A Study in Early House Division
by Rob Hand
The following is an example of a horary question
quoted by Guido Bonatti in Tractatus IV, Part 2, Chapter
4. It appears to be a case quoted almost verbatim from an
original work by Zahel, a Jewish mathematician, physican and
astrologer who died between 822 and 850 C.E. The work is known
in Latin as Introductoriam ad astrologiam seu de iudiciis
(Introduction to Astrology, or Concerning Judgments).
This is a work which as yet I do not have in either the Arabic
original or Latin translation. The latter does exist, however,
and I do expect to have access to it before too much longer.
Zahel (Abu Uthman Sahl) as an astro-logical author is important
because he belongs to the first generation or so of Arabic Era
astro-logers1 along with Masha 'Allah, Abu Ali Al-Khayyat and
Omar who practiced an astrology which was almost purely Hellen-istic
in style and which did not yet show as much influence from later
sources such as Hindu and Persian. Therefore, he and these others
represent a transitional phase between late Greek astrology and
the kind of medieval Arabic astrology that came back to the West.
The chart pre-sented here is also discussed from an astronomical
point of view by J.D.North in his book, Horoscopes and History.2
In the text North cites several versions of the chart all of which
differ from each other and differ slightly from the chart as given
here. (Scribes tend to mess up anything containing numbers as
opposed to words.) Despite the variations of position in the different
citations of this chart in the different editions of Zahel, and
here in Bonatti, I think that we can be certain that a basic point
The case study as cited here and probably in the original
Zahel pre-sents very interesting issues concerning the method
of houses, cusps and, exactly what constitutes a house. In the
following I quote the passage as given in Bonatti in a somewhat
abridged manner to set up the discussion.
Another Example Which Zahel Posed in His Book
A certain soldier asked whether he would obtain the office
of podesta3 in that year; and his question was absolute because
he did not specify which office, yet he was hoping to get a certain
special one. The Ascendant of his question was Gemini, 21 degrees;
Cancer was the second house, 13 degrees; Leo the third house,
4 degrees;Virgo the fourth house, 4 degrees; Libra the fifth house,
8 degrees; Scorpio the sixth house, 15 degrees. The other 6 houses
were in the For Saturn was in Gemini, 6 degrees; Jupiter in Pisces,
20 degrees, Cancer, 12 degrees; Venus in Leo, 3 degrees; Mercury
in Gemini, 27 degrees; the Moon in Virgo, 19 degrees; the Dragon's
Head in Virgo, 22 degrees, the Dragon's Tail in its opposition;
and the Part of Fortune in Aries, 14 degrees.
He himself asked this question, therefore I looked at the
Ascendant, its lord, and the Moon, which are the significators
of the querent. The Midheaven and its lord are the significators
of the matter sought for. 4 And Mercury, which is the significator
of the querent, was in the first house, namely, in the Ascendant
near the end of the sign; and Mercury was separated from Jupiter,
which is the significator of the matter sought for. This signifies
that he will not get the office of podesta in that year.
Thereupon I began to work by means of the Moon,which was
in the opposition of the Jupiter signifying the matter sought
for. Wherefore inasmuch as it is from this, that the Moon was
being joined to Jupiter, it signifies that the querent would obtain
the office in that year (even though it was a joining together
by opposition) but with effort and uneasiness and also opposition,
anxiety and the greatest worry, which would not have happened
to him if his joining together [of the significators] were by
the trine or sextile aspect; on the contrary, he would have gotten
it easily and without effort, and also with the greatest swiftness.
Thereupon I looked at Jupiter, the significator of the matter
sought for; and he was in a house signifying the matter about
which there was the question, which would signify the accomplishment
of the matter if Jupiter himself were to be in a good state and
well disposed, but Jupiter was in his own first station seeking
to go retrograde. Therefore even though Jupiter received the disposition
of the Moon, still because of his own debility, he could not retain
it; this shows that the one who labored at this in order that
the matter be perfected could not bring it to pass. And so the
evil disposition of Jupiter signified the destruction of the matter
sought for and its annihilation; it seemed that the person who
then was the podesta might be the cause whereby the querent would
not obtain [the office]. [This is] because Jupiter. which destroyed
the matter, was the lord of the tenth house, which signified the
And because the lord of the Ascendant was being moved
from his own domicile into another, it was signified through the
lord's position that the questioner was moving within a short
time; and because the lord was being moved to the second house,
it was seen that the move would be in order to acquire for himself
substance which he did not have. And it was seen that the move
for the sake of acquiring money for himself would be made to a
certain place in which he had already remained at another time.
The first section of the delineation simply presents the question
and the chart elements. The cusps of the houses as presented are,
according to North, computed according to the method that we refer
to as the Alchabitius system. This is an important fact as we
shall see. Then he begins with the delineation.
The querent asks the question and therefore is signified by
the Ascendant, the Ascendant lord Mercury, and the Moon which
is the general significator of all querents. Since the question
is about office in general, the quesited or matter sought for
is signified by the Midheaven and its lord. The Ascendant lord
is Mercury in the first house in Gemini. The tenth house lord
is Jupiter which is in Pisces. Unfortunately for the querent Mercury
has just separated from a square with Jupiter in Pisces. While
even a square aspect would be better than nothing as the indicator
of a perfection or completion of the outcome that the querent
desires, because the querent s significator Mercury is separating
from the significator of the matter sought for Jupiter there will
be no perfection and therefore the querent will not get the office
he desires in this year based on this indication. So far there
is nothing here which should be a surprise to anyone accustomed
to the logic of traditional horary astrology. Blocked by this
first indication, the astrologer looks to see if anything can
alter the negative indication given by the lack of perfection
between Mercury and Jupiter. The standard practice is to look
at the Moon, the general significator of all querents.
The Moon makes an application to Jupiter by opposition. This
indicates that the querent might get the position. But a perfection
by opposition is an indication that even if the querent gets what
he wants, it will be with great difficulty. It would be much better
if the perfection were by sextile or trine. So we now have one
indication against the getting of the office and another somewhat
lackluster indication that the querent will get the office albeit
with difficulty. However, even with this there is a problem. Jupiter
is in Pisces in the tenth house in its own domicile. But it is
also stationary retrograde which is a rather severe accidental
debility. Thus whatever virtue the Moon pushes onto Jupiter because
of its application cannot be held by Jupiter. This is an example
of a Return of Virtue. Bonatti says the following on this subject
in The Tractatus III, Part 2, Chapter 4.
When a planet is joined to another and gives or commits its
own virtue or disposition, and that planet to which the virtue
or disposition is given is retrograde or combust, it is not able
to retain the virtue, wherefore it gives it back to that planet
which gave the virtue to it because it cannot retain the virtue
due to the debility which it possesses due to that retrogradation
The context strongly suggests that a return of virtue requires
that the planet applied to receives the applying planet which
is not the case here. But the text does clearly indicate that
whatever merit the application might have as a mode of perfection,
this merit is lessened by Jupiter's being about to go retrograde.
The text continues with an examination of the state of Mercury
the significator of the querent:
And because the lord of the Ascendant was being moved from
his own domicile into another, it was signified through the lord
s position that the questioner was moving within a short time;
and because the lord was being moved to the second house, [italics
mine] it was seen that the move would be in order to acquire for
himself substance which he did not have. And it was seen that
the move for the sake of acquiring money for himself would be
made to a certain place in which he had already remained at another
So far everything has been more or less standard traditional
horary. But now things begin to get interesting. The fact that
Mercury is in the late degrees of Gemini becomes a very important
issue because Mercury is the lord of the querent as well
as being in the first house in Gemini. But because it is
about the change sign, it indicates that the querent's status
is about to change.This is straightforward enough but the text
indicates that the change is not only of sign but also of house!
By modern reckoning Mercury is nowhere near the cusp of the
second house which is the proper beginning of the second house
according to most modern astrologers. Even traditional texts would
not have had Mercury acquiring second house occupancy until it
gets to the degrees just prior to the cusp, the convention being
within about five degrees either of longitude or of oblique ascension.
But Mercury is some 16 degrees shy of the second cusp itself and
about 11 degrees shy of even the most generous orb of the second
house. 5 So how is Mercury about to have its house changed by
its own zodiacal motion? We have our first hint in the very beginning
of the text.
The Ascendant of his question was Gemini, 21 degrees; Cancer
was the second house, 13 degrees; Leo the third house, 4 degrees;
Virgo the fourth house, 4 degrees; Libra the fifth house, 8 degrees;
Scorpio the sixth house, 15 degrees.
The phrasing of the English exactly reproduces the Latin. We
can only assume that the Latin does the same for the original
Arabic. However, in what follows the implications of the phrasing
are supported as we shall see. Note that the text does not say,
The second house cusp was 13 degrees of Cancer. Rather it says,
Cancer was the second house, 13 degrees. . .
Taking the text at face value, it clearly says that the sign
of Cancer is the second house with a cusp at 13 degrees. We tend
to think of cusp as meaning beginning. But this is not its correct
meaning. A cusp (Latin cuspis) is a point with the clear implication
of apex rather than beginning. For example, our bicuspid teeth
have two peaks or points, not two beginnings.
Could it be that a cusp is simply a point that has the strongest
quality associated with the house and that it could fall anywhere
within a house? We have a well-established convention even in
modern astrology (although many moderns are not aware of it) that
a house begins approximately five degrees before the cusp. Even
here in a practice familiar to many moderns cusp does not equal
beginning. It seems apparent in this text that the beginning of
the house is the beginning of the sign in which the cusp falls.
This is consistent with what follows later in the delineation.
. . . and because the lord was being moved to the second
house. . .
If the sign of Cancer is the second house, then Mercury is indeed
just about to be moved into the second house, it being quite late
in the sign of Gemini. For those who are not familiar with what
we have found in Greek astrology in general this may all seem
strange. Why should a sign be a house? In most Greek astrology
signs are in fact houses. The Ascendant only marks which sign
is the first house or more correctly the first place . And the
Ascendant is not the only place that can make a sign a first house
or place. For certain purposes various planets can do this, and
most of the of the Lots (which we call erroneously " Arabic
Parts" ) also mark signs as being first places of derived
house systems. For example, if the Lot of the Father falls in
the sign of Leo, Leo becomes the first place of the chart read
from the point of view of the native's relationship with the father.
The same is true of whatever sign contains the Lot of the Mother.
Thus the lots become indicators of the signs as houses.
But Lots are not house cusps in the modern sense of the word.
Why would we be justified in regarding house cusps computed by
the Alchabitius method as working in the manner of the Greek Lots,
that is, making a sign a first house of a set of houses pertaining
to some set of issues?
We have just found a passage from Vettius Valens in Book V of
his Anthology which shows a modern style cusp being treated
in this manner. The following is the passage in question.
As with the Höroskopos in Gemini, the Midheaven in Aquarius
by degree. This place [Aquarius], then, possesses the relation
concerning activity and reputation and children, and also that
concerning a foreign land and god since zodiacally it is found
in the 9th from the Höroskopos . . .
Here Valens refers to a chart with Gemini rising which would
make Pisces the tenth sign from the Ascendant, the H roskopos.
But the actual degree of the Midheaven is in Aquarius, the ninth
sign, and therefore Aquarius has jurisdiction over both tenth
house issues, activity and reputation and children, and ninth
house issues, foreign land and god. And the Midheaven is a house
cusp in modern terms, yet it marks a sign as being a house, the
tenth. In this Valens passage we have a ombination of quadrant
houses with whole-sign houses. It is my opinion that this Zahel
passage quoted by Bonatti is similar in its logic but more extensive
in its implications. For what we do not see in Valens is houses
being counted from the Midheaven. We only explicitly see the sign
of the Midheaven doing double duty as a tenth and ninth house
We do know that the Greeks used derived houses much as we do
in both modern Western astrology and in Hindu astrology. Thus
if the Midheaven could mark Aquarius in the above passage as being
both tenth and ninth, then Pisces as the second sign from the
Midheaven sign of Aquarius could also do double duty as the tenth
sign from the Ascendant and the second sign from the Midheaven,
i.e., resources and possessions connected with the career (refered
to as activity in the passage). In such a system a house cusp
functions just like an Ascendant or Lot in the whole-sign system.
It marks a sign as being the first house or place of twelve houses
or places pertaining to some issue. So that in the example above
Cancer being the sign in which the second cusp falls, Cancer is
the first house or place of the twelve places or signs as they
pertain to money and moveable possessions.
I believe that this is what we have here, a hybrid or transitional
stage between the whole-sign houses of the Greeks and the quadrant
systems of the Middle Ages. Instead of the cusps being either
the exact or approximate beginning of each house, the cusps mark
signs as being the first place of each of the twelve sets of twelve
places. And the logic of this suggests that if one were to have
signs with two cusps within them (which is the other side of having
intercepted signs) the sign in question would be the first sign
of two different sets of twelve places. For example, I have the
second and third cusps in Leo using most modern systems of house
division. This means that I would evaluate both possessions and
siblings starting with Leo as the first place for both sets of
Is this the way that modern quadrant house systems actually
began? If it is, our modern way of dealing with cusps is completely
incorrect! We should not be counting houses from houses in our
turning of the wheels, but rather counting signs from each of
the signs that are marked as first places by the quadrant cusps
for each of the twelve issues associated with the houses.
However, we still have a problem. How do we compute the intermediate
cusps? This is the major problem of modern house division and
nothing here solves it. But at least we do see another instance,
perhaps, of how the early astrologers dealt with signs as houses
even as they were making a transition to the modern modes of dealing
with houses as zones demarcated by the cusps.
1. I say Era because most
of the authors were not in fact Arabic even though they wrote
2. J.D. North, Horoscopes
and History, Warburg Institute: London, 1986, pp. 77-79.
3. potestaria. In
Bonatti's time this was a type of military governorship established
under the Holy Roman Empire. There were other offices with this
title but given Bonatti's times and places, this is the most likely
4. This phrase is the literal
meaning of what is usually refered to in horary literature as
5. If one were to measure
the five degrees in oblique ascension, it would be even less than
five degrees in longitude because the first house is less than
30 degrees of longitude.