The Astrology Podcast
Transcript of Episode 20, titled:
Austin Coppock on the Astrology of the Decans
With Chris Brennan and Austin Coppock
Episode originally released on August 21, 2014
Note: This is a transcript of a spoken word podcast. If possible, we encourage you to listen to the audio or video version, since they include inflections that may not translate well when written out. Our transcripts are created by human transcribers, and the text may contain errors and differences from the spoken audio. If you find any errors then please send them to us by email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Transcribed by Nicole Miller
Transcription released March 24th, 2019
Copyright © 2019 TheAstrologyPodcast.com
Chris Brennan: Hi, my name is Chris Brennan, and you’re listening to The Astrology Podcast. Today is Wednesday, August, 20th, 2014, and this is the 20th episode of the show. You can find the show at theastrologypodcast.com, and you can also listen to us on iTunes by doing a search for the name of the show there. Today I’ll be interviewing Austin Coppock, and we’ll be taking a look at and discussing his new book titled 36 Faces: The History, Astrology, and Magic of the Decans.
So first, before I get started with that, just a brief, usual news and annoucements section, of which I only have one piece of news, which is that I just finished expanding my Hellenistic course, and the course is now a ten-part course with over sixty hours of audio lectures, and I just added a new lecture on the conditions of Bonification and Maltreatment to it. So if you’re interested in joining the course, I’m raising the price on September 1st, so if you sign up between now and then, which is in the next week and a half, you can get the price for about $100 less than what it will be after August is over. So check that out at hellenisticastrology.com.
Okay, so now we move on to the focus of this episode, which is my interview with my good friend, Austin Coppock. So, Austin, welcome back to the show!
Austin Coppock: Thank you, Chris!
CB: And also congratulations, you are the first of, I think the first of my friends to actually do it and to get a book out. You are now a published and established astrological authority, with your first book being on the decans.
AC: Yeah, I suppose that’s true. Thank you for your congratulations.
CB: Yeah, well, I’m both congratulating you, and I’m also envious of you, since I’m still also working on my long awaited book. But yours gives me hope that it is possible to finish these things and to get them out there. And I’m also very impressed by your book, because you did something I think that represents what the new, I don’t know, I want to say generation of astrologers, I don’t want to make that sound too negative on the older generations. But one thing that your book does is you cover both the techniques of the decans, but you also cover the history and the philosophy.
The first forty or fifty pages of the book is a full treatment of the decans starting in the third or second millenium B.C.E. in Egypt and working your way all the way up to the modern period. And I was pretty impressed by the level of scholarship that you actually put into that research in order to give what’s otherwise a book that’s mainly focused on delineations of each of the decans when they show up in the natal chart or an electional chart, you actually gave it a nice historical and philosophical context.
AC: Oh, well, I’m glad you enjoyed that. And yeah, I think that, I mean- all right, so in that a lot of the book is delineation material or trying to evoke the essence of what each of the decans is about, I don’t know if you can really do that adequately if you don’t follow them on their entire journey. It’s a piece of astrology that has 4,000 years of history, and so that was, I mean, it was integral to my method, and it’s integral to interpreting the images. If you don’t know the context of an image, it doesn’t communicate as well with you, right? Like the same image of a man or a woman holding a jug, might mean something really different to a 14th-century Italian than it does to a 3rd century B.C.E. Greek, right?
AC: And so I wanted to- I guess I really hoped that I could share some of the, I don’t know- some of that extra meaning and context and my enthusiasm for that in the history section. And it’s reassuring to hear that the scholarship didn’t give you a stomachache, because I was really trying to walk a line between hard scholarship and sort of super soft gloss-over summary. Because I do mention a lot of sources, but it’s not written in a strict academic format. It’s sort of what I hoped was an approachable but still smart and source-heavy summary of what happened with some interesting threads and journeys. So at least you like it. I’ve actually been gratified to hear that people have actually been reading the first section! My fear was that half of the astrologers would only read the first section and be angry at me because it wasn’t a Ph.D thesis–
AC: And that the other astrologers would only read the delineation material and not have any sense of the scope of this stuff, or the context, or where it comes from, or any of that. But it sounds like people are actually reading it as intended, which, again, is reassuring.
CB: Yeah. Well, I mean, the middle ground that you made there between just a basic astrology text speaking to astrologers, and it’s only practical, versus an academic text or like a Ph.D dissertation on the decans is that you made it a narrative basically. You gave the story- the historical story of the decans from the ancient period through to the modern age. And, in that, you actually demonstrate pretty persuasively that the history of the decans is much richer and much more vibrant and diverse than I think modern astrologers are aware of, since only really one tradition of the decans really survived into modern astrology or is really used very much, and that’s, I think, the triplicity variant that Alan Leo re-introduced into the West.
CB: But you actually focus on a number of different variants in the decans, and you draw on different variants in producing your delineations, which I thought was interesting, and that’s what makes the historical section so useful because it actually tells you where you’re getting your sources from and what your inspiration is for these delineations.
AC: Yeah, it was an art project in that sense. It was just like a very well-researched art project where I sat down with as many images as I could for each decan, and not all of the sets are distinct. There are a lot of the Renaissance era decanic images that are pretty similar. Some of them are identical, some of them are very similar but not quite identical, but they’re done in the same style.
But anyway, I sat down with as many as I could, and then tried to see what the common thread was, and if they were in some cases they’re different interpretations of the same thing, or the same dynamic. I used the “Three Blind Men and an Elephant” sort of paradigm or interpretive model for a lot of it, where it’s like, okay, they’re pointing at this aspect of this, they’re pointing at this, and I tried to see what the planetary rulers might mean. What aspect of what happens in that decan are they pointing to? And I tried to figure out when was an image or delineation actually just a result of misinterpreting or miscopying an earlier text. Because sometimes a puzzling image is actually incisive and brilliant, and you just have to spend the time to unpack it. And sometimes it’s difficult because somebody just got the order wrong when they copied it from the last guy, right? And so all of your research and trying to drill down is wasted if you don’t recognize those mistakes.
CB: Sure. So let’s talk a little bit about, like, what are the decans? Let’s sort of frame this for people who may not be familiar with it. And then let’s talk about how they actually appear in the text in terms of the images. So what is a decan for the most simple sort of definition standpoint?
AC: Well the simplest definition is that they are- the decans are the thirds of the signs. And so each sign is 30 degrees, and so the “dec-” in decan means “ten.” And it’s the same “deca-” as in decade, ten years, or to decimate, to kill every tenth man, and so on. So they are these very neat divisions of the zodiac into 10 degree sections. And they fit perfectly into our 12-sign zodiac.
CB: Okay. So a decan is a division of each sign of the zodiac into thirds or into 10-degree segments. And I guess- so part of your book is- maybe we should take it back to the history in terms of where these things originated and then sort of move forward from there.
So the decans originated in Egypt, and this was originally essentially the earliest form of astrology in Egypt in some sense, right?
AC: Well, I don’t know if I… “Earliest form of astrology” is too loaded a statement for me.
AC: They’re very old. We see evidence of the decans being used and holding a lot of cultural importance in the 22nd or 23rd century B.C.E. on coffin lid text. So we know that they were important enough in and in wide enough use and held in high enough regard that they would find their way into the tombs of kings by then. Which means that’s probably not when they were invented, right? By the time you’ve got hard evidence of something, it’s been around for a while.
AC: But even that is pretty impressive, considering that we don’t have evidence of our beloved horoscopic astrology until well over 2,000 years later than that.
CB: Sure. So we’re talking about 2,000 years before people were even really casting birth charts, the decans existed as a sort of form of astrology in some sense in Egypt.
AC: Yeah, and I mean, they were, like a lot of pre-modern calendrical traditions there wasn’t this utter separation between sacred and secular time, right? They were used to schedule- in a sense it functioned as a calendar that had 36 weeks in a year. Instead of having 52-ish 7-day weeks, you have 36 10-day weeks, right? And these fit nicely into your months as well.
And each of those sections was generally represented by a particular god or the image of a god from a particular story. There’s a lot of sheep-changing in Egyptian mythology (as well as most mythologies), and so you might see an image of Horace in this particular story where he turns into a half-fish or whatever, which is different than Horace as an eagle, right? And so- but yeah, they had both a secular and a sacred use.
CB: For the decans. And originally they were associated with specific fixed stars?
AC: Yeah, and this is one of the points at which most investigations into the decans stumble. And it’s one that I certainly stumbled at and lay there for a while. It’s quite clear that the decans were originally demarcated by stars in the sky. And so people when they learn this, they’re like, “Oh, well we have to reconstruct which stars represent which decans, and then we’ll be good to go.”
AC: The problem with this is when you look at the evidence- what archaeological evidence there is- there are 54 different star lists for the decans ranging over almost 2,000 years, and those get sorted into roughly five families. And so then your quest for the original just sort of implodes, right?
AC: The reason for this is quite simple: the decans were established to measure the year, the solar cycle. They were used to cut the year into 36, right? And the older Egyptian version begins with the beginning of the year, which was, for them, the summer solstice and the flooding of the Nile, which occurred annually at that time, right?
AC: And so basically you can pick stars that are roughly 10 degrees apart, and that all works great. Unfortunately, when you use a system that’s fixed-star-based and therefore subject to procession, it stops accurately marking the time of year, right? And it’s only- we’re basically talking about a day every 70 years, but when you do a system for a couple of thousand years, you’re way off, right? And so for that, and for political reasons, and for some other calendrical reasons, the star lists were being revised every couple hundred years. And that’s why you have all of these different star lists.
And so one of the- I guess- great innovations during the Hellenistic period was to staple the decans to a tropical zodiac. And this doesn’t- I don’t think that that’s always a good idea, right? Because there are pieces of astrology that are entirely dependent on fixed stars to power them, and you shouldn’t assign a tropical degree when that thing is going to drift. But the purpose of the decans from the beginning was to measure the solar cycle. Actually, permit me to go a little further back.
It’s believed that the decans were originally used- even before they were applied to the year, they were applied to the cycle of day and night. And that while during the day you could use a sundial to tell what time it was, during the night you could have no such thing. What you had instead was the rising of stars, which at a particular time of year was predictable. And so if you see Sothis coming up in the east, then you’re like, “Oh, it’s 9 o’clock because it’s this time of year.”
And so this is interesting because this is the part of the original dividing of day into night by the Egyptians, which predates all of their later innovations. And day and night is a Sun-earth relationship, right? And then the same structure is then applied to the other primary Sun-earth relationship, which is the year.
AC: So the tropical zodiac is fantastic for measuring the Sun-earth relationship. In fact, that’s what produces it. And so the alloying of the decans to the tropical zodiac actually solved all of these horrible problems with procession that meant that there had to be calendar reforms every couple of years during the Egyptian phase.
CB: Sure. And so you see that synthesis, because the decans originated in a period before the zodiac had even been standardized to 12 signs. And then all of a sudden, after the conquest of Alexander the Great and the onset of the Hellenistic period, you get the zodiac being fully imported into Egypt and then the Egyptians, or whoever’s living in Egypt at the time, merging the 36 10-degree divisions of the decans into the 12 signs of the zodiac and the sort of unification of the two.
AC: Yeah, it’s an easy remainder list sort of division, right? You’ve already got 360 degrees, which probably- I would argue, or I think there’s a case that the 360 degree division of the circle is probably Egyptian-influenced in and of itself. In their old yearly calendar, there were 360 days, right, each decan- 36 decans- each having 10 days, you get 360. And then they added five intercalary days, which were special holidays. So the Egyptians were using a 360-based model of a complete cycle for quite a bit before there was euclidean geometry. But- but, yeah.
AC: Anyway, sorry, that was a bit of a side road.
CB: No, no. And also what’s brilliant about something you said earlier about part of the original function is that they had this astrological function, but also they had this almost purely timekeeping function at night, because you could use them in order to tell what time it was for ritual purposes or for other purposes.
AC: Yeah, or is it time to go to bed!
CB: Sure. But that’s important because the way in which they were using the decans, which is basically looking at which decan or which fixed star was rising over the Eastern horizon, which modern astrologers associate with the Ascendant or which was culminating above head at the time, which modern astrologers associate with the Midheaven. That reference point basically of planets rising and culminating and setting is eventually what becomes the 12 houses in the Hellenistic tradition. And so that’s why many scholars actually think that the unique contribution that the Egyptians made to what became of Western astrology, when it was formulated in the Hellenistic period, is that they basically contributed the houses, whereas the Babylonians contributed the zodiac. And once you merge those two together, you get 12 signs of the zodiac with 12 houses each, with a specific rising decan taking place at the moment of the person’s birth.
AC: Yeah, yeah. It’s- and one of the things that we know that the Egyptians did do with the decans is that they used it to time sort of magico-medical procedures. Medical procedures that had an element of Talismanic or some other sort of magic, right? Someone afflicted with the pox is given is given a ring which has a particular stone and a particular herb. And the favor of a specific god, who is said to reside in, or at least be accessible through, a particular decan is then called down at the appropriate time, and that will be the cure for that person. So, yeah. And so that’s one of the purposes that the decans were put to. And it’s interesting because it’s like, as with a lot of decanic material, it’s a fusion of the magical, the astrological, and the very practical.
CB: Sure. So in the Hellenistic period, then, this is when we get the formulation where, as you said, the decans get merged with the zodiac so that each sign gets divided into three 10-degree divisions each. And at this point we get the introduction of a few different systems. And this is where- the point where things are documented well enough where this becomes sort of some of the material that you’re drawing on in your delineations in your book, right? The first system being the one that assigns the planets based on descending Chaldean order.
AC: Mhm. Which of course became the dominant system in what we call traditional astrology. The Greek-to-Roman-to-Arabic-to-medieval Europe-to-Renaissance Europe-to-now system.
CB: So let’s talk about that a little bit. So how is that system calculated? That’s essentially the system that most traditional astrologers associate with the system that’s used as one of the five essential dignities, right?
CB: So how is that calculated?
AC: So the what you call Chaldean order- I’ve also heard it called Tomaic order- is a very simple arrangement of the planets from slowest to fastest or from fastest to slowest. The terms ascending Chaldean order is fast to slow, and descending Chaldean order, which is what we’re using for the decans, is slow to fast. And so it’s a very simple organization of the seven visible planets, starting with Saturn, the slowest, then Jupiter, then Mars, then the Sun, then Venus, then Mercury, then the moon. And this is found- this is the order in which planetary hours go. It’s also the order of Dante’s planetary heavens. You see this order on the planetary schemes for the Kabbalistic tree of life. It’s really one of the fundamental sort of- one of the fundamental little orderings of the planets that you should know in astrology, because it’s everywhere.
CB: Sure. I thought that was a really compelling point that you made in the introduction, which is that the use of the descending Chaldean order is not just restricted to the decans. So it’s not just this weird thing that shows up there, but it’s in a bunch of other things, such as the days of the week, as you mentioned, where Monday is associated with the moon, and Tuesday is associated with Mars and Wednesday with Mercury and Thursday with Jupiter, so on and so forth.
AC: Right. And so the weekdays are not descending Chaldean order–
AC: They are produced by the ordering of hours. And it’s the ordering of planetary hours that actually produces the days in such a manner that would not be too hard to illustrate with graphs and charts but will be nightmare to do verbally, so–
CB: Yeah. I think Christopher Warnock has a good article on that that people can look up if you search for like “planetary rulers of the hour” on his website. You can find it- a nice diagram that demonstrates that.
AC: Well, and that’s- although the planetary days and hours system is much more widely discussed in magic or Neopagan or occult circles these days, it’s in- you see it in Valens. Valens talks about how to calculate the day and the hour of things. It’s absolutely part of the astrological tradition.
CB: Yeah. It’s in Polus as well, and I think it’s also talked about in some electional text…. Yeah, so that’s one of the systems that’s introduced really early in the Hellenistic tradition, because I think it shows up first in Toiker of Babylon, who I think is usually dated to the 1st century B.C. or the 1st century C.E., which is relatively early in terms of Hellenistic sources. And that became, obviously, widely used in the later medieval and Renaissance traditions, where they included it in the point system. But that became one of the- I mean, that’s a system that you really stand by or you really think is a valid conceptual construct for accessing or understanding the meaning of each of the decans.
AC: No, I don’t. So I think it’s interesting, and I don’t think it’s useless. The point system–
CB: Oh, you’re talking about the point system, but not the- I’m talking- I thought you were rejecting the assignments right now–
AC: Oh, oh! No! The Tomaic order, no, absolutely not! No, I thought you were talking about the point system.
CB: I thought you were just invalidating your entire book here in a very brief interview.
AC: Yeah, oh yeah, it’s all crap.
AC: No, I do think that that descending Tomaic order is very useful for understanding–
CB: Okay, so assignment of the planets to them based on that is good but not necessarily assigning a numeric value to it.
AC: I think that this is actually a big discussion, and that’s how well can you translate dignity into a simple point system?
AC: And I do agree that a planet that’s in its own sign or domicile will have- will generally have quote unquote more power than a planet in its own decan. But there’s a lot of complexity there, and there’s some horizontal action as well as some vertical action. But that’s another podcast, I think.
CB: Sure, sure. But in terms of your- ‘cause one of the things in terms of the structure of the book is you have the history section at the beginning, and then you have a delineation where you discuss, broadly speaking, the meaning of each of the 36 decans. And then you go into a delineation for when each of those planets is in one of those decans or in a specific decan using the seven traditional planets. And one of the sources that you draw on, or one of the things you take into account, is just if that planet has any affinity or has any dignity in that decan according to the descending Chaldean order, right?
AC: Yeah, yeah. That’s absolutely one of the things they do. Even though a planet- so let’s say if we look at Venus in the 3rd decan of Aries: Venus is thought to have rulership over the third decan of Aries. And that’s very interesting because it presents one of the cases where the dignity by sign (Venus being in her detriment in Aries) is at odds with the dignity by decan or face, right? Where no, Venus rules this portion of Aries.
And so what I find for a lot of those is that Venus isn’t good at like global Venus stuff, right? Like if you have Venus in an undisputedly powerful position, you have like luxuries and the arts and a certain social ease and all of these very fundamental Venus things, and they’re distributed somewhat globally. Whereas when you have a planet that’s dignified in its own face but not necessarily by sign, or it’s contradicted by the sign, it represents a very specific power for Venus, and she’s really good at doing that one thing, but you don’t necessarily have the same sort of global power as if you had like Venus is in the middle of Taurus on the Midheaven.
CB: Sure, sure. And- go ahead.
AC: And that’s- yeah, just to add to that: that’s very interesting because one of the- and speaking about the dignity system- one of the things that really caught my eye was Bonatti’s discussion of what- or his description of what the five dignities are like. What do they mean? How can we conceptualize these? And he may have been drawing on earlier sources that I’m not aware of, and he’s certainly not the only astrologer who goes about this project of trying to create a metaphor for the entire system of essential dignity. But basically he says, “Okay, so rulership by domicile is like a king in his castle,” right? We’ve heard that one a million times. Rulership by exaltation is like being a powerful magistrate in the king’s territory, which is interesting. And then rulership by triplicity is like being a citizen in that land, where you have rights, god damn it. And then rulership by bound is like being with your family, right? You may not be a citizen in that land, but you’re protected by your kin, right?
AC: And then he gets down to the decans, and he says, “Oh, this is like having no one and being in a foreign land but making your way purely by your virtue and skill alone and forging a reputation like solely from what you can do.” And so it’s interesting because it’s the only kind of dignity in this construct that comes from the native themselves. It’s not conferred by their national status or their hereditary status or even their family status. It’s a type of dignity that comes from within, right?
And so a lot of times what I saw with the decans is there’s a particular skill, there’s a particular ability, a person who’s particularly facile at that one little 36th of life. And that’s a different kind of- again, that’s a different kind of dignity than being born a king, right? Being an excellent juggler, right?
CB: Sure, sure.
AC: Or a good astrologer, right? But to make one’s way through their skill alone.
CB: Sure, that makes sense. And the sort of distinction between maybe one’s external circumstances versus some internal trait or quality that you have- that actually provides a good segue in terms of, you don’t- the title of the book isn’t 36 decans or 36 decans, it’s 36 faces. And I thought that was an interesting and very deliberate choice on your part to use what was essentially the original term for the decans. Which, in addition to in Greek being called “decanoy,” they were also referred to with the Greek word “prosopon,” which means “face” or “continents.” Literally sort of the face or what a person looks like or appears like in their face.
And that’s connected to this other stream that’s quite apart from the Chaldean order assignments of each of the planets to the decan, which was this separate stream, which was that the decans are one of the unique parts of astrology because in different traditions they’ve had specific illustrations associated with them, and that’s also part of what you drew on for your delineations, right?
AC: Absolutely, I think it’s huge. One of the- unlike virtually any other part of astrology- when you look at texts in which the decans are there, the meaning of them is not communicated primarily through the written word. It’s communicated through symbolically dense, loaded imagery. And so whereas the sign Cancer being represented by the crab, that’s imagery, right? But then when an astrologer goes on to describe what Cancer means, the kind of riff on crab really just go off on what Cancer means, whereas in a lot of astrological text and magical text, you’ll have the image described in great detail, and then there will be a sentence or two about what it means, right? So let me see if I can find a good example.
AC: All right, well let’s just start with Aries, right? So Aries one, right? In the Ouroboros translation of the Arabic Picatrix, we have a rising in the 1st face of Aries, a large and distinguished black man, who is mad with red eyes and an ax in his hand, a white rope wrapped around his waist. And so that’s a pretty evocative image, right? We have a lot of different elements there. And it just says, “This is a phase of cruelty, aggression, haughtiness, and insolence.” And so you have a figure, he has mad, red eyes, he has an ax in his hand, he has a white rope wrapped around his waist, which is really interesting, and he’s both large and distinguished, right? So there are a lot of questions here. And they’re not answered by “cruelty, aggression, haughtiness, and insolence.” There’s a lot more going on than those things. And that’s really emblematic of how the decans are communicated throughout most of the history of astrology.
CB: Sure. So the image actually carries with it additional, subtle, symbolic cues and symbolic meaning that, unless you have access to that or unless you’re paying attention to that, you might overlook important parts of the actual meaning astrologically.
AC: Yeah, I found them to be these- I found the decans to be far more complex and precise and intriguing than a sentence of, “Oh, this is haughtiness and arrogance and being mean.” I found them all to be these- I guess the way that I ended up seeing them was that they were like these- that the portraits of these figures and the gods and angels and demons associated with them, they were almost like freeze frames or movie posters from a longer narrative strand, from a particular set of stories. And remembering, of course, that the moving image is something very new historically and that narrative was often something that people who- narrative was often portrayed in a single image pre-20th century. Especially if you look at some of the masters, you see they’re really trying to capture a dynamic, which is like a key point in a story which suggests both what came before this and what will come as a consequence of this.
And so when I spent a lot of time with each decan kind of surrounding myself with the images and just tranced out, it became- yeah, they really seemed more like movie posters or the works of old masters trying to evoke a whole set of circumstances rather than just, “Oh, it’s a picture of a guy with an ax.”
CB: Sure. Yeah, and that was actually- and that’s what’s I think both unique and innovative about your book is that your actual process of coming up with the delineations and what you were attempting to do here is basically take many of the different symbolic imagery from the different descriptions of the decans over the past 2,000 years, describe them to a certain extent in the text, but then also synthesize them and produce, I don’t want to say a completely modern delineation, but produced a delineation that makes sense in the modern context that’s based on those illustrations and based on the imagery that they’re trying to convey.
AC: Yeah, absolutely. That was the intent. I mean, it’s kind of a compost project–
AC: Take as much of the past as possible and just let it sit all together and then see what you can get to grow in that. And so one of the- part of my thought process in when I was writing the book was- I don’t know, I had a concern about the arrogance of adding myself to this list of people who’d interpreted the decans–
AC: And so I was hesitant about that, and I didn’t want to privilege my own delineations over other ones. But the more I researched, I realized this has been going on for a long time and that the decans have been interpreted and re-interpreted, and the images scrutinized and put to different purposes for virtually their entire history and that it was not too haughty, I think, to basically- I guess I see it as starting the conversation again by adding just offering what I could get out of them in the time that I spent.
And what I- one thing that I experienced is that when you really sit down and spend time with the decans, and you look at their symbols, and you look at, you also, of course, look at people’s charts, especially those that have a decanic ruler in a particular place. The understandings that arise from that do tend to be visual. For whatever reason it’s a division of the circle, it’s a division of the reality of the sky that really lends itself to the visual. And I think that probably the best set of symbols that a person can use- or images that a person can use for the decan are those that arise to them after contemplation and study.
And so I offer mine, but what I would really like is for those images to arise organically from people as a result of study and contemplation and practice with the decans. So I guess I’m trying to like hand it to other people and here’s my set of interpretations, and we always have to learn on somebody else’s, but then once we learn the system we grow into that trellis, and it’s a little bit different.
CB: Sure. So I mean was that part of the process where you- it wasn’t just about thinking about the imagery or thinking about the planetary associations, but also you were thinking about specific examples that you’ve seen in your personal practice of people with this placement. I mean, ‘cause that was one of the things I was curious about as I was reading it because some of the- many of the delineations actually are just like strikingly on target. I think I was- I’ve sort of remarked this, and definitely my friend, Lisa, has remarked this as well that we were just kind of startled by the accuracy or the insight underlying some of the delineations, ‘cause I wasn’t necessarily expecting that. I was just sort of walking into it like, “Oh, okay this’ll be some interpretation of these abstract things in astrology that have this very mysterious background.”
But in fact, no, there’s something actually really unique where it’s not just carrying forward some out-of-date delineations or brief snippets of interpretation from 2,000 years ago or from a thousand years ago or what have you, but you’ve actually contributed some insight of your own to it in terms of how those work out sometimes in practice in the modern setting. And as a result of that sort of tapped in- or was able to tap into something real or something legitimate, something that gets to the heart of the matter when it comes to what that placement means in terms of a person’s birth chart or what have you. So was part of that empirical, or what was your process?
AC: Yeah, part of that was empirical. I would just say first of all with the decans, you’re literally- you’ve got an interpretative mandala that is three times as accurate as the signs. And so if you’re using it correctly, you should be able to get three times as much detail than as using a sign, right?
AC: It’s literally cutting things down to a finer grain. Yeah, it was a messy dialogue between empiricism and intuition. One thing I felt- what I experienced when I was writing- ‘cause I would write one decan at a time, right, I would immerse myself in it- is that I would get really overwhelmed; it felt like there was this current of energy or whatever, and my thoughts would turn a certain way, and my feelings would turn a certain way. It really- each one impacted me very strongly.
And then ideas would come out of that in terms of like, “Well what does that look like?” And some of it was- some of it’s technical, right, like, “Well Mars in Leo is kind of like this, but then there’s this stuff from the decan, so how does that work?” There’s a combination of formal and informal factors going. And then I would- I’d test it. I’d think about everyone that I knew, I’d look at notable nativities, see if that made any sense or if I was off. And it’s just kind of that back and forth until I had something that seemed solid.
CB: Okay, sure–
AC: And, I mean, there’s snippets, you know, there’s like a solid paragraph. But I mean a solid paragraph is not enough for any aspect of astrology. My idea was that this should be enough to get you started, you should be able to kind of feel out what that’s like, and I might have nailed a few details. But like there’s more to it, and the rest is up to the astrologer to figure out.
AC: But I at least wanted to get people started.
CB: Yeah, I definitely think you were- you did that. I guess I was just curious, I mean, ‘cause this isn’t like an L. C. Wheeler 1925 situation with Marc Edmund Jones where they put a bunch of pieces of paper in a hat and pull them out, and that’s like the Sabian symbols. This was a lot more involved of a process than that. And you’re not just like pulling psychic hits out of the air or something like that, but there’s sort of a number of different levels at which you’re approaching this, both from a historical standpoint, a textual standpoint, empirical standpoint, as well as others.
AC: Yeah, yeah. No, it’s not pulled out of the air. Although, I mean if you look at various methods people use for inducing a trance, right? If anything, I would say that this is sort of- this sounds funny- what I think of as a creative or obsessional trance, where you take- you spend a lot of time with everything that you’re going to include, in this case all these decanic images and delineations, and you just soak that up until that’s all that’s on your mind, and you can’t think about anything else. And then you’re in that place, and then you look at facts, and you let your mind run along the courses set by the ingestion of all that material. And then what comes out will be very much aligned with that material.
So, yeah! It was very much a combination of creative stuff and pretty careful historical sourcing. And I do talk about like, “Here’s what I’m thinking, and this is how it relates to this 15th-century image, and this is how it relates to this old, funny Hellenistic list, and I think that this is what they were getting at here, and this is the relationship between those two things.” So, in a sense I guess I was filling in the empty space between the historical sources.
CB: Sure. And, I mean, another big component that you deliberately integrated into this and were very careful not to exclude was the connection between the decans and the magical or the occult traditions, which you refer to a number of times throughout the book and sort of kept in mind as potential users of the book is those that are using the decans for magical purposes, right?
AC: Absolutely. One of the things that initially got me intrigued about the decans was, I don’t know, maybe eight, nine plus years ago. I was reading a book that used a lot of the Golden Dawn’s magical system, and they had this synthesis of the decans with some of the tarot cards and with a set of angels and a set of devils. And I thought that was really intriguing. I kind of- it made me bookmark the decans in my own mind. And although I didn’t really get to it for another seven years or so, it was that wealth of associations that made it gleam and intrigued me enough to do a big project.
One of the things about the decans is that in their very first phase, which is the Egyptian phase, they’re represented by pictures of gods. And in the Hellenistic phase of astrology, you have Firmicus Maternus sort of on the sly after he describes the technical aspects of the decans mentioning that, “Oh, by the way there are 36 invincible gods that live in these things, and they can pretty much do whatever they want.” And then he literally changes the subject, he’s like, “Yeah, but this isn’t the time to talk about that.”
AC: Which is great. You know, he’s like “Oh, yeah, and each of them has three great ministers and blah, blah blah, but you know what? This isn’t really the place.” I mean, he’s a Roman lawyer writing a book for like his local Roman overlord–
CB: Right, which he also makes swear to secrecy not to share the book with anyone outside of himself and his sons.
AC: Which is really smart considering that the empire was about to go Christian, right?
CB: Right, which Firmicus himself was about to go Christian because he converted at some point later in his life and then wrote a diatribe attacking the Mystery traditions.
AC: Which- yeah, it makes you wonder how sincere that was–
CB: Well, curiously, I was just talking to somebody about this the other day, and he doesn’t mention astrology. It’s like mysteriously absent from his critique. I’m not sure if that’s because he never gave it up, or he’s embarrassed or what but–
AC: Yeah, just best not to bring it up.
CB: Yeah, like with the decans.
AC: But anyway, and so the decans are also mentioned in the Corpus Hermeticum, and they show up in early what we would call like- what often gets called like proto-Kabbalistic Jewish magical texts. And so there’s this one whole stream with the decans is that everybody’s sure that they’re haunted. And maybe it’s gods that live in them, or maybe they’re angels, maybe they’re devils. The testament of Solomon sees devils there. And then for the Hellenistic Greeks, they’re like, “Oh, no, no, no, it’s just a bunch of gods and nymphs and daemones and the spirit of truth lives in this one, the spirit of bravery lives in this one, the daemon of plague is over there.”
And so you have this whole sort of strand of mythological or spirit associations, right? And if you’re in a tradition where you try to work actively with spirits, then that’s what you use to set up the timing to approach said spirit, right? And these mythological or spirit assignments also contribute strongly to the image tradition, right? Because each of them suggests an image. If I say, “Oh yeah! That decan? That’s a nymph.” Immediately images spring to mind- images and concepts. And some of those images get translated into the later images.
One thing you see with, I would say beginning in the Yavanajataka and more clear in the Brihat Jataka, and certainly in the Arabic, medieval, and Renaissance periods is that you don’t have that assignment of spirits anymore. You just have images of people, sometimes grotesque, sometimes mixed with- sometimes having animal characteristics like having an elephant’s feet, but you don’t have any spirit names or god names associated with the decans. And what’s interesting about this set of images, which I in my head refer to as the godless images, is that they’re still considered to be chock-full of power. And the way of dealing with them I think is most clear in the Picatrix, which is coming out of that Arabic image magic tradition that you see near the end of the 1st millenium A.D.
And basically the idea is that these images both have the power to show what is happening and what will happen and what has happened, right? They’re reflective, and that’s how we use them in astrology. But that these images also have a power to shape reality, and if that image is impressed into the right material, if it’s reproduced at the right time (and the timing is obviously based on the decans and the planets), then those images can also bring a situation about or can teach a person the virtues inherent in that decan.
And so I find very interesting the idea that the image has this sort of dual Janus-facing power where it can both reflect and project. And that’s really integral to how the decans are treated for a large portion of their history. And so as astrologers we’re interested in how they reflect, but, as an astrological magician or whatever word you want to use, there’s an interest in how can they- what can they project into the life and how can they change the shape of the life.
CB: Sure. And to that end, you include actually some statements about certain decans and whether they would be appropriate for certain types of, I guess, Talismanic rituals and different things based on which planet is placed in them and whether that would be auspicious or not auspicious for certain types of things.
AC: Yeah! I mean basically what you can get out of the decans, or what effects they can produce, is based on what planets are occupying them and energizing them. And so there’s a system of rulerships, or multiple systems of rulerships, in place. And so when Mars is in the first decan of Aries, for example, it’s very good. It activates the formula of that decan very vigorously, perhaps too much so, whereas if you have the moon in the first decan of Aries, it’s a pretty hard place for the moon. None of the significations of that decan are really friendly to the moon at all. Being in a tough survivalist mode where it’s you against the world, right? That’s not really what the moon favors.
AC: And so if you’re going to paint the image of the first decan of Aries at a particularly elected time to bring about greater independence and strength and victory and squabbles and all these things that it brings, don’t do it when the moon’s there, right? That will literally make you vulnerable to all of that. And so originally I was just going to stick with just the traditional rulers as Talismanic possibilities, but there are other possibilities, and I wanted to discuss- make it clear that some things are not just not going to work, they’re actively bad ideas.
AC: You can actually have the reverse of what you want to happen. And so, yeah, after the natal delineation, there’s a little delineation and a little commentary as to, “Is this combination any good? What might it be good for?”
CB: Okay. Nice. And then, finally, in terms of- one other thing that’s interesting about your book is the way you went about doing it and the model you use, specifically in the context of getting it published and how you ended up producing this book and writing it, which I thought would make for an interesting discussion just in terms of the sort of meta-topic about the state of astrological publishing today. So you had a very specific model for publishing this book, right?
AC: I would say that I had the good fortune to luck into a publisher that used a specific model. This is something that I think, as you said, bears discussing, and that is: what is the- where is astrological publishing today? Because the books that are available to us are not merely a function of what thoughts are swarming the great minds, but what is the production filter? What gets produced and what doesn’t?
And publishing in general is in a very strange space. The model that- like the big publisher model, which was dominant 15-20 years ago, has changed considerably, and a lot of people are self-publishing now. And most astrology books are either really watered down because, as in a lot of media industries, the companies only want big hits, big sellers, right? It’s why you have a lot less independent movies, but you have a ton of super blockbusters, right? In movies, it’s either $200 million budget or nothing, right? And publishing is very similar, where publishers, because they don’t have these consistent margins that they used to, want things that are guaranteed or at least good bets in terms of pop- pop appeal-, or they’ll pass. And so that’s–
CB: Sure. Not willing to take as many risks as before, perhaps.
AC: Yeah. And that’s really bad for serious astrology, right? I mean, I certainly benefited from reading Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs when I was 20; it’s not that it doesn’t deserve to exist, but we don’t need 400 versions of Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs.
CB: Sure. Although that’s actually- that you mention it, that’s really funny because when you mentioned that just now, that evoked in me- the last time that I had that same feeling of like, “Wow, that astrologer is really good at drawing out symbolism of a really basic placement” was actually, besides reading your book just today and this week, was actually Linda Goodman’s books, because I always was impressed by her delineations of basic sun signs and how she could get to the heart of some of the underlying mechanics, underlying meanings. So sorry, I just wanted to mention that briefly.
AC: Yeah, well I did write a sun sign column for eight years, and it really pushes you to do the very best you can with what you’ve got because you’ve only got this little piece of information. So I do think that I- this book benefits from that practice–
CB: That makes a lot of sense.
AC: It’s not a sun sign column, but sun sign columns will teach you that as an astrologer.
CB: Yeah. That was really good training, I guess, for what you ended up doing with this book.
AC: Absolutely, absolutely. Yeah, and I don’t- I’m not doing it anymore, but I certainly learned a lot from it.
CB: Yeah, and you are still writing your annual column, which has some elements of that, I guess, right?
AC: The Almanac.
CB: Almanac, that’s what I meant.
AC: Yeah, it’s a little bit different. I don’t do sun sign delineations, I interpret every day, the structure of all the planetary aspects in the order that they occur every day through the filter of planetary days and nights and do sort of a monthly sequencing, but yeah similar stuff, similar stuff. But back to publishing, right?
AC: And so, yeah! We don’t need- we probably don’t need another Linda Goodman, right? And there are other astrologers who’ve written good basics books, but there are a lot of really good books at that level. And it’s sort of like the basics plus funny is generally what gets published. Like there’s The Dark Side Zodiac 10 years ago or something.
CB: Oh, right.
AC: And that’s the kind of thing that publishers are interested in. And then there are some sort of pop New Age or occult-type publishers that like they’ll publish something a little more serious, but they want it dumbed down to the 6th grade reading level, and they give writers a terrible deal.
AC: And I don’t want to call out publishing houses here. Just go to Barnes & Noble, you can figure out who it is. But I know that some of the most thoughtful, respected, and well-written astrologers in our community get totally raw deals from them. So I had the- and so the other option, which other astrologers like the eminent Ben Dykes, who I believe was your last guest–
CB: Oh yeah, the book publishing machine, Ben Dykes 2000, is I think the name of his model.
CB: Right, Translator T 2000.
AC: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And so Ben’s gone the self-publishing route, and I’ve done several Almanacs in a self-publishing way. And that’s good, but self-publishing opens up a lot of possibilities that just wouldn’t be there otherwise. But there are also a lot of limitations with self-publishing. What a traditional publishing house does is they have editors; they’ll pay to have art done, they have artists on staff; they have professional layout people; they know how to deal with printers to make sure the margins are perfect; there are all these things that make self-published books look a little rough to the practiced eye, right?
And so one of the things that’s really interesting that has emerged, primarily in the occult community, is sort of a small- just a couple publishing houses that navigate this middle ground where they looked at their material, and they said, “You know what? This is really serious material. This isn’t for Barnes & Noble. This isn’t for everyone. Not everyone is going to want this. But the people who are going to want it are going to really value it.” And so one of those publishing houses, Three Hands Press, approached me about this book a couple years ago, and it’s been a really great experience.
Basically the whole business model is based on the idea that you’re not going to sell 50,000 of these books, it’s not for everyone–
AC: You plan to have it make business sense to print a couple thousand, right? And you have- these publishing houses have lists of people who want serious works, who want high quality books and are willing to pay a little bit more for it. And so, because I had the good fortune to work with Three Hands my book came out in a hardback. When’s the last time a serious astrology book got a hardback edition?
CB: Sure, and not just a hardback edition but also like a deluxe edition as well.
AC: Yeah, there’s a limited deluxe hardback with art wraps and a slip case, and it’s foil-stamped with this beautiful design on the cover, and there are only 108 of those, right? And then we actually did a super fancy edition, and I believe they were called the special edition where we did one copy for each decan, and that book has that decan’s- has a single decan’s artwork, as well as some additional stuff printed into it and stamped into it. And so there’s only one of those copies for each decan.
AC: Yeah. And so the idea there is- and this an idea that comes out of the occult tradition but I think has meaning beyond it- is the idea that a book can be talismanic. When we’re looking at the history of talismans, like astrological talismans, you don’t make- you don’t draw the image of the decan on just anything. You get exactly the right materials, materials that correspond to the nature of the power you want there, and you do it at the right time, and it matters. The physical thing is an anchor for the non-physical part of it.
And there’s- this is the idea of the magical book, which is seeded throughout our culture in both fairy tale and legend, as well as more serious context. And so I really like that idea. There are some books that you read once and throw away, but if a book is not of that nature, if it’s something that is hopefully more permanent, you want its physical housing to be more permanent. And I think that I would love to see an astrological publishing house take up a similar model and realize that the way forward isn’t necessarily selling eight million ebooks for $2. And it’s okay to not be popular. Some things- for example, most people- even if Ph.D theses were free- you could just get them sent to your house- there’d be a couple of us who would love that, but most people wouldn’t read them. That’s not what they’re for, right?
AC: And the more- the deeper you get into any area of knowledge, the less popular it’s going to be, and so we need to account for that. And I’d like to see more books written for the intermediate and advanced astrologer. We have this sort of weird pyramid right now, which has this giant, fat bottom and this tiny little column, this little tower projecting up from that. There’s very- there’s not enough middle ground.
CB: Sure. And also the other thing is: what’s interesting about that model is that with this smaller publishing house that you went with, the book was actually given the level of respect and care that it deserved. And you received a beautiful set of illustrations of the decans by a professional artist who sort of specialized in that kind of occult drawing and symbolism, right?
AC: Yeah! That was one of the most exciting parts was it came down to the question of, “Okay, Austin, what kind of illustrations do you want?” The publisher was going to cover the illustrations and had an artist in mind. And so I came up with some images- very simple images- and then the artist was sent these very simple images. They were- I tried to sort of boil down the symbolism, right? So for Aries 1, where we talked about the madman with the red eyes, and the ax, and all these other details, I was like, “Just draw me an ax.” I was like, “I just want a double-sided ax.” And then he was left to embroider that emblem as he will.
And so he was sent just that one image, that one simple image with the delineation text, and he just made them all come alive. It was just- it’s fantastic. All of the detail and stuff that he got from the text and then interpreted in his own style, and some of them are his own additions, many of which are exactly right on. And so that was sort of a test case for the idea that the decans speak visually, and if somebody sits down and concentrates on them, they’ll start getting their own ideas, which lend themselves to visual expression.
But yeah, that was something that wouldn’t have happened if I had to self-publish. That would’ve been a lot of money to lay out. I didn’t know who the artist was; it’s a fellow named Bob Eames. But the publisher had that connection and that relationship and was able to put some capital aside to make that happen. And I think it really enhances the book.
CB: Yeah, definitely. It definitely brings some of your descriptions and delineations alive. But yeah, because that’s something I’ve been really focused on and sort of struggling with, where I go back and forth between those two extremes where publishing in the major astrology publishing houses are still there- they’re not publishing as much as they used to- and the astrology sections in bookstores like Barnes & Noble or even local ones has shrunk considerably over the course of the past decade or two since I’ve been in astrology. But that’s still like an option to go with a big publishing house, but then you basically make nothing, but your book theoretically gets wider distribution.
But then the other option is to self-publish through one of these print-on-demand places, which a lot of astrologers are now flocking to, such as Benjamin Dykes. And some of them that are very self-willed and able to like teach themselves all the necessary skills and everything else and to promote themselves, such as Benjamin Dykes, are being very successful with that model. But what you’ve done here with this book is interesting because it presents a third model that I don’t think that anyone has sort of realized existed as a possibility yet. But it opens up some interesting options for people like myself or other people that are in the position of trying to decide between those two extremes.
AC: Yeah, yeah. It’s nice because it seems like a really good answer to the present with some of the kind of books that we’re trying to do. And part of the decision to go with this publisher was based on the kind of project it is, you know? It doesn’t make sense to do like beautiful hardcovers for my annual Almanac, ‘cause it might be interesting to look back at my 2012 Almanac, but that’s not really what it’s for.
AC: Really it’s for this year, and then you might not throw it away, but you don’t need a beautiful edition on your bookcase. But if you’re doing something that you hope might be a semi-permanent addition to what astrologers are doing- like Ben’s stuff, for example- I would love to have like a Benatti shelf with beautiful books that are going to last for a couple hundred years, you know?
AC: So, yeah for certain projects it makes tons of sense. And I think that people are willing to pay for quality under the right circumstances. I don’t necessarily need the beautiful edition of Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs, but yeah.
CB: All right! Well, yeah I think that’s a great model. And on that note, I mean I think that brings us to the end of our hour. So did you have any other- I certainly wanted to mention your website, which is austincoppock.com, and people can order your book from- signed copies of your book from your website, which is austincoppock.com. And they can also order the paperback from your publisher, which is at threehandspress.com, and I’ll have links to those in the website.
AC: Yeah, actually both- all three editions are available through both me and my publisher, but he can’t sign them for me. I offer the signed editions at no additional charge–
AC: Which is hopefully not some terrible statement about my own value. I just can’t bring myself to charge for it. But yeah, the super-special 36 were pre-sold four months ago, but there are still some of the deluxes available, and there are certainly hardbacks and paperbacks available.
CB: Okay, excellent, and I’ll put links to access both of those websites- both your website and the publisher’s website- in the description page for this episode on theastrologypodcast.com. So if anyone’s listening to this, they can find those links there. Do you have any other things to mention?
CB: I guess you’ll be making an appearance at the ISAR conference next month, right?
AC: Absolutely, absolutely. And I’ll be at the Esoteric Book Conference at the beginning of September, so in a little bit more than two weeks.
CB: Oh, in Seattle!
AC: Yep! And then I’ll be at ISAR at the end of the month.
CB: Okay! So you can catch Austin in Seattle at the Esoteric Book Conference in early September or at the International Society for Astrological Research Conference in Phoenix at the end of September. And he’ll be obviously signing copies of his book.
All right, well thanks a lot for coming on the show. Congratulations on the book, and nice work! Congratulations on getting it done and making a big, substantive contribution to the history of astrology. I mean I think this is one of the first books- if not the first book- in the history of astrology that’s focused solely on the decans, at least in terms of books that have survived. So it’s kind of a landmark book in that sense as well, and I’m sure that it will probably become a classic book that most astrologers- or all astrologers- end up wanting to own or sort of needing to own. So congratulations!
AC: Well, thank you. Those are certainly lovely possibilities.
CB: Yeah, I think it’s more than a possibility at this point, but we’ll see how things go. So definitely everybody check out the book and order it, and then you can let us know in the comments section what you think of it or post reviews or what have you.
AC: Yeah, please do! Please do. Feedback is gold.
CB: Excellent! All right, well that’s it for this episode of The Astrology Podcast. So thanks for joining us; if you enjoyed this episode, then please be sure to rate it on iTunes if you’re listening to it there, and give it a five-star rating. You can also subscribe to the show through the subscribe button in the sidebar of the main page, so make sure to that if you want to listen to and receive announcements of future episodes. And that’s it for this time! So thanks for listening, and we’ll see you next time!