The planetary humors

Henry Beston. "Herbs and the Earth". Garden City, N.Y. Doubleday, Doran. (1935)
Henry Beston. “Herbs and the Earth”.
Garden City, N.Y. Doubleday, Doran. (1935)

The sun sits in the middle of heaven. It has three planets above it known as the superior planets. These are mars, jupiter and saturn. It also has three planets below it known as the inferior planets. These are venus, mercury and the moon.

The sun is the source of power and heat in heaven and everybody knows that heat rises.

Ancient philosophers reached the logical conclusion that mars must absorb much of this heat for its sphere lay immediately above that of the sun. Saturn being the furthest away planet from the sun would be the coldest. Jupiter sat between mars and saturn.

Knowing that heat doesn’t sink downwards they reckoned that the three planets below the sun would be colder than the three above. But as venus is closer to the sun’s sphere it would be slightly warmer than the moon which was the furthest away. Mercury sat between venus and the moon.

Ancient astrologers believed that each planet had its own intrinsic humoral quality. They looked at how they appeared in the sky and this helped them to gauge how they would affect life on earth.

They knew that increased moisture and warmth made fruits ripen and swell, becoming plump, juicy and full of goodness. This fruitful analogy was applied to the planets. Planets that glistened and gleamed were assumed to have more moisture that the ones that didn’t. The most obvious example of this is the moon which swells up like a ripening fruit promising great bounty. But although nowhere near the moon’s size both venus and jupiter also glisten and gleam and were considered moist and bountiful too. In the very distant past mercury was actually known as ‘the Glistener’.

But if these planets glistened where did the moisture and warmth come from? Obviously the source of heat came from the sun. In the past it was believed that the earth gave off moist vapours which rose upwards into the atmosphere to be absorbed by the planets. The philosophy of planetary humors soon developed based upon each planet’s position with regard to the sun’s heat and these rising moist vapours.

The sun

The sun invigorates life and vitality with its golden rays of light. The sun has two obvious cycles by which we live our lives, the cycle of day and night and the cycle of the seasons. The sun is the cause of earthly activity and it’s qualities are obvious. It is primarily hot which leads to dryness. This is exactly what happens when the sun evaporates the morning dew or summer comes around. So the sun’s intrinsic humoral nature is hot and dry. It is at sunrise that earthly activity commences, ceasing at sundown when night falls. Daytime then is of the same humoral nature as the sun, hot and dry. The cycle of the seasons reflect this same sequence. Spring and summer are the warmer, dryer and dynamic seasons of the year for it is at spring life awakens following winter. Autumn and winter are the cold, wet and inactive seasons when life goes to sleep. Because the sun instigates earthly activity it is regarded as active and dynamic in nature, qualities associated with men. The sun is regarded as masculine in traditional astrology.

The moon

Far below the heat for the sun is the moon with no intrinsic heat of its own. It is considered as primarily cold. But being closest to earth its absorbs much of the rising vapours and is therefore moist. So the moon’s intrinsic humoral nature is cold and moist. But the story doesn’t end here. As it waxes it absorbs and reflects more of the sun’s light and more importantly its heat. So the moon becomes warmer and is normally regarded as humidifying, warm and moist. These qualities encourage fertility and growth. Night-time is when earthly activity ceases and night has the same humoral nature as the moon, it is cold and moist. It is during the night that we rest and rest is restorative. It nurtures our vitality and strength necessary for the forthcoming day. These are passive, feminine qualities associated with women. The moon is regarded as feminine in traditional astrology.

Saturn

Saturn’s appearance in the sky is pale ash-grey, dull in colour. It moves very slowly through the night sky. It certainly doesn’t glisten. This gave the ancients clues to its humoral nature. Being furthest away from the sun’s heat it is primarily cold and it also receives precious little of the moist earthly vapours. Saturn’s intrinsic humoral nature then is cold and dry. These are not qualities conducive to growth or life. Although plants can grow in these conditions they do so in a slow, restricted way if they do manage to grow in the first place. Combined with saturn’s slow and deliberate heavenly motion it means that anything promised by saturn is never rushed – saturn’s effects are gradual and take time. This ensures stability and reliability. Because of saturn’s active effect of hindering life and growth it was regarded as masculine. It was known as the greater malefic.

Jupiter

Jupiter is sandwiched between saturn’s extreme cold and the scorching heat of mars. Here in this middle zone a happy medium exists. Jupiter glistens in the sky which we know indicates moisture and a fertile nature. Jupiter’s intrinsic humoral nature is regarded as temperate, warm and moist. Jupiter moves through the sky in a regular manner of approximately one zodiac sign per year. This stable motion in the sky when combined with a fertile nature was seen as a great boon. It helped life to thrive and produce consistent bounty. Because of jupiter’s active effect of promoting life and growth it was regarded as masculine. It was known as the greater benefic.

Mars

Mars is hot and dry for it lies immediately above the rising heat from the sun. Unsurprisingly mars’ intrinsic humoral nature is hot and dry. But this is not the warming and invigorating golden heat of the sun. It is a burning heat. Mars warns us of this by glowing red in the night sky like an ember. This extreme heat is not conducive to life. Although plants can grow in torrid conditions, following a quick spurt of growth they tend to dehydrate, burn out and die off. In the sky mars slows down and changes direction quickly when compared with the other superior planets. This gave mars its association with sudden changes, traits not usually conducive to growth and development. Combined with its active adverse effects on life and growth, mars it was regarded as masculine. It was known as the lesser malefic.

Venus

Venus is like the moon with no intrinsic heat of its own so is regarded as primarily cold. Venus does get some heat from the sun in the same way the moon does. Being closer to the earth it absorbs more moisture. Venus then has an intrinsic humoral nature of cold and moist. This is obvious by the magnitude of its light for venus glistens very brightly in the sky and is beautiful to behold. It is the third brightest object in the sky second only to the lights and venus denotes much fertility. Venus passively receives its moisture and heat. Both are conducive to life and growth. These are feminine qualities associated with women and so venus is regarded as feminine in nature. It was known as the lesser benefic.

Mercury

Mercury is sometimes hot and dry at other times cold and moist. The hot and dry nature of mercury is due to his close proximity to the sun. Mercury’s cold and moist nature is due to his proximity to the moon upon who’s sphere he borders. Mercury is not considered as masculine or feminine but mixed in nature. We would expect anything promised by mercury to be fleeting for its humoral nature changes quickly. Mercury is also the fastest moving planet in the sky and often changes direction going backwards then forwards again and again. Being closest to the sun mercury is hard to see in the first place. Because of the aforementioned facts mercury’s variable nature meant that it was regarded as unstable. These are qualities not necessarily conducive to life and growth. As a result mercury was seen as slightly malefic in nature.

The minor planetary years

Philippe de Mantegat. "Judicium cum tractibus planetarii" Milan. (1496)
Philippe de Mantegat. “Judicium cum tractibus planetarii” Milan. (1496)

Our modern western calendar reflects the sun’s movements through the seasons and is linked to its motion through the zodiac signs. Just as day follows night, so too Spring follows Winter and reinforces the ancient idea that Time is cyclic. What goes around will come around again.

This is distinctly different to our modern linear approach to Time

There are many periods of time in traditional astrology all based upon observation of various celestial motions such as the aries ingress chart, the eclipse cycles or the saturn return to name but a few.

One useful time cycle is based upon each planet’s synodic cycle with the sun. It is quite commonly used in a variety of ways in traditional astrology and is known as the Minor Planetary Periods.

A planet’s synodic cycle is the time it takes for it to conjunct the sun at the same degree of the zodiac.

Ancient astrologers allotted each planet a specific number of years based solely on this observation. The planetary periods were calculated using the ancient Egyptian year which consisted of 365 days.

Ancient astrologers believed that at the time of a planet’s synodic return, the planet’s power would awaken to take effect and influence an individual’s life.

The minor planetary periods were a very commonly used predictive tool.

Planet Number Rationale
The sun 19 235 sun/moon synodic cycles in 19 years
The moon 25 309 lunation cycles in 25 years
Mercury 20 63 synodic cycles in 20 years
Venus 8 5 synodic cycles in 8 years
Mars 15 7 synodic cycles in 15 years
Jupiter 12 11 synodic cycles in 12 years
Saturn 30 29 synodic cycles in 30 years

The sun’s minor period is its 19 year eclipse cycle when it reoccurs at the same degree of the zodiac once more.

The moon’s minor period is the time it takes for its phases to reoccur on the same days of the year.

The two malefic planets of saturn and mars have a combined total of 45

The benefit planets, the moon, venus and jupiter, have a combined total of 45.

Waxing lyrical and the mind

Woodcut of a jester. Hans Hanberg. Germany (1568)
Woodcut of a jester. Hans Hanberg. Germany (1568)

Ancient philosophers wondered about the nature of memory and the retention of knowledge. They knew a good memory aided a person’s intelligence and learning ability and was not linked to either looks or social standing. They postulated various explanations as to why we remembered things and what memory was. One theory dominated all others. It likened the mind and memory to a block of wax.

Although this now seems like an odd idea, ear wax was believed to come from a sort of wax inside the head itself. Ideas on human biology were paralleled with those of plants and ear wax was thought of in similar kind of way as plant sap, only thicker. It moved slowly and it gently seeped out into the ear canal. Incidentally, hair and fingernails were also thought of in the same way as the leaves of a plant. They too grew from the inside out. In any case, some people had vigorous, robust growth whilst others didn’t and these ideas are likely to be the origin of this ancient theory of memory.

Even today we know just as the ancients did, that too much wax in the ears dulls our sense of hearing, particularly if the wax is very hard. It makes it difficult to hear or take things in. This affects our comprehension and understanding of what others are saying and communication becomes impaired. This affects how we relate to others.

It was believed that the information we received was imprinted or impressed upon the wax inside our head and this was the mechanism of memory retention. Remnants of this idea remain to the present day for we still talk about making a good impression and we can even be impressed by someone. The fact is, first impressions count and indicate that a baseline impression is stamped into our mind. It is very difficult to alter no matter how hard we try. That these verbal metaphors have endured is no surprise for wax continues to be the most popular and best material to use when making an impression of a figure.

The general rule was that the higher the quality of the wax an individual possessed the higher the quality of the mind. The ‘wax of the mind’ could be hard or soft, pure or mediocre in quality but a refined and soft wax was generally regarded to be the most suitable for learning. It allowed an impression to be formed quickly and sharply leading to a well defined, deep and crisp image, free of smudges. The memory was retained which led to a clarity of the mind and a good memory retention free from confusion or the clouding of memory. But any defects or impurities in this head wax affected our memory retention and had knock on effects on our intelligence and thought processes.

A soft wax gave an initial good impression but the outlines of the memory shapes would soon begin to fade and become indistinct as the wax slowly reverted to its original shape. This led to a loss of information and forgetfulness. People who were simple minded were thought to have very soft wax inside their head, hence the expression soft in the head. The term empty headed meant that one had little or no wax in the first place.

A hard wax meant that an impression was more difficult to obtain in the first place. This made learning a slow process and required greater effort. One had to think much harder, going over the same thing several times until the information was retained. It was believed that this is what led to someone having a rigid and inflexible mind.

Very hard wax was considered even worse for it made it extremely difficult to get an image at all and this ultimately led to an individual who lacked any depth of thought or understanding.

It was believed in ancient Greece that between the age of four and fourteen was the best time for moulding the mind and shaping it via education. This period of life was ruled by the planet mercury which is the natural significator and governor of our rational mind and intellect.

Ultimately how our mind works affect our intelligence. The way we use it is described as our Wit. Wit can refer to many things that require a good mind. What they all have in common is the expression of intelligence. We all know that someone can live off their wits and calling someone witty or a wit implies an intelligent person, imbibed with a good intellect with an adept mind who can demonstrate mental ability and agility.

Mercury ruled the tongue, the organ responsible for speech and the instrument through which we communicate our understanding. If we are mentally at a loss, finding ourselves exasperated, we can become tongue tied or even be at our at our wit’s end. The terms ‘nit-wit’ and ‘half-wit’ still remain in common parlance, continuing to be used as derogatory terms.

Memory and memory problems are traditionally ruled by mercury.

The via combusta

Scorpio. Guido Bonatti, 'De Astronomia Libri X'. Basel. Nicolaus Pruknerus. (1550)
Scorpio. Guido Bonatti, ‘De Astronomia Libri X’. Basel. Nicolaus Pruknerus. (1550)

The via combusta is also known as the burned path or the fiery road, names that make the area sound grim. But where is it exactly? Although in the distant past there were a few different ideas on its exact location, accepted astrological tradition states  it to be a 30 degree stretch between 15 degrees libra and 15 degrees scorpio inclusive.

In antiquity libra was actually part of the constellation scorpio and Claudius Ptolemy refers to the constellation of libra as ‘the Claws of the Scorpion’(1). It has always been regarded as an ominous area of the chart throughout the ages. Ancient stargazers worried about any planet arriving at this point, symbolically caught in the scorpion’s claws. We will probably never know the reason for the malefic association with this stretch of the zodiac but the reputation of the via combusta persists.

In an electional chart it served as a warning, foretelling of difficulty or trouble ahead – not a good indiction to commence any venture. In a horary chart it served the same purpose and was an indication to defer judgement until the astrologer was better informed.

Libra marks the start of the Autumn Equinox when the sun’s power wanes but both lights are affected in the signs that contain the via combusta. The sun is in fall in libra, the moon in scorpio. This area is opposite their exaltation signs of aries and taurus.

Further uncongeniality is emphasised if we recall that libra is the exaltation of saturn and scorpio is the domicile of mars. The greater and lesser lights are overcome by the greater and lesser malefics. The power of the luminaries is weakened hence this area’s link with danger. Because the sun and moon represent one’s life force and soul respectively, anything that diminishes or obscures them should definitely be avoided.

1. Claudius Ptolemy. Tetrabiblos. Book 1. Chapter 9.

The planetary day and personality

 

"Dancing Around the May-Pole". An illustration from 'A Little Pretty Pocket Book for Children' John Newbery. (1744)
“Dancing Around the May-Pole”. An illustration from ‘A Little Pretty Pocket Book for Children’ John Newbery. (1744)

It was believed in days gone-by that a child’s temperament could be influenced by the day of the week it was born. The following old poem was designed to teach children the days of the week and is one of many old fortune-telling poems illustrating a traditional belief in the planetary link between the days of the week, a child’s personality and what fate had in store for them. There are variations of the poem. I will use the one I know, taught to me in primary school in Scotland where the word ‘bonnie’ is commonly used – I still use it myself! It is worth remembering that the meaning of words change over the years so planetary links are not always apparent. A good dictionary is also a useful tool for astrologers. Some words have a totally different meaning nowadays so bear this in mind as you read the poem.

Monday’s child is fair of face,
Tuesday’s child is full of grace,
Wednesday’s child is full of woe,
Thursday’s child has far to go,
Friday’s child is loving and giving,
Saturday’s child works hard for his living,
And the child that is born on the Sabbath day
Is bonnie and blithe, and good and gay.

Monday 
Fair obviously refers to beauty but since the moon reflects the light of the sun it’s a less robust kind of beauty, it’s fairer, pleasing, rather than the knockout variety. Fair means just and free from bias but the word fair is also linked to auspiciousness and good fortune. So, according to the rhyme, anyone born on Monday will have a pleasing countenance, a balanced view and have a lucky life. The moon is the ruler of our emotions and the non-rational mind of our gut reactions and intuition, neither of which are necessarily based on established fact. So it’s just as well that these children have a bit of luck on their side. The moon is hidden under the sun’s beams at the time of a new moon, becoming visible in the sky as a thin crescent after a few days later. Being the lesser light it is fitting that the moon governs the day after the sun’s day of Sunday. This reflects the Thema Mundi where both the sun and moon’s domiciles and exaltations are adjacent.

Tuesday
Full of grace from a day ruled by mars? It seems like a contradiction for mars is the god of war. But the drive of the battlefield mars is equally useful in daily life as in warfare. In both instances, attack and aggression can be planned. Our physical energy and enthusiasm can be channelled in various ways. Athletes, dancers, acrobats and those who perform their daily physical tasks with precision and dexterity, like the village blacksmith or a stonemason, have one thing in common. They are bodily fit with well practised skills at their disposal. Smoothness of movement and effortless dexterity is second nature to them. Mars joys in the 6th house of drudgery, slavery and hard work so practise truly does make perfect. These finely honed physical skills are the product of controlled physical strength and stamina. This is why Tuesday’s child is full of grace. They say that a healthy body leads to a healthy mind and this will give the individual the attractive qualities of good manners and a sense of appropriateness and decency that make this child full of grace.

Wednesday
Full of woe nowadays refers to grief, bemoaning and bewailing one’s lot in life. In the past these attributes were normally linked to having a lot of responsibilities, challenges and a liabilities brought about by managing the affairs of others. As mercury governs this mid-week day he is appropriately sandwiched between the other planets, exactly where a scribe or messenger should be for mercury was messenger of the gods and at their service. Mercury is the ruler of our rational mind and intellect so it is well suited to tasks of this kind, channelling them to the matter at hand with precision and excellence. In mythology it was believed that mercury could be mischievous. A heavy burden would kept mercury constantly occupied with no free time to do as he pleased, hence he was full of woe. Mercury joys in the first house which has general signification over the head and its contents which includes the brain.

Thursday

This child has far to go and this brings to mind long journeys to foreign places. It seems as if this kid has hit the jackpot! But until recent times most people didn’t travel far from their home town, village or hamlet unless on a religious pilgrimage. These were quite common in Medieval times. Apart from the religious aspect, travel gives people the opportunity to meet and experience new people, new cultures and the realisation there was something beyond their ken. This can be paralleled with religion. Travel does indeed broaden the mind. However travel can also be internal and might involve study and contemplation for it is via knowledge that we better ourself. We gain a greater understanding of the world, a positive trait that can take us far in life. Jupiter and his benefic nature enriches us bringing us closer to the Divine plan. However, the road to enlightenment is a long one and we will have far to go before we reach our journey’s end, if we ever do.

Friday
This day is governed by venus, traditionally the lesser benefic and the goddess of love, beauty and harmony. Venus is all about pleasure, particularly pleasures that are shared. This may give Friday its feel good factor. It was believed to be a good day for meeting friends and for courting. However, Friday wasn’t all plain sailing being considered a very unfortunate day. It was a particularly bad day to set sail and it was also traditional to hang criminals on a Friday and we still talk of Friday the 13th. Friday then had positive and negative associations for it was believed that Eve tempted Adam with an apple on this day. Since venus rules our flesh and our passion nature it’s an explosive combination and there is risk of being carried away. The rhyme gives indications for moderation. Friday’s child is loving and giving rather than being loved and given to. This child could be exploited, easily taken advantage of. It is worth keeping in mind that venus joys in the 5th house of the Thema Mundi, the house of pleasure.

Saturday
This child will work hard for a living and this child initially seems to have drawn the short straw, getting a raw deal. As saturn is the greater malefic we wouldn’t expect anything saturn promises to be a breeze. But It’s worth bearing in mind that in olden days working hard was seen as a virtue, a positive trait. Hard work requires self discipline and a realistic outlook. By looking back over a completed job well done, we get a sense of achievement and fulfilment, developing a sense of fortitude and self confidence. These are highly desirable skills that provide a solid foundation upon which to build a life. Nowadays in our ‘why wait’ culture, avoidance of hard work is encouraged. This is not a realistic way of life, neither is it productive. Our hard working forebears would tell us if they could that although Saturday’s child works hard for a living, they are richer for it.

Sunday
As the poem suggests this child is born with a sunny disposition. The word bonnie describes someone who is physically attractive and appealing. In bygone days a blithe person was thought of as a lighthearted soul, happy and without a care in the world but nowadays it has negative connotations like self-centred, thoughtless and even careless. The sun is at the centre of heaven and instills vitality and life with its rays. It rules our inner spiritual being so it was believed that children born under this benefic influence would both enshrine and reflect these same qualities giving these children a positive outlook in life and a generous nature.

The planetary day

“Mashallah” Title page from the ‘De scientia motus orbis by Albrecht Dürer. (1504).

Most traditional astrologers are aware of the scheme of planetary days and accept them without another thought. At first glance there seems to be no real pattern to the allocation of certain planets to certain days. Like everything else handed down to us in traditional astrology, it’s worth spending a little bit of time investigating rather than simply accepting everything handed down to us from the tradition without question. If we don’t we will never understand the rationale behind it or how everything is linked.

When looking at the planetary days a pattern soon emerges, enabling  us to see how they correlate with the planets. It is apparent that Sect has played its part in the process.

Although there are two great lights in the sky, it is the sun that dictates sect. The sun rules over the day with its life giving rays. The moon on the other hand rules the night. It comes second to the sun for it has no intrinsic light of its own and reflects the sun’s light. It is dependant on the sun’s rays.

By honouring this fact and if we start the week with Sunday, we see that there are three days ruled by masculine planets and two days ruled by feminine planets. This gives us masculine and feminine days. There is one day of the week that is mixed.

Day 1. Sunday is ruled by the sun lying exactly at the centre of heaven.

Day 2. Monday is ruled by the moon lying exactly between earth and heaven.

Day 3. Tuesday is ruled by mars, the first planet above the sun.

Day 4. Wednesday is ruled by mercury, the first planet above moon.

Day 5. Thursday is ruled by jupiter, the second planet above the sun.

Day 6. Friday is ruled by venus, the second planet above moon.

Day 7. Saturday is ruled by saturn, the third planet above the sun.

  • The odd-numbered days belong to the sun and the diurnal sect planets.
  • The even-number days belong to the moon and the nocturnal sect planets.
  • The exception to this rule is mercury, partaking of both natures, it rules the mid-week day of Wednesday.

Planting the seed

Mandrake man and woman from
Mandrake man and woman from “De Hortus Sanitatis” or The Garden of Health. Germany. (1491)

Ancient scientists and philosophers pondered the nature of the world and how everything worked and fitted together.

One thing they were certain of was that everything on earth was in some way connected, linked, with many things sharing common components and characteristics.

They knew that seeds grew into strong, healthy plants when placed in well nourished soil with a goodly amount of water and the sun’s light. Any variation in these conditions affected their growth and development causing them to thrive or wither and die. It could even prevent them from taking root in the first place.

In the past both animal and human development was likened to that of plants. In order for life to take hold there had to be two things, a seed and a nurturing environment. This allowed all living things to grow and reach their full potential. During sexual intercourse man actively provided the fertile seed and woman the nurturing environment. Although we now know that this is not the case, in the past if a woman couldn’t conceive or miscarried, she was regarded as sterile or barren, incapable of nurturing life just like a seed landing on dry, stoney ground.

The early philosophers drew other parallels between the development of living things. They knew that just as specific seeds grew into specific plants then so too did animal and human seeds. Identical seeds could also develop very differently from each other. Any farmer can testify that there is always a part of a field where seeds don’t grow well at all.

In the sky above our head this principle is clearly visible. It is the sun and its life giving rays that actively produce heat and light. This is the seed and the sun is linked with man. The moon shapes its growth by transmitting the influences of the other planets to the earth below. This is the fertile environment and it is associated with woman.

Astrologers believed, then as now, that everything on earth is sensitive to the motions of the heavens. The stars and planets created an ever changing environment. Earthly life was sensitive to these changes and not just on a physical level, man’s disposition and soul were also shaped by the celestial atmosphere at the moment of birth.

In our long and great astrological tradition the gross anatomy of plants was broadly linked to the four classical elements of Fire, Air, Water and Earth.

The roots embedding the plant into the ground were associated with Earth.

The stem carried the plant’s vital sap so was unsurprisingly associated with Water.

The leaves, higher up the stem and wafting in the breeze, were associated with Air.

Flowers, with their petals radiating from the centre, were reminiscent of the sun and associated with Fire.

Plants, animals and humans all contained vital ‘liquids of life ‘ called Humors. Humours were subject to both seasonal and environmental changes brought about by the movements of the heavenly bodies. The earth itself contained untold nourishment and a plant drew up specific humors that matched its particular virtue. An orange tree and a garlic plant would draw up very different nourishment. It was assumed that the nourishment in the soil matched what was already in the plant itself. But it was noted that some plants wouldn’t grow in specific places. They grew strong in one spot but not another – even only a few feet away!

Title page of "Grete Herball" by Peter Treveris  (1526)
Title page of “Grete Herball” by Peter Treveris (1526)

Edible plant extracts and liquids such as wine or herbal draughts, tasted very different despite growing in the same location. Both of these facts helped reinforce the idea that plant growth and development was due to the presence or absence of congenial fluids within the soil itself.

The correspondence between a plant and a planet (note only one letter between both words) eventually give rise to The Doctrine of the Signatures.

By analogy, this belief partly explained why one person might thrive in one place but not another. In traditional astrology the 4th house shows one’s roots, the father who sowed our original seed and the conditions in which it was nurtured.

 

 

 

The Ptolemiac Universe

We know practically nothing about Claudius Ptolemy or his life. Among other things he was an ancient astronomer, astrologer, mathematician and geographer living in Alexandria, Egypt which was then part of the Roman Empire. He wrote on a diverse range of topics including geography, optics and music. He is best known for two books. One of them is ‘The Almagest” which is an astronomical treatise and contains star catalogues which are still in use to this day. It was the authoritative work on the universe for many centuries. Ptolemy also wrote a companion piece on astrology called the ‘Tetrabiblos” (the four books) which remians one of the most important astrological texts for all students of traditional astrology.

Peter Apian.
Peter Apian. “Cosmographia.” (1539) Diagram showing the Ptolemiac Universe of crystalline spheres.

Ptolemy, building upon theories and ideas of astrologers and philosophers that had gone before him, devised a simple scheme regarding the structure of the universe. It became known as the Ptolemaic or Geocentric Universe. With the immovable earth at its centre all the planets and stars rotated around it in a series of concentric, circular crystalline spheres. They were embedded into the surface of the spheres like jewels. Outside the spheres was the dwelling place of the creator, divine and unknown.

The first sphere is called the Primum Mobile. It had two very important functions. First of all it was responsible for maintaining the structure of the universe. It contained the other spheres within its boundary. Secondly, it was the motivating force behind the rotation of the other spheres, a sort of cosmic clockwork mechanism.

Spheres two and three have the stars embedded in them. Number two contained the stars of the zodiac constellations. The next one down has the fixed stars.

Moving inwards we have the seven planetary spheres that extend downwards from saturn to the moon. The order of these spheres from the outer to innermost is saturn, jupiter, mars, the sun, venus, mercury and the moon. This is known as the Chaldean Order and in traditional astrology it occurs time and time again. This order is worth remembing. Just as large, heavy objects appear to move more slowly when seen from a distance, this same observation was applied to the planets as viewed from earth.

The chaldean order of the planets is a scheme thst reflects each planets distance from furthest away from earth to the closest. It also reflects the order of the heaviest to the lightest planet as well as their mean speed from the slowest to fastest.

In this planetary scheme the sun is at the centre of the spheres dividing the planets into two groups. Above the sphere of the sun are mars, jupiter and saturn which are referred to as the superior planets. Below the sun are venus, mercury and the moon. Although venus and mercury are referred to as the inferior planets, the moon isn’t. In the great astrological tradition the sun and moon are known as the lights or luminaries. They are regarded differently from the five planets and called the greater and lesser light or respectively. However it is worth noting that the sun has three celestial bodies on either side.

Immediately below the sphere of the moon comes the spheres of the four classical elements. First of all is fire, then air and the next is water. At the very centre is the elemental sphere of earth. This is the sphere  upon which everything in the world is supported.

But not everything was quite so straightforward in Ptolemy’s scheme. Although the planets normally travelled across the sky in regular, circular paths, sometimes they slowed down and stopped before moving backwards. This is called retrograde motion. After a while they stop again for a second time then started to move forwards once more, recommencing their previous direct motion. A planet that has completely stopped in the sky is said to be stationary or at station. Many ancient astronomers wondered why this happened. Ptolemy put forward the idea that as the planets were carried through the sky on their crystalline spheres, they simultaneously moved in tiny circles. This can be likened to a fairground ride. As it moves in a circular direction it has carriages fixed to it that spin round and round. He called these smaller circular orbits epicycles.

But there were still some discrepancies in the heavenly movements that could not be accounted for by Ptolemy’s scheme. So he proposed that the earth was just ever so slightly off-centre of the middle of the universe. This would account for the deviations he observed. It meant that all the spheres would rotate in a slightly off-centre motion too, rather like wonky wheels.

This belief in the Ptolemaic Universe persisted for many, many centuries before finally being superseded by the Heliocentric or sun-centred model of Copernicus.

The Flammarion Woodcut

Camille Flammarion’s “L’atmosphere:meteorologie popularize” (1881)

The Flammarion Woodcut
The Flammarion Woodcut

A man investigates the point where heaven and earth meet. This fascinating engraving shows him lifting the curtain of the known world to gaze into the mysterious world of the unknown in his quest for knowledge. The intersection point is the ascendant and the artist shows the fabric of the sky, likened to the flap of a tent, allowing access from the inside  to the outside.

The engraving reinforces the view of a mechanistic universe with the earth at its centre. The ancient belief, that the universe comprised of concentric crystalline spheres with the earth at its core, is upheld. We see that the solid and spherical vault of the sky is strong enough to support the planets and stars as they rotate overhead, yet soft and yielding at the same time.

The perpendicular nature of the earth upon which our investigator is lying serves to reflect and reinforce the theory of the flat earth. It is the only horizontal component of the engraving showing the seeker at the ends of the earth and gives the woodcut a sense of dynamic motion.

The earth, land of the familiar, is highly illustrated and detailed but the vastness beyond the veil is not so detailed, hinting at our lack of knowledge. However, the engraver of this enigmatical and beautiful masterpiece starts from a familiar point of reference. Unsurprisingly the ‘beyond’ is also arranged spherically and is reminiscent of a clockwork mechanism with all its cogs and gears.

The prying figure is awestruck at the machinery of the cosmos in action, as depicted by a wheel within a wheel. In the heavenly realm the spherical bands with their regular rhythms, rotate around our earthly sub-lunar realm, influencing life on earth via the cycles of day and night, the season and so on. These bands also incorporate the four classical elements of fire, earth, air and water. Being the building blocks of all matter, naturally they are to be found nearest our earthly realm.