The Zodiacal Riddle of Vettius Valens

The phases of the moon, Liber Floridus, 1460, The Hague KB 72 A 23, f.16gr

The works of major Hellenistic astrologers have become available over the last few decades. Of course, Claudius Ptolemy has been part of the canon for centuries. His works have been helpful in many ways, but we can’t say he is the last word. Indeed, the reading of Ptolemy has lead to many preconceptions, particularly with regard to which zodiac is to be used.  He leaves us with the strong impression that the Tropical zodiac is the only one to use.

When I first Vettius Valens I was aware that there were enormous problems with the transmission, Rober Hand makes note of several of them. I have come to the conclusion that Valens was using more than one system and that it was never certain even which zodiac he used. Returning to the text of the Anthology I was taken by parallels, by no means perfect, between recognizable colloquial Greek methods and particularly Indian and Babylonian astrology. I have needed to to be selective due to the sheer volume of material.

There is still a persistent perception that Hellenistic Astrology is a particularly Greek development, no doubt because of the fact that it’s assumed that the Hellenists were all Greek. We know that Philo was a Hellenized Jew but nobody thinks he was born in Athens. I’m assuming here that the reader is familiar with the term is also aware of the extent of reciprocal influence across the known world. With this in mind, I believe that Hellenistic Astrology can be better understood.

For example, on first reading The Anthology of Vettius Valens, one may be bewildered about many things, but for the most perplexing element of all is his explanation of the nature of the signs and planets. For example, he tells us that Aries is watery: Surely this requires further explanation. How can a blazing Fire sign be watery It occurred o me that what he actually doing was describing the season in the Northern hemisphere. Rather than looking at the influence of Mars, he may as well be talking about April showers.

Autumnal Sky

“Aries is by nature watery, with thunder and hail. From its first degree to the equinox, it is stormy, full of hail, windy, destructive. The middle degrees up to 15° are mild and fruitful; the following degrees are hot and cause plagues> of animals. This sign has 19 bright stars. On the belt are 14 bright stars, 27 dim, 28 somewhat bright, and 48 faint. The constellations that rise at the same time as Aries are (in the north) the first part of Perseus, and the rear and the left parts of Auriga, and (in the south) the fin and tail of Cetus. When Aries is rising,> the feet of Bootes (in the north) and the hind parts of Lupus (in the south) are setting. Vettius Valens, Anthologies,”  Book I.3

Let’s turn to his thoughts on Taurus: “Taurus is feminine, solid, lying in the sun’s spring tropic, full of bones, with some limbs missing, rising backwards, setting straight down. This sign lies for the most part in the invisible sky. It is calm. From its first degree to 6° (the section of the Pleiades) it is worthless, even destructive, disease-producing, thundering, causing earthquakes and lightning flashes.

What are we to make of this? It doesn’t describe the sign, Taurus under Venus, the Exaltation 0f Pisces. Neither does it begin at the first degree. In the Northern Hemisphere and May is usually mostly blessed with clement weather. I’m at a loss unless he is referring to the constellation itself without associating it with the sign Taurus. How could we use such information in astrological interpretations?

This passage tells us several things about how Valens interpreted the heavens. Aries doesn’t line up with the Equinox, but he doesn’t say here exactly how many degrees it differs from 0° Aries and the Tropical Vernal Equinox. The first part of Aries, in the Decan of Mars, is watery by nature, producing hail and high winds. The second Decan of Aries is the Sun and according to Valens, is “mild and fruitful.” The final Decan of Aries is Jupiter, the greater benefic, which is hot and causes plagues.

Further, Valens tells us that “Taurus is feminine, solid, lying in the sun’s spring tropic, full of bones, with some limbs missing, rising backwards, setting straight down. This sign lies for the most part in the invisible sky. It is calm. From its first degree to 6° (the section of the Pleiades) it is worthless, even destructive, disease-producing, thundering, causing earthquakes and lightning flashes.The next two degrees are fiery and smokey. The right part (toward Auriga) is temperate and cool. The left parts are worthless and changeable, sometimes chilling, at other times heating. The head (to 23°) is in a temperate atmosphere, but it causes disease and death for living things. The rest is destructive, worthless, disease-ridden.”” It is unclear as to why he would refer to Taurus as “; lying in the sun’s spring tropic” or why a Venusian sign is so destructive. Nevertheless, he goes on to mention 27 stars.

Throughout the Anthology, Valens is meticulous when regarding the stars, noting not only the constellation but groups of asterisms, seen to be part of a divine play. It recalls Hesiod’s Works and Days, wherein, for example, Hesiod’s associates of the rise of the “rainy” Pleiades with wet weather and Sirius with very hot weather, just as the Egyptians did, If he is referring to the sign as it has been known, it makes precious little sense.

As one progresses through the work of Valens it becomes increasingly apparent that his work, among many other things, might be used as a kind of almanack, bit with due caution.. Hesiod was better skilled at that.

Valens is thought by many to have used a sidereal zodiac which plausibly accounts for his notion that the Vernal Equinox is not the same as °Aries.  The fact is, he may not have known the difference because the two zodiacs at that time would yield very similar results. I heartily recommend Chris Brennen’s chapter on Tropical Versus Sidereal Zodiacs in his Hellenistic Astrology pp. 216-222. Let’s try to sort out the background.

Nearly 1800  years ago the Battle of Hormozdgan decided the fate of the Parthian Empire and led to the rise of the Sasanian Empire that would rule unchallenged over the Middle East for 400 years.. Yet the culture itself went back millennia. The tropical Zodiac was being used by some as early as the 2nd century BCE Others used the Sidereal Zodiac.

The difference between signs and constellations

Since Pythagoras’s expedition in 570 B.C., the strategic body of water that finds its way into the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean.,has been called the Persian Gulf. Compared to the focus on Greece and Rome, Persia hasn’t enjoyed anything like the scholarly attention it so obviously deserves, and this is certainly true with respect to astronomy and astrology in the 20th century., including the creation myth that informs them. There have however been notable exceptions. Theirs was a rich tradition of the Magi, esteemed throughout the known world. It was also a culture that venerated the stars.

Yet they were one of several highly advanced societies with regard to astronomy and astrology. As I have written elsewhere,, even the most unjustly founded empires do in fact have some advantages and this is very much the case in the transmission of knowledge. The Hellenistic world united Greece with Egypt and  Persia with both. The School of Alexandria was among the greatest venues for shared knowledge, from Hindu astronomers and astrologers, Buddhists, Pythagoreans, numerous Solar religions, Neo-Platonists, devotees of Isis, Christians, Jews, Babylonian and Zoroastrians.

The 28 “western” Lunar Mansions

It’s a Persian, Indian, Babylonian, Egyptian and Greek alchemy that produced what we now call Hellenistic astrology and to practise this, one requires a great deal of knowledge,  Recreating that astrology depends on a number of things, not least of which is being certain of which zodiac was being used.. In a recent article, I suggested that that Mashallah used the sidereal Sassanid zodiac on at least one occasion. Yet astrologers have been content to assume that he always used a Tropical Zodiac,

Nakshatras and Padas Nakshatra (Sanskrit: नक्षत्र, IAST: Nakṣatra) is the term for lunar mansion in Hindu astrology and Indian Astronomy. A Nakshatra is one of 27 sectors of the heavens.. Their names are related to the most prominent stars and asterisms in the respective sectors.

As previously indicated, during the time when many of these records were penned, the tropical and sidereal zodiac would have yielded similar results. Moreover, we now know that Indian Astrology had a significant and reciprocal impact on Hellenistic astrology.

The assumption of a universal Hellenistic Tropical Zodiac is fiction. However, this perception might explain why some of the Hellenist material we have is so perplexing, resulting in the illusion that there might be a need for two zodiacs for different purposes. The sidereal zodiac, as the name suggests, is anchored in the stars. The Tropical zodiac is oriented to the Equinox and Solstice points. The fact that the constellations precess at a rate of one degree every 70 years is for all intents and purposes, ignored. This naturally of much concern with those work with Fixed Stars and to be in a position to integrate nakshatras into interpretations.

Theodoros Karasavvas, J.D.-M.A has provided an enviably brief but accurate account of the origins of Greek astrology: “The Babylonians were the first people to systematically apply myths to constellations and astrology and describe the twelve signs of the zodiac. The Egyptians followed shortly after by refining the Babylonian system of astrology, but it was the Greeks who shaped it into its modern form. The Greeks borrowed some of their myths from the Babylonians and came up with their own. For that matter, even the word astrology – as well as the science of astronomy – is derived from the Greek word for star, “asteri.”

Dendera astrological calendar 12 constellations, each made of 3 decans10 days Each decan represents a major star. 1st Century ACE Roman period

The Babylonian, Egyptian and Indian zodiacs were sidereal. The Tropical and Sidereal Zodiac were the same when the precession of the equinox reached 0º ARIES in the year 221 A.D. in the heyday of Hellenistic astrology. In the last century,  the celebrated Egyptologist, Cyril Fagan, proved beyond any reasonable doubt that the original Egyptian zodiac was Sidereal. The practise of dividing each sign into three decanates was an integral element.

Decanal stars on boats in Hathor Temple at Dendera.’Starry gods are sailing on boats across the firmament on the astronomical ceiling in the outer hypostyle hall of the Hathor Temple at DenderaIt.

I=, not alone, but definitely among a tiny minority, who suspect that Valens and presumably other Hellenistic astrologers used a sidereal zodiac. This shouldn’t be seen as a problem because the Sidereal and Tropical zodiac have different uses. The tropical zodiac takes as its anchors the Solstice and Equinox points. It is the zodiac of choice for terrestrial timekeeping. Zero degrees Aries always marks the Spring Equinox and zero degrees of Libra will always mary the onset of Autumn in the Northern Hemisphere. The Tropical zodiac is the clear choice for calendrical, mundane purposes Precession has no consideration. We know that the rate of precession is approximately one degree every 70 years, so the stars are no longer necessary in the same sign. For example, The Heart of the Scorpios is now well into Tropical Sagittarius. Regulus, The Heart of the Lion isn’t even in Tropical Leo anymore, just as Fomalhaut is no longer in Aquarius.

If you are concerned with the position of the stars over time, the Sidereal Zodiac wins hands down, There are several bright and not so bright stars in the firmament that have ancient and consistent significance and the Tropical zodiac distorts this badly. It is clear that Valens was interested in asterisms, including circumpolar and other asterisms that did not fall on the ecliptic. Ursa Major, for example, is considered to be the three rishis and the seasonal turning of the constellation draws a swastika in the heavens, one of the most ancient sacred symbols. He was clearly very interested in the Fixed Stars.

Robert Hand, in his brilliant commentary on Valen,s makes some fascinating points regarding the close parallels of Indian astrology apropos of Valens. This would explain many things.

Anthology p. XII

The Nakshatras are 27 in number and are each specifically oriented to set asterisms. Each Nakshatra is divided into four Padas. Each pada is allocated to a sign. This gives us the sacred number or 108. The zodiac used in India is sidereal and there is no attempt made to pretend that the constellations associated with signs on the ecliptic are equal, which they most certainly are not. This isn’t the place to delve into the intricacies of Indian astrology, but I hope to have at least piqued an interest in expanding what we mean by Classica or Hellenistic for that matter. I believe this also opens to door to the possibility of modern astrologers using a sidereal for some purposes and to still remain “Classical.”.

I give the last word to Robert Hand whose introduction to Schmidt’s translation is masterful and he makes i very clear that the text is riddled with problems that show no sign of relenting any time soon. There have been additions made by later authors and contradictions abound. When faced with the signs beginning at 8 or ten degrees and aware of the urgent need to decide which zodiac he actually used. Hand concludes:

“The lunar mansion or nakshatra is 13°20’ long. This is very close to the average daily motion of the Moon in the zodiac, and it is well known that this is the derivation. The navamsa is exactly one-quarter of that and therefore resonates to the passage of the Moon through the quadrants of the chart. On average the Moon moves very close to 3°20′ of arc while it is rising from the Ascendant to the M.C., from the М.С. to the Descendant and so forth. ” Moreover, he uses two methods to establish the Ascendant in a horoscope, now known as A and B. They are closely allied with Babylonian astrology.

Once the text is finally sorted out, I believe that close reference to Indian astrology may be very helpful. I suspect that the model of Nakshatras will shed light on the often perplexing  astrology of Vettius Valens

Church of the Nativity in the village of Arbanasi, in Veliko Tarnovo, north-central Bulgaria, there is a similar zodiac fresco image — a “Wheel of Time” in which the cycle of human life is represented: