The Origin and History of the Sabian Symbols
by Diana E. Roche
On some unrecorded date in 1925, the Sabian symbols were brought into manifestation in the span of a day in Balboa Park, San Diego, California through the combined efforts of Marc Edmund Jones and Elsie Wheeler.
The story began in 1923 when Marc met Elsie Wheeler. As Marc later described the occasion, he sponsored Elsie because he admired her spunk. Elsie had a brilliant and imaginative mind but she was seriously crippled with arthritis and confined to a wheelchair. "She couldn't turn her head and could barely hold her hands." At that time Elsie was scared of anything psychic, but within a year she had become one of Marc's students, joined a spiritualist church and was making a good living as a medium. She was by her handicap, however, very limited in general world experience, and that limitation would later determine her role in bringing through the Sabian symbols, a set of 360 separate and unique images.
The Early Influence of "Charubel"
At about the same time that Marc met Elsie, he had become interested in the symbolic astrological degrees of a Welsh seer by the name of John Thomas, better known as Charubel. Thomas had obtained his degrees psychically for the basic purpose of helping him rectify the ascendents of horoscopes. Those degrees were published in Alan Leo's Astrological Manual No. VIII in 1898 and again by Aries Press as The Degrees of the Zodiac Symbolised in 1943. At first, Marc thought of obtaining permission from Thomas to recast the descriptions of the symbols so they would have a more general application. Later he decided that they were too moralized for his purposes, or too "grooved in a single mood—no less objectionable than the older identification as good or bad. . . ." He wanted to create a more universal set of symbols.
The Mesopotamian Connection
Elsie had mentioned several times that she wanted to do something significant. As Marc told it, "She was tired with the average run of questions that she got from her clients. Highly handicapped but happy to use the psychic thing, disappointed to find the low level on which that held her." He had already obtained symbolic degrees for playing cards from an experiment with Zoe Wells, another psychic. He later commented that through his association with Wells he was "only most instinctively if at all aware of a strange genetic tie of some sort back into exceptionally early Mesopotamian or even earlier foundations of human intelligence, into which she more and more pressed me, and with a nascent scientific skepticism I did not take it all too seriously at the time and so there was much that slipped away."
Then one day he had a brainstorm and decided to start fresh with the astrological symbols to see if he could get a series of pictures that would serve his purpose. He thought of working again with Zoe Wells but, as he put it, "She had too wide a vocabulary, too wide an experience of things, so what she got with the playing cards was too generalized, not specific enough." On the other hand, "Elsie Wheeler had very limited experience and so had to have a very limited picture." That was what he wanted. Elsie eagerly agreed to work with him on the project.
Marc was certain of how the work had to be done—"in one fell swoop." He later wrote: I had to find a place where the conditions would be proper for Elsie Wheeler, through whose consciousness the laya center in each of the three hundred and sixty cases could get in a picture or situation with meaning in modern and common everyday life, for that one of the Brothers who had the age-old and particular saturation in the true Memphite (earlier Egyptian) schematism from which the zodiac was derived originally, and myself, supplying the especially refined cabalistic training needed for the critical interpretation or rationalization of the relationships at the threshold of a new or atomic age, and so I located a section of Balboa Park, in San Diego, California, where a park lane with little traffic was within feet through a fringe of trees of one of the city's busiest intersections. The whole task had to be completed without any breaking in of any other living entity or the intrusion of any sort of life situation, but here we could sit in a parked car attracting no attention, and yet we were meeting the requirement of natural law itself that this highest of spiritual tasks be framed in a milieu of the most complete possible intensity or turmoil of normal human living or business and personal affairs in the broadest possible intermeshing or superficial conflict.
Elsie had to be carried and no others could be present, so Marc picked up Elsie and, alone in his car, they drove to Balboa Park. Some time prior to that day, Marc had carefully prepared 360 white, unlined, 3" x 5" index cards for the session by writing one of the astrological degrees on each of the cards. Because he realized there could be interruptions he decided to break up the session into quarters. A quarter of the cards were taken at random for each session and the cards were shuffled continuously during the process. Each card was placed face down before Elsie and "she reported on the picture she saw by inward vision." Neither of them knew which degree was being dealt with during the time she was describing the picture. Marc hurriedly wrote down the brief description on each card as she described the image. The first session took approximately two hours. They took a brief break and another ninety symbols were recorded. "After a drive well into the country, where there was little chance for any intrusion of alien interest, but an opportunity for a pleasant and leisurely noon dinner, the sessions were resumed at the same spot in the park and the other degrees interpreted in a similar fashion."
As Marc later described it, the cards reflect, "the simple few words in which Elsie Wheeler described the picture that she saw in the fleeting seconds that she had to describe it and I had to write the notes down." In his book, The Sabian Symbols in Astrology, Marc explained his part in the project:
The author had three tasks in addition to the physical care of his student sensitive. These were (1) the shuffling which maintained the immediate synchronization with the source material, (2) making pencil notations of the psychic pictures with critical rejection and selection at each point of progress, and (3) sustaining the ancient mind-matrix which made the whole procedure possible. The third task had its expression, in terms of any human experience to be captured in words, through the presence and co-operation on the invisible side of life of that one of the Brothers (to use the term by which he would be identified in Theosophy) who has been concerned in every spiritistic phase of Sabian investigation.
After the entire session had been completed, Marc felt that one of the symbols seemed wrong and he made a correction by having Elsie do that particular one over again. In doing so, it occurred to him that he could have cooperation from the other end, and so he asked Elsie, "Is so-and-so there?" She answered that he was. He then asked, "What is he doing?" Elsie responded, "Standing with his arms folded." Marc then said, "Ask him why he didn't correct that." and Elsie responded, "He says that is up to you." When Marc reflected on this episode later, he remarked that this was correct because he was in time and space and the Brother was not.
At another time, Marc mentioned that, during the session with Elsie, "something destructive got in ... "A large disappointed audience"; An automobile wrecked by a train" ... that at the time I didn't realize were the destructive sort of things that I didn't want. And with no sense that it would be possible to reestablish the connection that I had originally, I decided to leave them but describe them as inverted or destructive or negative and interpret them in the same way."
The pictures or images that Elsie Wheeler saw evidently came from many sources. According to Marc, "Some were directly out of her own experience, or as she reached out to take them from other minds directly available to her. Some were beyond her range of comprehension and were impressed upon her consciousness, and so were received in distorted fashion or with an overlay of detail which had to be screened out." But his admiration and appreciation of her contribution was evident. He wrote in his book, "As events have shown, her total contribution was an exceptional achievement and this one of the author's volumes is dedicated to her memory, in the hope that it may in time become a monument to the beauty of her character and the immortal quality of her ideals."
Early Work on the Sabian Symbols
After the session, Marc put the cards away in a trunk, thinking that this type of work was too far afield from the kind of scientific work in which he was interested. He later commented that "when I got all through [with the project] I discovered the structure [in the Sabian symbols] and worked out all the interrelations. That was an order that I found there but was not looking for. That was gratuitous, serendipity."
Because some of his students were concerned about the fact that he had said that it would not be possible to reestablish the connection he had originally, he decided to write them up as a typescript for them to use. That version expanded the description of the images and included a little story or vignette with each image. The initial response was so encouraging that he worked out the mathematical structure that he had discovered in them and put the whole thing together as a mimeographed astrological lesson series entitled Symbolical Astrology. He later became disenchanted with this version, however, as he felt he had done precisely what he sought to avoid—moralize the symbols in terms of the "white-Anglo-Saxon culture of [his] upbringing." And he became so disenchanted with that version that he asked his students not to use it.
In preparation for a book publication of the Sabian symbols, Marc created a new version in 1948, but he felt that the original intuitive force of the initial descriptions had been lost and so he put the project aside until 1951.
The Sabian Symbols in Astrology
After going back to the original, brief, pencilled descriptions and reworking the commentary and formula for two years, he published his "official" and last version of the symbols as The Sabian Symbols in Astrology. In his foreword, he describes the book as "the fruition, for the present lifetime of its author, of a project in astrological research which has occupied him for more than three decades."
He also gives tribute in his book to Dane Rudhyar, saying he, "more than any other one person, was responsible for the initial popularization of these degree interpretations, virtually compelling the organization of the project on a scale sufficient to make publication possible." It was shortly after Marc had published the 1931 mimeographed version of the Sabian symbols that Rudhyar became interested in his work. Marc described their association as follows:
The Sabian Symbols happened to fascinate Dane Rudhyar and I gave him permission to present them in the frame of, in his way today of explaining it, his different or "special social psychology and abstract philosophy" and in his abridgment they gave a redoubled indication of their validity. His Astrology of Personality and articles in the magazines at the time were very largely responsible for bringing my contribution out in the open or to first broad public notice. He however has never been a member of the Sabian Assembly or in any real sense a student of mine, but always has been his own man very completely, and this makes the current development all the more significant. In his new book that has just by several days come to my hand from his with a warm autograph, An Astrological Mandala: The Cycle of Transformations and Its 360 Symbolic Phases, he explains this later contribution of his on the dust jacket as "A reinterpretation of the Sabian symbols, presenting them as a contemporary American I CHING." In other words from a different worker in the cosmic vineyard is a variant establishment of what we identify as the screen of prophecy and one that under the circumstances is remarkable testimony to the universal Sabian depth."
The Sabian symbols are a fascinating, powerful and useful set of images for the astrologer and nonastrologer alike. The images, themselves have been the subject of quite a number of new commentaries. Indeed, Marc himself wrote "the Sabian symbols are a fact and they may be examined or employed by anybody who wishes. They have entered the realm of common reality and become subject to the universal logic of man's mind." What should be is.
Many students of the Sabian Assembly and others are presently writing and working on various projects with the Sabian symbols. If you would like to know more about the Sabian symbols or the Sabian Assembly, please e-mail for information.
Quotations used in this article are from The Sabian Symbols in Astrology. Arden, Delaware: The Roberts Studio Press, 1953, and from the Fortnightly Field Notes and Astrology Typescripts of Dr. Marc Edmund Jones, prepared for the students of the Sabian Assembly.
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