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The Sabian Symbols Story

'The Mermaid' by Howard Pyle
“The Mermaid” by Howard Pyle, painted in 1910. A wonderful visualization of Aries 1: A Woman Has Risen Out of the Ocean, a Seal is Embracing Her

What are the Sabian Symbols?

The ancients divided up the sky, just like any other circle, into 360 degrees. They assigned each of the 12 constellations (star signs or zodiac signs) 30 degrees each: 12 times 30 = 360. The Sabian Symbols are a set of 360 phrases of words that correspond with each of the 360 degrees of the wheel of the zodiac, from Aries 1 to Pisces 30. Consisting from as little as 2 words (Virgo 2: ‘A Harem’) to as many as 21 words (Taurus 5: ‘A Youthful Widow, Fresh and Soul-Cleansed From Grief, Kneels at an Open Grave to Receive the Secret of Eternal Life), each one of these Symbols holds both a story and a unique energy field of their own. These images hold meaning for those degrees of the signs. Although the Symbols have their foundations in astrology, absolutely no knowledge of astrology is needed to use them.

The Sabian Symbols were given birth in San Diego, California, in 1925 by Marc Edmund Jones, a noted American astrologer and spiritualist and the gifted clairvoyant Elsie Wheeler. Jones was interested to find a set of word images to go with every degree of the zodiac. Elsie Wheeler was an extraordinary clairvoyant confined to a wheelchair for most of her life. Jones chose Elsie Wheeler as his partner in this “experiment” (as Jones called it) as she had a remarkable ability to “see” messages, images and symbols. She used this talent to help her clients, but was rather weary of the standard questions she received, such as “when will I be rich?” and “when will I meet the love of my life?” She was eager to take part as she believed that this was an opportunity to really contribute something to astrology.

Balboa Park

How Elsie Wheeler and Marc Edmund Jones brought through the Symbols

One day in San Diego in 1925 (unfortunately the date was not recorded), not far from the harbor, astrologer Marc Edmund Jones assisted spiritualist-medium Elsie Wheeler into his car. Elsie was afflicted with severe arthritis, making any movement very difficult and most likely painful. Marc’s car made its way from the house on India Avenue where Elsie lived up the sloping hills to Balboa Park. Exactly where in the park they worked is not known. Marc Edmund Jones wrote that they found a place where they could be surrounded by the vibrations of modern American life but would not be disturbed by passers-by. Also, as Elsie was unable to walk, they could not be moved from the car.

Marc Edmund Jones wrote in his book The Sabian Symbols in Astrology (first published in 1953), “Miss Elsie Wheeler was very anxious to start… it was necessary to provide uninterrupted hours, with a problem of inevitable fatigue to be taken into account. She had to be carried, no others could be present and conditions in general had to enable her to function in her accustomed manner. Balboa Park in San Diego offered a spot where a driveway was a matter of a very few yards from one of the city’s busiest traffic intersections, fortuitously meeting the necessity that work of this sort be done in the turmoil of some metropolitan center or other unusually dense aggregation of people active in the business of being. There was a screen of trees and bushes, and during the day no one would show any interest in a car parked here for a few hours.”

Marc had a set of 360 3″ x 5″ cardboard cards that he had prepared. These were blank except for a small notation of the sign and number on one side (i.e. Aries 1, Aries 2 up to Pisces 30). Marc would shuffle the cards and place one in front of Elsie, neither of them knowing the sign or number on the card. Marc wrote about this: “One card was put face down before the medium, and she reported on the picture she saw by inward vision. This was noted hurriedly in pencil on the card itself.” During the whole process, Marc kept shuffling the cards. Hence, the Sabian Oracle clairvoyantly came through Elsie’s psychically attuned mind completely at random (i.e. not in zodiac order Aries 1, Aries 2, Aries 3 etc.) They did ninety Symbols, took a break, did another ninety, had lunch and a short drive, then did another ninety and finished the last ninety at the end of the day.

That the entire set of Sabian Symbols was visualized and recorded in one day is a truly extraordinary feat! If the process of visualizing and recording the Symbols took four hours in the morning and four hours in the afternoon, on average 45 Symbols would have to have been visualized per hour, or one every minute and a half. Elsie Wheeler was obviously tapping into another level of consciousness.

What they’d achieved on that day became clearer and clearer to Marc Edmund Jones over the following years. He had called the exercise an ‘experiment’, but exactly what they had discovered is still emerging today through the minds of those who use the Symbols.

The magic behind the ‘experiment’

Marc Edmund Jones believed that Elsie Wheeler had tapped into what he called the ‘ancient mind matrix’ of the Sabian alchemists of ancient Mesopotamia. Jones wrote that:

“…psychism seems to deal with (a) sort of group identity, or with an intelligence which is immortal in the fact that it can be revivified and consulted at will.”

Marc said that there was a presence and cooperation “on the invisible side of life” of one of the Brothers of the ancient Sabian occult sect. At the end of the day, when the entire Oracle had been completed, Marc sensed something was wrong with one of the Symbols, and asked Elsie to do that particular one again. He felt this so strongly that it occurred to him that he was being guided by something, so he asked Elsie if ‘the Brother’ was there. Upon hearing that he was, Marc asked her what he was doing, to which she responded that he was “standing with his arms folded.” Marc then said “Ask him why he didn’t correct that.” Elsie responded, “He says that is up to you.” It appears that on all levels, a higher kind of ‘consciousness’ or ‘intelligence’ was operating.

Sanliurfa, Turkey

Why the name ‘Sabian’?

The Sabian Symbol story is embedded in the ancient cultures of the Middle East. Marc Edmund Jones felt that there was an “unseen agency” – an external, esoteric mind-set at work in the birthing of the Sabian Symbols. Connection was made through a ‘Brother’, a member of the ancient Mesopotamian brotherhood, the Sabian Brotherhood. He believed that they were the ‘voices’ that were spiritually behind Elsie Wheeler, delivering the messages that became the Symbols.

The Sabian people were an ancient race of alchemists, living in Harran, a city on the banks of the Euphrates River in Mesopotamia, where astrology is said to have originated. Harran existed from the third millennium BC to the thirteenth century AD. It was the repository for the philosophy of the ancient Chaldeans, who were among the founders of astrology. The Sabians were alchemists who were into talismanic magic and hermeticism. Michael Baigent in his book From the Omens of Babylon describes talismanic magic as “the magic whereby a deity’s power is attracted or coerced down to be concentrated into a physical object…. It is, perhaps, analogous to a huge spiritual lens which might magnify and concentrate the powers from above.”

In early Babylonia the moon-cult was the national religion: the name Chaldeans means ‘moon-worshippers’. As the religion was gradually wiped out elsewhere, the Sabian people maintained and developed the tradition of Chaldean astrology. They built temples to planets and their rather sophisticated system of alchemy linked the 7 planets (as were known then) with metals, colors and numbers. They worked with talismans, oracles and magic. The last temple that was left standing was a moon temple, destroyed by the Tartars in AD 1032. The sect itself disappeared during Mongol invasions of the thirteenth century, when its water supply was diverted to a neighboring town.

The Visionaries behind the Oracle

Elsie Wheeler – the clairvoyant

Elsie May Wheeler was born on September 3, 1887 at 9.39 pm in Norris City, Illinois. Severely afflicted and crippled with arthritis, she spent her entire life in a wheelchair. Jones said of her “She couldn’t turn her head and could barely hold her hands” Her intuitive and visionary abilities were not impaired by her handicap. She was an extraordinary clairvoyant and said to be blessed with the ability to see images quickly and clearly.

In the 1900 Census, at the age of 13, Elsie is listed as being at the Bethesda Hospital and Home for the Incurables in St. Louis, Missouri. She was still there in the 1910 and 1920 Census. Hence, she was in the Home for the Incurables from a very young age for at least 20 years. She moved to San Diego some time in the early 1920’s, living with her uncle Frank W. Baxter on India Street, Washington and Market Street at various times. In the 1930 Census, Frank was listed as being a barber and Elsie as a spiritualist medium. She spent many of her days at the San Diego Indoor Sports Club, a place disabled people have been socializing at since the early 1900’s, and is still in operation today. She would give people advice and spread cheer amongst her fellow “shut-ins” (a term used in those days for a handicapped person).

Even though her birthday symbol is Virgo 12: A Bride With Her Veil Snatched Away, Elsie never married nor had children. It seems that she was “wedded” to a higher spiritual purpose. Her ‘veil’ seems to be firmly in place as not much has been recorded or written about her, but the legacy she leaves behind lives on through the gift that is the Sabian Oracle. The beauty and grace with which she is said to have lived her life is enhanced by the gift she gave to the world. She died at the age of 51 in San Diego on the 26th of November, 1938.

To read more about Elsie Wheeler’s life, click here:  Elsie May Wheeler: Spiritualist Medium With a Gift For the World

Photo of Marc Edmund Jones Marc Edmund Jones – the astrologer

Marc Edmund Jones was born on October 1, 1888, at 8:37 AM CST, in St. Louis, Missouri. He lived a colorful and varied life, being a Presbyterian minister, American theosophist, occult philosopher and prolific scriptwriter for the film industry. Jones was an astrologer for over sixty years and is widely accredited with having made major contributions to the field of astrology. Not only did he create the Sabian Symbols, he devised a whole different approach to the understanding and teaching of astrology, assigning to it a more spiritual basis. He died on March 5, 1980, in Stanwood, Washington at the age of 91.

Notes on Symbolism

Symbolism is a catalyst or key to accessing our inner wisdom, our connection with the universal consciousness, our spirit or soul – what some call the higher self. This aspect of ourselves does not think in words, but in images, feelings, colors and sounds from a symbolic perspective. It is the abstract part of our psyche that our logical and rational society often does not accept as valid because it doesn’t make literal sense: it requires interpretation into objective language, which is not always wholly adequate or accurate.

One of the major current effects that is occurring is a real need to reconnect with ‘the feminine’ – the right brain, intuitive functions. More than ever, we are realizing that the left brain, the logical and reasoning mind, doesn’t provide wholly adequate answers to the questions we are asking. We are finding more creative solutions that add meaning to our lives and moments of illumination than we previously thought possible. We are often surprised by images and situations that affect us far more deeply than is logically explicable. It is symbolism that creates a pathway to our deeper understandings and brings our deeper understandings into the conscious world. As Tom Chetwynd says in his book Dictionary of Symbols:

“Symbols have always been treasured as a means of releasing sources of energy from the unconscious.”

When we ask the Sabian Symbols a question, we must keep in mind the need to widen our vision. Looking at the answer through a narrow range of focus may lead to missing the many rewarding possibilities inherent in the answer we’re given. For instance, a client asked about the romantic possibilities that were available to him as he was in the process of breaking up a long term relationship. The answer he got was Leo 15: A Street Pageant Moving Along a Street Packed With People. After a minute looking at the Symbol, he realized the answer he was receiving was to get out into life, out where there are lots of people in order to increase his possibilities of meeting someone. The literal translation of the Symbol did not necessarily include that exact message for him; it was more about adapting the Symbol to his particular question. However, it is indeed possible that he may meet someone whilst at a street market, or bumping into someone on the street, as these things are inherent in that Symbol.

Looking with an increased depth of view always helps when you’re dealing with oracles.

Notes for Astrologers

Along with using them as an Oracle, the Sabian Symbols can be used in every aspect of astrology, including horary, mundane, electional and indeed for any of the zodiacal systems such as heliocentric, sidereal or draconic. A great exercise that helps one to see more into these Symbols is to look up the symbol for the Sun at sunrise and watch what happens throughout the day. You can also tune into the degree of the new or full moon for clues to what’s going on during that period.

The Symbols can be applied to any point in the zodiac. They will reveal, at times brilliantly and clearly, added layers of meaning to the degree of any of the planets, any asteroids that one might use, the angles – in fact anywhere there’s a zodiacal degree. My belief is that wherever one seeks meaning, one will find meaning.

The Sabian Oracle as a Doorway to the Higher Self

As we move out of the Piscean age and into the Aquarian age, we are transmuting in many ways, with the vibration of our spiritual and intellectual minds moving into higher gears as we evolve. In such hectic times, we hunger for meaning and guidance, but often don’t have the time or the patience to pause and reflect deeply on our situation. The Sabian Oracle opens the doorway between our inner feelings and intentions and our conscious mind. They do this by helping to put what is within us into words. Being provided with possibilities enables us to act positively and confidently, and think rationally.

Welcome to the wonderful mystical, magical Sabian Oracle!

Recommended reading:

  • The Sabian Symbols in Astrology by Marc Edmond Jones, Sabian Publishing Society, 1976.
  • An Astrological Mandala by Dane Rudhyar, Vintage Books (Random House), 1973.
  • From the Omens of Babylon: Astrology and Ancient Mesopotamia by Michael Baigent, Arkana (Penguin) 1994.
  • The Sabian Assembly website

This Introduction is an adapted excerpt from 360 Degrees of Wisdom: Charting Your Destiny With the Sabian Oracle published by Penguin (Plume) November 2005 (and the self-published special edition, The Sabian Oracle: 360 Degrees of Wisdom, with oracle cards). This book explores all the symbols with my modern interpretations that expand the work of Elsie Wheeler and Marc Edmund Jones.