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Aphorisms in Astrology

A common strategy for writers in all disciplines is to make succinct statements of universals that result in a basic understanding for the readers. This technique has many names across many cultures: aphorisms, proverbs, Sutras, Hadiths, maxims, etc. In astrology, we often find aphorisms in traditional texts, especially those of the Medieval era. By this time in Western history, some argue that “proverbs” consisted as an entire genre of literature all to themselves. Some lists of Medieval astrological aphorisms consisted of various statements attributed to historical authors like Ptolemy, but these are not my focus today. Instead, I want highlight a set of aphorisms coming out of the Arabic tradition written by the Jewish scholar Abraham Ibn-Ezra.

In The Beginning of Wisdom, Ibn-Ezra produces a generalized introduction to astrology. It is part of a series of astrological works written later in his life, after several decades travelling and study of both Jewish Scriptures, Islamic mathematics, astrology, astronomy, and more. After spending several chapter defining the various essentials of astrology, Ibn-Ezra utilizes the commonplace technique of aphorisms to provide a practical grounding of techniques for his readers. These aphorisms contain not only lists of simple statements explaining technical astrological principles but also over 40 similes relating particular planetary conditions to relatable Medieval experiences.

Take the essential dignities of the planets from The Beginning of Wisdom p.135,6):

“When a planet is in its domicile, it is like a person in [their] home.”

“A planet in its exaltation is like a person at [their] great rank.”

“A planet in its bound is like a person in [their] residence (seat).”

“A planet in its triplicity is like a person with [their] relatives.”

“A planet in its face is like a person with fine ornaments and clothing.”

Each of these includes a simple comparison between a state of planetary dignity and a human experience. Anyone can understand what it means to be in your own home, in a place where you are respected and empowered, in your favorite place to be (your seat), with supportive family, or dressed up and feeling good about yourself. From these universal human experiences, the reader is given a more immediate understanding of astrological theory.

Of course, not all of these statements are original to Ibn-Ezra. In fact, much of his work summarizes or is derivative of predecessors like Abū Ma’shar and Al-Qabīsī. They themselves can trace a line back through other Arabic and Persian astrologers all the way back the first century author Dorotheus among other Hellenistic astrologers. What Ibn-Ezra presents is a holistic of list the various possible conditions of the planets through simile and analogy.

This analogical approach has not disappeared in modern astrology. In fact, I might argue that it has only grown stronger over time. While the particular comparisons from theory to life may change with the times, numerous astrologers make use of simile to explain astrological function. Today, it often takes the form of key words and phrases or memes but the intention is still the same. By using relatable terms or images, the reader is given a more immediate and relevant understanding of a planet, house, or sign.

So what does this tell us? Why does it matter that astrology makes use of comparative explanation and more so why do 850 year old similes matter to us today? In some ways, this essay is merely demonstrative: I want to show how a feature of “traditional” astrology remain active today. As someone who seeks to reconcile the long tradition of astrology with its current form, it always helpful to notice where divergence has not occurred. Using similes, metaphors, and real-life examples to explain astrological techniques has long been a valid approach to learning and sharing information.

But there is more than just a through-line reaching back into history. Many parts of astrology, especially Medieval astrology, are difficult to understand in theory and even more difficult to apply in practice. These astrologers speak of the elevation, speed, stations, direction, visibility, morning or evening rising, and more as states that alter the expression of a planet. I’ve found that the sheer number of conditions can be overwhelming and that the more technical textbooks from the period do little to explain how exactly to use these conditions beyond simple strong/weak, good/bad dichotomies. This can be an obstacle for students and practitioners attempting to utilize all of the techniques available to them for interpreting the condition of a planet.

With Ibn-Ezra’s aphorisms in hand, we can begin to understand certain techniques more practically. With these similes and analogies, we can create a picture in our minds of exactly what each planet looks like and is capable of doing within a chart. If you’re still feeling a bit confused, perhaps an example will help. In this chart, we’ll be focusing on the condition of Saturn.

Saturn occupies both its domicile and triplicity in Aquarius. It is swift in motion and eastern or rising, currently conjoined to Venus and partially Mars, and in this chart, occupying the 8th house. In the similes of Ibn-Ezra’s aphorisms, it is like:

“A person in their home and among relatives. A young man running and happy in the fulfillment of his desires, joining together with Venus and Mars. A person stricken with horror and fear.” (The Beginning of Wisdom p.135-8)

Let us extrapolate a little on what this means. Saturn in this chart is both comfortable (“in their home”) and supported (“among relatives”). It is energetic and active (“young man running”) and feeling confident or satisfied (“happy in the fulfillment of desire”). Whatever Saturn does, it is done alongside the actions of both Venus and Mars. Finally, it is confronting the difficult and darkest experiences of life (“stricken with horror and fear”). In isolation, this final aphorism may seem harsh or even terrifying if this were your chart. However, in context, we see an empowered planet that faces these fears head on with support and confidence implying some success in the face of this horror.

From a list of planetary conditions, we have managed to paint a picture of planet, developing it into an image that we can imagine and understand. This is the modern approach of building astrological sentences with simple keywords for planets, signs, and houses taken to another level. It builds character profiles based on planetary conditions which create a more robust concept of each planet in the chart and can also expand their relationships with each other.

To make use of this in chart interpretation, we would take our images of each planet and link them together through other aphorisms explaining their aspects with each other as relationships. Squares and oppositions are usually full of conflict and tension while trines and sextiles bring connection and collaboration. This, too, is a feature of modern astrology and it can trace itself back from William Lilly, to Guido Bonnati, to the Arabic astrology recorded in Ibn-Ezra and others. Once again, there is a through line to the present and another reason to return to the past. If you already imagine that planets in trine are friends, why not add the other descriptions given in these aphorisms to the picture you are painting. This is especially helpful when you begin to factor in the sheer number of conditions a planet can be in. If you aren’t sure how to apply one, take a look at the aphorism and see what you can understand from comparison.

Reference: The Beginning of Wisdom by Abraham Ibn-Ezra. Translated and annotated by Meria Epstein. Edited and annotated by Rob Hand. ARHAT Media 1998.

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