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Return of light
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Part I of this feature

A review of the astrological tradition concerning the perfection of significators and its denial (part I) by Graeme Tobyn


Contrariety is a specific type of interposition characterized by the contrary or retrograde motion of the interposing planet. Abu Mash'ar describes two types of interposition by a retrograde planet under different headings. These are 'resistance' and 'cutting the light'. 'Resistance' is strictly defined by the required lightness or heaviness of each planet taking part in the interposition. The lightest planet of the three must be applying to the heaviest, while the third planet is heavier than the lightest and lighter than the heaviest. Furthermore, it must be direct in the horary, but practically at its first station and therefore very slow in motion, so that when it turns retrograde, it first applies to the heaviest planet, the receiving significator, and then to the lightest planet, the applying significator, before the perfection of significators can be completed, as in the following example:

Mars 10 Scorpio Saturn 16 Scorpio Jupiter 17 Leo (Rx)

Mars and Saturn are significators applying by conjunction. Jupiter, a planet lighter than Saturn but heavier than Mars, is approaching its station on the point of turning retrograde. When it does so, it squares Saturn and then Mars before Mars can conjoin with Saturn.

Abu Mash'ar's emphasis is on the first aspect of the applying significator, in this example Mars, to the interposing retrograde planet, here Jupiter, even though this necessarily follows in time the application of Jupiter to the receiving significator Saturn, since both are required in the definition of resistance. This is also shown in Example 13 in the table in part 1.

What if the interposing retrograde significator aspects only one of the significators? Here are two permutations on our example::

Mars 10 Capricorn Saturn 16 Scorpio Jupiter 17 Leo (Rx)

Mars and Saturn are significators applying by conjunction. Jupiter turns retrograde and squares Saturn before Mars sextiles him.

This seems to be the same as Examples 11 and 15 from the table in part 1 and is in fact Abu Mash'ar's example of 'cutting the light' involving a retrograde planet (abscission) except that the interposing planet has not retrograded back from the next sign.

Mars 10 Scorpio Saturn 16 Capricorn Jupiter 17 Leo (Rx)

Mars and Saturn are significators applying by conjunction. Jupiter turns retrograde and squares Mars before Mars sextiles Saturn.

This seems to be the same as Examples 14 and 17 from the table in part 1 and may be considered an example of Abu Mash'ar's abscission, where, in fact, there is no perfection because the first application of the applying significator is to a planet other than the receiving significator, even though the two significators were in applying aspect.

Neither of these permutations thus constitute a 'resistance' (that is, contrariety), which is similar to Abu Mash'ar's abscission, except that the interposing planet is retrograde. The emphasis Abu Mash'ar puts on the fact that the applying significator first aspects the interposing retrograde planet may suggest that he envisages an interpretation along the lines of the querent changing his mind by his own will, in this case when he is faced by some reversal of fortune or resistance to his desire before the matter is completed. Bonatti states that this type of interposition is called contrariety because the interposing planet, lighter and swifter than the receiving significator, should have continued on his way but instead did the contrary and retrograded back to it: "wherefore, if a question is made about some matter where it is signified as being bound to happen and to be perfected [because the significators are directly applying]…the matter is destroyed because of the retrogradation…"

It is worth reflecting for a moment on the astronomical requirements for the interplay of planetary aspects to constitute 'resistance'. Since the interposing planet must turn retrograde, it cannot be the Sun or Moon. Secondly, there must be a planet lighter than it, and a planet heavier than it, so Mercury and Saturn are ruled out (the astronomical possibility of the Moon as the applying significator failing to reach the receiving significator before a slow-moving, retrograde Mercury must be so small as to be never seen in a lifetime of practice; the same astronomical improbability occurs where Saturn plays the interposing planet in a horary question requiring the quesited is to be signified by a Trans-Saturnian planet).

This leaves Venus, Mars and Jupiter as the only planets able to be the retrograde interpositor in a case of resistance. For this reason, Example 12 in the table in part 1 is classed as an abscission, although it would seem to have a strong claim to be a contrariety. For Mercury is a swift planet variable in its retrograde periods, unlike the superior planets, whose contrary motion in this example would otherwise fit the idea of contrariety, as opposed to a superior planet in retrograde motion to which both significators apply.

Thirdly, if the interposing planet must be direct in the horary but at its station about to go retrograde, this supposes also a very specific position for the Sun in relation to the 'resistance' configuration of significators. Where Mars or Jupiter play the interposing planet, the Sun must be positioned approximately 4 signs further on in the order of zodiac signs, and Jupiter (in the case of Mars) or Saturn (in either case) must be positioned in relation to the Sun that they are not retrograde. It must turn out that, in some years, there can be no astronomical possibility of 'resistance' involving these planets. The same would be true even if we were to allow a definition of 'resistance' where the interposing planet is already retrograde in the horary chart.

All of the above makes Venus the most likely retrograde interposing planet in a denial of perfection by 'resistance'. This is indeed the planet Dariot uses to illustrate contrariety, with Venus retrograde coming between the application of significators Mercury and Sun, applying to each in turn before Mercury joins Sun. Schoener's example has retrograde Mars interposing between Jupiter and Saturn, while Bonatti's has retrograde Jupiter coming between Mars and Saturn. All these authors are in agreement on the definition of contrariety given above, (even if, as I pointed out in part 1 of this essay, Bonatti, Dariot and Schoener fail to distinguish it clearly from contrariety, as Abu Mash'ar does by insisting that a retrograde planet abscinds by retrograding onto the receiving significator only (abscission (a)). Al-Biruni gives the same definition.

When we turn to Lilly, however, we find no mention of contrariety. But by piecing together Lilly's comments on retrograde motion as it affects two planets perfecting their aspect, we can form the following teaching:
  1. Applying planet turning retrograde: this is refranation

  2. Receiving planet retrograde:
    "When a planet is direct and in fewer degrees, and a retrograde planet being in more degrees of the sign…this is an ill application and in the air shows great change; in a question sudden alteration"

  3. Two planets retrograde:
    "When both planets are retrograde…this is an ill application, and an argument either suddenly perfecting, or breaking off the business, according as the two planets have signification"

To illustrate this last point, let us consider the following example:

Venus 10 Taurus Saturn 16 Capricorn Rx Mars 17 Capricorn Rx

Retrograde Mars conjoins with Retrograde Saturn then trines Venus. Finally Venus trines Saturn.

Lilly's judgment would depend on the signification of the two planets coming together first by retrograde motion. If Saturn was a significator along with Venus, then Mars interposes by a contrariety and the business is broken off and the outcome hoped for is denied. If Venus and Mars are significators, Saturn abscinds the light of the mutually applying significators. (The same would apply if Saturn were closer to Venus and Venus trined Saturn before trining Mars).

However, if Saturn and Mars are significators, then a 'sudden' perfection of the matter by significators in retrograde motion is a possibility, although "this is an ill application" and the outcome is bound to be much less favourable. Al-biruni also discusses this possibility, calling it muradafah or 'follower' because one planet follows behind the other in retrograde motion, as Mars behind Saturn in our example. Al-Biruni continues "here there is no 'return' on account of the similarity termination of business which was threatened with ruin. However, this conjunction, although there is no refusal, is not equal to one in the direct course but is far inferior in significance".

Al-Biruni's 'return' is also not found in Lilly. It is the last of the 6 denials of perfection, to which we must now turn.

Return of light

When a planet applies to another planet, the applying one sends out its light to be received by the other. This application, if unimpeded, is perfected when the planets come into exact aspect. The perfection of significators can be impeded or denied, as we have seen, by their own movement (refranation and evasion) or by the interposition of a third planet (prohibition, abscission and contrariety).

'Return of light' belongs with refranation and evasion, because it depends on the condition of one of the significators and does not involve a third planet. According to Al-Biruni and Abu Mash'ar, return of light occurs when one of the significators is either retrograde or combust. Let us consider some examples:

Mars 10 Gemini Jupiter 12 Leo Sun 19 Leo

Mars and Jupiter are significators. Mars applies to Jupiter and sends out its light to him. However, Jupiter is weakened by combustion and returns the light of Mars to Mars.

Mars 10 Gemini Jupiter 12 Aries Rx Sun 19 Leo

Mars and Jupiter are significators. Mars applies to Jupiter and sends out its light to him. However, Jupiter is weakened by retrogradation and returns the light of Mars to Mars.

In both these examples, the condition of the receiving significator denies perfection of the significators and the light of Mars is returned to Mars. But it does not end here. The return may have better or worse results: better if there is reception between the significators and they are in angular or succeedent houses; worse if it is the applying significator which is combust or retrograde, and one or both planets are in cadent houses.

What does this mean? Even though the perfection of significators is denied, and therefore the matter asked about is symbolized as not turning out the way the querent desires, our authors say the end of the matter can be 'with amelioration' (Abu Mash'ar), 'satisfactory' (Al-Biruni) and 'good and useful and with benefit' (Bonatti). Bonatti writes

For example, Jupiter is in Aries, let us say in the 10th degree, but he is retrograde or combust and in an angle. Let us say that the 5th degree of that same sign of Aries ascends and Mars is in the 4th degree of Capricorn in the angle of the 10th house, or is in the 4th degree of Aquarius in a succeedent house. Mars is joined to Jupiter by aspect and receives him by sign and entrusts to him his disposition and virtue, but Jupiter, because he is retrograde, cannot retain that virtue. Whence he returns it to him. And such a return is good and useful with profit since Mars is in an angle or succeedent house such that he can retain that virtue returned to him by Jupiter and afterwards the entire virtue of Mars remains in such a way that the matter in question will be advanced from its virtue and power.

Let us try to conceive of a real question where this scenario may be usefully enacted. A client consults an astrologer about investing in property. He is a speculator (Mars in 4º Capricorn) and has the opportunity to put his money into the conversion of a church (Jupiter in 10º Aries Rx) into flats, which he is very keen to do because the developer has assured him that the return on his investment will be large and quickly realized. To this end he has given a retainer of 10,000k to the developer. The client also mentions another investment possibility (Saturn 12º Capricorn) which he is less keen on because the profits will take some time to be realised. The deadline for investment of the balance of the 100,000k investment in the church conversion is the next day. The reason why he has not yet sunk his money into the conversion, he tells you, is that he has not seen the details of the planning permission. Indeed, the developer seems to have been dragging his feet over presenting this paperwork. The astrologer judges that there is something unsound about the whole project (Jupiter Rx) and he should insist on seeing all the relevant paperwork before committing a penny. If there is a problem with this, he should claim back his retainer, which the contract allows, keep his money and move on.

Sure enough, planning permission has not been granted and there are major problems with the development. Consequently, the developer returns the retainer to the client and he moves on to consider the other investment possibility (the next application of Mars, to a conjunction of Saturn in an angle with reception, both planets direct in motion) which sounds a much better bet.

I have inserted Saturn into Bonatti's astrological example to represent what happens after the return of light to Mars, since a return of light that is 'good and useful and with benefit' suggests that the querent can extricate themselves with dignity or 'in one piece' from the matter inquired about, concerning which they desired to be involved, and move on to another matter, represented by the next application of the querent's significator in the horoscope.

A return of light can also have a worse outcome - 'with corruption' (Abu Mash'ar), 'destructive' (Al-Biruni), 'useless, evil and with detriment' (Bonatti). How is this represented in the horary? Abu Mash'ar and Al-Biruni specify that it is the applying significator which is combust or retrograde and cadent, while the receiving significator is angular or succeedent, something like this:

Mars 4 Capricorn Jupiter 10 Pisces Sun 12 Capricorn
(Ascendant 25 Aries, equal house, Mars cadent, Jupiter in succeedent house)

Mars and Jupiter are significators. Mars applies to Jupiter and sends him his light. But this is damaged by Mars' combustion, so Jupiter returns the light to Mars with loss because Mars is cadent.

Mars 4 Capricorn Rx Jupiter 3 Taurus Sun 4 Cancer

Mars and Jupiter are significators. Cadent Mars applies swiftly in the middle of its retrograde movement to Jupiter and sends him his light. But this is damaged by Mars' retrogradation, so Jupiter returns the light to Mars with loss because Mars is cadent.

These authors write about the applying significator as if it were always ascendant ruler and significator for the querent, while the receiving significator is ruler of the quesited. Thus they consider that a combust or retrograde ruler of the ascendant will be subject to a return of light with a bad outcome. In this case the client is the suspect factor, the matter enquired about is sound. [Bonatti only discusses the retrograde or combust state of the receiving significator whilst the cadent placing of the applying significator will ensure return of light with loss].

Returning to our scenario, we can imagine the investor committing 100,000k to the church conversion but only paying up 40,000k by the deadline. His bank refused to lend him any more. The developer cuts him out of the deal and returns him his money, less a 5000k non-returnable fee for wasting his time, as specified in the contract. The client has been foolish not to get assurances that he can borrow the whole sum required, as shown by his significator retrograde or combust. The developer of the church project, the quesited, is not interested in an uncertain investor who can only produce a part of the sum required.

Al-Biruni uses a special term to describe a combust or retrograde significator, whether for the querent or quesited. He calls the planet 'suspect' - if the significator shows any promise, it is unable to deliver it - and extends the term to include other conditions: a planet in detriment or fall, cadent, inconjunct the ascendant, afflicted by malefics or generally in receipt of inimical aspects. Al-Biruni here seems to be considering the quality of perfection discussed in part 1.

The condition of significators can be so dire that they go beyond 'suspect' to completely inoperative. Abu Mash'ar states that if both significators are combust or cadent (but not retrograde - this is Al-Biruni's muradafah or 'follower' and "here there is no 'return'"), "the request has no beginning or end", that is, there is no horary to consider, since the significations are so bad, no good fortune can come from the judgment. Al-Biruni suggests that if both significators are in a weak condition, then "from the beginning to the end there is nothing but destruction and ruin". These amount to a stricture against judgment such as Lilly listed under the considerations of "the Arabians, as Alkindus, and others":

If the lord of the ascendant be combust, neither question propounded will take nor the querent be regulated.

Bonatti makes it plain that simply having significators applying out of cadent houses, neither one being combust or retrograde, is sufficient for a return of light with loss and a denial of perfection. To illustrate the case, he writes:

Take the example of a certain man who had a load on his shoulder which he could not carry. He gave it to another and that person gave it back to the man lacking the strength to carry it. The return of the load was not useful but harmful to him. And thus, if a question was put about any thing, the matter is destroyed and annulled…the debility of both planets causes this.

Schoener is extremely brief on the matter of return of light and only describes the receiving significator as combust or retrograde. Dariot also considers the combustion or retrogradation of the receiving significator only, and seems a little confused on matters of reception, degrees of profitability in the return of light and the linking of return of light with collection of light in the same short section.

Some conclusions concerning the six denials of perfection

We can now categorise translation and collection of light together with the six denials of perfection in the following way:

  1. those concerned with the first application to the receiving significator: translation, prohibition and evasion

  2. those concerned with the first application of either or both significators: collection and abscission

  3. those concerned with the first application of the applying significator : refranation, contrariety and return of light.

Beginning with the modes of complex perfection, translation and collection of light, these would seem to be straightforward, and Bonatti and Lilly have shown us that a translation of light between applying significators can strengthen the perfection. Why should this not be the case for a collection of light of applying significators? But if that is the case, how do you differentiate abscission from collection of light? Or prohibition from translation of light? There is nothing in the horoscopic form of the interposition to distinguish the complex perfection from its denial. The point must be to judge whether the interposing planet, technically through its condition, aspect and reception with significators and symbolically through its rulership, signification and intention, will help or hinder the perfection. This is the position taken by the Company of Astrologers.

In this first conclusion, we have covered the forms of categories 1 & 2 except for evasion. It is interesting to remember that Lilly did not distinguish evasion from abscission. Furthermore, one of Abu Mash'ar's forms of abscission (abscission (a)) involved a planet retrograding back from the next sign to interfere with perfection. This crossing from sign to sign was contemplated much more freely in the tradition than astrologers do today. They see the end of the sign as the end of the possibility for a planet and its aspects, so that a planet changing sign is thought to evade all applications being made to it in the preceding sign. On the other hand our authors were compelled to specify the application of the planet changing sign to a third planet, thus equating evasion with abscission. The difference lies in the movement. In evasion the receiving significator moves into another sign and the light of the applying significator is abscinded by a third planet aspected there. In abscission (a), the third planet retrogrades back into a sign to abscind the light. If astrologers were more open to allowing planets in their horaries to change sign, there would be no need for a separate category of evasion. An understanding of the weak condition of such a 'void of course' significator and its interpretation as evasive, frustrating or unexpected (from Bonatti's example of evasion and Abu Mash'ar's comments concerning abscission (a)) could prove useful in practice.

Abu Mash'ar's abscission (b) is distinguished from abscission (a) by virtue of the fact that the interposing planet is a direct and weighty planet which is aspected in turn by receiving and applying significators. Leaving aside the issue that it could be a collection of light, abscission (b) features an interposing planet contacting first the significator for the quesited and then the significator for the querent, before these two perfect their aspect. In this case, unlike that of abscission (a), the interposing planet has dealings with the querent's significator so that the querent changes his mind about the matter by his own free will. Someone or something has persuaded him at the last moment not to pursue it.

What then to make of contrariety, about which Lilly says nothing? As in abscission (a) the interposing planet is retrograde, but is not coming back from the next sign so does not represent something unexpected, but merely contrary. It aspects both significators, so should end up persuading the querent of his own free will not to pursue the matter. As in the case of evasion, we could easily abandon this category of denial of perfection, as Lilly does, retaining the idea that the first application of the applying significator to a retrograde planet denotes strong resistance to the querent's intention so that he will give up on the thing desired of his own free will.

Return of light denotes the case where this retrograde planet which the applying significator first contacts is in fact the receiving significator. It may also or instead be combust or otherwise impedited. The significator in such a condition is suspect and thought not to be able to deliver. The applying significator, if sufficiently strong, can receive back its light and proceed on to perfect another aspect. The judgment of the final outcome for the question then becomes the same as if the applying significator never applied to the receiving significator in the first place. This is the scenario for Abu Mash'ar's abscission (c) and for refranation. The querent either finds the goods damaged, or turns back before he gets there, or was never going that way in the first place. Where the querent is heading, or where he should go instead is within the remit of the astrologer to pronounce on.

For Lilly, though, a combust planet is to be interpreted rather than evaluated for strength or weakness, showing him or her in great fear, and overpowered by some great person. A retrograde planet suggests sudden alteration or change in the matter. Return of light has melted into a general assessment of the condition of the significators which employs both evaluation of strength and weakness and symbolic interpretation.


  Al-Biruni (1934) The Book of Instruction in the Elements of the Art of Astrology, trans. R. Ramsay Wright. London. p303-314
Albumasar [Abu Mash'ar] (1997) The Abbreviation of the Introduction to Astrology, ed. & trans. Charles Burnett, with historical and technical annotations by C. Burnett, G. Tobyn, G. Cornelius and V.Wells. p22-30
Alcabitius [al-Qabisi] (1521) Alcabitii ad magisterium iudiciorum astrorum isagoge. Paris.
Bonatus [Guido Bonatti] (1550) Liber Astronomiae. Basle. p138-148 & 215-222
Dariot C. (1558) L'Introduction au Jugement des Astres. Lyon. p47-53
Lilly W. (1985) Christian Astrology. London: Regulus. p105-114 & 123-128
Messahalla [Masha'allah] (1549) De Receptione. Nuremburg. Ch.1
Schoener (1994) Opusculum Astrologicum trans. R. Hand. Berkeley Springs: The Golden Hind Press. p45-47.

Graeme TobynGraeme Tobyn is an expert in medieval astrology and decumbiture. A practising, qualified Herbalist, he is a member of the Company of Astrologers, and the National Institute of Medical Herbalists. Graeme frequently lectures at home and abroad on astrology's application to medicine; his book, Culpeper's Medicine: A Practice of Western Holistic Medicine, (Element 1997) is an incomparable guide to the theory and practice of Holistic Medicine. A contributor to ARHAT's translation project, his research interests lie in the history of medicine and herbal medicine and the re-evaluation of traditional, holistic approaches to therapeutics, particularly humoral medicine.
Graeme is a senior lecturer on Herbal Medicine for the Department of Primary and Community Nursing at the University of Central Lancashire, which offers degree courses in Herbal Medicine and Complementary Medical Science.

© Graeme Tobyn, April 2007.

By Graeme Tobyn:

Culpeper's Medicine by Graeme Tobyn

University of Lancashire degree course in Herbal Medicine