Greetings, and welcome back to Journeys! This month we will explore some of the ways in which the Sabian symbols can be used in magic and astrology. These symbols were presented last month.
Before we dive into some of the practical ways in which these symbols can be used we should consider what they are. They were delivered via clairvoyant transmission through a medium (Elsie Wheeler) and a mediator (Dr. Marc Jones). Their view was that the symbols were from an esoteric school of ancient Mesopotamia and that Elsie was receiving a modern transmission of this information from her spirit guides and from the Akasha. Yet this is an attempt to answer the question of where they arise from, not what they truly are. If we understand what they truly are we will understand what their purpose is, and if we understand what their purpose is we will also understand why they are being re-transmitted at this time.
Sabian symbols are the symbolic forms of the spirits of specific degrees of the zodiac or Earth Zone, the astral environment that lies adjacent to the physical Earth and its physical atmosphere. When we think of spirits we tend to think of ethereal beings without a physical form, but there is much more to the concept than this simple definition. Think of the ways in which the word spirit is used in the English language, for example. “In the spirit of fair play”, “in high spirits”, and “show some spirit” all point to a different way of thinking about spirits not as independent entities but as a state of consciousness. If we think for a moment about this, we can see that depicting these states of consciousness is a symbolic game – how does one portray the spirit of fair play so that it will be universally recognizable to everyone? What form would it take? Going further there are also deeper uses of the meaning of spirit in other languages and cultures – think for example of the way in which indigenous people view the concept. If a woman in such a culture fashions a beautifully smooth pounding stone through years of work with her own hands, she imbues part of her spirit into that object. If ignorant people later dig up that object and remove it, her spirit becomes restless until it is returned. The spirit of that land also mourns for her to be returned to it. The same idea about spirit being transferable, tied to objects or locations as well as to all things, is seen around the globe. In these animistic cultures literally everything is alive and has its own spirit. Spirits are also frequently seen as being parts of broods or families, for example each species of bird has its own spirit – hummingbird, crow, owl, etc., but there is also the spirit of Bird, which has a direct kinship with the spirit of Wind, thus also forming a kinship between all of the individual bird spirits and all of the individual spirits of the wind. None of these spirits have much kinship with the spirits that live under the ground, either – they are a different brood.
The analogy we need to make sense of all this and to see the pattern in it all is that what we call spirit is actually individualized consciousness in all of its infinite forms. The pounding stone carries the womans spirit because she shaped it with her consciousness – it is transferable because ultimately there is only one consciousness, indivisible and whole, which perceives itself in an infinite variety and scale of forms. By focusing our awareness on a thing our consciousness begins to entangle with it, and its with ours – when you bend down to enjoy the rose, it is also enjoying you.
The Sabian symbols depict the consciousness present in each degree of the zodiac, a consciousness which, like the native womans, can be transferred into pounding stones – human beings, for example. However because they are culturally filtered through the consciousness of modern Americans, they use symbolism which is innately modern American, even though it refers to other cultures like India or old Europe. When it comes to decoding the symbolism of the Sabians so that we can perceive the consciousness behind that symbolism we have to remember this. Similar problems exist for a European trying to decipher the I-Ching, for example. There are 360 Sabian symbols because that number has meaning (because of the circular design of the zodiac, 12 signs x 30 degrees), but there are 64 hexagrams in the I Ching, not 360, because the significance of number is interpreted differently where the hexagrams arose, and so they are based on 2 (Yin/Yang) and 6 (6 branches in each hexagram): 2 to the power of 6 is 64.
Bearing all this in mind, the symbols will sometimes have a literal power for people who are receptive to an American way seeing things, which is a lot of people right now. It is not uncommon for striking associations to emerge from them in these cases. I had regular dreams and meditations of looking into reflections of the sky in lakes, especially mountain lakes at night. Then one day I saw the Sabian symbol for my Sun: ‘a high mountain lake is bathed in the full moonlight’. I have lost track of the many other instances where the Sabians have had a striking, literal power to them, but they can’t be relied on for this. Instead, they are best used in understanding the consciousness being communicated and applying that to specific situations. In this respect they become very useful and powerful. This is their purpose, then, and the reason why they are emerging at this time – to remind us that the zodiac is a living continuum connected by symbolic threads that communicate energy and meaning. The signs are not mere archetypes, they are a fusion of different kinds of consciousness into a broader and more inclusive form, an arrangement and a transferring of consciousness. Each sign begins with highly Electric activity and ends with highly Magnetic activity, and the middle degree is the point of equipoise in the sign. This is a lower harmonic of the zodiac itself which starts with the most Electric sign (Aries) and ends with the most Magnetic (Pisces). This is why the symbolism of Libra 01° at the sequential centre of the zodiac is “pierced by a dart of light a butterfly is ‘made perfect’.”
EXPLORING THE SYMBOLS: NATAL CHARTS
Symbolic systems become more concrete to our minds when they are applied to practical matters, and these symbols are no different. To begin exploring the Sabians I recommend that you make a list of all of the symbols that are related to the planets and the 2 major angles from their positions in your birth chart. As an example I will use the birth chart of Marilyn Monroe. Remember that 0 to 1° is referred to as the 1st° degree of a sign in the Sabian symbols.
Symbols for Marilyn Monroe
Ascendant (13° Leo, or Leo 14): Cherub-like, a human soul whispers, seeking to manifest.
Midheaven (6° Taurus, or Taurus 07): A woman of Samaria comes to draw water from the well.
Sun (10° Gemini, or Gemini 11): Newly opened lands of virgin realms of experience.
Moon (19° Aquarius, or Aquarius 20): White dove circles overhead; descends, bearing a message.
Mercury (6° Gemini, or Gemini 07): An old well, filled with pure water, shaded by trees.
Venus (28° Aries, or Aries 29): Two garrulous old cobblers work seated on an old bench.
Mars (20° Pisces, or Pisces 21): Child watched by Chinese servant caresses a white lamb.
Jupiter (26° Aquarius, or Aquarius 27): Amid rare books, an old pottery bowl holds fresh violets.
Saturn (21° Scorpio, or Scorpio 22): Hunters shooting wild ducks walk through marsh.
Chiron (0° Taurus, or Taurus 01): A clear mountain stream flows through a rocky defile.
Uranus (28° Pisces, or Pisces 29): Scientist is making tests by means of spectrum analysis.
Neptune (22° Leo, or Leo 23): The bareback rider in a circus thrills excited crowds.
Pluto (13° Cancer, or Cancer 14): An old man, alone, faces the darkness in the north-east.
Eris (1° Aries, or Aries 02): A comedian entertaining a group of friends.
With this list you can now begin your exploration of the chart by focusing your awareness on the symbol and relating it to the specific part of the chart that it is connected to. For example the ascendant is related to outer identity, how people present themselves and the first impression that they make as well as their physical body shape and face, voice, garb, gait, posture, mannerisms and any distinguishing marks as well as the look or light in their eyes. Here we see a Leo ascendant (so bright, sunny, entertainer, skilled comedian and glamour immediately come to mind in describing her) that is being depicted as ‘cherub-like, human, whispering and seeking to manifest’. There is not only a literal representation here (cherub-like face, whispering voice) but also a far deeper evocation of her vulnerability and her struggle with outer identity (seeking to manifest), her search for self actualization. We perceive a consciousness seeking to be heard and realized. The symbol of the midheaven, the angle connected directly to her career and public persona, within hard-working and sensual Taurus, is described as ‘a woman of Samaria coming to draw water from the well’ – as any study of her life show, Norma Jean Mortensen constructed the persona of Marilyn Monroe as a shield to hide her extreme vulnerability (an impoverished woman, she spent her childhood in foster homes and orphanages) and her career is where she drew the most ‘pure water’ in her life, a genuine sense of power, fulfillment and satisfaction, but it didn’t last, the well ran dry and she was left thirsty. Note that the Mercury symbol also refers to a well containing pure water and that Mercury is located in her 10th temple. Her innate innocence, her child-like vulnerability and projected naivete are expressed in her Sun as ‘newly opened lands offering virgin realms of experience’, but this also describes her interest in learning new things and her intellectual side, which did not fit the projected image she created and so was sidelined in her profile. We see a number of motifs representing gentle or quiet things throughout the list – white doves, lonely old men, cherubs, untouched lands, white lambs, quiet old wells, fresh violets, clear mountain streams, children caressing – all of which are qualities we can identify in her consciousness, her spirit. While many of the symbols may appear to have no literal manifestation to us, the consciousness of Norma Jean may well have recognised literal manifestations of these symbols that we are not privy to. For example, it’s possible she had dreams of being in a circus, as depicted in her Neptune symbol or that she found something special in life at a particular spot that had a well. The literal manifestations are not very ‘giving’ though – they don’t help to illuminate consciousness much, and are little more than interesting anecdotes compared to the inner meanings of these symbols which offer a great deal that is worthy of deep reflection. For example the symbol attached to her Saturn evokes the spirit of hunting instincts dressed up in a cultural ritual, socially accepted hunting, so there is the challenge of being the prey to sanctioned forms of predation, in this case the (heavily Scorpio) sexual and occult kind. She is the wild duck in this symbol, and her hunters are powerful men (Saturnine presidents, star baseball players and Pulitzer Prize winning playwrights, no less). Yet this Saturn also brings her toughness, being in Scorpio, and was quite capable of turning the tables and becoming the predator. Her fragility was real, but she needed to be hard skinned to survive in Hollywood, especially as a female ‘sex symbol’. This is definitely a marshland. Placed in the context of her background in orphanages and foster care, we see the trauma and heartache of Saturn in Scorpio in the 4th leading her to hunt and seek out something, a characteristic commented on in many biographies.
As you can see in this example there is a great deal you can mine from these symbols, but you have to do some work that some people find to be stretching, and their imaginative muscles are not flexible enough to reach. With your own chart you will find the connections easier to identify, but some symbols will beckon you to look deeper to perceive their consciousness and how it speaks to you. In these cases try to allow the symbol room to breathe, don’t try to confine it by bringing your own assumptions and personal bias or by constraining it with the planetary influence it is connected to. Just picture, feel and listen to the symbol and let it guide you. One thing that can help when considering the meaning of an individual symbol is to consider the symbol that came before it and the one that came after it – the zodiac is a continuum with a flow and considering the symbols in threes can help to unlock this awareness. There are also many books offering various interpretations of what these symbols signify, and they can be helpful to you in coming to your own perspective, but ultimately they are not as meaningful as the connections you will find on your own. Some sources have been provided at the end of this article.
EXPLORING THE SYMBOLS: ASPECTS
You can also explore or interprete the symbols in relationship to one another instead of in isolation, which will help you to perceive larger patterns within them. Two major ways of doing this are by studying the symbol set in its entirety or by applying the symbols to astrological aspects, either those that are transpiring in the sky presently or those embedded in the natal chart.
In the first case, studying the entire symbol set, you look at all the exact astrological aspects between the symbols. For example, Aries 1 is exactly opposite Libra 1, exactly square Cancer 1 and Capricorn 1, exactly trine Leo 1 and Sagittarius 1 and exactly sextile Gemini 1 and Aquarius 1. Now you can begin to see how the symbol resonates with other symbols within the symbol set:
Aries 1: A woman has risen out of the ocean; a seal embraces her.
Libra 1: Pierced by a dart of light a butterfly is “made perfect”.
Cancer 1: Sailor ready to hoist a new flag to replace old one.
Capricorn 1: Indian chief claims power from the assembled tribe.
Leo 1: Under emotional stress blood rushes to a man’s head.
Sagittarius 1: Retired army veterans gathered to reawaken old memories.
Gemini 1: A glass-bottomed drifts over undersea wonders.
Aquarius 1: An old adobe mission nestles in California’s brown hills.
1) Aries 1 and Libra 1 symbols polarized with one another, they balance one another but can ‘pull’ consciousness in opposite directions without this balance.
2) Aries 1 is in a square relationship with both Cancer 1 and Capricorn 1, so that its symbol is in a mutually conflicting and dynamically charged resonance with theirs. In each case the Elements of the signs involved provide clues as to where the conflict lies and what the potential energy being released could be. Taken together with the symbol for Libra 1, these four symbols communicate to consciousness something about the Active/Cardinal modality (which signifies beginning, onset and the initiatory, active behaviour of the Element). We are shown a primordial woman rising from the ocean for Fire, a perfect butterfly pierced by light for Air, a sailor ready to hoist a new flag for Water and an Indian chief claiming power from their tribe.
3) Aries 1 is in a trine relationship with both Leo and Sagittarius 1, so that its symbol is in a mutually harmonizing and open gated resonance with theirs. Taken together all three of these symbols teach us something about the nature of the Fire Element. We are shown the primordial woman rising from the ocean, blood rushing to a man’s head under stress and retired army veterans sharing their memories of war.
4) Aries 1 is in a sextile relationship with both Gemini and Aquarius 1, so that its symbol is in an invigorating and arousing resonance with each of theirs. Here the primordial woman is shown alongside a glass bottomed boat drifting over undersea wonders and an old mission amidst the dried, brown hills of California.
There is clearly a great deal we can learn from regarding the symbols in this way, with 360° to consider and four major categories to look at and meditate upon. The insight we gain from this method however, while extremely informative and meaningful, lacks the significance of practical application and so the second method of exploring the symbols in relationship to one another is to return to your list of which symbols are connected to which planets in your natal chart and begin to analyze the aspects in your birth chart. For example returning to Marilyn Monroe we note that in her natal chart there are the following aspects:
Ascendant: opposition Moon, sextile Sun, square midheaven
Midheaven: conjunction Venus and Chiron, square ascendant
Sun: conjunction Mercury
Moon: conjunction Jupiter, square Saturn, Opposition Neptune, opposition ascendant
Mercury: conjunction Sun, sextile Eris
Venus: conjunction Chiron and midheaven, sextile Jupiter, trine Neptune
Mars: trine Saturn, Pluto and the Dragons Head
Jupiter: sextile Venus and Chiron, opposition Neptune, square Saturn, conjunction Moon
Saturn: square Moon, Jupiter and Neptune, trine Mars, Uranus and the Dragons Head
Chiron: conjunction Venus and midheaven, sextile Jupiter
Uranus: conjunction Eris, trine Saturn
Neptune: square Saturn, opposition Moon and Jupiter, trine Venus
Pluto: conjunction Dragons Head, trine Mars
Eris: conjunction Uranus, sextile Mercury
Now you can begin to interpret the aspects in her birth chart from a new symbolic level, one that not only involves the meaning of the planets and the signs as well as the aspects but also the more qualitative information given by the symbols. For example, look at the symbols associated with her natal Moon in Aquarius square Saturn in Scorpio:
White dove circles overhead; descends, bearing a message. (Moon)
Hunters shooting wild ducks walk through marsh. (Saturn)
The contrast here could not be clearer – this square is about the conflict concerning the birds, the conflict in her mind, driven by irrational fear (Moon/Saturn) and the sense of peace and calm being stalked. The placement of Moon in Aquarius helps us to confirm this, and she was indeed plagued by negative voices and doubts about her safety and sanity. The opposition that the Moon has with Neptune also disturbs its sense of peace:
The bareback rider in a circus thrills excited crowds. (Neptune)
With Neptune being strongly associated with film and photography we are strongly reminded of the media circus that she lived under at an intense level, breaking ground as the first “blonde bombshell”, a role that later turned into a straitjacket of tearful madness, confusion and drug addiction. The square between Saturn and Neptune that completes the pattern (a T-square) has symbolism that evokes danger and high tension but also a conflict between creeping silence and loud crowds.
One interesting feature that emerges from looking at a natal chart with the symbols in this way is what happens with the conjunctions greater than 1° apart. For example in Marilyn Monroe’s chart the Sun and Mercury are in a conjunction in Gemini. Normally what we would say about this is that she is intelligent and witty, quick thinking and curious, friendly and sociable as well as talkative or ‘thinkative’, but that she is also prone to changing her mind, nervous behaviour, mental overload, gossiping, paranoia, chaos and split thinking. However we gain new insight when we place the two symbols for these planets in a conjunction relationship:
Newly opened lands of virgin realms of experience; an old well, filled with pure water, shaded by trees.
This really communicates consciousness that voyages forth into new territory finding refreshment and shade, so her Sun/Mercury in Gemini finds information that nourishes and invigorates her spirit, she is depicted in an environment in which intellectual learning and discovery bring shelter and revival. She loved to learn, because it restored her spirit to her. This way of looking at conjunctions really helps us to see the zodiac integrally, as a continuum. It is especially helpful in charts where there are major stelliums because the clusters of planets can be individually analyzed using the symbols, a feature that helps to differentiate one planet from another.
EXPLORING THE SYMBOLS: MEDITATION & MAGIC
There are many ways in which you can use this symbol set in meditation work. I will describe only a few of them here.
Firstly, when you come to work with one of these symbols I recommend that you imagine it taking form before you as a scene beyond a window. Take your time to pay attention to every detail and don’t be afraid if there is the suggestion to elaborate, but try not to elaborate too far in the beginning, just stay as close to the original picture as you can. When you have created a strong sensation that the scene beyond the window you are looking through is complete, open the window and float your awareness through it. Let your awareness take in the scene from within it, open your senses and feel it as if it were happening around you or to you. Move your perspective around inside the symbol, taking it in from a 360° perspective with all of your senses. When you are ready float back through the window, close it, dissolve the scene into the universe and come out of your meditation. Take a few moments to reflect upon what you have experienced, then record it.
You can use this method in magical initiation as a framework for meditations aimed at gaining or adjusting your magical equilibrium. Simply apply the analogies of the four Elements in meditation and creative imagination to work with the symbols:
Fire: Visual, sight – the imagination of seeing
Air: Olfactory, smell – the imagination of scent
Water: Auditory, hearing – the imagination of sound
Earth: Gustatory, taste – the imagination of flavor
Akasha: Feeling, sensation – the imagination of being or touching
Simply pick one of the symbols and construct a meditation in which you involve a perception of all of these senses (this will powerfully bring the symbol to life for you), or choose a sense to focus on (for example, if you perceive a need for you to work on the Air Element to gain your equilibrium, focus on how the symbol smells to you). A method that I have found useful in my own practice is to concentrate on the Element that the symbol belongs to in the creative imagination exercise, for example if the symbol belongs to Scorpio of the Water Element then I will focus on imagination of sound. Some symbols make this easier than others, but the resonance that they have with that Element will always have a natural fit, you may just need to search to find it. These are voyages of the imagination, so exercise it. When you do find the connection this way it is often very illuminating and enlightening, it can provide a way to really connect with the essence of the spirit of that degree, like a key in a lock. The Akasha exercise, of course, always does this, so if you add the sensation of feeling to whatever sense you are training it can be especially powerful.
If you wish you can create guided explorations of these symbols in a number of ways. You could for example follow the position of the Sun as it moves through all 360°, one per day, over the course of a year. Begin the day with your meditation on the symbol the Sun rises with that morning (which can be affected by your location), then throughout the day return your awareness to that meditation and consider what is going on around you seeking to perceive the spirit of the symbol in the days activities and events, but also in your own consciousness and the consciousness of people and things around you. If the Sun changes to a different degree at a particular hour, try to observe any shift that resonates with the new symbol. In the evening, do your meditation again in light of what you have perceived throughout the day, then record your findings in your magical diary. You can do the same thing with the Moon over the course of about a month, but because the Moon moves around about 1° every two hours you will have to be more alert throughout the waking hours for the Moon changing to a new degree and there will be several degrees during the night time during which you will be asleep. This means that you should record your dreams during such an exploration and you may well find that some of that dream symbolism matches the symbolism of the Moon in one of the Sabians for that night. You can also explore both ways (Sun or Moon) using the decans as a framework rather than the degrees, an approach that will teach you a great deal about the community of 10 spirits that make up each of the astrological decans and the planetary meaning that connects them. Terms or bounds can also be explored and investigated in this way. The first degree in every decan (so the 1st, 11th, and 21st symbol of each sign in the Sabian symbols list) or the first degree in a term (see the table last month) carries the planetary energy strongly. You can find an article on decans and terms here.
You can also integrate the symbols into a magical pathworking of your chart, as I have described in my article Happy Tracks. You simply add the Sabian symbolism of the degree to your path, encountering it as you journey. The temple cusps can have their guardian spirits or passwords connected to the Sabian symbol, or be decorated with their motif. The beings of the planets encountered on the path can be situated within or seen to be interacting with the symbolism of the degree, or sending messages to other planets they are in aspect with via that symbolism. The path of the zodiac that leads from one temple to another can also have encounters placed upon it which relate to the relevant Sabian symbols. I find this most useful in the exploration of current transits of the slow moving planets, the activators. For example Saturn is currently at 11° of Aquarius, or Aquarius 12, the symbol for which is “Life’s broad stairway: each landing, a new grade of life.” For this I might imagine an old woman (Saturn) climbing up this broad stairway to distant stars (Aquarius) when I explore this part of Aquarius. I will perhaps conjure a smell (Air) that for me signifies the concept of slowly rising up the stairwell of life. This part will be very personal, it will stem from my personal experience and make complete sense to me but not necessarily to others. I will do meditation beforehand to uncover this analogy, perhaps considering the scents or plants of Saturn in this inner reflection, and I will never reveal it to others.
Notice that in the above example, the movement up a stair is resonant with the fact that Aquarius 12 is a Mercury decan (in both the descending and triplicity order), while it is the terms of Venus (Egyptian terms), which is why I made Saturn an old woman and not an old man, but the Venus terms are also reflected in the emotional feeling this symbol brings of being uplifted spiritually, gently but firmly. The broad steps of the grades of life leading upwards are also pure Saturn in Aquarius.
In evocation the spirits of the Earth Zone will often but by no means always first choose to show themselves in the magic mirror in the form of the Sabian symbol of that degree or some part of it, or something very similar, so if I want to work with the more magical intelligence of a degree I will include the main magical purpose of that degree in any creative imagination with it, for example with Aquarius 12 (Quabbalistic magic) I will perceive the old woman making magical utterances as she rises up the stairwell, or there will be formulae on her robes, the stairs, in the heavens, or some other feature. In short I will perceive that magical activity taking place in that degree and being performed by or involving the symbolism of that degree. By mental transference I will then connect my mental body with that of the imagined scene and commune with it. This is not an evocation but instead a simple form of empathic mental magic so the communication is not externalized in a face to face or self to self relationship, but it is still a useful form of communication that can teach a great deal about a particular degree and your relationship to it. If you fashion talismans of the Earth Zone spirits (which you can do at step 9 of Initiation into Hermetics, but it really requires work in evocation with the spirit beforehand through the Practice of Magical Evocation) you can use the symbolism of the relevant Sabian degree in its design, for example a stairway for Aquarius 12.
Finally, you can explore the Sabian symbols artistically. An artist working with any visual medium (paint, sketching, sculpting, film, etc.) can find ways to depict entire birth charts, transits or the synastry between two beings this way, creatively blending the symbolism from different Sabian symbols, different planets, signs and temples into a work of art. A magician trained up to Step 7 of Initiation into Hermetics can animate these pictures as elementaries. Musicians and dancers can also draw inspiration from the symbols, bringing them to life in movement and sound. The symbols can be used by writers to serve as the seed of a story or by poets as the seed of a song. The application of the symbols in art are so broad that they could inspire an entire movement of astrologically inspired art.
I hope this brief discussion has inspired you to work with these symbols in your own way and that you will find as much treasure within your exploration as I have. Below you will find a few books by writers on my bookshelf that have interpretations of the Sabian symbols as their focus, and the source for the magical analogies I provided in the first part of this post last month. See you next month!
The Sabian Symbols in Astrology, by Dr. Marc Edmund Jones.
An Astrological Mandala, by Dane Rudhyar
360 Degrees of Wisdom, by Lynda Hill (includes cards for random selection)
The Sabian Symbols & Astrological Analysis, by Blain Bovee
The Practice of Magical Evocation, by Franz Bardon