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 planets1)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 astrology2)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.

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References   [ + ]

1. Rochberg, Francesca. In the Path of the Moon: Babylonian Celestial Divination and Its Legacy. Leiden: Brill, 2010. 139-40. Print.
2. Rochberg, Francesca. In the Path of the Moon: Babylonian Celestial Divination and Its Legacy. Leiden: Brill, 2010. 135-42. Print.

14 Comments

    • 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?

  1. 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

    • 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

    • 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…

  4. 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?

    • 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.

    • 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.

  5. 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?

  6. 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: http://www.arhatmedia.com/periods.htm

    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.

  7. 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…

  8. 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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