The Phenomenology of Exaltation: An Exploration of Elevated Planetary Powers in Traditional Astrology

The Phenomenology of Exaltation: An Exploration of Elevated Planetary Powers in Traditional Astrology

Exaltation (ὕψωμα) is a form of planetary rulership (δεσπότης) in ancient astrology. Like the standard house (οἶκος) rulerships encoded in the Thema Mundi, exaltations were thought to be locations where planets flourished. However, unlike standard house rulership wherein every planet apart from the luminaries is given to two signs, in the exaltation schema, each planet is assigned to only one sign. The Sun is exalted in Aries, the Moon in Taurus, Jupiter in Cancer, Mercury in Virgo, Saturn in Libra, Mars in Capricorn, and Venus in Pisces. Furthermore, exaltation, unlike standard house rulership, is a degreed property. Planets can be more or less exalted in their signs, depending their proximity to the specific degree of their maximal exaltation. Dortheus, for example, observes:

“The elevation of the Sun (and its exaltation) is in 19o Aries; the Moon, in 3o Taurus; Saturn, in 21o of Libra; Jupiter, in 15o of Cancer; Mars, in 28o of Capricorn; Venus, in 27o Pisces; Mercury, in 15o of Vigo” (Dortheus, Carmen Astrologicum, trans. Dykes).

In this manner, Dortheus elucidates the concept of exaltation through the concept of elevation. A planet is exalted when it is lifted on high. In fact, ὕψωμα was used as a general word for elevation or height in addition to its specifically astrological sense of exaltation (LSJ).

This idea of planetary elevation can be understood in two ways. First, it can be understood astronomically. Planets can be said to be elevated when they appear to be at their highest point in the sky when viewed from a given position on earth.[1] And, second, from the symbolic perspective of astrology, elevation can be understood in terms of the highest point in the Thema Mundi, the sign of Aries. Because Aries stands at the midheaven, the Sun is given to Aries as its exaltation, thereby anchoring the rest of the exaltation scheme. Macrobius articulates such a view when he explains why the Zodiac is said to begin with Aries even though Cancer defines the horizon of the Thema Mundi. He explains:

“Furthermore, they [the ancient Egyptians] divulged the following reason for wishing Aries to be called the first, although there is nothing first or last in a sphere. According to them, at the beginning of that day which was the first of all days—that is, the time when the sky and the universe took on their brilliant sheen, the day which is rightly called the birthday of the universe—Aries was in the middle of the sky; and because the middle of the sky is the summit of the universe, Aries was considered the first of the signs, since at the first dawn of light it appeared to be at the head of the world.” (Macrobius, Commentary on the Dream of Scipio, XI.23).

Macrobius here claims that the Zodiac begins with Aries since (i) it was at the midheaven at the dawn of the universe, and (ii) it is natural to begin with the head, with what is exalted on high. This same logic grounds the Sun’s exaltation in Aries. Aries is the most elevated point in the Zodiac according to the Thema Mundi, and, since the Sun is the primary luminary (the Moon merely reflecting its light), it is fitting for it to be exalted at the head of the cosmos.

Extant Justifications for the Exaltation Assignments

However, things get messier with the other planetary exaltations, since the explanations for their assignments in the extant literature are, at best, ad hoc. One somewhat decent account can be found in Porphyry when he appeals to two principles in accounting for the exaltations: (1) Diurnal planets are related to their exaltations by trine from their house rulerships, and nocturnal planets by sextile, and (2) planets are related to signs of a sympathetic nature to those they rule by house. Porphyry explains:

“They establish [as] exaltations of the stars the [signs that are] trines of their diurnal domiciles and those agreeing in nature (τη φυσει συμπαθουντα)…. [And] for the nocturnal stars, which are of the sect of the Moon, because of the weakness (ἀσθενής) of its ray, the sextile of the domicile is the exaltation sign.” (Porphyry, Introduction to the Tetrabiblos, 6).

Yet the weakness of Porphyry’s account emerges when we consider what similarity in nature between two signs is supposed to consist in. The only example that Porphyry provides is that of the Sun. Now, the Sun is house ruler of Leo, and since it is a diurnal planet, it must be related to its exaltation by Trine. This leaves Aries or Sagittarius as two possible options.  Porphyry argues that Aries is more similar in nature to Leo than is Sagittarius, since both are “quadrupedal” (Introduction, 6). But even this simple example fails to clarify the issue, since Sagittarius is also a quadrupedal sign![2]

Rhetorius provides a different, yet equally inadequate approach, when he appeals not to a similarity between the sign of a planet’s house rulership and the sign of its exaltation, but between the nature of the planet itself and the seasonal quality of light corresponding to its exaltation sign in the tropical zodiac. Again, using the example of the Sun, Rhetorius explains that “the Sun is the storehouse of fire and light and the lord of the day” (Compendium 7), and in Aries “is exalted the light of day, [and] there is in its fall the darkness and the night, and the cold is warmed” (Compendium 7). After the spring equinox, the daylight begins to outstrip darkness and days begin to grow longer and hotter. There is thus a consonance between the Sun’s nature as storehouse of fire and light and the quality of light represented by Aries. And he makes a parallel case for Saturn, a cold dark planet, and Libra, the sign of the fall equinox, after which night grows longer than day.

So, if we pair Rhetorius’s observations with Porphyry’s principles, we may begin to formulate some kind of explanation for the exaltations. The Sun trines both Aries and Sagittarius from its house rulership in Leo, but, since Sagittarius occurs at the end of Fall where the nights continue to grow longer, Aries is more consonant with the Sun’s nature. But this account fails when one tries to extend it to the other planets. For example, when Rhetorius attempts to explain the exaltations of Mercury and Venus, he notes that Mercury “is the lord of words” and Venus of “desire and sex”. Yet he does not explain how these properties relate to their exaltation signs’ quality of light. Even if one followed Porphyry’s (rather dubious) explanation of why Mercury’s house rulership and exaltation would have to be the same since, “it is common and its ray is dimmer because of its frequent setting” (Introduction to the Tetrabiblos 6), we still would not have an explanation for why its exaltation would be in Virgo rather than its other house rulership in Gemini. It is not obvious that the quality of light at the end of Summer is any more conducive to discourse than the end of Spring. Indeed, one might even think there would be more time for talking at the end of Spring than the end of Summer, since at Summer’s end, one must work to prepare for the coming Fall. And things get even murkier when we consider Venus, since she has four possible options for exaltations as sextiles from her house rulerships in Libra and Taurus: Leo, Sagittarius,  Pisces, and Cancer. It is unclear why the end of Winter (Pisces), rather than the end of Fall (Sagittarius), or the beginning (Cancer) or middle (Leo) of Summer should be more consonant with desire and sex. Indeed, given that use descriptors like “hot” and “sultry” to describe desire, it is arguable that Summer would be the more fitting. So, though ancient astrologers attempted to invent various conceptual schemes to justify the exaltations, none of them appear to be convincing.[3]

The Function of the Exaltations

Though astrologers have failed to furnish a convincing account of the rationale for the exaltations scheme, they have nonetheless provided some clues regarding their function in chart delineations. One of our clearest accounts of the nature of planetary exaltations comes from Firmicus Maternus, when he claims that, in its exaltation, “a planet is raised up to the maximum of its own natural force” (Mathesis III.1). As a result, planets are said to “rejoice” in their exaltations (III.2), and thereby make the subject matter over which they preside “fortunate and successful” (III.3). The idea here is apparently that, in its exaltation, a planet exerts its natural powers to a maximal degree. A planet acts most like itself when it is exalted, and, as a result, it can bring the subject matter it governs to a fortunate end.

But in what sense should a planet be thought to act with “the maximum of its own natural force”? One approach would be to understand a planet’s natural force in terms of the Aristotelian qualities of hot, cold, dry, and wet. Ptolemy, for example, takes such a quasi-naturalistic approach when he claims that “the nature of Mars is chiefly to dry and to burn” (Tetrabiblos I.4). So, on this view, Mars’s hot and dry powers would be exercised to their maximal level in the Sign of Capricorn, the sign of the beginning of Winter marked by the winter solstice. And because Mars maximally exemplifies these qualities in this location, it can be thought to bring fortune and success to whatever subject matter falls under this sign.

Yet, such an account is not satisfying. Why, for example, should we think that Mars is at its hottest in Capricorn, the beginning of Winter, and not, say, at Leo (the Sun’s house) at the height of summer?[4] And why should we think that heating and drying maximally exercised would bring fortune or success? None of this is obvious. Furthermore, and even more problematically, there is a substantial gap between such quasi-naturalistic explanations and the kinds of human concerns that Astrology is meant to address. This kind of analysis might have worked in Ptolemy’s day, when people’s imaginations naturally understood the Aristotelian qualities and could poetically extend them over a wide range of phenomena with ease. But, in our day, the ideas of hot, cold, dry, and wet are just as foreign to our life-world as the other categories of astrology. They thus fail to be a useful way of elucidating astrological concepts.

We therefore need to find another framework for understanding planetary powers, if we are going to find a phenomenologically satisfying account of Firmicus Maternus’s explanation of the nature of planetary exaltations. I contend that such a framework can be found by looking to the Orphic tradition and their account of the powers infused in the soul by each of the celestial spheres as it descends to earth. This tradition is recorded by Macrobius when he reports:

“By the impulse of the first weight of the soul, having started on its downward course from the intersection of the Zodiac and the Milky Way to the successive spheres lying beneath, as it passes through these spheres, not only takes on the aforementioned envelopment in each sphere by approaching a luminous body, but also acquires each of the attributes which it will exercise later. In the sphere of Saturn it obtains reason and understanding, called logistikon and theoretikon; in Jupiter’s sphere, the power to act, called praktikon; in Mars’ sphere, a bold spirit or thymikon; in the sun’s sphere, sense-perception and imagination, aisthetikon and phantastikon; in Venus’ sphere, the impulse to passion, epithymetikon; in Mercury’s sphere, the ability to speak and interpret, hermeneutikon; and in the lunar sphere, the function of molding and increasing bodies, phytikon. This last function, being the farthest removed from the gods, is the first in us and all earthly creation; inasmuch as our body represents the dregs of what is divine, it is therefore the first substance of the creature. The difference between terrestrial and supernal bodies (I am speaking of the sky and stars and other components) lies in this, that the latter have been summoned upwards to the abode of the soul and have gained immortality by the very nature of the region and by copying the perfection of their high estate; but to our terrestrial bodies the soul is drawn downwards, and here it is believed to be dead while it is shut up in a perishable region and the abode of mortality” (Macrobius, Commentary on the Dream of Scipio, XII.13-16).

Macrobius thus sets forth a set of powers of the soul corresponding to each of the planetary spheres. I contend that this account of the planetary powers provides us with a straightforward and plausible phenomenology of the exaltations. The Sun, when exalted, will maximally express the powers of imagination and sense perception; the Moon, the vegetative principle through which bodies are nourished and developed; Saturn, reason and intellect; Jupiter, the power to act; Mars, boldness and bravery; Venus, desire; and Mercury, the power of hermeneutics, speech and interpretation.

Furthermore, when paired with the phenomenological interpretation of traditional house rulership I have set forth elsewhere[5], Macrobius’s framework provides us with an account of why each of these planetary powers is maximally expressed in each of their corresponding exaltation signs. Inspired by Manilius and Heidegger, I take house rulership to consist in a gathering of each sign’s gender (masculine or feminine), element (fire, air, water, earth), and modality (cardinal, fixed, mutable) so that each can stand out in its own essential nature, and thereby constitute a dwelling for a god. This god corresponds to a planet—not a planet considered abstractly, but the specific tutelary deity that steps forth as the dwelling of the planet within its own abode. Manilius sketches this list of tutelary deities as follows:

“Mark well the tutelary deities appointed to the signs and the signs which Nature assigned to each god, when she gave to the great virtues the persons of the gods and under sacred names established various powers, in order that a living presence might lend majesty to abstract qualities. Pallas is protectress of the Ram, the Cytherean of the Bull, and Phoebus of the comely Twins ; you, Mercury, rule the Crab and you, Jupiter, as well as the Mother of the Gods, the Lion; the Virgin with her sheaf belongs to Ceres, and the Balance to Vulcan who wrought it; bellicose Scorpion clings to Mars; Diana cherishes the hunter, a man to be sure, but a horse in his other half, and Vesta the cramped stars of Capricorn ; opposite Jupiter a Juno has the sign of Aquarius, and Neptune acknowledges the Fishes as his own for all that they are in heaven. This scheme too will provide you with important means of determining the future when, seeking from every quarter proofs and methods of our art, your mind speeds among the planets and stars so that a divine power may arise in your spirit and mortal hearts no less than heaven may win belief.” (Manilius, Astronomica, II.433-452).

So, for Manilius, Pallas Athena dwells in Aries, Venus in Taurus, Phoebus Apollo in Gemini, Mercury in Cancer, Jupiter in Leo, Ceres in Virgo, Vulcan in Libra, Mars in Scorpio, Diana in Sagittarius, Vesta in Capricorn, Juno in Aquarius, and Neptune in Pisces. When we, in this manner, understand the house rulers as the phenomenological appearing of tutelary deities, we can see how the planetary powers described by the exaltation scheme would be particularly well expressed in their corresponding abodes. The tutelary deity of each exaltation sign will call forth a particular kind of planetary power. Let’s examine each of them in turn following the Chaldean order of Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Sun, Venus, Mercury and Moon.

Saturn’s Exaltation in Libra (Venus dwelling as Hephaestos).

Saturn is exalted in the sign of Libra, the masculine, cardinal, airy the house of Venus. Using Manilius’s account of tutelary deities, we can say that, from a phenomenological perspective, when Venus takes up her abode in Libra, she dwells as her husband Hephaestos, the divine smith. And, given the planetary power associated with Saturn, this domain allows for Saturn’s reason (λογιστικός) and intellect (θεωρητικός) to be fully manifested. It is interesting to note how this hermetic account of Saturn’s powers preserved by Macrobius contradicts the view popularized by Valens which associates Saturn with ignorance (Valens, Anthologies, I.1). The hermetic view better accounts for the facts (i) that Saturn’s sphere is farthest from us, and thus closer to the divine, and (ii) that Saturn is said to have presided over the golden age (not an age of ignorance).

When we look to the myth of Hephaestos we can see how his house would offer amble opportunities for the exercise of reason and intellect. For Hephaestos is the first smith and the craftsman of the gods, forging the tools of the Olympians. Such a work can be undertaken only with a sharp mind. And there are further reasons why this would be a place where Saturn could ideally express his powers. According to early alchemical legends, the smith was a master of time, another Saturnian theme.[6] And the process of smithcraft and alchemy was said to turn on restoring consciousness to its lost state, taking us past the limits (another Saturnian theme) of human consciousness. And Hephaestos uses the fires deep within the earth to perform his work, and this should call to mind the fires of Tartarus, the place to which Saturn and the Titans fell after being overthrown by the Olympians.

Jupiter’s Exaltation in Cancer (The Moon dwelling as Hermes).

Jupiter is exalted in Cancer, the feminine, cardinal, watery house of the Moon. When the Moon takes up her abode in Cancer, she dwells, according to Manilius’s theory of tutelary deities, as Hermes, the messenger of the gods. And her house proves to be an ideal place for the expression of Jupiter’s power of action (πρακτικός). For, in astrology, Hermes is said to rejoice at the helm, the guiding point of the chart, and so his domain would be the quintessential place of action. Likewise, Hermes would also be expressive of action in that Mercury, like the Moon herself, moves rapidly through the chart. And, from a mythological perspective, the god Hermes is incredibly active. For example, the Orphic Hymn to Hermes praises him as “a vigorous god” delighting “in exercise and in deceit”, and in the Homeric Hymns he is portrayed as sneaking out the day of his birth to play tricks and steal the cattle of Apollo. “When he leapt from his mother’s immortal womb, he did not lie long in his holy cradle, but sprang up to search for Apollo’s cattle, out over the threshold of the high-arching cave.” Moreover, a specific connection between Hermes’ and Zeus’ (Jupiter’s) action can be found in Apollodorus’s account of the battle between Zeus and Typhon. In this story, Zeus initially confronts Typhon and loses. Typhon rips out his sinews and hides them away. Hermes then sneaks into where Zeus is held captive and reattaches his sinews, restoring his power to act and allowing him to battle Typhon once more. Apollodorus explains:

“However Zeus pelted Typhon at a distance with thunderbolts, and at close quarters struck him down with an adamantine sickle, and as he fled pursued him closely as far as Mount Casius, which overhangs Syria. There, seeing the monster sore wounded, he grappled with him. But Typhon twined about him and gripped him in his coils, and wresting the sickle from him severed the sinews of his hands and feet, and lifting him on his shoulders carried him through the sea to Cilicia and deposited him on arrival in the Corycian cave. Likewise he put away the sinews there also, hidden in a bearskin, and he set to guard them the she-dragon Delphyne, who was a half-bestial maiden. But Hermes and Aegipan stole the sinews and fitted them unobserved to Zeus. And having recovered his strength Zeus suddenly from heaven, riding in a chariot of winged horses, pelted Typhon with thunderbolts and pursued him to the mountain called Nysa…” (Apollodorus, 1.6.3.)

It is Hermes who thus restores Zeus’s power to act, making Mercury’s domain a fitting place for the expression of Jupiter’s power.

Mars’ Exaltation in Capricorn (Saturn dwelling as Hestia).

Mars is exalted in Capricorn, the feminine, cardinal, earthy house of Saturn. When Saturn dwells therein, he appears as his daughter Hestia goddess of the hearth, “the most august of the gods” (Homeric Hymn 5). Her home summons all of Mars’ bravery (θυμικός). This makes sense from a phenomenological perspective. For Hestia, or Vesta, is the goddess of hearth and home, and one of the surest ways to draw out people’s bravery is to threaten their homes and families. Furthermore, in Rome, Vesta was also closely associated with Rome itself. When Numa, the sage king, set forth the religious rites of Rome, the Vestal virgins were given a preeminent place. They were the keepers of the sacred fire which protected Rome. And, again, another sure way to draw forth a warrior’s bravery is to threaten his people or nation. And, finally, at a metaphysical level, Vesta and her fire were also associated with the metaphysical central fire of Pythagoreanism. Plutarch calls attention to this connection in his account of the life of Numa when observes that:

“It is said, also, that Numa built the temple of Vesta, which was intended for a repository of the holy fire, in a circular form, not to represent the figure of the earth, as if that were the same as Vesta, but that of the general universe, in the center of which the Pythagoreans place the element of fire, and give it the name of Vesta and the unit; and do not hold that the earth is immovable, or that it is situated in the center of the globe, but that it keeps a circular motion about the seat of fire, and is not in the number of the primary elements; in this agreeing with Plato, who, they say, in his later life, conceived that the earth held a lateral position, and that the central and sovereign space was reserved for some nobler body” (Plutarch, Lives, Numa).

So, on this view, Vesta would represent the central fire of the universe, a fire we cannot see, but around which we turn, our sun’s brilliance being a mere reflection of its primordial light. In this manner, we can understand Vesta as representing the metaphysical center, the unseen principles around which all visible realities turn. Again, this is another way to call forth the fullness of a people’s courage. If a people’s sacred values are threatened, they will pledge their “lives”, “fortunes”, and “sacred honor” in their defense.[7] As one of America’s founding fathers famously put it: “Give me liberty or give me death!” It is thus Vesta who calls forth Mars’ most ardent feats of heroism.

The Sun’s Exaltation in Aries (Mars dwelling as Aries or Athena).

The Sun is exalted in Aries, the masculine, cardinal, fiery home of Mars. Though Manilius associates this sign with Athena, I have argued elsewhere that it makes more sense to reverse his ordering and assign Athena to the feminine sign of Scorpio and Ares to the masculine sign of Aries. Regardless, both options retain a martial flavor, since both are warriors. “Athena rejoices in warfare and the work of Ares: combat, struggles, and glorious deeds” (Homeric Hymn 5). As a result, the sign of Aries will call forth the Sun’s powers of sense-perception (αἰσθητικός) and imagination (φαντασιαστικός) to their maximal degree. In the life and death struggle of the battlefield, one is forced to rely on one’s senses, reacting rapidly to the changing environment. Likewise, imagination proves necessary to form a strategy and anticipate where enemies might be hiding and what their weak points might be.

Venus’s Exaltation in Pisces (Jupiter dwelling as Poseidon).

Venus is exalted in Pisces, the feminine, mutable, watery abode of Jupiter. When Jupiter reigns there, he appears as Poseidon, the lord of the sea. The idea here is likely that Jupiter, when he rules his watery home, takes the form of his brother, the ruler of the sea. Yet, the connection between Venus and Poseidon appears to be more tenuous. For Poseidon is not portrayed as a pleasant deity in the Homeric epics. What would the god of sea, earthquakes, and horses, have to do with the goddess of love and desire? Why would Venus show up and endow Poseidon’s domain with her ἐπιθυμία, much less exercise it to its fullest degree?

One might appeal to the fact that Poseidon had many amorous adventures and fathered many children, thus making his house a fitting domain for Venus to work her charms. Yet this can be said of the other Olympians as well and thus fails to provide a reason why Venus would prefer Poseidon’s house in particular. Likewise, one might appeal to the fact that Poseidon intervened when Hephaestus caught Aphrodite and Ares in a net he had fashioned as they were engaged in an illicit tryst. The other gods all laughed, but serious Poseidon convinced Hephaestus to let them go, promising to be surety for Ares should he fail to pay the price (Odyssey VIII). But again, though this might be a reason for Aphrodite to be well disposed to Poseidon, this does not explain why his domain would be the one in which the desire she brings is most fully expressed.[8]

I believe a more promising explanation can be found in the myth of Atlantis set forth by Plato in the Critias. In this account, Critias claims to report a nine-thousand year old Egyptian tale, recorded in Greek by Solon, and passed down to Critias’s father. According to this story, Atlantas was founded when Poseidon took Clito for his wife. Critias recounts:

“Concerning the distribution of lands among the gods, in some regions they divided the entire earth into greater apportionments and in others into lesser apportionments, as they established sanctuaries and sacrifices for themselves. So it was that Poseidon received as one of his domains the island of Atlantis and he established dwelling places for the children he had fathered of a mortal woman in a certain place on the island that I shall describe. Now seaward, but running along the middle of the entire island, was a plain which is said to have been the loveliest of all plains and quite fertile. Near this plain in the middle of the island and at about fifty stades’ distance was a uniformly low and flat hill. Now, there lived on this hill one of the people of this island who had originally sprung up from the earth. His name was Evenor and he dwelt there with his wife Leucippe. They had an only child, a daughter by the name of Clito. When this girl grew to marriageable age, both her mother and father died. It was then that Poseidon conceived a desire (ἐπιθυμία) for her and slept with her. To make the hill on which she lived a strong enclosure he broke it to form a circle and he created alternating rings of sea and land around it. Some he made wider and some he made more narrow. He made two rings of land and three of sea as round as if he had laid them out with compass and lathe” (113b-d).

The very foundation of Atlantis, then, is built upon desire (ἐπιθυμία). Furthermore, it is a desire between the god and a mortal, and thus fittingly expressed in the double bodied sign of Pisces. Moreover, the passage describes how the island itself was fashioned by Poseidon as a series of concentric circles in the sea, which, again, fittingly corresponds to Pisces as a double bodied water sign.

And these correspondences continue throughout the story, for Poseidon is said to have made the city into a place of inexpressible beauty on account of his love for Clito and the children she bore him. Critias declares, “the god himself greatly beautified the island he had created in the middle to make it a dwelling suitable for a god.” (113e). And the rest of the tale goes on to describe the beauty and fertility of the island. Again, all of this would make an ideal location for Venus to express her powers.

And finally, the fact that it is an ideal place for the expression of desire can be seen in the account of the city’s downfall. Critias explains that, since they were of mixed stock, both divine and human, the Atlanteans were able to live amid such wealth without falling into vice. But once the divine part of them began to be degraded and overpowered by the mortal, their desires could no longer be constructively expressed. Critias recounts:

“For many generations and as long as enough of their divine nature survived, they were obedient unto their laws and they were well disposed to the divinity they were kin to. They possessed conceptions that were true and entirely lofty. And in their attitude to the disasters and chance events that constantly befall men and in their relations with one another they exhibited a combination of mildness and prudence, because, except for virtue, they held all else in disdain and thought of their present good fortune of no consequence. They bore their vast wealth of gold and other possessions without difficulty, treating them as if they were a burden. They did not become intoxicated with the luxury of the life their wealth made possible; they did not lose their self-control that even their very wealth increased with their amity and its companion, virtue. But they saw that both wealth and concord decline as possessions become pursued and honored. And virtue perishes with them as well. Now, because these were their thoughts and because of the divine nature that survived in them, they prospered greatly as we have already related. But when the divine portion in them began to grow faint as it was often blended with great quantities of mortality and as their human nature gradually gained ascendancy, at that moment, in their inability to bear their great good fortune, they became disordered” (120e-121b).

It is again, in a double bodied sign, one in which the rather stoic god of Poseidon dwells, that desire can be most constructively expressed. This, then, provides us with an account of why Venus can be thought of as elevating desire to its maximal level in Pisces.

Mercury’s Exaltation in Virgo (Mercury dwelling as Demeter).

Mercury is exalted in Virgo, Mercury’s feminine, mutable, earthy home. When Mercury dwells within it, he appears as Demeter, the goddess of harvest and fertility. And Demeter’s domain constitutes an ideal location for the expression of Mercury’s power of speech and interpretation (ἑρμηνευτικός), since the story of Demeter is tied up with the search for her daughter Persephone. The Homeric Hymn to Demeter, for example, begins: “I sing of the revered goddess, rich haired Demeter, and her slim ankled daughter whom Hades snatched.” Even this snatching of Persephone has a Mercurial character, since it is the result of a cunning plan devised by Zeus and executed by Hades. The Hymn recounts:

“She picked lush meadow flowers: roses, crocuses, lovely violets, irises, hyacinths—and a narcissus Gaia grew as a lure for the blossoming girl, following Zeus’ bidding, to please Lord of the Dead. Everyone marveled at the bewitching sight, immortal gods and mortal folk alike: from its root blossomed a hundred sweetly scented heads, and all wide heaven above, all earth, and the salty sell of the sea laughed. Amazed, she stretched out both hands to pick the charming bloom—and a chasm opened in the Nysian plain. Out sprang Lord of the Dead, god of the many names, on his immortal horses. Snatching the unwilling girl, he carried her of in his golden chariot.” (Homeric Hymn to Demeter).

The abduction of Persephone was thus a trap devised in Mercurial fashion. And Mercury’s hermeneutical nature is also at play in Demeter’s search for her lost daughter. For no one knows where Persephone went, and Demeter must go in search of information regarding her daughter’s whereabouts. She asks Hekate who says she heard Persephone’s cries but saw nothing. Hekate directs her to Helios who tells her that Hades has taken her at Zeus’s behest. Demeter, enraged, leaves the Olympians, traversing the worlds like Mercury, and walks among mortals in disguise, yet another Mercurial theme. In her grief, Demeter hides the seeds of the earth, and causes a great famine to wipe out humanity, and this causes Zeus to act, since he doesn’t want to lose the sacrifices men offer him. And he sends Mercury, the psychopomp, to the underworld to set up an agreement between Demeter and Hades. There are thus ample Mercurial significations in this tale, and it illustrates how the art of hermeneutics would be most exceptionally expressed in Demeter’s house, as one is forced to navigate between the seen and unseen realms.

The Moon’s Exaltation in Taurus (Venus dwelling as Herself, i.e. Aphrodite).

Finally, the Moon is exalted in Taurus, the feminine, fixed, earthy house of Venus. When Venus dwells therein, she appears as herself, Aphrodite, the goddess of love and desire.  As goddess of love, Aphrodite reigns over generation and birth. For example, the Orphic Hymn to Aphrodite praises her as the “revered goddess of generation” giving “birth to all, to everything in heaven, to everything upon the fruitful earth, to everything in the depths of the sea” and hails her as the “giver of birth and life.” Likewise, one the Homeric Hymns to Aphrodite (Hymn 5) recounts how she herself conceived and bore Aeneas from Anchises.

In her domain in Taurus at the heart of Spring, her powers of generation are in full bloom. It thus makes a fitting location for the Moon to exercise her powers of nourishment and growth, φυτικός. This principle was thought to be that of the vegetative soul, the kind of blind impulse towards life which knits bodies together and provides them with nourishment. It is the kind of power expressed, for example, when the Psalmist declares:

“Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence. If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me. If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you. For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.” (Ps 139:7-16).

As the Psalmist’s body was being formed, there was an intelligent process governing its arrangement. Yet, none of this was the result of his own intellect or conscious choice. Rather, his body knew, at an instinctive level, how to grow and sustain itself. It is this kind of vital principle that ancient philosophers expressed when they spoke of the vegetative soul, and again, this power can be potently expressed most powerfully in the Springtime domain of Aphrodite.


So, though we have not been able to reconstruct a plausible rationale for the traditional planetary exaltations, we can, at least, give a plausible account of their function. When exalted, a planet maximally expresses its own natural powers, and these powers are best understood as the powers impressed on the soul in its descent through the heavenly spheres. Moreover, when interpreted in this manner, we can also discern a certain phenomenological appropriateness in each of the exaltations. The tutelary deities dwelling in the gathering of each sign give a fitting context for the full expression of each of the planetary powers.

Peter Yong, Ph.D.

[The image used in the thumbnail of this essay is Madonna im Rosenhag by Stefan Lochner and is in the public domain. It can be found here: ].

[1] Rochberg attributes such a view to Ptolemy in his accounts of the exaltations of the Sun and Jupiter. See Rochberg “Elements of the Babylonian Contribution to Hellenistic Astrology” in Journal of the American Oriental Society 108.1, 57.

[2] See, for example, Demetra George, Hellenistic Astrology in Theory and Practice I, 141. One might argue that Aries is still more fitting, since Sagittarius, though quadrupedal has the torso of a man, while the ram does not. Yet, once one starts making these kinds of moves, the ad hoc nature of such accounts becomes evident. We are clearly in the realm of imaginative speculation at this point.

[3] Ptolemy tries to do so by correlating it with weather (Tetrabiblos I.19) and Abu Ma’shar similarly applies to planetary qualities (Great Introduction V.7), yet neither offers anything more substantial than what we have already seen.

[4] One might argue that Mars is exalted in Capricorn not because it is hotter there, but because its heat is weakened in this cold sign. But such a response would work only by abandoning the underlying premise that planets in their exaltations exercise their natural powers at a maximal level. Indeed, it would require the adopting the opposite position, in which planets are exalted when their natures are tempered and their actions restrained.



[7] US Declaration of Independence.

[8] One might also appeal to the fact that, according to Hesiod, Aphrodite was born of the sea foam after Uranus’s severed testicles were thrown into the ocean. There would thus be an intrinsic connection between Aphrodite, the “sea-born revered goddess of generation” (Orphic Hymn to Aphrodite), and the god of the sea. But, again, this still strikes me as something of a stretch. Why would the sea god’s domain afford the best opportunity for the expression of desire?

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