THE SABIAN SYMBOLS: THEIR ORIGIN
AND INTERNAL STRUCTURE
It is essential to know how the Sabian symbols were obtained in order to understand the intrinsic validity of the entire set, for it reveals a quite startling combination of random selection and subsequent structural order. While the facts surrounding the procedure followed in the visualization of the symbols by a clairvoyant woman. Miss Elsie Wheeler, and their recording by Marc Edmund Jones are not mentioned in the book The Sabian Symbols in Astrology, they have been given some publicity for many years and are indeed most relevant in this study.*
*After writing this chapter I came across a published long letter by Marc Edmund Jones in which he explains what led to the production of the Sabian symbols, and describes the manner in which they were obtained. This letter is reproduced in the Appendix (p. 387).
I do not know the exact date on which the event occurred, but it was in 1925 and the locale was the large park in the center of San Diego, California. Miss Wheeler and Marc Jones were the two actors, at least as far as physical realities are concerned. During 1936 I visited Miss Wheeler twice at her home in San Diego. She was a lovely woman, crippled by arthritis and confined to a wheelchair when I saw her. She was a clairvoyant medium and had a remarkable ability to "see" symbols, a talent which made it possible to help clients who came to see her. This is true of any clairvoyants of this type, but she proved to have the ability to a spectacular degree.
In the morning of a certain day. Marc Jones took Miss Wheeler in his car to the San Diego park and stopped in a quiet place. He had with him a pack of 360 small index cards; each card was blank except for a very small, hardly visible marking at the extreme top right corner indicating a zodiacal sign and degree: for example, Aries 1, Aries 2, Aries 3, etcetera. Marc Jones then began to shuffle the cards thoroughly, and kept shuffling them throughout the operation. He then took one card at random, and without looking at the small marking, so that neither he nor Miss Wheeler could know which zodiacal degree was noted on it, asked her what she saw. Apparently a scene flashed to her inner vision; she described it quickly and Marc Jones made a brief pen notation of what she said. These notations are reproduced exactly in Marc Jones's book. I saw the original pack of 360 cards in 1936 when I was working on the chapter on Sabian symbols for my book The Astrology of Personality.
Not only was the procedure entirely aleatory as far as the normal consciousness of the two participants was concerned, but the amazing thing is that the 360 symbols were obtained during a few hours in the morning, and a few hours during the afternoon. I am not certain of the exact number of hours involved, but even if it were four hours in the morning and four in the afternoon, this would mean that on the average 45 symbols were visualized per hour, or one every minute and a half.
What makes this whole production almost incredible is that while it operated purely at random and at a fantastic speed, the result was a series of symbols which, when carefully studied, are shown to possess a definite and very complex internal structure. Some kind of "consciousness" was undoubtedly at work; the question is what type of consciousness — which is likely to mean whose consciousness, that of an individual or a collectivity of minds. Marc Jones has related it to the type of occult Brotherhood which apparently existed in ancient Mesopotamia (whence the name "Sabian" that he has used for the group of students he has been directing and teaching for nearly half a century).
But whatever the exact manner in which the Sabian set of symbols was produced, it is not enough merely to say that "they work." What has to be clearly understood is the nature of their validity and what is really implied in their existence and character. One may speak of inspiration from some ancient Brotherhood or the presence of an occult partner in the work, but it is obvious that the scenes and images visualized by Elsie Wheeler are entirely modern and, what is more, in many instances strictly American in character. They contain references which even a European, especially one living in 1925, would have some difficulty understanding. They belong to the collective consciousness of the average educated American.
Thus we have a significant antinomy: randomness versus internal structure, and a purely American mentality (or mentalities, if we include that of Marc Jones) versus a postulated archaic occult source of inspiration. Such a dualistic situation is not unusual in occult or spiritual training, for there the extremes meet and interact to produce a total transformation of the consciousness. In this sense, the polarization of the highly intellectual and abstract mind of Marc Jones, many of whose concepts link him with the medieval scholastics, and of the mediumistic middle-class mentality of Elsie Wheeler also implies a kind of dialectical process. The occult and the commonplace are synthesized in the symbols, which is another way of saying that they should be understood at two levels: the archetypal-structural and the existential. The symbolic images or scenes are existential and relatable to the mostly ordinary experience or dream fantasy of the collective American consciousness; through the commonplace and the collective, one may reach the archetypal level at which a cyclic sequence of phases occurs, each phase meant to actualize a specific quality of being and endowed with a structural meaning because of its rank and function within the cycle-as-a-whole, the Eon.
An eonic consciousness is a consciousness able to perceive, at once and as a whole, a complete cycle of existence in which each phase of the structural process is in its own place of destiny (dharma) for the actualization of one of a great number of innate potentialities. The Eon is the cycle-as-a-whole in terms of integrating power and consciousness. The Eon of a particular human life extending from birth to death is, in terms of consciousness, the "Soul" of that person. Considered as a source of power — as a rhythmic vibration or "tone" which keeps on unchanged from the alpha to the omega states of the life cycle — the Eon is what I have called the "self" of the individual person.
A set of symbols like the Sabian symbols, or the I Ching or the Tarot, confronts us with the challenge of integrating the archetypal and the existential through a symbolic image, scene or statement in which these two realms are in a state of confluence and interpenetration. Ideally, therefore, the production of a valid set of symbols should enact this interpenetration and confluence; and it is just what the actors in the car in the San Diego park — the two visible, and the invisible Presences — did. In this sense, the performance was highly ritualistic. It focused Meaning of an archetypal and cyclic character through polarized contemporary minds.
There remains, however, the problem of interpretation of the products of the ritualistic focusing. An ideal interpretation should reveal the existence of all the factors implied in the symbol and should formulate their implications in such a way that they are susceptible of as general as possible applications to situations encountered at our present stage of human evolution and history. This is a nearly impossible task to perform, for there are as many levels of possible interpretation as there are levels at which the consciousness of human beings can operate, particularly today in our chaotic and individualistic society. One can only try to present formulations which are inherently able to branch into various byways of significance. The essential requirement, however, is that the interpretation should include the structural and the existential approaches.
The symbol has meaning because it is a complex interweaving of factors, each of which is potentially significant as to its revelatory purpose and function. The symbol is a whole of meaning, yet this meaning is what it is only in relationship to the meanings of all other images — particularly the preceding and following, the opposing and the squaring symbols. The approach should be holistic, yet based on a keen analysis of all the significant features within the symbol. Moreover, it ideally should not be biased by a too-specialized philosophical, cultural or social outlook. Above all, it should not be conditioned by an emotional reaction or an ethical response to what is pictured.
As Marc Jones himself pointed out, there are in the Sabian set quite a few ambiguous symbols. But if these symbols are considered as phases of a cyclic process rather than as isolated images — that is, when the possible interpretations are considered in the light of preceding and following phases in a characteristic five-fold sequence, and in terms of wider relationships — the ambiguity usually disappears.
It certainly is not for me to judge the interpretations of the Sabian symbols that are now publicly available. I feel none are quite adequate and many of them seem to me at least partially biased by considerations that are extraneous to the symbols themselves; I am sure, however, that a similar criticism will be leveled at the approach and the interpretations which this book presents. There is room for many approaches and for several levels of interpretation. My main purpose in writing is to point out what is actually implied in such a set of symbols, involved in its interpretation, and possible in terms of its use at the oracular level. I also want to show in what sense the Sabian set can be compared to the I Ching and other cyclic series of symbols.
The internal structure of the Sabian set will be discussed in Part Three, after the reader has had time to familiarize himself with the actual images. In order to avoid a superficial and atomistic interpretation, however, the reader must have at least a general understanding of the structural relationships between the individual symbols and of the underlying process of subdivision of the 360-degree circle into various patterns. This process follows the usual astrological practice in many ways, but it has really quite a different meaning and purpose. As already stated, the Sabian symbols do not deal exclusively with the degrees of the zodiac. They refer to the division of any cyclic life process into 360 phases, for this reason I have stressed the phase number of the symbol as much as the zodiacal degree to which it refers. The essential point to remember is that we are dealing with a life process; we might say a cosmic process, but in any case it is a gradual process of actualization of a set of new potentialities. It is a gradual process, i.e. it proceeds by "degrees." But the progression is not to be considered unidirectional; it is rather multidirectional and in a sense multidimensional, as it involves the actualization of potentiality on at least three levels. We should not expect that the sequence of symbols will reveal a straight line of progress. There is progression, but only within a number of definite structural fields of activity.
First, it should be clear that any life cycle divides itself essentially into two hemicycles, just as the soli-lunar cycle is divided into waxing and waning halves. One may use different names to characterize these two halves. In the soli-lunar cycle — which deals not with the Moon itself but with the changing relationship of the Moon to the Sun, as this relationship is perceived by human observers on this Earth — one can speak of the hemicycle of "action" and of that of "consciousness."* During the first period concrete forms of the energy released at New Moon are being progressively built (unless the entire cycle proves to be negative and the energy release ineffectual); during the second period the capacity for action tends to gradually wane while, on the other hand, energy is focused (after Full Moon) at the consciousness level and becomes productive of, or subservient to, mental forms (including ideological systems and sociocultural institutions).
*Cf. Dane Rudhyar, The Lunation Cycle (Shambala Publications, Berkeley, California, 1970)-
In the cycle of the year, the period between the spring and the fall equinoxes represents an effort toward the formation of life organisms or of individualized persons at the human level. The One Life becomes differentiated into and through many living organisms, each of which constitutes a whole — i.e. a structured field of interrelated and interdependent activities. The One seeks to become the Many — the many little "ones" which nevertheless at least reflect the fundamental wholeness of the universal Whole.
After a transition period of readjustment the Many tend to gather together for the purpose of establishing a larger whole, a vaster organism. The phase of Integration succeeds that of Differentiation. The spring-summer half of the year cycle is one marked by an individualizing trend, while the fall-winter half witnesses the opposite, that of collectivization. Each of the annual hemicycles displays a moment of triumph, or of maximal intensity at the solstices. Thus the great ritual drama of the year can be characteristically divided into four Acts. I have used four Keywords: Differentiation, Stabilization, Group-Integration, Capitalization. We are dealing here not merely with the four seasons — spring, summer, fall and winter — but more generally with the four basic periods of any cycle of cosmic manifestation, whether micro- or macrocosmic, because all concrete physical manifestations answer to the rhythm of the four. We will see therefore that the Sabian symbols for the phases 1, 91,181 and 271 (i.e. Aries 1°. Cancer 1°, Libra 1° and Capricorn 1°) form a very characteristic and significant sequence.
Next in importance is the six-fold pattern of cyclic unfoldment, and indeed the numbers 6 and 60 have figured significantly in ancient astrology, particularly in Chaldea. The fact that one can inscribe six contiguous circles of the same size within a circumference, plus a seventh one at the center, has been given great prominence in geometrical symbolism. It can be considered at least one of the main reasons for the division of the circumference (and thus in astrology of the zodiac) into 360 degrees, i.e. 6 times 60, and for the numerological emphasis placed upon the number 7, the latter defining the fulfillment of a process, and thus the "seed" of it; that is, both a conclusion and the prenatal foundation of a new cycle.*
*Cf. Dane Rudhyar, The Astrology of Personality (original edition, Lucis Publications, New York, 1936), p. 230. Also available in paperback from Doubleday & Company, Inc.
By dividing the zodiacal belt — which is actually the orbit of the Earth — into six sections, we characterize six basic types or polarizations of the one central power of the Sun, source of all energies operating on the planets. Each polarization produces a male/female couple (or zyzygy); and the zodiac is thus divided into alternatively "masculine" and "feminine" signs: Aries/Taurus, Gemini/Cancer, Leo/Virgo, etc. We shall see in Part Three how these pairs can be correlated with the six great forces (or shakti) of Hindu occult philosophy.
Number 5 occupies a highly significant place not only in symbolism, but in the structure of living organisms in contrast to that of nonliving material systems. In terms of the subdividing of cyclic processes one may use this number g in two ways: the whole process can be divided into five sections, each of 72 phases, thus inscribing a five-pointed star in the circle; or, even more significant in terms of the scheme of interpretation, by studying the successive sequences of five degrees it can be seen that such sequences all have a broadly similar structure. That is to say, each sequence (for instance Aries 1°, 2°, 3°,4°,5°) represents archetypally five steps, or five stages of development.
Moreover, these five stages can be seen to take place successively at the three basic levels of human activity and experience. These levels can be defined very broadly, yet characteristically, as the actional, the cultural-emotional and the individual-mental levels. What we have is a kind of dialectical process, but one which does not operate as the ordinary sequence of thesis, antithesis and synthesis broadly used in Western philosophy since Hegel and Marx, but rather according to a five-fold rhythm. This five-beat dialectical sequence has been studied in some Oriental systems, particularly in Zen philosophy*; but it came to my mind some forty-five years ago when I attempted to outline what I then called "a pentarhythmic system of social organization" — an attempt which at that time I did not carry to completion.
*l heard it mentioned in Paris a few years ago, by the eminent philosopher-psychologist Karlfried von Durckheim, author of the well-known book Hara.
Such a "pentarhythmic" (five-beat) process, operating at three levels, produces unit sequences of 15 phases. There are 24 such sequences in a complete cycle; and here the 24 hours of the day period at once comes to mind. The day can be divided into four periods — from sunrise to noon, from noon to sunset, from sunset to midnight, and from midnight to sunrise. In a series of articles entitled The Wheel of Significance which I wrote in 1944-45 for American Astrology magazine, I spoke of these four periods as "Watches." According to Cyril Fagan, however, the term was apparently used to refer to an archaic division of the astrological day into eight parts (Watches) corresponding to what we now call the twelve Houses of a chart, but operating in the opposite (i.e. clockwise) direction. This is partly why here I have instead used the term "four Acts."
Each Act has six Scenes, or Hours; thus the number 24 is obtained. Sacred scriptures have spoken of the 24 Elders surrounding the Deity. Marc Jones used the term "Span" in his mimeographed course on symbolical astrology, and I kept it in my initial condensation of that course in The Astrology of Personality. The term one uses is not of great importance, provided it can be referred to a single frame of reference. As I now stress the concept of cosmic process, this whole process can most significantly be considered a ritual drama in four Acts and twenty-four Scenes. However one may wish to subdivide it, this cosmic process, when apprehended in its essential structure, is a ritual; indeed, all life is a ritual — a symbolic performance — for the individual who intuitively "sees" himself as a participant in the universal process of actualization of the potentialities inherent in the Creative Word "in the Beginning," the Logos.
I used the word "actor," but at a certain stage of human development the actor becomes an "agent," for he has come to realize that through him the purpose of the universe is indeed focused according to the time and place of his life performance. The ego in him has become a crystalline lens through which the "Will of God" is concentrated into individualized acts. He does not think; the One Mind thinks him. His life has become "sacred" because it is no longer "his" life, but the Whole performing within and through the space of his total organism, and at the time determined by the rhythm of the planetary process, whatever act is necessary.
An Astrological Mandala