Hellenistic Theology and the Exaltations of the Planets


In my previous post I presented a hypothesis that the joys of the planets were a reflection of the religious worldview of Alexandrian Egypt.  It occurred to me that the exaltations of the planets in Hellenistic astrology might have a similar origin.  This post contains speculations about how the planets might have been assigned to signs where they were considered exalted.

We begin with the Thema Mundi, the hypothetical horoscope of the solar system at the time the earth was created.

Thema Mundi, birth of our solar system, from Hellenistic astrology

Thema Mundi, birth of our solar system, from Hellenistic astrology.  Cardinal signs occupy the angles with Cancer rising, Aries at the MC, Capricorn at the DSC, and Libra at the IC or bottom-most subterranean point of the chart.

The joys of the planets are the houses where each planet seems to “rejoice” or have the most fun.  The exaltations of the planets are the signs where each planet seems to have a great deal of power and receives the most respect and acclaim (to exalt something is to lift it up for admiration).  If the Thema Mundi is accepted as the root or most fundamental horoscope in astrology, then the logic for assigning exaltations might go as follows:

  1. The angles of the chart, which correspond to the cardinal signs, are the most powerful points in the chart.  The four most powerful planets or major forces in the universe (Sun, Jupiter, Saturn and Mars) should each get an angle.  Early astrologers gave most weight to the ASC but realized from experience that the MC was also quite powerful.
  2. In Egypt the cult of sun worship was linked to the divinity of the Pharoah.  In Egyptian worship, Horus is the rising sun who rose from the dead every morning, Ra is the powerful noon sun, and Osiris (god of the dead) is the dying or setting sun.  Thus, the sun was linked to the three angles on or above the horizon.  It made sense for the exaltation of the sun to be one of these three positions.  Because exaltation is a position of great honor and visibility before the public, the noon position is the best choice.  Noon corresponds to the MC or middle of heaven, which is fitting for the powerful sun god.  Thus, the sun is exalted in Aries at the top of the Thema Mundi.  In the Golden Dawn system of tarot, the supreme secular ruler, the Emperor trump, is associated with the sign Aries, the exaltation of the sun.
  3. Due to the Greek influence, the king of the gods, Zeus/Jupiter, was on an equal footing with the sun and deserved one of the angles not already occupied by the sun.  The sun occupies the midheaven by exaltation.  The most prominent angle after the MC is the ASC, so it becomes the place where Jupiter is exalted.  In the Thema Mundi the ASC lies in Cancer, which is regarded as Jupiter’s sign of exaltation.
  4. The two most powerful life-affirming planets, the sun and Jupiter, occupy the MC and ASC by exaltation.  It makes sense to assign the remaining angles, which lie opposite the MC and ASC, to the two malefic life-negating planets, Saturn and Mars.
  5. Saturn, who was associated in Christian times with Satan the King of Darkness, is exalted at the bottom of the chart, which is the darkest most subterranean point.  In Egyptian mythology the sun dies at the DSC, descends through Hades at the bottom of the wheel, and then ascends to be reborn at the ASC at sunrise.  It makes sense to assign Saturn, so opposite in qualities to the sun, to the IC region, whose sign in the Thema Mundi is Libra – the exaltation of Saturn.
  6. Mars is the god of war and is most exalted in battle.  Fights with open enemies eventually became associated with the 7th house.  The most exalted feat of Mars is to kill an enemy or to die heroically in battle and descend as a heroic warrior into the underworld.  Mars is also of the color red, like the sunset.  Thus, Mars is exalted at the DSC, which corresponds to Capricorn in the Thema Mundi.  Capricorn becomes the exaltation of Mars.
  7. The Moon is the spouse of the king and belongs next to him in the heavens.  With the Sun exalted in the 10th house, the Moon comes after him in the 9th to be exalted.  The 9th house of the Thema Mundi corresponds to the sign Taurus, which becomes the exaltation of the Moon.
  8. The benefic goddess Venus deserves a place on honor in the heavens where she can be exalted.  The houses 9, 10 and 11 are the highest houses, most associated with heaven (or Mount Olympus).  The 9th and 10th houses are already taken by the moon and the sun, leaving the 11th house for the exaltation of Venus.  Perhaps the emperor at the top of the chart has his wife (the Moon) on one side of him and his concubines (Venus) on the other side.  It is possible that Venus came to be confounded with Pallas Athena, who was the goddess of law, justice, philosophy and higher learning because the 9th house became associated with such things.  The 9th house of the Thema Mundi corresponds to Pisces, which is the exaltation of Venus.
  9. Mercury as the psychopomp is one of the few gods who can travel to Hades and return to daylight.  As the conveyor of the souls of the dead, he is exalted on the road to Hades (the 3rd house), which lies between the gates of Hades (2nd house) and Hades proper at the IC (4th house).  The sign corresponding to the 3rd house in the Thema Mundi is Virgo, which became the exaltation of Mercury.  In addition, the 3rd house eventually came to represent travel and communications, both functions of Mercury.  Chris Brenner pointed out in his lecture that Mercury also represents siblings and early on in Hellenistic astrology the 1st house (where Mercury rejoices) was associated with siblings, which were later assigned to the 3rd house, corresponding the sign of the Thema Mundi where Mercury is exalted.

Here is a diagram from wikipedia of the exaltations of the planets placed within the frame of the Thema Mundi:

File:Exaltation Degrees of the Planets.jpg

Finally, there may be a relationship between the exalations and the Chaldean decans.  Using Solar Fire I created a diagram of the Thema Mundi with the Chaldean decans such that the house lines pass through the middle decans of each sign of the Thema Mundi:

Chaldean Decans and the Thema Mundi

Chaldean Decans and the Thema Mundi

Note that the middle decan of Taurus, Aries, Capricorn and Libra all belong to the planets that are exalted in those signs.  Jupiter was considered to be exalted in the Ascendant, so Mercury is not exalted in Cancer whose middle decan it rules.  The middle decan of Pisces belongs to Jupiter, who is already exalted at the ASC, so it is given to the other benefic Venus so that she can be exalted.  The middle decan of Virgo belongs to Venus, but she is being exalted in Pisces, so Virgo is given to Mercury the psychopomp for his exaltation by the dead souls.

As an aside, Alexander the Great, who considered himself divine, called himself the King of Kings.  Most likely he was born with the sun in Leo (probably on 20 August 356 BC).  The British Museum has a coin which displays Alexander with rams’ horns symbolic of the ram-god Ammon (or Amun) Zeus, the king of the gods.  One has to wonder whether this is also a reference to the sign Aries where the Sun is exalted.  The goddess Athena on the reverse side of this coin may correspond to Venus in Pisces in the diagram of exaltations of the planets against the backdrop of the Thema Mundi.  The priests of Hermes Trismegistus who recorded the Thema Mundi would have been intimately familiar with the life and legends about Alexander the Great.  Here is a quote from the museum’s website:

“Early in the third century, Lysimachus began to produce stunning silver and gold coins. On the obverse (front) of the coins is a head of Alexander with the ram’s horn of the Egyptian god Ammon. On the reverse (back) is the goddess Athena, seated, and a Greek legend which translates ‘Of King Lysimachus’. “

“The reference to Ammon is from the story of Alexander’s expedition to Siwa Oasis after his conquest of Egypt. The priests of the shrine of Ammon there greeted Alexander as the son of Ammon and the rightful Pharaoh of the land of Egypt. This link to the god Ammon was understood in Greek terms as equivalent to Zeus, and the deity was often known in Hellenistic times and later as ‘Zeus Ammon’.”

Another interesting coincidence is that this coin was first minted around 305 BC.  The year before (in 306 BC, around the time of Alexander’s 50th birthday) there was an arrangement of planets in the heavens that replicated the Thema Mundi except for the position of the Moon.  Below is this chart in the sidereal zodiac with the sun at the same position as Alexander’s sun in his rectified tropical birth chart.

Chart for the time of Alexander the Great's 50th birthday which replicates the sign positions of the Thema Mundi, except for the Moon.

Chart for the time of Alexander the Great’s 50th birthday which replicates the sign positions of the Thema Mundi, except for the Moon.

Another site tells us that Alexander was considered a son of the Egyptian sun-god Ra after he visited Memphis in Egypt.  Memphis was “one of the most important places in Egypt’s religious life: here was the temple of Ra, the sun god who protected the pharaoh. It was perhaps in this city that Alexander accepted the titles of the Egyptian ruler. From now on, the priests wrote about him as the Horus, the protector of Egypt; king of Upper and Lower Egypt; beloved by Amun; the chosen one of Ra; the son of Ra, Alexander.”

Thus, Alexander was related to both the Sun and the Ram.  The Sun, of course, is exalted in the sign of the Ram at the top of the Thema Mundi.

Alexander the Great, bust from Delos (at the Louvre)

Alexander the Great, bust from Delos (at the Louvre)

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.
This entry was posted in Astrology, Tarot and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Hellenistic Theology and the Exaltations of the Planets

  1. polyphanes says:

    This and the last post are amazing. Finding causes and explanations like this is right up my alley, and this is very well done. Good work, indeed!

    • This post, of course, is speculation. It makes a lot of sense and has internal consistency. What is lacking is evidence that this was the thought process that actually led to these early astrological concepts. Too bad the original text attributed to Hermes Trismegistus is no longer extant. Fortunately, we do have a lot of information about the culture and belief systems of the region around Alexandria where these ideas were first recorded.

  2. Pingback: Hellenistic Theology and the Exaltations of the...

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