The First Five Steps in Learning Traditional Astrology
BY DEMETRA GEORGE
IF YOU HAVE A BACKGROUND in modern astrology, there are several conceptual and methodological shifts that are necessary before you can approach the traditional methods of viewing and interpreting charts. This might seem disconcerting at first, as it calls into question some of the most basic understandings that inform your astrological practice. You shouldn’t have to reject what you already know and have found valuable. But it will be useful to temporarily shelve these perspectives as you explore traditional techniques. Otherwise, you will likely face ongoing confusion and difficulty mastering the traditional (Hellenistic) system. At the conclusion of your studies of this material, you can then make an informed decision as to how you want to continue, which techniques and ideas to integrate into your current practice, and which parts of your current practice you might want to revise.
From this point on we may speak of the “native” and the “nativity”. These words come from the Latin verb natus which means “to be born”. Thus, the “native” is the person whose chart we’re reading (the person who is born) and their nativity is the astrological chart depicting the arrangement of the planets at the time of birth.
1. Suspend Use of the Twelve-Letter Alphabet
The basic components of astrological symbolism are planets, zodiacal signs, and houses. From the beginning of the astrological tradition, planets had special correspondences with certain signs and houses that were considered more conducive and beneficial to the expression of each planet’s essential nature.
However, the planet/sign and planet/house correspondences of traditional astrology differ from the modern “twelve-letter alphabet” system popularized during the second half of the twentieth century. The twelve-letter alphabet teaches that the meanings of a particular planet, sign, and house are derived from the same principle—such as Mars, Aries, and the first house—and are thus interchangeable in interpretation. The same would hold true for Venus, Taurus, and the second house; Mercury, Gemini, and the third house, and so on.
But from the traditional standpoint, while Mars is associated with Aries as its lord, there is no basis for its association with the first house, nor is there any particular correspondence between Aries and the first house. This operating principle is especially evident and problematic in many modern “cookbook style” interpretation guides that present the same interpretation of a planet—for example, Mars—in either Gemini or in the third house. A traditional astrologer would have completely different criteria for delineating the meaning of Mars in a sign versus in a house, and would not equate Gemini with the third house.
2. Use Only the Seven Visible Planets
Evidence of divination by astrology goes back to the second millennium BCE when cuneiform texts identified the seven visible planetary bodies: Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. These were the only planets known to ancient peoples, since Uranus, Neptune, Pluto, and the asteroids weren’t discovered until after the invention of the telescope in the seventeenth century. Thus, the systems of traditional astrology, as practiced by Babylonian, Hellenistic, Arabic, Indian, Medieval, and Renaissance astrologers, were developed and refined over a 4000-year period based solely upon the seven visible planets. The North and South Nodes of the Moon as well as Lots (Arabic parts) were also a part of the symbol systems of traditional astrology, but the outer planets and asteroids were not.
The Seven Traditional Planets
Visible to the Naked Eye
You should certainly continue to include the outer planets and the asteroids (as I do) in your chart analysis. But you will learn to regard them in different ways than the seven original planets. And you will learn how to extract much more information about the chart from the seven visible planets.
3. Use Traditional Rulerships
Most astrologers are aware of planetary rulerships, whereby each of the planets is said to rule a sign: for example, the Sun rules Leo. The ancient terminology states that each planet is the “lord” of a particular sign; when it happens to be located in that sign in a particular chart, it is thought to possess certain powers. There is general agreement between traditional and modern thought that the Sun rules Leo, the Moon rules Cancer, Mercury is the ruler of Gemini and Virgo, and Venus is the ruler of Taurus and Libra. But then the traditional and modern systems begin to diverge. When the modern planets Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto were discovered, they were assigned as rulers of the signs Aquarius, Pisces, and Scorpio respectively, displacing the ancient rulers: Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars. This stems from modern astrologers noticing an affinity between each of the new planets and these three signs that traditionally had dual rulership. The rationale for the traditional system of rulerships was based upon a geometrical substructure depicted by the thema mundi, the symbolic chart of the creation of the world, rather than upon the modern principle of affinities between planet and sign.
based upon the Thema Mundi
The Moon rules Cancer
The Sun rules Leo
Mercury rules Virgo and Gemini
Venus rules Libra and Taurus
Mars rules Scorpio and Aries
Jupiter rules Sagittarius and Pisces
Saturn rules Capricorn and Aquarius
When practicing traditional astrology, it is necessary to use the traditional rulers of all twelve signs as indicated in the diagram above. In particular, use Saturn as a ruler for Aquarius as well as for Capricorn, Jupiter as the ruler of Pisces as well as for Sagittarius, and Mars as the ruler of Scorpio as well as for Aries. This is especially important when determining which planet is the ruler of a particular house in order to interpret the meaning of that house in an individual chart. For example, if someone were to ask about the topic of relationships—signified by the seventh house—and that house is occupied by the sign Pisces, you would look to the planet Jupiter rather than to Neptune to make your judgment.
4. Use Whole Sign Houses
For the first seven hundred years of horoscopic astrology during the Hellenistic and Arabic eras, the house system of choice was whole sign houses, where signs and houses are coincident. Each house contains all thirty degrees of one—and only one—sign. This differs from the quadrant house systems used in modern astrology, such as Placidus, Porphyry, Regiomontanus, and Koch, where houses are of unequal size and can contain a varying number of degrees of one, two, or even three different signs. Ancient astrologers were aware of and discussed other house systems such as Porphyry and equal houses, but used these sparingly and only for specialized inquires.
In whole sign houses, all of the degrees of the rising sign occupy the first house and all planets in that sign are read as first house planets, regardless of their degree. For instance, even if a planet is at three degrees of a sign and the rising sign is twenty-eight degrees of the same sign, the planet is still read as a first house planet. The Ascendant degree is a point floating somewhere in the first house. While it still marks the horizon, designating which degrees of your rising sign are above the horizon and which are below the horizon, it does not divide the first house from the twelfth house. The sign following the rising sign occupies the entirety of the second house, and all planets in that sign are considered second house planets, etc.
Planets may occupy different houses in a whole sign house system as compared to a quadrant house system. When considering one’s own chart for the first time using whole sign houses, if planets shift houses, this different perspective can initially cause an identity crisis for many astrologers. But you are asked to reflect upon and consider the changes as you work through the process. As you look at the example chart, note which planets change house position.
Whole Sign versus Porphyry Houses
Chart of Maria Von Trapp
(25 January 1905, 23:50, Tyrol, Austria)
LEFT: Whole Sign houses (signs and houses are equal).
RIGHT: Porphyry houses (first house begins from the Ascendant degree).
Note that, in this example, the Whole Sign chart uses the traditional seven planets,
while the Porphyry chart includes the trans-Saturnian planets: Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto.
5. Determine Planetary Condition
While the first four steps mentioned above are primarily shifts of technique, this fifth step entails a major conceptual shift. In the modern approach, all of the planets in a particular chart are considered equal in their capacity to bring about their matters; they are thought to do so in different ways depending upon their sign, house, and aspects. Interpretation involves blending together various combinations of keywords.
However, in the traditional approach, some planets are more capable of manifesting their significations in stable, consistent, long-lasting, and beneficial ways for the individual. Prior to interpreting the meaning of a planet in a particular chart, therefore, the astrologer must first determine its condition. This is based upon a number of different criteria such as a planet’s sect, zodiacal sign rulerships, its phase relationship to the Sun, and its aspects. Each of these factors was thought to have an influence on the planet’s capacity to bring about positive outcomes for the individual.
Ancient astrologers taught that the better a planet’s condition, the more support a planet has and the better job it can do. Vettius Valens wrote in the second century:
The benefic stars that are suitably and well-situated bring forth their own matters according to their nature and the nature of their zodiacal sign, with the additional mixture of the aspect testimonies and co-presences of each star. When they are unfavorably situated, they are indicative of reversals and obstacles. Likewise, even the malefic stars, when they operate suitably and are of the sect, are givers of good and indicative of greater rank and success. But when they are in unprofitable places, they bring about banishment and accusations.
A paraphrase of this paragraph might read that if the benefic planets (e.g. Jupiter, Venus) are in good condition, they bring about their own significations in accordance with the sign that they occupy, but if in poor condition, they bring about reversals. In a similar way, the malefic planets (e.g. Saturn, Mars) when in favorable condition bring forth good outcomes, great position, and success; but in poor condition, malefic planets bring about disasters and accusations.
So, if a traditional astrologer wanted to interpret how the planet Mars located in the second house might be expected to operate in terms of the person’s ability to generate financial resources to support their livelihood, Mars would first be subject to an exhaustive analysis based upon its sect, four kinds of sign rulership (domicile, exaltation, triplicity, bound), its phase relationship to the Sun (speed, visibility, direction, heliacal rise/set), and its aspects from benefic and malefic planets. If the condition of Mars was determined to be good, the astrologer could then indicate stable and fortunate money matters. However, if the condition was judged to be bad, the reading would signify challenges and conflict in generating resources, or financial instability.
Look at the example chart (above) of Maria von Trapp, the real-life heroine behind The Sound of Music. If one were to inquire about the topic of wealth, a traditional astrologer would begin to assess the chart in the following manner. The second house signifies money. It is occupied by the sign of Scorpio, whose ruler is Mars, which belongs to the sect of this nocturnal chart. Because Mars is located in its own sign of rulership, the primary indication is good for wealth. Since Mars also rules Aries, which is located in the seventh house, part of the wealth comes from marriage. Maria was an orphan who married a wealthy baron, and her husband was a high-ranking military officer (Mars). Here is an example of Valens’ teaching where a malefic planet (Mars) in good condition brings about a great position for Maria—who became a baroness. Note that using Pluto as the ruler of Scorpio would not yield the same clear delineation. A full analysis would factor in a number of other variables, but this simplified version suffices to illustrate the point.
The methods of traditional astrology thoroughly explore planetary condition as a preliminary to interpretation. By following these methods, you will not only learn how to determine if a planet is strong or weak in its overall ability to do good for the individual, but also in which particular ways it is strong or weak. In the process, you will learn how ancient astrologers thought about sect, zodiacal signs, houses, aspects, and phases. Some of this material will give you the rationale for many astrological doctrines you have been taught as givens and provide a better foundation for any kind of astrology you do. Other parts of this material may challenge your previous ways of thinking and interpretation, and require you to either re-evaluate or defend your former beliefs. In any case, how you think about and practice astrology will be deepened, stimulated, and expanded.
This article is adapted from chapter 2 of Ancient Astrology in Theory and Practice: A Manual of Traditional Techniques, by Demetra George (Rubedo Press, 2019)
Ancient Astrology in Theory and Practice is written as a practitioner’s guide for contemporary astrologers—both seasoned professionals as well as new students—who are eager to avail themselves of an astrological tradition that had been practiced for over two-thousand years. More specifically, this guide is designed to lead modern astrologers through a step-by-step process that will enable them to utilize the principles of ancient astrology in order to build a more solid structure for the interpretation of the natal chart. In order to anchor the theory and concepts into immediate practical application, detailed analysis of two example charts have been included, along with hands-on exercises and instructions for understanding the individual’s chart. Definitions, vocabulary, and ample illustrations organize and systematize the traditional astrological techniques and provide a foundation for understanding primary source texts