The article below is copyrighted by Bill Johnston, and is part of his monograph on the astrological houses.

The Oktotopos Question

Bill Johnston

Wilhelm Gundel once speculated that the oktotopos, or eight topic system of places wherein the quadrants were bisected, represented an early phase in the development of astrological houses—later being supplanted by the twelve topic system. Subsequent investigations of other surviving references provided no support for this speculation. In a 1927 article about the Michigan Astrological Papyrus, A. E. Housman points out that in Antiochus, Thrasyllus, and Maternus, the eight places are identical to the first eight places of the twelve topic system: that is, the first eight signs counting from the sign of the ascendant.

And yet, this unfounded speculation has proved remarkably persistent. Cyril Fagan embraced it, and an 8-fold system of houses numbered clockwise from the ascendant is still championed by some of his followers. Its assumption as fact informs Jean Bram's notes on the subject in her translation of Maternus, as it does Jim Tester's treatment of houses in A History of Western Astrology, to cite just two examples.

Much ink has been spilled in attempts to salvage this notion. One school of thought appeals to Mesopotamian mythology in an attempt to argue for a Babylonian precedent for an 8-fold division, but all the surviving evidence points to Egypt as the origin of house doctrine. The practice of assigning topics to signs numbered from the ascending sign emerged in Hellenistic Egypt; the concept may well have derived from pre-Hellenistic Egyptian decanic astrology. Decanic lore preserved by Hephaistio shows the rising decanate indicating physical appearance and character traits, with topics assigned to certain decanates numbered relative to it, notably the spouse in the 17th decanate (falling in the 7th sign) and livelihood in the 28th (falling in the 10th sign).

Short of channeling, our access to astrology's past is through the surviving written record. It seems best to me that whatever speculations we entertain be supported rather than contradicted by the written evidence. The source texts relevant to the oktotopos question are:

Antiochus of Athens' Introductory Considerations
The Tablet of Thrasyllus to Heracles
Manilius' Astronomica
The Michigan Papyri
, Papyrus No. 149
Book IX of Valens' Anthology,
Firmicus Maternus' Mathesis

Antiochus' and Thrasyllus' originals do not survive intact; the texts we have are Byzantine era summaries. Portions of the Antiochus original are found in Porphyry and Rhetorius. Internal textual evidence strongly suggests an early date for Antiochus, probably 1st century BC. Thrasyllus was astrologer to both Augustus and Tiberius; the first two books of Manilius were published when Augustus was still alive; Book Four was published after his death (i.e. during Tiberius' reign). Manilius and Thrasyllus are therefore contemporaries, writing around the time of Christ.

The Michigan Papyrus and Valens' Anthology are 2nd century AD; Maternus is late 4th century AD. The anonymous author of the Michigan Papyrus cites Asclepius as the source of the 8-topic system; Thrasyllus and Antiochus credit Nechepso. The 12-topic system is widely attributed to Hermes himself. Nothing in the surviving texts supports the idea that the 8-topic system predates the 12-topic system; they appear to have been contemporaneous but distinct systems for assigning topics to places.

Fairly early in the tradition, the topics from the oktotopos were combined with those of the 12-topic system, and most authors omit mention of the oktotopos altogether. Antiochus, likely our earliest source, lists the topics for the oktotopos and dodekatopos under separate chapter headings as summarized below:

The Twelve Topic System
1st Both the Helm of Life and the entrance to physical life, indicative of the soul and behavior and all such matters
2nd The place of expectations and things corresponding to them
3rd The place of Goddess, and is significant for friends and the like
4th The subterraneous pivot, is called Home and Hearth, and is significant for treasures and nobility of birth and lands and such
5th Good Fortune, and signifies the acquisition of animals and the increase of things pertaining to livelihood
6th Spirit and pre-setting, indicative of troubles and sufferings and enemies
7th The Pivot Subject to Setting, significant for the final age of life and death
8th Post-setting and the idle sign
9th The place of God or decline of the Midheaven, indicative of being away from home and traveling abroad
10th The Midheaven, called the summit of life, is conductive to the business of reputation and action and technique, and for middle life and fortune pertaining to livelihood
11th Post-ascension of the Midheaven, is called Good Spirit and signifies the increase of things in the future
12th Called Decline and Bad Spirit and Necessity, and signifies the things during birth as well as troubles and suffering

The Eight Topic System:

1st: Life, for the things concerning life are studied from it
2nd: The things that follow upon life
3rd: Siblings
4th: Parents
5th: Children
6th: Injuries to the body
7th: Marriage
8th: The end of life

Note that family members—siblings, parents, children, spouse—belong to the 8-topic system, and had not yet been assimilated into the 12-topic list. Thrasyllus lists a nearly identical 8-topic list, the differences being the second house as "manner of living" in Schmidt's translation, compared to Antiochus' rather vague description, and "wife" rather than "marriage" for the seventh.

Thrasyllus' 12-topic list includes siblings in the third and spouse in the seventh; parental possessions rather than the parents per se are included in the fourth. The two lists occur in the same chapter, and the term oktotopos is not used. Centuries later, though his 12-topic list fully integrates the oktotopos topics, Maternus preserves the traditional 8-topic list (with the second as "expectation of inheritance and wealth" and the sixth as "health" in Bram's translation) in a separate oktotopos chapter. The question we need to ask is to what purpose he did so; a suggestion as to why can be found in Valens.

First, I need to mention that two of the sources (Manilius and Valens) use the word oktotropos rather than oktotopos. Topos means topic, whereas tropos means turning. Some scholars prefer one and consider the other to be merely a misspelling. However, dodekatropos, or twelve-turning, is used elsewhere for the twelve house system, most likely as descriptive of the diurnal motion which rotates the wheel of houses.

Valens only mentions the oktotropos in passing, with no description or list of topics, in leading into the most extensive surviving Hellenistic treatment of derivative houses, or "turning the wheel." Notably, Valens only takes derivative houses from the first eight houses. This provides us with a possible rationale for the preservation of the separate 8-topic list in Maternus.

The final lines of Book II of Manilius state of the preceding section: "The founder of astrology gave to this section the title Octotropos; the motions of the planets, which fly through it in the opposite direction, shall follow at the proper place." (trans. G.P. Goold).

This has been determined to be a later interpolation; the text itself contains no oktotopos doctrine—no 8-topic list nor anything to suggest an 8-fold division of either the zodiac or the mundane sphere. The section begins with a description of the cardinal points, then a discussion linking the four quadrants numbered clockwise from the ascendant with quarter-periods of human life: infancy, youth, adulthood, and old age, respectively. He then describes the twelve houses (or temples, as he calls them). He gives the names, topics, and planets associated with them, but does not number them. The order in which he describes them is 12, 6, 8, 2, 11, 5, 9, 3, 10, 4, 1, 7.

The translator and editor of the Loeb Classical Library revised edition (1992), G.P. Goold, writes: "Manilius's omission to specify the number of temples in the fixed circle of the observer has led to the following complication. Some astrological interpolator, either believing (like Bouche-Leclercq 276 ff.) or wishing it believed that the poet divided the circle into eight temples only (864-917) and in 918 ff. referred merely to the cardinal points, has attempted to enforce this belief on readers by composing three lines labeling this chapter octotropos. Fortunately the nature of his interpolation is perfectly clear: 968-970 were intended to supplant 965-967, as is proved by the otherwise inexplicable duplication of the promise to deal with the planets later. This interpolator we have already encountered at 2. 732-734 (q.v.)."

As in Thrasyllus, the Michigan Papyrus contains the traditional 8-topic list (with the second as "livelihood" and the eighth as "fortune and death") in the same section that describes the twelve house system without an explicit use of the terms oktotopos or oktotropos. As in Antiochus, the twelve house listing does not include the oktotopos topics. The problem with this text is in the second house description, and involves the directional word ano. The translator rendered this line in English as "from the second in the upward direction, livelihood."

This is the text Fagan used to support his contention that the eight houses should be counted in the clockwise direction. Outside of this context, this reading of the Greek is quite reasonable; but with Greek, even more than were are accustomed to in English, context is critical in determining which of the possible meanings of a word was intended. Even if "upward" is correct, the assumption that it means the second house of the oktotopos was what we would call the twelfth house is based on the way we draw our charts. The Greeks may well have drawn them the same way, but we just don't know. Directional language in the old astrological texts is tricky. For example, "preceding" and "following" can refer to the order of signs, or the order of rising.

Ano can also be used to refer to a preceding text reference; as the author had just listed the twelve houses, this is a much more likely reading. Ano can also mean "upstream", as in contrary to the direction of the diurnal motion. More suggestive is the fact that ano is used in the construction of the Greek word for a succedent house, epanophora, which literally describes the house that ascends after an angular house: with the epi- prefix, ano in this usage means "to bear up against."

To choose a meaning for ano that produces a doctrine that radically contradicts the other surviving texts requires some support from the rest of the text, which in this case cannot be found; in all other respects, the Michigan Papyrus reflects standard Hellenistic doctrine. If there were not more plausible readings of the Greek, one should consider the possibility of text corruption or even a misunderstanding on the part of the author before building a theory that contradicts the rest of the surviving texts based on a single word in a fragmentary manuscript, as Fagan did.

© 2005 Bill Johnston

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