Towards a western interpretation of the Lunar nodes

Martien Hermes

I thank Nicola Smuts Allsop for her review of this article back in 2018.

Introduction

The interpretation of the lunar nodes in Western astrology is strongly influenced by the Vedic/Jyotish idea of their signification. In short, and perhaps too briefly stated, it comes down to the idea that the south node has something to do with previous lives and represents issues that (should) form the basis or starting point of a necessary pathway to travel towards the north node. The north node is thus interpreted as something the native needs to acquire, strive for, lessons to be learned, necessary developments on your evolutionary path.

Steven Forrest once put it (on a forum I read, cannot remember which one) as follows: “In evolutionary astrology, the south node is a big karmic pull toward repeating old behaviors, while the north node has to do with the soul’s evolutionary aim. You get a lot of inner peace, if you make progress toward your north node, but it’s hard because your instincts go the other direction. It’s a big subject.”

I think it is exactly the other way around, the south node has much more to do with an ideal, an aspiration, let’s say with the detachment of material form. The reason for this is that matter, embodiment, is a Lunar signification (Sēlenē has the body as one of its significations), and she dominates and therefore determines the trajectory that starts at the location of the north node where the Sēlenē moves above the trajectory of Hēlios. Hēlios determines the trajectory that starts at the south node as he there moves above the trajectory of Sēlenē. So it seems more logical that it is rather the north node that indicates something unconscious or instinctive (at least, if one wants to interpret Sēlenē that way), because it is Sēlenē that determines the trajectory that starts at the location of the north node.

This reversal of meaning has to do with which of the two lights determines the node cycle. This is a detail that is overlooked or misunderstood – as far as I know – in the modern astrology books I know of. In this article, I will present a different interpretation of the lunar nodes, based on their traditional astrological symbolism, an interpretation in line with what the (long) western astrological tradition has to say about the nodes. This explains why it was interpreted the way it was in the old texts.

What’s the problem?

The problem is that the interpretation of the nodes in the quote by Forrest was never formulated that way in Western astrological traditions. The role of the nodes has always been quite modest. These points became dominant in the 20th century with the rise of psychological and evolutionary astrology, and from thereon interpreted very differently.

If we read the old texts, we get very brief information about the effect of the nodes.

Vettius Valens (2nd century A.D.) for instance says the following.[1] “It will be necessary, then, to consider whether there are benefics in these places, and especially on the Ascending Node. For, the birth will be successful and practical. Even if the birth should be found in middling circumstances or in subjugation, it will be raised up and come into reputation. The malefics, however, produce banishments and accusations.”

Of the nine books in his anthology, that is all Valens has to say about it (Steven Birchfield quoted by me). With one exception: elections, which I will return to later. On this issue, Valens says the same as the Liber Hermetis does.

Medieval astrologer Guido Bonatti (ca. 1210 – 1300) in his Liber Astronomiae, Tractatus Tertius Chapter VIII: “But the Head of the Dragon (Caput Draconis) is by nature a benefic and by nature masculine, but by accident, sometimes it becomes a malefic. Its nature is composed of the nature of Jupiter and Venus. It signifies increase and things which are increased, e.g. kingdoms, dignities, sublimity and good fortune.”

“The Tail of the Dragon (Cauda Draconis) is malefic by nature, feminine, it is of the nature of Saturn and Mars. And it signifies diminution, dejection, fall and poverty. And it signifies the diminution of every good and of every good fortune. When it is with the benefics, it diminishes their good and when it is with the malefics it diminishes their malice.”

So: the north node ‘increases’, promotes things; the south node ‘decreases’ and even indicates ‘demise’ in relation to every planet with which they have contact.

This ‘increase’ and ‘decrease’ as expressed by Bonatti has to do with the astronomical phenomenon of the crossings of the orbit of Hēlios and Sēlenē, which are the two nodes.

Sēlenē above the solar orbit, Sēlenē below the solar orbit

The key to a quite different understanding of the traditional interpretation of the lunar nodes can be found in the traditional conception of Sēlenē and Hēlios in relation to the astronomical picture of figure 1. And, very importantly, the lunar nodes relate mainly to Sēlenē as a phenomenon. Everything that can be said about the nodes is first and foremost about lunar significations. And like everything that has to do with the Sēlenē, it is about a growth and decay cycle, the world of ‘coming to be and passing away’, comparable to the symbolism of the four phases Sēlenē has in relation to Hēlios (see figure 2 below).

My reversal of the generally accepted modern interpretation of the nodes is based on the fact that in the trajectory from the north node to the south node the orbit of Sēlenē is above the orbit of Hēlios, thus emphasizing her significations, raising her significations above those of Hēlios. In the trajectory from the south node to the north node, the orbit of Sēlenē is underneath the orbit of Hēlios.

This explains first of all the idea of the north node ‘increasing’ and the south node ‘decreasing’, which follows from the traditional meanings of Hēlios and Sēlenē.

The north node and Sēlenē

Vettius Valens mentions the following for Sēlenē (not all of which can be used to explain the significations of the nodes).

Sēlenē, being truly generated by the reflection of the solar light and… possessing a counterfeit light, is significant at a birth for man’s life, body, mother, conception, …, one’s person, goddess, living together or legal marriage, nurse, older brother, house-keeping, queen, mistress of the house, property, fortune, city, gathering of crowds, receipts, expenditures, home, ships, living abroad, wanderings (for, it does not maintain a straight line through Cancer).[1]

Hēlios is the principle that brings forth life, that sows something, that awakens something (think of dawn), but it is Sēlenē that makes room for things to grow (think of the womb). Valens: ‘… being truly generated by the reflection of the solar light…’ So Hēlios is conception, Sēlenē is pregnancy, gestation, growing things, concretizing. So Sēlenē increases things, makes things grow, expands them, she materializes.

So Sēlenē increases and concretizes. This is reflected in a number of important significations Valens attributes to the Sēlenē as the bodily receptacle of the light of the Hēlios: … life; body; mother; conception; … nurse ….

If we take into account the remarks of the medieval astrologers, that the north node increases things, then herein lies the reason for it. Starting from the north node, Sēlenē is in a trajectory above Hēlios’ orbit and with that her growth and concretization principle wins over that of Hēlios. So, she increases, grows, multiplies, according to her nature.

That is why the north node is favourable and beneficial when there is a benefic nearby. The qualities of these planets grow, thrive, gain strength, they come to ‘life’ as it were. For the same reason, it is not favourable when a malefic is with the north node. It’s more harmful as the negative influence then ‘grows’ and thrives.

Bernadette Brady likens the north node to the volume control on a radio, which turns it up. What is turned up? The material, concretizing significations of Sēlenē. And that is apparently transmitted when a planet is with the north node, its qualities are turned up, get louder, they grow in strength.

The south node and Hēlios

Valens says of Hēlios.

“The all-seeing Hēlios, then, being truly fire-like and the light of the mind, the organ of perception of the soul, is significant at a birth for kingly office, hegemony, mind, practical wisdom, outward form, motion, height of fortune, public registration, action, popular leadership, judgement, father, mastership, friendship, persons of high repute, the honours of images, statues, and crowns of office, arch-priests of the fatherland…

At the south node, the opposite is the case. It is the start of the trajectory where the lunar orbit goes below that of the Hēlios, only to ‘resurface’ again at the place of the north node.

That symbolism suggests that the lunar significations decrease in strength or power. That is of course the principle of the ‘reducing’ that is always mentioned in the old aphorisms concerning the south node. No longer growth, but things instead decrease, becoming less, smaller.

That is the reason why the south node is favourable and more beneficial when there is a malefic with her or nearby. The qualities of these planets are lessened, they lose strength, are diminishing. For the same reason, it is not beneficial for a benefic to be with the south node. Its qualities and effects ‘diminish’. The emphasis now is more on the Solar qualities of internalization or perhaps spiritualization, no longer on Sēlenēs’ qualities of growth and propagation.

In Bernadette Brady’s imagery, at the south node Sēlenēs’ is turned softer and Hēlios’ is turned up. What is turned softer? The materiality, the concretisation function of the Sēlenē. And that is apparently transferred to a planet with the south node, its qualities diminish, made less concrete.

Sēlenēs’ nodes and Christian morality

The modern evolutionary idea about lunar nodes in astrology is perhaps not only indebted to Vedic astrology but a continuation of the Platonic-Christian idea that the physical (Sēlenē) must die, in favour of the spiritual (Hēlios).

In that conception, everything physical, the ‘flesh’, the worldly stuff, is a trap. It is that which keeps us away from the (better) spiritual through our slavery to the senses and sensual (Forrest: ‘the instinctive’). Forrest: ‘…but it’s hard because your instincts go the other direction…’ [2]

The view explained here suggests that the evolutionary idea (you must move towards the north node because that is where the spiritualizing or inspiration begins) is actually a reversal of the principles of Hēlios and Sēlenē. It is a mistaken notion because it reverses the meaning of what actually takes place astronomically at the north node (where Sēlenē ‘wins’) and the south node (where Hēlios ‘wins’).

Because if the north node – as explained here – is the point where Sēlenē rises above the Solar impulse, and thus indicates multiplication and an increasing or concretization, then it is the north node that indicates the instinctive pulling force that Forrest mentions – “… a big karmic pull toward repeating old behaviors”, because there Sēlenēs’ influence will prevail over that of Hēlios.

Nowadays, Sēlenē is understood – among other things – as representing the ‘unconscious’. And since spiritualization (the modern ‘consciousness’ and ‘self-realization’) is the holy grail in religion and spirituality, it probably explains the modern desire to make something a goal, something to embrace and further develop. And perhaps for that reason, the north node is chosen as representative of that. But according to the view explained here, that should be the south node I believe. That is the point where Hēlios is going to win over Sēlenēs’ impulse.

Ironic, a complete reversal of astrological meaning.

The bendings

In addition to the north- and south node themselves, two other points are mentioned in this cycle, called the ‘bendings’, always lying exactly 90 portions/degrees beyond the location of the north- and south node. As said before, this strongly resembles the idea of the Sēlenēs’ four phases, see figure 2.

About the location of the nodes and these two points, the Liber Hermetis is very explicit (as is Valens) when it comes to elections: don’t plan or start things when there are planets with them or configure. This warning probably has to do with the principle of change.

At each of these four points in the node’s cycle, something is changing. That often rings alarm bells when doing elections, as you want certainty and clarity, and not have the risk of unexpected change in the course of things developing (Sēlenē). Better not take chances! The situation is perhaps unstable when significators are with the nodes or at the bendings in elections.

A secular philosophy of the nodes

Is it possible to develop a less moralizing philosophy about the nodes, taking into account the symbolism explained here? Looking for the concept behind it? A philosophy that reverses the evolutionary idea that the north node is, or should be, a goal, and the south node an instinctive pattern of habit (again, I think it’s the other way around)?

The idea of a developmental or growth model can lead to a moralizing interpretation (‘let go of this, do that, focus on that issue’). The rhythm of the cycle of the nodes of Sēlenē simply show a (neutral) process, a concept, without an implicit advice about what is better for the native or his or her development and what is not (depending on the context of course).

For this more secular idea, we can use the Greek-philosophical ideas which were expressed in Greek astrology.

In Greek astrology, Hēlios was seen as nous, the ancient Greek term for spirit or intellect (and much, much more). What Valens poetically calls ‘the light of the mind, the organ of perception of the soul’.

Sēlenē was given the predicate tuchē which has to do with chance and fortune, what simply comes your way (without an intention). Hēlios = spirit/soul, Sēlenē = body/physical.

So that could mean that on the trajectory from the north node going to the south node Sēlenē determines Hēlios’ action and thus is a more concretizing (incarnating?) trajectory. The orbit of Sēlenē moves above that of Hēlios: indicating growth, coming to be, becoming more and more concrete or more physical. When there is a planet with the north node, then that would be an indication that the operation of this planet is becoming more concrete, more manifest (?), more tangible. It is growing, increasing, as the ancient astrologers had it. Tuchē above Nous? Planets that are actually in the same Image as the north node, indicate that the planet is entering (starting) a trajectory of ever-increasing or growing concreteness, propagation, ‘multiplication’. Sēlenēs’ trajectory: more body-like, physical.

On the trajectory from the south- to north-node, Hēlios’ action determines that of Sēlenē and could be conceived as a spiritualizing trajectory perhaps. Here, Sēlenē’s orbit moves below the orbit of the Hēlios, and Hēlios’ orbit is above that of the Sēlenē: indicating that his principle is above that of Sēlenē. A stronger emphasis on the essence? The spiritual even, Nous? Turned to (more) abstraction. What is or needs to be disconnected from an embodiment? Nous above Tuchē? For Hēlios is an impulse, let’s call it an inspiration, an incentive for something. And in this trajectory, it determines (runs above) Sēlenēs’ impulse of concretion.

When a planet is near the south node or in the same Image, then that could be an indication that the workings and effects of this planet have reached their biggest concretisation (as associated with Sēlenē’s full phase). Now, its outer manifestations need perhaps to be reduced to what the planet potentially represents, as a seedling. Not a focus on its concrete manifestations (which begins symbolically, start to grow, at the north node starting point), but a focus on its essence. So less concretely, the process starts at the south node. The planet is becoming more and more spiritualized, reduced to its essence. Hēlios’ trajectory: more spiritual, soul-like.

I’m reminded of both the synodic cycle and the heliacal phases, this has sort of the same ring to it. Planets heliacally setting loose ‘strength’, and seem to be less and less forceful in manifesting their significations. Growing weaker. Planets heliacally rising gain strength and become more and more powerful as they move away from Hēlios (or he from them). Not quite the same I guess, yet same-like.

Hēlios is seen as a promise, an intent, something not concrete yet, an idea, as yet indefinable, a possibility instead of a reality (which is the domain of the Sēlenē).

Further issues, speculations and research questions

  1. The Node axis divides the zodiac in each horoscope into two parts, i.e. a lunar growth partition (from k to ?) and a spiritualizing Hēlios partition (from k to ? ). See figure 4. Is that noticeable? How should we interpret that?
  2. What is the difference when a transit of a planet passes the north node/south node, compared to the transit of the nodes over the planet in question?
  3. What is the meaning of the node cycle, their return, in light of the reversal of meaning that I have explained here? The intersections of the lunar and solar orbits are not fixed, but move backwards through the zodiac. After 18 years and 7 months and a few days the node is in the same place, and that repeats itself at 37 years and 2 months, 55 years and 9 months, 74 years and 4 months, 92 years and 11 months, and so on.
  4. Does the syzygy, the conjunction (or opposition) of Hēlios and Sēlenē before birth have anything to do with this?

Conclusion

The idea that the north node is a goal to move to, to steer at, probably has roots in the nautical metaphor as explained by Robert Schmidt, a point of departure – south node – and something to direct your course to, the north node.

It is this view that I contest, as it doesn’t acknowledge the astronomical scenario of what happens at the nodes, i.e. what the trajectory of the lights seems to indicate.

It’s a bit ironic that in the model I demonstrated here, the evolutionary ideal is actually materialistic (Sēlenē) instead of spiritual (Hēlios), as the north node symbolizes the point where the domination of Sēlenē starts, the concretely growing impulse.

It also seems to neglect the fact that this node-cycle is primarily about the workings of Sēlenē. So, to put it a bit bluntly, things at the north node grow all by themselves, nothing needs to be done there, as Sēlenē’s action is simply to concretise. So, if you put your efforts there as sort of a spiritual goal of acquiring these north node ‘things’, that is of no use, as they grow all by themselves.

The north node interpreted as the place to go to, lessons to be learned, things you need to acquire, is a misnomer in that sense. They will grow and manifest all by themselves, (probably) without effort.

FINIS – Zeist, 2018 – 18 March 2022


[1]Valens, Vettius. The Anthology Book I. Translated by Robert Schmidt. Edited by Robert Hand. Project Hindsight. Greek Track Volume IV.

[2] “In evolutionary astrology, the south node is a big karmic pull toward repeating old behaviors, while the north node has to do with the soul’s evolutionary aim. You get a lot of inner peace, if you make progress toward your north node, but it’s hard because your instincts go the other direction. It’s a big subject.”


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