Lunar Mansions: Where Did They Come From And Where Did They Go?
Updated: May 1
Western astrology is traceable back about 4000 years to Mesopotamia, roughly modern day Iraq. This is preceded by many traditions and threads of star stories which extend beyond the vanishing point of human history. Deriving meaning by connecting the realm of the sky in interconnectedness with life on the ground was perhaps some of the first activity that defined us as a species. Theological, ceremonial, mythological, navigational, chronological, mnemonic, and magical context and functionalities across all levels of subtlety occupied the minds and times of humans from their first days to the artificial illumination of our dwelling places and cities. Perhaps around 2000 years prior to the systematic astrological techniques we use today we find omenological inscriptions on clay tablets, commonly dealing with the occurrences of eclipses, predicting that if X was seen in the sky then Y would happen on earth. This was thought of as the Gods speaking directly to human kind through their various signs, a kind of abstract writing codified across the firmament.
Around the 5th century BCE Mesopotamians began to divide the ecliptic into 12 segments of 30 degrees, what we know today as the Zodiac; from Greek Zōidon , diminutive of Zōion, meaning “living being” or “animal” but also elsewhere “image” or “figure”. This was the 12 Spoked Wheel of the Sky which became a Wheel Of Animals. The inhabited and embodied images of animals within the sky which were celestial places which hosted the various occurrences which were communications from the more than human world to our ancestors. Meanwhile, the Egyptians were using the rising and culminating of stars for ritual timing as well as dividing up the year, month, week and day in various ways to keep life on the ground interlaced with the cycles above. Some of these cycles were solar, some stellar and some lunar.
Groupings of stars into asterisms associated with the travel of the Moon across the heavens seems to have been a much more archaic ordering of astrological observance than the solar and planetary systems we use today. Several scholars think Mesopotamia had such lunar groupings slightly before India, but also such groupings could have been related to and even derived from Egyptian magical timing which linked lucky and unlucky lunar days of the month to favorable and unfavorable sections of the zodiac, thus connecting to lunar calendars, timekeeping techniques, and accumulative subjective observations. As the Decans were used to time ceremony in Egypt it is hard to not assume this lunar layer was also used to time ritual, but perhaps keyed to activity less important to the temple in a religious culture that centered around the importance of the Sun.
We refer to these groupings as the 28 Lunar Mansions in the West, they are a division of the ecliptic, much like the 12 signs of the popular solar Zodiac, but tracking instead exclusively the travel of the Moon rather than the planets and the Sun. The ecliptical mooncycle is average 27.3 days so we have India preferring a rounding down to 27 where as the Chinese and Arabic systems rounded up to a division of 28. This specifies the tracking of the Moon’s location across the backdrop of stars rather than her phase (new moon to full moon to new moon) or her day. A lunar synodic cycle is 29.53 days where as her travel around the zodiac itself is only 27.3 days, which is why we have lunations, new or full, in a progressive position through the zodiac signs as we move through the year. These divisions to the ecliptic over time and geography could be thought of as being either tropical,(solstitial/equinoctial) siddereal (stellar), or constellational (observable/irregular). All perspectives have their own reasoning and usefulness in practice.
We derive the word Mansion from Arabic manāzil, in reference to the “houses” or “stations” the Moon travels through as she traverses the sky. The first written mention of these Mansions as a kind of lunar zodiac comes from Al Biruni in the 10th C ce within his Book of Instruction in the Elements of the Art of Astrology. Al Biruni was a scholar of physics, mathematics, astronomy, natural sciences, medicine, historian, chronologist and linguist. Born September 4, 973 in the region now known as Uzbekistan, and northern Turkmenistan but lived mostly in modern-day central-eastern Afghanistan. In 1017, he travelled to South Asia and wrote a study of Indian culture, accompanying the ruler of the Ghaznavid dynasty as the court astrologer, completing this work by 1030. He was particularly interested in the Hindu calendar and made conversions of dates to current Greek, Arab / muslim and Persian calendars in islamic use at the time.
The earliest mentions of mansions are defined as having irregular ‘constellational’ sized boundaries and later standardized by Arabic and Western astrologers into the 12*51’ sections pf the 360* we now observe. Arabic astrology typically blends Greek, Middle Eastern and Indian astro into a synthesis with its own preferences. Al Biruni himself spoke Khwarezmian, Persian, Arabic, Sanskrit, Greek, Hebrew, Syriac and probably many other regional dialects, which displays both his and his contemporaries abilities as scholars as well as polyglots and brilliant synthesizers. Within Arabic astrological texts we find 150 Lots, aspects, planetary relationships, planetary positions relative to the sun, rulerships, notes on weather and also meteorological phenomena; although he condemned Horary astrology, or pulling up a chart for the moment a question is asked to answer the question from the chart, as a form of sorcery, an attitude against magic that has particular bearing on what the details he conveyed as the lunar mansions themselves meant and was judged morally. It is safe to assume that Al Biruni’s travels to India influenced the Mansion information within the primary text on the subject used within the West, the Picatrix.
The Picatrix was most likely composed around 1000 ce, and in arabic was called Ghayat Al Hakim or “the aim of the wise (sage)”. This was probably authored in North Africa and then transmitted into Spain, but also could have derived first from Harran in the upper Mesopotamia, or modern day Turkey. At the time, across the Arabic speaking world, the traditions of ancient paganism, astrology and magic flowed forth from Harran through North Africa where they collected in Moorish Spain, which was considered both a hub of knowledge as well as confluence of the occult arts. The Picatrix itself was sometimes attributed to the famed Sufi scholar Al-Majiriti, but even within its own pages it claims to be the compiled knowledge of over 200 other books. It gained the name Picatrix at the court of Alfonso the Wise of Castile in 1256 AD, where many other astrological and alchemical translations took place.
It is a long treaty of Indian rooted or influenced astrological concepts which is neoplatonic in philosophy and function and Islamic theologically. It initiates with an alchemical philosophical breakdown of the universe in a cosmological, hermetic framework, followed by multiple similar treatises alongside astrological operations, magical characters, the effects of plant and stone and animal materia in various rites and rituals accompanied by timings, prayers and invocations. The two sections which address the mansions are found in the beginning and the end. Book 1 Chapter 4, and Book 4 Chapter 9. The former is considered more electional, for the choosing of time and planetary conditions to carry out certain activities, most of which are the preoccupations of warlords, statesmen, merchants, miscreants and criminals. The second section is considered more talismanic, and details what materials you will need for a specific operation with each mansion, some benefic others malefic in nature, and how to go about the thing to enact a certain end, such as removing anger, separating lovers, congregating fish in one place, or destruction in general.
From here you find mentions of the Lunar Mansions in history amongst Cornelius Agrippa, Elias Ashmole, and furthermore washing through the early modern period in almanacs of farming and kitchen physic— all of which echoes what was laid out in the Picatrix. In India and China there are traditions parallel to the Lunar Mansions which have remained unbroken since deep antiquity, and remain a primary part of how astrology is interpreted in those cultures. In the West we have no primary Lunar zodiacal tradition other than the fragmentary electional or talismanic protocols derived to us in the Picatrix. These robust systems of the east, though equivalent possibly in origin do not seem to be equivalent in substance and content. The channels historically through which the magic of the Picatrix traveled and were applied seems to have bound the significations of the mansions in the Arabic / Western systems to agenda based prerogatives. An investigation of the much more philosophical Indian Nakshatras quickly reveals the stark contrasts in context varied between the systems. We might point to astrology’s acceptance and cultural integration in the East compared to astrology as well as magic’s suppression in the broader West which compressed it into occult enclaves and past around in the shadows.
But what also of Egypt? If investigation into where the mansion’s components arose from can be followed back to Egypt (at least in part), then why can it not be followed the other direction to now or some other point on the timeline? If observing the Moon against the stars is a much older modality of astrological activity in human culture which predates more complicated mathematical observations and predictory mathematical tracking, would it not be an activity we’d expect to be shared across several cultures? If astrology as we know it formed in the Hellenistic world mostly in and around Alexandria and synthesized mostly Babylonian planet tracking with Egyptian ritual stellar timings with Greek hermetic philosophy and optical theory, then why would we not see more of a flow of lunar components woven into the tapestry? Can we find threads and strands of the 28 lunar-celestial groupings or evidence for interrelated lunar traditions elsewhere in time, place, or culture outside what the Picatrix describes? Picatrix is an invaluable component of the astrological tradition but exists within the context of the medieval Arabic period which was non-animist and heavily electional focused in scope. It is the heart center of the talismanic arts, but the whole of a lunar zodiac must be broader than its summary. Does early lunar time keeping echo somehow through classical and Hellenic Mediterranean cultures in or adjacent to astrological evidence? In antiquity, where astrology was generally paradigmatic, where might the tradition begin and end?
The Sun is what we can see clearly in the light of day, and the Moon is what we can feel and sense by night. Both are equally important and valuable experiences. We can follow the mansions logically to and from Picatrix as center piece of how we define the term. Instead of ending there we can also move by feel back through what philosophical, historical, magical and astrological material we have collected over history, as well as with the Moon in the sky in which to actually live and experience in our bodies to find out for ourselves if there’s more.