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On house systems and zodiacs

The discussions below deal with issues that frequently come up in debates between practising astrologers. They are somewhat technical in nature and presuppose some knowledge of astrology.

The house issue: are whole signs a system?

[For readers with a particular interest in this topic, a fuller discussion may be found in this academic paper published with Open Access.]

Platice vitae locus est in eo signo, in quo est horoscopus constitutus, spei vel pecuniae in secundo horoscopi signo, fratrum in tertio, parentum in quarto, filiorum in quinto, valitudinis in sexto, coniugis in septimo, mortis in octavo. […] Sed haec, sicut superius diximus, platice ad informanda initia discentis dixisse sufficiat; postea vero, quatenus haec loca suptili partium definitione monstrantur, explicare curabimus.

The place of life is roughly [located] in that sign in which the ascendant is established, that of hope or property in the second sign from the ascendant, that of brothers in the third, that of parents in the fourth, that of children in the fifth, that of illness in the sixth, that of the spouse in the seventh, that of death in the eighth. […] But as we have said above, it suffices to have related these things roughly to sketch the beginnings for the student; later, indeed, we shall take care to explain how far these places are appointed by the accurate boundaries of degrees. (Firmicus Maternus: Mathesis II 14,3–4)

Since the publication of Annual Predictive Techniques, I have been made aware of accusations of ‘whole-sign house denialism’. The dogmatic overtones of such expressions seem to call for a calm and level-headed look at the role played by whole-sign houses in astrological tradition.

A substantial number of preserved horoscopes from (mostly Late) Antiquity, some of them outlined in written works – primarily Valens’ Anthologies – give only the sign positions of the ascendant and of some or all of the planets, without any degrees. From this fact we can conclude, among other things, that using the zodiacal signs themselves as houses (or, to translate the Greek terminology more correctly, places), beginning with the rising sign, seems to have been a common practice – as indeed it still is in India, where such a chart is known as the rāśi-cakra, ‘sign wheel’.

Technically astute and conscientious Indian astrologers often complement this diagram with the bhāva-cakra (‘house wheel’) or calita-cakra (‘moving wheel’), which displays quadrant house positions, with separate tables giving the exact longitudes of planets and house cusps. Similarly, ancient Greek and Latin authors give explicit instructions for determining places by degree, either equal houses (Valens, Ptolemy, Firmicus) or quadrant houses (Valens, citing the earlier author Orion). To the best of my knowledge, there are no corresponding statements formally equating whole signs with houses, nor is it ever stated that houses calculated by degree are to be used only for special purposes. It cannot even be convincingly argued that the astronomical midheaven used in quadrant houses was introduced later than the ascendant, as both have their roots in the pre-horoscopic Egyptian practice of noting the rising and culminating decans.

A close reading of the authors concerned will further serve to give us a more nuanced picture of ancient practice. This does not necessarily mean the most common practice, but rather the ‘best practice’ endorsed by those authors. Just like today, astrologers in antiquity would have differed with regard to level of education and subtlety of understanding, and modern astrologers interested in recreating ancient methods need to decide which type of practice they are trying to emulate. In Valens, for instance, we find this statement (Anthologies II 17):

Ζεὺς Ἄρει τετράγωνος – ἐὰν ὁ μὲν ὡροσκοπῇ, ὁ δὲ μεσουρανῇ ἢ ἀγαϑοδαιμονῇ, ἰσχυρόν ·

Jupiter squaring Mars, when one is in the ascendant and the other is in the midheaven or in [the eleventh place of] the Good Daimon, is strong.

If whole-sign houses are used, it is impossible for two planets placed in the first and eleventh houses to form a square either by sign or by exact degree, whereas they can easily do both if quadrant houses are used, and do so by sign using equal houses. Clearly, then, Valens did not have whole-sign houses in mind in this instance. We should note that this statement occurs in the context of a general discussion of aspects, not in connection with any particular predictive technique.

Sometimes we find nomenclature vacillating between ‘sign’ and ‘place’, as in ‘the sign/place of the Good Daimon’. Could this fact be construed as an instruction to use whole-sign houses? It would be an implied one at best; but as it happens, Firmicus throws a very different light on the matter in his description of the places (Mathesis II 19). For example:

Sextus locus in VI. ab horoscopo signo constituitur; qui a CL. parte horoscopi initium accipiens usque ad CLXXX. extenditur. In hoc signo causam vitii ac valitudinis inveniemus.

The sixth place is established in the 6th sign from the ascendant, which, taking its beginning from the 150th degree from the ascendant, extends up to the 180th. In this sign we shall find the cause of blemish and illness.

Similar statements are made for all the houses. Firmicus thus explicitly calls the thirty-degree segments counted off from the rising degree – in modern parlance, the equal houses – both ‘signs’ and ‘places’. At the very least, this raises a legitimate question as to whether ‘sign’ (ζῴδιον zōdion) in the Greek astrological texts always means Aries, Taurus, etc., or whether Firmicus was following an accepted convention where the meaning may vary with the context, ‘signs’ denoting segments of 30° reckoned from more than one possible starting point. Simply listing passages that speak of the places as ‘signs’ clearly cannot settle this question. It is worth noting that Ptolemy, too, uses a single word (δωδεκατημόριον dōdekatēmorion, twelfth-part) to describe both the signs beginning with Aries (liberally throughout the Tetrabiblos) and equal houses calculated by degree and called by names such as Good Daimon (Tetrabiblos III 11, or III 10 in the Robbins edition; arguably also in part of I 13, or Robbins I 12).

The ancient evidence has implications not just for house systems, but for several interlinked issues. It is true that from a chart or chart description containing only sign placements, we cannot read either quadrant or equal houses, but neither can we see the positions of the planets in the terms (‘bounds’), decans (faces) or dodecatemories. Nor can we judge whether planetary aspects or conjunctions are exact to the degree or far away, applying or separating; nor what phase some planets are making with the Sun; nor even, when the Sun is in the rising or setting sign, whether it is a day or a night chart (sect). Yet few historians will attempt to deny that these factors were generally considered important in ancient astrology.

So what are we to make of such bare-bones charts? I would suggest the most reasonable conclusion to be that they are ‘rough’ (πλατικός platikos) approximations, to borrow a term used repeatedly by Valens in speaking of calculations done by sign as opposed to degree. Even such rough examples sometimes show evidence of an underlying calculation by degree, though, as when Valens describes a chart with the ascendant in Aquarius, the Sun in Sagittarius and the Moon in Cancer, but the Lot of Fortune in Leo, having explained a few sentences earlier:

χρὴ μὲν οὖν ἀκριβῶς καὶ μοιρικῶς τοὺς κλήρους ἐξετάζειν · πολλάκις γὰρ κατὰ μὲν τὴν πλατικὴν θεωρίαν εἴς τι ζῴδιον συνεκπίπτει ὁ κλῆρος, κατὰ δέ τὴν μοιρικὴν εἰς ἄλλο · συμβαίνει δὲ τοῦτο παρὰ τὰς τῶν φώτων καὶ ὡροσκόπου μοίρας <εἰ> ἤτοι ἐπὶ τέλει ἤ ἐν ἀρχαῖς τῶν ζῳδίων εὑρίσκεται.

It is necessary to examine the Lots accurately and by degree, for many times the Lot by a rough estimate will fall in one sign, but by one using degrees, in another. This happens on account of the degrees of the luminaries and the ascendant, <if> they are found either at the end or the beginning of the signs. (Anthologies II 37)

It is easy to understand why astrologers would cut corners in an era when every placement had to be painstakingly calculated by hand. If nothing of importance for the topic under consideration hinged on exact degrees, or on house positions changing from what the sign relationships would suggest, such details could conveniently be left out. (No doubt they were often left out even when they would make a difference, which is why we find both Valens and Firmicus repeatedly urging their readers not to disregard placements by degree.) But leaving things out does not in itself constitute a system, whether of houses, dignities or aspects.

ὅϑεν ἐάν μοιρικῶς τοὺς τόπους ἐξετάσωμεν ἢ καὶ τὰς ἀποδιαστάσεις τῶν ἀστέρων, οὐ πταίσομεν.

Whence, if we examine the places by degree, and also the distances between the stars, we shall not go wrong. (Anthologies V 6)

The zodiac issue I: A tropical zodiac or the tropical zodiac?

Ancient and even medieval astrologers didn’t always understand precession, and therefore often tried to relate the zodiacal signs both to the constellations and to the seasons. (Some believed in trepidation, a back-and-forth motion of no more than 8° either way.) As a result, some modern astrologers have tried to fudge the zodiac issue by claiming that the ancient authors cannot properly be called siderealists. If they conceived of their zodiac as being constant relative to the seasons, the argument goes, it was a tropical zodiac.

There is a grain of truth in this, and the difference between the two models is certainly starker today than it was in Ptolemy’s time. But the fudging lies in conflating two meanings of the word ‘tropical’. If an ancient author believed the zodiac to be constant relative both to the stars and to the seasons, then in that sense it would have been conceived of as both tropical and sidereal at the same time. The real question, however, is the starting point. Were ancient astrologers (other than Ptolemy) using the tropical zodiac, that is, the default zodiac of contemporary western astrology that equates 0° Aries with the equinox? The answer is that they were not. For example, Valens states near the beginning of his Anthologies (I 2):

[Κριός] κατὰ μέρος δὲ τὰ πρῶτα μέχρι τοῦ ἰσημερινοῦ ὀμβρώδη, χαλαζώδη, ἀνεμώδη, φϑαρτικά […] Ἔχει δὲ λαμπροὺς ἀστέρας τὸ ζῴδιον ̅ι̅ϑ·

From its first degree to the equinox, [Aries] is stormy, full of hail, windy, destructive […] This sign has 19 bright stars.

A ‘tropical zodiac’ that does not begin with the equinox immediately loses its two main selling points: the pleasing symmetry of the rising times of the zodiacal signs and the unambiguous definition of 0° Aries. Sidereal astrologers also differ slightly on the exact fiducial star, or on the exact current offset of 0° Aries from the equinox (often known by the Sanskrit term ayanāṃśa). To be sure, this is a minor annoyance, similar to but smaller than the discrepancies between different systems of house division. But while the standard tropical zodiac may be more convenient in this respect, convenience and astrological usefulness are not the same. We don’t want to be like Mulla Nasruddin in the well-known Sufi story, looking for his lost key under the street light because his house, where he had lost it, was too dark!

The zodiac issue II: Is the sidereal zodiac appropriate for ‘western’ astrology?

Even astrologers who are aware of the historical use of sidereal parameters in Greek- and Arabic-language astrology sometimes doubt whether the astrological techniques used in Europe since the late Middle Ages can really work equally well or even better in anything but the tropical zodiac. Although this matter can only be settled by personal experience, a brief illustration may be useful. Below is a nativity that will be well-known to many students of traditional astrology: that of the late Robert Zoller (1947–2020), who played a major role in the revival of medieval-style (tropical) astrology and who openly shared both his nativity and many objective circumstances of his life.

Zoller’s life was marked by ill health, including childhood asthma that frequently kept him indoors and Parkinson’s disease for the last three decades of his life. In addition to his study and practice of astrology and related matters, he did manual labour on construction sites and the like before the onset of his illness, and lived in straitened circumstances for long periods. Zoller’s talks and writings reflected his serious persona, and he frequently emphasized the limitations of our current state of knowledge and the near impossibility of personal change. He was fond of saying: ‘The old ways are the good ways.’ Zoller married only in his mid-fifties and had no children of his own.

Most if not all of these facts should make any experienced astrologer think of one planet in particular, namely Saturn. In Zoller’s tropical nativity, however, Saturn is not very prominent, although it does rule the sect light (the Sun). Further, the Moon on the ascendant in Pisces rules the fifth house of children and applies first to Venus by a square with reception (Venus holding the superior position), then to Jupiter in Scorpio with trine – an abundance of fruitful planets and signs that contrasts sharply with his childless state. Jupiter ruling the ascendant is a benefic planet in a good house, aspecting the ascendant with a trine, and does not indicate any serious illness.

In the sidereal nativity, by contrast, the ascendant as well as both the luminaries are ruled by Saturn, a retrograde malefic without dignity, opposed by the other malefic and not aspecting the ascendant. The Moon is still conjunct the ascendant but now rules the sixth house of illness; and while it does apply to Venus, indicating some relief, there is now no reception either way – in fact, Venus is in the Moon’s sign of fall. The fifth  house is ruled by Mercury, which is combust in a sign of Saturn and closely opposed by Saturn in the fifth. Taken together, these are strong indications of childlessness.

Naturally, some indications of the chart will be similar or the same in both zodiacs. Jupiter in the ninth house favours religious inclinations and search for wisdom in either case; and these matters are connected with the native’s work in one chart by the ruler of the ninth house being on the cusp of the tenth, vice versa in the other. The fiery conjunction in the eleventh house suggests frequently turbulent friendships – another notable feature of Zoller’s life – in either zodiac, though arguably more so when opposing the ruler of the ascendant. Nevertheless, it does seem to me that the tropical version of Zoller’s nativity requires a fair bit of special pleading in order to reconcile it with his known objective circumstances. The sidereal positions and rulerships, on the other hand, agree with them in very simple and straightforward ways, using the same traditional principles of interpretation that Zoller himself taught.

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