With the next Great Conjunction looming ever closer, I am republishing an article first published in The Tradition Magazine, back in 2008.
On The Great Conjunction
The Development of an Idea
The idea of ever-repeating cycles and the concept of the eternal return must have fascinated mankind since the dawn of history. In the following article I want to shed light on one of these cycles, namely the conjunction between the two highest planets Jupiter and Saturn. I will try to show how the idea of the interpretation of a conjunction for the prediction of events on a mundane level developed through history. The conjunctions between Jupiter and Saturn, or great conjunctions as they are called, are moving in a particular pattern across the Zodiac, forming an 800 year cycle that can be divided into sub-cycles. Let us have a closer look at this intriguing cycle which has fascinated astrologers for at least 1200 years.
Jupiter’s annual motion is about 30˚ and Saturn’s position moves about 12˚ per year. Leaving a difference of approximately 18˚ per year, Jupiter is conjunct Saturn every 20 years. After 20 years, the occurring conjunction will take place 240˚, or eight signs, further along the zodiac. Were these figures to be exact, the Jupiter-Saturn conjunctions would always take place in one of the three signs of the same element.
But this is not the case. The exact duration between two conjunctions is 19.8 years, which means that, over time, the place of conjunction moves backwards through each sign. Therefore after about 200 years one cycle of conjunctions in the signs of one particular element comes to an end and another cycle of conjunctions in signs of the following element begins. Again after about 800 years the conjunctions have taken place in the signs of all four elements and another, new, 800 year cycle begins.
Only when a Jupiter-Saturn conjunction is placed opposite the Sun does the rare phenomenon of a triple conjunction take place. Saturn overtakes Jupiter, making the first conjunction; after that both planets become retrograde and Jupiter is overtaking Saturn again. After this, the second conjunction, both planets are turning direct again and are eventually forming the third conjunction. These triple conjunctions move slowly through the signs of the four elements and after approximately 970 years a new cycle begins. This cycle has, to my knowledge, not been investigated in modern times, and could lead to exciting new insights.
About 1200 years ago astrologers discovered that Jupiter-Saturn conjunctions can be used to predict mundane events like natural catastrophes, wars or other remarkable changes in human history. The philosopher Plato was one of the early writers to mention a cyclical return of planetary patterns. He wrote in his Timaeus about the Great Year, a period of time after which the planets would return to their original positions.(1) He talked as well about the “dance of the stars” and their oppositions and conjunctions which would cause panic and fear of times to come.(2) But it was not until the 8th century that the astrologer Masha’allah specifically wrote about the great conjunction . Masha’allah was born c.740 AD in Basra. David Pingree says that:
“one strongly suspects that it [his astrology] is based on the peculiar doctrines of Harran, to which al-Kindi and Abu Ma’shar were also attracted. In fact, Masha’allah’s works are often echoed in Abu Mashar’s.” (3)
Today Harran is a ruin located in Turkey’s desert land close to the Syrian border. During the early middle ages it became home to a sect that did not have anything to do with the beliefs of Christianity or Islam. The teachings its inhabitants followed were drawn exclusively from Platonic and Hermetic traditions. Nowadays scholars believe that Harran became the refuge of the Neo-Platonist academy of Athens.
It is said that Masha’allah wrote at least twenty-eight books on astrology and in his On the Roots of Revolutions he writes about conjunctions.(4) He distinguishes between three main conjunctions: the Jupiter-Saturn conjunction which he calls the greater conjunction; the one between Mars and Saturn, called the middle conjunction; the one between Jupiter and Mars, the lesser conjunction. He states that if Jupiter is stronger than Saturn, it will signify good, but if Saturn rules, it will signify detriment. He then goes into more detail, writing that if the conjunction takes place in a fire or an air sign, dryness, sterility of the earth and severity of the cold will follow. If the conjunction takes place in an earth sign it stands for the destruction of seeds and famine. In watery signs it will indicate excessive rain and pestilence. If the conjunction is near an angle or even better near the MC it signifies the appearance of a king or prophet from the direction of that sign.
Another astrologer, al-Kindi, a native of Baghdad, was born c.801 AD and is generally known as the first Arab philosopher. He was mainly influenced by Plato and Aristotle but drew as well on Proclus, the Stoics and the Corpus Hermeticum.(5)
He was the teacher of Abu Ma’shar, who would become one of the most famous astrologers of his time. Abu Ma’shar was born in or near Balkh in Khurasan in 787. After a quarrel with al-Kindi, he realized that it would be necessary to study mathematics, that is, arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy and astrology, in order to understand philosophical arguments. From that point on he devoted his time to the study of the philosophical and historical justifications of astrology and drew upon sources like Dorotheus, Valens, Ptolemy and the books of the Harranians.(6) His work includes an astrological interpretation of history which was of Zoroastrian origin and had reached him through the works of Masha’allah, al-Tabari and al-Kindi.(7)
After Masha’allah and al-Kindi had successfully laid the foundations of this great idea, Abu Ma’shar was the first astrologer to fully develop and formulate the theory of a correlation between the great conjunctions and the occurrence of historic events. In contrast to Masha’allah, Abu Ma’shar distinguishes between three Jupiter-Saturn conjunctions, namely a great, a greater and a greatest one. A great conjunction occurs every 20 years in a sign of one elemental triplicity. These conjunctions can indicate the elevation of kings and the rise of prophets. After 240 years, when the conjunction takes place in another element for the first time, a greater conjunction occurs. This indicates reference to a sect and to its change in certain regions. After about 960 years the conjunctions have moved through all four elements and a new cycle begins. The first conjunction of the new cycle in Aries is called the greatest one. It has reference to changes in empires and kingdoms, floods and earthquakes.
We can see here that Abu Ma’shar states that the length of one great cycle would be 960 years. This is of course technically wrong, but until the middle ages astrologers used this figure as a basis for their calculations. From the 12th century onwards Abu Ma’shar’s teachings had a decisive influence on the West. His work The great introduction to the science of astrology was translated twice into Latin by John of Seville and by Hermann of Carinthia. De magnis conjunctionibus, translated by John of Seville in the 12th century, was published in 1489 in Augsburg and in 1515 in Venice. The English philosopher Roger Bacon took on Abu Ma’shar’s teachings concerning the conjunctions and published them more or less unchanged in his famous work Opus Majus in 1267 in Latin.
In the 15th and 16th centuries the teachings about the great conjunction had already become common knowledge amongst astrologers. The ‘conjunctionists’, as the people who followed this idea were commonly known, were engaged in heated debates with their opponents. The point of discussion expressed by astrologers through the concept of the great conjunction was a central one. The stars were causes and not signs and all events, even major ones like the birth of Christ, were determined by the stars.
This was of course a great problem for the followers of the humanist movement that was flourishing at the time. The humanists argued that if the astrologers’ theories were correct, any attempts by mankind to cause some change, or even have free will, would fail and were therefore unnecessary.
Apart from these very philosophical questions, there was another, more mundane problem that concerned the conjunctionists in the years before 1583. Many European astrologers believed that with the last great conjunction in a Water sign, the great cycle had come to an end and terrible things were to follow.
In 1564 in Bohemia the astrologer Cyprian Leowitz published a title called De Conjunctionis magnis insignioribus superiorum planetarum, Solis defectionibus, & Cometis, in quarta Monarchia, cum eorundem effectum historica expositione.
Tycho de Brahe, who had already made allowances for the precession of the equinoxes and adjusted the length of the great cycle to 800 years, added to Leowitz’ recognition and so his work became well known to English readers. In De Conjunctionis Leowitz stresses that great changes are to be expected as the fiery trigon is imminent. New worlds would follow; violent changes were to be expected.
Sheltco á Geveren wrote Of the ende of this world, and the second coming of Christ in 1577, quoting Leowitz’s work:
“… for this great conjunction is of all the last, which shall happen in the ende of the waterie Trigon, and watry Trigon shall perish, and be turned into fire. … but because about the end of waterie Trigon this Monarchie shall begin, it is likely, that the same also in the end of the same Trigon shall have an end, sith the sonne of God himselfe Iesus Christ our Lorde even in the ende of waterie Trigon tooke upon him the nature of man.” (8)
Another astrologer, Richard Harvey, wrote in his Astrological Discourse upon the great and notable Conjunction published in early 1583, that
“… it is the last conjunction that ever shal happen in the end of waterie Trigone, … we are most likely to have a new world, by some sodaine, violent & wonderful strange alteration …” (9)
He was giving details of what was likely to happen, namely extraordinary winds, floods, cold weather, unusual troubles, envy, hatred, contention, strife, violent oppression, poverty and hunger, persecution of ecclesiastical persons, ruin to many great men, dearth, shipwrecks and burnings. It would all be crowned by the final dissolution of the world and the second coming of the son of man. (10)
When William Lilly wrote his England’s Propheticall Merline in 1644, he dealt retrospectively with the Jupiter-Saturn conjunction of 1603, which was of course a greatest one, being located in Sagittarius, renewing the great cycle. He wrote:
“All men know that in this year1603. James the sixth, came to be King of England.: Could a more memorable thing bee in this world, then for a Scottish King to become Monarch of the English, … Was not this in effect a new Monarchy, yea, and a great one to be King of England, Scotland and Ireland?
… And had we not in 1603. a great plague in London, and during his raigne, many years of great scarcity?” (11)
In Propheticall Merline Lilly writes extensively about the conjunctions. He explains the mathematics, the terminology and the history and creates a textbook for astrologers of future generations.
On January 1st, 1981 the conjunction between Jupiter and Saturn took place in Libra. This may be seen as a greater conjunction, leading us into a 200 year cycle of great conjunctions in Air signs.
I want to end this article with a quote from Lilly’s Propheticall Merline, where he writes about the Jupiter-Saturn conjunction in the Air triplicity:
“If the first convention of Saturn and Jupiter be in Libra, Divines then living, handle matters with great profundity and learning, and their works remain famous to succeeding Ages: Divinity is now handled like Divinity, saving that sometimes they strain too high a point. Magick is earnestly sought after, which this foolish age condemns. … Under this Conjunction so beginning, great actions are done in the world. The Merchant thriving by Sea and by Land. If a Monarchy, an Heresie, or Order of Friers, or a Common-wealth begin now, it endures very long.” (12)
After a short return into an Earth sign in the year 2000, the next Jupiter-Saturn conjunction will take place in 00˚ 29’ Aquarius on the 21st of December 2020.
(1) Plato: Timaeus, 39-d. Some sources state that Plato mentioned that the length of one Great Year would be between 10,000 and 36,000 years and that, after the return of all the planets to their original position, a catastrophe would occur. Thomas Taylor denies both points. For a full discussion see: Taylor, Thomas: Proclus’ Commentary on the Timaeus of Plato, The Prometheus Trust, 1998, p.805ff, and Cornford, F. M.: Plato’s Cosmology, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1948, p.116f.
(2) Plato: Timaeus, 40-c. See as well comments in Taylor (p.855, 860) and Cornford (p.135f).
(3) Pingree, David: Masha’allah, in Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography, vol. 9, Detroit 2008, p.159-162.
(4) Dykes, Benjamin (trans.): On the Roots of Revolutions in Works of Sahl and Masha’allah, Cazimi Press, Minnesota, 2008, p.306ff.
(5) Jolivet, J. and Rashed, R.: al-Kindi in Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography, vol.15, Detroit 2008, p.261-267.
(6) Pingree, David: Abu Ma’shar in Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography, vol.1, Detroit 2008, p.33.
(7) ibid. p.34
(8) Geveren, Sheltco á: Of the ende of this world, London 1577, fol. 19.
(9) Harvey, Richard: An Astrological Discourse upon the great and notable Conjunction of the two superior Planets Saturne & Jupiter, which shall happen the 28. day of April, 1583, London 1583, p.38f
(10) ibid. p.8,16f
(11) Lilly, William: England’s Propheticall Merline, London 1644, p.24
(12) ibid. p.62f
© 2008 Peter Stockinger