Benefic and Malefic Planets in Astrology
In addition to the basic significations of each the seven visible planets, each is also assigned a somewhat intrinsic status as a natural ‘benefic’ or ‘malefic’, or a planet may attain such status functionally due to its condition and placement in a chart. The term ‘benefic’ is derived from the Greek term agathopoios which literally means “good-doer”, and the term ‘malefic’ is derived from the Greek term kakopoios which literally means “bad-doer”.
The basic idea underlying the notion of benefic and malefic assignments in Hellenistic astrology is that the benefic planets tend to do things are directly supportive or constructive in the life of the native and in events in general, or they promote things that are subjectively seen as ‘good’ or positive. Conversely, the malefics tend to promote an agenda that is not supportive or is actually destructive in the life of the native and in events in general, or more generally they tend to be conducive to things that are subjectively seen as ‘bad’ or negative.
Introducing The Two Teams
The usual classification divides the visible planets into two intrinsic teams of the benefics and the malefics. On the benefic team we have the so-called ‘lesser benefic’ Venus, and the so-called ‘greater benefic’ Jupiter. Notice that the basic natures of the two benefics are functions that are essentially seen as supportive or constructive, i.e. Venus’ basic nature is to reconcile and unify, while Jupiter’s basic nature is to confirm and stabilize. Then on the malefic team we have the so-called ‘lesser malefic’ Mars, and the so-called ‘greater malefic’ Saturn. Notice that the basic significations of the two malefics are functions that are essentially seen as unsupportive or destructive, i.e. Mars basic nature is to sever and separate, while Saturn’s basic nature is to exclude and reject. The assignments of these four planets as being either benefic or malefic are intrinsic assignments that designate the natural tendencies of these planets without any other factors being taken into account. However, these assignments of benefic and malefic status are conditional, and can be mitigated for better or worse based on other conditions such as planetary sect, zodiacal placement, house placement, and aspect configurations with other planets.
But… Isn’t it ‘all good’?
It is important to note that this notion of benefic and malefic status as assigned to the planets is often a largely subjective designation which is dependent upon the perspective of the observer and the way that events are experienced as they happen. Nonetheless, it can be very useful in characterizing the function of the planets in a given chart if applied properly. The subjective human perspective of life usually tends to see events and situations that bring things together as being positive, while events and situations that pull things apart are seen as negative. For example when two people enter into a romantic relationship with one another it is often seen as or felt as subjectively positive, both for the two people involved as well as for those observing, but when they split up it is seen as or felt as subjectively negative. The initial bringing together of the couple could be associated with the function of Venus’ ‘benefic’ principles of unifying and reconciliation, or perhaps Jupiter’s principle of stabilizing and confirming. Conversely, the later breakup of the couple could be seen metaphorically as closer to the function of Mars’ ‘malefic’ principle of severing and separation, or Saturn’s principle of rejection and exclusion. Whether or not the coming together or the breaking up was a positive or negative thing in it of itself in the broader philosophical sense or within the overall scope of each individual’s life is somewhat irrelevant because what is being examined is the immediate concrete reality of the situation insomuch as there is either a coming together or a dissolution of the relationship.
On the other hand there are instances when even the typically positive tendencies of the benefics can have negative side effects, and the negative tendencies of the malefics can have positive effects in the life of the native or on events. Jupiter’s naturally expansive nature may provide abundance in certain areas of life when it is well placed, but under certain conditions it can lead to overabundance or even excess. For example Jupiter may provide someone with an overabundance of food, which could be seen as positive in certain contexts, but under other circumstanced it may lead them to excess in matters of food and drink with perhaps the subjectively negative side effect of gaining excess weight or imbibing too much alcohol. In this instance the negative effects of Jupiter’s excess can only be countered by Saturn’s more metaphorically sobering principles which in this case would involve the exclusion of certain foods or the rejection of alcohol. Thus, benefic and malefic distinctions can be very useful and can provide many valuable insights as long as they are used wisely and attention is paid to the nuances involved in the positioning of the planets as well as the subtleties of human life in general.
Valens on Benefics and Malefics
Vettius Valens makes an interesting point in book six of the Anthology where he associates the benefics and malefics with different colors and draws an analogy between the processes of painting or mixing paint and that which occurs when different planets are mixed together in various ways in a chart. The benefics are associated with brighter, more translucent colors, while the malefics are associated with darker colors. Within this context he makes the statement that
The malefics seem to have more strength than the benefics. For indeed, when a drop of what is black and dirty has spread out into a bright essence of a color, it dims the beauty of the form; but the translucent in small quantity is too slack to cover over any staining.
He is actually making a rather perceptive statement that the bad or difficult things in life often have a way of overwhelming the good points in it, even when the bad portions are only handed out in small doses. Conversely, it is more difficult for the positive aspects of life to overcome or suppress something negative that has occurred, because the negative often has a way of being disproportionately magnified or exaggerated.
In Hellenistic astrology Mercury constantly plays a vacillating role where he can go in either direction based on his condition in the chart. Within the context of benefic and malefic status Mercury is said to tend towards being more of a benefic when he is configured with the benefics by being in close proximity to them either bodily or by aspect, or also by being in one of their domiciles. Conversely he tends towards acting more as a malefic when he is closely configured with the malefics by being in a close aspect with one of them or in one of their domiciles. This tendency for Mercury to go either way depending on which planets it is more closely associated with is something is encountered a number of times in the Hellenistic system.
The Sun and Moon are generally considered to be benefic in nature, and they are sometimes referred to as the givers or “rulers of ones all”. However, under certain circumstances both of them can sometimes act as ‘functional malefics’. For example, a planet that is within 15 degrees of a conjunction with the Sun is said to be ‘under the beams’ of the Sun, and it is considered to be debilitated since its light and significations are blocked out or overpowered by the Sun. Additionally, the waxing Moon is thought to be more ‘benefic’ or constructive in a sense, while the waning Moon is thought to be more ‘malefic’ or destructive. For example, Dorotheus of Sidon says that if you want to begin the construction of a building then you should do so while the Moon is waxing and increasing in its speed, but if you want to destroy a building then you should do so when the Moon is waning and decreasing in its speed.
It is best to lay the foundations of a building if you build it when the Moon is increasing in computation and in light and is in the middle of the zone which is the equator, ascending toward the North while Jupiter or Venus is with the Moon or aspects the Moon from a strong place.
The Role of Sect
The last point that I would like to make here is that in order to fully determine whether a planet is functioning as a benefic or malefic in a given chart you must take into account the “sect” of the chart. For information on the concept of sect please see my article titled The Astrology of Sect.
-  Vettius Valens, The Anthology, Book 6, trans. Robert Schmidt, Project Hindsight 1997, pg. 72.
-  Paulus Alexandrinus, Introductory Matters, translated by Robert Schmidt, ed. Robert Hand, Project Hindsight, 1993, pg. 10.
-  Dorotheus of Sidon, Carmen Astrologicum, Book 5, Ch. 6, 1. Translated by David Pingree, 1976, republished by Astrology Classics, 2005, pg. 267.