Over the course of my studies in astrology, I learned as one does about the organizing principles behind signs, houses, rulerships, exaltations, joys, aspects, sect, etc. The internal logic is remarkably consistent and each part relates to the other in one cohesive, elegant whole. However, it began to nag at me that in one particular area of astrology, perhaps the most fundamental feature, has no equivalent line of reasoning. I am of course talking about the astrological natures of the planets. Why should they mean what they do?
The western astrological tradition’s primary ancestor is Babylonian omen astrology, and those astrologers were the first to assign particular natures to the planets((Rochberg, Francesca. In the Path of the Moon: Babylonian Celestial Divination and Its Legacy. Leiden: Brill, 2010. 139-40. Print.)). It appears that at least three occasionally interrelated forces were at work in determining the natures of the planets:
- Empirical observation of what happened around the time of given celestial phenomena, e.g., ‘Mars got bright in the sky and my cattle herd got destroyed.’
- Symbolic associations between the literal appearance of the planet and certain emotions or material things, e.g. Mars appears red, the color of fire, blood, anger, passion, etc.
- Associating the apparent character of a planet with a corresponding deity, e.g., ‘Mars seems to be bad news, sort of like Nergal. Hey, let’s call it Nergal.’
In the centuries since, astrologers have developed and expanded on each of these methods. Empirical observation is now fantastically empowered by astrology software and massive historical databases. Symbolic associations with the appearance and behavior of planets have begun to incorporate the discoveries of modern astronomy. Greek and Roman mythology remain a useful shorthand or archetypal reference for planetary natures. Still, it bothers me that the meanings of the planets rely on such a large degree of symbolic inference, however well established. Are there alternatives? I believe there could be.
The primary quality assigned to a planet is whether or not it is generally good or bad, or benefic and malefic. This has been true since the Seleucid era, and possibly dating back even further to the era of omen-based Babylonian astrology((Rochberg, Francesca. In the Path of the Moon: Babylonian Celestial Divination and Its Legacy. Leiden: Brill, 2010. 135-42. Print.)). I propose that the astrological benefic/malefic designations of the planets could have an astronomical basis. What follows is a theory of how the benefic and malefic qualities of planets can be derived from the mathematical connections between their planetary periodicities, and a consideration of the implications for the natures of outer planets and “dwarf planets”.
Benefics, Malefics and Mercury
Venus and Jupiter are considered to be the lesser and greater benefic planets respectively. Their astrological associations have transmitted to the present through the words “venereal” and “jovial”. Mars and Saturn are considered to be the lesser and greater malefic planets respectively. Their astrological associations have transmitted to the present through the words “martial” and “saturnine”. Mercury is considered to have an ambiguous or duplicitous nature, sometimes benefic, other times malefic. This astrological reputation of Mercury has been passed down through the word “mercurial”. The minor periods of the planets mathematically relate to each other in ways that suggest particular couplings and particular natures of the planets.
Venus’s 8 year period is 2/3rds of Jupiter’s 12 year period, which means that after three Venus periods and two Jupiter periods, the two planets will return to the same location, after 24 years. Venus’s 8 year period does not have as an immediate mathematical relationship to the period of any other planet. Two of Jupiter’s 12 year periods is the earliest time that Venus would match up with the period of another planet. It appears evident then that Venus and Jupiter are part of a pair.
Mars’s 15 year period is half of Saturn’s 30 year period, which means that after two Mars periods and one Saturn period, the two planets will return to roughly the same location. Mars’s 15 year period does not have as an immediate mathematical relationship to the period of any other planet. Saturn’s 30 year period is the earliest time that Mars would match up with the period of another planet. Consequently, it would be natural to assume that Mars and Saturn are part of a pair, just as Venus and Jupiter are part of a pair.
These connections establish why certain planets would be coupled together, but they do not in themselves explain why one pair should be benefic and the other malefic without some degree of inference, so here is mine: Since Jupiter must complete two periods to match up with Venus’s three, one could characterize it as a cooperative relationship, featuring mutual contribution for mutual benefit. This is in agreement with the purported astrological character of these planets as benefics, constructive and beneficial.
In contrast, Mars must complete two periods just to match up with Saturn’s one. One could characterize this relationship as hierarchical or antibiotic, featuring unreciprocated contributions for the benefit of the other. This is in agreement with the purported astrological character of these planets as malefics, destructive and detrimental.
Mercury’s 20 year period matches up with Venus at 40 years, and at 60 years it matches up with Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Mercury’s relationship to all of the planets’ periods evoke its traditionally ambiguous benefic/malefic status.
The Outer Planets
In light of these connections among the inner planets, there are some interesting implications for the outer planets. Uranus has an orbital period of 84 years while Neptune has an orbital period of 165 years. Uranus’s period is roughly half that of Neptune’s. This 2:1 ratio would suggest a similar relationship and nature as Mars and Saturn. However, Uranus and Neptune individually have mathematical connections to other planets.
Jupiter’s 12 year minor period does not feature a perfect return to the degree, just the zodiacal sign. The remainder adds up to a year after seven minor periods resulting in a very close Jupiter return by degree after 83 years, to the day. After 83 years, Uranus is very close to having made a full return. Aside from Neptune, Uranus has a closer orbital relationship with Jupiter than any other planet.
Mars’s 15 year minor period does not feature a perfect return to the zodiacal sign and degree. Every 15 years Mars’s position relative to the Sun will precess several degrees backward through the zodiac, which in just a few decades exhausts its usefulness in predicting its general position. However, if you count by Mars’s conjunctions with the Sun, then after eleven Mars minor periods, 164 years have passed and Neptune is very close to having made a full return. Aside from Uranus, Neptune has a closer relationship with Mars than any other planet.
Uranus and Neptune’s cyclical relationship to the other is comparable to the arrangement of Mars and Saturn and thus apparently malefic. However, their individual connections are with benefic and malefic planets, diurnal and nocturnal planets. This suggests natures that transcend common notions of good and bad. This is in apparent accordance with modern astrological accounts of Uranus and Neptune which reference the planets’ revolutionary traits, for better and worse. It is tempting then to group Uranus and Neptune together as the lesser and greater “transcendentals” respectively, as another pair to go alongside the luminaries, the benefics, the malefics and Mercury.
The “Dwarf Planets”
The most famous so-called “dwarf planet” is Pluto which has an orbital period of 248 years. Pluto’s 248 years is very close to the sum of Uranus’s 84 years and Neptune’s 165 years, closer than the sum of three Uranus periods. This would suggest that Pluto is a combination of the transcendentally individualist and collectivist qualities of Uranus and Neptune, a super-transcendental. Pluto certainly has a reputation in the astrological community fitting this description, known for signifying extreme situations, radical or fundamental transformation, etc.
Ceres has 18 recurring conjunctions and oppositions in similar parts of the zodiac over a period of 23 years, almost to the day. If Ceres were to have a minor period like the other planets, it could reasonably be 23. Multiples of 23 years do not easily fit into any multiple of the synodic period of any other planet, nor can it be divided evenly into a multiple of another shorter planetary period. It can however, be divided between two different planetary periods – Venus’s 8 years and Mars’s 15 years adds up to 23 years.
This would suggest that the astrological nature of Ceres could be some combination of Venus and Mars, with benefic and malefic qualities. Since Venus and Mars are both nocturnal planets, perhaps Ceres could also be considered nocturnal. On this basis, perhaps Ceres might be best associated with the nocturnal signs of Venus and Mars: Taurus and Scorpio. However, more empirical observation needs to be done on Ceres in transit, since many contemporary interpretations rely heavily on the mythology of Ceres.
Implications for Astrology Prior to the Discovery of the Outer and Dwarf Planets
The interrelation of planetary periods has a practical implication for astrology practiced prior to the discovery of new planetary bodies: at least in some instances, outer planetary transits could already have been accounted for. For example, the Seleucids were well aware of Jupiter’s 83-year return and they might have expected the time to be somewhat remarkable, or involving some extraordinary honor or insight, which could overlap with Uranus’s significations. Since Uranus’s return would be happening around the same time, it could have been possible for ancient astrologers to inadvertently account for an outer planetary transit.
The Babylonian astrologers were fond of combining these planetary cycles on top of one another, evidenced by their “goal year texts”. Hellenistic astrologer Vettius Valens wrote that combining the minor periods of two planets in aspect in a natal chart would eventuate in the life of the native once those years had been reached. He might have had a client with Venus and Mars in aspect and considered the age of 23 with special interest, thus accounting for the completion of Ceres’s minor period.
In Valens’s Zodiacal Releasing procedure, Lots profect through the zodiac being apportioned a given number of years according to the ruler of the sign it is in. If a Lot started profecting from Gemini, Scorpio or Capricorn, then the sum of the next four signs comes out to 84, and accordingly importance would be given to the profection of the fifth sign, which would happen to coincide with a Uranus return.
Admittedly, this effect is probably fairly limited but there could be more ways in which ancient astrologers accounted for outer planetary transits without knowing it.
I hope this has demonstrated a new way to talk about and understand the astrological nature of the planets. I should acknowledge its shortcomings though. I still had to make inferences in order to characterize the planets at all. I think I have not tried to make this schema justify the traditional benefic/malefic assignments, I do think it does that independently. However, there is one curious thing about Mercury (and of course it would be Mercury), which is that its 20-year period can be divided by one 8-year Venus period and one 12-year Jupiter period, which would seem to indicate an allegiance with the benefics. I am not sure what to make of it but I felt I could not honestly omit the peculiarity. “As above, so below” sounds so simple, but there is still quite a bit of space between them.