Whole Houses and where they lead to

Who invented whole houses? My Hellenistic astrologer friends would say, “Easy, Hellenistic astrologers.” And if I want to pull their legs I ask, “The modern ones or the ancient?”

I don’t think that anyone would argue that the oldest astrology known is that of ancient Mesopotamia. Nor that the 12 sign zodiac, divided into a circle of 360 degrees, the sexagismal number system to measure both arc and time and the use of ephemerides for finding planetary positions were some of the Mesopotamian contributions to astronomy/astrology. The few Babylonian ‘horoscopes’ available to us all have the character of recording the celestial omens for the birth. The position of Sun and Moon and planets are given and any notable celestial phenomena such as eclipses might also have been recorded. There is no Ascendant. Charts were not used, but then even in the Hellenistic period charts were not the usual form in presenting a horoscope. A horoscope was recorded in simple list form. This means that only an equal, whole sign visualisation was possible.

What was the Hellenistic contribution? First the concept of the rising degree, the horoscopos, from which we derive our term of horoscope and as a consequence the concept of mundane houses. So we can say that the Babylonian used whole signs and early Hellenistic astrology did indeed use whole sign houses. A later refinement was equal sign houses in which the Ascendant degree determined the cusp of each house. There seems also to have been some experimentation with using the Part of Fortune rather than the Ascendant as house determinant. But this wasn’t the end of the line, there was more to come. In a certain sense, at the beginning of the Christian era in 333 AD,  Hellenistic astrology hadn’t reached its full potential. It’s fullest flower was when it no longer was ‘Hellenistic’ but Islamic.

One notable difference between Babylonian and Greek astroscience is that the Babylonians used arithmetic to solve their astronomical problems. Arithmetical progressions where useful in describing planetary cycles. I suspect that such divisions as the terms have a Babylonian arithmetic progression concealed in them. Just which has yet to be discovered. The Hellene prefered geometry and invented trigonometry to solve astronomical problems. Ptolemy’s Almagest is the classical example. (by the way, Almagest is from the Arabic and means ‘the greatest’. The English word ‘majestic’ could also be used). All systems of house division used today are in fact based on geometric division of the celestial sphere. (See Rüdiger Pantiko’s essay, ‘On Dividing the Sky’) This is Hellenistic. In fact any form of geometrization can be considered such! So whichever house system you use, it is Hellenistic. 🙂 But Hellenistic only means one stream of inheritance. In fact the astrology practiced today is a blend of many different historical periods. Some no longer recognizable because thoroughly integrated into the substance of astrology (360 degrees for example). What it boils down to is that many discussions as to which was first and which is best and which works best because more ancient are superfluous. Astrologer, if you are wise, explore all roots of astrology. And while you are at it ask yourself what the modern contribution is?


13 thoughts on “Whole Houses and where they lead to

  1. Nice article Thomas!

    Although primitive whole house or equal house systems work very well in equatorial regions (where all house systems produce nearly identical results), more complex methods of domification are necessary for those of us living in less tropical climes where equal houses simply do not work.

    Vive La Difference! 🙂


  2. Hello Caroline,

    Yes. It is not the house system that makes a good astrologer, it is how a good astrologer chooses and uses any particular house system!


  3. In his commentary on Yavanajātaka Pingree speculated that the originator of the twelve-parts (or -turning) had been an elaborate topical interpretation of decans. His hypothesis is based on some fragments found in Hephaistio (unfortunately, I cannot quote exactly as not having it at hand); and if it is true, amusingly it points to Egypt instead of Mother Babylon. Anyway, the question might be more complex than a single ‘either Greeks or Babylonians’ dilemma.

  4. Hello Osthanes,

    I am very much in agreement. The question is complex. That is one reason to write about it and generate further interest and exploration. One can’t read everything! We do know that the Egyptians divided the celestial circle in decans, and Ptolemy does mention ‘Egyptian’ terms and then there is his mysterious manuscript. In his time, anything that had to do with star-lore and was antique was likely to be Babylonian as their star-lore was renowned. I think that each period and each people have left their imprint and it might be of enormous benefit to recognize what that was.

    best regards,

    PS maybe some other reader has a reference or better yet a source quote from Hephaisto regarding the the topical interpretation of decans?

  5. It is in book 2 of Hephaistio, Ch. 18: 74-77 (pg. 167 of Pingree’s edition).

    It does seem to indicate that at some point in late Egyptian astrology they started associating certain parts of the diurnal rotation with specific topics. Hephaistio attributes it to the Salmeschoiniaka.

  6. I just found an article where Schmidt quotes part of the fragment on the Cura website: http://cura.free.fr/quinq/02schmi.html

    It is the third paragraph in the article:

    “One must also examine the decans since the first one of the Horoskopos deals with birth; the 28th from the Horoskopos, which culminates early, deals with livelihood; the 25th, which culminates at noon, deals with sickness; the 9th, which rises late in the east, deals with injury; the 17th, which rises in the west, deals with marriage and wife; the 8th, the door of Hades, deals with children; the one in the subterraneous [pivot] deals with death.”

  7. Hello Chris,

    Thank you for the link!

    Pingree points out in his essay, “Legacies in Astronomy and Celestial Omens” that the Achaemenid period was one in which Babylonian astronomy and star-lore had an enormous influence not only on Egyptian, but also on Greek and Indian astronomy. We of course know that this means astrology. Many modern historians of astronomy are reluctant to say this! He also says that the treatise attributed to Petosiris has fragments attributed to the ‘ancient Egyptians’, that were in fact reworkings of Mesopotamian omen texts. He also says that it is not yet clear whether fragments of these texts that are preserved in Hephaistion of Thebes Apotelesmatika where direct Egyptian adaptations or adopted from Greek versions. That would be, I think, through the Salmeschoinaka. Whatever. There is good cause to accept that the Mesopotamian influence is present. On the other hand we mustn’t forget that any influence will be adapted by a later time and by more ‘modern’ cultural needs. Many of the Mesopotamian omen texts where in Hephaiston’s time truly ancient! So new discoveries and insights would lead to an adaptation.

    I see that you have provided a link to a pdf download of the Apotelesmatika at http://www.hellenisticastrology.com/texts.html. Perhaps someone might find the time to translate some of the relevant sections? 🙂

    best regards,

  8. Hi Thomas,

    Yeah, what seems to have happened is that there was indeed a transmission of the Mesopotamian omens to Egypt at some point prior to the advent of Hellenistic astrology, which were subsequently translated and adapted to the geography of Egypt, and then some of these were later rendered into Greek. The Mesopotamian-Egyptian transmission was demonstrated pretty well in the ‘Vienna Demotic Papyrus on Eclipse and Lunar Omina’ edited by Richard Parker in the 50’s.

    More recently though there was a book that came out last year called ‘From the Banks of the Euphrates’, which is a collection of papers written largely by former students of Pingree’s, and there is an interesting paper at the end by Clemency Williams titled ‘Some Details on the Transmission of Astral Omens in Antiquity’. In the paper Williams’ compares the omen excerpts in Hephaistio attributed to Petosiris and demonstrates their reliance on specific Mesopotamian omens likely derived from the Enuma Anu Enlil, although she points out that they have all been adapted to the geography of Egypt, which strongly suggests that the Greek was in fact based on some intermediary Egyptian translations. Basically it settles the questions that Pingree raised in the article you cited from the ‘Legacies of Mesopotamia’ book, for the most part.

    There isn’t really any doubt at this point that the Mesopotamian influence on Hellenistic astrology is more substantial than the Egyptian, although the astrological usage of the decans prior to the advent of Hellenistic astrology seems like it is something that is only recently starting to be fully explored, and I always found the point about those topical associations with certain parts of the diurnal rotation to be particularly interesting as a possible precursor to the houses. In this way the development of Hellenistic/horoscopic astrology can really be seen as a sort of synthesis of the older Mesopotamian and Egyptian astrological traditions.

    The version of Hephaistio’s work that I have up on HellenisticAstrology.com is the older Engelbrecht edition, although Schmidt did publish a preliminary translation of books 1 and 2 of Hephaistio based on Pingree’s more recent edition about 10 years ago, and it contains the relevant sections from Petosiris. So, that stuff has been available for a while. What we are really looking forward to is a full translation of book 3 of Hephaistio, which all electional astrology based on Dorotheus, although I’m glad to say that a friend of mine has been making a lot of headway with that lately.

    Keep up the good work,

  9. Hello Chris,

    Somehow Schmidt’s translation of Bk. 2 and 3 haven’t come to my attention. So thank you for the reference. Also to the “From the Banks of the Euphrates”.

    and I always found the point about those topical associations with certain parts of the diurnal rotation to be particularly interesting as a possible precursor to the houses.

    A very interesting point. In my reading on Mesopotamia a very interesting point was made on extispicy. The areas of the liver were read in a defined order, always starting at the same place, the ‘station’ and then proceeding anticlockwise to the ‘path’, the ‘crucible’, the ‘strength’, etc. This suggests to me a procedure that could be a predecessor to how houses were later read (highly speculative).

    The following site:


    has translations not only of extispicy tablets but also astrological tablets. Very interesting. One can gets the flavour of the Mesopotamian ‘Weltanschauung’ (excuse the German word but it is the most accurate! :-))

    Glad to hear that Bk. 3 of Hephaisto is coming along.

    Nice to hear from you!

  10. It”s a very interesting thread indeed, who makes me feel a little illiterate I should admit 😦

    It reminds me about the different approach between Boll and Gundel, supporters of the Egyptian and Babylonian origin of astrology (at least I hope so, now I cant find a proper quote ).

    Anyway a Mesopotamian influence cannot be denied.

    In Berlin I visited Pergamon

    and that area surely cannot be called primitive, true?

  11. Hello Margherita,

    More interesting I think is how the ancient cultures in the middle east mutually influenced each other. There are probably cases where borrowed elements adopted by one culture were later borrowed back again in their changed form by the originating culture. Quite honestly I think it futile to try to advance one region over the other, based on one’s preferences. Francesca Rochberg in her book ‘The Heavenly Writing’ discusses the historiography of Mesopotamian science. It becomes clear from her discussion that many 19th century, and even 20th century scholars preferred Greek science as it didn’t involve itself with ‘superstition’ like the Babylonians or the Egyptians did. They didn’t want to have the origins of science involved with omen texts! Of course the moment you have a prejudice you jeopardize exactly those faculties of judgement that are so valued in scientific thinking.

    Yes, if you see the Ishtar Gate and many of the other artifacts that can be found not only in Berlin but also in London and elsewhere, you can’t help admire the sophistication of the Mesopotamian culture.

    Thank you for the link.

    best regards,

  12. Yes, I completely agree with you, people around Mediterranean sea (in the larger sense possible) should have frequent contacts and exchanges.
    Hardly I believe that these one were closed societies.

    And if the Gate of Ishtar is a primitive manufact what we can say of many modern artworks?
    Let’s say – as everybody- I saw several European museums and tons of exhibitions, but Pergamon is a very special place, it’s more than impressive.


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