The Basis of Rulerships

Copyright 1991 J. Lee Lehman, Ph.D.

The concept of rulerships, as we have inherited it, has actually included two discrete elements:

  • sign rulerships, including the five essential dignities of rulership, exaltation, triplicity, term and face, as well as mutual reception,
  • natural rulerships, the attribution of a thing to rulership by a sign, planet, or house.

From a classical standpoint, there is little controversy about sign rulerships, except for some variation in triplicity rulership, and two discrete sets of terms (the so-called Chaldean and Egyptian terms). Many modern astrologers (i.e., from the 19th Century onwards) have attempted, with varying degrees of success to integrate the three trans-Saturnian Planets into the sign and exaltation rulerships, while ignoring the existence of the other three.

Whether classical or modern, there has been an almost universal agreement that the trans-Saturnian Planets can be natural rulers. The controversy (which is not necessarily a split between classical versus modern) has been the logic for assigning these natural rulerships.

The modern assumption (backed by a certain amount of classical philosophy if not evidence) has been that rulerships should be assigned based on the Doctrine of Affinities. The natural ruler of an object should be that planet, sign, or house most like that object. (This is the philosophical justification for the modern Mars=Aries=First House concept: that Mars is the planet most like Aries, and Mars is the planet most like the First House. However, this Doctrine was not evoked classically to support this simplified equation, which violated the house cosignificators in any case.)

Unfortunately, astrological works dating from the Seventeenth Century and earlier – what we may call the Classical, or Neo-classical Period – are not long on the explanation of the method of assigning rulerships.

We do know that rulerships were assigned, and continue to be assigned, right up to the present moment. The purpose of this paper is to examine how this process was really done in the classical period, in order to give us insights into what to do today. To accomplish this, I have selected a specific subject area: plants. While this may seem a bit obscure, plants are an ideal subject for study because they have a long and fairly well documented place in astrological history through the frequent publication of herbals, which were vastly popular books listing plants, their medical uses, and of course, their astrological affinities. We should remember that, up to the Seventeenth Century, it would have been almost unthinkable for a medical diagnosis to be given without adequate astrological training. Even the great Fourteenth Century critic of astrology, Nicole Oresme, granted the efficacy of medical and meteorological uses of astrology.

I have already treated the specifics of one particular herbal, namely Culpeper’s, at length in my book Essential Dignities. What I would like to do here is to compare Culpeper’s rulerships with three other sources:

al-Biruni, representing Arabic astrology from the Medieval Period,

Claude Dariot, a French physician of the Sixteenth Century, whose book on horary in its English translation was a strong influence on – not to mention direct source for – William Lilly, and

William Lilly, the master par excellence of horary technique, whose work Christian Astrology has certainly been the most influential book on horary ever written.

I should mention that I was limited in the available possbilities for Seventeenth Century sources by the fact that Lilly was the only one to list enough different plants to be useful: for example, John Partridge’s Vade Mecum only gives two plants, scarcely enough for consideration.

The number of plants taken from each source is shown in Table One. Naturally, given the fact that Culpeper’s was the only herbal in the group, Culpeper listed more different plants.

Table One. Number of plants mentioned in different sources.

                  al-Biruni            58
                  Dariot              130
                  Lilly               161
                  Culpeper            394

Unfortunately, there was not as much overlap as I would have liked between the sources, with the greatest overlap being between Dariot and Lilly, not surprising since Lilly quoted Dariot extensively throughout Christian Astrology. I have summarized those cases of overlap in Table Two, which shows whether the different sources agreed or disagreed with the rulerships for a given plant.

Table Two. Agreement between Sources. A = al-Biruni, C = Culpeper, D = Dariot, L = Lilly.

        Combination              Agreement           Disagreement
        C - L                       14                   40
        D - C                        2                   30
        A - C                        4                   10
        D - L                       88                    4
        D - A                        1                   10
        L - A                        4                   14
        D - C - L                   24                   n/a
        A - D - L                    6                   n/a
        A - D - C - L                2                   n/a

The table shows clearly that there was little agreement between any of the sources except Dariot and Lilly! What does this then say about plant rulerships? To begin to sort out this intriguing question, let us examine the cases of strong agreement. These are shown in Table Three.

Many of the plants given in these sources are not ones which are especially familiar to us. Most of the plants in the Table, however, are immediately recognizable, being primarily food plants, spices or poisons. These plants have rulerships assigned which are part of readily identifiable properties: sharp taste in the case of Mars, for example.

Table Three. Examples of Agreement.

  Borage         Ju   D-C-L     Peaches             Ve   D-C-L
                                                    Ju   A
  Carduus        Ma   D-C-L     Plums               Ve   D-C-L
  Garlic         Ma   A-D-C-L   Poppy               Mo   D-C-L
                                                    Sa   D-L
  Hemlock        Sa   D-C-L     Pumpkin             Mo   D-C-L
                 Ma   D-L
  Leeks          Ma   A-D-L     Radish              Ma   A-D-L
  Lettuce        Mo   D-C-L     Rose                Ve   D-C-L
                                                    Ma   A
  Melon          Mo   A-D-L     Rosemary            Su   D-C-L
  Mustard        Ma   A-D-C-L   Shepherd's Purse    Sa   D-C-L
  Nettle         Ma   D-C-L     Sycamore            Ve   D-C-L
  Nightshade     Sa   D-C-L     Vines               Su   D-C-L
  Onions         Ma   A-D-C-L   Wheat               Ju   A-D-L

You may note in examining the Table that there are no cases of high agreement among Mercury-ruled plants. This is especially interesting because the classical descriptions of Mercury generally include the statement that Mercury takes on the coloration of other planets with which it associates, and also common words applied to Mercury are mixed and complex. It thus appears that quicksilver alludes even the astrologers! One may also note, that a rose, by any other name may smell as sweet, but if, like al-Biruni, you are concerned with thorns, then it is Mars-ruled!

I have already shown in Essential Dignities that there was a strong correlation in Culpeper between the medicinal use of the plant and the rulership Culpeper assigned. (Three quarters of the Jupiter-ruled plants had medicinal properties thought to be useful in treating Jupiter-ruled diseases.) The other three require different explanations.

One thing very clear in the study of the history of herbals – as well as botany in general – is that the flora present in al-Biruni’s location was certainly different from that of England: there are several floral groups in between. Thus, although al- Biruni may be translated to use the same name as our Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century sources, the likelihood that he was referring to the same genus and species is fairly remote, except for cultivated plants. Thus, the discrepancies between al-Biruni and the other three are quite understandable.

Dariot and Lilly were part of the same tradition, of course. Lilly relied on Dariot very heavily, and the few disagreements between them may be understood to be revisionism by Lilly. However, Dariot and Lilly were primarily classical astrologers, and thus, more influenced by the Doctrine of Affinities than Culpeper, who was primarily a pragmatist.

What evidence do we have for the idea that astrologers of a non-medical bent used physical appearance as a basis for rulership ascription? We have the texts themselves. Table Four gives statements by al-Biruni, Dariot, and Lilly about the kinds of plants which are ruled by the various planets. With few exceptions, these descriptions fit well with our concepts for the general meaning of the planets.

Table Four. Physical Descriptions of Rulerships.

        "Bitter taste"                     Ma   Lilly, page 54
        "Bitter trees"                     Ma   al-Biruni, page 244
        "Colored herbs"                    Ve   al-Biruni, page 244
        "Complex flavors"                  Me   al-Biruni, page 244
        "Fruits with rough skins"          Ma   al-Biruni, page 244
        "Prickly trees"                    Ma   Dariot, page 21
        "Pungent trees"                    Ma   al-Biruni, page 244
        "Pungent/evil-smelling trees"      Me   al-Biruni, page 244
        "Savoury Herbs"                    Ve   al-Biruni, page 244
        "Shade trees"                      Mo   Lilly, page 82
        "Smooth-leaved plants"             Ve   Lilly, page 75
        "Sweet-smelling flowers"           Ve   al-Biruni, page 244
        "Thick, juicy leaves"              Mo   Dariot, page 27
        "Used for divination"              Me   Dariot, page 26

I have already demonstrated in Essential Dignities that there was little relationship between the physical appearance of the plant and the natural rulership given in Culpeper’s work. The lists by Dariot and Lilly show much greater adherence to the Doctrine of Affinities.

We are thus confronted with an interesting paradox: we can accept Culpeper’s rulerships – and consider medicinal uses primary – or we can accept Dariot/Lilly’s lists – and consider physical appearance as primary. Or we can throw the whole thing out, of course! Since this began as a case study of rulerships, with plants as the example, we may note that the medical option may be something intrinsic to plants, and not a general consideration. Thus, we may take the easy route out, and state that medical rulerships may be the special case here, with the Doctrine of Affinities the general case. Thus, we may accept Culpeper’s rulerships when dealing with a medical situation, and the Dariot/Lilly rulerships when dealing with a general one.

This still leaves one question unanswered: what to do with the trans-Saturnian planets. To be sure, one part of the answer has already been provided: assign natural rulerships based on the Doctrine of Affinities. This, however, leaves two problems. The first is that the understanding of these three planets has become so intertwined with the Planet=Sign=House equation that many astrologers are unable to give coherent definitions of these three bodies apart from their alleged equations. (One seldom sees serious discussion about how the suddenness associated with Uranus is supposed to correlate with the fixed nature of Aquarius, or the revolutionary aspect of Pluto is supposed to fit in with equally fixed Scorpio.) The second problem is really a question: should natural rulerships already assigned to the Chaldean Planets be reassigned to Uranus, Neptune and Pluto?

One theory that has been put forth concerning the trans-Saturnian Planets is that they represent higher octaves of inner planets: Uranus is the higher octave of Mercury, Neptune of Venus, and Pluto of Mars. If this is so, then we should see a shift of natural rulerships from the three Inner Planets to the three Outer Planets when natural rulerships have been reassigned. I already dealt with this issue; Table Five is from my discussion in Essential Dignities, in which I compared rulerships assigned by Rex Bills to those given by al-Biruni. The Table shows only those cases where natural rulerships were given by Bills to the Outer Planets that had been given in al-Biruni; thus, if the “higher octave” theory is true, then there should be a preponderance of Mercury shifts in the case of Uranus, Venus shifts to Neptune, and Mars shifts to Pluto. We do not observe this. What we do observe in the case of Neptune and Pluto is a noticeable shift from Saturn; thus, the old Great Malefic is being seen to share duties with two New Malefics.

Table Five. Attributions in al-Biruni (for the Lights and Mercury through Saturn) which are ruled by Uranus, Neptune, or Pluto in Bills.

        Planet         Uranus         Neptune        Pluto
        Sun              4              1              1 
        Moon             0              5              1
        Mercury          1              2              1
        Venus            1              4              4
        Mars             4              0              5
        Jupiter          2              0              2
        Saturn           2              7              6

This Table raises perhaps more questions in addition to providing evidence against the higher octave hypothesis. On the one hand, the shift in words from the Moon and Venus to Neptune is intuitively gratifying. On the other, in modern rulership tables, Neptune has replaced Jupiter as the ruler of Pisces: if there were in fact some evidence that the classical astrologers in any way supported the Planet=Sign=House hypothesis, we would expect a switch in words from Jupiter to Neptune. There is none. In the same vein, there is a much lower switch from Saturn to Uranus than either Saturn to Neptune or Saturn to Pluto; the only place where somewhat of a case may be made is with Pluto, though the amount of interchange from Saturn and Venus is equally interesting. Clearly, the patterns here do not support the Planet=Sign=House hypothesis either.

While a tantalizingly handy reference, one of the problems with working with Bills as a source is that we know that comparatively few of the rulership assignments originated with Bills, but Bills gave no sources for any specific attribution. This, alas, is the pattern with other modern references such as Munkasey’s recent volumes: without knowing the source, the rulerships are difficult to evaluate. We have already seen with the split between medical and affinity usage in the plant rulerships example that source is important for understanding the rulerships: it may be crucial, in fact, to selecting the right rulership for the situation of the moment.

We can only stress the importance of understanding the rationale behind any author’s rulership assignations, so that the astrologer is not led to an incorrect delineation. It is also crucial that we understand the origin of natural rulerships, and not become slaves to any listing which may be at hand.


al-Biruni, Abu’l-Rayhan Muhammed ibn Ahmad. 1029. The Book of Instruction in the Elements of Astrology, translated by R. Ramsay Wright, Luzac & Co.: London, 1934.

Coopland, G. W. 1952. Nicole Oresme and the Astrologers. Liverpool University Press: Liverpool.

Culpeper, Nicolas. 1655. Astroloigical Judgment of Diseases from the Decumbiture of the Sick. Reprinted 1959 by the American Federation of Astrologers: Tempe, AZ.

Lehman, J. Lee. 1989. Essential Dignities. Whitford Press: West Chester, PA.

Lilly, William. 1647. Christian Astrology. Reprinted in 1985 by Regulus: London.

Munkasey, Michael. 1991. Unleashing the Power of Midpoints. ACS Publications: San Diego.

Munkasey, Michael. 1991. The Concept Dictionary. ACS Publications: San Diego.

Partridge, John. 1679. Mikropanastron, or an Astrological Vade Mecum, briefly Teaching the whole Art of Astrology – viz., Questions, Nativities, with all its parts, and the whole Doctrine of Elections never so comprised nor compiled before, &c. William Bromwich: London.

Potterson, David, ed. 1983. Culpeper’s Color Herbal. Sterling Publishing Co.: New York.