s involvement with intellectualism and commerce is not without controversy. Furthermore, stereotypes ostracizing intellectuals and businessmen abound. For instance, we see this in the extreme in racist views of the Jewish people from their associations with money lending in Renaissance Christian Europe.
Where there is cleverness and complexity one fears a deceptive trickster may be at hand, especially if money is involved. Additionally, Mercury is associated with theft and con artistry in ancient astrology. Interestingly, we see these themes play out in True Blood with Sam, the shapeshifter. He is the major local business owner and previously he was a thief. Furthermore, he has a brother shapeshifter 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 portrayals of the shapeshifters in True Blood bring out these qualities of the planet.
What mythological creatures, gods, or spirits do you most readily associate with Saturn, Mars, and Mercury? What about the other planets? 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.