On the origins of circular astrological figures
– December 27th-28th, 2009

– (Originally posted in response to an enquiry by a Cornelia on Skyscript, and added to following additional comments by others:)

Simmonite uses square charts in his ‘The Celestial Philosopher’ and ‘The Astro-Philosopher and Meteorologist’ (both published in the mid-to-late 1840s)

Oxley uses round charts in his ‘The Gem of the Astral Sciences’ (1848) – for example ‘Napoleon Natus’ (p. 36). Blavatsky was only 17 years old when this was published. In fact he also uses round charts in his ‘The Celestial Planispheres’ (1830) which predates the work of Simmonite above and predates Blavatsky’s birth, comprehensively disproving the theory that theosophical influence might be behind the change.

Zadkiel (Commander Richard Morrison) uses a round chart in his ‘The Hand-Book of Astrology Volume 2’ (1863), which was still 12 years before the establishment of the Theosophical Society in 1875 (source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theosophy).

Pearce uses round charts in his ‘The Text-Book of Astrology Volume One’ (1879) and ‘The Science of the Stars’ (1881).

Parkes (writing as Ebn Shemaya) uses square charts in his ‘The Star’ (1839).

On this basis it would appear that the major permanent shift among astrological book authors to round charts happened in the mid-late 1840s, with Simmonite penning the last major works using square charts and everyone since Oxley in 1848 using round, although Oxley had consistently pushed in this direction since at least 1830, at first meeting resistance before Zadkiel and all other major astrological authors were converted by the early 1860s.

PS: My hunch that Oxley was behind the intellectual movement towards round figures is given very strong support by his own words. I quote from ‘The Celestial Planispheres’ pp. 38-9 (original 1830 printing in hand):

“There is also another very great impediment to the perfect attainment of this science, which is the absurd figure, or diagram almost always used, and very improperly called a figure of the heavens; which figure consists of a square and a number of half squares, or triangles cornered and dovetailed into one another like a mosaic pavement. In the name of reason I would ask in what respect can such a tesselated pavement be compared to a figure of the heavens! The orbits of the planets are nearly circular, the planets themselves are globular, and the lines distinguished by the names of ecliptic and equator, etc., are perfect circles. How excessively absurd then must it be, to represent the figure of the heavens under the similitude of a broken pavement, or of a square of board made up of a number of other squares, cut through their diagonals and clumsily glued together again. Surely it could never have been a man of science who invented so absurd a figure, but some sordid miser, with the view of saving half an inch of paper. I have indeed heard some careful persons say, when I have spoken to them of its absurdity, that they thought it took less paper for a square figure of the heavens, than for a round one; but let us ask why the saving of a bit of paper should be regarded, when it serves no other purpose than to perplex and mislead the understanding; for with the square figure before the eyes of the student, it is impossible to explain, in an intelligible manner, the positions of the heavens, and the revolutions of the planets; but by using a circular figure, divided into twelve parts by lines tending towards a centre like the radii or spokes of a wheel, whereon to mark the degrees which occupy the cusps of the celestial houses, and the circle in the middle to represent the globe of the earth, the difficulty immediately vanishes, and we may then explain in a more easy and familiar manner, the mundane and zodiacal motions, both direct and converse, as I shall now endeavor to do in the following chapter.”


– (In response to an enquiry by Johannes Susato regarding Ebeneezer Sibly’s use of astrological figures:)

Firstly, Sibly’s work was published originally in four parts from 1784 to 1788, and I am not aware of any evidence for 1776 (but please someone correct me if I am wrong).

I have an original printing of a mixed edition spanning 1784-1790 here in my hand. On p. 156 of Part I, Sibly introduces ‘FIGURE of the HOROSCOPE, or TWELVE HOUSES of HEAVEN’. This is the standard square chart that Oxley would later deride as a ‘broken pavement’. Sibly’s exposition of the figure spanning pp. 155-6 does not in any way call it into question as the de facto standard.

In Part II, we find Sibly consistently uses square charts in his actual text: eg on pp. 337, 340, 342, 344, 346, 348, 349, 351, 353, 355, 356, 359, 362, 365, 367, 369, 371, 624, 696, 781, 801, 807, 813, 817, 821, 834, 837, 839, 841, and 911.

It is only when plates appear apart from the text with portraits of their subjects in the centre that the oval format is used. My impression is that this is above all an application of artistic licence, since portraits look better in non-square frames, and consequent adaptation of the usual format for the drawing of each figure. We find this first in the plate opposite p. 391.

But see also the plate opposite P. 619. Again, artistic licence has been used, but this time a curved-line variant on the square chart format appears for the nativity of Mr. George Wichell, Astronomer. This is pure art. The same chart recurs within the text on p. 624 in its traditional square format with no central portrait.

Further in the plate opposite p. 792 we find a variation on the oval-format chart; this time, a nested set of circles, with central portrait within eight parallel circles allowing for the printing of several lines of text between them, and artistic adornments to the outer ring. Another application of artistic licence, for the sake of variety in the visual appearance of the plates in the book, it would seem to me.

Next in the plate opposite p. 844 we find yet another artistic variation, a partly curved-line, partly straight-line variant on the traditional square chart, this time with no central portrait.

Now we come to the oval charts reprinted at Skyscript. All are on one of six plates. On the original pages, they appear five per plate, with one in the centre and four around the outside. So we get thirty portraits spread over six plates (in my copy). The effect is pleasant visually, five oval-framed portraits neatly nested together, and also saves space compared with four square diagrams. Again, artistic licence.

Next, the plate opposite p. 891 is an artistically embroidered traditional square chart with central portrait. Another variation to make the artwork in the book attractively varied.

A further example of the nested circles style appears opposite p. 892 (for the Nativity of Jesus Christ), while opposite p. 910 we find two entirely traditional square charts side by side representing the times of the Apprehension and Crucifixion (respectively) of Christ.

In Part III of the book, as before, within the text the only figures to appear are in square format. See for example p. 1036. Part IV is not chiefly concerned with matter conducive to the drawing of astrological figures.

The evidence from Sibly’s work is that he used square charts throughout in his working text, without exception, but an artist or artists working on the production of plates for the book deployed a variety of alternative artistic devices to frame portraits of subjects under study. Whether Sibly himself was directly responsible for any of this artwork I would not pretend to know, but it was in any case just that.


Further to my original response to this topic,

It appears increasingly to me that Zadkiel was in fact a convert to Oxley’s cause much earlier than I previously presumed, since in the first edition of his ‘Grammar of Astrology’ (1833) both Figure 2, the schematic of the twelve houses on p. 152 and Figure 3, the nativity of Lord Byron’s Daughter on p. 153 adopt the modern circular chart format.

Oxley in his plea for this movement in his 1830 publication as quoted above appears to mention that he frequently tried to persuade others of the preferability of the circular format. It would appear to me reasonable to conjecture that Zadkiel was among these. The alternative hypothesis, that Zadkiel and Oxley independently of each other campaigned to reform the process for the drawing of nativities and abolish the use of square charts altogether in perhaps the late 1820s or at least the very early 1830s, would require, I believe, some firmer evidence in its support. So far I can find direct evidence only for Oxley launching this campaign.

It also strikes me as somewhat plausible that if had not been for Zadkiel’s consistent adoption of Oxley’s cause célèbre in his writings from the 1830s to the 1860s, Oxley’s cause might not have carried the day in the long run, since Oxley’s work was technical and only likely to be of interest to serious astrologers, whereas Zadkiel’s was marketed at a broader public, and his works were printed in large numbers and were therefore sure to influence a whole generation of later 19th century students of astrology.

PS: As if to firmly underline that history is rarely simple, I find that in the first edition of the first volume (1877) of Raphael VI (Robert Thomas Cross)’s two-volume Guide to Astrology (1877-9), he uses the traditional square schematic and figures throughout, albeit slightly squashed to fit the more oblong format of the pages. It seems slightly ironic that a mass-populariser in the form of the prolific later Raphael might have been the last example writing from British shores of the square-chart old guard, while simultaneously his technically high-brow rival Alfred Pearce (who had eventually taken over the title of Zadkiel from Morrison; the Zadkiel / Raphael rivalries of the 19th century are well-documented) was representing the modern circular figure format. But if as seems to be the case it was a high-brow astrologer in the form of Thomas Oxley who advocated this change, who in the last quarter of the century could be more fitting than Pearce to carry the baton of Oxley’s revolution into the future? The mere fact that Pearce was, like Morrison before him, a Zadkiel, should not in my view be sufficient to explain his preference for circular charts, since he penned his major works under his own real name, and reserved the Zadkiel moniker for Zadkiel’s almanac etc.. I think on the contrary Pearce’s reasoning was ideological in a similar vein to that of Oxley. Both were very fond of primary directions, and Oxley had argued the case for circular figures chiefly with a view to their preferability in the demonstration of primary directions.

The overall historical picture emerging from all this is that Oxley’s proposed reforms, launched in his 1830 publication ‘The Celestial Planispheres’ on strongly argued ideological grounds, were consistently adopted by one of the leading astrologers of the mid-19th century in the form of the first Zadkiel (Morrison), and in turn by Morrison’s successor as Zadkiel (Pearce), but were resisted by some other astrologers for at least 50 years following this publication.


While his two main astrological books, first published in 1833 and 1861-3 (two vols.) respectively, use only circular figures, I must note that the original Zadkiel (Morrison)’s annual almanac presents a mixed picture. I have only a very partial run of this publication, but it would appear reasonable to conclude that the limited space per page allowed in the almanac format was the decisive factor causing him sometimes still to use the square chart format when demonstrating figures in his almanac. I have 1841-5 inclusive, 1851-61 inclusive, and 1870-80 inclusive, aside from odd later years. Given that Morrison died in April 1874, only the dates until this are relevant to his tenure of the post of Zadkiel. I find:

  • 1841: square figure p. 35;
  • 1842: square figure p. 37;
  • 1843: square figure p. 39;
  • 1844: square figures pp. 35 + 37;
  • 1845: square figures pp. 33, 34, 37;
  • 1851-2: no figure at all;
  • 1853: square figure p. 46;
  • 1854: round figure p. 63;
  • 1855: square figure p. 55; two square figures p. 72;
  • 1856: square figure p. 44; two square figures p. 67;
  • 1857: square figure p. 44; round figure p. 66;
  • 1858: square figure p. 42;
  • 1859-60: no figure at all except one theoretical round figure (not showing house cusps at all);
  • 1861: round figure p. 42
  • 1870-1: no figure at all;
  • 1872: facsimile of square figure from 1853 issue p. 42
  • 1873: round figure p. 66;
  • 1874: round figure p. 66;
  • 1875: no figure at all;
  • 1876: square figure reproduced from “The Scotsman” May 22nd, 1872;
  • 1877-80: no figures at all

Thus it is apparent that, while the last authentic, original (non-reproduced) square figure I could find appeared in 1858 (lacking though I do the years 1862-69 inclusive), and round figures were increasingly the norm in the latter years of Morrison’s life, Pearce was not in the habit of including astrological figures in the almanac at all in the earliest years of his tenure of the post of Zadkiel. In any case, the abiding impression I have is that space was at a premium in the production of this almanac, with its large print-runs and popular low price, and compromises were made to save space where figures were included at all, which was not the case every year by any means.

Furthermore, it is not entirely clear whether Zadkiel was singly responsible for the production of his almanac or employed an office assistant from time to time, who might have found the square figures, with their straight lines, easier to draw. Some of the circular figures are notably marked ‘Zadkiel Tao Sze’ in their centres, as though as a seal of his own hand, unlike any of the square ones. But I think that the limited space argument holds up more strongly than this latter hypothesis on analysis. Morrison, more so perhaps than Oxley and Pearce, would seem to have been a pragmatist, especially when it came to making his astrological publications work profitably as a business.

PS: To test these theories further I have just investigated Zadkiel’s larger physical format weekly magazine ‘The Horoscope’ that ran in 1834 for 19 issues only: the year following the publication of the first edition of his ‘Grammar of Astrology’ in other words.

Here we find round figures on pp. 25, 45, 57, 73, 89, 113, 129 and 145. There is no square figure in the entire run of the journal.

Lastly, Zadkiel’s later monthly magazine, also called ‘The Horoscope’, that had a similar physical format to its earlier weekly predecessor, and ran in six monthly issues in 1841:

Here we find round figures on pp. 4 (the schematic of the houses) and 24; but square figures on pp. 6, 7, 14, 44, 62, 84, 85, 87, 163, 165, 167, 168, 203, 216, and 222 (mundane astrology house schematic).

What was going on here, you might well wonder? Why would Zadkiel have backslid from using round figures in the early-mid 1830s to using square ones in the early 1840s? Could Oxley’s influence, strong in the aftermath of the initial publication of ‘The Celestial Planispheres’ in 1830, have waned in the intervening years? Or could the pragmatic cost-cutting Morrison have been re-awakened by the 1840s following years of hard experience publishing his almanac? Note that the only figures to appear in Zadkiel’s almanac in the early-mid 1840s are also square.

That Morrison should have slipped back into a more old-fashioned style of chart drawing in the 1840s, only to return definitively to the modern circular format later in his life, might seem an historical oddity indeed. Sometimes new movements suffer a popular backlash before they definitively take hold. Morrison might have been a circularist at heart, but have bowed to peer pressure during the mid-part of his career. There would seem to be a wide field of possibilities to account for this.


The earliest original astrological publication from the USA in my possession is Luke Broughton’s journal “Broughton’s Monthly Planet Reader and Astrological Journal”, publication of which commenced in Philadelphia in April 1860.

In the very second issue, published May 1860, p. 14, a modern circular schematic of the twelve houses appears. In the August 1860 issue, p. 37, appears a fully-filled figure for a particular time, in the same modern circular format.

Perhaps it should come as no surprise to learn that Broughton was in contact with none other than the first Zadkiel, Commander Morrison, whose letter to him published in the July 1860 issue reads thus (p. 26):

“London, England, 31st May, 1860.

“DEAR SIR:- Your Monthly “Astrological Journal,” for April and May, have reached me safely; and I beg to thank you for the same. I am well pleased to see such a work. I consider it a credit to the science and public spirit of America. It has given me pleasure to perceive that the infamous attempt to pass a law to suppress the science of Astrology has failed. If it had for a moment succeeded, your country would have been disgraced. What! put down by law the practice of a science which the famous Zerdusht, or Zoroaster revealed! The science that Plato upheld, that Claudius Ptolemy handed down to us, that Malancthon honored – that Bacon supported!

“But these names are doubtless unknown to Mr. Moore at Harrisburg. Poor man! the stars may shine in vain for him. His intellect is, what shall I say? impenetrable.

“I hope soon to be able to send you a brief paper for your Journal, but am at present fully occupied in preparing my Almanac for 1861. The chief astrological feature in that year will be the GREAT CONJUNCTION of SATURN and JUPITER. It will take place exactly at 2 h. 8 m. 17 s., P. M., 21st October, 1861, by Greenwich mean time, and falls in Virgo 18º 22′ 52”. It will act wonderfully in favour of Louis Napoleon, who will gain still greater fame than ever, under its influence.

“In this country, some of our great men of science are at length beginning to think that the Planets may have some influence on the weather, etc. But they fear the parson; who one and all fear that such a notion will “let in astrology.” Well, they may; for the public at length will insist on having the truth, and on being no longer humbugged about the matter.

“Your Weather Guide for May has been very correct for this country. The end of this month has brought fearful storms, with thunder, etc. (Mercury sextile Jupiter trine Mars – Sun conjunct Uranus & par. to Jupiter;) and over one hundred wrecks have taken place on the 29th May, and perhaps 1000 lives lost, also 80 lives lost on the coast of Holland in one vessel. Surely the ignorance of our savans, and yours also, on these matters, is not to be tolerated for ever, seeing that they demand such sacrifice of life and property!

“Your well wisher, ZADKIEL.”

Broughton responds:

“We have no comments to make on the above letter, but no pains on our part will be spared to make our periodical a credit to the science and public spirit of America. Zadkiel is one of the most liberal Astrological authors that we have ever come across, and should he favor us with a few of his “brief papers”, we have no doubt but our readers will be very much interested with them, as he is an astrological writer of no common abilities. And we consider Zadkiel’s Almanac second to none, published at its price, which is six pence, English money.

“As a specimen of Zadkiel’s style of writing, we will here insert a “brief paper” on destiny, as we find it in his Almanac for 1860.”

Clearly Broughton and Morrison were at the very least familiar with and subscribers to each other’s work, and Morrison’s pragmatism was limited to his need to save space in his almanacs, since his idealism and hopes for the future recognition of astrology and astro-meteorology on both sides of the Atlantic ring out loudly and clearly in the above letter he wrote to Broughton early in 1860.

It would not seem too much of a stretch of the imagination to me to presume that it was Zadkiel’s pre-existing work in popularising the circular chart that directly paved the way for Broughton’s adoption of the same and transmission of it to the United States of America. As the leading American astrologer of the latter half of the 19th century, Broughton’s influence on early astrological practices in the United States would in turn have been vast.

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