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Astro*Dictionary by Michael Erlewine





3 articles for "Ptolemaic"

Ptolemaic Aspect [Astro*Index]

Named after Claudius Ptolemy. The following set of particular angular separations between two bodies:

000° ... Conjunction
060° ... Sextile
090° ... Square
120° ... Trine
180° ... Opposition


Note that Ptolemy did not make use of the Semisextile (30°) and Quincunx (150°) partile aspects.

See also: ♦ Angular Separation
Ptolemaic Astrology [Astro*Index]

The astrology of Ptolemy as written in his Tetrabiblos.


Tetrabiblos: Book 1, Section 3


In somewhat summary fashion it has been shown how prognostication by astronomical means is possible, and that it can go no further than what happens in the ambient and the consequences to man from such causes — that is, it concerns the original endowments of faculties and activities of soul and body, their occasional diseases, their endurance for a long or a short time, and, besides, all external circumstances that have a directive and natural connection with the original gifts of nature, such as property and marriage in the case of the body and honour and dignities in that of the soul, and finally what befalls them from time to time. The remaining part of our project would be to inquire briefly as to its usefulness, first distinguishing how and with what end in view we shall take the meaning of the word usefulness. For if we look to the goods of the soul, what could be more conducive to well-being, pleasure, and in general satisfaction than this kind of forecast, by which we gain full view of things human and divine? And if we look to bodily goods, such knowledge, better than anything else, would perceive what is fitting and expedient for the capabilities of each temperament. But if it does not aid in the acquisition of riches, fame, and the like, we shall be able to say the same of all philosophy, for it does not provide any of these things as far as its own powers are concerned. We should not, however, for that reason be justified in condemning either philosophy or this art, disregarding its greater advantages.

To a general examination it would appear that those who find fault with the uselessness of prognostication have no regard for the most important matters, but only for this — that foreknowledge of events that will happen in any case is superfluous; this, too, quite unreservedly and without due discrimination. For, in the first place, we should consider that even with events that will necessarily take place their unexpectedness is very apt to cause excessive panic and delirious joy, while foreknowledge accustoms and calms the soul by experience of distant events as though they were present, and prepares it to greet with calm and steadiness whatever comes. A second reason is that we should not believe that separate events attend mankind as the result of the heavenly cause as if they had been originally ordained for each person by some irrevocable divine command and destined to take place by necessity without the possibility of any other cause whatever interfering. Rather is it true that the movement of the heavenly bodies, to be sure, is eternally performed in accordance with divine, unchangeable destiny, while the change of earthly things is subject to a natural and mutable fate, and in drawing its first causes from above it is governed by chance and natural sequence. Moreover, some things happen to mankind through more general circumstances and not as the result of an individual's own natural propensities — for example, when men perish in multitudes by conflagration or pestilence or cataclysms, through monstrous and inescapable changes in the ambient, for the lesser cause always yields to the greater and stronger; other occurrences, however, accord with the individual's own natural temperament through minor and fortuitous antipathies of the ambient. For if these distinctions are thus made, it is clear that both in general and in particular whatever events depend upon a first cause, which is irresistible and more powerful than anything that opposes it, must by all means take place; on the contrary, of events that are not of this character, those which are provided with resistant forces are easily averted, while those that are not follow the primary natural causes, to be sure, but this is due to ignorance and not to the necessity of almighty power. One might observe this same thing happening in all events whatsoever that have natural causes. For even of stones, plants, and animals, and also of wounds, mishaps, and sicknesses, some are of such a nature as to act of necessity, others only if no opposing thing interferes. One should therefore believe that physical philosophers predict what is to befall men with foreknowledge of this character and do not approach their task under false impressions; for certain things, because their effective causes are numerous and powerful, are inevitable, but others for the opposite reason may be averted. Similarly those physicians who can recognize ailments know beforehand those which are always fatal and those which admit of aid. In the case of events that may be modified we must give heed to the astrologer, when, for example, he says that to such and such a temperament, with such and such a character of the ambient, if the fundamental proportions increase or decrease, such and such an affection will result. Similarly we must believe the physician, when he says that this sore will spread or cause putrefaction, and the miner, for instance, that the lodestone attracts iron; just as each of these, if left to itself through ignorance of the opposing forces, will inevitably develop as its original nature compels, but neither will the sore cause spreading or putrefaction if it receives preventive treatment, nor will the lodestone attract the iron if it is rubbed with garlic; and these very deterrent measures also have their resisting power naturally and by fate; so also in the other cases, if further happenings to men are not known, or if they are known and the remedies are not applied, they will by all means follow the course of primary nature; but if they are recognized ahead of time and remedies are provided, again quite in accord with nature and fate, they either do not occur at all or are rendered less severe. And in general, since such power is the same whether applied to things regarded universally or particularly, one would wonder why all believe in the efficacy of prediction in universal matters, and in its usefulness for guarding one's interests (for most people admit that they have foreknowledge of the seasons, of the significance of the constellations, and of the phases of the moon, and take great forethought for safeguarding themselves, always contriving cooling agents against summer and the means of warmth against winter, and in general preparing their own natures with moderation as a goal; furthermore, to ensure the safety of the seasons and of their sailings they watch the significance of the fixed stars, and, for the beginning of breeding and sowing, the aspects of the moon's light at its full, and no one ever condemns such practices either as impossible or useless); but, on the other hand, as regards particular matters and those depending upon the mixture of the other qualities — such as predictions of more or less, of cold or of heat, and of the individual temperament — some people believe neither that foreknowledge is still possible nor that precautions can be taken in most instances. And yet, since it is obvious that, if we happen to have cooled ourselves against heat in general, we shall suffer less from it, similar measures can prove effective against particular forces which increase this particular temperament to a disproportionate amount of heat. For the cause of this error is the difficulty and unfamiliarity of particular prognostication, a reason which in most other situations as well brings about disbelief. And since for the most part the resisting faculty is not coupled with the prognostic, because so perfect a disposition is rare, and since the force of nature takes its course without hindrance when the primary natures are concerned, an opinion has been produced that absolutely all future events are inevitable and unescapable.

See also: ♦ Tetrabiblos
Ptolemaic Astrology [DeVore]

A correct appraisal of Ptolemy's work might well begin, not with what he knew but with what he did not know. From a careful study of the Tetrabiblos, one must classify his work under three headings: (1) A valid philosophy that treats in theoretical terms of the plausible value of astrology and the benefits it would confer if properly assayed and applied. (2) A compilation of knowledge from "ancient" sources, for which he erected a consistent framework of practice: an excellent piece of editorial work in any day. (3) An attempted scientific explanation of how and why it works in terms of what was then known of astronomy and physics.

In the first classification his work is superb. He shows the importance of giving consideration to education and environment as modifying factors in delineation; of continued study to establish the actual factors upon which judgment should be based; and the damage done to all sciences by unprincipled charlatans who use their little knowledge for personal gain. His contributions under this heading are as vital today as when he wrote them.

In the second classification he shows that while astrology must have advanced a long way, interpretation had suffered from a lack of knowledge of the mechanics through which it operates, and this knowledge he attempted to supply.

It is in this third classification that instead of clarifying issues, he succeeded mainly in introducing a maze of superfluities, complexities and contradictions.

Of all the theories which he advanced none has been restated more often in contradictory terms than his Doctrine of Orientality. Even Placidus remarked that "everyone knows how largely and to what little purpose authors have treated of the orientality of the planets." To this James Wilson, in his most personal of dictionaries since the days of the ubiquitous Samuel Johnson, adds that "this may well be the case, when the whole was unintelligible even to these authors themselves." Ironically he says: "Orientality I do not comprehend any better than Ptolemy himself, and therefore can say little on the subject." When Ptolemy speaks of the nearness of Mercury's sphere to that of the Moon, Wilson's comment is to the effect that it doesn't make sense. No wonder.

To make sense out of Ptolemy's doctrines one must first reconstruct the firmament as he saw it. Around the Earth were ten spheres; one each for the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, in which the planets "struggle against the primum mobile"; in an eighth sphere, two small circles wherein the beginning of Aries and Libra "trembles and vibrates" — referring no doubt to the then unexplainable phenomenon of precession; in a ninth sphere, "a crystalline or watery heaven in which no star has been discovered"; and around them all, like a steel tire on a wagon wheel, a tenth sphere, the primum mobile, which by its superior force carries all within it in a diurnal rotation from the east through the meridian to the west.

Forgetting that which we have since learned, one must realize that all Ptolemy knew about the proper or orbital motions of the bodies was that they struggled ineffectually against the compelling force of the "ambient" — which incidentally is a good word. Every concept in his system is based upon apparent motion-and he did not know that it was merely apparent. Since the Sun's motion is faster than that of any of the major planets, they did indeed separate from the Sun in a clockwise direction, rising and eventually culminating at the midheaven. The minor planets, of course, never got far enough away from the Sun to culminate, so they were differentiated by whether they rose in the morning before the Sun, or set in the evening after the Sun.

It is apparent that astrologers, even in his day, realized the increased strength of planets by virtue of elevation into the Twelfth, Eleventh and Tenth Houses; but it is also apparent that in trying to explain it, he attributed this potency to their visible light rather than to gravitation; hence he deemed it essential that the Sun be below the Horizon, so that the planets might "rise and shine" ahead of the Sun. In ascribing extreme potency to the visibility of the planets' rays, he could not know that light itself is only a symptom of energy radiation from the Sun, and that the octave of visible light eventually would be extended to some 3o octaves of invisible infrared and ultra-violet frequencies, charging an ambient magnetic field that envelops the Earth, and affects the lower Earth as well as the arc of visibility.

The Moon was the problem, for with its faster motion it did not separate from the Sun, but eventually the Sun caught up with it. Planets mounted to the Sun in one direction, and to the Moon in the other. Only he stated it more vaguely in saying that oriental and matitudinal planets ascend to the Sun; occidental and vespertine, to the Moon. That is the reason he gave the preferential position for a planet, as oriental of the Sun and occidental of the Moon. In these positions it should find the maximum opportunity to shine before Sunrise, and after Moonset.

This picture of a satellitium of planets above the horizon guarded on the East by the Sun and on the West by the Moon, represented an array of power-even though his reasons were somewhat awry. At that, one might be willing to concede something in order to have a waxing Moon; but Ptolemy lacked knowledge of the Moon's proper motion, hence was unable to differentiate between the good qualities of a waxing moon as compared to those conferred upon a weak Fourth Quarter Moon by virtue of the accidental dignity of elevation.

When it came to the Sun itself, there must be a reason why it too was more powerful in the quadrant between the Ascendant and the Midheaven, so to it was given another variety of orientality-that to the Horizon, im mundo. It was more powerful in the three houses through which it culminated to the Midheaven, but since it must do the same thing in the other half of the F-arth as it descended into the west and proceeded to rise on the other side, the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth were also oriental Houses. Therefore as regards the Sun, it was oriental "of the horizon," or im Mundo, in the north-west quadrants as it was in the south-east, and occidental in the other two quadrants.

It is strange how truth persists in defiance of all efforts to explain it — or explain it away. Sepharial says a planet is oriental when it rises after the Sun — that one needs only to look at the Sun in the midheaven and he can see which is the oriental side. He neglects to note that one has but to picture the Sun at the IC to see that it then becomes oriental on the other side. What Sepharial particularly overlooked was the fact that Ptolemy knew nothing about proper motion, and that before the Sun did not mean before it in orbital motion in the order of the signs, but before it in rising as it comes above the horizon and mounts to the Midheaven. All that Ptolemy meant by oriental he said again when he described a planet as matutine. Wilson tried to remedy this by suggesting that it was matutine for three signs and oriental for the next three signs, but obviously it cannot be farther removed from the Sun than 90°, or it would rise before the Sun, not in the morning but before midnight of the night before; or it would not set until after midnight, which would be the next day after today's sunset. Naturally this problem does not arise in connection with Mercury and Venus, which never get that far away from the Sun.

Evidently oriental was intended to apply to the major planets and the Moon; while matutine and vespertine, which meant the same thing, were intended to apply to the inferior planets; but Ptolemy lost himself in his own words, and by using both terms in abandoned redundancy managed to leave posterity in a hopeless muddle in its efforts to find some difficult explanation for a very simple thing. Both Wm. Lilly and Alan Leo list all of the houses from the IC to the MC as oriental, yet Leo goes on to add that the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Tenth, Eleventh and Twelfth are the oriental Houses-which calls forth from Wilson the scornful observation that a planet can thus be oriental and occidental at one and the same time.

The fact is that none of these terms are of value today, simply because we have better ways of stating the same thing. Truth born of experience, despite anyone's efforts to explain it, and aided by Copernicus, has led us to an inescapable correlation between the Geocentric and the Solar Houses, until today we recognize that a planet in the Tenth, Eleventh and Twelfth Geocentric Houses enjoys the same added strength by elevation that Ptolemy tried to describe in his use of the terms Matutine, and oriental im Mundo; also that in the Tenth, Eleventh and Twelfth Solar Houses they enjoy the strength that he expressed by his terms "oriental of the Sun." Venus matutine is now Venus in the Eleventh or Twelfth Solar House; Vespertine, in the First or Second Solar House. Sun or planets oriental of the horizon, or im Mundo, are now expressed as in either the Tenth, Eleventh or Twelfth Geocentric House, as the case may be. A planet "oriental of the Sun" is better located by its Solar House position, either the Tenth, Eleventh or Twelfth.

Another peculiar symptom of the power Ptolemy attached to visibility is seen in his classifications of Beholding Signs or signs of Equal Power, and those of Commanding and Obeying. The Beholding Signs, those of equal power, were those whose cusps were equidistant from the Meridian. Both are either visible or invisible, hence equally strong or equally weak. On the other hand, the Commanding and Obeying Signs were equidistant from the Equator, hence one was in the light and the other in darkness, because of which the one above the horizon was Commanding and the other Obeying. Furthermore it has often been overlooked that this distinction applied only when the respective Signs were occupied by planets that were thereby configurated, and that the distinction was only a means of determining which end of the aspect was the more powerful. of course, the elevated planet is the stronger by virtue of House position — which has naught to do with Sign position. That the presence of the Sun in a Commanding Sign made it longer, hence conferred upon the Sign a right to be considered a Commanding Sign, seems particularly naive; and one wonders what would happen if the Sun chanced to be in a Sign of rapid ascension below the horizon. Naturally it would make it smaller, but what privileges would that confer or deny? Since the Signs are of equal size, what he really meant was a House, for only a House could be "longer."

He classifies Sextiles and Trines as harmonious because they join Signs that are either both male or both female. The square is inharmonious because it joins Signs "of different natures and sexes." The oriental quadrants are masculine; the occidental, feminine. He overlooks the fact that the explanation he gives for his pairs of Commanding and Obeying sextiles and trines would with better logic describe the opposition polarities which in modern practice are found to possess such validity. The 144 so-called polarities between Sun and Moon, the importance of which was given emphasis by Alan Leo, found no place in his system. Truly astrology has made great advances since he gave it the initial impetus that has projected it so powerfully into our modern world.

It seems that Ptolemy, finding a lot of scattered truths and sundry devices for applying them, devoted his ingenuity to an effort to hook them all together into a unified system. In this it appears that in a sense he was a precursor of Freud, in that he seemed bent on reducing everything to terms of sex. of course, this may not be literally true, for his eternal harping on masculine and feminine had to do not so much with sex as with the polarity of positive and negative and the reciprocal action that presumably takes places between adjacent Signs, whereby each even-numbered Sign complements the preceding odd-numbered Sign. That he called them masculine and feminine instead of positive and negative, or active and passive, was a matter of terminology in keeping with the symbolism of his epoch. Even the positive-negative terminology is not ideal, for it still supports his concept that the even-numbered Sign is the underdog who helps the preceding odd-numbered Sign to make good on his positiveness, hence is in an unfortunate position. Nevertheless, since Fortunate and Unfortunate is a classification that exactly parallels what today we prefer to speak of as positive and negative, these and many similarly unnecessary terms that only serve to create confusion might well be discarded.

There is some doubt today as in his day, as to whether this basic distinction is a valid one, for Ptolemy himself reports that many of the astrological savants of his time rejected the distinction. Nevertheless, it was essential to his thesis, so he persisted, for only by this could he justify and explain his system of essential dignities, whereby to arrive at a delineation of untenanted Signs and Houses. These Signs are not wholly untenanted, for from time to time they are actuated by transits, and these concern themselves not at all with the presumed ruler of the territory they transit-but Ptolemy knew naught about Transits.

Since the Sun and Moon rose to the greatest third-dimensional elevation in North declination in Cancer and Leo, he assigned to them the Sun and Moon as Rulers. The Moon, because she was moist, was a female, so he gave her the feminine even-numbered Sign; and since the Sun was dry, hence masculine, he got the odd-numbered masculine Sign. The planets then had to have two Houses each, so they could configurate with both Sun and Moon; hence Mercury, which never gets farther away from the Sun than one Sign, he allocated to Gemini and Virgo, a feminine one for his night house, since the moist night must of course be feminine, and a dry masculine one for his day House. Venus, which never gets farther away from the Sun than two Signs, necessarily came next; followed by Mars and then Jupiter — all on the same theory. To Saturn, which was far away and hence out in the cold, was assigned the remaining two Signs-but again a moist female one for his night home and a dry masculine one for his day throne. From this arrangement came the Solar semicircle, and the Lunar-planets in Aquarius to Cancer "mounting" to the Moon in the order of the Signs, and those in Capricorn clockwise to Leo, mounting to the Sun against the order of the Signs.

After that came masculine and feminine quadrants, Signs and Houses, and masculine and feminine planets, whereby any House, whether or not tenanted, could be delineated by joining them up in sundry ways through this consideration of sex.

The idea that a female is moist is repugnant, and has nothing to do with planets moving in cycles. He started by classifying adjacent Signs into pairs according to sex "as the male is coupled with the female" — yet throughout his entire application of the sex principle he reversed his logic to emphasize the unfavorable influence to which a male planet is subjected when tenanting a female area — and the reverse.

It is small wonder that Wilson, a man of strong opinions but penetrating vision, said of the Ptolemy classification of planets as masculine and feminine that "it is an idle distinction, and no more founded on reason than his essential dignities." Pointing out that Placidus also differed with Ptolemy in the matter, he remarks that "this is not to be wondered at, when he differed so much in opinion with himself." Then he adds, as a sage piece of advice: "I would advise the student to give himself no trouble about the sex of the planets, but to study their influence."

Ptolemy's emphasis on heat and cold, moisture and dryness, may be valid, but can only be accepted when verified by scientific demonstration. Arrived at by a loose symbolic analogy tied in with sex, they are unworthy of perpetuation in our modern terminology. Actually they mean nothing to today's astrology, for through the accumulated testimony of research, experiment, and observation, we have learned how each planet's influence externalizes; and whether it does so because its moist nature makes it female, or the reverse, is of no consequence. Certainly we must reject any such contradictory reasoning as that which makes Jupiter beneficent because of its heat, and Mars malefic because of its excess of dryness, yet on that reasoning Mars should become beneficent when below the horizon, for there it becomes nocturnal, hence feminine.

He said also that in the parts of the Earth "where the Sun's heat is most strongly felt, the inhabitants are more, disposed after his image." Perhaps that, rather than the hookworm, explains the lazy South. A fair sample of the wangling by which rulership of the Trigons were awarded, is that the west should be ruled by Mars, "who delights in West winds because they scorch the Egyptians," and that the North should be ruled by Jupiter, "who brings the fruitful showers from that quarter"-to which Wilson suggests that "it would be no bad policy were the Europeans to assign him the government of the South, which would enable him to accommodate them in a similar way." His further complaint against this jockeying for position, as described by Ptolemy, is that "Instead of considering the heavenly bodies as ponderous masses of matter operating by their sympathetic attraction on each other, they are represented as school boys always quarreling and fighting about their playthings."

One need not go so far as to eliminate the entire matter of rulerships, but the Ptolemy explanations cannot well be the explanation. If the rulership system of Essential Dignities is valid, it is merely because of a discovered similarity of influence that renders one planet more congenial in a certain Sign than in any other, whence in congenial surroundings one can expect it to function more advantageously. To expand Wilson's advice: knowledge of the Signs and planets, of the aspects between them, and of the dominions of the Houses, is of supreme importance. Superior to Ptolemy's sex method of arriving at the strength of aspects in different portions of the Figure, is our present method of considering first the Signs which condition the planets, then the Houses which are joined by means of the aspect. In fact, this is what Ptolemy attempted to do, with the limited knowledge at his command. His emphasis on the importance of knowledge concerning the motions of the planetary orbs, of correct place-time identification of the event for which a Figure is to be cast, and of the then concurrent configurations, "improved by an acquaintance with the nature of the bodies and their effective influences" as contributory to a proper prescience of Destiny and Disposition-is something every practicing astrologer might well take to heart. To apply his advice in the light of today's knowledge would leave us with a greatly simplified terminology, for into the discard would go a host of words for things we are now able to describe in terms that at one and the same time are simpler and more comprehensive.

It is not intended to make light of the contributions of Ptolemy, for his philosophy has been a beacon through the ages, while his work as a compiler has saved to us much knowledge that might otherwise have been lost. As to the third category, as initially set forth, it is not reasonable to expect that correct explanations of and justifications for observed operations should come from a man, however brilliant, who did not know that the planets had a proper motion as they revolved about the Sun, as well as an apparent motion by virtue of the Earth's rotation; who did not know that his Primum Mobile was a mirage; and who had never been initiated into any of the mysteries that have been unveiled to us by the telescope, the microscope, the spectroscope, the X-ray and the cyclotron. The contributions he made to learning, in view of the meagre tools at his command, inspires only veneration for those scientists who lived in an age when men still had time to think. The fact that a man of his intellectual attainments found nothing fallacious in the premise that human life and destiny may be influenced by the motions and cycles of the planets, and their reflected solar radiations as transmitted to the Earth, indicates a measure of scientific open-mindedness that is somewhat conspicuous by its absence among many of today's unimaginative and materialistic-minded scientific pedants.

Astrology has persisted in spite of all attempts to explain it; but in accordance with Ptolemy's sound philosophy it is every astrologer's duty to avail himself, with the utmost of understanding, of all knowledge that is applicable to the science, whereby to arrive at the true and correct explanations which alone can bring the improved technic that will enhance Astrology's value to society.

See also: ♦ Tetrabiblos


Astro*Index Copyright © 1997 Michael Erlewine


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