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  • Writer's pictureMaria J. Mateus

A Most Restrictive Dignity!

Updated: Aug 22, 2019

If you've ever done any chart work, you have probably come across a dignity table, which is a table generated by astrological software that often appears next to a natal chart. It looks something like this one:

It is known as a table of essential dignities and debilities. There are 5 different dignities listed from left to right: rulership, exaltation, triplicity, term and face; as well as 2 debilities: detriment and fall. Today, I want to talk about that fourth dignity listed: Term because it is probably the most neglected and mysterious dignity of the five.

Terms or Bounds? And what the heck are they anyway?

The use of the Terms or Bounds is quite prevalent in the traditional literature. In the medieval texts, authors labeled this dignity Term (from the Latin terminus) or ὅριον in the ancient Greek literature, which means boundaries or limits and which has led translators of Hellenistic sources to use the more appropriate Greek translation: Bounds.

So what exactly are they? The bounds, are portions of a sign. More specifically, they are divisions of a sign into 5 unequal portions according to an unclear rationale. Each portion is then given one of the 7 ruling planets as its dignity lord, excluding the Sun and Moon, who do not participate in this particular dignity. Thus, each portion of a sign is either ruled by a benefic (Venus or Jupiter), a malefic (Mars or Saturn) or the ever-ambivalent Mercury. Thus, the terms are 60 in all.

How many tables are there?

Currently, there are four different systems for Term divisions and their ruling lords (although there are slight variations on the sequences and rulers, depending upon authors and their translators). Three have been described in Book I of Ptolemy's Tetrabiblos and one appears in Book III of Vettius Valens' Anthology. Ptolemy explains that one of the divisions was used by the "Egyptians", by which he means the Hellenistic astrologers practicing and writing in Egypt during that period. He mentions another set originating with the Chaldeans, by which he means the Babylonian astrologers in Mesopotamia during his time. Lastly, he describes a third set, which he claims follows his own more sensible logic for how the divisions and planetary attributions should be made. This table appears in astrological software as the "Ptolemaic Terms". Because of Ptolemy's astrological popularity and authority throughout the Latin West, his system of Term division was used more extensively during the Middle Ages and Renaissance than the Egyptian or Chaldean sequences he describes and rejects. It is only in the last 30 years, with the current popular dissemination of Hellenistic translations online, that we've seen a resurgence of popularity in the use of the so-called Egyptian terms or bounds.

So which one should you use? Questions like this in astrology often get answered through habit, anecdotal experience, or trust in one's teachers and their methods, since astrologers are not always very keen on empirically testing competing practices. And as far as I know, to date there is no published study comparing the four systems. (If anyone knows of one, please leave me a link in the comments. It would be greatly appreciated)

My approach with all techniques is usually to hold off using them until I have some semblance of what the function of that technique is in the chart, and then to isolate and test out that function. But before we can even decide between different tables, we need to answer the more crucial question of what the bound lord actually does in the chart.

The Bounds Function in the Literature

Sometime, probably even before the Hellenistic period (since we have no record of any Hellenistic author actually giving a satisfactory explanation of it) a functional definition of the bounds was lost. But what do I mean by functional definition? A functional definition of something tells you what something does. (For example, the functional meaning of a train is that it transports people or goods. The definition of a train is not that it is "strong" or "metallic", or "good". These are definitions based on qualities, not function.)

In traditional texts, explanations of the bounds lord are either given as analogies, "A planet in its bound is like a person in his residence." (Ibn Ezra, The Beginning of Wisdom ) or indirectly described through aphorism, "When the Moon is found in the bounds or houses of Hermes [Mercury], while Aphrodite [Venus] is in Kronos' [Saturn's] zodia or bounds, it makes one child." (Paulus, Introductory Matters, ch 24.) In the vast majority of their topical uses (that is, for determining a specific natal topic, such as children), the bounds lord is used for assessing a significator's condition. For example in this case, the Moon and Venus are being examined as significators capable of indicating the generation of children, and their bounds lords (i.e. the planet ruling the bounds where they are placed) are being used to either help or hinder that generation. In this case, Mercury, natural ruler of children, is guarantying children, but Saturn, planet of restrictions, is restricting them to a single child. This kind of "strengthening" or "weakening" moderating quality that a bound lord is supposed to have upon the planet in its bound is ubiquitous throughout the traditional literature and is no different than how other dignity lords are thought to operate in relation to planets in their places. In fact, it is this quantifying logic applied to all the other dignities that underlies the score found in the last column of the dignity table shown above. What the score is saying is that essentially, all dignities are either strengthening or weakening the ability of a significator to deliver what it promises. In the Muslim period this then leads to the concept of an almuten, a planet that scores the highest score in any given sign. But if every dignity basically has that same function -- that is, to contribute to, or inhibit a planet's capacity to deliver its significations --- then why do we have 5 different dignities with rulers assigned according to very different rationales and historical origins? This scoring or grading logic essentially collapses the different dignities into a single scale and renders their individual functions moot.

What I'm basically arguing is that the function of a dignity's lord is NOT to dial up or dial down a planet's strength or its capacity to deliver. Rather, each dignity has its own unique and independent function that is carried out by its lord. Even though we cannot rely on the outdated, power-inspired interpretative model used by ancient astrologers for our dignity functions, we can look to the various applications of the bounds dignity for clues to that function.

One of the most informative applications comes from a timing technique of Hellenistic style directions that has been popularized under the name circumambulations. In particular, the slow movement of certain hylegs (important moving planets and points) through the bounds of other planets, are believed to be very important in the life of the natives. This particular technique has served as the basis for many of my tests for the bounds function because of the direction of the Ascendant over the course of a person's life and its evident externalizations when activated. Because of this, we can examine the bound lord of the degrees traversed by the Ascendant looking for a unique function in each manifestation of those planets.

The Bounds, its Lord and the Bound Condition

The starting point for constructing a hypothesis about dignity function is always its name. [I say "starting point", because often things are mislabeled or mistranslated.] Robert Schmidt spent quite a lot of time discussing this dignity as a "bound" or "confine" and argued that its lord functioned something like "a toll collector" exacting a price upon the planet that happened to be passing through its bound. As a starting point, this idea, along with the fact that the dignity's name invokes limitations and restrictions, points to a testable hypothesis that the bound function has a restrictive or conditional role to play in the life, irrespective of what that bound lord actually is.

But in order to test it, we need to hypothesize what exactly it might be restricting. We know that dignities refer back to signs and the various planets that have rulership over them. In the case of the bounds, we are speaking about portions of a sign, but still referring to a sign. So before we get to the bounds lord, let's go back to basics and speak more clearly about signs and houses and what's going on there. A sign, as I've taught elsewhere, sets the need that must be satisfied within a house context. Houses contain objects needing to be generated into existence. But we do not generate houses "just because"; we generate the object of a house because the need of the sign compels us to. Thus, if you have Libra on the 3rd, you may not just want to create a book, you want to create a book that is fair and balanced. The need for equanimity is what's driving the creation of that document. The drive of house creation always comes from the need signified by the sign. That is the relationship between house and sign. However, house creation originates from the action of its domicile lord wherever it happens to be placed. So in the case of our Libra document, Venus (since it is domicile lord of Libra) would be responsible for generating our document and thereby fulfilling that Libra need.

To recap, the larger goal for any domicile lord is the generation of an object from the house over which it has domicile rulership. So where does the bound come in? When we have a need, we don't always fulfill it right away. Oftentimes, we go through various trials and conditions that we (or others) set upon ourselves before we can meet that need. The bounds are the "road-bumps" that we must overcome on the way to fulfilling that sign's need. They are a set of smaller pre-requisites that must be met in order for the domicile lord to fulfill that house's sign need. These pre-requisited conditions are signified by the various bounds lords. Therefore it is the bound lord (sometimes called a "distributor" in translations of Abu Mashar) that sets a condition that must be fulfilled in order to generate the objects (by the domicile lord) needed to fulfill our need. This bound condition is a pre-requiste action that can be overcome or accomplished whenever the domicile lord of that place comes into aspect with the bound lord of its given portion.

Let's look at an example. (We are using a natal chart to illustrate this point but relying on timing elements for event verification.)

Marilyn Monroe has her natal Ascendant at 13 Leo. This tells us that her life's direction (which for most of us is imprinted during the first years of youth while the directed Ascendant is traversing the rising sign), will be to find her identity. In the table of Egyptian bounds, this degree is ruled by Saturn, which in Marilyn's case is placed in the 4th house in Scorpio. Right away this tells us that during her youth she will encounter restrictions and losses in her family life, possibly resulting in a withdrawal from the father. These family restrictions and losses will become the pre-requisite condition that she must first encounter and overcome in her quest to find and establish her own identity. I want to stress that no planet should ever be interpreted solely according to their natures, irrespective of their house placement, as traditional authors are so fond of doing. (And there are historical reasons why they did this that no longer apply to us. So we should not blindly and uncritically follow everything we read in any literature -- modern or ancient.) Planets always act in concert with their placement! So Saturn should not be read as all manner of general loss, challenges and restrictions. This Saturn tells us that the losses and restrictions are specifically from her family life or from father figures. Because the Egyptian bound is ruled by Saturn from 11-18 degrees of Leo, the first 5 years of her life in particular (Leo 13 to 18), would involve these family restrictions and that they will have an impact upon her ability to shape her own identity. It is stated in the Hellenistic literature that the ending periods of the bounds, when they change over to new lords, are particularly noticeable periods involving the lord's activation. This appears to be the case in enough samples to be a worthwhile consideration.

When Marilyn Monroe (aka Norma Jean Baker) was born, her mother had been divorced from her first husband (who left with two siblings Marilyn never knew she had until she was an adult) and recently separated from her second, neither of which were acknowledged as having been Marilyn's father. For the first 7 years of her life, Marilyn lived with foster parents and never knew who her father was. She said in an interview for Life in 1962:

"When I was five I think, that's when I started wanting to be an actress. I loved to play. I didn't like the world around me because it was kind of grim, but I loved to play house. It was like you could make your own boundaries...[notice the use of a Saturn word here] When I heard that this was acting, I said that's what I want to be...Some of my foster families used to send me to the movies to get me out of the house and there I'd sit all day and way into the night [note that Saturn is in the midnight part of the chart's daily cycle]. Up in front, there with the screen so big, a little kid all alone, and I loved it."

So we can clearly see that the Egyptian bound lord, Saturn in the 4th, is creating the highly restrictive conditions in her family life that must be experienced and met in order for her to -- not only recognize the need for an identity -- but also to seek to carve one out at a very early age. As this quote makes clear, her family situation is directly related to the shaping of her Leo Ascendant. Had she had a different rising degree in a different bound, the search for her identity might have involved overcoming a completely different set of childhood imprinting conditions. We also note, as stated in the literature, that it is exactly at the end of the Saturn bound (age 5) when the idea to become an actress first occurs to her. Because it is a natal bound configuration, it sets up a theme of family difficulties possibly involving father figures with an impact upon her identity, that will play out anytime the Sun and natal Saturn come together in aspect in the directions. For example, just by eyeballing this chart we can see that at about age 11(technical note: at this early age, the direction is close to 1 degree per year of life even in ascensional sign degrees), the Sun will direct to a quincunx aspect with Saturn in the 4th. So we'd expect the same theme to manifest at that time. And sure enough, in Wikipedia we read that at age 11 in 1937, she was removed from the orphanage where she lived to go live with Grace Goddard, a family friend, and her husband, Erwin. However, she was only there a few months, because Erwin Goddard sexually abused her. So once again, she lost her tentative new family at the activation of an aspect between the domicile lord of her Leo Ascendant and its bound lord.

[A student should not take away from this example that a Saturn or Mars bound always results in negative conditions, such as these. The negative or problematic nature of planetary outcomes do not come from the malefic nature of the bounds lord nor from any other dignity or debility condition. Essential dignity and even debility, are in fact neutral functions, not some indicator of the good or bad delivery of a planet, as is so often taught in the older literature. I'm also not saying this because of some modern over-sensitivity to negative outcomes. To be clear, the increased likelihood of "good and bad" outcomes is often indicated by planetary condition, but it cannot be discerned from dignity as the indicator. Like I said, all essential dignity/debility is neutral, not corrupting or "debilitating", despite the misnomer. There IS an indicator that leads to the corruption of planets that does exist and it is present in this chart and operating upon this particular Saturn. But this is a long topic better left to a discussion on the corruption of planets.]

It is also worth mentioning that this particular Ascendant falls on a sign and degree that changes lord in the Ptolemaic bounds system. In that system, 13 to 19 Leo falls under a Venus bound. It's fairly plain to see from this single case, the if we read the new bound lord following this functional definition, Venus in the 9th is not nearly as predictive in describing a restriction that Marilyn had to overcome during her first 5 years of life in order to fulfill the need for identity. While Venus does play an important role in her life and is related to this Saturn through corruption (hence the sexual abuse at the hands of father figures), I do not see it as the bound condition helping to shape her identity at this early age. As Marilyn herself says, she needed to experience the boundaries set forth by family that help to shape one's identity. She found those boundaries by withdrawing from family and escaping into her own fantasy world (note the Neptune square to Saturn in her rising sign) through play, movies and later acting. Like this one, many other examples seem to argue for a stronger case for the Egyptian system of terms when compared with the Ptolemaic system.

I have more to say on the bounds in future posts. But for now, we will leave it here.


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