history and philosophy of astrology

The Questionable Origins of the Exaltations in Astrology

Current academic scholarship tells us that the exaltations are one of the few techniques that were directly inherited and incorporated into the Hellenistic system from the Mesopotamian tradition of astrology, and at the present time this transmission is assumed to have occurred by the majority of historians in the field, both astrologer and academic alike.[1] The Hellenistic exaltations are thought to be the equivalent of the Mesopotamian bit nisirti, or ‘secret houses’, and this association has been common place amongst academics since the second decade of the 20th century.  Indeed, even the 4th century astrologer Firmicus Maternus says quite explicitly that the Hellenistic exaltations were derived from the earlier Mesopotamian tradition, and this statement is sometimes cited as an admission of the transmission of this concept to the Hellenistic tradition:

The Babylonians called the signs in which the planets are exalted their “houses”.  But in the doctrine we use, we maintain that all the planets are more favorable in their exaltations than in their own signs. … For this reason the Babylonians wished to call those signs in which individual planets are exalted their houses, saying that Libra is the house of Saturn, Cancer of Jupiter, Capricorn of Mars, Aries of the Sun, Taurus of the Moon, Pisces of Venus, and Virgo of Mercury.[2]

The problem with this assumption about the association between the Mesopotamian ‘secret houses’ and the Hellenistic exaltations is that in every single one of the existing Mesopotamian birth charts where the ‘secret houses’ are mentioned, and specific planets are said to be in their own ‘secret house’, the signs mentioned do not match up with the Hellenistic exaltations, or in many cases even come anywhere close to the commonly agreed upon Hellenistic positions.

The following table lists the five extant charts from the Mesopotamian tradition which mention specific planets being in their ‘secret houses’, what sign they are said to be in according to the text or computation, as well as the corresponding sign of the Hellenistic exaltation that the planet should be in if there were a direct equivalence between the two concepts.[3]

Birth Chart #


Position of Planet in Chart

Hellenistic Exaltation of Planet

6 [4]


Scorpio (?)


8 [5]




13 [6]




15 [7]


Libra (?)


18 [8]




As we can see, the positions listed for the planets in their secret places do not match up with the commonly accepted positions for the Hellenistic exaltations.  This brings into question the common assumption that the Mesopotamian ‘secret places’ are in fact equivalent to the Hellenistic ‘exaltations’, and perhaps indicates that the Mesopotamian concept was actually quite different, although to my knowledge this is the first time that this argument has been made in current academic or astrological scholarship.

Francesca Rochberg says that other later cuneiform sources actually do provide evidence for a connection between the Mesopotamian ‘secret places’ and the Hellenistic exalations, and these sources “leave no doubt as to the origins of the Greek theory.”[9] However, as Rochberg points out, these sources are particularly late, most of which are dated to sometime well within the Hellenistic period, and thus, this may raise the possibility that the transmission was actually going the other direction, from the Hellenistic tradition of astrology into the Mesopotamian tradition.

The Exaltations in Hellenistic Astrology

The term ‘exaltation’ is derived from the Greek word ‘hupsōma’ (ὕψωμα), which means to literally raise something up or to extol something, as in when something is lifted up in the air or when you extol someone’s virtues.  The astrological concept of the exaltations in the Hellenistic tradition depends on the notion of the signs acting as the domiciles or dwelling places of planets and the idea that each of the signs is owned or ruled by a specific planet that is in charge of providing resources or significations to that sign through the process of familiarization.  The sign in which a planet has its exaltation is a sign in which the significations of the domicile lord of that sign are particularly complimentary to the significations of the exalted planet.  An analogy would be if a celebrity or a foreign dignitary came to stay in your house and you spared no expense in order to see that they were comfortable and that they were given their favorite food, music, sleeping arrangements, etc.  Essentially the significations that the domicile ruler has to offer are those that are the most in accord with, and actually compliment or improve the significations of the exalted planet, and this enables the exalted planet to express many of its more positive ‘effects’ in the life of the native.

In looking at the domicile arrangements of the planets we see that each planet that has a domicile opposite to another planet has significations that are contrary or somewhat at odds with the significations of the planet that it is opposing.   For example, all of Venus’ significations involve bringing things together, while Mars’s significations involve breaking things apart.  In a similar way, the sign that is opposite to the exaltation of a planet is known as the sign of that planet’s ‘fall’, ‘depression’, or ‘dejection’, from the Greek tapeinōma (ταπείνωμα).  In these signs the significations of the domicile ruler of that sign are actually contrary to or conflicting with those of the planet that is in its ‘depression’ there, and thus the planet that is in its depression is treated poorly and is somewhat inhibited.

The analogy would be something like traveling to a foreign country where you don’t speak the language, and then being put up in a bad hotel where all of the food makes you sick.  It is basically counterproductive, and it inhibits your ability to actualize your potential significantly.  When a planet is in the sign of its fall it is given significations from the domicile lord which are not in accord with its own nature and cause it to be debilitated or depressed in its manner of expression.  The anonymous author of the Michigan Papyrus gives an interesting and somewhat unique account of the exaltations, likening the exaltations to thrones and the depressions to prisons

In these signs the stars have their own powers and are vigorous. And nature assigned them thrones and prisons; their thrones the signs upon which they are exalted and have royal power and prisons wherein they are depressed and oppose their own powers.[10]

Additional Schematization of the Exaltations

In addition to the logic surrounding the interaction between the domicile lord of the sign of a planet’s exaltation or depression there appear to be at least two other schematizations which seem to tie the exaltations into the system in a way that is strikingly coherent.

The first is mentioned by Porphyry, who points out that all of the diurnal planets have their exaltations in signs which are configured to one of their domiciles by trine, while all of the nocturnal planets have their exaltations in signs that are configured to one of their domiciles by sextile.[11]

For example, the exaltation sign of the Sun, Aries, is configured by trine to its domicile, Leo.  Similarly, the other diurnal planets have their exaltations configured to one of their domiciles by trine:  Saturn’s exaltation in Libra is configured by trine to its domicile Aquarius, and Jupiter’s exaltation in Cancer is configured by trine to its domicile in Pisces.  On the other hand, the exaltation sign of the Moon, Taurus, is configured to her domicile, Cancer, by sextile.  The other nocturnal planets follow suit, with Venus’ exaltation in Pisces being configured by sextile to her domicile in Taurus, and Mars’ exaltation in Capricorn is configured to its domicile in Scorpio.  Mercury, who is neutral with regard to sect, simply takes one of his own domiciles as his exaltation, Virgo.

An additional factor that appears to underlie the Hellenistic rationale for the exaltations has to do with the Thema Mundi.  Robert Schmidt has pointed out that when the exaltation signs of the planets are superimposed on the Thema Mundi, they all fall in signs that are configured to the ascendant, which is in Cancer in the Thema Mundi.[12] The houses which are configured to the ascendant by one of the accepted aspects (sextile, square, trine, opposition) are considered to be the ‘good houses/places’ in the Hellenistic tradition.

The Origins of the Exaltations Revisited

Based on the textual evidence present in the extant Mesopotamian birth charts, as well as the degree to which the exaltations are tightly integrated into the Hellenistic system, there seems to be an open question as to why the Mesopotamian ‘secret houses’ are currently thought to be equivalent to the Hellenistic ‘exaltations’ at this point in time.

As was pointed out earlier, this assumption persists even though the planetary placements that are identified as the ‘secret houses’ in virtually all of the Babylonian horoscopes do not match up with the standard set of Hellenistic exaltations.  According to the Babylonian horoscopes published this appears to be the case in all six of the horoscopes which mention the secret places along with certain planetary placements, which the editor of those texts even points out in her introductory remarks.  According to Rochberg, David Pingree speculated that the ‘secret house’ placements in the Babylonian horoscopes might have something to do with the dates of conception involved, due to a Mesopotamian tradition of working with conception charts rather than birth charts, combined with a later Hellenistic theory:

On the basis of procedures well developed in Greek astrology, Pingree raised the question of whether the bit nisirti references might have something to do with the position of the Moon at computed conception.[13]

However, even Pingree cautioned, according to Rochberg, that “given our meager evidence his hypothesis was largely guesswork.”[14] It is possible that Pingree may have been drawing at straws in order to find a reasonable rationale to substantiate an association that was on questionable grounds to begin with.

While there are apparently other works besides the Mesopotamian birth charts that mention the ‘secret places’, almost all of these sources appear to be relatively late in date, thus raising the possibility, at least in my mind, although Rochberg appears to imply this, that the later cuneiform evidence could just be back-feed from the early Hellenistic astrological tradition once the Greek exaltations had been established in the Hellenistic tradition.  We have to remember that there was a certain amount of overlap between the two traditions, with some of the latest cuneiform material appearing around the same time that Hellenistic astrology is thought to have begun to flourish.

This notion of some sort of back-feed going from the Hellenistic to the late Mesopotamian tradition seems like a viable hypothesis due to the degree to which the exaltations are integrated and schematized into the Hellenistic construct, for example, through the Thema Mundi and through the aspect configurations that each of the visible planets are shown to have with their Hellenistic domiciles.  It would appears that there is some sort of deliberate schematization going on here in the Hellenistic tradition which links the concept of the exaltations with the concept of the domiciles, and it involves a number of other concepts that do not appear to be present in the Mesopotamian tradition (i.e. sect, aspect configurations, houses/places, domiciles, etc.).

In it of itself, the degree to which the Hellenistic exaltations fit into this schematization almost seems to make the Mesopotamian origin of the exaltations implausible because if that were true then it means that either A) the entire Hellenistic construct, including concepts such as the Thema Mundi’, aspects, domiciles, places, and sect, were developed around the exaltations/secret houses once the exaltations were inherited from the Mesopotamians, or B) all of these concepts that are schematized around the exaltations in the Hellenistic tradition (the Thema Mundi, aspects, domiciles, places, sect, etc.) were present in the Mesopotamian tradition.

While both of these options are interesting and perhaps tantalizing possibilities, neither one seems very plausible at this point based on the available evidence.  Instead it seems far more likely that the Mesopotamian ‘secret places’ and the Hellenistic exaltations were developed separately, at least as far as what they refer to with respect to the specific positions on the ecliptic that they are thought to denote, even if conceptually there may have been some as of yet unknown relationship between the concepts which carried over from one tradition to the other.

Update: January 11, 2016

My friend Maria Mateus has pointed out to me that in the actual horoscopes themselves the bit nisirti are not specifically mentioned in connection with any planets, and therefore the fact that the relevant planets in the charts are not in their exaltations does not necessarily matter. Instead, the statement always comes at the end of the horoscope, saying that the person was born under such and such secret place. Why the secret places are being invoked here is a mystery, but it does not necessarily have to be understood as saying that the person was born with that planet in its secret place. It could very well mean something else, like that some other astrologically important point was in that sign. Therefore, this actually is not a good argument against the exaltations existing in the Mesopotamian tradition and then later being passed to the Hellenistic tradition.

There is still a lingering question about how the exaltations are tied into the concepts of sect, aspects, and the domicile assignments, as pointed out by Porphyry above, although now it seems like the possibility that these concepts could have come about earlier needs to be taken more seriously.


[1] For a small sampling of this see Francesca Rochberg, Elements of the Babylonian Contribution to Hellenistic Astrology, esp. pgs. 53-57; Rochberg, Babylonian Horoscopes, American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, PA, 1998, pgs 46-50; David Pingree, From Astral Omens to Astrology, pg. 27; James Holden, A History of Horoscopic Astrology, pg. 4; Ulla-Koch-Westenholz, Mesopotamian Astrology, pg. 52.

[2] Firmicus Maternus, Mathesis, trans. Jean Rhys Bram, Book 2, Ch. 3: 4 & 6, pg. 34.

[3] This table is based on one that appears in Francesca Rochberg’s work Babylonian Horoscopes, pgs. 47-48. The birth charts listed are derived from the same work, with citations as to which text is referred to using her numbering system, as well as page numbers for each chart mentioned as they appear in her work.  The computations for the actual planetary positions listed for the planets in the third column are based on Rochberg’s own calculations, as well as what the texts themselves say.

[4] Rochberg, Babylonian Horoscopes, pgs. 68-71.

[5] Ibid.  Pgs. 76-79.

[6] Ibid. Pgs. 89-91.

[7] Ibid. Pgs. 96-99.

[8] Ibid. Pgs. 108-110.

[9] Rochberg, Babylonian Horoscopes, pg. 48.

[10] For the Greek text of the Michigan Papyrus see Frank Egleston Robbins, A New Astrological Treatise: Michigan Papyrus No. 1, in Classical Philology, Vol. 22, No. 1. (Jan., 1927), pgs. 1-45, Fragment 3, Col. A; 22-27 (pgs. 22-23).  The translation of the text is by Robbins in Michigan Papyri, Vol III, Papyri in the University of Michigan Collection, Miscellaneous Papyri, Ed. John Garret Winter, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, MI, 1936, column 16.

[11] Porphyry, CCAG 5, part 4, Ch. 6, pg. 196-197.

[12] This argument will be outlined by Robert Schmidt in his forthcoming translation of Antiochus.

[13] Rochberg, Babylonian Horoscopes, pg. 49.

[14] Rochberg, Babylonian Horoscopes, pg. 49, fn. 56.

10 replies on “The Questionable Origins of the Exaltations in Astrology”

There is direct evidence of three of the exaltations in a Babylonian text known as the GU-text, which is currently dated to between the 5th and 7th centuries BCE. See ‘Astral Sciences in Mesopotamia’.

Right. This is the one where the Sun, Moon and Venus are depicted, right? But is this enough to conclusively prove that this is what is always meant when the bit nisriti are referred to in the Mesopotamian tradition, or do the ‘horoscopes’ force us to revise that earlier conclusion a bit?

Hi Chris, the Gu-text lists the constellations in very rough North-South columns. The text is incomplete but does explicitly mention Jupiter, Mercury and Saturn as follows:
String E – ‘Jupiter behind the Crab [Cancer] in front of the Lion [Leo]’
String K – ‘Mercury with the Furrow [eastern half of Virgo] in front of the Raven [Corvus]’
String L – ‘Saturn in front of the Scales [Libra]’
As to what the ‘bit nisirti’ refer to, that seems to be the billion dollar question. The connection between the secret houses and the exaltations seems to have been made by David Pingree in his Astronomical Commentary on Mul-Apin (page 147) where he lists the Gu-text attributions above plus Venus in Anunitum [northern fish of Pisces] as certain examples alongside the remaining unattested attributions. When you dig around for the basis of the association between the exaltations and bit nisirti the only concrete evidence he mentions is an inscription of Esarhaddon in which Venus is said to have ‘appeared in the west in the Path of Ea reached her secret place and disappeared’. These events have been dated to 679 BCE and the computation of Venus’ position reveals 27 degrees Pisces. It strikes me that the identification of the secret places and exaltations relies on this single piece of data.
All the best, Gavin

Just for the sake of completeness there is another pertinent occurrence in another one of Esarhaddon’s inscriptions. Jupiter approached the place where the sun lights up in the month of Simanu…and ‘reached its asar nisirti in the month of Pet-babi’. Pingree assumes a date of 2nd October 679 BCE for it reaching its secret place and computes a longitude of 91 degrees ‘close to delta Cancri.
These two references certainly seem to support a Mesopotamian origin for the exaltation system later known in Greece.
Quite how the proliferation of attributions found in late Babylonian horoscopes came about remains confusing. One possible factor is suggested by Ulla Koch Westenholz in her ‘Mesopotamian Astrology’ where she states that Venus has two asar nisirti – the familiar one one in Pisces and a second one in Leo! So maybe the other planets also had multiple attributions so far undiscovered.

Because the scales of Libra were once the claws of Scorpio,
perhaps “secret houses” actually refers to the secretive house of Scorpio in which these planets were. Just a thought.

Hi Chris

Quite a controversial post but I think Gavin has this right – the billion dollar question is not whether the exaltations are Mesopotamian in origin, but whether the bit nisirti are referring to the exaltations. Francesca Rochberg does not seem to think so, stating that the meaning of the term ‘but nisirti’ is “utterly obscure” and pointing out that “the position implied by the bit nisirti is never stated” (Babylonian Horoscopes p.46-7). I did once float with her the possibility of whether the bit nisirti might be referring to what Valens calls ‘the exaltation of the Sun and Moon in relation to Happiness’, which he introduces with a phrase “We have found a certain place to be mystical” (II.19), perhaps tying into the idea of a ‘secret house’? We tried to check this out but unfortunately it is quite a generic formula and the lack of specific details in the existing Babylonian horoscopes made it impossible to rule this in or out. The point is, that the possibility exists that the bit nisirti are describing something entirely different and presently poorly understood, whilst on the other hand we have good evidence (not relying only on Pingree’s opinion) that the exaltations are indeed a Mesopotamian tradition.

Another comment I would question is your suggestion that “the exaltations are one of the few techniques that were directly inherited and incorporated into the Hellenistic system from the Mesopotamian tradition of astrology”. Perhaps you meant to place more emphasis upon the word ‘directly’ than comes across in the reading of your text? In my opinion the Hellenistic reliance upon Mesopotamian techniques is presently vastly underestimated, but thankfully this is currently being corrected by authors such as Rochberg, with comments such as “Babylonian horoscopes and nativity omens may represent the end of the development of the Mesopotamian genethlialogy, but they constitute the source of the genethlialogical branch of astrology that emerged in the Hellenistic Greek world”. (BH, 16). Hellenistic astrology made important developments of course, but let’s not forget that it made those developments upon Mesopotamian foundations.

This is an interesting topic, so I hope your blog brings more attention to this intriguing and – as yet – unsolved mystery.


Remember the Lunar Nodes:
North exalted in Gemini
South exalted in Sagittarius

This completes the wheel of the zodiac,
and with the addition of the Phoenocian
letters Aleph (air), Mem (water), and
Shin (fire) being considered “exalted”
in Aquarius, Scorpio, and Leo, there is
a dual wheel, inner and outer, higher
and lower, seen in the zodiac structure.


An enjoyable essay, Chris. I wonder if you have had a chance to read the article by Joanne Conman (2009): “The Egyptian Origins of Planetary Hypsomata” in DISCUSSIONS IN EGYPTOLOGY 64, (2007-2009), pp.7-20, published by Oxbow Books, Oxford.

There is always the possibility that the late second century B.C. patres astrologorum mis-understood the perplexing notion of the Mesopotamian bit nistiri, which still eludes the understanding of modern commentators.