Skyscript home page

Happiness in the Ancient World
Conventional Happiness & the Natal Figure
Personal Happiness and the "Prime Motivation"
About the Author


Ben Dykes is available for

Natal reports
Solar Returns

Click here for details of these and other traditional astrology services


Happiness in Medieval Astrology by Benjamin Dykes, PhD

"The issue of the right state of mind is one that touches on the issue of counseling, because it demands that advice be given on how to deal with life."

Modern astrology is often vague and confusing when considering how the strengths and weaknesses inherent in the nativity reflect upon emotional states such as personal happiness and the potential for contentment and satisfaction. In this article Benjamin Dykes PhD describes some of the ways by which medieval astrology addresses these issues, and shows how they are actually fundamental to any attempt to gain psychological insight from the birth chart. In demonstrating a technique taught by Robert Zoller, and in grounding the medieval approach through ancient philosophy, Ben reveals that, far from being outmoded and inappropriate, the sophistication, clarity, and applicability of the medieval methods and philosophy stand the test of time, and offer real advantages to modern astrologers working in any kind of advisory capacity to their clients.

Happiness in the Ancient World

Nowadays we speak of "happiness" in two central ways: as an emotion (being in a "happy" mood), and as a broad statement of how well or poorly someone is faring (she is "happy being a lawyer"). Ancient thought emphasized the latter. The ancient consensus was that happiness was objective, based on the different natural needs beings have: it was a matter of realizing potentials and achieving a kind of excellence, and demanded the right state of mind.

Ancient people believed that happiness is objectively definable and judgeable, since different types of beings have different needs. If one's needs and potentials are fulfilled, then one will live well, flourish, and be "happy"; if not, not. This further means that a certain type of life is natural for a given type of being: drawing nourishment from the soil and receiving sunlight is the natural way of life for a plant. If a plant does this, and does it consistently well, then the plant is fulfilling its role as a plant and is "happy." If the plant is somehow impeded in these functions, then the plant's life is unnatural and it is "unhappy." The same goes for humans: as humans, we have certain needs which, if fulfilled, will allow us to live a life natural to us, and we will be happy. Unhappy people are prevented in some way from realizing their proper roles, functions, and skills in life.

Philosophers disagreed on exactly what sorts of potentials needed to be realized. Some (especially Aristotelians) thought that conventional goods like money, status, and so on were key (but not the only) ingredients in a life of happiness: homeless and anonymous people are unlikely to be happy, whereas successful and wealthy people are more likely to be. Others like the Stoics said that one could be happy whether "on the throne or in chains" - we have to make choices about things like money and status, but poverty and riches themselves have no effect on the happiness of the wise person.

This notion of happiness does not exclude personal, subjective feelings. The ancients emphasized that being happy (in this objective sense) is very pleasurable - flourishing feels great! But happiness is not identical to personal feelings. For example, suppose you are a lawyer for indigent clients: it is your calling, you are good at it. But some days you will probably be angry at the injustices of the world and will go home in a bad mood. Still, even though you are angry over some particular issue, you can still affirm that you are living well - you are doing what you are meant to do, it is exciting and you can't imagine doing anything else. You are objectively happy, and feel subjective pleasure about it, even though you have a negative emotion at the moment. So having a feeling of pleasure is not the same as being happy.

In this way, the needs of happiness dovetail with having the right values and state of mind. One's own knowledge about the world, values, emotions, people, and how to deal with them, are where the real work of happiness takes place. It is not enough simply to do the right thing or have the right conventional goods: to be happy we must also have the right attitude towards them. Someone who feels much distress at not having a second dessert cannot be as happy as someone who feels little or none. For the Stoics, negative emotions like anger were pathological signs that your values were mixed up and corrupted - think of someone being devastated by a trivial event.

The issue of the right state of mind is one that touches on the issue of counseling, because it demands that advice be given on how to deal with life. In the introductory philosophy courses I teach in college, I use techniques and advice from Aristotle, the Stoics and others, and help students learn how to improve their lives even if they do not always improve their external circumstances.

Broadly speaking then, these are the issues that were covered in ancient psychology (excluding discussions of perception and language, which were ongoing). An ancient therapist would have asked: What is the client's social status? Does he or she have friends, and of what sort? What sort of balance is there between the client's emotions and appetites, and rational faculties? Does the native have conventional goods like money and health? What values does the client have, and how do his or her beliefs trigger emotional reactions and affect his or her ability to cope with life?

Conventional Happiness and the Natal Figure

So happiness for the ancients required certain types of knowledge about the world, the right values and state of mind, knowledge about ourselves and how we fit into the big picture, along with certain conventional goods and behaviors. This is pretty much the basis of the idea that in order to live better via an astrologer's advice, a client needs to know who and what he is - information gotten through the natal figure. Prediction adds the need for another component: how can the client understand him/herself, and life, so that when predictions come to pass, he or she can accept both good and bad?

Now just as the ancients also emphasized that we have plenty of roles and positions in life, medieval astrology shows there are several levels to a happiness analysis of the natal figure. Here I will list the major traditional ones before moving to a more recent one.

For one thing, we can flourish as human beings in the most general way possible: with a maximum of ease and opportunity, and a minimum of hardship and obstacles. It seems to me that having strong benefics and luminaries, unafflicted and direct, weak malefics, and so on, is a general indicator of this idea. If benefics and the luminaries aren't strong and in/ruling key houses (like the angles), but rather the malefics are, then central areas of life are fraught with struggle and difficulty.

Another role we have is as rational beings. Usually in the ancient tradition (excluding the Stoics) this meant having strong rational faculties (manifesting as honesty, cleverness, and sound judgment) that were in harmony with the emotions. In ancient and medieval astrology, this delineation tends to be taken from Mercury (rational) and the Moon (emotions, irrational). If they are in good condition and in good aspect, the native is cheerful, smart, calm, and honest. The more they are afflicted, in bad aspect or no aspect, the more mentally and emotionally unstable the native is. Reason and the emotions can be in a struggle, or one may overpower the other. Here, authorities differed slightly in their procedures. Ptolemy uses Mercury and the Moon; Abu 'Ali uses Mercury; Schoener Mercury and the Moon and their dispositors; Lilly emphasizes Mercury more than the Moon. But note that this delineation is not really a personality indicator: it is supposed to show the native's mental balance and harmony, not the richness and quality of character. That role was generally reserved for a special planetary significator (see below), although in the authorities listed above the two were considered in tandem.

The Roman Stoics said that we also live as people with a certain social rank and set of responsibilities (our "offices"). For instance, the rank and responsibilities of private citizens differ from those of elected officials; or a philanthropist's from a small business owner's. It seems to me that the traditional delineation of fame or dignity attempts to show this, as it measures the native's social class and influence in society, along with some of the types of actions he or she will be known for. This delineation, which is found in Ptolemy ("Of the Fortune of Dignity," Tet. IV.3) onwards, uses primarily the Sun as a general significator of fame, the 10th house, and the general outlook for life's obstacles through the condition and relation of the luminaries, benefics, and malefics. This was also the area in which signs of personal or family slavery were examined. Extremely weak benefics and luminaries, combined with powerful malefics, indicate struggle, hardship, and obscurity.

These same Roman Stoics added that we have roles as people with our own special talents and skills. This is reflected in the delineation of the Professional Significator, a planet that can list what the native does for a living, but can also show what the native is really good at. For instance, one native I know has Venus as her professional significator. She works for a computer company as her day job, but for years she has had a consuming passion for Middle Eastern and Indian dance, which she pursues as part of a troupe. In Michael Jackson's natal figure, Venus is the professional significator, but the signs of fame and entertainment in his chart make it more likely -as is the case - that he actually sings and dances for a living. This delineation tends to look for Mercury, Venus, and Mars strong in one of the angles, and whichever wins will show by its nature and aspects what the special skill is. See for instance, Ptolemy's "The Quality of Action," Tet. IV.4, or Lilly's professional delineation in his book on nativities in Christian Astrology.

Michael Jackson's nativity

[ As part of a demonstration of technique, the author has given a detailed medieval-style delineation of Michael Jackson's nativity in the forum, which is available as the 3rd post down on this link. This explains why Venus is taken as the significator of Profession. The forum post remains active and discussion regarding the medieval approach to MJ's chart may be continued there. ]

Plato suggested in his dialogue Phaedrus that, prior to earthly incarnation each individual's soul was in the service or following of one of the gods, which he represented as a planet-derived procession of divinities across the heavens. According to his myth, this association with a particular god manifests in life in terms of certain needs and attitudes, but in our earthly ignorance and darkness we are often unaware of these attitudes' source. This idea is reflected in the calculation and delineation of the Almutem Figuris, a powerful planet in the natal figure whose spirit or angel acts as the native's special link to the Divine. The Almutem Figuris is a spiritual astrological delineation, similar to but not the same as Lilly's the "Lord of the Geniture." But like Lilly (and Plato), the Almutem Figuris was taken to affect the native's thoughts, beliefs and character. Spiritual enlightenment can demand that we open our eyes to this particular planet and use it to access the Divine. Significantly, this is a function that many modern astrologers now attribute to the sun sign.

Ancient medicine added a further idea. For centuries after his death, Plato's notion of an immortal, immaterial soul distinct from a material world was a minority view. Most philosophers and doctors were largely materialist, and believed a person's chemical/bodily composition predisposed him or her both to certain diseases, personality traits, and qualities of excitement and outlook. This is pretty much the dominant view in medicine today: if you are healthy, your outlook, energy, and personality all improve. In medieval astrology we see this in two areas.

First, temperament. For the medieval astrologer, the first house is not the "persona" or a face we show to the social world - that is more like the 10th house (reputation, deeds, showing what you are by how you act). The Ascendant and the first house show the body and bodily health - and by extension, certain personality dispositions and skills. Delineating the native's temperament uses the primitive qualities of the rising sign, its ruler or almuten, planets in and aspecting the Ascendant. By adding up whether these qualities are hot, wet, cold, or dry, the astrologer figures out where the temperament of the native is weighted: if cold and dry, the native is melancholic, which adds an energy level that is more subdued, and outlook that is more serious or even gloomy.

Second, astrologers looked for a special planetary significator that conferred certain physical and character traits: if Saturn, the native's body and personality were colored by Saturn's characteristics. Like with the Mercury-Moon differences above, authorities differ as to how to find this significator: Ptolemy and Schoener use the rulers of Mercury and the Moon (along with other considerations), Abu 'Ali the Lord of the Ascendant, Lilly has a ranking system for finding a planet that will signify "manners." But note that Abu 'Ali allows either luminary to be the significator, whereas Ptolemy, Schoener, and Lilly do not. Again, modern astrology has exchanged this planetary significator for the sun sign, giving both the spiritual function of the Almutem Figuris and the earthly personality to the same zodiacal sign.

If we were to paint a picture of the ideal happy person in antiquity, we would be looking at someone who has few obstacles, has a balanced and clever mind with a benevolent emotional life, fulfills his or her proper social functions and responsibilities, successfully attends to his or her special skills, and has good health. Add to this the cultivation of a special link to the Divine through a particular cult. By matching astrological techniques to these levels we get a (a) complex and sophisticated delineation of the character and life of the native, that (b) follows a disciplined procedure and little guesswork, and (c) prepares the astrologer to offer advice in areas that are impeded and might be obstacles to happiness. Just as in real life, the medieval natal figure shows how a single personality can embrace many different needs and characteristics: you could be an obscure and low-income person (low dignity/status), with a high and dynamic energy level (choleric temperament), skilled in laboratory sciences (Mars as profession), but with an imbalance of reason and emotions (afflicted Mercury-Moon), a vague sense of guilt and shame about life (Saturn as Almutem Figuris) and a witty, clever mind that seeks explanations (Mercury as planetary significator). Aside from social standing, these are features of the native's mind and psychology, and all of them factor into whether the native is objectively happy, whether he or she is faring well or poorly. Clearly, medieval astrology was not crude or lacking in subtlety when it came to happiness and psychology!

Personal Happiness and the "Prime Motivation"

A more recent technique dealing with happiness issues, but based on medieval principles, is called "prime motivation." It was taught by Zoltan Mason and is now taught by his student Robert Zoller, who passes it on in his medieval astrology courses. It is a good way to make some accurate statements about the native's pursuit of what I call "personal happiness," and because it uses the rising sign and Ascendant (as to many above) it cuts across some of the traditional areas of delineation.

The phrase "prime motivation" undoubtedly comes from the Aristotelian notion of a celestial "prime mover," (i.e., God) who has first and ultimate responsibility for all change and movement in the universe. So a native's prime motivation is some prime and ultimate need or interest that moves him or her in life on earth. According to the conventional understanding of happiness, everyone needs money, friends, a balanced mind, and so on to be happy. But individuals also have needs and interests that are more or less particular to them: these features help shape our individual personalities and say who and what we are.

Put briefly, the prime motivation is shown by the rising sign. The house location of its domicile ruler (and/or the strongest ruler) is the area of life in which the native seeks to realize it. Planets in the 1st house and aspecting the Ascendant add further information. The nature and condition of the planets and aspects, and the strength and location of the rulers testifies as to whether and how the native can achieve this prime motivation.

For example, let a native have Scorpio rising. What primarily moves the native in life is a Scorpionic need. If the need is fulfilled, the native will be personally happy. So what is the motivation? Scorpio is a watery, feminine sign: the native needs (feminine) emotional (watery) security (feminine). Add in all the other connotations of Scorpio: the native needs emotional security by a kind of acquisition of knowledge and energy (fixed sign, et cetera). What this means is that the native's happiness will be realized if he can feel secure and safe, protected, and so on - if things don't feel safe and secured, he will be anxious and unhappy.

Please note: even though at some level everyone needs to feel "safe", not everyone has it as an overriding need, and not everyone's unhappiness manifests as a feeling of insecurity. If the native has Gemini rising, he is motivated to seek interaction with others, he needs to be free and active and all of the other basic things Gemini indicates. Unhappiness is caused by, and manifests as, being hemmed in, isolated, restricted.

Moreover, people can achieve their prime motivation through different means, which is where the domicile ruler (or the strongest ruler) of the Ascendant comes in. In medieval astrology, the domicile ruler is the primary ruler responsible for realizing the affairs of a house, and the affairs of a house will tend to gravitate towards the house that ruler is in. Let the same native with Scorpio rising have its domicile ruler (Mars) in the 10th house. This would mean that the native seeks to realize his need for emotional security and so on (Ascendant) through reputation, achievement, action (10th), and through Martial action at that: taking others on, doing surprising and bold things. In other words, when the native is active, attending to his reputation and achievements, then he feels like the world is right, he is emotionally secure, he is happy. When he is unknown, not achieving or acting, he will feel rootless, insecure, anxious, and be unhappy. Abu 'Ali says that Mars in the 9th indicates a lover of horses, wars and wine, so if Mars were in the 9th, he might seek his sense of security by joining the army or otherwise pursuing worldly travel and glory. So the nature and location of the ruler says what will realize the native's personal happiness, and the native's interest in happiness will lead him to pursue those very things.

Already this delineation gives us 144 different types of prime motivation (12 signs of motivation and 12 houses of realization). But note that if a ruler is weak or afflicted, it will have trouble performing its job. Let this same native have Mars in the 7th, in Taurus, squared by Saturn in the 10th. The native seeks his happiness through relationships. What kind of relationships? Probably marriage, but generally speaking in relationships that are Martial. Now, Mars is strong by being in the 7th. If he were in a great condition, then we would be looking at exciting, dynamic, confrontational relationships, but ones that would still give him a sense that the world is right despite any anger and volatility. But by being in detriment and afflicted by a square from a strong Saturn, Mars will perform badly and violently. He is unstable. If we were to look at his 7th house to see what kinds of relationships he has, we would say, "The native makes enemies; if he gets married, the marriage will probably be bad."

What this means for the native's happiness is that he will probably keep trying to get into romantic relationships as well as adversarial situations, because his need for security is leading him into interpersonal relations through Mars in the 7th. But he will not succeed. If he came to the medieval astrologer, I imagine he'd say, "I'm unhappy and miserable. My relationships fail, I'm angry at people all the time."

One strength of the medieval methods is that multiple levels of rulership offer multiple avenues for realization: other rulers of the sign can show where the native should put effort. It is true that the native will gravitate towards the house of the domicile ruler (7th). But if that path is afflicted, the astrologer can suggest alternatives. Scorpio has no exalted ruler, but it has three triplicity rulers (using Dorotheus's system), a term ruler, and a decan ruler, of which the triplicity rulers are the more influential. If Venus (a triplicity ruler of Scorpio) is exalted in the 5th house in Pisces, then she is relatively strong (the 5th is a succeedent house) and is well-dignified (exalted in Pisces). She can perform her job as a ruler of the Ascendant. The astrologer can suggest the native cultivate Piscean and Venereal forms of having fun. If she were in the 4th, perhaps home improvement would be something to pursue. The native needs to feel emotionally secure in life in order to be personally happy, no matter if he has money, a balanced mind, and the other conventional forms of happiness. The prime motivation or personal happiness technique is therefore a quick and easy way to personalize and individualize happiness needs.

Medieval astrology is sometimes accused of being indifferent to happiness and psychology. This array of techniques shows that happiness and psychology not only matter in medieval astrology, but that it (a) has a multi-faceted analysis of them, that (b) speaks to the individuality of the client, and (c) has a built-in advice-giving function in the form of multiple rulers. The medieval astrologer is able to suggest alternative, productive courses of action and experience (represented by multiple rulers) that could help the client thrive objectively and so be happy. This includes spiritual matters, which I have only been able to mention briefly. The real difference between medieval/traditional and modern astrology on the issue of happiness lies in the fact that medieval astrology combines these delineation techniques with an emphasis on prediction and some form of fate. Such emphases demand different approaches in counseling. Ancient Hellenistic philosophies especially have well-formed and interesting views on these matters, which will be explored in a subsequent article at another time.

Ben DykesBen Dykes received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he concentrated on contemporary European philosophy (especially Hegel), and ancient ethical philosophy. He frequently incorporates ancient therapeutic techniques into his college courses, teaching students how to improve their lives by using principles of philosophical counseling. In the near future, his course materials will be available for purchase and he will take on clients for individual consultations.

Ben Dykes, who lives in Minnesota, USA, has over 10 years' experience in the Golden Dawn system of the Western Mystery Tradition, in addition to experience with Thelema and Wicca. After many years studying modern astrology, he began studying medieval astrology under Robert Zoller and is now an advocate of medieval delineation and predictive techniques. For more details of Benjamin's work and consultation services visit his website at at

© Benjamin Dykes, PhD; October, 2004.

Natal Studies

For more information on Ben Dyke's work visit his website: