More on Lilly’s Understanding of Ptolemy’s Triplicities

Chris Brennan, whose scholarship I admire, left an interesting reply to my previous post on whether Lilly correctly understood Ptolemy on triplicities.  I thought Chris’ comments deserved a separate post, so here they are:

“I don’t know about this… It is not as clear in the Ashmand translation, but in both Robbins and Schmidt’s versions they seem to say that Mars is the only planet left over at that point once he gets to the water triplicity, and thus it is the primary trigon lord.  When Ptolemy mentions Venus and the Moon he calls them “co-rulers” or “joint-rulers” (sunoikiodespotes). He doesn’t use this term elsewhere in the preceeding paragraphs when talking about the other triplicities, so it is kind of unique here in this paragraph.  It seems like the term is the functional equivalent of the word that Vettius Valens uses to refer to the third cooperating trigon lord, which he calls a “co-worker” (sunergos) with the two primary trigon lords. If that is true, then it seems like what might be going on here is that Ptolemy is using Mars as the primary lord of the water triplicity for both day and night charts, but then he also incorporates Venus and the Moon as “participating” rulers. The passage is kind of ambiguous though.”

My response went as follows:

“Thanks for your feedback. Unfortunately, I don’t read Greek and have to rely on translations of Greek texts. The preface to the Ashmand translation says it was made from “Proclus’s Greek Paraphrase of Ptolemy’s original text,” which is from the Elzevir edition of 1635 — the very one that Lilly used. The Elzevir edition has the Greek text in one column and the Latin translation by Leo Allatius next to it. I don’t know if Lilly read it in Greek or in Latin, or both. Unfortunately, I don’t have a copy of the 1635 Elzevir text to be able to judge how well Ashmand translated the Latin. I chose to look at the Ashmand translation because it is a rendering in English of the copy of Ptolemy that Lilly was reading.

Your point about Mars being the only planet left over is well taken. Ptolemy’s organization of the material leads up to that idea. He discusses the triplicities in the order: Fire – Earth – Air – Water, as if he is beginning with Aries on the Ascendant and moving clockwise around the wheel. He gives Jupiter and the Sun to fire, the Moon and Venus to earth, and Saturn and Mercury to Air. When he gets to water, he has already used up six of the seven planets and seems to want to give Mars a role because he has thus far been left out. Ptolemy argues that Mars has a right to the water triplicity because it rules Scorpio. Then he adds (Ashmand translation): “BUT as the signs which compose this triplicity are feminine, the Moon by night and Venus by day, through their feminine condition govern it together with Mars.”

I wish I had the Latin text that Lilly read to know whether Ashmand translated it correctly since both Lilly and Ashmand were working with the identical Latin version of Ptolemy. I don’t know which version(s) of Ptolemy Schmidt used for his translation. Robbins cites many versions of Ptolemy that he consulted for his translation. Robins also mentions that the earliest extant text of the Tetrabiblos itself is from the 13th century and of its Paraphrase from the 10th century. As far as I know a copy of the original apparently does not exist. It is entirely possible that Proclus misunderstood Ptolemy or that one or more of the transcribers introduced transcription errors over the centuries (as seems apparent from the various versions of the terms or bounds attributed to Ptolemy).

It also seems to me that Ptolemy was working with a version of the triplicities handed down through Dorotheus, which may have already been modified by the time it reached Ptolemy or which Ptolemy simplified to make it fit better with the scientific viewpoint of his era.

In any case, because both Lilly and Ashmand were reading the same Latin text and Ashmand’s English translation states the the day and night rulers of the water signs are Venus and the Moon respectively, it seemed to me that Mars was regarded as a participating or common ruler and that Lilly ignored the distinction Ptolemy was making about the day and night rulers for the water triplicity (perhaps for the sake of symmetry).

Maybe someday we’ll find an earlier version of Ptolemy that has not been corrupted by transcription errors and the whole matter will be definitely cleared up.

Sorry for such a long-winded answer, Chris. I love your work in Hellenistic astrology and am delighted that you decided to post a comment here.”

My goal in these posts is to think “out loud” about ideas that fascinate or puzzle me, and I welcome feedback that will add clarity or a new perspective to the discussion.


About Anthony Louis

Author of books about astrology and tarot, including TAROT PLAIN AND SIMPLE, HORARY ASTROLOGY, and THE ART OF FORECASTING WITH SOLAR RETURNS.
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6 Responses to More on Lilly’s Understanding of Ptolemy’s Triplicities

  1. Hi Anthony,

    First, thanks for your kind words!

    Robbins compiled his own edition in order to do his translation, but then he kind of got screwed because later in the same year that his translation came out the first modern critical edition of Ptolemy was published by Franz Boll and Emilie Boer. The Boll-Boer edition was the result of 40 years of analyzing all of the surviving Greek manuscripts of the Tetrabiblos that were known at the time. Robbins knew that it was in production, but didn’t know that it was so close to being completed, and he didn’t have access to it. Schmidt was able to base his translation on the Boll-Boer edition in the 1990’s, although since then another edition has been published which takes into account even more manuscripts than the ones that Boll and Boer had access to. I wrote out a full history of the critical editions in my article on Ptolemy that I’m working on for the Hellenistic astrology website:

    While the manuscript of the Paraphrase is older than any of the other surviving manuscripts of the Tetrabiblos, I’m not sure if it can be relied on fully when it comes to tricky textual issues like this.

    Aside from that, you might want to check some of the later chapters in book 1 and 2 to see if Ptolemy references the rulers of the water triplicity again, since then you would be able to either prove or disprove your argument. For example, I’m looking at a statement in the first few sentences of chapter 21 of Robbins’ translation of book 1 where Ptolemy seems to refer to Mars as the ruler of the fourth triplicity. There is some other talk of the triplicities in book 2, so it may be worth looking into some of those passages as well.

    • Chris,

      Thanks again. Your comments and your scholarship are very helpful. I just read the link you sited and your comment about Ptolemy struck me as particularly important:

      “However, despite the important influence that Ptolemy had on the later traditions, his Tetrabiblos does not appear to be fully representative of the mainstream Hellenistic astrological tradition. Ptolemy’s program was to reformulate astrology as a natural science, largely along Aristotelian or Peripatetic lines, and thus make it more legitimate.”

      If Lilly did indeed read Ptolemy correctly about giving Mars rulership of the water triplicity, he may have been repeating Ptolemy’s reformulation of the Hellenistic ideas about triplcities.

      My interest in this topic is personal in the sense that I first learned the essential dignities from reading Lilly’s Christian Astrology many years ago and kept using them for horary. Even after I read Dorotheus, I kept using Lilly’s table of dignities. Then I began a serious study of Morin and began to question Ptolemy based on Morin’s arguments. Morin also dismissed Dorotheus (though he did not name him as the author of those triplicity rulers).

      Now astrology is stuck with several sets of triplicity rulers. Which ones does it make sense to use? Or should we vary triplicity rulers with the type of chart? Dorotheus with Hellenistic techniques, Lilly with horaries, Morin with the Morin method, etc.

      I’d love to hear your thoughts on this issue.


  2. “If Lilly did indeed read Ptolemy correctly about giving Mars rulership of the water triplicity, he may have been repeating Ptolemy’s reformulation of the Hellenistic ideas about triplcities.”

    Yes, exactly! For Lilly and some of the other astrologers during that period Ptolemy was the oldest source that they had access to, and his astrology looked a lot different than the astrology that was practiced by the Arabic authors. Lilly decided to opt for the older source rather than what he assumed were the more recent Arabian innovations. What is funny about that is that the Arabian tradition was largely predicated on Dorotheus and Valens, and so in some ways their astrology was more in line with the mainstream of the Hellenistic tradition than Ptolemy.

    The use of the Egyptian terms and the Dorothean triplicity rulers are two ways in which the Medieval astrologers were actually firmly rooted in the mainstream Hellenistic tradition, and by rejecting those two systems in favor of Ptolemy’s terms and triplicity rulers Lilly inadvertently chose something that was far more of an innovation than he realized.

    “Now astrology is stuck with several sets of triplicity rulers. Which ones does it make sense to use? Or should we vary triplicity rulers with the type of chart? Dorotheus with Hellenistic techniques, Lilly with horaries, Morin with the Morin method, etc.”

    I don’t think that it makes sense to vary techniques depending on the type of chart, at least not when it comes to basic concepts. The basic concepts should be relatively sold across the four branches, even if the application or the types of techniques you employ differs a bit depending on what you are trying to accomplish. Aspects still mean the same thing. A planet being in its own sign still means the same thing. The triplicity lords should be the same.

    It seems to me that the triplicity lords don’t really play a huge role in Ptolemy’s system though, which kind of makes this a moot point. It is only if you are employing specific techniques from Dorotheus or Valens that it really becomes an issue. I guess that on some level it might come into play when you are counting up dignities, but I’m not sure that ascribing number values to each of the dignities necessarily gives you much information about what each of those placements truely mean anyways.

  3. Chris,

    My post on applying number values was simply an exercise to see what they would lead to and whether they would shed any light on the assignment of rulers and the ordering of triplicity rulers.

    One of the issues about having various sets of triplicity rulers is that it changes the understanding of where the various planets are peregrine. For example, Morin regarded Mercury as having dignity in the earth triplicity so that Mercury could not be peregrine in any of the earth signs. This is not the case for Ptolemy or Dorotheus. Being peregrine can change the interpretation of a horary chart, and some authors make natal interpretations based on whether a planet is perergrine or not.

    It also raises some interesting questions:
    Is one set of triplicity rulers more accurate than the others?
    Do we judge the validity of a particular set of triplicity rulers on the basis of compliance with tradition, historicity, inherent logical structure, fit with the current world view, or empirical evidence, etc.? That is: how do we judge what is true in astrology?
    Are all the various sets of triplicity rulers valid and useful depending on the situation or perhaps the intuition of the astrologer about when to use them?

    As you point out, the medieval astrologers were rooted in Dorotheus’ system and claimed to get good results. Lilly used Ptolemy’s system and also got good results. How do we explain this phenomenon of using distinct sets of triplicity rulers and producing accurate chart interpretations?

    These are some of the questions I’m trying to answer for myself in looking at triplicity rulers and how they differ depending on the author.

    Take care,


    • Sorry, I didn’t mean to make it seem like I was attacking your use of tabulating dignities. I wasn’t really thinking about that when I made that comment. It was just sort of a stray thought.

      I tend to think that some mixture of all of the factors you mentioned should go into the decision about which techniques to use. Sometimes it is difficult to see or determine what the rationale for some techniques was originally, although I’ve found that sometimes you have to be careful because sometimes there is a very interesting conceptual rationale underlying specific techniques, but it may be easy to overlook.

      I’m not familiar enough with Lilly to know if he used triplicities in the same way as the earlier Hellenistic and Medieval astrologers, and thus if he was basically using a different version of the technique for the same exact purposes, or if he was using a different version of the technique for quite different purposes.

      Not too long ago I was trying to understand why the concept of sect seemed to fall out of the tradition the further away from the Hellenistic period that you go, despite the fact that it seems like a very useful and even essential concept to me, and to the Hellenistic astrologers for that matter. One of the things that I realized is that the conceptualization and usage of it changed in the Medieval tradition, so that the Medieval astrologers started to understand it as relating to the “strength” of a planet, and they also emphasized facets of it that were not seen as important in the Hellenistic tradition. So, for example, for the Hellenistic astrologers all that really seemed to matter was whether it was a day or night chart, and then subsequently if the planet you were looking at was a day or night planet. Sometimes the side of the horizon the planet was on was mentioned as potentially relevant, but not that important. But then when the Medieval astrologers inherited this technique they seemed to have assumed that the side of the horizon that a planet is on is just as important as the general sect of the chart, and they gave the same amount of points to each placement. In doing so they may have overemphasized a less important factor though, and it may have been as a result of this that the concept of sect came to be de-emphasized, because it simply wouldn’t have worked as well.

      This sort of analysis has to be applied to other techniques, so we can see in what way the interpretation of certain concepts or techniques was the same between traditions, and in what way it was different. I feel like it is only once we have really done that thoroughly that we will be able to correctly start dealing with these techniques from some of the other perspectives that you mentioned.

  4. Chris,

    It never occurred to me that you were attacking my tabulations of dignities. What I thought was that I had not clearly explained myself. Your comments are well taken. The medieval astrologers, as you point out, were very concerned with strength of planets, possibly because of their interest in horary. It is fascinating to see how ideas change in astrology and how later generations often do not understand fully what the original concepts meant or how they were used.

    In any case, I really appreciate your posts here. They have been very helpful in clarifying the ideas.

    Take care,


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