Astrology Q & A: What is an ephemeris?

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Dear All,

It was with great interest that I read Eric’s recent article What are we doing when we do astrology?’ and as I already have a copy of my birthchart I followed up his advice to getting an ephemeris with enthusiasm.

Eric Francis

However when I followed this up, it wasn’t the simple process I imagined, and I seemed to have far more questions than answers. Which are as follows:

Do I get a ephemeris that covers my year of birth or the current date? Does where you were born and live (the UK in my case) affect which ephemeris one purchases? And why do you need an ephemeris in the first place? And what exactly is an ephemeris? I would be delighted if you could answer one or more of my queries. With thanks,

Cynthia (a Capricorn if you hadn’t already guessed!)


Dear Cynthia,

I KNOW THAT I have at least one story about everything except milking a pig, but I do have a funny ephemeris story.

Apparently I wanted to be an astrologer before I knew quite what an astrologer (or an ephemeris) was. Here is how I know. I was in my old attic one day rummaging through stuff, it must have been around 1996, and I unearthed a letter from the first astrologer I ever knew, Flo Higgins.

Apparently I had written to her and said that I was an astrologer or wanted to be an astrologer, and she wrote back and asked me if I had an ephemeris. And I said, “What’s an ephemeris?”

Well, she wrote back to me incredulous, and that was the letter I found. “What do you mean you don’t know what an ephemeris is? How can you be an astrologer if you don’t know what an ephemeris is?” She went on for a while, in this approximate tone.

I’m sure you can imagine, I blushed a bit; I was more capable of embarrassment in those days. At least by that point I was well accepted as an astrologer and solidly devoted to it, with a couple of ephemerides of my own. I wish I had that letter; I would frame it.

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The ephemeris is the basic astrological tool. It is literally a schedule of the planets and their movement, with various other bits of information thrown in based on the publisher’s or author’s fetishes. It does not include your place on the planet; that is the job of an atlas. The ephemeris gives the positions of the planets in space and the atlas helps you morph that data with your local coordinates and from the two you get a horoscope chart.

The world Long. in the ephemeris table on the right (which comes from Raphael’s Ephemeris) means longitude, which is the east-west coordinate used to determine a planet’s position relative to the Earth; that is, the position in space. You can see the glyphs for the planet across the top; the days go down the left side; you recognize the signs Cancer (for Mercury and Venus) and Aries (for Mars) which are the positions on that particular day. At the top, that month’s Full Moon day, time and position are listed. They are listed several other places as well.

As you will read in Wiki, the word ephemeris means daily. Note also that it is an astronomical tool; it is not specifically made for astrologers. But since there are more of us than there are astronomers, we have helped keep them alive during times when they might otherwise have disappeared entirely (notably, plenty of times before the advent of science, which would have sort of delayed the invention of astronomy).

It tells you what planet is in what degree of the zodiac what day; whether it is retrograde, stationary or direct; and most tell you the declination, or height above the celestial equator. Another section of the page is the aspectarian, which tells you what a planet is doing in terms of its aspects to other planets.

The thing about an ephemeris is that you can do anything with it. If you have a good one, you can write a daily horoscope with it. A one-year ephemeris is about 3mm thick, so that is a lot of data in a small place. Prior to computers, they were the only thing an astrologer used to cast a chart, of course, with the exception of math. There is a third part of the ephemeris called the Table of Houses, which is the thing used to calculate the house cusp divisions in the chart. Now, computers do all of this and people are slowly losing the art of casting charts by hand — something that I never learned to do.

The information you get is the same as in a chart, but the chart is a snapshot of time for a single moment, while an ephemeris gives you all the data you need to cast charts for any time for an entire year.

I’ve given a sample of a few lines from an ephemeris in the graphic above, and a sample of a lunar aspectarian in the graphic below. These are from Raphael’s Ephemeris.

They all used to come in the form of a book, usually a thick one. This book is arranged in columns, and down the side is the date and across the top is the planet and you look up the position of a planet like a train schedule, only it’s less confusing. There are not certain planets available only on Wednesday night but not on Sunday morning.

I recommend that you get a book, even if you can get the same data online. An online ephemeris can provide much more data (for example, it can list a hundred planets, which a book just cannot do) and do calculations, but it is, I think, vital to both keep tradition intact and also to have at least limited data in a portable format, such as a book. Books also make for easier scanning, but here is an example of a printable monthly ephemeris for just one planet, Chiron, that covers a couple of hundred years.

I recommend a full century one, if you want to study astrology. Because we’re near a turn of a century, with most brands of ephemeris this means you need two books, one for the 20th (when most of us were born) and one for the 21st (where most of us are headed, even deeper than we are now). The better ephemerides (pronounced e-femme-a-rides, which is plural for ephemeris) cover periods like 1930 to 2030.

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The reason you want a book ephemeris is for ease of research; and so you don’t have to be on both a computer and the Internet to do astrology.

There are other book-formats that are single year. The most famous is Raphael’s Ephemeris. It is the universally accepted bible of the British astrology world, and it’s a good publication. I think they plan to list Chiron in the 2050 edition and Eris in the 2100 edition, but if you can stand having a thing that lists only nine planets, and a lot of other cool stuff, this is something to get. You can obtain them in the United States from the Astrology Center of America. (You can get most other ones there, too, with one notable exception, which I will get to). Here is the ephemeris page from that website. On this page, if you look around, you’ll find samples pages from different publications. They also have their own ephemeris.

Raphael’s is the only truly notable annual. Eventually you will start collecting. If you ever see them in a used bookstore, buy them all; if you don’t know what to do with them, I’ll buy them from you.

My favorite of them all is the Aureas Ephemeris. It is published in Paris, around the corner from where I used to live (that is another ephemeris story, I’ll save it for another time — it’s getting late). You can’t get this one in the United States. It’s expensive; you can only get it from France or maybe England (try The Astrology Shop in Covent Garden), and if you want to be an astrologer or a serious student, it’s worth the approximately $100 it will cost you to have one. The website is extremely cheesy. It’s no reflection on the book, which is amazing, which lists new planets, as well as the intensity of eclipses, the Dark Moon and other cool stuff. It’s the one I use every single day.

The Rosicrucian Ephemeris is okay, but the printing has become sloppy, and the Rosicrucians believe that astrology should only be done for free. So if you’re planning a professional career, I would suggest skipping this one except maybe for your collection. They do list Chiron and I think they have got around to Ceres.

The American Ephemeris is a good one, and it’s a landmark — the first to be calculated by computer, by one of the saints of astrology called Neil Michelson. It was the first to list Chiron, way back in the day; and I think the New American Ephemeris (a major revision of the original, by Rique Pottinger) has some asteroids. However, the problem with this publication is that it’s split along the turn of the century, so you need two volumes; not a big deal, and I would rate it as second best after Aureas.

Once you have the thing, then what do you do with it? I’ll save that question for next week.

Yours & truly,

Eric Francis

Eric Francis

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Planet Waves began in 1998 as the home of the Eric Francis horoscope, a prominent feature in our premium service. Going far beyond what most Sun-sign astrologers even dream is possible, Eric brings in-depth interpretations to his work. He is a pioneer in the newly-discovered planets, including Chiron and the centaurs, and is able to translate their movements into accessible human terms, offering ideas for life, love and work. Discover a whole new world of literary journalism in Planet Waves. We offer free trial subscriptions, discounts for students and seniors, and gift subscriptions for veterans and those on active military duty.
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One Response to Astrology Q & A: What is an ephemeris?

  1. crazywisdom says:

    Hi, Eric
    Thanks for your comprehensive description of what an Ephemeris is – and what it is used for. However, I’m still confused about which Ephemeris to purchase. I can understand I would buy two – to cover the 20th and 21st centuries to look at past and current planetary movements. However, if I desire to look at current transits for friends who are in Australia and other friends and family members who are based in the UK and South Africa, does this mean I need to buy 3 Ephemerises for the 21st century (for Australia, South Africa, UK) ? And to be able to look at past transits for people who were born in Australia, South Africa or the UK, would that be another three separate editions for the 21st century ? Any edification you can offer would be greatly appreciated.
    Happy New Year !

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