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Early chart forms
Chart L 497
Cusp division in L 497
Emerging chart shapes
House names and symbols
Use of symbols
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Charts and symbols in early astrology: A study of the chart form of L 497 by Deborah Houlding

We still know very little about the early representation of astrological symbols and chart forms. As part of an exploration of how symbolic encoding of astrological information developed, this article looks in detail at one of the few Greek horoscopes which has been published with an accompanying chart form: presented as L 497 in Otto Neugebauer and Henry B. Van Hoesen's Greek Horoscopes.

In their analysis of the material published in Greek Horoscopes, authors Neugebauer and Van-Hoesen report that astrological diagrams are a rarity.[1] They reproduce a crude circular sketch which is the only diagram found amongst the papyrus charts (fig.1A below), and refer to four other horoscopes which were discovered as graffiti-like sketches on walls (see fig.1B). Unfortunately, the antiquity of the graffiti-like sketches now relates few clear details. Three of the four are not reproduced alongside Neugebauer and Van-Hoesen's descriptions.

Fig.1A: diagram associated with 1st cent. papyrus,
Greek Horoscopes, p.18.
Fig.1B: 3rd cent. graffiti like sketch,
Greek Horoscopes, p.18.

It is not until 500 years after the oldest papyri horoscope (dated 478 AD)[2] that we begin to see fully featured symbolic charts. These 'Byzantine codices' take three forms as indicated in the diagram below; the second and third types (B & C) becoming increasingly popular in later Latin and Islamic astrological texts.

Fig.2A Fig.2B Fig.2C

(A high resolution template for chart form A can be downloaded here as a gif file - 32kb)

We are provided with only one chart diagram which portrays any degree of detail in Greek Horoscopes - a photographic reproduction of a horoscope drawn in the style of chart-form A. This shows a 10th century reproduction of a literary horoscope held in the Laurentian library, and therefore offers one of our oldest accessible examples of an astrological chart form. The horoscope appears in three ancient manuscripts, one of which affirms that it was constructed by the philosopher Eutocius, at Alexandria in 497 AD. This is the only known horoscope to be attributed to Eutocius, who is believed to have studied under Ammonius in Alexandria; Ammonius himself being a pupil of Proclus.[3]

It is interesting to consider the extra layer of detail that can be given to this horoscope by looking at the accompanying figure (or 'theme' as it is referred to in the text). The illustration below shows the reproduction as it appears in Neugebauer and Van-Hoesen's Greek Horoscopes. Rolling over the 'English transliteration' button presents the information in a more familiar format. Rolling over the 'Computer reproduction' button, you can see how the chart appears when re-drawn using Janus astrological software. The details match extremely closely to the information presented in the manuscript. This chart is drawn for Alexandria, Egypt, 12:35PM (LMT), 28th October 497 AD (Julian calendar). The computerised chart shows the day of Mars and the hour of Jupiter, corresponding to the 7th seasonal hour of the day reported in the text.

Click here to open this chart in a new window ('pop-ups' must be allowed)

The chart records the ascendant as 2°12 Aquarius and the midheaven as 19°22 Scorpio. To obtain the closest match to the houses cusps given, I have computerised the ascendant to 2°09 Aquarius and 19°28 Scorpio. Much later texts seldom show such close alignment of the angles and cusps as this one does in modern computation, because in the pre-computer age latitudes and longitudes were rounded up to nearest degrees, and calculations often depended upon the most suitable entry in a table. We are lucky here because Alexandria has a longitude of exactly 30E and a latitude of exactly 31N, and it was such an important centre for astrology that it was well catered for by contemporary tables. Eutocius states that he recorded 'the stars and the centres' accurately according to the tables of Ptolemy. This is one of the details that verify the authenticity and accuracy of this horoscope, so that Neugebauer and Van-Hoesen were to write of the fixed star positions:

Using Ptolemy's value of one degree per century for the constant rate of precession we obtain a time interval of 260 years. Since Ptolemy's catalogue refers to the beginning of the reign of Antonius Pius in A.D. 137, we find that the positions in our text correspond to the year 137+360=497 which is exactly the year of the horoscope (GH., p.153).

The planetary positions also show closer alignment with true values than the computer reproduction demonstrates, with Neugebauer and Van-Hoesen assuming a 2½° correction for precession, which shows deviations of 'about 1° only for Venus and Mercury in longitude' (GH., p.153).

There is no reference in the text to the positions of house cusps, but the diagram clearly demonstrates the use of the Porphyry system of division. Could the chart have been stylised in a later reproduction? Possibly, but Eutocius has been convincingly argued to be a student of Ammonius, who studied under Proclus, who followed and developed the teachings of Porphyry; so it is very likely that these are original details.[4]

Manually calculating the cusps from the positions given for the ascendant and midheaven shows exact correspondence with those reported, and the computer generated chart shows how closely these relate to those produced by modern software. It is of interest that the cusps are indicated in the diagram but not reported in the accompanying text. We might wonder how many other times manuscript descriptions of horoscopes have been reproduced without the accompanying chart, and how many have been mistakenly taken to indicate a rough and ready or 'whole sign' approach, when in fact the Porphyry system of division is so simple to calculate, (requiring knowledge of only the ascendant and midheaven and the ability to divide the intervening longitude by three), that the need to write the position of each house cusp is superfluous.

Of the three types of chart diagrams shown earlier, it is this older chart style that really drives home the ancient view of the angular houses as 'centres', whose importance dominates the chart and grabs the attention of the eye. If the central area and outer rim were to be enclosed by a box, we would then have the typical chart form that becomes common in Latin and Islamic texts (as in fig.2C above).

Emerging  astrological chart forms

Fig. 3, a demonstration of chart form a becoming chart form c.

Actually, this central placement of the angular houses persists throughout traditional works up to very recent times. Most 17th century charts reveal a similar signature to that demonstrated by fig. 4 below, which offers a typical representation of a chart structure according to Raphael's Key to Astrology, published in 1931. And yet somehow, the enclosure and criss-crossing of the angular houses allows the emphasis upon them to become diluted. This is especially so in the modern convention of off-setting the angular houses so that they fall away from the angles. Eutocius' chart of 497 brings them clearly into to focus, encouraging the sense of the angular houses being 'pivotal'. Here the angular houses remain central to the diagram, whilst the ascendant and midheaven remain idealistically horizontal and perpendicular.

Astrological chart form by Raphael

Fig. 4, from Raphael's Key to Astrology (sixth ed., 1931); p.14.

Working around Eutocius' chart allows us to pick out some informative details. The 1st house begins with the upper left horizontal line which has 2°12 Aquarius written above the cusp. All of the house cusps are numbered around the exterior edge, apart from the 3rd house, the number of which has either been omitted or lost in reproduction (or possibly, a scribal error has allowed what should have been a number 3 to appear as a double notation for the 2nd house). The other double notations, for houses 4, 6, 9 and 10, indicate where sign boundaries occur within the quadrant divisions. We use a similar method of differentiation around the exterior of quadrant charts drawn with equally-spaced houses today, but using the insertion of sign glyphs to indicate the beginning of a new sign rather than numbers to indicate the end of the old one.

The English version of the horoscope shows the names of the houses that are written into the chart. But the chart uses abbreviations for the angular houses: those of the 1st, 4th and 10th house appearing in the form of symbols. To demonstrate: the name for the midheaven is written in Greek as mesouranhma, the English transliteration of which is Mesuranima and the translation of which is 'midheaven' or 'middle of the sky'. The equivalent Latin term, which has remained in use, is Medium Coeli. Just as we abbreviate Medium Coeli to MC, the Greek word mesouranhma is abbreviated to mr, which is worked into a symbol (see fig.6.D below) by allowing the Greek letter mu (m) to cut across the down stroke of the Greek letter rho (r).

Ascendant symbol IC symbol Descendant MC symbol
A) Ascendant B) IC C) Descendant D) MC

Fig. 6, the abbreviations and symbols of the angular house names

A similar approach is used to generate the symbol for the ascendant. The Greek word wroskopoV transliterates as Horoskopos, which is easily recognised as meaning 'hour-marker' or 'hour-watcher'. Here the abbreviated (emboldened) characters are combined so that the down stroke of rho (r) cuts across omega (w), and rests on top of kappa (k). This is one of only four symbols which have been noticed in ancient Greek charts. The others are the glyph for the midheaven which has just been described, and those for the Sun and Moon which are detailed below. Currently this symbol has the oldest heritage, appearing without the underlying kappa in a papyrus from Karanis relating to the year 182. Of course, when the underlying kappa is removed, the glyph for the ascendant and that of the midheaven appear very similar, and in some charts the same symbol seems to have been used to mark either or both the ascendant and midheaven.[5]

The name of the descendant shown here is not so much a symbol as an abbreviation with a raised character at the end. This presents the first four letters of the Greek word dunwn, which transliterates as dunon and translates as 'setting' or 'western' or 'evening' (in the same way that the word oriens can mean 'eastern' 'rising' or 'morning'; all of these words originating from the same root).

The symbol that we see under the 4th house comprises the first two characters of the Greek word uvogeion, with pi (v) resting on top of upsilon (u). The transliteration of this word is ypogeon and its translation 'under-earth' (or 'underground' or 'underworld') presents a close association with traditional astrological references to the 4th house as 'under the earth'. Our common abbreviation I.C., derives from the Latin Immum Coeli which translates as 'lower heaven', but this older term seems to do a better job of conveying the underworld mythology that is anciently associated with the 4th house, and its interpretative role in describing what lies beneath the surface of the ground.

The names of the other houses are written in full where they appear in the chart, and my transliterations and translations are shown in the table below. Since I have a limited knowledge of the meanings these words are able to convey in their original sense, I benefited from helpful discussions with Mike Edwards and Dorian Greenbaum, who helped me to obtain the most sensible English equivalent. These discussions revealed some interesting details. The meaning of the 2nd house is listed as 'livelihood' although the term vios from which it is derived translates as 'life'; generally speaking to mean mode of life, manner of living, lifetime, livelihood, or caste, and so forth. 'Livelihood' obviously represents the option that has carried forward into traditional acceptance, but the sense of vitality connected with this word has left its mark in the polarisation of growth and gain associated with the active essence of the 2nd house, and the decay and loss associated with the passive essence of the 8th.

The name of the 8th house, argos, also seems unusual. It is simply 'idle' (or empty, unused, unoccupied or barren). The connection with death does not seem obvious, but a state of decline is implicit in its weakness and inactive virtue. This label also appears in the Introductory Matters of the 4th century astrologer Paulus Alexandrinus[6] who writes:

The eighth from the Horoskopos is called idle, because it is in aversion and disjunct from the Horoskopic zoidion. It is also the post-descension of the setting zoidion, and signifies the accomplishment of death. This place is set down as dysfunctional, and when the benefics happen to be on this place, they make profits from deaths.[7]

Table of ancient Greek astrological house names

Fig. 7, table of house names and meanings

We can also learn a great deal about the use of symbols from this chart. The signs, Aries, Gemini, Cancer, Libra, Sagittarius, Aquarius and Pisces are easily matched to the glyphs of modern astrology, although Pisces is interesting for its use of dots instead of a binding stroke. Taurus, Leo, Virgo, Scorpio and Capricorn would be virtually unrecognisable outside the context of this chart, and the symbol for Capricorn is curious in presenting a glyph which, if turned upside down, would bear a close resemblance to that currently used for Saturn. The glyph for Saturn, whilst not unlike our own, could also be mistaken for the later glyph of Capricorn.

Most of the planetary symbols are similar to our familiar, modern glyphs. The exceptions are those of the Sun, (which could be mistaken for the modern glyph for Mars), and Jupiter (which would look familiar if the horizontal stroke across the middle was re-arranged as a vertical stroke through the bottom). Of these symbols only that of the Sun and Moon are found (together with the ascendant and midheaven ligatures mentioned earlier) in diagrams recovered from before the Byzantine period.[8] By the 10th century we start to see a full range of symbols put to frequent use, as in this chart, although the modern glyph for the Sun does not appear to be in evidence before the Renaissance.[9]

Amongst other curiosities in the use of the symbols, we might note that Saturn was known to be retrograde, a point referred to in the text, and yet no retrograde symbol appears in this chart. On the other hand two symbols appear which have not survived into modern awareness. One is the part of Spirit in the 6th house (I had some dilemma as to how to present this in the modern transliteration, before deciding that since no consensus of opinion exists as to how it should look, I would retain the symbol given). The other is the symbol for the preceding Full Moon which is placed between Saturn and the Moon in the 3rd house. The position of the previous lunation was an important detail in classical and medieval astrology, with various techniques (such as the hyleg) dependent upon it. Given their astrological importance, it is surprising that we have lost agreement on accepted symbols, by which we can easily illustrate their position to others, and make our own quick reference when reviewing our charts. The glyph shown here is an amalgam of the symbol for the Moon and the Greek letter pi (p), to stand for panselhnoV, or panselenos: 'full Moon'. Elsewhere in the text the abbreviation appears as shown below. Finally, the symbols for the north and south nodes appear to be inversions of those used later, and could easily be mistaken for each other by modern eyes. These earlier representations make sense, however, if we think of the underlying semi-circle of the north node denoting ascension rather than descension (and vice versa).

Ancient Greek symbol for full Moon

Fig. 8, full Moon symbol shown in the photographic reproduction of the
descriptive text, Greek Horoscopes, plate 32, p.231.

Unfortunately, most of the academic examination of early astrological charts done to date has tended to focus exclusively on the narrative of the text rather than including an examination of accompanying diagrams. Partly, this is because the academic interest falls more specifically on astronomical rather than astrological details. Even though it is recognised that astrology holds the key to shifting astronomical opinions, it has never been fully appreciated how essentially symbolic the language of astrology is, and how much further information could be gained from details present in the diagram alone. Even Neugebauer and Van-Hoesen admitted the sorry state of this situation, pointing out the errors that have arisen because of a 'complete disregard' for the details in the diagrams. Despite the monumental efforts that have been invested in examining ancient 'charts', this is one area of research that has hardly been touched upon. The problem is fully exposed in Neugebauer and Van-Hoesen's lament:

'…if one realises that the existence of diagrams in the codices is usually not even mentioned in the modern editions, then it is clear that a study of astronomical and astrological symbols could be undertaken only by beginning anew with the manuscripts themselves, a task which would have added years to our work.' (GH., p.163)

At some stage soon, this new task must begin. It does not take an oppression of knowledge to see important information disappear beyond the reach of time. Most of the ancient manuscripts that have become lost forever did not suffer through 'burnings' or wilful destruction; but simply because they were not amongst those which were valued, preserved and reproduced. One picture might be worth a thousand words but it has no worth at all if it is buried away in one of the many manuscript collections around the world, unable to be seen at all. Hopefully, this brief analysis of L 497, demonstrates how little has been reliably established regarding the use of symbolism in astrology, and how much further information could be established through the rediscovery of early diagrams.

Notes & References:
  1 ] Page 163. Published by the American Philosophical Society, in 1959, Greek Horoscopes is a review of the astrological texts written in Greek, offering interpretations and analysis of original documents and literary references between 71 BC and 621 AD. More recently Alexander Jones published an expansive review of nearly 200 charts which were excavated a century ago from the rubbish heaps of Oxyrhynchus: Astronomical Papyri from Oxyrhynchus (American Philosophical Society, 1999). Jones' text presents no diagrams. This has been made available for full viewing through 'Google books' at Greek Horoscopes remains available from the publishers (price $25); details at
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  2 ] Demonstrated in Greek Horoscopes, p.75. The remark, that fully featured charts appear 'between five and ten centuries later than the latest extant horoscopes on papyrus' appears on p.163.
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  3 ] MacTutor History of Mathematics article: 'Eutocius of Ascalon', by J. J. O'Connor and E. F. Robertson, 1999, [] (accessed 18 October 2007); quoting: P Tannery, 'Eutocius et ses contemorains', Bull. des sciences mathématique 7 (1883), 278-291.
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  4 ] This system of division bears the name of the Porphyry because he described it in his Introduction [to the Tetrabiblos], a work which aimed to give the reader some of the practical and technical information that Ptolemy avoided. Porphyry's explanation is almost verbatim to a passage ascribed to the 2nd century astrologer Antiochus (see The Thesaurus, Project Hindsight translation, 1993; pp.32-33). Both a commentary and a very close paraphrase of the Tetrabiblos are attributed to Proclus, which forms the origin of the English translations made by Worsdale, Ashmand and Wilson. In writing commentaries on other works, Proclus follows Porphyry so closely as to have evidently had his original comments to hand (see the MacTutor History of Mathematics article: 'Porphyry Malchus', by J. J. O'Connor and E. F. Robertson, 1999, [] (accessed 18 October 2007)).
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  5 ] Greek Horoscopes, p.163.
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  6 ] One of the manuscripts which reproduce this chart incorrectly attributes it to Paulus Alexandrinus. Another has it within the second chapter of a work called Astronomical Investigation of Julianus Laodicaea (assumed 4th century). Reconstruction of the chart clearly demonstrates that it belongs to the date and place given by the manuscript which identifies Eutocius as its author. See Greek Horoscopes pp.188-189.
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  7 ] Late Classical Astrology: Paulus Alexandrinus and Olympiodorus (with the Scholia of later Latin Commentators). Translated by Dorian Gieseler Greenbaum. (Arhat: 2001); p.46. Antiochus also alludes to this sense of redundancy in referring to the 8th (as well as the 2nd, 3rd, 6th and 12th), as a place in which 'no dealings are made'. Thesaurus, I.27 (Project Hindsight, 1993, p.24).
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  8 ] Neugebauer and Van-Hoesen point to their presence in 217, 219 II.1, 219 II.12 and 244, with a crude lunar crescent drawn in the graffiti 219 I. Greek Horoscopes, p.163.
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  9 ] Neugebauer and Van-Hoesen identify the work of its first known appearance as Fracastoro, Homocentrica (Venice, 1558). Greek Horoscopes, p.163.
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Deborah HouldingDeborah Houlding is the web mistress of the Skyscript site. The past editor of The Traditional Astrologer magazine, and author of The Houses: Temples of the Sky, her articles feature regularly in astrological journals. She has a particular interest in researching the origin and development of astrological technique and as a consulting astrologer specialises in horary. She is the principal of the STA school of traditional horary astrology, which offers courses by correspondence and intensive residential seminars.

© Deborah Houlding, October, 2007
With thanks to Mike Edwards and Dorian Greenbaum for their helpful discussions.