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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.
THE PROBLEMS OF HOUSE DIVISION
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
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.
( ) 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. ( ) 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.
Notes & References:
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.
Back to text
Marcus Manilius, Astronomica, English translation by G.P. Goold, Harvard University Press, Loeb Edition, 1977, p.5 (I.5)
Back to text
© Deborah Houlding
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