Sometime back in the early 20s, astrologer and occultist Marc Edmund Jones began a project that would become one of the century’s most haunting and beautiful additions to the mystery that is astrology. Today it seems as timeless and inexhaustible source of wisdom as ever.
In philosophy and the theory of art and poetry, the mystical correspondance between truth and beauty has remained an alluring notion. Few phenomena comes closer in touching the essence of this idea than the 360 images that constitute the cycle of the Sabian symbols. In the early 1920s, philosopher and teacher of astrology Marc Edmund Jones were to initiate a project for the complete renewal and transformation of the ancient patterns of symbols for each degree of the zodiac. After some attempts, he teamed up with crippled psychic Elsie Wheeler in 1925 to conjure the symbols into manifestation. He could hardly have imagined the extent to which they would become significant for him and for the inspirational development of astrology. By the time she was contacted by Jones, Elsie Wheeler was quite a well known and established professional medium. She is described by him as a noble, great spirit; her physical impediment greatly contrasting the powers of her imaginative faculty, and this in turn outweighed by her humility. Jones believed the general idea and the original attempts at a symbolism was significant and important, but in need of a powerful and modern rebirth. He set out to contribute to it, invigorating it with his vast knowledge of astrology and occult philosophy. Most importantly though, with the ego-less receptivity of a visionary mind, intimately connected with the immense collective unconscious or some kind of higher power.
Together they sat in a southern Californian park over the course of a day and completed the whole set. It was arranged so that neither of the partakers could know in advance what zodiacal degree was about to be visualized. Marc prepared a set of cards corresponding to each and every degree, drew a random card with the blank side up and asked Elsie to describe the images that entered her mind. After having written short, concise notes of all her "sights", he returned and commenced the work of correcting grammar and arranging the symbols. The fruit of this work – most importantly the deep, insightful philosopical interpretations of the symbols and the research part of verifying and correcting data to a thousand exemplifying horoscopes with the help of a team of astrology students - is shown in his great work The Sabian symbols in astrology. A book that today remains the most comprehensive and profound treatment of the subject.
What is it then, that infuses these symbols with seemingly so much wisdom, truth and beauty? Some of the answer lies in the poetic character of the written symbols. The spareness and immediacy of the words and images lend the symbols a timeless air in spite of their particularity. Sometimes bizarre and enigmatic, sometimes very much of the everyday, they retain a sense of individual uniqueness while also conforming to a wider context of social or metaphysical significance. The very nature of the Sabian symbols encourages the discussion of how much "belief" is required for anyone to seriously ponder a subject such as astrology. The degree symbols in their poetic and figurative form are of course just as real as any literary or other symbols, and symbolically speaking just as significant and multi-dimensional. This is not enough to convince a non-believer of their prophethic value, or of their real significance for any individual horoscope through the position of planets and angles on sabian degrees. That is if it isn't combined with a serious look into the dynamics of astrology, a project that with great likelihood still would not convince someone stubborn enough to reject things at first glance.
There is however, I believe, a method that might be psychologically convincing enough to turn the heads of some who would not otherwise make the effort to understand. In Marc Jones' view of the symbols, as well as in the view of some more recent Sabian interpreters, the idea of polarity is of utter importance. That is, degrees that oppose each other on the zodiac are very closely connected, reflecting highly complementing and similar characteristics, at what might be considered different "levels". Astrologically speaking, the importance of polarity is as old a rule as it is generally agreed upon. Looking at the Sabian symbols, one must appreciate the beauty and finesse with which this conviction becomes apparent at almost every degree image. Needless to say, the correspondance is seldom blatantly obvious at a surface level, but with just a little reflection it can be overwhelming. Now, the true sceptic of the occult need not even be aware of the relation between astrology and the Sabian symbols, only somewhat perceptive and interested in symbolical language. Let the panel of sceptics ponder the opposing Sabian images, all 180 pairs, deeply. I am quite convinced they will percieve a pattern of similarity that is quite absent when comparing less interrelated degrees. Given this very informal "proof", one would have to doubt the purity of motive in Marc Jones and Elsie Wheeler to question the astrological power of the symbols. Unlikely as it seems, had the creation of the Sabian symbols been a downright fraud, I still imagine the degree symbols would have been a great deal less subtle. With some things you simply know they spring from an honest heart.
I'd like to finish off by hinting at the beauty and wisdom of the symbols through the nature of opposing degrees. In the sign of Leo, at 18 degrees, we have the image of "A teacher of chemistry". Exactly opposite of this, at 18 degrees Aquarius, the symbol is "A man unmasked". Right to the point, Marc Jones associates the former degree with the human faculty for penetrating deeply into the mysteries of the everyday world, and the latter with that similar power of analysis, in this case of the inner motivations of human nature quite obviously witnessed in psychology and the humanistic sciences. Another degree pair that is quite colorful and literal in illuminating its counterpart is "A peacock parading on an ancient lawn" at 30 degrees Taurus, and "The halloween jester" at 30 degrees Scorpio. The key to the symbols is the spontaneous and dramatic release of energy, that however superficial can elevate something beyond its actual capacity, or on the other hand momentarily free it from those very same demands. A suggestive polarity is seen between 19 degrees Aries, "The magic carpet", and its opposite in the sign of Libra, "A gang of robbers in hiding". It would seem that some kind of make-believe or escapism unites these two degrees. Marc Jones again enlightens by stressing that it might be about the expansion of the freedom of soul and spirit in the magic carpet case, while the image of the robbers rather concerns the temporary exercise of inner freedom in the form of deviation. Both degrees seem to point to the idea of real freedom as something private and unhampered by physical boundaries and concerns of "reality", and perhaps also to the feeling of harbouring some kind of secret.
The Sabian Symbols are, I suspect, much like a bucket at the edge of a deep well. They reward with the purest of water and insight those who'll use them with restraint. Since the multitude and depth of the symbols is so great, any attempt at a complete grasp or some all-embracing "holistic" understanding is bound to push the observer over the edge. Carefully employed, they reveal themselves to those who realize that any set of symbols must constantly be opposed, adjusted and at length completely transformed to avoid getting caught in pointless dogma. The beauty of the symbols is indeed there for anyone to feast upon, and so is, I dare say, their truth.