Lilly’s definition of the Void of Course Moon

Recently Chris Brennan did a podcast on the various definitions of the void of course Moon. I thought it would be useful to clarify how Lilly used the concept because it is not widely understood in the astrological community. As a basis for discussion in The Astrology Podcast, Chris referenced his article about this topic in the Astrology Dictionary in which he notes three different definitions of “VOC” to be found in the literature:

  1. The most ancient definition from around the 1st century Hellenistic literature which uses the term kenodromia (κενοδρομία), meaning “running in the void” or “running in the emptiness”. In this case the Moon is “not applying to an exact Ptolemaic aspect with any other planets within the next 30 degrees, regardless of sign boundaries.” 
  2. A Medieval definition in which the Moon is considered VOC if it is traveling through a sign and will not perfect any Ptolemaic aspect with another planet before leaving its that sign. In his article Chris Brennan is stressing the idea that the aspect must perfect while the planet is in the sign. Some original sources simply say that the planets must connect by aspect, meaning that they are within orb of perfecting while not actually perfecting. Here are Chris’ words verbatim: “In the Medieval tradition the definition appears to have changed, so that void of course was said to occur when the Moon did not complete or perfect an exact aspect with any other planets until it moved into the following zodiacal sign.” (bold mine)
  3. William Lilly’s Renaissance definition of VOC as clarified by the research of astrologer Sue Ward, an expert in the writings of William Lilly, who noted that Lilly defined the Moon as void of course if it was not applying to a Ptolemaic aspect with another planet within orb while in a particular sign.

When Sue Ward first published her findings in the early 1990s, I was at first skeptical because I had learned the definition that was popular at the time and was being promulgated by N.Y. astrologer Al H. Morrison. Following Sue’s lead, I re-read all of Lilly’s example horaries in Christian Astrology and realized that she was right. Those of us who had been studying Lilly since the Regulus edition of his work became available in the mid-1980s had misunderstood what he meant by VOC. Let me quote directly from Sue Ward’s article:

“Lilly says: A planet is void of course, when he is separated from a planet, nor doth forthwith, during his being in that sign, apply to any other:“.  Contrary to what most of us understood, this does not mean that the aspect has to perfect while the Moon is in its current sign. What it does mean is that the application has to be in effect while the Moon is in its current sign. Application operates only when the Moon (or planet) is ‘within orbs’ of the planet it next meets by major aspect. It doesn’t matter, from this point of view, that it has to leave the sign before perfecting the aspect. So, to be void of course the Moon (or planet) has to be out of orb of the next planet it might meet by major aspect – even if it will eventually perfect this aspect within the current sign. This matter largely depends on the definition of application in Lilly’s terms, and those of the authors he drew upon, and it meant to be within orb. The application happeneth when as the circles or beames of the planettes come to joyne togeather by a corporall conjunction or by aspecte of the one half of their deamiters.11 This definition is clear: a planet cannot be said to be applying until it is within orb, or joint moieties, of another. The meaning of application has altered in modern times to that of ‘moving forward in the sign’, but Lilly deals with this separately. ‘Applying to’ means to be within the joint moieties of the two planets concerned. For example, the Moon has a moiety of about 6° and Mercury one of 3½°, so if the Moon were at 26° Aries and Mercury at 3° Taurus (about 7° difference and so within the joint moieties) an application is operating, the Moon applies to the conjunction of Mercury. It doesn’t matter that there is a sign change before perfection. The important point is that the application should occur before the sign change. In interpretation, application shows that the event promised by the perfection is already a possibility. If the Moon were at 3° Taurus and its next contact was Mercury at 15° Taurus, there is no application since they are separated by more than their joint moieties (about 9.5°), so the Moon is void of course. According to ARHAT, in the Greek tradition application meant ‘coming into contact with’. This was still the case in the 17th century, but has changed in more recent times. The evidence in Christian Astrology supports this almost exclusively and I conclude that the Moon is not void of course if it is contacting another planet through the joint moieties, whether it perfects in or out of its current sign. Therefore, the Moon (or planet) can be void of course even when it is in early degrees, if the next planet it meets in major aspect is out of orb.12 This does not mean that even more horaries will be invalid, as you will see further on.”

As Sue Ward points out, Lilly explicitly states: “A planet is void of course, when he is separated from a planet, nor doth forthwith, during his being in that sign, apply to any other.” “Apply to” does not mean to “perfect” an aspect; it simply means to be within orb of perfecting an aspect in the future.

In her 2003 essay on the VOC Moon, Lee Lehman notes that William Lilly “didn’t treat the Moon as void if it was within orb of an aspect in the next sign.” She further clarifies that “Bonatti’s definition in Liber Astronomiae III suggests that the Moon is void until it comes into aspect with another planet, not merely when it goes into a new sign.”

In Chris Brennan’s recent Astrology Podcast his guest speculated that Lilly may have misunderstood his sources or perhaps invented a new definition of VOC on the basis of his own experience with horary charts. This speculation seems highly unlikely since Lilly was a careful scholar who studied the ancient texts (in Latin translation) with diligence and a critical eye.

One of Lilly’s favorite sources was Sahl ibn Bisher (aka, Zael or Zahel), a Persian Jew who was active in astrology in the 9th century CE. Most likely Lilly took his definition from the writings of Zael. Let’s see what Sahl has to say about void of course. Here I quote from Ben Dykes 2008 translation of the Works of Sahl:

From p. 15 on when planets are connected by conjunction or aspect:
“And were there degrees between the Sun and one of the planets, from one up to fifteen [degrees], then he projects his own light over [the planet] and is conjoined to it.” In modern terminology, the Sun joins with a planet when it gets within 15 degrees of aspecting that planet.”

From p.35, defining “void of movement” or “void of course”:
“So that is when the Moon is not connecting to any of the planets, and none are joining to it. This is called void of movement of the Moon and its body; there is futility in it, and it is the planet of exile. It is the planet that is not connecting to any of the other planets.”

In a footnote on p.35, Dykes quotes Stegemann’s explanation of this translation of the concept: “when the Moon is not connecting itself with one of the planets, and is not accommodating itself to it, then this is called emptiness of the course of the Moon and its disc, which weakens it; and of the planet that is pushed back, while it is not approaching one of the other planets.” (bold mine)

Reading Sahl’s comments makes it clear that Lilly was simply paraphrasing Sahl’s definition of the VOC Moon, or a VOC planet, passing through emptiness on its course through a sign. A VOC Moon is “not connecting” with and “not approaching” other planets because they are outside the orb of influence of the Moon as it moves through the sign.

I don’t know and haven’t had time to research whether other medieval authors, perhaps Masha’allah or Abu Ma’shar, used a definition of VOC, that required perfection of an aspect before the Moon left its current sign, but Sahl certainly did not require perfection, and Lilly, as Sue Ward revealed, followed Sahl in his own practice of horary astrology.


Addendum (27 Feb 2021): Astrologer Lyuben Meshikov left the following comment:
In “The Abbreviation of the Introduction to astrology Abu Mashar” published 1994, p.43, it is said “It is ‘void of course’ if a planet separates from application with a planet in conjunction or aspect, and does not apply to a planet as long as it is in its sign.”

So it appears that Abu Ma’shar’s definition is very similar to that of Sahl. The Moon is not VOC if it is applying to another planet while in its sign. The aspect apparently need not perfect in the sign.

Perhaps the discrepancies in definitions have to do with the orb of influence allowed the planets. There is no consensus in the literature about how to apply orbs. Dariot, for instance, proposed a system of moieties. Some astrologers opted for orbs of only 5 or 6 degrees. Others regarded aspects as effective only if the bodies of each planet in aspect fell within the orbs of each other.

In addition, Mark Cullen noted that German astrologer Johannes Schöner (15th century) stated: ””When a planet is separated from any other planet by conjunction or aspect, and is not joined to another by body or aspect, for as long as that planet is in the same sign, it is called void of course. However, this ought to be understood according the orbs and rays of the planets.”

Addendum (28 Feb 2021):

I am grateful to astrologer Margherita Fiorello for providing the following quote from Bonatti, one of Lilly’s favorite authors, regarding the definition of VOC and ‘feral’:

Bonatti’s definitions of VOC and feral.

Bonatti is drawing a distinction between VOC and feral. Let’s start with the meaning of a ‘feral’ planets. Bonatti gives the following requirements, citing al-Qad isi as his source:

1) The planet is alone in a sign. There are no other planets in the same sign as the feral planet. In this definition the issue of sign boundaries becomes important. A planet is regarded as feral within the confines of a single sign of the zodiac.

2) No other planet sends an aspect into that sign. Because planets do not send single points of light but rather a central point of light surrounded by an orb of influence, he must mean that the entire circle of influence of an aspect from another planet is absent from the sign which contains the feral planet. Thus the feral planet is neither leaving nor approached the orb of influence of another planet’s aspects. The feral planet is totally alone and untouched in any way by another planet, which Bonatti regards as “a very horrible thing.” [To quote from an article about classical aspects by Clelia Romano: “The term orb refers to light and supposes a circle of light surrounding the body of a planet. The moment when a planet is touching or overlapping the orb of another one we can consider that we have an aspect.”]

When defining VOC, Bonatti does not mention sign boundaries. Instead he focuses on separating and applying aspects. His requirements for “void in course” are:

1) The VOC planet has recently perfected an aspect from which it is now separating.

2) The VOC planet as it advances in its course through the zodiac is not within orb of applying to another planet by major aspect. Because the VOC planet is separating, or has separated, from another planet’s orb and is not within orb of applying to another, it is “running alone” and “this being void in course will last until it is joined to another” [that is, until it gets within orb of a major aspect or bodily conjunction to another planet].

3) Bonatti’s definition implies the the VOC state will last until the planet reaches the orb of influence of another planet. Thus, a planet can become VOC for a while in the middle of a sign and then get within orb of another planet before the end of a sign, or it can remain VOC till the end of a sign and even after it enters the next sign. This is Lilly’s understanding of VOC, but Lilly adds the requirement of a sign boundary. It may be that Lilly understood Bonatti to be referring to sign boundaries in both concepts, VOC and feral, although Bonatti mentions sign boundaries only in the paragraph where he contrasts VOC and feral.

It appears that Bonatti was saying the a planet in a ‘feral’ state was in the worst condition possible. A feral planet passes through an entire sign of the zodiac without any contact with another planet. It would be like a newborn baby thrown into a dumpster to die, without the possibility of being seen or heard by another human being. “A very horrible thing” as Bonatti puts it.

Less horrible, but still somewhat difficult (“there is a certain impediment to it”), is the state of being VOC, having had contact in the recent past but not without any contact with another planet for a period of time. My guess is that Bonatti, as Lilly made explicit, did regard the VOC state as referring to a planet within a particular sign because he was contrasting it with being feral. A VOC planet could enter the next sign and remain VOC for a while and the contact another planet and no longer be VOC. BUT if such a VOC planet did enter the next sign and remained void of contact with another planet for the duration of that sign, it would then become a ‘feral’ planet and be in a truly horrible state, much worst that being VOC for a while.

If my understanding of Bonatti is correct, then the following hold true:

  1. Bonatti is considering the state of planets as they pass through each sign of the zodiac.
  2. If a planet traverses a zodiac sign without coming into contact with the body or orb of a major aspect of any other planet, then it is totally devoid of contact with other planets and is considered feral. The popular definition of “feral” from Collins dictionary is: “Feral animals are wild animals that are not owned or controlled by anyone, especially ones that belong to species which are normally owned and kept by people.” Thus a feral planet, untouched by any other planet, is in a wild state and not controlled by anyone.
  3. A similar but lesser impediment occurs when a planet is void in its course through a sign. In this instance the planet in question has recently had contact with another planet from which it has separated but it has entered a region of the zodiac in which there are no planetary bodies or orbs of influence of any other planet. It is traveling through an “aspect vacuum” which may occur anywhere in a sign. VOC means that some other planet has cast an aspect somewhere inside the sign of the zodiac where the planet in question resides, thus it is not totally devoid of contact, whether it be in the past or the future, while traveling through that sign. If it were totally devoid of contact with other planets while traversing its sign, it would be considered feral rather than VOC.

Addendum (1 March 2021):

Chris Brennan has provided the following references in an online forum about traditional astrology:

Al-Qabisi’s definition from the Warburg translation
Al-Biruni’s definition of feral and void of course
Emptiness of Course and Wildness (VOC and Feral) from Ben Dykes’ new translation of the Great Introduction of Abu Ma’shar

Also, Margherita Fiorello posted this image of the moieties of the Moon and Venus overlapping on 4 May 2000, with Moon at 27 Aries and Venus at 2 Taurus in the tropical zodiac.

Moieties of the Moon and Venus overlapping as the planets join in bodily conjunction.

Addendum (1 March 2020, 3 pm):

Today I received a copy of Ben Dykes’ translation of Abu Ma’Shar’s Introduction to the Science of the Judgements of the Stars. In Ben’s introduction on page 34 he states that the Arabic word for “orb” refers only to the body of a planet and not to its aspects. If I am understanding Ben correctly, the aspects are pinpoints of light cast around the chart in Ptolemaic fashion without orbs about them. This conception would mean that out-of-sign aspects cannot exist since aspects do not have orbs that can overlap. Abu Ma’shar was apparently thinking of whole sign aspects as the determinative factor, as in Hellenistic astrology. Sign boundaries become important because they determine whether an aspect between two planets can even exist. At some point astrologers began assigning orbs to aspects of planets, but in Ma’Shar’s approach the aspects of planets are simply points of light without orbs of influence. It boggles the mind.

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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3 Responses to Lilly’s definition of the Void of Course Moon

  1. Jeffrey Geist says:

    This s very interesting, very provocative, not also extremely confusing….

  2. Pingback: Another VOC example from Lilly — Is my son at home? | Anthony Louis – Astrology & Tarot Blog

  3. Pingback: A note of the concept of Void of Course in horary | Anthony Louis – Astrology & Tarot Blog

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