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AP - Ancient use of decans

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Posted: Tue Oct 21, 2003 10:53 pm    Post subject: AP - Ancient use of decans Reply with quote

24 Aug 2003


I've been looking into the use of decans in religious iconography of the classical period. I notice that Manilius give signs to the various decans while Ptolemy and most others give planets. Is Manilius the only one who alloted signs and is there any reason he did this?



Firmicus also gave them to the signs - although I'm not aware of any others without researching this, I'm sure there would have been more amongst the ancient astrologers, because of the way that face (ie decan) rulership originated as a form of calendrical/zodiacal division.
The article on Time, the Egyptians and the Calendar will be a useful reference for you, especially the third part:
It doesn't answer your question directly in terms of listing other astrologers, but it will be a useful read with regard to the originating philosophy of faces.



That was just what I wanted actually. I had read this article but it was in my pile of 'must read again'. It has become much clearer and answered a lot of questions about other reading I had done. I didn't need names so much as a better understanding of the philosophy behind their use.



Since you are looking into the use of decans in the classical period, I thought I’d make an extra comment on something thats concerned me lately.

The following is extracted from Robert Scmidt’s article: House Division in Hellenistic Astrology: (available online at )

The Early Tradition of House Division

One of the earliest uses of zodiacal divisions for special topics or areas of life is in a work that antedates the root text of Nechepso/Petosiris. It is called Salmeschoiniaka and has to do with the decans. Only fragments of this work survive, but fortunately a piece quoted by Hephaistio employs the decans as places having governance over special issues.
"One must also examine the decans since the first one of the Horoskopos deals with birth; the 28th from the Horoskopos, which culminates early, deals with livelihood; the 25th, which culminates at noon, deals with sickness; the 9th, which rises late in the east, deals with injury; the 17th, which rises in the west, deals with marriage and wife; the 8th, the door of Hades, deals with children; the one in the subterraneous [pivot] deals with death." (II 18 ).
Since the decans are clearly understood to be related to divisions of the signs, this might be called a whole-decan system of houses.

Schmidt is a committed advocate of the belief that classical astrology employed only whole-sign houses, even though he has to admit that important evidence contradicts this view. He doesn’t seem willing to admit that the houses and the zodiac signs were two distinct frames of reference, both with their own independent history and evolution. Although a simplified association was often used in practice in the classical period, even the astrologers whose work demonstrates this offered reminders of the need to calculate the houses by degree and not by simple reference to sign. His own translation from the work of Valens, whom he claims only used whole-sign houses, includes the comment:

“But before all it is necessary to reckon the places to the degree. And at least whenever the degree of the Horoskopos may be grasped, it is necessary to count from that degree up until the 30-degree completion of the next zoidion.”

Other examples and points relevant to this issue are offered in the article The Problems of House Division , which discusses these matter in full.

My point in bringing this up here is that, in referring to the decans as a ‘whole-decan system of houses’ I believe Schmidt has set a highly inappropriate and misleading precedent. I have already seen other articles by researchers following Schmidt’s views, picking up on this point as if the use of decans offers our earliest evidence of astrological house development. For example, Steven Birchfield, whom I have a high regard for, writes in his article on ‘Houses Old and New’, :

“The earliest text we have available to us that deals with assigning topics to places in the Zodiac is quoted in the writings of Hephastio. In the text it assigns the topics to the decans of each sign.”
(He quotes Schmidt)

This may seem innocuous, but within the context of the article and the precise terminology that the Schmidt interpretations place upon issues concerned with ‘topics’ and ‘places’, this is as good as saying that the text deals with the development of house meanings as seen through the use of the decans.

Because of the confusion that could arise, I want to make it clear that we don’t have any evidence to support a conjecture that decans were a relevant issue to the topic of early house division or meanings, at least not in the way that Schmidt attempts to see them as “clearly understood to be related to divisions of the signs”. Only those who view house division as synonymous with zodiac signs would want to push the point, but even from that stance, the argument is as tenuous as saying “the earliest evidence of the use of house meanings is found in the meanings applied to the visible constellations”, since division of the sky into 36 decans (or star groups) existed thousands of years before the tropical zodiac was developed. Perhaps in this more ancient form, there may be some (as yet undiscovered) evidence suggesting that decan division had some association with fixed portions of the celestial sphere being used to temper the meaning of the planets, but that is not the point that Schmidt is pursuing. His argument appears to be that decan meanings are only relevant through their association with the signs, and since in his view sign division dictated house division, we can glimpse an origin of the whole-sign system of houses in the ‘whole-decan system of houses’. This is not a view that I think should be taken up without question.

On the wider issue of decan meanings, you might find it interesting to read Lilly’s ‘Of the Sun Eclipsed in any one Decanate of the 12 Signes’ as published in his Annus Tenebrosus . An extract is available online at
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Posted: Wed Oct 22, 2003 9:09 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

AP - This is an archived post, but may still be responded to.
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