Recently, I attended an astrology workshop where the astrologer, delineating charts the audience submitted, mentioned that a participant had two planets in mutual reception. The configuration was Mars in Libra and Venus in Scorpio — both planets in their detriment, but, in the astrologer’s estimation, mitigated by the “reception.”
I have a similar placement — Mercury in Taurus and Venus in Gemini — however, I ceased considering this a mutual reception by definition since the two planets do not form a Ptolemaic aspect. Instead, both planets in my chart, as well as that of the workshop participant’s, are in aversion to the houses that they rule. Hellenistic astrologers considered planets “turned away” from their house of rulership to be difficult placements because the planets could not “see” the houses that they rule — or, in this case, the planet with whom they are exchanging signs. In a way the workshop attendee seemed to hint at this hypothesis when they said that the mutual reception “did nothing for [them]” — but was this a function of the exchange of the two planets being in aversion, or the nature of the exchange itself — the double debility? Let’s dig into this a little further…
Reception: Be Our Guest, Be Our Guest…
Oftentimes, you’ll hear astrologers use the analogy that a planet in a house other than its own is a “guest” of its host planet. For example, Mars in Virgo is a guest of Mercury, who will therefore support Mars to the best of its ability in carrying out its Mars-like agenda. Now, the extent to which Mars does Mars things will depend on the condition of its host, Mercury. In this example, were Mercury strong — for instance, in Gemini (another house of rulership), angular, direct, or having some other form of essential or accidental dignity — Mars could be quite successful in its endeavours. Mars-Mercury things might be research, debate, or advocacy, just to pull a couple of potential significations into this discussion. On the other hand, Mercury in Pisces — both the place of its detriment and fall — could see Mars struggle; it might be fragmented, wishy-washy, desiring of action but unable to muster the clarity and singularity of purpose it needs to achieve its ends. However, if Mars is in Virgo and Mercury in Scorpio — two signs exchanging places — they are configured by sextile and therefore able to “see” each other. Both planets are able to support each other swimmingly in their respective endeavours because they form an aspect, and a harmonious one at that!
Traditionally, planets cannot see if they are 30 or 150 degrees away from their home sign (a.k.a. the modern semi-sextile and quincunx aspects). Planetary configurations follow the same logic: reception in general, with mutual reception being a particular subset, rests on the planets being able to “see” each other by virtue of a sextile, square, trine, or opposition. This might be one of the reasons why the workshop participant felt that their “mutual reception” did nothing for them — it’s not a mutual reception if the planets are turned away from each other and therefore offering no form of support. But, debilitation aside, is there any form of connection that these planets in aversion share?
Hellenistic Optical Theory: Planetary Power is Where It’s At!
A lot can be found on the internet regarding planetary aspects and Hellenistic optical theory so I won’t discuss that here, suffice to say, if you have nothing to do on a rainy Sunday afternoon, then perusing Claudius Ptolemy’s Optics might be a fun way to pass the time. In addition to composing the seminal astrological text, Tetrabiblos, Ptolemy was busy with geographical, mathematical, musical, and astronomical works that form quite the handsome corpus. Optics, just another title on Ptolemy’s lengthy c.v., seems to have come down to us through myriad translation efforts of Arabic and Latin speakers over previous millennia and the only reason I mention it here is because of its purported influence on the optical theory of al-Kindi — one of the great avatars of traditional astrology.
In the introduction to his 1996 English translation of Ptolemy’s Optics, Mark Smith interestingly points out that one of the early Arabic connections we have to this particular work is through al-Kindi (d. 873). Smith writes that, “It is possible, although not certain, that [al-Kindi] drew upon Ptolemy’s work in composing his own optical treatise, the De aspectibus” (1). De aspectibus (On Aspects) was one of the most influential and enduring treatises of optics throughout the Middle Ages and, as David C. Lindberg has argued, informed al-Kindi’s broader natural philosophical worldview, partly expressed in another of his works, De radiis stellarum (On the Rays of the Stars)(2). For our consideration as astrologers, what seems most relevant is Lindberg’s take on what optical theory represents, beginning with the importance of rays. Concerning al-Kindi’s contention that everything emits them, Lindberg writes:
“This radiation binds the world into a vast network in which everything acts upon everything else to produce natural effects. Stars act upon the terrestrial world; magnets, fire, sound, and colors act on objects in their vicinity. Even words conceived by the mind have the ability to radiate power and thus to produce effects outside the mind…Optics, then, is of special significance because it treats the most fundamental of all natural phenomena — the radiation of power” (2).
Let’s think about that astrologically for a moment: a planet that casts a ray received by another planet might be thought of as emanating a form of power and the nature of that power could be conceived through the quality those aspectual rays represent. Sextiles are said to be of the nature of Venus, squares Mars, trines Jupiter and oppositions Saturn. Planets are therefore most potent when they are striking another with a ray and the quality of that celestial interaction is characterized by the geometrical aspect formed. In short, it does not appear that we can call my natal placements or that of the workshop participant’s “mutual reception,” but does this mean that the two planets share no affinity whatsoever?
To answer this question, we can consult another astrological avatar of the Medieval period, Abraham Ibn Ezra (ca. 1089–ca. 1161), whose Book of Wisdom provides us with both a definition of “reception” and a definition for something called “generosity,” the latter of which sounds identical to the configuration that inspired this blog post. Although lengthy, I will quote the two definitions here:
“ ‘Reception’ is when a planet [A] moves towards application, whether in conjunction or in aspect, to a planet [B] which is the lord of its [B’s] house, or the lord of the house of its [B’s] exaltation, or the lord of its [B’s] triplicity, or ⟨the lord of⟩ its [B’s] term, or the lord of its [B’s] decan; then it [B] receives it [A]. (2) Reception is also when a planet [A] applies to a planet [B] and the second planet [B] is in the house of the giver of the power [A] or in the house of its exaltation; but if it [B] is in the house of its [A] triplicity, or in its term, or in its decan, it [B] will not receive it [A] in full reception. (3) If they apply ⟨to one another in⟩ two lordships, as triplicity with term or decan, or if they are in trine and sextile ⟨to one another⟩, this is also reception. (4) There is also ⟨reception⟩ if they are in degrees ⟨of⟩ signs whose rising times are the same. (5) A benefic planet receives a benefic one because its balanced nature, and Mars and Jupiter receive each other if they are in conjunction or in sextile or in trine, but not in the other aspects.
“(1) Reception can be strong, moderate, or weak. (2) The Moon always has strong reception from the Sun, because it [the Moon] receives it [the Sun] from all the signs since its [the Moon’s] light is from it [the Sun]. But ⟨the Sun’s reception of the Moon⟩ from opposition is with toil and sadness. When ⟨the Moon receives the Sun⟩ in a sign where it [the Moon] exerts some lordship, then the reception is double. (3) When Mercury receives a planet from Virgo, because it is its house and the house of its exaltation, the reception is complete [i.e., strong]. (4) Moderate reception is ⟨that of the planets to each other⟩ from ⟨their⟩ house. (5) Weak reception is from ⟨their⟩ triplicity, term, or decan.
“‘Generosity’ is when two planets are each of them in the other’s house, or in the house of the other’s exaltation, or in some lordship ⟨of the other planet⟩; even though they do not conjoin or aspect each other, there is reception between them (emphasis mine, 3).”
From this we have some inferences to make: first, that reception must occur between planets sharing some sort of aspectual relationship — and antiscia and contra-antiscia relationships appear to count based on the references to shared rising times — and, second, that two planets exchanging each other’s signs do enjoy a form of reception, though the degree to which this reception could be considered strong is unclear. Ibn Ezra provides little in the way of interpretation, except for a single delineation indicating a positive outcome based on the two planets in each other’s generosity (4).
The Importance of Sight in Antiquity
Since I’ve been diving deep into the cosmologies of Isidore of Seville and the Venerable Bede as part of a side project, Pliny’s Natural History is cropping up everywhere. For those writing on the mechanics of the cosmos in the sixth and seventh centuries, it seems as though your foundation for understanding the composition of the world starts with this multi-volume doorstop. I was curious if anything might be gleaned from Pliny that could offer some broadly philosophical bearing on how we think about planets and “sight” in astrology, and I was delighted by this summary from Eleni Hall Manolaraki, who put it beautifully in her article, “Senses and the Sacred in Pliny’s Natural History”:
“It is a truism that seeing is the paradigmatic mode of experience. From Homeric ekphrasis to the apocalyptic visions in the Book of Revelation and Dante’s Inferno, ‘the gaze’ underpins all discussions of reality in western thought. Our research language ‘mirrors’ this bias: we ‘look at’ and ‘reflect on’ texts to ‘elucidate’ connections and ‘illustrate’ topics, to produce “insightful” or even “eye-opening” discussions” (5).
It seems apropos that in our consideration of the planets, we see a similar bias emerge: for the astrological chart, our primary mode of consideration of the relationship between planets is their aspectual one, and for that, planets are afforded the gift of “sight” through which they have the power to energize our unfolding destinies. While neither I nor the workshop participant had a mutual reception by definition, our respective placements could be considered a different kind of reception: generosity — the catch being that planets are only able to share in their riches according to their own strength by sign. It’s therefore no wonder that the workshop participant found their configuration of Mars in Libra and Venus in Scorpio challenging: two planets, both in their exile, would have little to share with each other, except perhaps a concerted effort to navigate their debilities. Making lemonade out of zodiacal lemons is indeed celestial generosity!
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(1) Mark Smith, “Ptolemy’s Theory of Visual Perception: An English Translation of the ‘Optics’ with Introduction and Commentary,” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, vol. 86, no. 2, 1996, iii–300 (p. 55) <https://doi.org/10.2307/3231951> [accessed 6 June 2022]
(2) David C. Lindberg, “Alkindi’s Critique of Euclid’s Theory of Vision,” Isis, vol. 62, no. 4, 1971, 469–89 (p. 471)<http://www.jstor.org/stable/ 229818> [accessed 9 June 2022]
(3) Abraham Ibn Ezra’s Introductions to Astrology: A Parallel Hebrew-English Critical Edition of the Book of the Beginning of Wisdom and the Book of the Judgments of the Zodiacal Signs, trans. and ed. by Shlomo Sela (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2017), p. 209–211.
(4) Ibid., p. 227.
(5) Eleni Hall Manolaraki, “Senses and the Sacred in Pliny’s Natural History,” Illinois Classical Studies, vol. 43, no. 1, 2018, 207–33 (p. 208) <https://doi.org/10.5406/illiclasstud.43.1.0207> [accessed 12 June 2022]