The question of Ptolemy’s preferred method of house division came up on the discussion forum on Skyscript recently. I said that I had always thought that Robert Schmidt did an adequate job in his translation of the Tetrabiblos in pointing out the instances in which Ptolemy clearly employed whole sign houses.
I suggested that anyone who wishes to argue that Ptolemy was not using whole sign houses needs to tally up every single instance in which he uses the word “zōidion” to refer to a house/place, and then explain how exactly these reference should not be understood as demonstrating that he was using whole sign houses.
A poster named Eddy from the Netherlands suggested that whole sign proponents should do this as well, and provide proof of the assertion that Ptolemy was using whole sign houses.
The purpose of this article, then, is to highlight some instances in the Tetrabiblos in which Ptolemy clearly seems to be using whole sign houses. Some of these instances were pointed out by Schmidt in the footnotes of his translation in the 1990’s, although I have noted a few additional instances as well. In the end I think that I am able to demonstrate that there was at least some level of usage of whole sign houses by Ptolemy in the Tetrabiblos.
Editions and Translations Used
I primarily used Robert Schmidt’s translations of books 1, 3 and 4 of Ptolemy’s Tetrabiblos in doing this research, and most of my quotations from Ptolemy below are from this translation, unless stated otherwise.
For Schmidt’s translations of the Tetrabiblos see:
- Claudius Ptolemy, Tetrabiblos, Book I, trans. Robert Schmidt, ed. Robert Hand, The Golden Hind Press, Berkeley Springs, WV, 1994.
- Claudius Ptolemy, Tetrabiblos, Book III, trans. Robert Schmidt, ed. Robert Hand, The Golden Hind Press, Berkeley Springs, WV, 1996.
- Claudius Ptolemy, Tetrabiblos, Book IV, trans. Robert H. Schmidt, The Golden Hind Press, Cumberland, MD, 1998.
Schmidt’s translation is arguably more appropriate for this project than the older, more standard translation of the Tetrabiblos by F. E Robbins for two reasons:
1) Schmidt’s translation is based on the more authoritative modern critical edition of the Tetrabiblos that was edited by Boll and Boer and published by Teubner in 1940 (see below for reference). Robbins did not have access to this critical edition because it had not yet been published when he was working on his translation of the Tetrabiblos, a point which he laments in the introduction to his translation (pg. xiv), and so he was forced to essentially compile his own edition of the text based on photographs of manuscripts that he was able to acquire (pg. xviii). Unfortunately for Robbins, in the same year that his translation of the Tetrabiblos was finally published in 1940, the new critical edition of the Greek text of the Tetrabiblos by Boll and Boer was also published. So, virtually as soon as his translation was published it was somewhat out of date since it was not based on the latest critical edition. At this point Schmidt’s translation is the only modern English translation that is based on the more authoritative Boll/Boer edition, although even this edition has since been superseded by a newer edition that was published by Wolfgang Hübner in 1998 (see below for reference). Nonetheless, Schmidt’s translation is still based on a more recent critical edition than Robbins’.
2) The second reason why Schmidt’s translation is more appropriate when trying to analyze Ptolemy’s approach to house division is that Schmidt and Hand, the latter of which was the editor of books 1 and 3 of Schmidt’s translation, were both fully aware of and interested in the house division issue, and they took great pains to note each time that Ptolemy made a subtle or not-so-subtle statement that had implications for one form of house division or another. Additionally, because Schmidt was acutely aware of the issue, he was sometimes more careful than Robbins in translating certain passages in a way that was more faithful to the Greek. I can cite at least one instance where Robbins adopts a looser translation of a critical passage where Ptolemy makes a reference to the houses, and this reading alters the meaning of the sentence. In this instance, which I will discuss later in this article, the only reason that Robbins doesn’t translate what the Greek text literally says in this particular passage is because he wasn’t necessarily concerned about house division as an issue, and he may not have been aware of how his translation of that particular sentence obscures the original meaning of the text. As I will show, in this instance Schmidt’s translation ends up being more faithful to the Greek text because he was paying attention to this specific issue.
Now, with all of that being said, because I anticipate that some people may call into question the reliability of Schmidt’s translations, and indeed since Schmidt himself considers them to be “preliminary” rather than final translations, I tried to provide parallel quotes from Robbins’ translation of the Tetrabiblos when I have quoted important passages from Schmidt’s translation below. This is done in order to ensure that any conclusions reached in this article are not simply the result of one reading of the text, and to eliminate any arguments that my conclusions are simply a result of following a biased translation on the part of Schmidt. As we will see, the translations by Schmidt and Robbins are often in agreement when it comes to the vast majority of the important passages that reference the “houses” or “places,” and there is only one major instance where this is not the case.
For Robbins’s translation see:
- Ptolemy, Tetrabiblos, ed. and trans. F. E. Robbins, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1940 (repr. 2001).
The critical editions of the Tetrabiblos are:
- Claudii Ptolemaei opera quae exstant omnia, Vol. III, 1: ΑΠΟΤΕΛΕΣΜΑΤΙΚΑ, ed. F. Boll and Æ. Boer, Teubner, Leipzig, 1940.
- Claudii Ptolemaei opera quae exstant omnia, vol. III, 1: ΑΠΟΤΕΛΕΣΜΑΤΙΚΑ, post F. Boll et Æ. Boer secundis curis, ed. Wolfgang Hübner, Teubner, Stuttgart & Leipzig, 1998.
Schmidt only published translations of books 1, 3 and 4 of the Tetrabiblos, so for book 2 we must rely entirely on Robbins.
At this point I have opted not to refer to the older Ashmand translation of the Tetrabiblos because it is based on the so-called Proclus paraphrase rather than a straight translation of the Tetrabiblos itself. It might be useful to compare some of the relevant passages to the paraphrase at some point though.
Preliminary Remarks About Ptolemy and House Division
The focus of this analysis is to determine whether Ptolemy used the signs or “zōidia” themselves as “houses” or “places” (τόποι), or if he instead used some sort of secondary system of house division that involves trisecting each of the quadrants that lie in-between the degrees of the four “angles” or “pivots” (κέντρα), which are the ascendant, midheaven, descendant, and imum coeli. The first approach, where the signs are used as houses, is called “whole sign houses,” whereas we will refer to the second approach generically here as “quadrant houses.”
In the works of other Hellenistic astrologers who employed whole sign houses, such as Dorotheus of Sidon, Vettius Valens or Paulus Alexandrinus, there is a tendency to use the words for “signs” (zōidia) and “houses” (topoi) interchangeably, so that a reference to the 6th “house” is sometimes to the 6th “sign,” and vice versa. This is actually going to be the primary criteria that we will pay attention to when it comes to trying to determine Ptolemy’s approach to house division. If Ptolemy were to consistently refer to the “houses” without reference to the signs, then it would be hard to determine which form of house division he prefers, as it could be either whole sign or quadrant houses. However, if at any point Ptolemy refers to the “houses” as “signs,” then we would have clear reference to whole sign houses, as there isn’t really any reason to refer to the houses as signs in a quadrant-based approach, but it is standard practice when an author is using whole sign houses.
In general what we are trying to establish here is if Ptolemy seems to be talking about the houses within the context of the signs, or if instead he tends to describe the houses as a separate and distinct division. We will run into two problems when we try to pursue this line of inquiry though:
1) The first issue is that Ptolemy’s text is only a summary or abridged version of his approach to astrology. His discussions of most of the topics in the Tetrabiblos are extremely brief and concise. He describes his program in book 3, chapter 4, saying that his goal is to outline the general principles of his system without going too much into specifics. For the most part he is successful in staying concise and not focusing on details, with only a few major exceptions, for example in the chapter on the length of life (3, 11), or in the chapter on determining character traits (3, 14). Unfortunately he uses no example charts, so we do not know exactly how he combined all of these principles together in practice. Additionally, although he defines some basic concepts in book 1, in later books he employs a number of technical terms and concepts which he defines nowhere else in the book. He seems to assume that the reader is already familiar with many of the basic concepts and technical terminology of astrology, to such an extent that about a century later the Neoplatonic philosopher Porphyry of Tyre thought that it was necessary to append an “introduction” to Ptolemy’s Tetrabiblos that consisted almost entirely of definitions of basic technical concepts like “overcoming” (καθυπερτέρησις) and “spear-bearing” (δορυφορία). What we are left with then is a very concise text that sometimes takes certain concepts for granted. House division may be one of them.
2) One of the things that makes Ptolemy’s work unique is that he has a tendency to focus primarily on the planets as significators for certain topics like parents, marriage, character, etc., while at the same time he has a tendency to not employ houses or Lots for topical purposes, which is what most of his contemporaries like Dorotheus and Valens did. This tendency to emphasize the planets and deemphasize the use of the houses for topical purposes is so marked that at one point Robbins notes that “Ptolemy says little about the “places” (less correctly “houses”) of a geniture…” (pg. 267, fn. 3). Now, this is true to a certain extent, but only for topical purposes. For example, Ptolemy never mentions the 7th house in association with the topic of marriage, while both Dorotheus and Valens do. However, Ptolemy does refer to the houses quite frequently when it comes to the concept of “angularity.” This is the concept that the houses follow a specific sequence based on whether they are moving towards an angle, moving away from an angle, or are at an angle. This was partially conceptualized as providing information about both how active and prominent a planet is in a chart, and Ptolemy says at one point that it can also be used to determine how quickly the significations of a planet will manifest in the life of the native. There is almost not a single chapter in books 3 and 4 where Ptolemy does not refer to this concept of angularity, and to the extent that it is related to the concept of the houses, which it is closely, Ptolemy actually is using the houses quite frequently. Just not for topical purposes, but rather primarily for what Schmidt calls “dynamic” purposes.
Now, that being said, this is not to say that Ptolemy does not use the houses at all for topical purposes. In fact there are several houses that he explicitly uses for topical purposes, and his usage is largely in line with the significations that other Hellenistic astrologers ascribe to those houses. For example, at certain points in books 3 and 4 he makes the following associations:
- The ascendant with the appearance of the native.
- The 6th house with injuries.
- The 10th house with career.
- The 12th house with slaves.
- The 10th, 11th, 4th and 5th houses with children.
These are the only instances that I’ve found in which he associates specific topics with the houses though, and the rest of the houses are not mentioned within the context of their topical significations. To some extent this seems to result from his tendency to act as a reformer of the tradition, and thus we may view his silence on the significations of some of the houses as a rejection of the traditional associations that many of his contemporaries took for granted. For example, why doesn’t he mention the 3rd house in his chapter on siblings, or the 7th house in his chapter on relationships? On the other hand, his treatments of many of these topics are exceedingly brief, and perhaps it is the case that he would have used more of the traditional topics associated with the houses if he had chosen to write a larger, more detailed exposition of each topic.
Unfortunately, as it stands, the fact that Ptolemy tends to focus on the planets and downplay the use of the houses for topical purposes means that there are not many instances in the Tetrabiblos that we can study in order to infer what type of house division that he used. In light of this, any references that we do find must be given greater weight when considering their implications within the context of the work as a whole.
Terminology for “Houses”
Since different translators use different terminology in order to translate the words that Ptolemy uses to refer to the angularity of the houses, here is a table that lists the words and their usual translations:
- κέντρων – ἐπαναφορά – ἀπόκλιμα
- kentrōn – epanaphora – apoklima
- pivot – post-ascension – decline
- angle – succedent – cadent
Additionally, the Hellenistic astrologers originally referred to what modern astrologers call a “house” as a “place” (topos). Schmidt always translates topos as “place,” whereas Robbins will sometimes translate it as “house,” in keeping with modern astrological conventions. Keep this in mind when reading quotes from these two translators below.
References to Whole Sign Houses in the Tetrabiblos
Ptolemy doesn’t refer to the houses very much in book 1, which is where he introduces a number of basic principles. There is only a brief chapter in which he tries to give a naturalistic rationale for the power of the four angles, but nothing conclusive is said here about house division. He doesn’t even mention the other 8 houses.
In book 2 of the Tetrabiblos, which is on mundane astrology, there are a number of instances in which he employs the angles, but again nothing conclusive is said in favor of either whole sign or quadrant houses. For that we have to skip forward to book three, which is where Ptolemy begins his exposition of natal astrology.
Book 3 of the Tetrabiblos
Chapter 4, Overview of General Procedures
In this chapter Ptolemy provides a broad overview or preview of his general approach to natal astrology, which he then attempts to employ systematically in subsequent chapters. In the second to last paragraph he says that planets are most effective in a nativity when they are angular or succedent. It is here that we find his first reference to what appears to be whole sign houses:
“And they are most effective with respect to the nativity whenever they should be passing through the pivots and the post-ascensional twelfth-parts, and especially the primary pivots…” (trans. Schmidt, pg. 12)
Robbins translates this passage in a way that is in agreement with Schmidt:
“…whenever they are passing through the angles or signs that rise after them…” Robbins, pg. 239.
Ptolemy should say “places” or “houses” here if he was using quadrant houses. In that case the sentence would say something like “whenever they should be passing through the angles and the succedent houses…” But he doesn’t say that. Instead he refers to the succedent houses as “signs.” This doesn’t make a lot of sense from the perspective of quadrant houses, but it seems quite natural if we consider that Ptolemy may have had whole sign houses in mind.
Chapter 11, Length of Life
This is a famously difficult chapter of Ptolemy’s text, which has been interpreted a number of different ways by astrologers over the past 1,800 years. It is generally thought that Ptolemy describes a type of quadrant houses in this chapter. The most important point for our purposes is when he discusses which houses can not be considered as candidates for being the starting point for the length of life technique. At one point he specifically singles out the “twelfth-part unconnected to the ascendant,” which would be the 8th whole sign house, as well as “the one that rises before” the ascendant, which “is called Evil Spirit…” (Schmidt, pg. 32)
These instances are strange because he is explicitly referring to the 8th and the 12th houses as signs here, whereas this chapter is usually seen as the point at which Ptolemy introduces some sort of quadrant system. This seems problematic because it raises questions about the rest of this chapter, and whether or not some sort of hybrid whole sign/quadrant house framework is being used for the purpose of the length of life technique.
Robbins translates this passage as follows:
“Of the part above the earth it is not fitting to consider either the sign that is disjunct from the ascendant, nor that which rose before it, called the House of the Evil Daemon…” (pg. 273)
Ptolemy specifically calls the 12thsign the place of the Evil Spirit, not the 12th house. Why is this? Why is he referring to the signs as houses here if he is not using whole sign houses in some capacity in this instance?
Book 4 of the Tetrabiblos
Chapter 4, Action/Profession/Praxis
Ptolemy says to focus on two things primarily in order to study this topic: the Sun and “the culminating zoidion.” (Schmidt, pg. 9) He says this in the first sentence. Then he clarifies in the second sentence that he means the star nearest to the Sun that has already risen heliacally, “as well as the one upon the Midheaven.” This seems to show that most of the time he is associating the Midheaven with the culminating sign, and since he is treating the midheaven as a sign this probably implies that it is the 10th whole sign house relative to the ascendant.
The only way this could be interpreted differently is if he means the sign that the degree of the MC falls in, which perhaps is possible, so we must leave this instance open as somewhat inconclusive, although certainly suggestive.
Chapter 6, Children
In order to study children Ptolemy instructs us to examine the “place at the peak or its post-ascension,” which are the 10th and 11th houses. He calls the 11th the Place of Good Spirit, which is the name that other Hellenistic astrologers give to this house as well.
He then says if there are no planets present or configured to those places then to look at the diameters of those places, which would be the 4th and the 5th places. So, for children Ptolemy basically says to examine the 10th, 11th, 4th and 5th houses.
In the third paragraph he makes an important statement about what happens when certain planets are “having a relation to the procreative zōidia…” (Schmidt, pg. 27) Later in the sentence he says that the stars whose aspects are more in excess have the most influence, which makes it clear that “having a relation” to the procreative zōidia refers to aspecting the houses under consideration that he mentioned at the beginning of the chapter. So, this is a clear reference to whole sign houses since we have caught him explicitly referring to those four houses which signify children as “signs” or “zōidia” rather than just “places.” Schmidt also points out in a footnote here that this is evidence of Ptolemy using whole sign houses.
Robbins’ translation of this passage is in agreement with Schmidt’s:
“If both the sects bear some relation to the signs which signify the begetting of children, there will be losses among the children given, either all of them or a few, depending on the superiority of the planets of either sect that bear witness…” (Robbins, pg. 411)
In the following paragraph he refers to planets that have “authority” over the previously mentioned procreative “signs.” Schmidt points out in a footnote that based on the earlier statement about planets having a “relation” that this should refer to those planets either being located in or aspecting those signs. If so, then this would be another instance later in the same chapter where Ptolemy is referring to specific houses as signs.
Chapter 7, Friends and Enemies (and Slaves)
Ptolemy makes an explicit reference to whole sign houses in this chapter at one point when he says that the topic of slaves is studied by looking at
“…the zōidion occupying the Evil Spirit, and from the natural fitness of the stars regarding this place in the nativity itself and by ingress or diametrical opposition, and especially whenever the stars having lordship over this twelfth-part should be either harmonious with the authoritative places of the nativity or should make configurations which are opposite.” (Schmidt, pg. 33)
This is an unequivocal reference to whole sign houses. He says the “sign” occupying the Evil Spirit, and then later refers to it as both a “place” and a “twelfth-part.”
This reference to whole sign houses is less clear in Robbins’ translation because even though the Greek text that Robbins prints on the facing page says “ἐκ τοῦ κακοδαιμονοῦντος ζῳδίου λαμβάνεται,” which basically means what Schmidt translated it as, “the sign occupying the Evil Spirit,” Robbins says “house” instead of “sign.”
“The special topic or account of slaves and the sympathy or antipathy of their masters to them is elucidated from the house of the Evil Daemon and from the natural suitability of the planets which regard this place both in the nativity itself and in their ingresses and oppositions to it, particularly when the lords of the sign are either in harmonious aspect to the principal places of the nativity, or the opposite.” (Robbins, pg. 421)
It clearly says “zoidion” or “sign” here in the Greek text though, not “topos” or “house.”
I suspect that what happened here is that Robbins was not familiar with whole sign houses as a method of house division, and so he just substituted the word “house” for “sign” because he knew that Ptolemy was referring to the 12th house here, but he thought that the text was mistaken by referring to the 12th sign. This is the example that I mentioned earlier in this article that I think shows that Schmidt’s awareness of the house division issue made him less prone to making this sort of a mistake when it came to translating passages of Ptolemy that deal with this topic.
Aside from the blatant reference to whole sign houses above, I would also like to point out that at the very beginning of this chapter Ptolemy seems to define “post-ascension” or “succedent” as two planets in adjacent signs. This could have important implications for when he frequently refers to planets being in a “post-ascension” or “succedent” place elsewhere in the text within the context of the houses. This statement may mean that all of those instances refer to adjacent signs, which would mean that he is working in a whole sign framework since being in a “post-ascension” or “succedent” place is usually a property of the houses. Indeed, it is one of the basic components of the concept of angularity.
Chapter 8, Travel
In the first sentence of this chapter Ptolemy says that the primary criteria for travel is the relationship between the two luminaries and the angles. What he ends up establishing is that all of the “cadent” or “declining” houses cause travel, as does the 7th house. Vettius Valens, who is Ptolemy’s contemporary, outlines a similar doctrine in book 4, chapter 12 of the Anthology, where he says that all four cadent houses are associated with foreign lands.
Ptolemy begins giving some specific examples or placements which indicate travel. First he says that when the Moon is cadent or setting that it causes travel. Then he says that when Mars is setting or declining from “the place at the peak,” or in other words in the the 9th house, that it also causes travel. Finally, at the end of this paragraph he says:
“And if the Lot of Fortune also should fall out in the zōidia that cause being away from home, [the natives] will continue to have their whole lives and their dwelling and their activities in a foreign land.” (Schmidt, pg. 34)
This is an explicit reference to whole sign houses. No specific signs were mentioned at this point in the chapter. The only “places of travel” that were mentioned so far were houses – specifically the four “cadent” or “declining” houses and the 7th house, which is the setting place. But by explicitly referring to these “places” as “signs” or “zōidia” Ptolemy is clearly showing again that he is equating houses with the signs. The only explanation for this is that he is using whole sign houses.
Robbins’ translation agrees with Schmidt’s here:
“If the Lot of Fortune also falls among the signs that cause travel, the subjects spend their whole lives abroad and will have all their personal relations and business there.” (Robbins, pg. 423)
At the end of the third paragraph in this chapter Ptolemy again refers to “the zoidia that cause travel,” twice.
Finally, at the beginning of paragraph four Ptolemy switches it up and refers to “the places that cause travel abroad…” At this point he is just interchanging the words for signs and houses quite freely, completely blurring any distinction between them, which only makes sense in a whole sign framework.
Those are the most explicit instances in which I’ve found Ptolemy using whole sign houses in the Tetrabiblos. In most of the rest of the text he tends to refer to the houses within the context of whether they are angular, succedent or cadent, but he seldom gives any clues as to what form of house division he is using in those instances.
The only exception to this may be in his treatment of the length of life, although it was customary for the Hellenistic astrologers to introduce quadrant systems during the discussion of that specific technique, and there is no reason to think that the house system that Ptolemy introduces there was meant to be applied outside of that chapter. If that wasn’t the case then we would see Valens employing Porphyry houses outside of his chapters on the length of life treatment in book 3, but there is no evidence for that in his example charts.
Ultimately for me the examples quoted above are sufficient to convince me that Ptolemy was probably using whole sign houses most of the time in his work. He never formally introduces and outlines the topic partially because it is something that he takes for granted, just like some of the other concepts he uses like “overcoming,” but also perhaps partially because he found it more difficult to rationalize the traditional significations associated with the houses, and thus they were relegated to a reduced role within his system.
Interestingly, despite his reformist tendencies in downplaying the role of the houses in signifying certain topics, by using whole sign houses, Ptolemy brings himself into line with his contemporaries such as Dorotheus and Valens, thus allowing us to see Ptolemy as not as much of an outlier after all.