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 holds.

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 of Judgments:

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 podesta.

[Paragraph omitted.]

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. . .

[emphasis mine]

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 or combustion.

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 time.

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 or sign.

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 issues.

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 in Arabic.

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 reference.

4. This phrase is the literal meaning of what is usually refered to in horary literature as the quesited.

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.