fixed stars

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fixed stars

Originally stars in general, which, until the early 18th century and the discovery of proper motion, were thought to have no relative motion and thus remained fixed in position in the sky. In comparison the planets were described as wandering stars (from the Greek planetes, a wanderer).
Collins Dictionary of Astronomy © Market House Books Ltd, 2006

Fixed Stars

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

There are more than 9,000 stars visible to the human eye, and, to the ancients, they belonged to the Eighth Sphere: the starry firmament. This starry sphere separated the known seven spheres of the planets, with earth at the center, from the realm of the Creator—the force that lay beyond the Eighth Sphere and caused all the inner spheres to move. Plato (360 c.e.), in his book Timaeus, talked of the Creator, the Demiurge, making the souls of man in the same manner as the Soul of the Universe, and that the number of these souls is the number of the fixed stars, since this was the sphere closest to the Creator. From this, the wandering stars—the planets—were singled out as the timekeepers, and it was thought that the souls moved from the fixed stars to these wanderers, and from the wanderers their power was translated onto the earth as the souls of men.

Claudius Ptolemy (100-c. 173 c.e.) took Plato’s concept one step further and suggested which planet or planets were the timekeepers of each star, and consequently which planetary energy was related in similarity to each star. Ptolemy published this work in the Tetrabiblos, where he made such statements as: “The stars in the head of Aries possess an influence similar in its effect to that of Mars and Saturn.”

What was Ptolemy trying to achieve? Inheriting the ideas of Plato, he would have considered it logical to pursue this line of thought in his attempt to conceive of some rational order in the symbolic, religious, and mythological traditions that were the foundation of the starry sky. As time passed, and Ptolemy’s name grew in greatness, his suggested planet/star combinations became the central dogma for the delineation of the stars, replacing the earlier myths and religious beliefs that had been projected onto the constellations and the principal stars. Hence, works by modern authors, such as Vivian E. Robson, Reinhold Ebertin, Georg Hoffmann, and Joseph E. Rigor, show largely unsupported statements of star delineations, their origins apparently sourced in Ptolemy’s star/planet associations.

In addition, the newly emerging Greek world of science was grappling with the as yet unanswered question of the rate of precession. Astronomers knew that precession occurred, but were unsure of its rate. Precession becomes apparent by observing the slow shift of the fixed stars against key calendar positions of the sun, such as the equinoxes or the solstices. Ptolemy was primarily an astronomer, and therefore this problem was one of his central preoccupations. The problem of the day was that two sets of data were required to answer the question on precession. The first was the accurate position of stars for one period in time, and the second was the same list of stars but measured for a later period. By comparing the two lists, and knowing the time period between the two, the rate of precession could be found.

The most common method of locating a star in the sky, before Ptolemy, was to use regularly repeating lunar cycles: noting the date and time, and the Moon ‘s degree of longitude and latitude, then marking its orientation to a star. This was a cumbersome method, as the following excerpt from Ptolemy’s Almagest shows:

Again, Timnicharis says he observed in Alexandria that in the year 36 of the First Callippic Period exactly at the beginning of the tenth hour, the moon appeared to overtake with its northern arc the northern star of those in the Scorpion’s forehead. And this date is the year 454 of Navonassar, Egyptian wise Phaophi 16–17, 3 seasonal hours after midnight and 32/5 equatorian hours, because the sun was 26° within the Archer, but 31/6 hours with respect to regular solar days. At that hour the true position of the moon’s centre was 31¼° from the autumn equinox and 1⅓° north of the ecliptic.

Ptolemy initially proceeded according to this method, finding the position of a particular lunation for his current date, and then calculating the star’s movement. But it was tedious and not particularly accurate, so Ptolemy decided to develop a better system for recording the position of stars. His logic was that if he could clearly lay down a technique for measuring stars, and use that technique for measuring “as many stars as we could up to those of the sixth magnitude” (Almagest), then he would be able to produce a list of stars that could be used by future generations of astronomers to check his estimates of the rate of precession.

His method was simple. He first developed an instrument that would enable him to make the needed measurements. He then found the poles of the ecliptic, and projected every star onto the ecliptic via the lines of longitude from these poles. The point where the projected star cut the ecliptic he carefully measured, and noted the star’s latitude north or south of the ecliptic. By this method, he measured 1,022 stars, and published this list in his Almagest.

It was an ingenious system. It meant that the position of a star could be accurately and simply recorded. It could be reproduced in years to come so that any change in the ecliptical position of the star could be easily noted. It was a huge advance for astronomers and placed Ptolemy among the giants of astronomy. However, it also altered the way that astrologers worked with fixed stars. Until that time, evidence suggests that the predominant method for working with stars in astrology was via their risings, culminations, and settings. But within several hundred years after Ptolemy, astrologers had taken his convenient list of stars with their ecliptical degrees, and were routinely using it in their horoscopes, forsaking the older, more tedious, observational methodologies. Ptolemy had developed the list as an astronomer, for astronomical needs. He was, afterall, an astronomer and the book in which he published this listing was not his book on astrology, Tetrabiblos, but his great astronomical work, the Almagest. However, later astrologers, persuaded by the eminence of his name, chose to use Ptolemy’s star list of ecliptical projected degrees as the preferred methodology for working with fixed stars astrologically.

This was a slow transition, for in 379 c.e. the unknown author of The Treatise on Bright Fixed Stars did talk of using stars that were close to the ecliptic in this fashion. The author suggested, however, that stars further away from the ecliptic should be used when working with the older system of the “pivot points “of the chart—that is, the rising, culminating, setting, and nadir axes. This is known today as working in parans.

The voice of this unknown author (known as Anonymous of 379 c.e.), however, went unheard, and astrologers from the end of the ancient era through to modern times have used Ptolemy’s convenient listing of ecliptical degrees for all their fixed star work. This list is used in the attempt to gain greater understanding of the meanings of individual stars, which have been allocated individual degrees of the ecliptic. In recent times, the New York astrologer Dianna Rosenberg has produced fine and impressive work demonstrating how individual degrees of the zodiac (and, therefore, by this logic, fixed stars) are stressed at key times.

Nevertheless, such an approach does leave unanswered another question in astrology. Michael Harding in Hymn to the Ancient Gods (1992) suggested that a layer of human projection, via historical events, could be linked to the individual degrees of the tropical zodiac. For example, it would be logical for astrologers to accept that the events of September 11, 2001, had projected symbolism on some particular degrees of the ecliptic that were being occupied by key planets at the time of the terrorist attacks. Such a study of the meaning of an individual degree could only be undertaken if the ecliptic of Ptolemy’s projection of 1,022 stars were uncluttered. Indeed, while the ecliptic is occupied by the projection of 1,022 stars, astrologers cannot even begin to consider Harding’s hypotheses.

If the individual degrees of the tropical zodiac have been influenced by the projected position of several fixed stars, then these positions would be subject to precession. For example, in the year 1 c.e., the star Algol in Perseus by projection was at 28°27’ Aries. By precession this moved to 26°12’ Taurus for the year 2002 c.e. Such a shift over 2,000 years gives ample opportunity for historical research into Algol, or any other star. Such an undertaking would help to resolve the question of whether the individual degrees of the tropical zodiac have meaning in their own right, or have no meaning except that derived from the projection of the fixed stars onto the ecliptic.

Yet there is the far older method of working with fixed stars, which does not require this projection. This older method allows the stars to maintain their relational positions in the celestial sphere, thereby maintaining the integrity of the dome of the night sky. The system is based in observation and, although referred to by Anonymous of 379 c.e., as previously mentioned, it is very difficult to reconstruct unless one was taking observations at the time of the event. This older system is called parans, and was absent from the astrologer’s tool kit from roughly the time of Anonymous of 379 c.e. until the advent of Robert Hand’s software program “Nova,” published by Astrolabe in the mid-1980s. In this program, Hand produced a listing of more than 250 stars and provided astrologers with the ability to use these stars not only as projected ecliptical degrees, but, more importantly, to work with the stars in their paran relationship to each other and the planets. Thus, the addition of the computer into the astrologer’s toolbox has enabled them to work with observational information, allowing them once again to be watchers of the sky, although now it is from the desktop.

Parans are the natural way of working with the daily rotation of the sky, for at any time (provided one is not at the poles) there will be stars rising on the eastern side of the circle of the horizon. They will be rising on the full half-circle of the horizon, not just due east. As a star rises, for instance, to the northeast of the point of observation, there may be, at the same time, another star in the southeast also rising. The two stars would be rising simultaneously, and are said to have a paran relationship because they are both on the line of the horizon at the same time.

Similarly, a star may be rising in the east as another star is setting on the western side of the circle of the horizon; these two stars are also in paran relationship. The important point is that the full circle of the horizon is used, not just the eastern and western points of the ecliptic.

Another very obvious point in the sky is the culmination point. Facing either north or south, an imaginary line passing directly overhead, cutting the sky in two, is the prime meridian. Where this line cuts the ecliptic is the current MC or midheaven. Stars anywhere along this line are culminating, reaching the top of their rising arc and about to start travelling downwards towards the western horizon. This culminating point adds another possible paran placement.

The Moon may be culminating just as a bright star is setting or rising. If this were the case, then the Moon would be in paran with this star. Indeed, whenever a star or planet is on any of the four major points of its diurnal movement—rising (ascendant), setting (descendant), culminating (MC), or on the nadir (IC)—and another star or planet is also on any of the four points of its diurnal motion, then the two points, star or planet, are in a paran relationship.

This is a natural approach to working with the sky. The mere act of standing and watching a night sky results in working with parans. One may note, for example, that as Venus rises a bright red star is setting; this is a paran relationship between Venus and the red star. Indeed, observations such as this make up some of the earliest recorded astronomical and astrological material.

But the night sky shows another phenomenon, which Ptolemy called star phases. Star phases have not been used in astrology for nearly 2,000 years. They were the subject of one of Ptolemy’s astrological works, The Phases of the Fixed Stars, and were a predominant feature of any consideration concerning fixed stars in ancient life. However, as astrologers became disconnected from the sky, the astrological importance of star phases faded, first, because of the popularity of the easy technique of projecting a star onto the ecliptic, and second, because phases belonged to the older, more-difficult-to-reconstruct, visually based systems.

Nevertheless, whether astrologers observe it or not, each star does have a unique pattern of visibility for any given place on earth. Some stars will be visible in the night sky for a period of time, yet later in the year they will fail to appear and be lost to the view of the observer. Others will rise or set at night, but instead of disappearing from view altogether, they will lose touch with the horizon and spend the whole night being visible in the night sky. Yet both types of stars will eventually return to rising or setting during the night, with each individual star doing so on a particular date of the year. However, there is also another set of stars that does not partake of this pattern; these are always visible, and never sink beneath the horizon, spending every night circling around the pole.

To the Egyptians, the stars were deities, and so these annual star patterns had strong religious significance. The never-setting circumpolar stars were considered to be the Immortals, for these were the deities that never died, the stars that never set. It was therefore considered significant when a star that would normally rise or set would appear to act like a circumpolar star by being visible for the whole night. This event would always commence on the same calendar date, from one year to the next. Furthermore, and considered of even greater significance, this same star would return to the pattern of setting during the night, at another set calendar date. Such a star was considered to be a deity who spent time not only walking in the world of the Immortals, but also walking in the world of humans, and was therefore open to prayer and offerings. The return of such a star on a particular date is known as the heliacal setting star, and its phase, as named by Ptolemy, is “curtailed passage.”

The stars that were never seen, the stars that never rose during the night and remained permanently out of sight, were considered by the Egyptians to be the deities that lived in the Underworld. However, at set dates some visible stars would disappear from view and fail to rise during the night. These stars were believed to be deities that died at a set time of the year and then spent time walking through the Underworld. However, such a star would reappear in the night sky (rise from the dead) by rising just before dawn at a precise calendar date. This star was considered a deity who had risen from the Underworld and now walked again upon the earth. It was believed to be the ruling deity for the period of time until the next deity returned from the land of the dead. The return of such a star is known as the heliacal rising star, and its phase, as named by Ptolemy, is arising and laying hidden.

So important were these times of the return of a star that, as Norman Lockyer (1836–1920), considered the founding father of archeoastronomy, pointed out in his work Dawn of Astronomy (1894), the Egyptians based their religious calendar around such events and built temples designed to capture the returning star’s light onto the altar of the deity.

The principles embodied in the work of such writers as Robert Hand, Norman Lockyer, and Anonymous of 379 c.e., and also demonstrated by Ptolemy’s The Phases of the Fixed Stars, were taken up and expanded upon by Bernadette Brady’s book Brady’s Book of Fixed Stars (1998), in which she recommends that astrologers should once again return to the older observational techniques of working with fixed stars as well as move away from the star/planet delineations of Plato and Ptolemy and, by researching the symbolism and mythology linked to the ancient constellations, use these to explore far older meanings of the stars.

—Bernadette Brady


Anonymous of 379. The Treatise on the Bright Fixed Stars. Berkeley Springs, WV: Golden Hind Press, 1994.
Ashmand, J.M. Ptolemy’s Tetrabiblos. New ed. North Hollywood, CA: Symbols and Signs, 1976.
Brady, Bernadette. Brady’s Book of Fixed Stars. York Beach, ME: Weisers, 1998.
Harding, Michael. Hymn to the Ancient Gods. UK: Penguin, 1992.
Lockyer, J. N. Dawn of Astronomy. New York: Macmillan, 1894. Reprint, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1964.
Ptolemy, Claudius. The Almagest. Multiple editions.
Ptolemy, Claudius. The Phases of the Fixed Stars. Vol. III. Translated by Robert Schmidt. Berkeley Springs, WV: The Golden Hind Press: 1993.
The Astrology Book, Second Edition © 2003 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.
References in periodicals archive ?
This encyclopedia contains articles on astrology and its history, organized in alphabetical order, in terms of key individuals from around the world; aspects related to the astrological skies, including asteroids, fixed stars, and zodiacs; astrology in various times and places, such as Chinese astrology, the Enlightenment, Islamic astrology, Nazism and the Third Reich, and Roman astrology; astrology and society, including agriculture, art, feminist astrology, gender, politics, science, sex and love, and various religions; terms and tools, such as horoscopes, sun signs, and lots; and texts and media, including almanacs, the Bible, information technology, and newspapers.
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Within a few months, he made several startling discoveries: mountains and valleys on the moon's surface, innumerable fixed stars invisible to the naked eye, the stellar composition of the Milky Way, and four satellites around the planet Jupiter.
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But that there are no such appearances among the fixed stars argues that they are at an immense height away, which makes the circle of annual movement or its image disappear from before our eyes since every visible thing has a certain distance beyond which it is no longer seen, as is shown in optics.
The images, displayed under the headline of Social housing amid the fixed stars, represent modernist, social housing schemes in a timeless, unweathered environment of ideas, an impossibly clean estate somewhere in the 'ideal' realm'.
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In Chapter 6 of Book 1, Ptolemy states that in relation to the distance of the fixed stars, the Earth was so small that it should be treated as a mathematical point.
It is fashi to find the dista of even the neare fixed stars incon, and to make no attem to grapp with the numbe of atoms in one's thumb.--J.B.S.Haldane
[Bacon] views objects from the greatest height, and his reflections acquire a sublimity in proportion to their profundity, as in deep wells of water we see the sparkling of the highest fixed stars. The chain of thought reaches to the centre, and ascends the brightest heaven of invention.