A Teacher’s Thoughts


The Lessons in natal delineation that we teach in classical or medieval astrology are many times, by today’s standards, controversial. When we teach lessons like whether a subject will survive birth and childhood or on finding the Hyleg, we are looking at the ‘bread and butter’ considerations of the ancients when delineating a nativity; i.e. the considerations concerning longevity and length of life.

There are some things about this teaching that we need to keep in mind. The prediction of death is not to be taken lightly or used irresponsibly. There are several ethical and moral ramifications of this subject. But the self-appointed, sanctimonious, self-righteous opportunist who admonishes that we should not teach these subjects or predict death should please take heed that I am not urging students to burden their subject clients with predictions of death or their loved ones death. I would merely intend to bring forward the study of the methods by which death was predicted by professional astrologers when astrology was considered the highest science. This is an ongoing work where it is yet dangerous to cast anything into stone and you are hereby being advised to study it as such!

I give my students the full counsel of everything I know or believe regarding this subject. With knowledge comes responsibility and accountability. I do not tell my clients, you are going to live so or so many years. The information I derive from the chart only helps me to place other issues in the chart into perspective. In fact, it is quite impossible to accurately predict a subject’s deeds and fortune without the careful and wise consideration of Longevity! I believe that the subject matter is absolutely necessary to the study of ‘traditional’ astrology.

But this is not something that should be attempted in practice until the student has mastered the full battery of delineation techniques taught and advocated by the ancients. This subject matter is not entertainment! The astrologer delineating a client’s or native’s ‘longevity’ has entered the ‘guts’ of the native’s soul, so to speak, and must be discreet, compassionate and careful. We need to “walk circumspect as wise”. The word “circumspect” means to be cautious, carefully considering all the related circumstances and possible results of one’s actions, decisions and judgments. I have some very strong feelings about this teaching myself. This is not a teaching that one should make ‘general’ and there is a reason the ancients did not teach everything they knew on the subject. In the hands of the foolish, this kind of teaching is potentially very harmful.

We should never be afraid to know the truth. King David wrote in the Psalms,

LORD, make me to know mine end, and the measure of my days, what it is: that I may know how frail I am…teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.[1]

By numbering our days, we are made aware of the fact that our lives are truly like the grass of the field that is here today and gone tomorrow. For some people, this kind of information motivates humility and spurs loving actions to live one’s life fully in the service of others and God. For other people, it is a further excuse to ‘live like hell’ selfishly – eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we die! While I believe this knowledge is a gift of God, like everything in the world, it can be used for good or evil. Therefore, we do have to be very discriminate with this teaching.  I still have to spend time in prayer seeking wisdom in how to share these kinds of things. It is a responsibility that I personally do not take lightly. I honestly try not to lean to my own understanding of these things and my own wisdom and it is not something I freely volunteer! We have to make every effort to be right, but realise we can err.

While I encourage each of my students to practice delineation of longevity from the beginning, I exhort them also to do this privately for their own edification, not for showing off, terrorising some subject, or attracting attention to themselves. The student will look the fool if they make a prediction before they understand what they are doing. They will be a cruel fool if they are right in their prediction and unwise in their behaviour. Wisdom requires long and attentive study of the matter of death before predicting it. It is one thing to predict longevity, another thing to communicate what you think you know to the subject.

The question we as astrologers have to ask ourselves is, “Why do I want to know this? Why do I want this knowledge?” For King David, his motivation was humility and love of God, “…that I may know how frail I am and apply my heart unto Wisdom”! What is ours? Only an honest answer to that question will give one the answer of whether or not they should study this further, privately and under close tutelage of someone who has mastered these techniques.

In the words of my teacher,

We are at the greatest risk of being wrong when we act from the position of thinking we know! In the end, it is wise(est) to study much and say little.[2]

The textual transmission of the Classical and Medieval methods of predicting the natives’ length of life, or longevity, presents us with several problems. The first problem is the form of the textual transmission. What we often have as text is the final product of several translations and copyists thus making room for clerical or copyist errors. Then there is the possibility that the authors and/or translators themselves may have had their own agenda’s and purposely wrote in errors, or deliberately misinformed, or withheld pertinent information, or paraphrased using their own, often astrologically unqualified, understanding of the text. Often the subject matter, such as longevity, was the target of religious bias and was a part of the motivation of the Inquisition.

Today we like to pride ourselves in the ‘freedom of information’. However, it is clear from the historical records that the ancients most certainly did not share these modern values for various reasons: not least, that if they shared everything then their usefulness and livelihood soon came to an end.

Another problem we face is the often all too obvious differences of technique and opinion that is found from one astrologer to another. I do not think this is as great a problem as we enjoy making it out to be today! I wonder if this is truly such a problem. Bonatti, who compiled much of the medieval astrological teachings of former astrologers at its entrance into Europe, was obviously faced with these same differences. He did not find it a problem at all. In fact, in reading what Bonatti says about discovering the Hyleg (and he seems to favour Omar in his method) a quote really struck me. It has nothing to do with the Hyleg per se, but it has to do with the assertion that the ancients ‘quibbled’ over everything.

Bonatti writes,

There was a diversity of opinion among the wise regarding the Hyleg although not contrariety.

This statement does not compute with most western cultures today! So you may ask, “You mean it is possible to have a diversity of opinion without disagreeing (contrariety)?” My answer is, absolutely! What Bonatti noticed is that these varying opinions often filled in where another’s opinion left off! Now the realisation of this truth regarding the ancients and their differences brings me to the problem and alternatives I face in teaching the subject of longevity!

I have several alternatives that I can resort to in order to teach this subject. First, I could simply reproduce the extant texts on the matter for the student to read and study. This is of course fraught with its own problems. A new student to classical and medieval astrology is often unprepared to wade through the strange and sometimes ambiguous terminologies of the ancients, not to mention understand philosophical concepts often totally foreign to modern thought.

Second, I could simply present the student with my own interpretation of medieval and classical techniques, a sort of professional commentary upon the work of my predecessors. This is, after all, what the Hellenistic tradition was; commentaries and opinions based upon the authors appraisal of his own experience and the opinions of his contemporaries and predecessors.

Third, I could use the method as taught by Robert Zoller for example, and present a translation and paraphrase which I then interpret for the student and explain how it ought to be understood and applied.

I have opted for a fourth method that contains elements of all of the above. As Bonatti emphasises and I concur with him, the existence of diverse opinions that do not disagree requires that we change our perceptions of these teachings.

Robert Zoller wrote,

The complete study of astrology, therefore, consists of not merely digging up the writings of the ancients and assiduously studying them, but penetrating their inner meaning and re-discovering their perceptual mode. We must ultimately see the world as the ancients did if we are to understand their metaphysics.[3]

In a similar manner, Rob Hand also wrote,

For astrology to develop a proper philosophical foundation, we have to go back to philosophy as it was prior to the taking of that fork. We have to use pre-medieval Aristotle, Plato, Pythagoras, Plotinus, the Stoics, and other philosophies of that kind in order to find what might be a foundation for a philosophy of astrology. And when we do, we find that these philosophers did in fact provide the philosophical foundation of late classical astrology although it is not always clear that astrologer-practitioners were aware of as it’s having one. These astrologers, whose writings we have, were a practical lot and did not always have their own theoretical underpinnings in mind when practicing astrology, although it is also clear that they sometimes did…[4]

Quite simply what we are reading in these ancients’ texts is not necessarily rules that they were imposing, but rather, they were really their judgments based upon common perceptions and philosophical foundations! This is why the compilations of aphorisms we have today are often traps of misunderstanding into which we can easily fall. So, while considering carefully the judgments of our predecessors, I want to also focus on their perceptions that led to those judgments, for those are the true postulates and axioms underpinning astrology. This is no more greatly evident than in the teachings concerning Longevity!

In the study of Longevity, you will find it touches many aspects of classical and medieval astrology; i.e. longevity techniques and method are a kind of summation of all classical and medieval astrology! There are many features of longevity methods that you will find useful in almost every particular of delineation and prediction; from generally analysing the entire natal constellation and viewing the chart through multiple layers of rulership to particulars of identifying specific significators such as the Hyleg (giver of life), the Alchocoden (the giver of years of life) and the Anaraeta (the giver of death). You will also learn the relationship between the area of influence of the planets (the ecliptic) and its corresponding relative motion through time (the equator) that longevity techniques equate an arc of life (measured on the ecliptic) to a span of life in time (measured by the diurnal motion of the equator).

My hope, through these studies, is that we ultimately can come to an understanding of the course of our lives. Our lives have a beginning, middle and an end. The goal is wisdom to understand our purpose and significance which requires that we look our own mortality in the face. What we might gain through this is an understanding of fate and a measure of our own life, a sense of the fleeting character that is our life! Life is precious, and it is important to live in the present cultivating the spiritual well-being and doing ‘good’!

Modern western ‘humanism’ would like to insulate us from death and limit our contact with death to as little as possible. Just look at how western journalism never shows western audiences the true face of death in their reporting of conflicts and natural disaster. They attempt to engender this delusion that we will live forever and all is well, so go back to sleep and do not be concerned over such unnecessary subjects. But there is nothing in this world as certain as death! Whatever is born will most certainly die. The ancient astrologers were above all else, realists and dealt with death directly. In the west today, we need specially trained teams of psychologists to help people face the frequent forms of adversity that were common to not only the ancients, but very much common today for the other two thirds of our contemporary world; e.g. war, famine, disease and natural disaster.

Steven Birchfield A.M.A.

March 2013

[1] Psalms 39:4 & Psalms 90:12 from the King James Version of the Bible

[2] Robert Zoller’s Introductory words to his lesson on Longevity in his Diploma Course in Medieval Astrology.

[3] Preface of his textbook on Longevity, Tools and Techniques for the Medieval Astrologer Part I, 3rd edition, by Robert Zoller and published by New Library Limited ©2003

[4] On Matter and Form in Astrology by Rob Hand ©2005, the article was published in an abbreviated form in Geocosmic Journal for autumn 2006. Quotes are taken from the complete, unabridged article which covers considerably more ground than the version in the journal.

11 thoughts on “A Teacher’s Thoughts

  1. Steven, this is a real gem. I’ll read it over again at least twice. For now, I wanted to comment on the Bonatti quote and the issue of more than one way being true, and therefore not leading to contrariety .

    This is at the core, visible or not, of the crisis in Traditional Astrological discourse.or what I have elsewhere referred to as ‘brand name’ astrology. Just last night I read a section of your edition of W.Ramesey’s Astrologia Munda.

    I must have glossed over it before, but Ramesey rehearses Ptolemy on Eclipses. We find Ptolemy effectively giving us a choice, when he speaks of the effect of the eclipse by region / sign and so on but then say OR where it is visible. Its easy to miss and I hope I haven’t misconstrued .

    It matters not perhaps, except that the text can be interpreted in more than one way. In one case it appears to be simple and to the point, and the other is more nuanced . Ptolemy allows a large number of elements to be considered

    1. Hi Peter,

      Well I do not think you have misconstrued anything. Ptolemy isn’t really giving us an either/or choice in that sense, but rather telling us that an eclipse has universal signification because it 1) has significance relevant to the sign it falls in and therefore to countries (or their rulers) that have some significant connection to that sign or that signs triplicity; and 2) because it is visible in that region. The actual quote is as follows:

      “We are to judge of the first portion of the inquiry, which is regional, in the following manner: In the eclipses of sun and moon as they occur, particularly those more easily observed, we shall examine the region of the zodiac in which they take place, and the countries in familiarity with its triangles, and in similar fashion ascertain which of the cities, either from their horoscope at the time of their founding and the position of the luminaries at the time, or from the mid-heaven of the nativity of their then rulers, are sympathetic to the zodiacal sign of the eclipse. And in whatsoever countries or cities we discover a familiarity of this kind, we must suppose that some event will occur which applies, generally speaking, to all of them, particularly to those which bear a relation to the actual zodiacal sign of the eclipse AND to those of them in which the eclipse, since it took place above the earth, was visible.”

      So in fact, we have a multiple choice depending on our need, in order to see in what way any eclipse has a universal application and to whom it applies.

      1. A very important post, Steven. I totally agree with you respecting the importance of the study of the lenght of life. It is not only to predict death but to go deeper into the chart. Some students ask me: why to study this difficult and so slippery material? Perhaps because some client may ask us about it? I usually answer like you did, that it is really the core of Medieval astrology: all the other delineations, especially of those called especial techniques depend on the reasoning used to see vitality in a chart. Perhaps the first thing to take into account even in horary or electional astrology is to know if the chart has an hyleg, a certain luminary or planet giving them vitality, turning them alive.

  2. Thanks for this thoughtful article on a difficult subject, Steven. I agree with most of what you say. Learning about (and therefore teaching) various astrological techniques, bar none, should be encouraged. However, putting them in practice without the slightest bit of evidence backing them up is wrong (even indirectly, as considerations in judging something else). I’m not aware of a single publication presenting proof for any of these techniques. Until such time, techniques you are teaching (and any astrological technique without proof for that matter) remain historical curiosities and philosophical discourses, even if the techniques seem to fit within a larger framework or their history can be traced back thousands of years.

    Again, I’m very happy to see that people such as yourself are keeping these ancient techniques alive by studying and teaching them. But I believe we have to draw the line between study and practice: putting anything into action without evidence, however circumspect this is done, is asking for trouble.

    It is possible, of course, that I am ignorant in my study of astrology and proof does exist, in which case I would like to be enlightened on this matter for my own edification.

  3. Hello Aqulia,

    I’m not Steven, but I saw your post and found it to be of interest. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems that the crux of the matter from your point of view is that the techniques Steven is discussing are essentially untested theories and for that reason they shouldn’t be used.

    You don’t name any of the techniques, so I have to guess you are referring to all of them. You appear to be unaware that there is a very substantial body of evidence for all these techniques, handed down to us from the Hellenistic practitioners through the 17th Century.

    From that point of view, that would make it among the longest running experiments ever conducted. The proof is in the pudding, as they say.

    Astrologers continue to use these techniques because they continue to work. Isn’t that what proof is?

    Best wishes,

    P.S. I notice you have a copy of my edition of Tetrabiblos available for download. There is a later, corrected version @ https://internationsocietyofclassicalastrologers.files.wordpress.com/2013/03/tetrabiblos_01a1d11.pdf

    1. Hi Peter,

      Thanks for your reply. I have down- and uploaded your latest version of Tetrabiblos, thanks.

      Yes, I am referring to all the techniques. Reading your response gives me the impression that we have different concepts of ‘proof.’. That a certain technique has been working for astrologers for centuries or millennia is not proof to me. This kind of proof is very hard to substantiate. Do we have detailed, indisputable and continuous records of all predictions? I don’t believe we do. In this case we are down to cherry-picking the evidence, which for most part is self-proclaimed. Many of the stories passed down to us are legends (i.e. grains of truth embellished to make for fascinating reading). My view is that this doesn’t qualify as ‘substantial body of evidence.’

      Proof to me would look like this. Gather many thousands of verified birth charts indiscriminately from all over the world very shortly after the time of birth, and do this for a long time (at least several decades). Make a verifiable prediction for all of them using the exact same technique; for example, time of death (within a range). Once all these people die, look at the success rate of all predictions and compare this to chance occurrence. If the success rate of the technique under scrutiny significantly deviates from what could be expected from chance, then there is a workable hypothesis that can be published and then be tested by other people. Have this same process repeated by several research teams in a verifiable way. When many studies of this kind have found essentially the same result, that can be considered ‘proof’ for one technique.

      I realize that this is hard work, and it is next to impossible to carry out such an endeavour without serious funding. But lack of resources doesn’t justify foregoing this research and basing practice on personal validation alone, however convincing this might be. This applies to all astrological techniques, but predicting length of life is a bit more serious than telling someone that they have, say, an outgoing personality.

      The techniques are very impressive on the surface and it is a miracle that they have been preserved for so long. They form a marvelous piece of our history and enrich our astrological tradition tremendously. We should all be proud of and grateful to the tireless researchers, historians and translators for bringing us these gems. However, none of this has anything to do with ‘proof.’ Without which it is mighty brave to use any of the techniques in the real world in my view.


      P.S. A side note on research and walking my talk… I have been analyzing over 100,000 charts every day for the past four months in my spare time in order to produce the kind of proof I’m talking about – see my blog for further details. Anyone can do this if they set their mind to it.

      1. Aquila,

        Yes I’m sure I’m seeing proof differently in this particular context. With great respect, the idea of analyzing over 100,000 in a lifetime, let alone one day is really questionable.methodology. It would be impossible to do justice to any of them.

        Nativities are not like lab rats. Selecting expected traits and *testing* them is the ultimate pseudo science, not least because traits can be very difficult to discern without consideration of all elements of the chart. Then of course, you have the problem of the astrologer’s credibility.

        I’m sure your heart is in the right place and I’m the first to say we need skeptics to keep the tradition alive. I have done this for decades and use techniques that work as well for me as they did for my predecessors. BUT, it takes many, many years of study to interpret them in a coherent way. Moreover they do not always agree on all details. It’s not an anachronistic monolith of medieval dogma at all, as you imply on your own blog..

        I realize this won’t satisfy your desire for the complete objectivity of astrology and I wish you well with your endeavours,


  4. Ah… I’m glad we are of two viewpoints here, Peter, as there is no good discourse without friendly disagreement!

    Astrology (broadly defined – see my blog) is much much more than nativities, which is what you are assuming that I deal with on a large scale. I’m not. Neither do I select traits because there are none to select from in the field I am currently researching. It is possible to do justice to each chart in the set of 100,000 (and this is but a subset of a single year’s worth!) but the methodology doesn’t at all resemble the way you approach nativities.

    I am not a skeptic but a research astrologist. Sort of half-way between an astrologer and a scientist. And I don’t imply that traditional methods amount to “anachronistic monolith of medieval dogma” on my blog. Not sure which sentence grabbed your attention but would appreciate if you pointed me to it so I can see if it needs clarification.

    I only seek objectivity in the layers of astrology that can be approached and analyzed objectively. There is a lot more to the subjective vs. objective divide than you might realize. They do not preclude each other in my view (see my blog).


    1. I’m referring to the following which your have on your home page and repeat on another

      ” It is no accident that Uranus was discovered during this period (in 1781). While this revolutionary event shattered the Ptolemaic structure built on the seven sacred planets, more than 230 years later astrology still lacks a rational base that would loosen its medieval shackles. And several thousand years into its history, the astrological framework is still at the mercy of Platonic ideals, with no direct linkage to experiential proof. ”

      I count a minimum of seven unsubstantiated claims. Think about it. How do you know it wasn’t an accident and how do you know what Uranus genuinely signifies, if anything?

      How would you design an experiment that would prove the discovery an accident or not? If there is a genuine correlation between the discovery of the outers and new categories of thought, nobody has ever shown that convincingly.

      What criteria would you use to be certain than any qualities, passed on to the Georgian Planet were authentic in any case? The theosophists who did so never even supplied thoughtful, let alone definitive answers to these questions. It was *mystical.* Ironically, it was the height of unscientific thinking.

      The Ptolemaic *structure* was debunked long before this with Galileo and Copernicus. However, I’m unaware of any successful attempt to create a productive heliocentric astrology. Even thoroughgoing rationalists and materialists refer to the Sunrise and not the Earth rise. What do you mean by no rational base? Are you implying that Plato wasn’t rational? I’m a rationalist and understand the geocentric model for what it is.

      Please define a a “medieval shackle” How is it that there is no direct linkage to experiential proof? What we have, like it or not, is two millennia of horoscopic astrology, surprisingly well documented and tested by generation after generation. The fact that you don’t know that doesn’t mean it isn’t there

      I’m not confident that anything I say will satisfy you, Aquila, but I hope you will at least reflect upon all this

  5. I see no useful purpose in continuing this discussion. It’s clear to me that you’ve made up your mind and don’t want to be confused by the facts . You have shown no particular astrological acumen, which is all well and fine, but neither do you show any desire to gain any. Your *scientific* methods seem very vague and in fact untenable to me. You mention 100,000 charts but not how you process them or in fact what you are looking for to prove or disprove.You also assume that seasoned astrologers with, in my case, 45 years of experience, have practised our art unquestioningly. I don’t say this to be rude, but to put all this into context. I can’t think of anything I want to add. Countless people have tried to go down similar routes and the result is always a dead end because, as I have already written, astrological charts are not like lab rats..

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