Tonight, I was listening to Kenneth Bowser talk about Western Sidereal Astrology on Chris Brennan’s show, The Astrology Podcastin episode 117.

Near the end of the show, they’re talking about The Exaltation Solution: the work of Irish astrologer Cyril Fagan, who found that in the year 786 BC, the planets rose or set helically (that is, either just before or just after the sunset) in their degrees of exaltation, or entered or exited retrogrades at what we now know as their degrees of exaltation. Cyril Fagan explored this in a book titled Zodiacs Old and New published in 1950, part of his (Fagan’s) long-standing effort to get Western astrologers to switch over from a tropical zodiac to a sidereal zodiac.

Chris Brennan pushed back, as she should have, on the absence of textual support for why this particular year should be so important — all of the planets rising or setting not on the same day as a degree of exaltation, but over the course of a year.  Fagan thought that this year marked the completion and consecration of a temple to the Mesopotamian deity associated with the planet Mercury; Kenneth Bowser was arguing for astrologers to use the sidereal zodiac, and that the use of the sidereal zodiac makes the degrees of exaltation correct.

That’s fine, as far as it goes. But it doesn’t explain the idea of the Degree of Exaltation. Every visible planet in astrology — Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn — has one specific degree where it’s regarded as particularly strong. As they enter the specific Zodiac sign of their exaltation, they begin growing stronger and stronger until they reach their actual degree of exaltation. Then their power wanes from that particular height.  Those degrees are

  1. Moon: 3rd degree of Taurus
  2. Mercury: 15th degree of Virgo
  3. Venus: 27th degree of Pisces
  4. the Sun:  19th degree of Aries
  5. Mars: 28th degree of Capricorn
  6. Jupiter: 15th degree of Cancer
  7. Saturn: 21st degree of Libra

As I listened to the two of them debate, each of them missing the points the other was making, the hair on the back of my neck stood up, and a sudden wave of gnosis or of awen came over me.  I said aloud, in my car on the darkened road, “I know exactly why those are the degrees of exaltation. I can’t prove it, but I know.”  I nearly ran off the road, such was my certainty.

And so I know what textual evidence we are looking for, from pre-786 BC, up to the date 1 Nisan in the old Babylonian calendar, the new moon closest to the spring equinox in that year.  Not the consecration of a temple to the Mesopotamian version of Mercury, nor the crowning of one of Esarhadon’s or Sennacherib’s predecessors as king, but something far more sophisticated.

Sometime before the year 786 BC began, a priest-astronomer or more likely a group of them, correlated enough data, and made specific predictions about the dates on which the planets would rise, set, or go retrograde.  These predictions included not only the date on which the planet would rise or set, but where the planet would be relative to the fixed stars, and to the Sun and Moon.   These predictions — of the day the planet would be in relationship to the Sun, and its placement on the ecliptic relative to the signs of the Zodiac, and its retrograde or direct position — would have represented a significant investment of intellectual capital and tremendous economic and political and religious resources.  And they were RIGHT.

Those Babylonian priest-astronomers, those Magi, correctly predicted the direct and retrograde movements of seven planets, and correctly solved the equations for understanding the movement of planets relative the Sun, each other, and the fixed stars. They had developed a cosmological model and a mathematical model that matched.

It must have been an extraordinary revelation.  The Neighbors, the Gods, the messengers of the divine, had finally revealed the cosmic scheme, the system of the world, to their human servants.  The world was comprehensible to them: they understood the motions of the planets and the stars, and they had correctly used that information to make elaborate predictions well in advance of the actual events. They had learned how to compute sidereal, planetary, solar, and lunar motion as a complete system.

And so they declared those degrees of the Zodiac, Exalted.  These were the positions of the planets in the year and on the days that the Babylonians determined that their mathematical and astronomical models aligned with each other — And they enshrined their achievement in astrology forever.