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An Introduction to the Sabian Symbols

The story of how the Sabian Symbols is a big part of why I never really took them very seriously. I mean, I have known it for a while and have been familiar with them for a while: I am actually a huge fan of Dane Rudhyar. I always greatly appreciated the way that he explored the Sabian Symbols but it wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I really began to see how useful they can be. As a matter of fact, ever since my friend Bill gave me a copy of An Astrological Mandala earlier this year, it has become a staple part of my astrological research.

But what are the Sabian Symbols?


(Image credit: Linda Hill, who has a fantastic bio of Wheeler, here.)

Well, I think this really starts with the story behind them- which, as I mentioned, is a bit on the weird side. Marc Edmund and Elsie May Wheeler met in 1923. Elsie had severe arthritis, and was confined to a wheelchair. Up until that point, she had lived in The Bethesda Hospital and Home For the Incurables, here in St. Louis for about 30 years.

This location, 3649 Vista Avenue, is now a parking lot near SSM Health.


She had moved to San Diego when she met Marc Edmund. He was a Presbyterian Minister, a screenwriter, and an astrologer. He is often referred to as the dean of Astrology- and in fact, has written some of the most interesting things about astrology and developed the 7 patterns of distribution we use today. (If you see references to “bucket”, “bowl”, “splash”, etc- this is what this is referring to.) He also founded the Sabian Assembly, which still exists to this day.


(Image credit: The Sabian Assembly. You can read more about Marc here.)

So, the story goes they met and Marc really admired her a great deal- she was known to be vivacious and quite uplifting, though her rheumatoid arthritis caused her a great deal of suffering. At the time when they met, she really wasn’t into anything occult- as a matter of fact, she was said to be quite afraid of psychic phenomenon. After a time, she joined his spiritualist church, became one of his students and began working as a professional medium. At the same time, Marc had been looking into the work of John Thomas, who was working on a series of symbolic astrological degrees. Every time I read about this, I sort of laugh because, being someone who does rectifications myself: I can imagine how this happened. He said that the degrees came to him while he was trying to figure out how to rectify ascendants. He’d published these at first in 1898 and then again in 1943. Edmunds was originally seeking out permission to use them when he had a mindset change: not wanting to use such a “fixed” sort of symbolism, he wanted something that would connect on a much wider range.

In the meantime, Wheeler had still been working as a psychic and though she enjoyed the work: she’d come to a point where she wanted something more. Wanted to do something much bigger. Edmunds was still working on developing these symbols and had been working with playing cards to that end and another psychic, Zoe Wells pointed out some sort of Mesopotamian connection to things. At that point, he was still trying to develop things further when he decided to work with Elsie May Wheeler on this.

It wasn’t so much that he just took her to Balboa Park and let her go with it. There was an entire methodology behind everything they did, even down to his choosing her to help with it. He wanted to be somewhere that though it connected with modern life- also would provide an opportunity to work without the interruption of others.

He created index cards for the experiment and wrote one of each degree on each of the 360 cards and decided they’d work in sessions. He then carried her to where they’d be working, shuffled the cards, placed them face down and she would tell him what she saw. They’d turn the card over, write what she reported and move on from there.

The images were said to have come from a variety of different sources that she picked up on using her talents.

After that, Edmunds actually didn’t work on it for a while- at first, not really thinking it was along the lines of the kind of scientific research that he wanted to do. Eventually, through a series of events, however: he did in fact write out small vignettes for each and presented them to students for use.

Now, one thing to remember about all of this, is going back to his having the idea in the first place- the reason he didn’t want to further develop or work with Thomas’s symbolism was that it had been too narrow and you almost get the sense, particularly by what he’s stated later, that he felt it was too dogmatic. After some time, he even decided that the version he had developed was too influenced by his own upbringing and held an overly moralized tone: this was not what he’d set out to do.

This is the part of the story that actually caught my attention and held it, and it continues to be something that I enjoy. Instead of really continuing on with the interpretations as he’d written them- he decides he’s not going to work with it anymore for a while. One of the beautiful things about the project in the first place, had been how Wheeler’s intuition had brought about quite a bit and at this point, Edmunds felt that they hadn’t really continued to work with that intuitiveness.

So, around 1951, he just calls it a do-over. He goes back to the origins of the symbols and looks at his original notations created in Balboa Park. He works on this for a couple of years and then finally publishes The Sabian Symbols In Astrology. From start to finish, it had taken him over 30 years of research, starts, stops and otherwise: and there it was.

One of my favorite things about the Sabian Symbols is that you do not have to be an astrologer to use them. Though my partner is very supportive and loves to pick my brain: every now and again, he’ll get this cross eyed sort of “Wow, what on earth”..thing going when I am talking about astrology. (Actually, that’s been a VERY helpful thing to me, for a number of reasons.) However, he had wanted to be more active in the things that interest me, so he went to one of the monthly Astrological Association meetings with me. This one, happened to be a lecture on the Sabian Symbols by Nikki Davenport. Now, not only does she always just have this wonderful, warm, and easy to understand way of explaining things: he was very, very into it. Why? Because of how you use the Sabian Symbols.

Of course, I can go through Rudhyar’s interpretations and we have- but, where it starts is a fantastic opening that anyone can use. Let me show you, using the example of the upcoming full moon. It is in Aries, at 12 degrees.

Aries SabianNow, essentially, what you’re supposed to do is to allow yourself to visualize that, and what comes to mind as a result. Flip through my copy of Mandala (Actually, it’s hardcover and flipping really isn’t an option- but whatever.) And:

KEYNOTE: An idealistic reliance upon a mental image of universal order.

The wild goose is the mystical bird, hamsa, of Hindu tradition. This word, which has recurred in various cultures (the Hansa League of Germanic cities in the late Middle Ages, and El Hanza, the founder of the occult Brotherhood of the Druzes in Lebanon, during the era of the Crusades), has always had at least an undertone of integration at an expansionistic level, spiritual or economic. The Hindu hamsa was the symbol of man’s transcendent soul. What previous interpretations of this Sabian symbol have failed to grasp is that the flight of geese presents not only a remarkably geometrical V-shape moving through the sky, but also that this flight is seasonal and therefore attuned to planetary rhythms. Thus, it symbolizes cosmic order, in contrast with the social-political order within a nation which is represented by its ruler. It is order made visual on the background of the clear sky. It is a “celestial” type of order, even though it is earth-born birds which reveal it by their ability to keep their flight structured. The symbol therefore refers to the Soul-consciousness as visualized by the heaven-oriented mind. Yet this soul-consciousness can be called transcendent because it has not yet become “incarnated.”

Because this is a second stage in the third five-fold sequence begun with Phase 11, we have to consider what it pictures in contrast to the preceding symbol. A basic dualism of consciousness is thus suggested. We see arising a potential conflict between cosmic and social principles of order. The principle of COSMIC ORDER polarizes the all-too-human reliance on the social concept of law and order.


So, there you have it: this was my basic introduction to the Sabian Symbols. What I would encourage you to do, then, is to take a look at your own chart- begin with your Ascendant, move to your Sun and then your Moon.

Bear in mind:

If the planet is at an even degree- you need to read the Sabian Symbol for that degree. If it’s one minute over an even degree- you read the next one. If you happen to have a planet at a 0 degree, you would round it down to the sign before that if it hasn’t yet hit the one minute mark and if it has- then you round it up to the first degree in that particular sign.

What do you think of when you see the symbol for your Ascendant? What do you think of when you see the ones for your Sun and Moon?


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