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Topocentric Houses: Loose ends and Unrapt parallels

Michael Wackford
Published on, November 2008
Note 2008: The following article was written at the request of the late Charles Harvey and published by the Astrological Journal in 1994. Little has changed in the intervening years; software producers continue to include the division as an option and whole packages are based on its spurious mathematics. This article enlarges upon assertions made in Its the oblique sphere, stupid by explaining the problems.

When Wendell Polich and Tony Page first introduced the topocentric system, almost five decades ago, great claims were made for its precise and innovative techniques, central to which was a method of house division that rendered cusps very close to those of Placidus. The method was however strongly criticised for what Robert Hand has referred to as its artificial mathematical nature and the difficulties arising therefrom. Nonetheless it is still in use so we will first examine some of those practical difficulties as they are not immediately apparent in horoscopes set for moderate latitudes. The first such to confront the present writer concerned the house locations of the planets. A planetary body can sit to just one side of a Topo cusp in the horoscope, yet cross over to the other when reckoned upon Topos frame of reference. This did not seem right at all as the reason was NOT due to that planet having latitude. The same thing would happen to an ecliptic degree as well, meaning that the house cusps themselves are affected. Thus the cusp of, say, the eleventh house could fall on 3Pis00' but 3Pis00', under topocentric analysis, won't be at the beginning of the eleventh house - rather it will fall just before, in the tenth.(1) Both of these anomalies are related to that more infamous of Topo's features, the mesh, a phenomenon explored in detail in articles by Jos Lebrn and David Bennett in 1977 editions of the A.Jwhich might be summarised as follows: Topocentric cusps are generated by great circles that start on the celestial equator at intervals of 30 degrees but don't go on to meet at a single point on the celestial sphere, as with most other house systems. Rather, they cross each other at various places, creating a network of house lines (as would happen if our lines of geographic longitude were not quite at right angles to the equator. They would head off in a direction other than due North or South, miss the poles entirely, form exactly the same kind of network in the polar regions and make a nonsense of polar ordnance). Topos mesh can appear in the nativities of those born just before the Arctic and Antarctic circles and will express itself in one or two ways, depending on the type of astrological work undertaken ... 1) The house cusps get out of order in the zodiac with, for example, the Ascendant falling in the third house.

and/or 2) Any ecliptic degree, planet or star caught up in it would find itself in perhaps three houses at once. This state of affairs is known to some technically-minded astrologers but generally ignored as it appears to effect so few horoscopes in practice. As ever, appearances are misleading for if those house lines are considered wrong at the mesh, then it follows that they must be wrong all the way back to the equator (just as our time zone boundaries would be slightly adrift in the geographical analogy, above). Mesh was also known to Polich & Page but they indicated that it was an acceptable and necessary symptom of the basis from which Topocentric houses are predicated. That theoretical basis cannot be repeated in full here but it should be noted that ... - It derives from a conical figure described in part by the rotation of the North/South axis of the horizon. - A similar conical allusion had been made some decades earlier by Chandrain Appendix II of Alan Leo's Casting the Horoscope. Calculations made on - and houses generated by - this cone of ascension (as they called it) were then transferred to the sphere that is normally used by astrologers. In 1966, the late Cyril Fagan took exception to what he perceived as the mathematical incompetence displayed by the authors in making this transformation and took them to task in the magazine Spica for the way they applied conical ratios to the sphere. His argument was that one could not mix n match conical and spherical calculations. Tony Page's response to this (carried in the same issue) was his usual one; that their calculations were being performed upon the cone and that they knew better than to apply conical rules to the sphere. Page also said that the curves that gave the intermediate cusps were not great circles. Although the mathematical objections to their spherical procedures are indisputable, they are not particularly accessible, so Mr. Fagans case will not be re-argued here. Suffice to say that he was correct and that the authors were mistaken in their belief that they were not misapplying the rules. However, Tony Pages second assertion does require comment. Anyone familiar with the author's instructions for calculating Topos intermediate cusps will be aware that they most certainly are using great circles and that it is very difficult to imagine why Tony Page so frequently stated otherwise. He had after all co-authored those instructions. To add to the confusion, the authors had originally claimed that these Topo house-lines had been established empirically and that, upon discovery, were found to be something other than great circles. This begs a different question - if they hadnt been great circles in the first place, how come they turned into great circles later (despite the oft-stated denial!)? Had the authors adhered to their original contention, regarding the shape of the house-lines, none of this would be an issue. Unfortunately they did not and it was their subsequent

misuse of great circles that gives us our practical difficulties - a mesh of houses, ambiguities of planetary house position and scrambled house cusps in Nordic charts. So if not great circles, what might they be? At this point, calculations are unavoidable, if only because Topos authors themselves demonstrated no little confusion in describing the construction of their own system. Thus the next section must, of necessity, address those familiar with the principles of various methods of house division. The shape of the intermediate house lines may be determined by recourse to the topocentric pole itself, in conjunction with the points on the equator from which these lines commence (the equator is the only frame of reference shared by both cone and sphere). The progress of any house boundary, as it leaves the equator, may be tracked by measuring its <i>meridian distance</i> (MD) as it crosses each successive parallel of declination.

To find these MDs we first take the Topo pole formula :-

MD Tan Pole = ------------ x Tan Lat (Geog) Semi-arc Tan Pole MD = -----------Tan Lat

and transpose it, giving : -

x Semi-arc

With Topo house poles,

Tan Pole ----------Tan Lat

will always cancel to

1 (or 2) ---------3

Leaving us with : -

MD =

1 (or 2) ----------3

x Semi-arc

The only variable in this transposed formula is now the declination used in the computation of the semi-arc. Substitution of successive parallels - as the calculation is repeated - will yield a succession of different MDs and it is these that define the path of the house-line, enabling its curve to be determined. The curves thus formed do indeed produce lines that are not great circles (which is in accordance with the original claims) but they are not circles previously unknown to students of primary directions, nor to students of house division. Both will confirm that any houseline described by one- or two-thirds of a semi-arc can belong only to the method of Placidus. Although somewhat tongue-in-cheek, this argument is not advanced mischievously. Using the Topo pole in this way is no more perverse than the process by which the pole itself is obtained. It merely reverses that process and, in so doing, reproduces conditions found on the cone, where semi-arcs aretrisected equally. As such, it seems reasonable that they should remain so when the transformation is made to the sphere.

Thus it is arguable that that the only reason Topo is not Placidus is that its authors - despite their protestations to the contrary - did indeed make that illegal use of great circles (which, incidentally, can never trisect all consecutive semi-arcs equally). It is at any rate clear that the transformation from cone to sphere(2) cannot be made with great circles; but if these were to be deployed, the anomalies of the present system can only be removed by closing the mesh to a single point on the sphere. This is possible, of course, but to do so - whilst retaining Topos 30 degree divisions of the equator - presents us with something else we already have: house division according to Regiomontanus. -----------------------------------------------We return to Placidus though because support for its proportions is to be found within the Topocentric system itself. In calculating what is known as an "Mdo,"(3) the formula used is MD/SA x 90; but this is the formula for finding either a placidian planetary house position or a mundane parallel (another Placidian device). If no adjustment is made for Topo - none is - then it remains a placidian house position/mundane parallel, albeit by another name. It has been said that Topo is an improved or superior version of Placidus. Indeed one avid supporter of the method - Alexander Marr - wrote that it was undoubtedly the true mathematical and astronomical form of the placidian method - which is in contrast based upon false mathematical foundations.(4) It should be apparent by now, once the difficulties and objections are properly understood, that the precise reverse of his statement is the truth. ----------------------------------------------House division aside, there remains the question of the results obtained by Topo's other techniques. One such has already been dealt with and it should be clear that the MDo survives without Topo as it does not really belong to it. One other will be addressed here and that is Topo's version of a primary direction. In his review of the topocentric system, (Astrological Journal 1977), Jos Lebrn (Polich's translator and publisher) cast doubts upon the validity of the house system but wrote: Deeper research is needed because it is not the poles that fail, but rather the theory that pretends to account for them. This - taken in conjunction with the rest of the article - means that while he was none too happy with Topo's theoretical basis or houses, its various techniques were working well for him. This writer cannot condone the way in which Topos primaries achieve their aspects but this does not preclude us from again resorting to Placidus and applying the Topo method to its houses and cusps and comparing the results. The following lists are for 25 aspects formed by Topo primaries (within an orb of 30 of arc) for one date in the natives life. Adjacent to each are the same directions recalculated according to Placidus. The orbs represent how far each aspect was from exactitude and should be carefully compared.

DIRECT Direction Asp Sun 120 Mo Sun 135 Nep Sun 120 2 Mo 120 Mar Ven 0 12 Sat 135 Ura Plu 90 Asc MC 135 Nep MC 120 2 12 45 Ura 2 0 3 3 30 Ura Orbs Topo Plac - 024.38' - 024.31' 029.74' 029.80' 003.85' 028.03' 008.36' 009.08' 001.63' 000.72' 003.21' 029.19' - 006.00' 010.00' 011.70' 011.68' - 014.19' - 046.16' 006.83' - 034.24' 010.09' 013.16' - 012.08' - 004.66' Direction Asp 90 180 60 135 150 135 30 180 0 45 150 60 120

CONVERSE Orbs Topo Plac 029.61' 029.71' - 013.92' - 003.15' 014.70' 106.77' 000.72' - 004.91' - 021.69' - 009.28' 005.31' 007.22' 018.33' 033.12' 001.22' - 015.71' 005.45' 012.44' 001.90' 001.87' - 022.10' - 022.13' 002.14' 015.71' 010.05' - 026.82'

Sun Sun Mo Mar Jup Sat Ura MC 11 12 12 Asc 2

Sat 3 3 Ura Mon Jup 3 3 Mer 150 Sat 3 Mer

Although this is but one example, the planets of the radix from which it was derived demonstrate a wide variety of both house position and ecliptic latitude (the geographic latitude was 51N). It is not the method we are considering - that must wait for another time - but the proximity of the results obtained whenever Placidian references are substituted. It is well-known that Topo and Placidus house cusps are always close together but here the same can be seen to be true of the primaries.(5) It is not proposed that we enter here into an argument about the meaningfulness of individual directions (6), nor the relative value of the orbs - not when so much is going on (Topo also allows for direct and converse progressions, solar returns and transits ... all running concurrently with the primaries!). Nor is Placidus being promoted above any other system; it is simply that in the majority of cases one may achieve results virtually identical to those obtained under Topo but with none of the ambiguities or artificial mathematics of the latter. _______________________ There are other anomalies, such as the application of Topocentric houses above latitudes 66. The authors said that theirs was the only system that gives reasonable houses at all latitudes but this was a pipe-dream. Topocentric theory places paramount importance on the physical location of the native, the <i>Topocentre</i> (= birthplace) but once over 66 that birth latitude is abandoned in favour of another that falls below 66. It is incredible that the construction of <strong>any</strong> house system, let alone this one, should be discarded the moment the Ecliptic appears to behave strangely (7) but this is what the application of Polichs <i>Polar Variant</i> amounts to (see <i>Recent Advances</i> for further discussion).(8) Perhaps it is misleading though to suggest that this abandonment is confined to the Polar Regions. Even in moderate latitudes it is not clear how this system is topo-centred. The 1st house cusp/ascendant is established in the normal way, with no adjustment for the natives location, and the intermediates are also obtained using geocentric coordinates.(9) And the one true topocentric consideration - parallax - was eschewed by the authors.

As such it is as geocentric as any other system and is therefore topocentric in name only. As for the theory itself, if some Topocentric system of house division were indeed possible, the one we have is not it. Nor is it that originally described by the authors, not least in so far as it fails to trisect semi-arcs - a major concern on their part. It is however the quickest way of reasonably approximating Placidian cusps - cusps that do reflect such a trisection and that never find themselves re-housed within their own system.


With the exception of the example horoscope, all research for this article was availed by the combined libraries of the Urania Trust. All material referred to or used may be found there (10), including: Casting the horoscope (Alan Leo et al) In Search (1960 etc.) Various A.J.s - 1963 and (for Lebrn) 1976/77 Recent Advances in Natal Astrology (Dean and Mathers) Spica (1966, various issues) Essays on Astrology (Robert Hand)

(1) Such an analysis was conducted by the late Dr. Margaret Millard, shortly after this article was first published. As a result, Margaret - a long-time adherent to Topocentric houses and a promoter of the method - promptly dropped it in favour of the semi-arc system. (2) In the writers opinion, the whole idea of this conical-to-spherical transformation process is nothing but a smokescreen. Polich had already learned of the spherical procedure put forth by Andr Boudineau (see Its the Oblique Sphere, stupid) and adapted it to house division. To Polichs credit, he also realised that a conical division of the mundane sphere was not only possible but logical and likely. His problem was in melding these two ideas together and finding the mathematics that achieved the latter. He was unable to do either (but then again, he wasnt aware of the true Placidian concept, thanks to Alan Leos misguided description). A third notion - that the axis of a horoscope could/should pass through the body of the native, rather than through the poles of the Earth - served to further obfuscate matters. Thus he recognised the conical notion of the sky over time; wanted to trisect the resulting semi-arcs; and liked the idea of a person-centred horoscope. But instead of producing a model that successfully combined all three, he skipped from one of these elements to another, merely suggesting - over and over again - a cohesion that did not exist. This writer further contends that Polichs real achievement was to identify the genuine Placidian conception at a time when his peers, almost to a man, believed it to be something it was not - a product of spherical trigonometry. A shame, then, that he

should spoil it all by deploying the same folly. The outcome might have been very different had he not already found and pirated Boudineaus trigonometric formula. (3) While MDo was the abbreviation adopted by the authors, they should surely have written MD0 (Meridian Distance at the Equator, where the geographic latitude of the (celestial) Equator is 0, not o.) (4) Marr was also most displeased by the idea that Placidean poles were extremely difficult to ascertain. This is hardly surprising. The semi-arc syatem doesnt have (intermediate) poles but, like Polich, he was unaware of the fact. (5) A Topocentric house-line strikes the Equator at exactly the same spot and at the same angle as its Placidian counterpart. These house-lines thereafter drift apart, which is why a Topo cusp found in Gemini or Cancer, for example, will not be as close to its semi-arc equivalent as cusps found in Aries or Virgo. (The latter are closer to the Equator, where both sets of house-lines coincide.) (6) Of the many objections to Topocentric primary theory, only one need detain us here. The table of primaries above is modelled on that presented by Alex Marrs Topocentric DOS routine. Its first column includes the direction 2 conj 3 (meaning that the 2nd cusp had progressed to the degree occupied by the natal 3rd). Why this is considered meaningful at all is not explained, let alone what it might signify! (7) Page, with little provocation, once asserted that as an MC can never go retrograde, neither should the Ascendant. That it most certainly does seems to have escaped his attention (see The Polar Horoscope) or perhaps it was for him merely an inconvenient truth. Polichs publisher (Lebrn) explained this latter trait very well when he wrote of his author: - and if the facts get in the way of (Polichs) theories, then to hell with the facts. (8) It has recently come to light that even this wasnt Polichs last word on the matter! The Polar Variant did nothing to solve the problems created by Topos mesh because it could not alter the geographic latitudes effected. As such, a third solution appears to have been contrived with the latitude of birth abandoned in favour of its co-latitude. To this, the same topocentric objections apply. (Many thanks to Ed Falis for his persistence in this matter and for surviving the unpleasant encounter in his attic.) (9) Nor, in any case, is such fine-tuning very likely to make any practical difference. The discrepancy between a cusp obtained via the geocentre and that found via a topocentre would amount to even less than Humphrey Lyttletons gnats crotchet, such astronomical distances involved. (10) This is, alas, no longer the case and the fate of the libraries contents is unknown.

Authors comment: Cyril Fagan, Neil Gillings, Jos Lebrn and others all tried to explain to Wendel Polich, with maths, that which I have here tried to explain in words. Regrettably, the mans intransigence was unbreachable and all failed (though it is likely that Gillings may have succeeded in getting through to Tony Page, just prior to the latters untimely death at 53). Polichs stubbornness was surely due to his tight Sun/Uranus opposition across the fixed signs of Taurus and Scorpio. One hesitates to resort to outer planets here but it is certainly appropriate in this case. To paraphrase Aleister Crowley, Do what thy wilt was indeed the whole of the law as far as Polich was concerned. That, he most certainly did.