Committed astrologers owe it to themselves to dabble in the canon of ancient astrological literature whether they practice traditional astrology or not.
Yes, this is my personal opinion.
Yes, it’s biased because I love history.
And yes, it’s arguably an antiquated view, but one which is entirely defensible when one recalls the now-famous-ish statement from C.G. Jung, that “…astrology represents the sum of all the psychological knowledge of antiquity” (1).
I came to astrology through its more evolutionary and psychological techniques as practiced by the likes of Liz Greene and Howard Sasportas. Appreciating the archetypal and mythological perspectives of modern astrology, it was initially celestial cultural shock to engage directly with what might be reductively considered more “fortune-telling-esque” approaches to the art, such as techniques that predict the length of a native’s life, or whether the benefic planets are configured to the ascendant ruler by favourable aspects.
Horary astrology is my favourite example of this. Though I appreciate so much of the historical context around its use — especially when knowing one’s birth time was woefully rare back in the day — it really is the closest we ever get to the stereotype of what many think astrology is used for: divining whether you’ll find the right job, get rich, or meet your soul mate. However, when you really engage with the sources — get to know the context in which they were written, juxtapose them against contemporaneous or near contemporaneous writings on similar topics, and take time to understand the philosophical backdrop — nothing could be further from the truth.
The corpus of Hellenistic and Medieval astrological writing sheds light on big issues that we grapple with today, including fate versus free will, nature versus nurture, and, yes, will I ever find the proverbial “one.” The more I read ancient texts in translation, the more I began seeing complicated cosmologies with intricate understandings of the universe involving physics, astronomy, meteorology, mathematics, and even, to a certain extent, biology. To say that this form of astrology is somehow backward or “Medieval” fails to appreciate the fact that it is about more than whether Saturn in the second will make you dull and lacking in professional ambitions; these texts are about a way of understanding the universe, its rhythms and movements, and how those divinely inspired (or controlled?) celestial mechanics influenced ancient views of life on earth.
Who was Vettius Valens?
To the best of my knowledge, Mark Riley, an emeritus classicist, is at least an established scholar on Valens, if not a leading one. I was curious whether David Pingree — another avatar of ancient astrological textual translations — had ever translated Anthologies as his works are often considered the “gold standard,” but Riley’s is helpfully available in PDF online and I refer to it often when revisiting various topics in natal chart delineation.
In my slightly rabbit hole-esque sleuthing on Pingree, I came across a charming review of his 1986 translation of Valens. I think it worth quoting here since it recalls the debate around why the history of astrology is as important as any other branch of ancient sciences and a reminder of how challenging it can be to convince others of the legitimacy of its study, let alone its practice. The reviewer, considering the merits of Pingree having translated Valens’ Anthologies, writes:
“It is debatable whether the interests of scholarship would not have been better served by reprinting some of the astronomical texts that have already appeared in this series…all of which have been out of print for upwards of 100 years, to the considerable inconvenience of researchers in the history of ancient science” (2).
That Claudius Ptolemy’s Almagest is seen by some as of more intrinsic value to the history of science than his Tetrabiblos further underscores the enduring undervaluing of the study of astrology. Anthologies is one of the few ancient texts that offers not only practical information for the practicing astrologer, but also a glimpse into what it might have been like to have been in the ‘biz in the Hellenistic period.
According to Mark Riley, who drew from Valens’ own biographical information supplied in Anthologies, Vettius Valens was conceived on May 13, 119 AD and born on February 8, 120 (3). A chart calculated for noon that day indicates that Valens could have had a four-degree Gemini ascendant, a 13-degree Aquarian MC, an Aquarian sun and Libra moon. His ascendant ruler, Mercury, is in the eighth house (Capricorn) — a house often associated with the occult, psychology, the underworld and astrology. While Saturn is in his first house, offering potential for mutual reception, though the planets are still in aversion to each other, possibly suggesting challenges or setbacks in areas relating to career, other people’s money, foreign travel, and even the practice of astrology itself.
Scant biographical details indicate that Valens’ mother passed away in his 20s, and by his middle 30s, he was working abroad and getting into trouble (read: “in mortal danger because of a woman”). In search of occult knowledge, he moved from Antioch to Egypt, where, Riley quotes, he “suffered much, endured much…and spent money that seemed inexhaustible” (4). Valens also became a teacher of received esoteric knowledge, which was then passed onto his students and even transmitted in the surviving Anthologies where this passage seems to call the serious student to disciplined study:
“…I encourage those who have just met with this compendium, who are just entering the heavenly places, who are surveying for a time the dancing places and the mysteries of the gods, and who are gaining god-like glory — these I urge to lay aside the many schemes of systems and books, to become proficient in the scientific, tabulated theorems of the stars and signs and in the operations which use the tables of visible motions, and to stick to these methods which have already been prescribed” (5).
From Valens, one learns not only how to cast a natal chart by hand, but also various techniques for evaluating a nativity. Some technical pointers that I have made particular note of include examining the Descendant and the signs preceding and following it “because in these places is found the fated outcome” (6), evaluating the eleventh place relative to the Lot of Fortune to ascertain prosperity (7), and an eerily accurate interpretation of what the various bounds and terms produce (8). However, what I’ve found equally interesting to contemplate lately are the capital-P philosophical views of Valens and how these thoughts are still relevant to us today. Ergo, here are the three tips about fate, fortune and friends that I picked up from Double-V.
Tip #1: Que Sera Sera
“If either malefics alone or benefics alone are in conjunction or in configuration, with no aspect of the other, then the results will be definite. Accordingly then, the initiates of this art, those wishing to have knowledge of the future, will be helped because they will not be burdened with vain hopes, will not expend grievous midnight toil, will not vainly love the impossible, nor in a like manner will they be carried away by their eagerness to attain what they may expect because of some momentary good fortune” (9).
This may be a brutal statement, but it’s kinda true: if you know you don’t have a placement that portends toward great fortune, then you’re not likely to go around expecting a windfall or instant TikTok stardom. There’s an element of stoic acceptance of one’s lot in life according to the configuration of the planets and, arguably, a greater willingness to navigate one’s destiny within the boundaries of the natal promise.
Now, this could be a controversial view since we’ve been raised on a hearty diet of personal agency: I’m captain of my own destiny! I create my own reality! If I want it, I just have to work harder to get it! … Well, yes and no. I’m a big believer in goal-setting and going after what you want, but if the planets aren’t configured for a meteoric rise to superstar status, I’m definitely no fan of rowing upstream.
On the bright side, the natal chart is replete with possibilities and the archetypal energies can manifest themselves in myriad ways. I don’t think this necessarily condemns you to a life of mediocrity; rather, I wholeheartedly believe that a Moon-ruled Cancer MC means that you’ll be happiest when called to do lunar things in whatever sign that Moon happens to be in. Sure, maybe that includes fame, maybe it doesn’t, but sometimes our celestial signature is something we need to work with, rather than overcome or deny.
Tip #2: The Only Thing Certain is Uncertainty
“Fate has decreed for each person the immutable working out of events, reinforcing this decree with many opportunities for good or bad consequences. Through the use of these opportunities, two selfbegotten gods, Hope and Fortune, the assistants of Fate, control man’s life and make it possible for him to bear Fate’s decrees by using their compulsion and deception….If Hope ever does offer solid prospects to anyone, she immediately abandons him and goes on to others. She seems to be close to everyone, but she stays with no one” (10).
Fortune is fickle and calls to mind the lessons around impermanence embedded in many Eastern teachings. That our cultural psychology overemphasizes attachment to transient things sets us up for big disappointments. Money, job, status, property — none of this is especially significant at the expense of peace of mind and contentment. And, of course, we need to accept that the highs and lows don’t last — they may drag on for several years (some transits, especially outer planet ones, can be lengthy) — but nothing is eternal and unchanging.
On the flip side, I consider James Hillman’s observations about the integral role that problems play in colouring our lives. He writes, “Why do we focus so intensely on our problems? What draws us to them? Why are they so attractive? They have the magnet power of love: somehow we desire our problems; we are in love with them much as we want to get rid of them . . . Problems sustain us — maybe that’s why they don’t go away” (11).
But that’s the trouble: part of our obsession with problems hinges on our inability to let anything go. Our circumstances are temporary; nobody rides a lifelong high without lows and vice versa.
Tip #3: Don’t Talk Astrology with Non-Astrology Peeps
“I adjure you, my most precious brother, and you, initiates into this mystic art, by the starry vault of heaven and by the twelve-fold circle, by the sun, the moon, and the five wandering stars by whom ‘all of life is guided, and by Providence itself and Holy Fate, to preserve these matters in secret and not to share them with the vulgar, but only with those worthy of them and able to preserve and requite them as they deserve” (12).
Listen, I’m as keen as the next astrologer to talk about the art and craft of the practice, but if there’s anything that I’ve learned from being a little too open about my interests, it’s that many people still think of astrology as some sort of back-cover magazine missive that you read for entertainment; if you try to tell them that for centuries astrology was taught at the best European universities, they scoff and see this as a vestige of antiquated, pre-modern, pre-scientific thinking. Just like politics and vaccination status have become verboten topics of polite discourse, astrology is roughly on par for me, and I’ve previously written about why I no longer defend it to astro-skeptics. Instead, I’ve decided to cultivate my craft quietly and with great diligence.
Does this mean that I’ll never tell people about my astrological inclinations? No, but I haven’t yet reached that state of feeling completely comfortable with myself and my personal beliefs; I’m still stuck in the defensive mode of feeling as though I must be an apologist for the way that I live my life. Perhaps part of the challenge is that the Self isn’t fully constellated (pun intended); after all, that’s when Jung says that meaning follows, and, in my search for meaning, perhaps I’ll settle in to a more confident sense of self, including in my astrological practices — what everyone thinks, be d*mned!
Have you read Vettius Valens? Do you share your astrology practice openly? Drop me a line and tell me about your experiences!
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(1) C. G. Jung, “Richard Wilhelm: In Memoriam,” in Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Volume 15: Spirit in Man, Art, And Lit’erature, edited by Gerhard Adler and R.F. C. Hull (Princeton University Press, 1966): 53–62 (p. 56) http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt5hhr2c.8 <accessed 28 June 2022>.
(2) D. R. Dicks, “Review of The New Teubner of Vettius Valens, by D. Pingree and Vettius Valens Antiochenus,” The Clas’sical Review 39, no. 1 (1989): 23–24 (p. 23) http://www.jstor.org/stable/713392 <accessed 28 June 2022>.
(3) Mark Riley, “A Survey of Vettius Valens,” California State University, undated paper, p. 1 <https://www.csus.edu/indiv/r/rileymt/PDF_folder/ VettiusValens.PDF> [accessed 20 June 2022].
(4) Ibid., pp. 1–2.
(5) Vettius Valens, Anthologies, translated by Mark Riley (undated), p. 78.
(6) Ibid., p. 55.
(7) Ibid., p. 35.
(8) Ibid., pp. 6–8.
(9) Ibid., p. 96.
(10) Ibid., p. 102.
(11) James Hillman, A Blue Fire (New York: HarperPerennial, 1991), pp. 275–276.
(12) Vettius Valens, Anthologies, p. 77.