Horary astrologers learn about the Via Combusta or Burned Path as a place of detriment of the Moon. For example Dorotheus writes in Book V-5 on electional astrology and The Corruption of the Moon: “… a commencement is not to be made in an action or anything when you find this, until the condition of the Moon and its Lord is ameliorated.” He then goes on to give several conditions which corrupt the Moon including:
“If the Moon in its motion is in the path which the learned call “the burned path” (the burned path is the middle of the equator, which is Libra and Scorpio) and if the Moon is in the last degrees of a sign, then it is according to this in the term of Saturn or Mars, and none of the terms which are at the end of the signs are harder than the terms of these two” (Pingree translation).
Abraham Ibn Ezra, writing about Electional Astrology, says: “Be careful not to place the Moon from 9 degrees of Libra to its end… in the burnt path (which is the end of Libra and the beginning of Scorpio) and this is the worst that there is of the impediments of the Moon.”
In Christian Astrology William Lilly wrote: “It’s not safe to judge when the Moon is in the later degrees of a Sign, especially in Gemini, Scorpio or Capricorn; or as some say, when she is in Via Combusta, which is, when she is in the last 15 degrees of Libra, or the first 15 degrees of Scorpio.”
Modern astrologers have speculated that the malefic nature of this “burnt” Libra-Scorpio region derives from the presence of malefic fix stars here in Babylonian antiquity, where the designation “burned path” originated long before the Hellenistic era.
Al Biruni regarded this region as unfortunate because Libra is the fall of the Sun (which is exalted in Aries) and Scorpio is the fall of the Moon (which is exalted in Taurus) — the Sun and the Moon being the two principal Lights in the sky.
In the early Christian tradition there is a reference to a “path” or “river” passing across the zodiac belt from the constellations Taurus/Gemini to the constellations Sagittarius/Scorpio, which is quite analogous to the path traced by the Via Combusta. In the Book of Revelation, one can find :
- “22 And he shewed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb.”
- 2 “In the midst of the street of it, and on either side of the river, was there the tree of life, which bare twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month: and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.” (King James Bible)
This passage appears to be a reference to the Milky Way which comes down from heaven and crosses the zodiac belt from Taurus across to Scorpio, dividing the zodiac into two semi-circles of six constellation each — the tree of life with its 12 fruits, one for each month of the year.
In a fascinating study of the import of the the Milky Way in ancient philosophy, Lynda Harris notes that in many ancient cultures the Milky Way was viewed as a vertical axis or tree and a path leading to the heavens. She further notes that Aristotle, writing the the 4th century BCE, did not regard the Milky Way as containing the flow of a milk-like substance but rather that “the Milky Way was ‘a low and steady burning of dry exhalation’, located below the sphere of the moon.” In other words, the route traced by the Milky Way through the zodiac belt was, in Aristotle’s view, a burned path formed by the steady burning of dry exhalation.
Other philosophers of the ancient Greek period, influenced by apparent the circular path of the planets around the Earth began to view the Milky Way as a circle rather than as a vertical axis, as it was originally conceived. Lynda Harris traces the evolution of these ideas as follows:
“But whatever its shape, the cloudy, white colour of the Milky Way (or Milky Circle, as it came to be called in the Greco-Roman world) needed to be accounted for. Many ancient mythologies had associated it with the milk of the goddess identified with the great tree. The mythological connection with the milk (‘gala’) of a great goddess continued among many Greeks, accounting for the Milky Way’s other name, ‘Galaxy’. Another view, especially common in the later Greco-Roman world, pictured it as containing ashes. These marked a scorched path which had been burnt into the sky by a falling star, or the path of the sun.” (italics mine)
In summary, it may be that the so-called “burned path” or Via Combusta of ancient astrology was to the Babylonians the path of the Milky Way as it traversed the circle of zodiacal constellations. With the adoption of the tropical zodiac and its use of season-based zodiac signs, the dimensions (in ecliptic longitude) given to the Via Combusta by the Hellenistic astrologers may well have corresponded to the original dimensions used by the Babylonians to the traversing of the zodiac circle by the Milky River, corrected for precession from Babylonian times.
The next image from the site www.astronomy.com shows the Milky Way passing through the constellations Scorpio and Sagittarius, as it might have appeared to the ancient Babylonian astrologers. Taking precession into account, could this intersection of the Mikly Way and the zodiac constellations be the origin of the “burned way” of of the tropical zodiac in Hellenistic astrology?
Addendum, 29 August 2016:
I found a better image online at http://www.smokymtnastro.org/Seasons/Autumn/Autumn%20Sky%20Tour%20The%20Zodiac.htm and have copied it below.
In this image you can see where the Milky Way (“burned way”) crosses the ecliptic in the sidereal zodiac. Since Babylonian astrology began during the 2nd millennium BCE, if the this region were transferred to the tropical zodiac at a rate of about one degree to the right every 72 years, the tropical position would cover parts of tropical Libra and Scorpio at the time Hellenistic astrology was invented.
Consider, for example, the fixed star ANTARES, the “Heart of the Scorpion” which in the year 2000 CE had an ecliptic longitude of 09 SAG 46, but in 1900 had an ecliptic longitude of 08 SAG 22.
Projecting backward at this rate (~ 28 degrees per 2000 years), Antares had an ecliptic longitude in the year 0000 CE of 11 Scorpio 46 and 2000 years earlier, at the beginning of Babylonian astrology (~ 2000 BCE) Antares had an ecliptic longitude of 13 Libra 46 — the approximate starting point of the Via Combusta in many classical texts.
The following spreadsheet shows the approximate tropical positions of the stars of the constellation Scorpio every 2000 years starting in Babylonian times. Considering the various definitions of the Via Combusta in the literature, it may be that different authors were citing texts from different periods of time. For example, Ibn Ezra speaks of the burnt path as running from “9 degrees of Libra to its end” — a period consistent with the extent of Scorpio around 2000 BCE in Babylonian times.
Addendum 2, 31 August 2016:
In a discussion on Facebook there was mention of a book by Kim Farnell about the via combusta (The Fiery Travels: Via Combusta). I was not familiar with this book, but the author kindly responded to the post with this quote from her chapter about the Milky Way:
“To find their final resting place, souls needed to travel along the road marked by the Milky Way, using the gates at either end. If they instead take a path brightened by a temporary light they could be led directly to hell. That is, if they took the path marked by the Via Combusta. Perhaps they should have remembered that milk is traditionally an antidote for the sting of the scorpion.” — Kim Farnell
Thus, in Kim’s view the Milky Way and the Via Combusta are distinct paths.
The question I am raising is whether the notion of the Via Combusta predates the idea of a milky way in the history of Western civilization, since according the Lynda Harris the idea of a milky way was a much later development. Even the Hellenistic astrologer Manilius, writing the in the 1st century, can’t quite decide which view to adopt. For example, C.T. Cruttwell in his History of Roman Literature says of Manilius:
“Passing on to the milky way, he [Manilius] gives two fanciful theories of its origin, one that it is the rent burnt by Phaethon through the firmament, the other that it is milk from the breast of Juno. As to its consistency, he wavers between the view that it is a closely packed company of stars, and the more poetical one that it is formed by the white-robed souls of the just.”
Phaeton was the son of the Sun-god Helios. One day he took his father’s chariot for a spin. Unable to control the fire-breathing horses, he let go of the reins burning a path across the heavens. To save the Earth from destruction by the out-of-control blazing chariot of Helios, Zeus struck and killed Phaeton with a thunderbolt. Most likely the scorched path caused by Phaeton’s uncontrolled chariot was the origin of the idea of a Burnt Way or Via Combusta, but it appears that Manilius views the Milky Way as also traveling along this path carved out by Phaeton.