What Are Sabian Symbols?

sabian symbols

This post is written by James Burgess, a writer and teacher of astrology. He has published works on Sabian Symbols and is currently working on a commentary about Dane Rudhyar’s contribution to Sabian Symbols.

Sabian Symbols are a subtle and profound method for self-discovery.

The source of the word Sabian is not completely clear. It is said to have associations with water and with those who used baptism as a sacred rite, however, there is also evidence that it comes from the very earliest times around what is now southern Turkey, when a group of people raised a temple to mark the sunrise on the equinoxes.

The use of this name in modern times is more an acknowledgment of the ancients than a transmission of an unbroken chain of knowledge.

There is one Sabian Symbol or image for each individual degree of the Zodiac. Some of the symbols are straightforward enough – ‘the Pope’, ‘a prism’, but some of them are rather bizarre – ‘a flag turning into an eagle that crows’, or ‘a bunny metamorphosed into a fairy’ – things that defy common sense.

Nor do they obviously tie up with their Zodiac sign, so at first glance, it is rather difficult to penetrate beneath the surface to get any sense of what they mean. And this is the point – we need to trust our intuition to a greater extent than for mainstream astrology.

It is only by trusting it that our intuition can develop, so we can see the study of Sabian Symbols as a way of training the more subtle aspect of intelligence and perception.

This need to balance rational and non-rational, the left brain and right brain, goes back to the origins of the system when the Symbols were first channeled by Elsie Wheeler in California in 1925.

She was a highly respected psychic medium (right brain) and collaborated with two leading astrologers, (left-brain), who came up with their own different attitudes of interpretation. They were Marc Edmund Jones and Dane Rudhyar.

Because Sabian Symbols are somewhat ambiguous, it is not an easy task to appreciate the depth and subtlety that went into the system at the beginning.

In almost a hundred years there has been relatively little interest shown in these ideas – that is until quite recently when Sabians have become a lot more popular.

It is fairly easy to find out what your own Sabian Symbols are. If you already have your horoscope drawn up then you are half-way there already.

To Find Your Sabian Symbol: 

1) Draw up your natal astrology chart using a free program like Astro.com
2) Take note of the sign and degree of your Sun (or any other planet)
4) Round up the degree, so if the Sun is at Taurus 15° 38’ this becomes 16 Taurus
5) Click here and scroll to find the corresponding Sabian Symbol

I will use my own chart to demonstrate. My Sun position is 15° 38’ Taurus. We call this the 16th degree of Taurus or Taurus 16.

I look up the Sabian Symbol for this and find ‘An old man attempting vainly to reveal the Mysteries’, and the keyword ‘pertinacity’. I needed a dictionary for that one, and found it meant ‘tenacity’.

On the surface, this image seems to be negative and undesirable – surely a teacher wants his students to understand him? Yet there is a greater prize offered that could only be found if the lesser purpose is unavailable.

When I came to understand this, I could more easily let go of any attachment to the results of my efforts and focus more diligently on persisting to find imaginative new ways to present my ideas, with no need to be validated by others.

This shows how we can use the Sabian images to re-position our approach to life. Also, having two interpretations is very helpful because we are obliged to find a way to reconcile them, and that trains the intuitive side of our thinking to stretch itself into higher levels of awareness.

One by one I followed this process until I found a similar new understanding for each of my planets and I suggest you do the same.

Begin with the Sun, then Moon, and work slowly and meditatively through the planets. You may be surprised at how literal they can be when you check your life situations with your Symbols. Have fun with them!

Please visit my Sabian Mysteries website for more, and sign up for the monthly newsletter.

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About the author

James Burgess

James is a writer living in Ireland with a background in Sufism and has been a teacher and counsellor in astrology since the 1980s. He is the originator of the 7 Words System, a universal cosmology with applications in all fields of life, and the founder of various camps in England, Germany, Baltic States and Russia, in particular the celebrated Unicorn Camps. He has published works on Sufism, Sabian Symbols and 7 Words and is currently working on a commentary about Dane Rudhyar’s contribution to Sabian Symbols.