Playing with the Sky: The Decans (or the Phenomenology of the Faces of Heaven)

Playing with the Sky: The Decans (or the Phenomenology of the Faces of Heaven)

The decans (or faces/ πρόσωπα) constitute an enigmatic form of rulership in ancient astrology. Rumored to have originated in Egypt,[1] the decans were associated with particular stars whose faces shone through the constellations, thus giving rise to their alternative designation as “faces.”[2] Yet, after the inception of Hellenistic astrology and the transition to a tropical Zodiac, the decans came to be assigned to ten-degree segments of each Zodiacal sign. There were thus three decans per sign, thirty-six in total.

The decans retained their mystique in the Hellenistic tradition. On the one hand, they were said to be equal to, if not more powerful than, other forms of rulership. Firmicus Maternus, for example, maintains:

“Each Sign is divided into three parts, and each part has one decan, so that in each sign there are three decans, each having ten degrees out of the thirty, and over those ten degrees it exercises its power and control. They have infinite power and freedom in indicating the fates of men.

In addition, the decans themselves are allotted to individual planets, so that if the planet should be in that decan, even though it is in a strange sign, it is considered as if it were in its own sign. Located in its own decan it accomplishes the same things as when in its own sign” (Firmicus Maternus, Mathesis, II.iv.1-2.)

Firmicus here claims that each decan, when operating within its ten degrees of authority, has “infinite power and freedom” in determining fate, and that when a planet is in its decan, it is equivalent to being in its own sign, since “it accomplishes the same things.”[3] So, the decans were taken to be at least as powerful as the other forms of astrological rulership. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a form of rulership more powerful than one that allows a planet to exercise infinite power and freedom.

Yet, on the other hand, Hellenistic astrologers also found the decans to be particularly inscrutable. Manilius, one of our earliest sources, states this explicitly and defines the decans in terms of their inscrutability, identifying them with the concealing-revealing of signs within signs. He proclaims:

“But no sign has exclusive control over itself: all share their powers with certain signs in equal portions, and in a spirit of hospitality, as it were, they form a heavenly fellowship and surrender the parts of which they are composed to the keeping of other signs. This department of our art the Greeks have termed the system of decans. The name is derived from the numeral, since the signs, which consist of thirty degrees, enjoy a tripartite arrangement and allot ten degrees to each of the signs associating with themselves, the constellations one after the other providing a home for three signs each. Thus nature is ever hedged about with deep darkness, and truth is hidden and wrapped in much complexity. Heaven is reached by no brief effort and does not favor short cuts; but the shape of one sign is placed in front of and conceals others, and dissimulates and hides its real influences and gifts. This obscurity must be dispelled not by the eyes but by profundity of intellect, for it is in its interior and not in its outward appearance that the divine is to be apprehended” (Manilius, Astronomica, IV.294-309).

Manilius here claims that a secret fellowship between signs (wherein one sign secretly houses three others within it) governs the Zodiac.  Thus, according to Manilius, the decans conceal themselves essentially, since they reveal themselves only under the guise of the sign they hide within. “The shape of one sign is placed in front of and conceals others, and dissimulates and hides its real influences and gifts.” And this “deep darkness”, “complexity”, and obscurity can be penetrated only by the “profundity of intellect” as it sees through appearance to the god that appears.

Though later astrologers did not define the connection between the decans and inscrutability as explicitly as Manilius, they nonetheless attest to it. Again, Firmicus is illustrative here. He contends:

“Some who wish to elaborate this in more detail add three divinities each to every decan, which they call munifices, that is, liturgi, so that for every sign nine munifices can be found and every decan is divided into three munifices.

Again, the nine munifices which they say are allotted to every sign they divide into an infinite number of powers of divinities. By these they say are decreed sudden accidents, pains, sicknesses, chills, fevers, and everything that happens unexpectedly. Through these divinities they say defective births are produced among men.

But this part of the doctrine we must of necessity pass over in this book. The Greeks also, who tried to reach the secrets of that theory, stopped at the first stage and left the subject with a certain reluctance” (Firmicus, Mathesis, II.iv. 4-6).

Firmicus here emphasizes the doubly enigmatic character of the decans. First, each decan is itself associated with three subordinate deities, the names of which elude us, since the Greek source texts refrained from naming them.[4] And second, these unknown deities are said to govern the unknown, since they rule “accidents”, “everything that happens unexpectedly”, and “defective births”. So, another kind of power seems to here peer out from behind the apparatus of traditional astrology, a power that entirely resists subsumption under normal astrological categories.

Such incommensurability is further attested in the Hermetic tradition which associates the decans with deities who operate outside of the normal powers of the Zodiac. For instance, in the Asclepius, Hermes attempts to clarify the nature of the gods who are “the sources of all things” and declares:

“The heads of all classes are gods, after whom come gods who have head-(or)-ousia; these are the sensible gods, true to both their origins, who produce everything throughout sensible nature, one thing through another, each god illuminating his own work. The ousiarches of heaven (whatever one means by that word) is Jupiter, for Jupiter supplies life through heaven to all things. Light is the ousiarches of the sun, for the blessing of light pours down on us through the orb of the sun. The thirty six (the term is ‘horoscopes’), the stars that are always fixed in the same place, have as their head or ousiarches the one called Pantomorophos or Omniform, who makes various forms within various classes. The so-called seven spheres have the oursiarchai or heads called Fortune and Heimarmene, whereby all things change according to nature’s law and a steadfast stability stirs in everlasting variation” (Corpus Hermeticum, Ascelepius, 19).

Here Hermes declares that there are certain originary powers controlling each class of being: Jupiter, the principle of life, ruling the heavens; Light ruling the sun; and Fortune ruling the operations of the seven planets. In contrast to these, Hermes assigns the principle of the Omniform to the thirty-six decans, claiming that they determine various forms within classes. This suggests that the decans operate in a way fundamentally distinct from the standard agents of astrology. They determine form and variation among classes themselves, whereas the zodiacal forces operate at the level of nature, determined by fate “whereby all things change according to nature’s law.”

And the fundamental strangeness of the decans is also displayed in their associations with images–images which themselves vary from text to text and so refuse to be pinned down–and with talismanic magic.[5] So, for example, Agrippa writing in the later European magical tradition, describes the decans of Cancer as follows:

“In the first face of Cancer ascendeth the form of a young Virgin, adorned with fine cloathes [clothes], and having a Crown on her head; it giveth acuteness of senses, subtilty of wit, and the love of men: in the second face ascendeth a man cloathed in comely apparrel, or a man and woman sitting at the table and playing; it bestoweth riches, mirth, gladness, and the love of women: in the third face ascendeth a man a Hunter with his lance and horne, bringing out dogs for to hunt; the signification of this is the contention of men, the pursuing of those who fly, the hunting and possessing of things by arms and brawlings” (Agrippa, Three Books of Occult Philosophy, XXXVII).

Each decan was, in this manner, associated with a particular image, and these images were thought to not only signify events in a person’s life, but also to convey a certain kind of magical power over nature. One can, for example, inscribe decanic images on objects and use them to heal particular bodily ailments. Such an approach is again evinced in the Hermetic literature. The Sacred Book of Hermes to Asclepius on the Thirty-Six Decans, for instance, begins as follows.

“Below I have set forth for you the (governed) parts, and shapes of the 36 decans contained in the signs of the zodiac (lit. zodiacal animals), and I have indicated how each must be engraved and carried (as a talisman) between the ascendant, the Good Daimon, and the place concerning health (?). Indeed, if you carry them on your person you will have a great phylactery, for all the afflictions that plague mankind through the influence of the stars may be healed thereby. Hence, if you honor each one by using its (specific) stone and plant, and furthermore its image, you will posses an even greater phylactery; for without this decanal arrangement, nothing may be born, for all is contained therein.” (The Sacred Book of Hermes to Asclepius, trans. Feliciano).

The decans were thus essentially enigmatic in Greco-Roman astrology. They were thought to convey incredible power, but the nature of that power was never adequately described. The decans remained a radically alien presence in astrology. Though operating within it, they thoroughly resisted explication in terms of conventional astrological norms and procedures.

The Decans as the Site of Alterity

The essentially enigmatic nature of the decans makes them hard to interpret and apply in a contemporary context. If this form of rulership was considered obscure for astrologers working in the Greco-Roman world, how can we ever hope to use them today, being even further removed from their original Lebenswelt? And if we cannot discern their exact historical origin and function, how can we hope to make them live again in contemporary practice? While I do not think that, given the paucity of extant evidence, it is possible to look beyond the veil of history and discover the original “Hellenistic” doctrine of the decans, I also do not believe that this constitutes an insurmountable obstacle for their contemporary use.  For, the nature of the decans reveals itself precisely in their foreignness and obscurity. In short, the decans invite us to understand them as the locus of alterity in astrology.

In this manner, the obscurity of the decans constitutes a fundamental clue for reconstructing their use. Apart from the decans, we have a robust astrological system for determining the content of a natal chart. Sect brings out the fundamental distinction between the representations of Being and Becoming and of the in-itself, for-itself, and in-and-for-itself. Domicile rulership highlights the archetypal dwelling of the gods as they gather gender, element, and modality. Exaltations reveal domains wherein planetary virtues can maximally express themselves, triplicities the dialectical determination of logically real content, and bounds the particularization of those contents as they are embodied in the world of becoming. Everything, it seems, has its place within the system so far. Except for the decans.

Perhaps the decans can thus serve as a placeholder for what stands outside the astrological system as such, what is always already other for astrology. On such a reading, the decans would thus be the abode of the new, the strange, and the unexpected. It is from their domain that genuine novelty steps forth into the world of astrology.

Such alterity, in the phenomenological tradition, concerns the appearance of something outside of the ordinary parameters of subjectivity. The experience of the other is the appearance of a foreign subjectivity, someone who is neither myself nor an object of my consciousness. As such, alterity can never be adequately explicated from within the confines of my subjectivity, and, hence, remains essentially enigmatic. The other is a fundamental enigma that calls me and my point of view into question.

In what follows, I sketch three analogies by which to explicate the decans as loci of alterity.

Ereignis (Event).

The concealing-revealing nature of the decans can be understood in terms of Heidegger’s idea of the Ereignis (Event). According to Heidegger, Being destines itself to appear in particular ways in particular eras, and, in so doing, gives itself to be understood within particular frameworks. But this means that, to grasp Being in a novel way, it must somehow give itself in an unfamiliar manner incommensurable with one’s previous worldview. An event, Ereignis, is just such an irruption of a new or alien revelation of Being which cannot be fathomed within one’s previous perspective.

Heidegger illustrates this conception of the event in the activity of questioning. He explains:

“Here everything is placed in relation to the unique question of the truth of being, i.e., in relation to questioning. In order for this attempt to become an actual impetus, the wonder of questioning must be experienced in carrying it out and must be made effective as an awakening and strengthening of the power to question.

Questioning arouses immediately the suspicion of amounting to an empty, obstinate attachment to the uncertain, undecided, and undecidable. Questioning appears as a backtracking of ‘knowledge’ into idle mediation. It seems to be narrowing and hampering, if not even negating.

Nevertheless: in questioning reside the tempestuous advance that says ‘yes’ to what has not been mastered and the broadening out into ponderable, yet unexplored, realms. What reigns here is a self-surpassing into something above ourselves. To question is to be liberated for what, while remaining concealed, is compelling.

Questioning is, in its seldom-experienced essence, so utterly different from the way it appears in its distorted essence that it often extracts the last remainder of heart from those who are already disheartened. But they then also do not belong in the invisible ring enclosing those whose questioning is answered by the intimation of being.

The question of the truth of being cannot be calculated in terms of what has preceded it. Furthermore, this questioning must be carried out in an originary way if it is supposed to prepare the beginning of another history. As unavoidable as is the confrontation with the first beginning of the history of thought, just as certainly must questioning forget everything round about itself and merely think about its own plight.

History comes to be only in the immediate leap over the ‘historiological.’” (Heidegger, Contributions to Philosophy (of the Event), I.4.

Here Heidegger calls attention to two possibilities latent in questioning. The first is a purely abstract negation of a content. We question a given claim but remain unmoved in the process. Our subjectivity and perspective remain secure in their self-certainty. And, from this secure position, the content in question can be handily rejected. Perhaps, through a critical examination, we might come to reject a particular claim as ungrounded. But we, and our subjective world, remain indifferent through the process. In this mode of questioning, nothing essentially new can come into view. The second way of questioning stands in contrast to such stoic indifference. When we question in this second way, we put ourselves at stake in the service of the subject matter of the question, risking intimacy with the content and opening ourselves to the possibility that it might transform us. In this manner, questioning involves a “yes”, not a “no”, to what is investigated, a subject matter which announces itself as something new. “In questioning reside the tempestuous advance that says ‘yes’ to what has not been mastered and the broadening out into ponderable, yet unexplored realms. What reigns here is a self-surpassing into something above ourselves.”

The decans, in this manner, might suggest this second, affirmative, mode of questioning. In an ordinary astrological consultation, the content of the discourse is determined by the client’s questions, and hence, the antecedent worldview from which those questions are asked. The decans, in contrast, might constitute an Ereignis in astrological practice by reversing the order of questioning. In the decans, we are questioned as much as we question, and the questions they lead us to ask are not likely those that would have initially concerned us.

And this connection between the decans and Ereignis is further bolstered when we consider the pictorial nature of the decans. For, as Gadamer later argued, the picture (Bild) can itself be understood as an Ereignis. Gadamer considers this question in Truth and Method when he tries to explicate the ontology of the work of art. He notes that the painting, unlike the play, is not something that comes to be through its performances, since there is a fundamental distinction between an original painting and its reproductions. Yet, he claims, the picture (Bild) is not a mere representation. It is not as if Caspar David Friedrich’s Abbey in the Oakwood were simply a representation of a given location in a forest. We would not, for example, consider the painting to be of secondary importance if we were to see an Abbey that resembles it in the physical world. Instead, it is Friedrich’s painting which discloses the Abbey in a fundamentally new way, conferring upon it a new mode of being. Gadamer explains:

“That the picture has its own reality means the reverse for what is pictured, namely that it comes to presentation in the representation. It presents itself there. It does not follow that it is dependent on this particular presentation in order to appear. It can also present itself in other ways. But if it presents itself in this way, this is no longer any incidental event but belongs to its own being. Every such presentation is an ontological event and occupies the same ontological level as what is represented. By being presented it experiences, as it were, an increase in being. The content of the picture itself is ontologically defined as an emanation of the original” (Gadamer, Truth and Method, 135).

Though the reality pictured could present itself in other ways, when it presents itself in the picture, this presentation belongs to its very being. Its picturing is an event that reveals a henceforth concealed truth about its essence. Gadamer then goes on to explain this relation between the picture and what is pictured in terms of Platonic emanation:

“Essential to an emanation is that what emanates is an overflow. What it flows from does not thereby become less. The development of this concept by Neoplatonic philosophy, which uses it to get beyond Greek substance ontology, is the basis of the positive ontological status of the picture. For if the original One is not diminished by the outflow of the many from it, this means that being increases” (Gadamer, Truth and Method, 135-136).

Just as the Neo-Platonic One overflows from itself and cascades through all its emanations without losing its reality, so too does what is pictured emanate from itself into the picture without thereby depleting its reality. Instead, a new revelation of Being comes into view. “Paradoxical as it may sound, the original acquires an image only by being imaged, and yet the image is nothing but the appearance of the original” (Gadamer, Truth and Method, 137).

The Face

Another model for understanding the decans as the site of alterity in astrology is suggested by their alternative name “the faces”. Phenomenologically considered, the face appears to us in a fundamentally different manner than anything else. For example, when I’m sitting at a restaurant, the silverware can appear to me as equipment to use. I can grasp the knife and fork and employ them to cut my food and bring it to my mouth. Or, if in a more reflective mood, I could sit back and consider them as objects of knowledge. I might, for instance, run various tests on them and learn their exact weight and chemical composition. But, when I look across the table at the face of the person sitting before me, it confronts me in a way that the silverware does not. The face is not a piece of equipment ready to be manipulated or an object of theoretical knowledge. Rather, it confronts me through its gaze, the look of a consciousness other than my own.

Levinas explicates this phenomenon as follows:

“The face is present in its refusal to be contained. In this sense it cannot be comprehended, that is, encompassed. It is neither seen nor touched—for in visual or tactile sensation the identity of the I envelops the alterity of the object, which becomes precisely a content” (Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 194).

In this sense, the face, qua face, is not reducible to the visible or tactual contents that appear to my consciousness when I look at it. I might, for example, have those very sensations when confronted with a plastic replica of a face that I knew was a replica. In such a scenario, I would not meet the eyes of another, but perceive a fabricated object that can be manipulated or scientifically known. In contrast, when the face appears as such, it exceeds what is sensibly given in its presentation. In its appearance, it constitutes a unique relation between one consciousness and another:

“The relation between the Other and me, which dawns forth in his expression, issues neither in number nor in concept. The Other remains infinitely transcendent, infinitely foreign; his face in which his epiphany is produced and which appeals to me breaks with the world that can be common to us, whose virtualities are inscribed in our nature and developed by our existence” (Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 194).

In the face, the ordinary order of constitution is reversed. Rather than consciousness constituting its objects, when standing face to face, consciousness is confronted by another who puts it in question and attempts to constitute it. This, according to Levinas, is the heart of the ethical relation to the other.

“For the ethical relationship which subtends discourse is not a species of consciousness whose ray emanates from the I; it puts the I in question. This putting in question emanates from the other” (Levinas, Totality and Infinity,195).

So, just like the decans, the face bears an essential relation to the alien. According to Levinas, just as God’s existence is said to be contained in his very essence, so is alterity contained in the essence of the face:

“Thus a structure analogous to the ontological argument is here produced: the exteriority of a being is inscribed in its essence. But what is produced here is not a reasoning, but the epiphany that occurs as a face” (Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 196).

And as such, the face is something essentially inscrutable, forever resisting our grasp:

“The face resists possession, resists my powers. In its epiphany, in expression, the sensible, still graspable, turns into total resistance to the grasp. This mutation can occur only by the opening of a new dimension. For the resistance to the grasp is not produced as an insurmountable resistance, like the hardness of the rock against which the effort of the hand comes to naught, like the remoteness of a star in the immensity of space. The expression the face introduces into the world does not defy the feebleness of my powers, but my ability for power. The face, still a thing among things, breaks through the form that nevertheless delimits it. This means concretely: the face speaks to me and thereby invites me to a relation incommensurate with a power exercised, be it enjoyment or knowledge” (Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 198).

In the faces, then, astrology is confronted with an element that forever eludes explication and forces it to take a different relation to its subject matter. And, again, we can draw a connection to the fact that the astrological faces are associated with a set of images. For the later phenomenologist Jean-Luc Marion attempted to extend Levinas’ analysis of the face in terms of the icon. He explains:

“That is why what imposes its call must be defined not only as the other person of ethics (Levinas), but more radically as the icon. The icon gives itself to be seen in that it makes me hear [understand] its call. One can only understand in this way that the face envisages me: its phenomenality never consists in making itself seen as one visible among others—in the face, in this sense, there is nothing to see and it remains perfectly invisible. But its phenomenality is accomplished when it is made heard [understood], when the weight of its glory weighs upon me, when it inspires respect. To respect—to attract sight and attention (-spectare), of course—but because I feel myself called and held at a distance by the weight of an invisible look, by its silent appeal. To respect is also understood as the counter-concept of to look at” (Marion, In Excess, 119).

In the decanic images, we are not merely looking at pictures, but apprehending the presence that looks forth from behind them. Their look constitutes a call, a gravity of glory that weighs upon us and must be respected.

Magic and the Play Drive

Finally, the fact that decanic images were used in magical practice suggests a further way in which the decans constitute a site of alterity in astrology. For magical ritual suggests a different way of approaching astrology than that of ordinary astrological practice. In magic, one does not seek to learn what the heavens have to say, but to bend them to one’s will. While I believe, following Iamblichus, that there should be a distinction between theurgy and mere thaumaturgy, in that the former seeks to work with the divine forces in bringing about their ends while the latter is concerned with enacting one’s own arbitrary will, the involvement of the will in both cases does suggest a more engaged approach than is typical of much astrological practice.[6]  

In decanic work, this involvement of the will, the active engagement of the client in the practice of astrology, can be helpfully elucidated by Schiller’s concept of the play drive (Spieltrieb). According to Schiller, humanity, balanced between the eternal world of Being and the changing world of Becoming and time, consists of two fundamental drives that stand in tension with each other.

As a rational eternal being, man is endowed with a drive for form (Formtrieb). It seeks to subsume all flux and experience under universal laws, the laws of reason in explaining how events unfold in the empirical world and the laws of morality explaining how people ought to act in any given circumstance. Schiller explains:

“The formal impulse (Formtrieb)…is based upon the absolute existence of man, or upon his rational nature; it seeks to set him at liberty, bring harmony to the variety of his appearances and affirm his person amid all change of condition. Since the last of these, as an absolute and indivisible unity, can never be in contradiction with itself, since we are for all eternity we ourselves, the impulse that strives to maintain personality can never demand anything other than what it must for all eternity claim; it decides for ever as it decides for the present, and commands for the present what it will always command. With this it also enfolds the entire succession of time, which is to say: it annuls time, and annuls change; it wishes to make the actual necessary and eternal, and the eternal necessary actual; in other words, it insists upon truth and right” (Schiller, Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man, XII).

In the formal drive, man is compelled to assert himself as an eternal unity, positing a rational and ethical character that abides through the flux of empirical existence. In this manner, man seeks to annul time and live in alignment with the eternal principles constitutive of his rational being.

The sensible drive (Sinnestrieb), in contrast, seeks to fill consciousness with determinate sensations and live a life conditioned by time. Schiller explains:

“The material impulse… derives from the physical existence of man, or from his sensuous nature, and seeks to place him under the constraints of time, making him matter; not giving him matter, for that is proper to the free activity of a person who takes up matter and distinguishes it from himself as a persisting entity. But matter is here nothing but change, or reality that fulfils time; correspondingly the material impulse demands that change shall occur, that time shall have a content. This condition of time that is merely occupied is called sensation, and it is through this alone that physical existence is made manifest” (Schiller, Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man, XII).

Because man is embodied in time, he must fulfill his nature through the sensible determinations of the physical world. When driven by sensation man becomes mere quantity and is “swept along by time” (Ibid., XII). The sense drive thus operates in a world of constraint. “The domain of this impulse reaches as far as man’s finite being does; and since all form appears only as material, everything absolute only through the medium of constraint, it is certainly this material impulse to which the entire phenomenon of mankind is ultimately bound.” (Schiller, Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man, XII).

Man’s dual nature, and his consequent possession of these two drives, leads to tension. For it seems that these drives seek to express themselves in opposite ways, or at least in opposite spheres.

Thankfully, Schiller claims that their harmony can be maintained through a third drive, the play drive (Spieltrieb). In play, both man’s sensible and rational natures can come to see each other as capable of working together. Schiller explains:

“The material impulse seeks change, desires that time has a content; the formal impulse seeks to annul time, desires that nothing changes. This new impulse, the sensuous and the formal working within it (until such time as I have justified such a name, allow me to call it the playful impulse)—this playful impulse aims at the annulment of time within time, uniting becoming with absolute being, and change with identity.

            The material impulse seeks to be defined, it seeks to receive its object; the formal impulse seeks to define itself, it seeks to create its object; and so the playful impulse will strive to receive as if it had created itself, and create in such a way as to be received by the senses as such” (Schiller, Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man, XIV).

In the realm of play, both drives operate together. It will operate within the world of time, but it will do so only to signify something eternal. It will subsume time under “the unity of the idea”, and “make law into feeling; or what is much the same, unite diversity in time in the idea, making feeling law” (Ibid., XIV). And this play drive operates quintessentially, according to Schiller, in the domain of art. In art we are given an intuitive view of how the sensible can evoke the eternal, since the object of the play drive is beauty, living form (Ibid., XV).[7] Hence, it is only in beauty, only in the practice of art, that mankind can truly exist as the unique being that it is, one straddling time and eternity. Schiller thus declares:

“As soon as reason has pronounced: let mankind exist, by so doing it has created the law: let beauty exist” (Schiller, Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man, XV).


“Man plays only when he is a man in the full sense of the word, and he is only a complete man when he plays” (Schiller, Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man, XV)

This active engagement of the play drive which brings the form and sense drives into alignment provides a model for understanding the active engagement of the will in working with the decans. For, when considering the decans and their corresponding images, we are not simply seeking to know how things will unfold on their own in the realm of time, i.e. how things will unfold according to the sensible drive. Nor are we bracing ourselves for whatever might come by reminding ourselves of the basic truths of metaphysics and ethics, i.e. determining how we ought to comport ourselves according to the form drive. Rather, we are invited to align our empirical and rational natures by imagining the decanic images, contemplating them, and communing with the powers that shine through them. Beholding the decans, would, in this manner, be akin to what Schiller describes as the experience of contemplating a religious artwork such as the Juno Ludovisi. Schiller describes the experience as follows:

“Inspired by this spirit, the Greeks eliminated from their ideal countenance all trace of both inclination and volition; or rather, they rendered both unrecognizable, since they knew how to connect them in the most intimate bond. It is neither grace, nor is it dignity, that speaks to us in the wonderful face of a Juno Ludovisi; it is neither the one nor the other, because it is at once both. This goddess, by demanding our veneration, kindles our love for the god-like woman; but while we abandon ourselves to her heavenly blessedness, so we recoil from her heavenly self-sufficiency. The entire form reposes within itself, an entirely complete and self-contained creation, as if she were beyond space, unyielding, unresisting; there is no force here that fights other powers, no weak spot where temporality might break in. Irresistibly drawn in by the first, while kept at a distance by the second, we find ourselves at once in a state of complete rest and complete movement, and that wonderful arousal develops for which intellect has no concept, and language no name” (Schiller, Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man, XV).

Thus, this final alterity, the alterity of beauty, serves not only as human consciousness’s other, but also, through its very otherness, truly humanizes consciousness.


The decans are therefore likely the most obscure form of rulership in Greco-Roman astrology. They seem to be remnants of a lost astrological system, have mysterious foreign names, and are involved in practices that appear to be outside the bounds of traditional astrological practice (e.g. fashioning images and talismanic magic). Yet, instead of constituting an insurmountable obstacle to their interpretation, this obscurity reveals their inner truth. For the decans give themselves to be understood as the abode of otherness in astrology. In their domain, the world of astrology opens to what is beyond itself, and confronts us with an alien consciousness. And perhaps, by their use, the astrologer, like the poet can confess:

“And I have felt/ A presence that disturbs me with the joy/ Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime/ Of something far more deeply interfused,/ Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,/ And the round ocean and the living air,/ And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:/ A motion and a spirit, that impels/ All thinking things, all objects of all thought, /And rolls through all things” (Wordsworth, Tintern Abbey).

Peter Yong, Ph.D.

[The image used in the thumbnail of this blog post is by Marcantonio Raimondi and is in the public domain. It can be found here: ]

[1] See, for example, Tamsyn Barton, Ancient Astrology, 20.

[2] See Brennan, Hellenistic Astrology, 279 and George, Ancient Astrology in Theory and Practice, 224.

[3] Paulus makes a similar assertion when he claims that in “the faces of the seven stars from the decanic shaping by zoidion”, the planets “delight just as they do at their own dwellings” (Paulus, Introductory Matters, 4)

[4] A related point can be made regarding the names of the decans. For they were often called by their original Egyptian names which the Hellenistic authors did not appear to fully understand. The essentially foreign nature of the decans thus stands out in their very names.  Chris Brennan, for example, cites the work of Hephaestio in this regard. He observes: “There were a few different systems for assigning meanings to the decans in the Hellenistic tradition. Some of the decan systems appear to be attempts to continue some aspects of the older Egyptian associations with the decans, such as Hephaestio’s attribution of specific Egyptian names to each of the decans. For example, he says that the first decan of Cancer is named Sothis, the second is Sit, and the third is Chnoumis. These names are in accord with a list of names that were recorded for the decans in some Egyptian temples, although Neugebauer and Parker note that Hepheastio seems to have conflated two different ancient naming schemes in his list” (Brennan, Hellenistic Astrology, 280).

[5] They are both strange in that both appear to overstep the bounds of astrology proper. One is not here drawing glyphs for planets or signs of the zodiac, but drawing other kinds of imaginative pictures. And one is not merely looking to ascertain one’s fate, but to alter it through magical practice.

[6] Iamblichus, On the Mysteries, IX.3 spells out the distinction between the natural causal processes governed by fate and the higher kind of causation at play in theurgy. See also Clarke, Dillon, and Herschbell’s Introduction where they claims: “The demonstration of the miraculous was entirely a divine prerogative according to Iamblichus; wonder-working by man was at best impious, at worst an example of meaningless sorcery. It is Iamblichus’s determination to distinguish between worthless magic and divine theurgy that dominates and defines the subject matter of the De Mysteriis” (Intro, xxvi).

[7] “The object of the playful impulse, presented in general outline, can consequently be called living form: a concept serving to characterize all aesthetic properties of phenomena, what is in a word most generally called beauty” (Schiller, Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man, XV).

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