Reading Hellenistic Astrology by Chris Brennan
Reading Hellenistic Astrology: The Study of Fate and Fortune by Chris Brennan was initially a mountain I was reluctant to climb. Long an admirer of Chris Brennan and his “The Astrology Podcast,” which regularly brings the best of astrology thinkers and writers to all of us, for free, I was fortunate enough to hear his lecture on house divisions at UAC 2018. I knew he had published his magnum opus on Hellenistic astrology earlier in the year, but the general doorstop aspect of the book as well as the breadth of a subject I viewed as kind of eating my vegetables deterred me from wanting to go there. As I watched him at the conference, though, so serious, so passionately dedicated to bringing the wealth of ancient astrological knowledge to light, and so committed to helping other astrologers, I determined that if he could exhaustively labor for ten years to produce this work, I could at least labor for some of my hours to read it. I purchased the book at the conference, obtained a very sweet “May the stars be ever in your favor” inscription from the author himself, and only slightly groaned about the prospect of reading it to a fellow conference goer. “But you have a long flight home,” she gently reminded me. Yes, I inwardly rebelled, but that People magazine special issue on the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle is not going to read itself.
As fate would have it, however, I forgot to stop at the airport bookstore before my flight. Lodged in a middle seat between a determined manspreader and a lovely young lady of Jupiterian proportions, there was only “Hellenistic Astrology” to take my mind off my misery. I gingerly treaded through the introduction. OK, it was clear, well written, and, in a cerebral kind of way, stimulating. If this was eating my vegetables, they were the freshest, firmest, best picked vegetables, and they were prepared by a master chef. By the time we landed in Seattle, I was five chapters in and riveted. Why had I been so fascinated by astrology for all these years without ever wondering about its origins? Over 2,000 years ago, human beings with no technology to observe the skies other than their own eyes and with only scraps of papyrus to record their observations created an elegant system for understanding the movements of the planets and Sun and Moon as signs foretelling events occurring on earth. And this system would travel, evolve with those who practiced it, slip away under cover to other civilizations when those who practiced it were persecuted, and lie sleeping in forgotten corners of libraries, finally to be awakened by intrepid scholars and translators centuries later. The odds against the survival of astrology were staggering, yet it prevailed. “Hellenistic Astrology” is a survivalist tale, teaching all of us who practice astrology that we stand on the shoulders of brilliant, wise and generous giants.
Hellenistic astrology, covering the period from the first century BCE through the sixth or seventh centuries CE, drawing from ancient Mesopotamians and Egyptian learning, expanding with the Roman Empire and declining with its collapse as learning and literacy fell, is the origin of the astrology we practice today, Chris Brennan writes, in that it “incorporates planets, signs of the zodiac, the twelve houses and aspects.” While connecting to the origins of our tradition is meaningful, Brennan offers an even greater benefit to this study. “A recurring theme among astrologers who have taken part in the revival of Hellenistic astrology over the past two decades,” he tells us, “is the realization that some things were lost in the transmission that we didn’t even know were missing, and in some instances these are techniques that can do things that we didn’t even think were possible.” He has written this book to celebrate the past but also to bring forward lost knowledge, certain amazingly accurate techniques that did not make the leap into our modern astrology, techniques which when added to an astrologer’s toolkit will vastly expand our ability to serve those who look to astrologers for answers and meaning.
The most brilliantly simple technique used by the Hellenistic astrologers was to consider the sky at the time of the native’s birth. Was it day, or was it night? Those born after sunrise and before sunset, with the Sun above the Ascendant/Descendant axis, have day charts, with the Sun being the dominant “sect light.” Those born after sunset and before sunrise, with the Sun below the Ascendant/Descendant axis, have night charts, with the Moon is the dominant sect light. Our hypothetical client, for example, an aspiring young actress named Helen, was born with the Sun in Leo and the Moon in Cancer. Both planets are strong, in their own domicile, but they give Helen two very different energies, to both shine as an individual and to nurture and support others. If the Sun was above the horizon when she was born, she has a day chart, so the Sun, her sect light, gives her the power to create and express and command attention. If she has a night chart, and the Moon is her sect light, shining in the night sky, she may primarily support and nurture her children or clients or the public, enabling them to shine. Her Leo Sun will be challenged, then, to find its own recognition.
With their techniques, Hellenistic astrologers were like doctors, examining each planet in the native’s chart to determine its health and vitality or diagnose its weakness and debility. From the sect of the Sun and Moon, they would proceed to study the benefics in the chart, Venus and Jupiter, which would help the native, and the malefics, Mars and Saturn, which could undermine or challenge the native. Those with day charts experience Jupiter as the greater benefic, and Mars as the greater malefic. Night chart natives find Venus to be the greater benefic and Saturn to be the greater malefic. Looking at Helen’s day chart, we see Jupiter is the greater benefic, so travel, study, foreigners or other Jupiter indications could help her on her Leo path, and Saturn is the lesser malefic, so whatever frustrations or delays she may experience will be eventually overcome. Mars, however, is the greater malefic in her day chart, so she could be undermined by anger or aggression. In Helen’s night chart, Venus is the greater benefic, so her beauty, her ability to relate to others, or her artistic talent will be her friend. Saturn, however, is the greater malefic, so obstacles could be placed in her path which are very difficult to overcome. True to its adaptable nature, Mercury will tend to take on either a positive or negative role dependent upon its relation to the other planets.
We are thus given by the Hellenistic astrologers a quick and incisive method for diving into a chart, noting first the sect light and how Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn function in the native’s life. This diagnostic process then follows the planets’ situations in signs, whether they are in their own domicile, exalted, in fall, or in debility, whether they can “see” each other, which is how aspects were interpreted, and where in the “places,” the Hellenistic term for houses, the planets fall in the chart, whether they are strong in the “angle” first, fourth, seventh and tenth places, middling in the “succeedent” second, fifth, eighth or eleventh places, or weakened by being in the “declining” third, sixth, ninth or twelfth places. Hellenistic astrologers delved even deeper in their analysis, breaking signs into sections ruled by various planets through several different systems, evaluating the nature of each of the “places” by assessing the strength of its ruler, and determining whether planets were “bonified” by the benefics or “maltreated” by the malefics. Chris Brennan lays out the reasoning behind each of the techniques and explains with clear, sample charts how to apply the technique. “The general principle here is that when the planets are well-situated in a chart,” he states, “their positive significations tend to manifest more readily. The benefics become even more benefic, while the malefics tend to have their more constructive significations accentuated and their negative ones diminished. However, if the planets are poorly-situated, then even the benefics can signify impediments or reversals, while the malefics can have their negative significations exacerbated and may become more harmful.”
Chris Brennan describes how astrologers would simply list the position of the planets on a piece of papyrus and then use an “astrological consultation board” to display the horoscope to the client. These boards were like circular chess boards, decorated with the signs of the zodiac and divided into twelve parts. Stones were placed on the board to indicate where the planets fell in the chart, with a piece of gold indicating the Sun. I was quite crestfallen to do a search on Amazon and find that no enterprising astrological entrepreneur has reconstructed this delightful product for today’s astrologer. I am sending out my fervent intention to the Universe right now that a craftily skilled Pluto in Virgo will take on this project and I will be able to purchase an astrological consultation board at the next UAC Marketplace.
Of all the techniques described in “Hellenistic Astrology,” I leapt to my files most quickly to apply the concepts of “the hour-marker,” “annual profections,” and “zodiacal releasing.” Each technique rang as clear as a bell when I applied them to a chart. The “hour-marker” is the planet which rules the first house, described by Brennan as “one of the most important planets in the chart for describing the focus, topics, and dominant themes of the native’s life.” Returning to Helen, we see that she was born as Scorpio was rising over the eastern horizon and the Sun was in Leo in the 10th house. Mars, the hour-marker, is in Capricorn in the third house. Mars is exalted in Capricorn, so “an exalted guest” in the third house, but its house is in “decline.” Because she has a day chart, Mars is also her greater malefic, and will cause her difficulties. The ruler of her Capricorn Mars is Saturn, which is exalted in Libra but in her 12th house of hidden enemies and self-undoing. This placement of her hour-marker could manifest as an older brother who is a star athlete, Capricorn Mars, but he absorbs much of the love and admiration in her family. He also tends to put her down and makes her feel she is ugly and unworthy of attention, manifesting the ruler of her hour-marker being in her 12th house. The resentment and anger she feels towards her brother sets up a pattern of aggressive response which continually trips her up, especially as she enters the competitive world of the theater and faces many rejections. Learning to recognize and channel this anger productively so that she can move forward in her career and in relationships thus becomes a dominant challenge in her life.
The technique of annual profections indicates when the planets in a chart will be most activated. In the first year of life, the first house is activated, so the ruler of that house as well as any planets in the house are most prominent throughout the year. Also important are transits made by the ruler and to the ruler of the house. When the native turns one, the second house is activated and so on. At the age of twelve, the cycle of profections begins again at the first house, and will continue every twelve years throughout the native’s life. Helen’s Sun in the 10th house, for example, may shine as a rather dim light in her early years as her older brother commands all the attention. When she turns nine, however, she is in a 10th house profection year, activating her Leo Sun, strong in its own domicile. Her teacher, who also directs plays at the local community college, recognizes her talent and chooses her to play Dorothy in their production of “The Wizard of Oz.” All her family comes to see her, and she loves that for the first time she is the center of attention. Because the 10th house rules career, this experience gives her the first inkling that the theater may be her path. Helen turns 21, again in a 10th house profection year, activating her Leo Sun. She is in college, acting in school plays but, encouraged by her parents, dutifully training to be a teacher. Her college roommate inspires Helen to go with her to New York to pursue a career in the theater, and Helen, seizing the moment, follows her dream. She struggles in odd jobs and takes small parts for a number of years until she reaches another 10th house profection year at the age of 33. She is in a road company traveling overseas and bonds with the lead actress in the play. When the play returns to New York, Helen is chosen by the leading actress to be her understudy. The leading actress leaves the play unexpectedly, Helen steps into the part she was born to play, and is an “overnight success,” which brings her the recognition she needs to continue as a professional actress. Her career successes come at these points not just because she is in a career house profection year, but because the ruler of that house is in the 10th house and in the sign it rules. When she turns 33, she is particularly fortunate because Jupiter is in Aries, making a trine to her Sun, and a Sun Venus conjunction occurs in sextile to her Sun shortly before she was chosen for the star making role. Thus the transits of and the transits to the ruler of her profected house play a vital role in manifesting events.
While these effective techniques are simple to apply when analyzing charts, zodiacal releasing requires more calculation. Annual profections view charts in chapters of years, but zodiacal releasing lays out the native’s life in chapters lasting for years, and then divides those chapters into subchapters, identifying which chapters are most active, productive, or challenging. Chris Brennan describes zodiacal releasing as “one of the most impressive and powerful time-lord techniques that has been recovered from the Hellenistic tradition so far.” It is difficult to describe in a paragraph how this calculation is made, but when you read the book (as I hope you will be inspired to do!), you will find learning this technique is made very assessable, especially through the sample charts provided. Basically, though, after the Part of Fortune and Part of Spirit are calculated for the chart, we can see how the chapters unfold. In Helen’s case, her Part of Fortune is in Libra, and her Part of Spirit is in Sagittarius. Any chapter which falls in Libra, Cancer, Capricorn, or Aries are active “peak” times because her Part of Fortune is in a cardinal sign. The mutable signs will signal preludes to more active periods, and the fixed signs will be times when she is wrapping up or winding down activities. Because her Jupiter is in Gemini and her Venus is in Virgo, she will also experience the mutable chapters and subchapters as the most pleasant or easiest times. She begins her first chapter with her Part of Spirit in Sagittarius, which, ruled by Jupiter, lasts 12 years. When she is around 12, she begins a Capricorn chapter, ruled by Saturn, which will last for 27 years. These will be her most active years, being not only in a cardinal sign but in the sign occupied by her challenging Mars and square to her Saturn. She begins junior high at 12, a bigger school, more competitive for grades, and she now has to try out rather than be chosen by the teacher to be in school plays. She struggles, as we have seen, to manage her anger, follow her career path, and achieve success. When Helen is approximately 39, this Capricorn chapter ends and she begins an Aquarian chapter, which, ruled by Saturn, will last for 30 years. A successful actress, she no longer has to strive as hard to find work and is able to enjoy her career, but she never again hits quite the highs she achieved during her Capricorn struggles. Around the age of 69, she enters the Jupiterian Pisces chapter, has done all she has wanted to do in her stage career, retires from acting and begins to paint and flourish as an artist as her Gemini Jupiter and Virgo Venus are again activated.
Even though zodiacal releasing can seem complicated, once you learn this fascinating technique, a website has been set up which will run the calculations for you and lay out the zodiacal releasing periods in years, months and even weeks and days. It was set up by Chris Brennan and two other astrologers and can be accessed at http://nataltransits.com/timelord.html.
There is still the elephant in the room, however, who ambles in during any discussion of Hellenistic or traditional astrology, named House Division. However can one toss out a quadrant based house division used for decades in favor of using whole sign houses? From Chris Brennan’s lengthy and balanced discussion, we learn that almost all surviving horoscopes from Hellenistic astrologers used the whole sign system of house division, while “quadrant and equal house systems were typically used as a secondary overlay, oftentimes only within the context of specific techniques.” The houses is the chart were, quite simply, the signs, with the sign rising over the eastern horizon at the native’s birth being the first whole sign house, setting in place a pattern of rulerships and planets which could “see” or “witness” each other, or not, depending on the angle of their house placement. The Ascendant/Descendant and Midheaven/IC degrees were sometimes interjected as points in the chart, much like the nodes, around which planets become “busy” or activated.
Suppose Saturn ingresses into Scorpio, her first house, as Helen becomes a Broadway star. She immediately begins to feel the strain on her body of eight performances a week even though her Ascendant is 15 degrees away. She struggles to keep her energy up while following her usual habit of neglecting diet and exercise and going out to party after shows. When Saturn reaches her Ascendant, it becomes “busy.” Helen falls ill and misses performances. Determined not to lose her career, she begins a fitness and diet regime to rebuild her body, Scorpio style, and foregoes a social life. As Saturn continues its transit through Scorpio, she powers through her performances with a new discipline and energy.
The Midheaven/IC points in the chart require more integration because they can fall in the 9th/3rd or 11th/5th houses. The matters of these house will then be incorporated into the native’s 10th and 4th houses. We see in Helen’s chart how a Midheaven in Cancer in her ninth house, conjoined with her Moon, could manifest. The teacher directing a community college play, a college roommate, and a helpful actress met while traveling overseas are all 9th house significations which impacted Helen’s career.
The question of house division is not settled in this book, although a good case is made for the efficacy of whole sign houses. Chris Brennan writes that much more study and analysis on this topic is necessary, but he also proposes that “a hybrid approach that incorporates some elements of the whole sign and other house systems is desirable in terms of the contemporary practice of astrology.” He believes this “synthesis,” which incorporates what we have learned from the ancient past with astrology’s later practices, may be the best way forward.
Reading Hellenistic Astrology was an immensely satisfying experience. Not only is it clearly and succinctly written, with numerous concrete examples of charts which support the points being made, but it enabled me to bring together all the pieces of Hellenistic astrology I had gathered from lectures and podcasts and workshops into one coherent whole. I now understand how our ideas of planets, signs, aspects and houses originated, and I appreciate the brilliance and generosity of those who gave these concepts life and shared them with future generations. This book also reminds us of the mystery and the divine nature of this knowledge. Quoted in the book is astrologer Firmicus Maternus who wrote, “We beg you to take an oath that these revered doctrines will not be revealed to profane ears but that the entire teaching of divinity will be made known only to those equipped with pure splendor of mind, whom an uncorrupted soul has led to the right path of life.” “Hellenistic Astrology” is an amazing gift to all of us who love to learn the language of the stars.