Ancient Triplicities: Key to the Sidereal Zodiac

Therese Hamilton

This article was originally published in the NCGR Memberletter May-June 2013.
Slight modifications may exist in this version of the article.

The Zodiac Question

From the time of Alan Leo and Charles Carter tropical astrologers have noted distinct energies of signs. These energies, though perhaps always present, were not noted in classical literature. We can say that these observations are perhaps a development of human perception based on the evolution of consciousness in contemporary times. Sadly, however, a few genuine qualities of the signs have become greatly expanded, and are often based on untested theory rather than observation.

There also seems to be a general belief among astrologers that whatever traits signs of the zodiac might have are similar in the tropical and sidereal zodiac. Thus, if tropical Aries is forthright, impatient and aggressive, then sidereal Aries must manifest the same traits. I must agree with Mr. Spock in this one: “Captain, that is not logical.” If this were true, it seems we’d have to shift the physical nature of the sky depending on which astrologer (tropical or sidereal) happened to be reading our astrological chart.

There is only one ecliptic, the projection of the earth’s orbit around the Sun, or the yearly path of the Sun through the constellations as seen from the earth. Whatever influences may come from the individual stars in the background of constellations won’t shift depending on the zodiacal preference of the astrologer. (The star based lunar mansions do show through in tropical signs.) Likewise whatever influence may belong to a single degree of the zodiac or a particular segment of the ecliptic (sign, harmonic pattern, etc.) can’t change depending on the zodiac an astrologer happens to be using—unless a zodiac doesn’t exist at all except in the mind of the astrologer.

It’s one thing to have a mental picture of two separate and disconnected zodiacs, but quite another to picture the zodiacs together as they lie along the ecliptic. To make this more clear, a diagram of the two zodiacs is pictured here. We can see the relationship between the two, and can mentally project the constellations as a background for these zodiacs. Then we can ask ourselves if it’s logical that two signs almost totally out of alignment with each other (as, for example, tropical and sidereal Aries) can express in precisely identical ways in birth charts.

Ancient Triplicities

Signs in the sidereal zodiac have never been defined in the rather elaborate way that the tropical signs have been in modern astrology. A system of triplicities (fire, earth air and water) has been observed in the tropical zodiac which cannot be applied verbatim to sidereal signs. We can, however, use the astrological history of triplicity lords as a tool to define the nature of sidereal signs.

The four triplicities, dividing the zodiac into four triangles, originated in Mesopotamia. These triangles, groups of signs whose celestial longitude differed by 120 degrees, were associated with the four winds. In the Greek world these triangles first appeared in Dorotheus (presumed 1st Century C.E.), an early compiler of Hellenistic astrological doctrine. Dorotheus assigned two planetary lords to the four triangles, and one cooperating lord. We have no information on the origin of these assigned planets, but in western astrology they were carried through the medieval and Renaissance periods to the English period in the 18th and 19th centuries. Only in modern practice have they disappeared. Dorotheus writes:

I tell you that everything that is decided or indicated is from the lords of the triplicities, and as for everything of afflictions or distress which reaches the people of the world and the totality of man, the lords of the triplicities decide it....1

Given such power in the earliest days of the zodiac, it seems that the lords of the triangles should have an observed expression in signs of the zodiac. These trigon lords do seem to bestow perceptible energies on the signs which can manifest either in the life activities of a person or as a general psychological tonal quality to the personality.

In addition to triplicity lords, Vettius Valens (2nd century C.E.) was the first astrologer to connect elements to the triangles. But in western astrology these have been changed from the Stoic elements where each element had only one quality (hot, cold, wet, dry) to Aristotle’s system which gives a mix of two qualities to each element. This system is entrenched in western tropical astrology, but there is now a serious question as to whether this element assignment may be in error. In his commentary on Book 1 of Ptolemy’s Tetribiblos, Rob Hand writes:

The text does appear to be saying that Hot = Masculine, Wet = Feminine, Dry = Masculine, Cold = Feminine. If Ptolemy is completely in accord with standard Aristotelianism in which Hot and Cold are both active whereas Wet and Dry are both passive, then Ptolemy here classifies Hot = Active & Masculine, Cold = Active & Feminine, Wet = Passive & Feminine and Dry = Passive and Masculine. If this analysis is correct it has all manner of interesting symbolic consequences for astrology. 2

Taking a hint from Rob Hand’s commentary, a workable sidereal perspective links Aristotle's basic four qualities to the triplicities. However, Aristotle’s four qualities of hot, cold, wet and dry have nothing to do with weather, temperature or seasons. They are psychological in nature.

Aristotle’s Basic Philosophical Principles

In order to understand the four basic qualities as applied to sidereal signs, we first have to define their components according to Aristotle:

Male and Female: Reflecting the society in which he lived, Aristotle elevated the rational over the passionate or emotional. Aristotle observed the female to be softer in character, more easily moved to tears, more compassionate, but also more jealous and quarrelsome. (That is, the female displays emotion!) Aristotle respected the male characteristics of courage and rationality over “inferior” emotional traits.

Active and Passive: Aristotle's Active and Passive don't resemble our contemporary astrological understanding of those terms. Instead, they are related to functions of intellect. One understanding is that the active intellect relates to a fixed and stable set of concepts, a link to a universal mainframe (hard drive), so to speak. A modern commentary states: "The active more properly called the Agent Intellect, as it is the force...causing thoughts to pass from the potential to the actual." (Absolute

We might call this the inner creative energy that manifests especially in the arts or in functions such as entrepreneurship, the inward motivation to produce something original and significant over which one has personal control. This is basically a solar function, the Sun being the power and light center of the solar system. Aristotle’s Passive is external to the active, and is related more to the outer world. (Thus, the usual astrological understanding of "active" is what Aristotle might term passive!) Aristotle's passive has been said to relate to matter or the world of forms. The passive intellect would represent computer data files, but not the hard drive itself. This function can be related to the Moon which collects and reflects light from the Sun.

In our human world this would be the sociability factor where we reach out and link with others, asking opinions, joining energies to produce the finished product. This is the energy needed in team sports where cooperation is essential, committee meetings, conformity to a church or other organization, the helpful secretary, even the person who frequents the lecture circuit sharing concepts with an audience and soliciting response. This is the type of energy that is called "active" in western astrological systems. This is an important distinction because it solves the apparent tropical-sidereal contradiction of signs which tend either to extroversion or introversion. For example a sign with a primary inward focus is called Active in Aristotle’s philosophy (the mainframe), but passive (feminine) in the western astrological system.

Wet and Dry: Aristotle's Dry is said to be algebraic, object oriented, solid, rigid, clear, enhancing distinctions; we can relate these qualities to the rational mind as separate from emotional reaction. Aristotle's Wet is spatial, geometric, liquid, able to assume the shape of the container, fluid, formless, ambiguous, blurring distinctions, "irrational" according to Aristotle. Thus, related to what can be understood as feminine or emotional psychology with instant responses to the moment.

Characteristics of the Sidereal Triplicities: Aristotle’s Qualities and Planetary Lords

Now that a foundation has been introduced for the four qualities, these qualities can be correlated to the four triplicities of the sidereal zodiac. Robert Schmidt has noted that an entire trigon shared a similar energy or mode of being. This energy is partly reflected in the natures of the rulers of each triplicity. The planetary notes below are taken from Benjamin Dykes' Introductions to Traditional Astrology, Book 5: Planetary Natures 3 These traits are a fair summary of the characteristics associated with planets from early Hellenistic to medieval times. The brief notes on temperament below are taken from Dr. Elizabeth G. Melillo’s essay, “The four classic temperaments and spirituality.”4 Example charts are taken from AstroDatabank 4. Chart data is provided at the end of this article.

ARIES, LEO, SAGITTARIUS (sky area of tropical earth signs)
Labeled HOT and composed of:
Active orientation
: motivation and creative energy drawn from within (the psychological mainframe)
Masculine type
: mental orientation, use of the mind

Triplicity lords:
Sun by day
(Solar symbolism from Dykes: light, splendor, reason and intellect, strength, victory, lofty mind, wisdom, supremacy of first place, power, forcefulness)
Jupiter by night
(regal, powerful, generous, happy, humorous, firmness, wisdom, patience, hope, joy, sharpness of mind, boldness, esteem from others)

Suggested temperament is Phlegmatic. Melillo: Purely cognitive, lack of passion and emotional involvement, stable influence on others, detached, can be intellectually gifted

This trigon is the Royal trigon since its lords are the Sun and Jupiter. The promise of attainment is greatest here, though generally it’s helpful to have some choleric sign influence for added passion. This trigon, though often quiet and unassuming, is determined to do things well, putting all its energy into accomplishing a goal. Emotional worries and hesitancy aren’t part of the equation. The domicile lord of Aries, Mars, isn’t a lord of this trigon because Mars belongs to the ancient nocturnal group of planets. Its excitable nature is more suitable to the choleric trigon which includes Scorpio, its nocturnal domicile.

Example chart:
William Harrah
(Sun, Mercury in Leo, Moon in Sagittarius) Gambling czar who founded Harrah’s casinos. Harrah always aimed for the biggest and best, but in person is a shy and soft spoken perfectionist. (Note these are traits given to tropical Virgo, but align with the character of the Hot sidereal trigon.)

GEMINI, LIBRA, AQUARIUS (sky area of tropical water signs)
are opposite the Hot signs: Labeled COLD and composed of:
Active orientation
: motivation and creative energy drawn from within
Feminine type
: emotional or intuitive processes

Triplicity lords:
Saturn by day
(cold, melancholic, solitary, fearful, sorrowful)
Mercury by night
(of a nature open to all planets and the signs; Mercury bends with his nature toward the one who is complected to him; rhetoric and eloquence, sweetness of speech, scarcity of joy, inclination to piety, mercy and calm; infirmities of the soul, disquiet of the mind)

Suggested temperament is Melancholic. Melillo: Idealistic, lofty concepts, dedicated, cautious, slow, deep feelings, prone to despair or disillusionment

Example chart:
Woody Allen:
As a nocturnal birth, Allen’s chart is dominated by the Saturn-Moon conjunction in Aquarius on either side of cusp 7. Allen is an anhedoic, one who is psychologically unable to enjoy himself. At times his life has been dominated by fear and anxiety including fear of the dark and death. Allen’s disposition is at odds with his life as a comedienne which is shown by Sun, Jupiter and Mercury on the IC in choleric sidereal Scorpio (tropical Sagittarius). Allen also has a five planet stellium including the Moon in the 9th harmonic chart (navamsa) in Libra, another sign of this trigon. (The so called 9ths appear in western texts through the Arabic era, but there is no description of how they might have been used.)

These two sign types (Hot and Cold) are somewhat distinct from the general male-odd, female-even sign polarities. In particular the Gemini trigon requires an explanation. Though these signs are grouped with the other three odd numbered signs which are termed masculine, they have a strong feminine component. This was recognized in antiquity where Valens refers to these signs as "feminizing" (Riley translation), "effeminate" (Schmidt translation) or "womanish" (Gehrz translation). So this trigon shares the Active quality (inward focus) with Aries, Leo and Sagittarius, but the nature is toward feminine psychology.

TAURUS, VIRGO, CAPRICORN (sky area of tropical air signs)
Labeled DRY and composed of:
Passive orientation
: social and networking motivation; outward focus
Masculine type
: mental orientation, use of the mind

Triplicity lords:
Moon by night
(desires joy and beauty and being praised; adjusts her nature to others, cheerful to people, flattered by them, forgetful)
Venus by day
(amiable toward friends, love of singing and amusements, love of children and people, dutiful, gracious, generous)

Because this trigon includes Virgo, the domicile and exaltation of Mercury, Dorotheus gave Mercury a share in this trigon. The Mercury influence often manifests in these signs as communication ability.

Suggested temperament is Sanguine. Melillo: Extraverted, happy go lucky, general amiability, comfortable and secure in a group, adaptable, likes to be accepted, insensitive to the effect they have on others

Example charts:
Shari Lewis, American puppeteer, magician, singer; Jupiter, Ascendant, Moon in Virgo; Sun, Saturn in Capricorn; Extraordinary talent and generosity of spirit...bringing laughter, knowledge and joy to the hearts of children and adults alike

Anthea Turner, British entertainer; Venus, MC, Moon, Sun in Taurus Admired for her fresh and infections sunny nature

CANCER, SCORPIO, PISCES (sky area of tropical fire signs)
are opposite the Dry signs: Labeled WET and composed of:
Passive orientation
: social and networking motivation; outward focus
Feminine type
: focus through emotions, response through feelings

Triplicity lords:
Mars by night
(primary influence) (choleric, abrupt, courageous, tendency to anger, quickness [spontaneous], lack of self control, instability)
Venus by day
(amiable toward friends, love of singing and amusements, love of children and people, dutiful, gracious, generous)

Suggested temperament is Choleric. Melillo: Full of zeal, passionate, prone to upset, intense emotional expression, likes to achieve, activists, can be passionate for a cause (“God and country”) Trusts in divine providence (faith)

Example chart:
Maria Callas
, opera diva; Ascendant, Jupiter, Sun, Mercury in Scorpio; Noted for her volcanic temper and explosive temperament; famous for endless cancellations and walkouts (Note: Mars, primary lord of this choleric triplicity, doesn’t aspect this Scorpio stellium, and is actually conjunct Saturn in Libra.)

If we take some time to consider the characteristics of Aristotle’s four qualities and compare them to triplicity lords, there is generally a noticeable harmony between the two sets of traits. These can also be generally related to the four basic temperaments as described by Dr. Melillo and others. Whereas the tropical triplicities have come to be associated with the general “mood” or “energy” of their element labels, the sidereal signs remain affiliated with the nature of the original planetary triplicity lords as well as Aristotle’s philosophical conditions.

The result in our current times is that the overlap of the tropical and sidereal signs produces a general harmony of sign characteristics if not identical sign labels. However, up to the present sidereal astrologers (whether western or practitioners of India’s astrology) haven’t generally understood the true character of their signs, and have sometimes mistakenly copied tropical traits to their own zodiac. However, this error doesn’t include Cyril Fagan, the founder of modern western sidereal astrology. Fagan claimed that tropical astrologers were simply observing sidereal sign traits. Fagan himself never accepted the tropical zodiac as a valid entity.5

In summary, as the sidereal zodiac isn’t seasonal, the foundation of signs must be based on other types of symbolism such as domicile lords, exalted planets, ancient triplicity lords and Aristotle’s four psychological qualities. Also, a study of temperament in relation to domicile lords and triplicities might produce helpful results that could be used in the analysis of sidereal birth charts.

Chart Data: (All from AstroDatabank 4): Lahiri/Krishnamurti ayanamsa

Woody Allen (AA): December 1, 1935, 10:55 pm EST, Bronx, New York (Asc 9 Leo)

Maria Callas (A): December 3, 1923, 6:00 am EST, New York, NY (Asc 4 Sco)

William Harrah (AA): September 2, 1911, 12:15 pm PST, Pasadena, CA (Asc 11 Sco)

Shari Lewis (AA): January 17, 1933, 10:57 pm EST, New York, NY (Asc 17 Vir)

Anthea Turner (A): May 25, 1960, 12:30 pm BST, Norton, England (Asc 13 Leo)

Notes and References:

1. Dorotheus of Sidon, Carmen Astrologicum, Astrology Classics, 2005, pp. 1-2/161-162.

2. Robert Hand, commentary in Claudius Ptolemy’s Tetrabiblos, Book 1 (Robert Schmidt, translator), Golden Hind Press, 1994, p. 17.

3. Benjamin N. Dykes (translator, editor), Introductions to Traditional Astrology, The Cazimi Press, 2010, Book V, “Planetary Natures,” pp. 240-280.

4. Elizabeth G. Melillo, Ph.D., “The four classic temperaments and spirituality,”

5. In his writings, Cyril Fagan made it a point to criticize the “Greek error” of the tropical zodiac which he replaced with his own understanding of what he considered to be the true sidereal zodiac. This zodiac places Aldebaran and Antares at 15 degrees of Taurus and Scorpio. Fagan’s view of the 12 sidereal constellations (as distinct from tropical signs) is especially emphasized in his Symbolism of the Constellations (Moray Press, 1962) and Astrological Origins (Llewellyn Publications, 1971)

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