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.

Astrologer beware!

Woodcut by Jorg Breu the Elder. Taken from 'The Book of Emblems' by Andrea Alciato. (1531).
Woodcut by Jorg Breu the Elder. Taken from ‘The Book of Emblems’ by Andrea Alciato. (1531).

There is no doubt that the study of astrology is fascinating. This particular astrologer in his wonderful medieval garb is depicted as looking upwards, entranced by the magnificent night sky containing a waxing moon and brightly shining stars.

The image clearly shows that his head (and thoughts for that matter) are well and truly up in the clouds for the heavens surround it. He is intent, lost in the spectacle overhead.

The night is ruled by the moon and the night is the reflective part of the daily cycle where our emotions and intuition are given full reign. These are lunar qualities and there is little room for solar logic here.

The astrologer points directly to a particular star – we know not which one. Could it be a malefic star he has noticed? We can only surmise. But it is conjunct the moon, traditional co-significator of the body.

Completely absorbed with the celestial, our astrologer pays scant regard to more pressing matters, namely the terrestrial. If we look at the earth upon which he treads we can see that his right foot is about to trip on a stone. He will soon take a tumble, see stars of a different kind and his attention will switch to more mundane matters when he goes down with a bang. The moon conjunct a malefic star? That sounds about right!

Claudius Ptolemy (1) tells us that ‘…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’. According to him this knowledge is ‘conducive to well-being, pleasure, and in general satisfaction’. So it would seem that this message of forewarned is forearmed is being pictorially delivered but unfortunately not adhered to. Ptolemy elaborates further by telling us that astrological knowledge ‘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’. Will our soon to be falling astrologer agree with this statement? Who or what will he blame?

In the great astrological tradition the right and left sides of the body are ruled by the sun and moon respectively. The sun is of the dynamic, active principle whereas the moon is passive and receptive.

A look at the woodcut hints that it is the astrologers right hand and foot that cause his pending misfortune. In this receptive night environment it is the solar half of his body that is leading him on – his right hand points upwards as his right foot moves forwards. This gives him an almost chastising pose against the moon and stars. His left hand is downwards, a passive gesture and his left foot is behind him waiting to move.

The emphasis on the right hand side indicates a conscious choice to understand the universe rather than passively surrender to its mysteries, its wisdom – the stars do come out at night and after all. In this lunar landscape the astrologer’s decidedly solar stance is quite literally out of step with the environment. This might be the cause of his fall. We can read this image in many ways (and this is only one interpretation after all). It offers more questions than answers but more interestingly, isn’t the astrologer exactly where the stars dictated him to be in the first place? I leave you to ponder.

Let us return to the woodcut informing us that events can befall us quickly. It also serves as a reminder that although the stars foretell our fate this knowledge is useless if we don’t apply it. We must pay attention to what is going on around us, in heaven and on earth. They are connected and part of the same universe. This idea is perfectly captured by the old adage ‘as above, so below’ ascribed to Hermes Trismegistus, allegedly mankind’s first philosopher and the one who traditionally gave us astrology in the first place.

‘We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars’ (2) could well have been written as some kind of astrological mantra or oath. While it is true that the planets give indications to help us in life, we must use this precious knowledge carefully, appropriately, with a pinch of common sense thrown in for good measure.

Astrologer beware!

(1) Claudius Ptolemy. ‘The Tetrabiblos’. Book 1, chapter 3. That it is also Beneficial.

Robbins translation. The Loeb Classical Library, 1 volume, Harvard University Press, 1940

(2) Oscar Wilde. “LadyWindermere’s Fan”. (1892) Act III as spoken by Lord Darlington.

Sex with Claudius Ptolemy

Sex with Claudius Ptolemy

 John Payne Collier  "A Book of Roxburghe Ballads". (1847)
John Payne Collier “A Book of Roxburghe Ballads”. (1847)

Claudius Ptolemy and his Tetrabiblos are often neglected when it comes to looking at sex within the birthchart. Astrologers moan it’s not racy enough and are turned off by it’s dry, lengthy passages. They say it’s unexciting, so it’s often overlooked for a well thumbed Vettius Valens. But the truth is that the Tetrabiblos is stuffed with naughty bits waiting to be whipped out from under its covers. It’s about time it was put back up on the top shelf where it belongs. But where exactly is all this sex hiding?

The Quality of the Soul

Ptolemy only begins to touch on sex whilst probing for “the quality of the soul” or what we would nowadays call “the personality”. This method, long used in classical and traditional astrology, informs us of a person’s inner drives and how they manifest as observable human behaviour. In order to discover this information, Ptolemy concentrates on two planets: Mercury and the Moon.

Mercury is given rulership of the intellect and rational mind. The Moon has rulership over the emotions or the irrational mind. This was standard practice for any ancient astrologer. By considering the strength and weakness of both planets within the birth chart and by looking at their relationship to each other, we can begin to build up a picture to see not only what makes someone tick, but how he will tick. But as we are actually here to look at sex let’s cut the chat and get stuck in.


Here is the chart of Casanova, a man who had plenty of sex in his life. With any luck we will find plenty of it after we strip his chart naked and have a good old poke around to see if anything sticks out.

In Casanova’s horoscope both Mercury and the Moon are in the Jupiter ruled signs of Pisces and Sagittarius respectively. Their dispositor Jupiter, is strong in his own sign of Pisces in the 5th house, the house of sex. We didn’t have to do that much fumbling about there, did we? Both Mercury and the Moon are in mutable signs. Ptolemy says that this can make someone “fickle, amorous, versatile” with an inclination to love and the pleasurable things in life. Superficially this is hardly thrilling stuff. But if one thinks about it carefully, what if your Moon or your Mercury, or both, are in mutable signs. Worse still, what if they’re not? This double dose of mutability can indicate a strong inclination for sex and not just any old sex. Interesting and inventive sex is hinted at here, as both his rational mind and his emotions are rendered adaptable (and we know from history that he was). Let’s probe Casanova a bit further and see if anything else pops out.


Straight away we can see that Casanova’s Mercury is weak. It is in both its detriment and fall in the sign of Pisces, so this is a Mercury that will not be firing on all cylinders. Ptolemy indicates that if either Mercury or the Moon are in a mutable sign, then the planet may be difficult to fathom and the individual may even be inclined to duplicity. Mercury’s terrible shape would bear this out and Casanova is more than likely to be inclined to deviousness and to take ‘the downward path’ as a result. This is further emphasised by Mercury’s position with regard to the Sun. It is within 15 degrees of it. This position was known as ‘under sunbeams’ and it was agreed by all ancient astrologers, any planet in this position was burned up, thereby weakening it. It will also make the planet obscure and difficult to see. The impact on the rational, calculating part of Casanova’s mind is that it’s not only in a poor state, but also hidden from others. No doubt there were times when even Casanova found it a bit of a mystery. Mercury’s troubles aren’t over yet. It is peregrine with no essential dignity. Weakened and undignified it will make for a lack of direction or principles, easily swayed, strengthening Mercury’s “fickle, amorous, versatile” potential. Casanova’s sexuality is beginning to take shape. Mercury is also oriental, rising before the Sun. It was not thought of as great place for it to be. It was brighter here, shiny and considered strong, similar to rising. So Mercury is accidentally strong, but very badly afflicted. Ouch! Let’s look at Casanova’s Moon to see if she is in a better position to keep him on the straight and narrow or not.

The Moon

Sagittarius initially does seems like a good and lucky placement for the Moon, like Mercury it is in a mutable sign and we already know what this means! Similar to Mercury it is also peregrine with no essential dignity of her own but, unlike Mercury, not in detriment or fall. By comparison Moon is in better shape. But what does it all mean? That these two are mutable, implies Casanova’s ‘soul’ is predisposed to sex, capricious behaviour and adaptability, or, inventiveness. His rational mind is undignified and weak, but probably suited to Mercury’s less appealing qualities. His emotions are in slightly better shape so are most likely to dominate. Having gotten this far in our initial peek at Casanova’s sexuality, there is one final thing we must touch on – both planets and their relationship to each other.

Mercury and the Moon’s relationship

Casanova’s Mercury and Moon are in square aspect. This indicates friction between his reasoning and emotions. The symbolism of his extremely weakened Mercury pitted against the slightly better off Moon, will tell us that Casanova was more driven by his emotions, acting on his much stronger desire nature and gut reactions, rather than thinking things through logically. It’s likely he ended up talking himself into things he shouldn’t have. Lust beating off reason perhaps?


Now we turn our attention to Jupiter the dispositor of both planets. In fine fettle, not only does it have essential dignity in its own highly fertile sign of Pisces, but is further strengthened by its oriental position. Astrologers of old considered the outer planets, Saturn, Jupiter and Mars better placed here. As we have already seen, they likened them to a planet conjunct the ascendant, rising and therefore strong and forceful. Jupiter is positively exploding with vim and vigour. Ptolemy says of the ruler of the soul, “…should the planets having dominion be in places of their own…the mental properties will be rendered exquisite, unimpeded, and successful”. Unimpeded and successful? I’m sure we all know at what!

Jupiter with his excellent status no doubt put a huge optimistic and positive spin on everything, adding luck into the whole mixture and in so doing, increased Casanova’s “fickle, amorous, versatile” inclinations with obvious rewards. Jupiter’s house placement directs the affairs of Mercury and the Moon towards that well known fifth house activity of sex. These two planets never stood a chance being controlled by this ebullient and fecund Jupiter. With his hot and moist temperament, he is up for anything and everything. The fifth house was, and still is, considered a good house for any planet to be posited. This is a lucky placement and traditionally known as the house of Good Fortune. Jupiter is the planet of good fortune, as well as the planet of abundance. We know just what kind of fortunate abundance he delivered to Casanova.

The Governors of the Soul

Ptolemy tells us how to find “the governors of the soul”. Here we begin to look for planets which direct and shape us. Calling them “the planets that dominate” Ptolemy tells us they “contribute much to the character of the soul.” Keeping the same two significators of Mercury and the Moon we take a more in depth look at what makes Casanova tick.

Starting with the Moon, the indicator of his emotions and gut reactions, she is in Jupiter’s sign and triplicity as Jupiter rules the fire triplicity in a nocturnal chart. The Moon is also in aspect or “concilliated” with Jupiter by square and this may indicate several things including a large, restless emotional appetite. Now let’s turn our attention to Mercury.

We already know its in Jupiter’s sign, but Mercury happens to be in the triplicity of Mars who, according to Ptolemy, rules the water triplicity at night. Mercury is also in the face of Mars. So Casanova has two planets battling for control of the rational part of his soul, But which one takes precedence? In cases where there are two planets vying for dominance, we always take the one in the strongest position. Ptolemy tells us this is the planet with the most essential and accidental dignity. It is only when we have determined what kind of condition Jupiter and Mars are in, that we can we begin to see what kind of job they make as governors of the soul. Let’s go back to Jupiter. As well as his aforementioned strengths, he has additional dignity by being in sect. He just gets stronger and stronger. Now on to Mars. With accidental dignity in his own triplicity and by being in the 5th house he looks good too. Though both planets are well placed to be governors, it is Jupiter who is the stronger of the two planets as it also disposits Mars, so Jupiter takes precedence. Ptolemy tells us a well placed and strong Jupiter, (and let’s face it, this Jupiter is a whopper!), allied with Mars, can make his subjects “restless, unruly, ardent” even, “reckless… virile… passionate.” Sounds like the Casanova we all know and love.

Sexy stuff

Before Ptolemy gets round to sex he looks first at mental illness or as he calls it “the diseases of the soul”. As far as Ptolemy is concerned, mental illness is a morbid obsession of the active part of our soul and has some general characteristics which are based again on the Moon and Mercury, their status and relationship to each other. Regarding sex, Ptolemy says it is “the corresponding perversion of the passive portion”. That Ptolemy rates sex alongside diseases of the soul is an interesting coupling. Are we to be driven mad by lust and desire, or, are we all sex mad? In order to look at sex itself and how it will manifest, Ptolemy now instructs us to switch partners, looking to the Sun and Moon. The Sun is the active, masculine principle and as the ancient astrologers knew, the general significator for men. The Moon is the passive, feminine principle and the general significator of women. To these two we add in Mars as for men, it is their “disposition with respect to matters of love” and for women, we use Venus to perform the function of Mars. A quick look at Casanova’s chart finds three of the indicators for sexuality in mutable signs. Need I say more?

Getting an eyeful

Looking to Casanova’s chart we find the Sun in Aries and the Moon in Sagittarius. Both lights are in masculine signs and unattended, they inhabit the house alone. Ptolemy sees this as giving a sort of free reign to one’s sexual expression as there is no planet to mitigate or blend the expression of the planetary energy of the lights. An unattended Sun will exceed in natural masculine instincts “…so as merely to increase the virility and activity of the soul”. That the Sun is in a masculine sign will give more ‘grunt’ to his sex drive and, as all masculine signs are active and dynamic, this will manifest in an overt way of operating. Given that Casanova’s Sun is exalted in Aries it will raise this active masculine principle further giving him a very strong sex drive.

The Moon will perform a similar function as the Sun in a woman’s chart, increasing the natural female qualities. In a man’s chart it will still drive his emotions. In Casanova’s chart the Moon is in a masculine sign, therefore the more passive and receptive qualities that the Moon indicates will be more dynamic indicating an active desire for sex. Like the Sun the Moon is unattended, unrestrained, making one wanton and lusty.

The planet or planets which control the Sun and the Moon will have much to say about the direction this sex drive might take. Looking to the dispositors of both Lights we are very neatly taken back to Jupiter and Mars again with Jupiter as the ultimate controller!

The naughty bits

Mars and Venus are the other two planets used as sexual delineators. Their placement in the active masculine or passive feminine signs will colour the expression of one’s sexuality. In Casanova’s chart, both are “made masculine”. They both rise before the Sun, so like Jupiter they are oriental and of the active principle. This is not a problem for Mars as it is better placed here in this more active position. It is not so good for Venus. In olden days astrologers considered Venus to be more troublesome here. An occidental placement, that is rising after the Sun was considered a much better place for her to be and Ptolemy says “… if likewise Mars or Venus ….both of them so posited either one or both of them, is made masculine, the males become addicted to natural sexual intercourse, and are adulterous, insatiate, and ready on every occasion for base and lawless acts of sexual passion.” Without pausing for breath Ptolemy continues, “..and the rising and morning positions of both Mars and Venus have contributory effect, to make them more virile and notorious.” There really is nothing else to add to this statement. It’s starting to look very hot indeed in Casanova’s 5th house!


Mars is important for a number of reasons in Casanova’s chart. It’s not only an indicator of sexuality nor just a co ruler of his “soul”. Mars is Casanova’s Ascendant ruler and, according to the rules of traditional astrology, Mars is Casanova himself. Mars’ placement with his dispositor Jupiter in the fifth house, gives us an insight into his modus operandum. That Casanova was interested in sex we cannot dispute historically. He must have had immense sex appeal and Ptolemy tells us why. Mars is with an extremely dignified Jupiter which indicated Casanova would have “greater decorum, restraint, and modesty”. We also know that he could be aggressive in getting his sexual needs met and Mars does rule this quality. Found with the debilitated Mercury ruling his lack of rational behaviour, “tends to increase notoriety, instability of the emotions, versatility, and foresight” and let’s not forget, Mars is square Casanova’s Moon. Jupiter disposits all three, so Casanova probably had charm by the bucket load which he used to great effect get what he wanted. Venus in Pisces would have added charm to this mixture and no doubt helped sweeten Casanova’s tongue. She is exalted after all. Ptolemy does tell us that Venus can cause people “to be advanced in honour through female interest”. The Part of Fortune is well placed too, nestling with its dispositor Jupiter and the exalted Venus. But before we start feeling jealous of Casanova not all is as it seems.

Mars again

The trouble starts with Mars, well not Mars himself but the company he keeps. His troubles arise from being bound up in everything we have already discussed. Venus the planet of Love is the culprit. She ranks second only to Jupiter in strength as she is in her exaltation and in her house of Joy. Ruling Taurus on the 7th house, the house of partners, she is traditionally the significator of pretty girls and pretty boys – nice! These partners are in the fifth house – nicer still! But notice, this exalted Venus also rules the unfortunate 12th house of the Bad Daemon which is the house of vice and self undoing. As we have already mentioned this Venus is difficult to control. Casanova’s strong Venus shows us that these vices and self undoings will be very pleasant and very likely too tempting for Mars to resist. Mars exalts Venus and whatever she stands for. Ptolemy says of Venus that she can make one “pleasure-loving…given to misconduct in matters of love…passionate for both young men and young women.”. Venus is what all the planets in the 5th house have in common, Mercury, Mars and Jupiter, all three exalt her and hold all she represents highly.


To ancient astrologers when Venus came over the horizon before the Sun she was known as Lucifer, the “light-bearer”. In this oriental position she is said to be increasing in light, rising before the Sun to herald the dawn. It is here that Venus manages to outshine both Jupiter and Saturn, mesmerising and only fading once the Sun has risen. Later on in our culture she was seen as a fallen angel, cast out by God during the great war in heaven and somehow, even changed sex to become the modern Devil we now call Lucifer. She still leads us into temptation especially where the pleasures of the flesh are concerned. Nowadays the phrase ‘Fallen Angel’ is associated with prostitutes. Venus with her luminous beauty continues to seduce and she certainly is attractive to behold. This is why the ancient astrologers considered this placement of Venus unfortunate. Better to have Venus occidental in a horoscope and rising after the Sun where she couldn’t shine, so was much less trouble. They thought of her as a bit of a poisoned chalice and no doubt she was fulfilled this function for poor old Casanova too.


This look at Casanova’s sex drive is almost complete, but we cannot ignore the dignified Saturn who “concilliates” with all the planets in the fifth house by sextile aspect. As ever Ptolemy has something further to say on the matter of sex. He is specific about Saturn’s effects. “…if Saturn is present, his influence joins with each of the foregoing to produce more licentiousness, impurity, and disgrace”. Need I go on? Before we finally put Casanova to bed, Saturn has the last word as Saturn always does. It rules the fixed sign Aquarius on the 4th house cusp, the house of one’s legacy and what you leave behind after death. Being strong in his own sign of Capricorn and in sect, Saturn is in trine aspect to an exalted Sun. Casanova received Saturn’s gifts of endurance and stamina – and let’s face it he needed them – amplified by this benefic and powerful Sun. This illumination of Saturn by the exalted Sun provides a fitting end for Casanova. By ensuring lasting fame for the eponymous Casanova his reputation as a great and prolific lover has remained so very long after his death. It is of no surprise we see it posited in the house of communication. His name has been set in stone until the end of time

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.