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The astrological houses do not exist as an astronomical reality; their application is symbolic. This presents a sharpened argument that to use their symbolism effectively, their basis should be clearly understood. Most of us can agree with this in regard to what the houses mean. But in addition we have the problem of choosing which system of calculation to use, a highly controversial issue due to the variety of methods available and the considerable divergence of cusp locations they present. This is often regarded as the most problematic component of modern astrology. With no clear consensus of opinion to guide us, it is an issue upon which each astrologer must take an individual stance, weigh up the arguments, and resolve at a personal level.


by Deborah Houlding

Introduction: The historical setting

With the variety of house systems available, all astrologers face the dilemma of choosing which method to adopt and understanding the reasons why. The only hard fact to guide them is that each system has a merit of its own; beyond that, the question of which house system works best is sensitive to so much subjective reasoning and variations of interpretative style that it would be impossible to prove. Despite this, many astrologers have sought to establish that their selected method is the 'pure' system to which others can be considered corruptions. Often this is based on an attempt to claim insight into the original system as verified in the work of Ptolemy, even though Ptolemy's work suggests a personal disregard to the use of houses generally and within the Tetrabiblos they are barely mentioned. However, tracing the development of house construction from its earliest sources does offer an illuminating path through which we can monitor the recognition of inherent technical difficulties, and the subsequent attempts to resolve them in alternative calculation methods.

Rather than yielding to the temptation of trying to find a consistency in style among ancient authors, a more honest approach is to admit the ambiguities and inconsistencies. Our understanding of house division in ancient times is currently clouded with confusion and assumptions, in which the philosophical perspective, astrological approach and general life-style of the astrologer is gravely underestimated. To demonstrate the importance of this, and to show where key modifications have occurred, research should begin with our earliest detailed source, the Astronomica by Marcus Manilius. Written around 10 AD and therefore predating Ptolemy's Tetrabiblos by over a century, this represents our oldest surviving reference from which an ancient philosophical approach to houses can be gleaned.

Authors who criticize the astronomical basis of the Astronomica often overlook the fact that the text was written in verse. The aim of Manilius was not to establish his talents as a philosopher or scientist, or even as a working astrologer, but principally as a poet; his quest being to 'sing of the stars', and this he accomplishes with passages of great beauty. We should admit from this that the Astronomica is primarily useful as an overview of myth and symbolism, and derive from it that little, if any, of the astrological theory would be original to Manilius. That he managed to incorporate any of the technical basis of astrology in a work inspired by aestheticism is cause for small wonder.

Nevertheless a careful study of his terminology has led scholars to conclude that, in talking of the houses, he refers to a method of division which encompasses the whole celestial sphere, the local framework of the observer, and not simply the region of the ecliptic. ([1] ) This realization is important because later methods of house division attempt to apportion the houses as divisions of the zodiac, so this offers an argument against suggestions that classical authors such as Valens, who used whole sign houses, were working with an 'original' method.

Manilius claimed that he was bringing lore to the classical world that was untold by any before him. ([2] ) This suggests that he wasn't concerned with originating knowledge but the relaying of a more ancient perspective, and the content of his work is one that entirely accords with the philosophical approach of ancient Mesopotamian astrology. In this, the primary division of the sky began with the cardinal points and their demarcation of east, west, north and south. They were not merely concerned with the planetary activity that occurred within the belt of the ecliptic, but took account of all forms of celestial activity in the whole envelope of heaven, including lightning, clouds, the colours and shades of the sky and anything that was of an unusual appearance. Their point of reference in defining a meaning was the locality in the sphere and whether it was to the left, to the right, or high or low on the horizon. The use of 'segments' and 'areas of meaning' that fell under the rulership of specific gods is known to have a very ancient history in divinatory techniques, and was employed from the 2nd millennium BC in liver divination, the interpretation of the flight of birds, the design of the city and all forms of mystical knowledge (see diagram below). It is fair to suppose that it played a greater part in ancient astrology than the fragmentary evidence available to us is able to prove, though possibly not in a division of twelve until after the zodiac became established as the main astrological framework following its invention in the 6th century BC. Certainly from Manilius's text we have evidence that the original concept of houses was based upon a division of the local mundane sphere of the observer, which was determined by the circles of the local horizon, local meridian and prime vertical, in a manner that was similar to how the ancient Babylonian priests quartered and then further divided their other tools of omen analysis.

The Sacred division of space

The difficulties of ecliptic-based space division

The relevant issue is that houses, as an astrological technique, most certainly evolved from a separate foundation to that of the zodiac and thus demonstrate a different perspective of the heavens. The purpose of the zodiac is to map the secondary motion of a planet as it revolves in its superior orbit around the Earth, but the houses map the primary motion of a planet's daily journey through our skies. Their relationship with the observer is altogether more personal and direct, and through them the affect of a planet in the zodiac is grounded to reveal its specific influence upon any locality.

The difficulties of finding a suitable house system that will work well in all locations are the legacy of our decision to make the zodiac - and hence the ecliptic - the central crux of the horoscopic scheme; an underpinning principle which was firmly established by the classical period and is now so deeply embedded into the core of our art that any perspective but this appears irreconcilable. ([3] ) To understand why the difficulties arise, it is necessary to visualize the variability between the true cardinal directions and those represented by the ascendant and descendant.

As the Earth rotates on its axis from west to east, it appears from our apparently stationary viewpoint that the stars rise in the east, culminate on the upper meridian and set in the west. For an observer in the northern hemisphere the easiest way to observe the planets in the zodiacal belt is to stand facing south - one would then see the stars rising in the east on the left, culminating in the south ahead and setting in the west on the right: this is the perspective that is represented on an astrological chart.

Since the Earth is a globe, an observer from any locality will always be at the center of their own bowl of heaven, but in astrology the midheaven does not represent the point immediately overhead (our local zenith), but the point at which that meridian intersects with the ecliptic (see diagram above). The more northerly the latitude, the further down on the horizon it is likely to be. It will, however, always culminate due south, where the planets reach their highest declination before retiring towards the descendant. ([4] ) With the MC and IC then, there is true alignment between the astrological angles and the cardinal directions south and north, which is not usually the case with the ascendant and the east, or the descendant and the west.

Because of the tilt between the Earth's equator and the ecliptic, the ascendant will only align with cardinal east at two moments during the day - namely when 0° Aries or 0° Libra, the points of intersection between the equator and ecliptic, are rising. At such times the midheaven will be close to a 90° angle to the ascendant for all locations, but when other parts of the ecliptic ascend there is a discrepancy from due east, the ascendant being most northerly when 0° Cancer rises and most southerly with 0° Capricorn. Thus, 90° as measured along the ecliptic does not necessarily reflect 90° in geometrical measurement and there is a distorted angle between the ascendant and midheaven which becomes increasingly difficult to resolve with latitude. In the district of Alexandria (31°N) the variation is small and causes no real problems, but in high latitudes it becomes impossible for certain parts of the zodiac to rise at all. Of the signs that do rise, some linger on the ascendant for many hours while others speed by in a matter of minutes.

In the Arctic and Antarctic regions, the inherent problems can be illustrated through the phenomenon of the midnight Sun, which prevents any division of the chart into diurnal and nocturnal hemispheres. And though it may be an extreme example, how does one reconcile the fact that at the north pole, 0° Aries can rise on the ascendant and be on the midheaven simultaneously? Obviously, at these localities, the theory of ecliptic-based methods of house division become impractical in working astrology.

Space Based Solutions

In view of the problems that arise from ecliptic based methods of space division, there have been attempts to construct a method of division which does not begin with the ascendant but from the true point of east. The most notable is the Morinus System which starts from the intersection of the equator with the meridian and horizon in the east and then divides the equator into twelve equal sections, with house cusps taken from where celestial longitude projects those points onto the ecliptic.

As a result the midheaven is always located 90° from the 1st house cusp, but the degree of the ascendant can fall in any of the houses, including the 7th house. The system was invented by the French astrologer Jean-Baptiste Morin in the 17th century but like any other that has attempted to disassociate the ascendant and 1st house, has never gained popular favour. The obvious reason is that the ascendant and descendant have absorbed their own astrological significance which ties them into a natural association with the 1st and 7th houses. The act of rising and setting has played as much a part in dictating the meanings of these house, as has their association with east and west.

It appears that it is simply not possible to reconstruct a system that corresponds to Manilius's perspective yet remains sympathetic to conventional ecliptic-based astrological practice. It has also been suggested that Manilius's system was, in fact, an idealised framework of heaven, based upon the prime vertical which was probably assumed to equate with the ascendant. The fact that this was not always the case in his region was possibly overlooked or deliberately ignored in the way that Platonic philosophy favours the spiritual ideal over material reality. As astrologers we take a similar stance in concluding that from a philosophical point of view the ascendant is symbolic of east and therefore, astrologically, assumes that importance.

From such a perspective, the system that comes closest to that of Manilius, which may even have been the one to which he referred, is the Campanus system, because this also rejects a direct division of the ecliptic in favour of the prime vertical, the great circle which cuts the east and west points of the horizon and passes through the zenith and nadir at right-angles to the observer's meridian. This is divided into twelve equal sections with the corresponding intersection with the ecliptic taken as the house cusps. Although this system is attributed to Johannes Campanus, a prominent 13th century mathematician, it was used by Al-Biruni in the 11th century under the name 'the system of Hermes', suggesting a much earlier, unknown origin.

The point in favour of Campanus is that it readily lends itself to a three dimensional view of space by emphasizing the planet's position in relation to the horizon and meridian at the place of birth - hence there is a subtle shift of perspective in which the houses are not simply projected onto the zodiac, but rather the zodiac is viewed through the houses as determined by the local sphere. The point against it, is that by undermining the role of the ecliptic, the symbolic connection of the Sun's orbit around the earth is weakened and some would see this as a more fundamental origin to house meanings. A more practical disadvantage is that Campanus is highly sensitive to distorted angles at extreme latitudes.

The latter problem is perhaps the main reason why Campanus has never been a real contender in universal house systems, but has always remained a popular choice for those who reject the most favored methods. In 1985 it was claimed to be the most preferred system in England after Placidus ([5] ) and it was greatly endorsed by Dane Rudhyar who saw it as an ideal approach to 'person-centered' astrology because of the acknowledgement that it gave to 'the space at the centre of which the individual stands'. ([6] ) Rudhyar also proposed that a future development of the houses could utilize Campanus as the basis of a three dimensional 'birth sphere', in which the effect of planetary latitude could be fully acknowledged; although to do so requires some alternative way of representing this information other than our two-dimensional chart forms which only show measurements along the ecliptic. Those who consider the three dimensional perspective important, argue that defining house positions by zodiacal degree alone can often prove inaccurate since it assumes that the cusps cut through the ecliptic in a straight line whereas in reality the lines are curved, formed by great circles passing through the earth and meeting at the poles.affect of house distortion as shown by the chart of yeats This curvature results in an angle that moves several degrees across the ecliptic when latitude is considered. David McCann has illustrated how this distortion manifests in the chart of William Butler Yeats, for whom Pluto has a latitude of 15°S. By zodiacal degree alone Pluto appears to be in the middle of the 2nd house but when latitude is taken into account it is actually on the 3rd house cusp. ([7] ) Anyone seeking a house system that attempts to reconstruct a division of local space would see this as a major inconvenience, while those that prefer ecliptic-based systems may argue that the astrological significance of the cusps and houses are linked only to the degrees where the house cusps cut the ecliptic, and latitude is therefore irrelevant in this matter.

Another house system that is often compared to Campanus, and frequently claimed to be a development of it, is the Regiomontanus system, because it also utilizes a great circle other than the ecliptic as its main frame of reference. Regiomontanus, however, is based upon an equal division of the equator rather than the prime vertical - it is the same method as that suggested by Morinus, but bows to convention by commencing from the ascendant. Although it found popularity later than Campanus, it is also known to have been used in the 11th century ([8] ) and in all likelihood developed along principles entirely of its own. In emphasizing the equator, advocates claim that it pays a greater recognition to the Earth's daily rotation, rather than the movement of the Earth around the Sun as measured by the ecliptic. It also has the advantage of being less sensitive to house distortion in high latitudes than Campanus.

The system is named after the 15th century mathematician Johan Muller of Konigsberg, (also known as Regiomontanus), who popularized its use at a time when printing techniques could ensure that information required to support it was easily available. With a ready supply of tables it became the main European method for several centuries afterwards, and as the method employed by many prominent 17th century astrologers including William Lilly, it continues to be popular today, particularly amongst horary astrologers or advocates of Lilly's methods.

Time Based Solutions

Regiomontanus generally fell from favour in the 19th century when Placidean tables became more accessible. The Placidus system is named after the Italian Benedictine monk, Placidus de Titis (1603-1668), who popularized its use during the 17th century. Again, it is accepted that Placidus did not invent the method; tables were already available for it in 1604, a year after Placidus's birth, and it earlier appeared on an astrolabe in 1305. The 12th century Hebrew astrologer Abraham Ibn Ezra acknowledged it as the system employed by Ptolemy, and Placidus appears to support this view within his work where he respectfully notes "I desire no guides but Ptolemy and reason". ([9] )

The Placidus system is purely time-based and thus offers perfect harmony with the use of planetary hours, adding credence to the claim that this could have been an original method of house division, based upon the two-hourly 'watches' of ancient astrologers, who numbered the constellations in the order that the stars within them rose to the ascendant during the twelve watches of the 24-hour period. There seems little doubt that the symbolism attached to the interpretative use of the houses has been greatly influenced from their use as 'time-markers', in which the movement of the planets' passage through the heavens, following the diurnal arc, is recognized. Each of the houses represents two planetary hours, the first starting at dawn with the ascendant. The area between the ascendant and the 12th house cusp represents the first two planetary hours, that between the 12th and the 11th the 3rd and 4th hour, and so on. The MC represents the end of the 6th daytime planetary hour, while the descendant corresponds to sunset. The 6th house is made up of the first two nocturnal hours, and so on round to the Ascendant. The division between the two planetary hours in any house is found by dividing the house exactly in two (see diagram above).

Not only is the system sympathetic to the use of these astrological hours, but it is also the system that lends itself to the most 'natural' system of Primary Directions endorsed by Ptolemy, and it is for this reason that its advocates claim it as the system he would have preferred. We have to accept an element of speculation here - we have no actual evidence from Ptolemy's work to endorse this view or suggest otherwise. Placidus does, however, remain the most popular quadrant system of house division in use today. It is often said that the reason for this is the ready availability of Raphael's Tables of Houses which refer to the system, but this seems a little unfair as its underlying philosophy is also clearly to be respected.

Although Placidus is simple in concept, the mathematical trigonometry behind it is complex, with cusp positions adjusted in a complicated technique based on the use of hour cycles. ([10] ) Alcabitius and Koch are systems that work along similar time-based projections, all of which involve associating the angles with the Ascendant and Midheaven and dividing by three the time taken for the degree of the Ascendant to move to the Midheaven, to find the intermediate cusps. The fundamental differences lie in the way these projections are related to the ecliptic, by use of hour circles, vertical circles, or projection of the Ascendant. Alcabitius, which uses vertical circles, bears the name of the 12th-century Arabian astrologer, Alchabitus, but it is unclear whether Placidus predates the Alcabitius system or vice versa. (It is clear that those whose names have become celebrated as champions of techniques are not always reliable indicators of their first invention.)

The Koch system, however, is generally accepted as being of modern development, introduced in the 1960s by the German astrologer, Dr. Walter Koch. Tables supporting its use became available in 1971, and it is currently very popular in Europe, particularly with the Ebertin and Huber schools. Koch uses projection of the Ascendant to formulate the intermediate house cusps, and its followers argue that it is the only system to fully recognise the Ascendant as the primary connecting thread between the ecliptic and the place of birth in the calculation of every cusp.

In theory, there are valid philosophical arguments that allow every house system to be perceived as most appropriate; in practice,- once we move beyond understanding whether our preference is to emphasise time or space, - most of us would find that our ability to prove one house system works is a great deal stronger than our ability to prove that another system doesn't.

Keeping it Simple!

In the article, "An Astrological House Formulary," Michael Munkasey provides step-by-step instructions on the mathematical techniques needed to formulate the various systems of division. This is an excellent guide that should allow anyone with enough interest to become capable of calculating cusps without relying on astrological software. One glance at this article will probably convince most astrologers that they don't wish to do this! For many of us, it will seem too complicated to fathom and work with on a day-to-day basis. This leads to an argument in support of the simpler systems; with these, at least, working astrologers can feel in control of their own calculations and thus place confidence in the associated symbolism that arises from their chosen system.

Most of the other main house systems work upon the principle that since planetary activity centers upon the path of the Sun, the ecliptic provides the ideal focus for dividing the chart into 'spheres of activity'. The simplest approaches, the equal-house and whole-sign methods, merely require knowledge of the ascendant or ascending sign, and an equal division throughout the rest of the zodiac eliminates the need for any complicated calculations. Until recently, such an approach was considered to have an element of naiveté attached to it -ideal for beginners, the unspoken implication is that astrologers with a more sophisticated grasp of trigonometry would eventually progress to a more complex method. Yet recent research into classical astrology has created a renewed interest in these simple techniques from a more scholarly perspective. The point of strength is that, regardless of the originating theory behind house division, in practice at least, classical astrologers tended to tie the houses to the signs, apparently concurring with Pelletier, who wrote in defence of the equal house method "It seems superfluous to demand mathematical or astronomical precision of a frame of reference for houses which are purely symbolic". ([11] )

The Porphyry house system is often seen as an ideal compromise here: it maintains the connection between the angles of the chart and the Ascendant and Midheaven, but it offers a simplicity of technique that merely requires trisection of the ecliptic arc between the angles to calculate the intermediate cusps.

There is, however, a great deal of confusion regarding how the houses were used in ancient times and when quadrant systenis such as Porphyry and Placidus were introduced. Passages which were once thought to clearly demonstrate the equal-house method in practice are now taken to be more evident of the use of Porphyry or the whole-sign system; this creates some doubt about whether the equal-house system has any theoretical basis in classical astrology at all, except as a compromise by astrologers who were attempting to align the houses with the angles and either deliberately or ignorantly failed to observe any discrepancies. Ptolemy's stance is often considered critical in matters relating to classical astrology, so his use of the houses is worth exploring in detail, particularly for those who have been persuaded that a return to the simple mechanics of the "whole-sign method" would be a return to the original and purest use of houses.

Ptolemy's Stance

The use of houses in classical times is worthy of study, but bear in mind that classical astrology entailed a perspective and methodology of its own. Ptolemy, in particular, exhibits a general resistance to techniques infused with symbolic mysticism; where they are used, he attempts to explain their potency through what he considers to be a more 'logical' approach, such as drawing an association with the aspects and planetary humours. Whereas Manilius, 'the poet', endeavours to express the wonder and mystery of the heavens in majestic phases of poetic verse, Ptolemy 'the scientist' seeks to rationalise astrology and reduce it to first principles by sweeping away any elements that appear to be based on a mysticism older than that of the classical world -

"as for the nonsense on which many waste their labour and of which not even a plausible account can be given, this we shall dismiss in favour of the primary natural causes; we shall investigate, not by means of lots and numbers of which no reasonable explanation can be given, but merely through the science of the aspects of the stars to the places with which they have familiarity" ([12] )

- That aspects are themselves derived from symbolic numerological principles seems to Ptolemy, beside the point.

'Places of familiarity' are the signs of the zodiac or angles in the chart which reinforce a planet's natural disposition. The Sun, for example, has a natural affinity with the signs that are hot and dry, or the areas of the chart that are masculine and diurnal. Since the Sun rises in the east, it attributes to that cardinal the qualities of being masculine, dry, solar and diurnal. Conversely, the west is feminine, moist, lunar and nocturnal; "for it is always in the west that the Moon emerges and makes its appearance after conjunction". ([13] ) The alignment of planets with areas of natural affinity was the kingpin around which Ptolemy's astrology revolved, and establishing whether a planet was in a place of familiarity was not determined through the use of houses, as witnessed in the planetary joys of Manilius, ([14] ) but through association with other planets, places and stars which share common 'humoral' qualities of hot, cold, dry and moist.

Although the houses are not entirely ignored in the Tetrabiblos, there is so little reference to them that the subject appears to be deliberately avoided. In his first book, Ptolemy sets out the general principles of astrology, explaining the power and nature of the planets, aspects, fixed stars, signs of the zodiac, rulership of the signs, triplicities, exaltations, terms and faces. Though he offers some explanation of the four angles related to the seasons, in this vital introduction he fails to give a single reference to the use of the houses. He does, however, place strong emphasis on relationships to the horizon and midheaven, and the correspondence between angles and directions. East, south, west and north, are noted as dry, hot, moist and cold, respectively; the orient, he tells us, signifies youth, the midheaven middle-age, the occident old age, and those who have died. ([15] ) Although Ptolemy doesn't recognize it, he is clearly perpetuating ancient solar mysticism which ties the meaning of the angles to a symbolic appreciation of the Sun's cycle around the Earth. This inherent symbolism cuts through the entire work and can be demonstrated by the stress he places on the condition of being oriental or occidental:

"Their [the planets'] power must be determined, in the first place, from the fact that they are either oriental [eastern] and adding to their proper motion - for then they are most powerful - or occidental [western] and diminishing in speed, for then their energy is weaker. Second, it is to be determined from their position relative to the horizon; for they are most powerful when they are in the midheaven or approaching it, and second when they are exactly on the horizon or in the succeedent place; their power is greater when they are in the orient; and less when they culminate beneath the earth or are in some other aspect to the orient; if they bear no aspect at all to the orient they are entirely powerless". ([16] )

Ptolemy's view of the 'places' that bear no aspect to the horizon accords with the general understanding of the 8th, 12th, and 6th houses as describing weakness and impotency. But whereas a working, predictive astrologer might dwell on the use of the symbolism in describing that condition of weakness, Ptolemy does not. Instead, there is the suggestion that we should ignore these areas in our investigation in favour of the powerful regions.

The midheaven is referred to as the most important angle of all and many spheres of life that we would assign to other houses are assessed by Ptolemy through the use of the culminating degree and the place that is succeeding to it. By this he means the 10th house, as the area that is rising by diurnal motion to the degree of the midheaven. This area is representative of all our outward endeavours and accomplishments: our actions, friendships, children, and everything from which our reputation is established. Second in importance is the eastern horizon from which the bodily form, temperament, intellect and formative years are assessed. Consistency with later tradition is evident in Ptolemy's use of angularity as denoting strength and speed, and the denial of these qualities with cadency:

"For they [the planets] are most effective .... whenever they are passing through the angles or in the signs that rise after them ....They are weakest ....when they are declining from the angles also we must observe whether they are at the angles or in the succeedent signs; for if they are oriental or at angles they are more effective at the beginning, if they are occidental or in the succeeding signs they are slower to take action. ([17] )

Ptolemy further acknowledges that the cadent houses represent foreign places and alien circumstances by his comment that when the Moon is declining from angles "she portends journeys abroad or changes of place". ([17] )

The extent to which Ptolemy fails to utlilise the houses is most apparent in books three and four where he explains the techniques for judging a nativity. Marriage, for example, is not determined from the 7th house, but from the place of the Sun for a woman, and the Moon for a man. Matters relating to material wealth are not referred to the 2nd house, but the part of fortune. Friendships are not judged from the 11th house, but from the condition of the Sun, Moon, Fortuna and rising sign. Where he discusses the parents and the potential of patrimony, he does not recommend a consideration of the 4th house, but refers us to the place of the Sun or Saturn for the father, and the Moon or Venus for the mother. There are few instances where Ptolemy appears to support our later tradition. In one, he directs us to the 12th house, 'The House of Evil Daemon', for matters of slavery because it is an 'injurious' position which declines from the horizon. In matters of illness he also notes the need to consider the 6th house, saying: "It is necessary to look to the two angles of the horizon, that is, the orient and the occident, and especially to the occident itself and the sign preceding it [6th], which is disjunct from the oriental angle". ([18] )

Ptolemy's reasoning is that the descendant is destructive to vitality, and the sign preceding the descendant shares this influence because it is declining (by diurnal motion) from that angle and unaspected to the ascendant. Most telling of all, however, is an obtuse reference to the influence of the lower midheaven, which we become aware of only through his description of the effect of planetary stations: : "Evening stations and positions at midheaven beneath the earth [IC].... produce souls noble and wise .… investigators of hidden things and seekers after the unknown…" ([19] )

Although Ptolemy makes no attempt to explain why this should be so, the reference to hidden matters suggests that it is drawn from a contemporary understanding of the 4th house, arguing that he had more awareness of the wider use of the houses than he seems willing to impart.

Clearly Ptolemy regarded the houses with some irrelevance but the question of which method of house construction he was referring to has still managed to provoke great debate. His constant overlapping of the words 'place' and 'sign', and the way in which he refers to the midheaven as 'the culminating sign' has been used to suggest that he considered the 'places' to be defined by the signs of the zodiac.

There remains, however, one highly significant passage in which he offers a definition of the houses. It is contained within his method of determining length of life and Ptolemy explains that for a matter of such importance, the planets from which we draw judgement must be located in the powerful places, which he describes as follows:

"In the first place we must consider those places .... in which the planet must be that is to receive the lordship of the prorogation; namely, the twelfth part of the zodiac surrounding the horoscope, from 5° above the actual horizon up to the 25° that remains, which is rising in succession to the horizon [ie., 1st house]; the part sextile dexter to these thirty degrees, called the House of the Good Daemon [11th house]; the part in quartile, the midheaven [10th house]; the part in trine, called the House of the God [9th house]; and the part opposite, the Occident [7th house]". ([20] )

First we should be clear that this is all that Ptolemy has to say on the technical basis of the houses. In assessing its importance, the introductory comment on the 1st house is the one that is most pertinent: the twelfth part of the zodiac surrounding the horoscope, from 5° above the actual horizon up to the 25° that remains, which is rising in succession to the horizon. The 5° misplacement from the ascendant has caused much debate, the only sensible explanation is that the virtue of each house has been assigned a 5° influence before the cusp, as in traditional use. The same approach is used today by astrologers schooled in traditional techniques, so that if a planet is within 5 degrees of the next house cusp, it is considered to have its influence within the context of that house. But on the basis of Ptolemy's comment here, some authorities have sought to formally recognize a new house construction method, the Classical house system, which is generally said to follow Alcabitius, but with the subtraction of 5 degrees from the Ascendant to find the 1st-house cusp. This definition is misleading, because it is clear that the principle of recognising the five degrees preceding a house cusp is written into traditional technique, regardless of the house method in use, so this should be considered a principle of house interpretation rather than a method of division.

The reference to the "twelfth part" of the zodiac appears confusing because we are accustomed to numbering the signs from the ascendant in an anti-clockwise direction following the numerical order of the houses, although the reason the houses are so numbered is because this is the order in which they rise through diurnal motion. Neither Ptolemy nor Manilius attributed numbers to the houses but described them instead by their names and aspectual relationship to the ascendant. The fact that he makes a distinction between the places of heaven and the parts of the zodiac, and that he introduces this numeration here (though not for the houses), suggests that he recognised them as two discrete frames of reference which were not dependant upon each other, even if in practice they were often associated. His further comment, that the first house is counted from 5° above the horizon up to the 25° remaining again shows that the principle of his house system was not based upon a simple association with the signs, as in the whole-sign method, although he was clearly seeking to perceive the houses as equal divisions which would easily compliment their use.


Whilst we appreciate all the mathematical challenges that house construction entails, we should never step too far from the realization that ancient astrologers faced a greater challenge: to obtain an accurate recording of time in the first place. Ptolemy gives an insight into his striving to mark the ascendant by "the specific degree" in his third book where he talks about the difficulties faced when trying to ascertain the "fraction of the hour of the birth"; and where he refers to the frequency of error caused through "the solar instruments by the occasional shifting of their positions, or of their gnomons, and the water clocks by stoppages and irregularities in the flow of the water from different causes and by mere chance." ([21] )

In view of such difficulties, it is hardly surprising that, as ancient astrologers strived for theoretical perfection, they settled for practical adequacy. This raises the question of whether we should, therefore, place so much emphasis on the working examples we possess that point to the use of simplified techniques. Throughout these ancient texts, we find regular reminders that, although students are taught by generalities, they must nonetheless take care to base their calculations upon the actual degree of the zodiac and not simply by sign position alone. No doubt, various points were simplified in order to elucidate other features of the chart, and one wonders whether these astrologers would have bothered to calculate complex mathematical formulas where the hour of birth had been rounded up in any case. More than anything else, it should be remembered that, when we query the methods of the ancients, the gaps in our knowledge are filled by conventional knowledge as it currently stands. It could be argued that any translation of terminology is largely a personal interpretation of the intent of an author, so we can never be entirely confident about the meaning of passages that refer to a lifestyle and a viewpoint we no longer possess.

In this, I am as guilty as anyone else, but my summary is that the modern astrologer, seeking to resolve the problem of house division by reference to historical sources, will ultimately conclude that these sources do not, will not, and cannot provide an authoritative voice. The problem exists because there are so many valid frames of reference, and it is impossible to fully recognize the symbolic potential of them all within any one technique. So, we must make our selection according to where our own inclinations lie. When we individually accept this as part of our own responsibility for shaping the personal astrology that we use, then the problem of the houses ceases to exist. It can be seen as nothing more than the dilemma of choosing from the range of styles, techniques, and rulerships that runs through every other multifaceted branch of our art. Our reliance upon houses comes from our desire to find a more personal relationship between the planetary positions as they shape themselves to the unique qualities of the space and time surrounding the chart. We must accept another level to this: that the truly personal relationship emerges from the central position of the astrologer, who strives to draw meaning and symbolic appreciation of celestial movements and cycles and, in this, holds true to the principles of astrology as a study that extends from astronomical principles rather than resting on them entirely.

Notes & References:
  1 ] A well researched article to this effect was written in 1989 by Prudence Jones and republished in History and Astrology: Clio and Urania Confer, Mnemosyne Press, 1995. The reader is referred to that work for the full arguments.
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  2 ] Marcus Manilius, Astronomica, English translation by G.P. Goold, Harvard University Press, Loeb Edition, 1977, p.5 (I.5)
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  3 ] Some very credible research into the 'Local Space' chart, based upon the altitude and azimuth as a geographically based astrological tool has proved very effective however, suggesting a modern approach which probably has close connections to ancient Mesopotamian methods. For further details see Astro-Physical Directions, by Michael Erlewine, Ann Arbor, 1977; Local Space: A Guide to What it is and How to Use it by Martin David, Astro*Centre Publications 1989, or the introductory article 'The Local Space Chart' by Sean Lovatt, published in the Quarterly of the Astrological Lodge of London, Vol 62, no.4, 1992.
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  4 ] The reverse is true in the southern hemisphere where the planets culminate due north. This rule holds true for all locations outside of the tropics.
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  5 ] Colin Evans, New Waite's Compendium of Natal Astrology; revised by Gardner, 1985, p.47
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  6 ] D. Rudhyar; The Astrological Houses, CRCS Publications; Op. cit., p.26
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  7 ] I am grateful to David McCann for allowing me to reconstruct his example, first published in 'The Problem of Domification, Part 2'; the AA Journal, Vol 38, no.6, Nov-Dec: 1996, p.379.
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  8 ] It is described by Abenmoat of Jaén, in a manuscript believed to have been owned by Regiomontanus. J.D. North, Horoscopes and History, 1986, op.cit. pp.35-8.
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  9 ] Placidus de Titus, Primum Mobile, London, 1814, op cit. p.47
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  10 ] Those interested in understanding the trigonometry are referred to Michael Munkasey's online article An Astrological House Formulary (
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  11 ] Robert Pelletier, Planets in Houses, Para Research, Maine, 1978, pp.13-14.
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  12 ] Claudius Ptolemy, Tetrabiblos, English translation by F.E. Robbins, Harvard University Press, Loeb Edition, 1980, p.237 (III.3)
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  13 ] Ibid. p.127 (II.2)
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  14 ] Ptolemy omits all reference to planetary joys.
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  15 ] Ibid., pp.175-177 (II.7)
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  16 ] Ibid., pp.115-117 (I.10)
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  17 ] Ibid., p.239 (III.3)
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  18 ] Ibid., p.253 (II.5)
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  19 ] Ibid., p.337 (III.3)
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  20 ] Ibid., pp.273-275 (III.10)
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  21 ] Ptolemy, p.229 (III.2)
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