Numbers and Natures: A Theoretical Basis for the Astrological Qualities of the Planets

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:

  1. 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.’
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

17 thoughts on “Numbers and Natures: A Theoretical Basis for the Astrological Qualities of the Planets”

  1. Brilliant! I do have one question, though. Why is a 2/3 ratio beneficent while a 1/2 ratio is hostile?

    1. Patrick Watson

      Hi James,

      Thank you, and that’s a good question.

      It is an inference I’m making about the nature of those relationships. One the one hand, you have the Venus-Jupiter 2:3 ratio where both planets give more than one of their cycles in order to make a whole. So, I’d characterize that as a cooperative, symbiotic relationship. Compared to that, the Mars-Saturn 2:1 ratio seems more hierarchical and unfriendly, since Mars has to give two of its cycles while Saturn only gives one.

      The Mars-Saturn relationship evokes the opposition aspect which is considered to be stressful and antagonistic, presumably because the division of a circle into 2 creates a duad, from which you can extract notions of duality and the tension between opposites. After one completion of a Mars cycle, Saturn is in the opposite sign from where it was a Mars period earlier. This kind of thinking is already present in astrology, such as Saturn ruling the signs opposite the signs ruled by the lights; Capricorn and Aquarius oppose Cancer and Leo. If the opposition is Saturn’s aspect, and Mars is “half” of Saturn, then the square is Mars’s aspect. Appropriately, Mars stations direct fairly close to the degree that it was at when it was square the Sun prior to the retrograde. Also, Mars’s signs are square the signs of the lights; Scorpio is square Leo and Aries is square Cancer.

      Similarly, the Venus-Jupiter relationship evokes the trine and sextile aspects. Compared to the division of the circle into 2 creating a tense opposition, the division into 3 creates more of a balance and stability. There are 3 sides to triangles, a fundamental polygon, an inherently sturdy supportive shape in construction. After one completion of a Venus cycle, Jupiter is generally trine the position it was in a Venus cycle earlier. Additionally, Jupiter stations retrograde and direct when it is very close to a trine with the Sun. Jupiter’s signs are trine the signs of the lights, Sagittarius trine Leo, Pisces trine Cancer. Venus’s maximum elongation does not make a perfect sextile, but it is capable of being in a sign sextile the Sun, and so Venus’s signs are sextile the signs of the lights, Libra sextile Leo, Taurus sextile Cancer.

      So that was my thinking on that. Do you think it should be the reverse?

  2. Venus’s 8 year period DOES have an even more immediate mathematical relationship to the period of another planet, -Mars

    Mars’ synodic cycle is not always 15, its 15 AND 17

    Thus Venus and Mars are closer to an exact return at 32 yrs than Venus and Jupiter are at 24

    1. Patrick Watson

      Hi Gary, good points. The 17-year Mars cycle is really 15+2, just as the 32 year cycle is really 15+15+2 and the 47 year cycle is just 15+15+15+2. The essential unit is still 15 years for Mars. The Mars-Saturn recurrence at 30 years is definitely more general, but I was looking for general recurrences rather than the exactitude of the recurrence. If I did that then all the planets would be like Venus, because Venus’s recurrences with all the planets are closer to being an exact number of years due to the preciseness of its own cycle. Mercury-40, Sun-8, Mars-32, Jupiter-24, Saturn-88, just off the top of my head. Maybe she gets around? Besides, Mars’s recurrence with Saturn at 30 years occurs before its recurrence with Venus at 32 years, and Venus’s recurrence with Jupiter occurs at 24 years before its recurrence with Mars at 32 years. IMHO, I think it makes sense that they would have a closer link to the planet they recur with first, and it happens to coincide with the traditional benefic/malefic assignments.

  3. Very interesting insights. I do agree completely that there are cyclic and mathematical foundations for the astrological factors. The beginning does appear to be Mesopotamia. I’m exploring approaches to retrieving a philosophy of astrology which clarifies the foundations. Your insight offers another piece of this puzzle, another stone for the tower so to speak.

    Very well written and insightful. Numbers don’t lie and you’ve found one of the secrets they reveal. If you are interested, and yes I know none of us has much time these days, we migt comparea few notes.

    Keep up the good work.

  4. The topic is of great interest and you have done a good job recovering these relationships. I need to give it some thought before I can make much of a coherent contribution although I do agree that the average or symbolic or general cycle is the one to work with and the one that shows the numerical relations clearest. I think I’ve seen some similar cycle notes in the works of some of the traditional astrologers. Robert Zoller also makes mention of numerical relationships, though not quite in the same way, in his book on Parts. I’m wondering if you’ve explored possible connections with the numbering and order of the planets by speed from Saturn to Moon ? I’m also noticing that these same cycles would probably connect with fixed star conjunctions, which. with appropriate latitude, would be occultations.

    1. Patrick Watson

      Hi Jonathan,

      Thanks for the kind words. I have not heard of other astrologers using the cycles in this way to explain their natures and relationships to each other. This is kind of a first draft of my thoughts on this, and I’ll have to think a lot more in order to work out some of the kinks. Let’s absolutely compare notes! Although you can see most of mine already…

  5. On the basis of the arguments above wrt Venus/Jupiter forming sextiles/trines

    why then is Mercury not more benefic, in that he makes 3 Rx per year?

    Also, doesnt the above argument cut both ways? since Venus makes a square to the Moon in the Thema mundi (in addition to her sextile to the Sun) and her Taurus squares Leo and her Libra squares Cancer?

    1. Patrick Watson

      Well, if Mercury is truly a mix, then there would have to be some benefic and malefic associations. That’s not a bad benefic connection, the 3 retrogrades. I’m not sure about a malefic connection other than what I already presented. Upon thinking about it however, an inferior conjunction is pretty close to squaring the position of the Sun at the preceding western elongation and the next eastern elongation, and vice versa for the superior conjunctions. That’s kind of similar to how Mars tends to go retrograde in the sign it last squared the Sun in. Maybe that’s the malefic connection.

    2. Patrick Watson

      Also, Taurus is Venus’s nocturnal sign and affiliated with the Moon, hence the easy aspect to Cancer and the harsher aspect to Leo. And vice versa for Libra and Cancer.

  6. Hi Patrik, I find your work highly interesting and I mostly agree in your interpretation. However, have you ever thought about the relation between such simple number cycles and musical intervals? It’s an ancient idea and could help to shed light between such mathematical values and the qualitatives values we attribute to planets in astrology…
    Besides, could I ask you what’s your source for the planetary cycles?

  7. Hi Buno, thanks! The minor periods are well established since the Egyptians were doing astrology. I learned about them once I started learning about Hellenistic timelord techniques. Here is Rob Hand explaining the origin of the minor periods of the planets:

    I’ve been tempted to see links between astrology and music. The qualities of the aspects reminds me of consonance and dissonance in harmony.

    Conjunction – Unison
    “Semi-sextile” – Major/minor 2nd
    Sextile – Major/minor 3rd
    Square – 4th/5th/tritone
    Trine – Major/minor 6th
    “Quincunx” – Major/minor 7th
    Opposition – Octaves

    That’s about all I got.

  8. Hi Patrick,

    my idea is of a deeper link between musical intervals and planetary cycles… this link could be a bridge between emotion (perception of the interval) and number (identify the planet as physical reality). For example 2/3 is a fifth, 4/3 a forth, and so on. I was wandering if the planetary cycles could be arranged in a fashion which reveals the quality of the planets through the quality of musical intervals…

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  10. Patricia of Eustis

    Consider a very physical approach to the planets in terms of their effect. Venus and Jupiter are nearly upright in their rotation and are considered benefic.
    Uranus rotates on its side and is known for its malefic reputation while Pluto orbits at a distinctly cockeyed angle. Try moving your left hand in a circle and your right hand on a diagonal simultaneously and see how that makes you feel. The angles of planetary rotation as well as speed and distance values need to be reconsidered, as well as the idea that the Solar System is one unit acting together, moving through space. A. T. Mann has a wonderful graphic of this in his book Astrology The Round Art.
    Thanks for your numerical musings and your musical connections. Now we know the reason the blues uses sevenths is to adjust to a quincunx.

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