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Astrological techniques explored:

Combust / Under Sun's Beams
Via Combusta
Under the Earth
Decans / Faces
Planetary Hour Ruler


Time, the Egyptians & the Calendar

Egyptian Tomb PaintingThe ancient Egyptians are renown for their interest in celestial events and much of their religion and mythology was sky-based. Within details of their rituals there are numerous references to ceremonies being conducted at times amenable to the celestial powers, and many examples of lists of days ascribed with astrological meaning. In the land of the Pharaohs magic was practiced as a natural synthesis of Sacred Knowledge in mundane life; even the physical division of the kingdom itself reveals symbolic expression of the numerological and geometrical laws that underpin the astrologer's craft.

Yet while the available evidence points to detailed knowledge of the constellations, it shows less systematic planetary observation of the standard found in Mesopotamia. It has consequently been suggested that there is little to support a belief that the Egyptians actively practiced astrology prior to the invasion of the Greeks in the third century BC. Those who perpetuate this line of reasoning appear to define astrology purely by the use of the zodiac and planetary dignities, and have chosen to ignore that celestial and astrological allegory embraced all aspects of ancient Egyptian culture.

There is no doubt that Egyptian philosophy has made a significant contribution to the theory of astrology. In particular, the ancient Egyptian perception of time as a divine element introduced major developments which became founding principles of Hellenistic astrology. The many pyramids, tomb paintings, temple reliefs and hieroglyphic inscriptions left today reveal much about the ancient Egyptian lifestyle. They show that an accurate measurement of time was highly valued, for obvious mundane reasons, but also because time represented a mystical concept that was deeply embedded in their spiritual beliefs. Like the Mesopotamians, the Egyptians maintained a fusion of science, magic and religion; integrating myth, geometry, astronomy and spiritual contemplation into an holistic philosophy that was later to have a direct influence upon Classical culture. Although we cannot credit the Egyptians with inventing astrology, the symbolism they attached to the notation of time runs deep within its principles.

Astrology can never be divorced from its relevance to time, for time is its central nucleus, both practically and philosophically. An accurate knowledge of time is essential before any chart can be cast, and is the source of symbolic 'directions', whereby days are equated to years, and years to the full span of human experience. If time is the continuous passage of existence, in which events pass from a state of potentiality in the future, through the present, to a state of finality in the past [1], then astrology follows the formula in reverse: the finality of the past is used to measure the quality of the present and judge the potentiality of the future. In this way the Egyptians viewed each moment of time as unique, divine and pregnant with meaning.

The characterisation of the space in which we live and move is also a heritage of Egyptian intelligence. Encoded in the complex of temples, monuments and city designs, Egyptian geometry displays a delicate harmony with the use of letters, numbers, shape and sound to present a universal science of sacred principles manifest in architectural form. Cosmic symbolism weaved through this belief and was itself a product of it. Time and space were the principal gods the Egyptians worshipped and astrology carried their deification forward as the basis of all future adaptations.

Combustion and the Symbolism of Heliacal Risings
The path of the Sun played a central role in Egyptian philosophy and the conjunction of the Sun with other celestial bodies dominated their astronomy. Like the Mesopotamians, the Egyptians gave particular emphasis to the heliacal [2] rising and setting of stars since these could be used as reliable indicators to agricultural conditions. A heliacal setting occurs when a planet or star enters into conjunction with the Sun. The increasing proximity of the Sun towards the star each day eventually leads to a period of invisibility, during which it is masked by the Sun's light. Its setting is the moment when it is visible for the last time on the western horizon, immediately after sunset. It then rises and sets with the Sun, remaining hidden from sight both day and night. When the Sun has separated from the star by somewhere between 8-20 degrees of zodiacal longitude the star begins to emerge, briefly, on the eastern horizon immediately before sunrise - its first brief appearance being known as its heliacal rising.

Heliacal rising of Venus at sunset
Heliacal Setting of Venus at Sunset

View a diagram of Heliacal Risings & Settings illustrated by the cycle of Venus around the Sun

Every first appearance of the new Moon is a heliacal rising and every last appearance of the old Moon is a heliacal setting. The period of the Moon's disappearance is a brief one, but has always been deemed unlucky. Planets and stars endure a longer period of invisibility, sometimes several months, during which they were considered lacking in power and vitality.

All ancient astrologers placed the greatest significance upon heliacal risings and settings and ancient Mesopotamian astrology was also heavily predisposed to observance of this kind of planetary phenomena. The Egyptians recorded it more widely with their attention spread to all the stars and constellations. A star's heliacal setting was envisioned as a form of death, with its period of invisibility regarded as a time of imprisonment in Duat, the Underworld, a place where it faced a perilous journey of transformation and renewal. Its emergence in the east, in its heliacal rising, was hailed as its rebirth, when it arose refreshed to begin a new life cycle.

With this image in mind we understand the derivation of the traditional astrological terms 'combust' and 'under the Sun's beams' as signifying the greatest fear, imprisonment, impotency or death. A planet combust was hidden, unable to exert any influence and undergoing a state of transformation. In the 13th century text of Guido Bonatus we see the similarity between the mythological perspective of the Egyptians and the traditional interpretation of combustion. He explains that a planet combust has no strength in signification:

The fortunes when combust and under Sun's beams, signify none, or very little good; and the infortunes in like case have little or no virtue to signify ill. [3]

Possibly, the malevolent reputation of the Via Combusta ('fiery road'), which stretches from 15 degrees Libra to 15 degrees Scorpio, owes its origin to a similar philosophy. In ancient techniques the Via Combusta is regarded as a dangerous section of the chart and the Moon so placed continues to be a warning for the horary astrologer to defer judgement. The area spans the signs where the luminaries experience their 'fall', which many have pointed to as a source for its malefic reputation. However, when the tropical zodiac was introduced around the 6th century BC, the point of the Vernal Equinox was not firmly established but variously placed among the early degrees of Aries. Older authorities placed it at the 15th degree, so it is not beyond credibility that a symbolic association attached itself to the region that extended from the 15th degree of Libra, as the area of the Sun's seasonal 'death' at the Autumn Equinox. Certainly the name of this traditionally afflicted area suggests some connection with the process of being 'hidden' and certainly, amongst the Egyptians, all things connected with absence from the visible world, (including deceased men and stars disappearing from view, either by falling beneath the western horizon or entering into helical setting), were considered to enter the dark, uncharted region of Duat.

The daily setting of the Sun, Moon and stars at the western horizon, led to that cardinal direction assuming a mythological connection with death, retreat and weakness. The Egyptians viewed death as a state that took men and stars towards the west, and consequently nearly all the pyramids and royal tombs are located on the Nile's west bank. Conversely, the east was the direction of beginnings and renewed strengh. Illustrations of the Sun's journey across the sky frequently depict the Sun travelling in different boats and in the form of different gods for each part of the journey. Some texts refer to him as Khepri (whose name means 'beginnings') in the morning, Ra at noon and Amun in the evening.

It has been suggested that the almost exact South-North alignment of the Nile helped to foster the profound interest the Egyptians took in noting the symbolic qualities of cardinal directions. The strength and permanence of their beliefs are shown by hieroglyphic writings on the meaning of the cardinal directions - and even intermediate directions such as north-west, north-east, etc., - being now five thousand years old, treasured as part of the oldest recorded literature in the world.[4]

During the period of the development of the calendar, the heliacal rising of Sirius coincided with the summer solstice, both of which announced the annual inundation of the Nile, the central focus of the agricultural year. Consequently Sirius became a most important star, often identified with the Egyptian goddess Isis whose fallen tears for her murdered husband Osiris were said to cause the flood. Its heliacal rising was used as a signal to start the New Year festivities while its setting was commemorated in the standard used for funeral rites; it has a 70-day period of heliacal invisibility in Egypt which was the time taken by embalmers to prepare a body for burial. Hieroglyphic inscriptions found upon the tomb of Seti I state specifically that as a star dies it is purified in the house of Duat, from where, after 70 days of invisibility, it is reborn. [5]

This cycle of reincarnation was the essence of all Egyptian religion and the astrological view of the lower hemisphere of the chart retains this 'underworld' perspective in the traditional significance attached to the area termed 'under the Earth'. Little good can be expected to come from a chart where the main planets are under the earth (ie., beneath the horizon), and in decumbiture charts, this, like a significator combust, can be taken as an indication of death[6]. From a psychological perspective, astrologers view the area as a dark and deeply personal one, associating it with the inner life, the unconscious, and buried emotions; equally, the upper hemisphere is related to the outer, public life, with the midheaven - the most elevated position - associated with public glory, acclamation and worldly success.

[ Continue to: The Egyptian Calendar and the Zodiac ]

Notes & References:

  1] As defined in the New Collins Concise English Dictionary, 1983.
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 2] A classical term, derived from the name of the Greek Sun god Helios.
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  3]Anima Astrologiae: The Astrologers Guide, republished by Regulus 1986; Consideration 43, p.22

Combustion is a difficult concept for some modern astrologers to grasp. They recognise the Sun as an active, creative force and therefore it seems illogical that conjunction with the Sun can be construed as a weakened state. It may help them to recognise the concept within the context of a natural cycle, albeit one that is overwhelming and thus sometimes frightening in its power. Traditional astrology is often alarmingly blunt in its practical application, but I have seen many instances where the reduction of strength and identity symbolised by combustion, coupled with an honest desire to accept and understand the loss, has proved to be a gateway to dynamic, creative re-emergence, both at an external and psychological level.

In tradition astrological technique, a planet is said to be combust when within 8°30' of the Sun. It is used to signify someone who is ill, in great fear, imprisoned, or incapable of taking action. A planet beyond the limits of combustion but within 17° of the Sun is said to be 'under the Sun's beams'. The interpretation is milder than that of combustion, suggesting someone who is under the shadow of fear without being in the middle of it. In both cases it is worse for the conjunction to be applying (indicating that the worst of the condition is still to be faced) than separating. If a planet is within 0°17' of the Sun, however, it is termed Cazimi, 'in the heart of the Sun', a position of great dignity from where it benefits by being 'at one' with the Sun's influence.
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  4]Encyclopedia of Cosmology: Historical, Philosophical, & Scientific Foundations of Modern Cosmology; edited by: Norris S. Hetherington, Garland Publishing, 1993 - 'Egyptian Cosmology' by Kurt Locher, p.193

The significance that the Egyptian symbolic view of cardinal directions has played in the development of house meanings is explored in The Houses: Temples of the Sky, Chapter 3
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  5] Neugebauer, The Exact Sciences in Antiquity; Harper Torchbooks ,1962.
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  6]A decumbiture chart is one drawn specifically to reveal the nature of an illness.
In his Astrologicall Aphorisms Beneficiall for Physitians, William Lilly writes: "The sick party is in great danger of death, when at the time of the Question asked, or when the sickness first invaded the sick party, both the Sun and the Moon are under the earth. Also, the physician may justly fear his patient, when the lord of the ascendant and the Moon do both apply by ill aspect to a planet under the earth".
Christian Astrology, p.283.
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© Deborah Houlding, 1996; published online 2003
From Heritage of the Stars

For quotations please quote:

The Sun

Part 1: Combustion and the Symbolism of Heliacal Risings

Part 2: The Egyptian Calendar & the Zodiac

Part 3: The Planets in Egyptian Imagery