So far in this series I’ve discussed a bit about the origins of astrology and the significations of the planets in the first installment, and then elaborated upon the material on planets by introducing some of the most important methods for evaluating planetary prominence in the second and third installments. A discussion of the signs of the zodiac, which figure so prominently in modern astrology, has been put off until this point in order to stress the more focused significations of the planets. In this post I introduce the signs, in part by discussing their features and how they relate to the stars (sidereal) and the seasons (tropical). I boldly assert that the most commonly used features of the signs in ancient astrology stem directly from the tropical cycle, while the sidereal features play a much more minor part. After the discussion of the signs, I point out that there are 4 signs in a given chart that refer to the most important personal matters. Notable astrology scholar and translator, Benjamin Dykes, Ph.D., has translated these as the “stakes”.
Signs in Modern Astrology
It is often claimed by scientists and skeptics that astrology has been discredited or even disproven. However, nearly every test of astrology by the scientific community has been a test of Sun sign astrology and the related newspaper horoscopes (not to be confused with the original sense of “horoscope”, from “horoskopos” meaning “hour marker”, to refer to the Ascendant, and later to refer to chart drawings).
It is perhaps ironic that the newspaper Sun sign blurbs are called “horoscopes”, as the term “horoscope” initially referred to the Ascendant, or hour-marker, which changed about every two hours and was regarded in ancient astrology as symbolic of the individual person. In other words, in ancient astrology the most significant sign in the chart for the person was the Ascendant which is a factor of location, time of day, and time of year, rather than the sign of the Sun which changes monthly. You can have a completely different Ascendant sign from someone born in the same hospital, sometimes just 5 minutes later (if you were born near the end of the sign), or totally different from someone born at the same time as you in a different part of the country, or totally different from someone born at the same time of day at a different point in the year. Additionally, ancient astrologers also utilized the twelfth-parts, which are twelfths of the sign that project into other signs, with the twelfth-part Ascendant changing about every 10 minutes of clock time. It is amazing that ancient astrologers used the sign of the Ascendant, which changes very rapidly, to symbolize the person in the chart, while modern Sun sign astrologers attribute so much of the personality to a sign that one shares with anyone else born in the same twelfth of the year.
The Sun was not symbolic of the personal ego or personality center in ancient astrology. In fact, in many ancient astrologers’ techniques for personality delineation, the Sun plays a minor role or is absent altogether. The faster moving Ascendant, Moon, and Mercury played a greater role (for instance click here to see what Ptolemy advised looking at for examining “the quality of the soul”). Even then signs were used a bit differently and the signs were not always as significant as other facets of the planetary condition. In the chart, we can examine the Ascendant, symbolic of the person in the chart, interacting with the Sun, symbolic of power, exposure, leadership, and brilliance, without forcing the Sun to symbolize the person or their ego in some mechanical and generic fashion.
Signs are Not Constellations
You may recall a sensational news story all over the internet in the last year about a 13th sign of the zodiac, suggesting that you may have a “new Sun sign”. This was the work of an astronomer who was trying to draw some criticism of astrology for its supposed lack of logic. The idea was that the today there are 13 constellations that fall on the ecliptic (path of the Earth around the Sun, or from the vantage point of the Earth it is the path of the Sun around the Earth). By this astronomer’s logic, since the Sun passes through 13 constellations, not 12 as in ancient times, there are 13 signs. However, he made the mistake of confusing constellations for signs. His mistake has fostered such widespread ignorance regarding the difference between sign and constellation that even the Wikipedia entry for the constellation that was the so-called 13th sign has had to address this difference.
Constellations are special groupings of stars. They have been used in astrology for many thousands of years. For instance, the twelve zodiacal constellations have varying dates of origin, with Taurus likely having the earliest origins in Mesopotamia. The twelve constellations on the ecliptic were then regularized into “signs” sometime before 600 BCE by the Babylonians. Signs, unlike constellations, were all equal in size, at exactly 30 degrees each, while constellations dramatically varied in size. The signs were mathematical divisions of the sky into a coordinate system to precisely measure the travel of the planets along the path of the ecliptic. Not long after the signs were introduced, the concept of divisions of each sign into twelve micro-signs was also introduced, making the twelfth-parts of the signs nearly as old as the signs themselves. Both signs and twelfth-parts are mathematical in nature and not to be confused with the constellations with which they share names. Stars and constellations were also used in ancient astrology, and some astrologers, such as Manilius and Ptolemy, used the constellations and the stars within them, even extra-zodiacal constellations (such as the so-called thirteenth “sign”, Ophiucus) to provide additional significations.
Signs as Feature Bundles
In my discussion of Advancement, I noted the nearly universal importance of planetary alignments with the local horizon (Ascendant/Descendant) and local meridian / culmination point (MC) among ancient cultures, as well as how the most important of such alignments were those on the days of the equinoxes and solstices. The equinoxes and solstices are important points in the Sun-Earth cycle that cause important seasonal transitions in the year. The equinoxes are the days when the day and the night are of equal length, while the solstices are the days of the longest day or longest night, and these days take on these features by virtue of the extent to which the northern hemisphere of the Earth is inclined toward or away from the Sun (i.e. the points where the Sun appears to travel farthest north in the tropic of Cancer as summer solstice, farthest south in the tropic of Capricorn as winter solstice, crossing the equator toward the north at spring equinox, and crossing the equator toward the south at autumnal equinox). At the advent of Hellenistic astrology in the last couple centuries before the start of the first millennium, the signs of the zodiac overlaid the constellations but the zodiac also started with the sign Aries, as the beginning of that sign was marked by the spring equinox.
The zodiac is essentially a circle with no beginning or end, but the sign of Aries was considered to sort of kick things off as it signaled the transition to spring in the northern hemisphere. Horoscopic astrology has a bias for understanding the signs in terms of the northern hemisphere due to originating in that hemisphere. While some find this bias disquieting, it is indeed the case that the northern hemisphere is the dominant hemisphere when it comes to human affairs, accounting as it does for more than two-thirds of the habitable land on earth, and upon which about 90% of the human population lives.
The signs of the zodiac take on astrological significance by way of a conglomeration of various features. Some of these features, in fact the most important ones used in Hellenistic and Persian astrology, are based upon the seasonal cycles. Others were based upon associations with the images of the constellations and the significations of the stars. In the centuries that followed the advent of Hellenistic astrology it also migrated to India, where it completely transformed the astral lore of the subcontinent (see Yavanajataka). As centuries go by, something interesting happens to the relationship between the seasons and the stars. Due to what’s called the precession of the equinoxes, the equinoxes slowly shift backwards across the backdrop of the constellations at the rate of about 1 degree every 72 years. Therefore, in astrology it becomes necessary to choose whether the features of the constellations or the features of the seasons as marked by the equinoxes/solstices are more essential to the astrological nature of the signs. The famous natural philosopher and Hellenistic astrologer, Claudius Ptolemy, of the second century CE, asserted that the signs of the zodiac should be defined by the equinoxes and solstices, so that they always overlaid the same seasonal and light/dark relationships, and this is now known as the Tropical Zodiac. In India, the trend of defining the zodiac by way of a reference star prevailed (today it is usually Spica marking the beginning of Libra), which ensured that the signs always overlaid the same constellations, known as the Sidereal Zodiac.
Today the choice of two zodiacs has caused quite a stir, with astrologers in the west often choosing the Tropical Zodiac simply because they are western and those in Indian choosing the Sidereal Zodiac simply because they are Indian. Arguments made for the Tropical Zodiac typically include the readily apparent affect that the Sun’s passage through that zodiac has on life on earth as exemplified in the seasons. Arguments made for the Sidereal Zodiac typically include the fact that its signs still overlay the constellations for which the signs are named, so locations in it more accurately correspond to actual positions relative to stars in the sky than those of the tropical zodiac.
My opinion is that the debate is wrongly framed. In ancient astrology the signs are defined by bundles of various features. One of the most important features is that of the planetary rulers assigned to the signs. This feature is almost certainly tropical in origin, as the Lights (Sun and Moon) are assigned the signs of summer in the northern hemisphere (Cancer for the Moon and Leo for the Sun, corresponding to the period of time from about June 21st to August 21st) while Saturn, the lord of darkness and cold, is assigned to the signs opposite, which are those of coldest winter in the northern hemisphere (Capricorn and Aquarius, corresponding to the period of time from about December 21st to February 20th). These rulerships originated with the signs, not the constellations, and are clearly related to the seasons, therefore tied intimately to the tropical zodiac. Hellenistic authors like Porphyry explicitly note that the rulerships of the Lights were related to the northern-ness of those signs. These rulerships don’t make as much sense by a sidereal understanding, as the sidereal zodiac is not tied to the seasons.
It is possible that the sidereal zodiac is more appropriate for some purposes in astrology than the tropical zodiac. Since the signs signify in terms of their features in ancient astrology it will be very instructive for us to divide the most important of such features into two types, those which are derived from the tropical cycle and those which are derived from the constellational and sidereal cycle. As you’ll see, the tropical zodiac is the appropriate zodiac for the most commonly used types of significations in ancient Hellenistic and Persian astrology, but there are many significations which appear to be sidereal in origin begging the question as to whether we perhaps should use two zodiacs, one for signifying the tropical features and another for signifying the sidereal ones.
Tropical Sign Features
Domicile and Exaltation Rulerships
By far, the most important sign feature that appears to be tropical in origin is that of sign rulership. These are rather systematic, with the signs of the Sun and Moon adjacent to each other and marking the peak of summer, while each of the other 5 planets get two signs each straddling those of the Sun and Moon based on planetary speed, such that those of Saturn are opposite those of the Lights. Note: if you are unfamiliar with the glyphs of the signs and the planets, you should take a couple days to familiarize yourself with them before continuing (you can find flashcards for planetary glyphs, helpful mnemonics for signs, and there’s more help here with a video). In the image below (image attribution: Meredith Garstin commons), you can see that the Moon rules Cancer, the Sun rules Leo, then Mercury which is the fastest of the 5 other planets, rules Gemini and Virgo, which are the signs on either side of those of the Sun and Moon, while Venus, the next fastest, rules Taurus and Libra, the signs on either side of those of Mercury, Mars rules Aries and Scorpio which are on either side of those of Venus, Jupiter rules Pisces and Sagittarius which are on either side of those of Mars, and Saturn rules Aquarius and Capricorn which are on either side of those of Jupiter as well as opposite the signs of the Lights.
These signs are known as the houses or domiciles of their rulers. For instance, if the sign rising when someone was born was Cancer, then Cancer would be considered the 1st House, and the Moon, ruler of Cancer, would be the ruler of this 1st House. The ruler is viewed as a sort of owner and major player in affairs pertaining to the 1st House. Similarly, the next sign to rise, Leo, would be the 2nd House, with its ruler, the Sun, as the ruler or lord of the 2nd House, and so on in the order of the rising of the signs in a chart.
Each of the planets also has a sign that is said to be its exaltation or kingdom. The motivation for that form of rulership is not as clear, but also appears to be based on tropical considerations. The Sun and Moon come to be associated with the signs of spring in the northern hemisphere in that assignment, and the exaltations seem to center upon the signs of the equinoxes and solstices (the Sun is exalted in the sign of the spring equinox while the exaltations of the Moon and Venus straddle that sign; Saturn is exalted in the sign of the autumnal equinox while Mercury is exalted in a sign that straddles that sign; Jupiter is exalted in the sign of the summer solstice; Mars is exalted in the sign of the winter solstice). I will enumerate the exaltations here: Aries is the exaltation of the Sun, Taurus is the exaltation of the Moon, Virgo is the exaltation of Mercury, Pisces is the exaltation of Venus, Capricorn is the exaltation of Mars, Cancer is the exaltation of Jupiter, and Libra is the exaltation of Saturn. The exaltation would be a house where the planet is given more power and freedom to act. The sign opposite a planet’s exaltation was called its fall or descension and was considered a place where a planet is more encumbered or downtrodden in its significations. Some astrologers use a similar concept for the signs opposite a planet’s domicile, calling them the “detriment” of the planet, but this concept of detriment does not figure into Hellenistic astrology and its methods as a distinct concept. Some astrologers also assign point values to the different forms of rulership, a practice started by a medieval Persian astrologer, but I find this to be more misleading than useful and strongly advise against the practice.
Quadruplicity and Stakes
Quadruplicity is a fancy word for a grouping of four signs. These are signs related in a cross pattern in the chart and such signs are said to be each other’s “stakes” as well (more on “stakes” below). This very important concept creates three types of features, each one assigned to signs that form a cross pattern. These features are tropical in nature, as they divide each season into 3 parts, a beginning, middle, and end, with distinct features.
The cardinal signs, which are also called the changeable, moveable, or tropical/equinoctial signs, are those which start with an equinox or solstice. They mark a turning in the direction of the season, and thus a bold step in a new direction. As such cardinal signs are associated with frequent change (and repetition), bold and fast initiation, but not necessarily depth nor staying power. For instance, Mercury in a cardinal sign was considered good for oratory ability, as cardinal signs signify quickness and bold projection. The cardinal signs are Aries (0 Aries is the point of the spring or vernal equinox), Cancer (0 Cancer is the point of the summer solstice), Libra (0 Libra is the point of the autumnal equinox), and Capricorn (0 Capricorn is the point of the winter solstice).
Each cardinal sign is followed by a fixed sign, which are also called the solid signs. These are the signs in which the heart or depth of the season occurs and things are most stabilized. The fixed signs are associated with steadiness, staying power, slowness, thoroughness, and depth. They are the signs which Dorotheus (1st century CE) recommended emphasizing in choosing times for general important endeavors because they signified carrying things to completion and making them last. Mercury in these signs was thought to signify depth in thought and possible writing ability. The fixed signs are Taurus, Leo, Scorpio, and Aquarius.
Each fixed sign is then followed by a mutable sign, which are also called the common or twin signs. These signs are said to participate in two seasons, mixing some of the season that is drawing to a close with intimations of the coming season. For this reason they are dualistic and signify complication, confusion, exchange, and mediation. In electional astrology they were believed to signify a need for additional conditions to be met (i.e. things getting more complected). Mercury in these signs was thought to be a bad indication for intellect as they are unstable, providing little confidence and direction, while making one prone to confusion and frustration. The mutable signs are Gemini, Virgo, Sagittarius, and Pisces.
The signs of the same quadruplicity as the rising sign are known as the stakes, angles, or pivots of the chart. These are the most important houses of the chart, and their topics are the cornerstones to the life. Ben Dykes, Ph.D. explained his preference for “stakes” as a translation of “kentra”, the Greek term of these places, as they operate to fix the sky (signs) to a location, in the same manner that stakes are used to fasten a tent. The stakes of a birth chart include the rising sign, which is the 1st House, pertaining to the self, body, and skill, as well as the 10th House, pertaining to mastery, bosses, and recognition, the 7th House, pertaining to partners and marriage, and the 4th House, pertaining to family, land, and origins. Planets in the stakes of a birth chart have a type of prominence, in that they have a strong influence upon the person, as they are in the house of an important area of life and strongly regard the Ascendant, either by co-presence, square, or opposition. Similarly, a planet can be in the stake of another planet, point, or place simply by being in a sign of the same quadruplicity as that planet, point, or place.
Let’s examine the stakes of a birth chart, and the stakes of important planets in the chart:
Barack Obama has the sign of Aquarius rising, which is a fixed sign. The fixed signs are Aquarius, Scorpio, Leo, and Taurus. Barack has Jupiter in Aquarius, the 1st House. He also has the Sun and Mercury in Leo. Therefore, Jupiter, the Sun, and Mercury are in the stakes of the chart and are directly operative in particularly important areas of life. He has Aquarius rising, which is ruled by Saturn. Saturn is in Capricorn which is a cardinal sign. Other cardinal signs include Cancer, Libra, and Aries. Only Venus is also in a cardinal sign, Cancer, so she is in one of the stakes of Saturn’s position.
Triplicity and Elemental Lords
Triplicity (the triangles), is similar to quadruplicity, but signifies groupings of three signs. There are 4 groups of signs that are in triangular relationships to each other (i.e. that are trine each other). Today these 4 groups are identified by the elements: Fire, Earth, Air, and Water. However, originally the triplicities were not associated with the elements in early Hellenistic astrology, but with the winds and directions. However, here I will label them by element as is commonly done. As there are three signs in each triplicity, it so happens that each one has one cardinal sign, one fixed sign, and one mutable sign in the group.
The triangles are also associated with another system of rulership, called the triplicity rulers. Each triangular set of signs is associated with one planetary ruler by day, another by night, and a third which is a lesser participant.
The Fire triplicity has Aries as its cardinal sign, Leo as its fixed sign, and Sagittarius as its mutable sign, and it is a Masculine and Diurnal (day) triplicity, ruled by the Sun by day, and by Jupiter by night, with Saturn participating. The Fire triplicity is particularly associated with power and leadership. The Persians associated these signs with the east because their cardinal sign is Aries which is to the right of the northernmost sign, Cancer.
The Earth triplicity has Capricorn as its cardinal sign, Taurus as its fixed sign, and Virgo as its mutable sign, and it is a Feminine and Nocturnal (night) triplicity, ruled by the Moon by night, and by Venus by day, with Mars participating. The Earth triplicity is particularly associated with the working of the land. The Persians associated these signs with the south because Capricorn marked the winter solstice which was the point when the Sun reached its farthest southern point (i.e. the Sun was overhead at Noon at the farthest point of the tropic of Capricorn).
The Air triplicity has Libra as its cardinal sign, Aquarius as its fixed sign, and Gemini as its mutable sign, and it is a Masculine and Diurnal (day) triplicity, ruled by Saturn by day, by Mercury by night, with Jupiter participating. The Air triplicity is particularly associated with culture and movement. The Persians associated these signs with the west because their cardinal sign, Libra, is right of the southernmost sign, Capricorn.
The Water triplicity has Cancer as its cardinal sign, Scorpio as its fixed sign, and Pisces as its mutable sign, and it is a Feminine and Nocturnal (night) triplicity, ruled by Mars by night, by Venus by day, with the Moon participating. The Water triplicity is particularly associated with all things water. The Persians associated these signs with the south because Cancer marks the summer solstice which is the point when the Sun is at its southernmost declination.
Let’s look at an example of rulership, quadruplicity, stakes, and triplicity in a chart:
Bill Clinton has the sign of Libra rising, so Libra is the 1st House, which is that of the self. The stakes of the chart are cardinal, and they are Libra (1st House), Cancer (10th House), Aries (7th House), and Capricorn (4th House), but only Libra is occupied. You’ll notice that he has Mars, Venus, and Jupiter all advancing in the 1st House, with Mars particularly prominent right on the Ascendant. Therefore, we expect him to have a very Mars-y life, one that is in a sense quite combative, competitive, and requiring a lot of toughness. Also, we generally expect Mars, Venus, and Jupiter to directly signify in relation to more important matters in the life, as they are in one of the stakes of the chart. The Ascendant, Mars, Venus, and Jupiter are all in a sign ruled by Venus, so we expect the self to be strongly influenced by aesthetics and sexuality, especially with Venus in the actual 1st House. Venus and Mars are out of sect and Mars, as a malefic, could potential create some trouble in relation to Venusian matters in a combative sense. His initial aspirations to be a professional musician are also very clearly shown by the prominence of Venus and her rulership of the 1st. Libra is a cardinal sign, so we expect a bolder and more expressive character and for the actions of the planets in the 1st House to make their more important expressions in terms of bold, quick, dramatically sweeping changes in circumstances. The 1st House is an air sign, so we might expect the self and the planets in the1st to have a strong connection with thought and movement. Finally, Clinton was born during the day and Libra is both the exaltation of Saturn and the triplicity of Saturn by day, so we expect Saturn to have some influence over 1st House matters as well. Saturn is in Leo, a fixed, fire sign, signifying steadfastness (fixed) and leadership (fire), and Saturn is with the Sun, which rules the sign Leo and rules the fire triplicity by day, so the solar influence (which is of power, exposure, prominence) is very strong. Saturn is also with Mercury, planet of intellect.
As you can see, some of the most important significations of signs come down to domicile, exaltation, triplicity, and quadruplicity, all of which are concepts related particularly to the tropical cycle.
Other Tropical Features
There are a great many additional features of signs that are tropical in origin but of less importance. For instance, signs of short and long ascension which was an important consideration in choosing times for actions according to Dorotheus. Also, there were many sign relationships which pertained to mirror relationships between signs and degrees across the points of the equinoxes and solstices, which I’ve addressed in a past post. Additionally, the Persians spoke of the southern signs (Libra thru Pisces) as being cold while the northern signs (Aries thru Virgo) were hot, with both the directions and the temperatures being a reference to the tropical cycle. Further the signs were divided up into season quarters, the spring signs (Aries, Taurus, Gemini) being hot, moist, infant-like, and sanguine; the summer signs (Cancer, Leo, Virgo) were hot, dry, young, and choleric; the fall signs (Libra, Scorpio, Sagittarius) were cold, dry, middle-aged, and melancholic; the winter signs (Capricorn, Aquarius, Pisces) were cold, moist, elderly, and phlegmatic. These features of the signs are more minor and are not used as commonly as those cited in the previous section.
Main Sidereal Features
The Greek word for sign, zoidion, meant image or species, and some of the features of the signs are in fact direct associations with the species of thing that is imaged by the corresponding constellation. For instance, Dorotheus noted that an eclipse in Aries would likely affect sheep, one in Sagittarius would affect horses, and so forth. Additionally, there are some sign classifications that pertain to these imaged species of things, such as calling some signs four-footed, others lacking a voice (because they image animals lacking a voice), and some rational (because they include an image of a person). While these sign associations are used less often than rulership, quadruplicity, and triplicity, they are important to some techniques and can provide a very fruitful source for gathering further significations. I believe it is an open question as to whether the sidereal zodiac (or even the constellations themselves) would be a more appropriate zodiac to use for ascertaining such associations.
Star Cluster Delineations
There is much material in Hellenistic astrology where certain segments and degrees of signs are given distinct significations. Often in these delineations, stars, and segments of constellations are explicitly named. Such delineations are prominent in many Hellenistic authors, including Valens, Ptolemy, and Maternus. However, very little has been done to revive the use of such material. It would seem that this material is truly sidereal in origin and that the sidereal zodiac is probably the more appropriate zodiac to use for these delineations of special groups of degrees. An important division of each zodiacal sign into 5 unequal divisions ruled by each of the non-Light planets, called bounds, has its origins with the Babylonians (the so-called Egyptian bounds) and no clear link with star clusters has been proposed, so while the origins and motivation for the bounds is not entirely clear, they don’t appear to be a sidereal concept. However, the decans, which are divisions of the signs into thirds, actually originated with the Egyptians and was based on the rising of 36 star clusters, so they also appear to be predominantly sidereal in origin. Similarly, the mansions of the Moon, which are commonly used in India but have been largely neglected in the west in practice, are clearly associated with star clusters and are probably not appropriate for use with the tropical zodiac.
In conclusion, both the tropical and the sidereal zodiacs have their own motivations. While we are primarily concerned with significations that are tropical in nature, the western astrologer may be missing out on the correct source of a big chunk of significations in Hellenistic astrology by refusal to also use the sidereal zodiac where it is best suited, for image associations and delineations of degrees and clusters based on the stars and constellations. Perhaps one day we will come to find some happy synthesis in the use of both zodiacs but in those domains where they are most appropriate.
This has been a long lesson, and may need to be re-read a couple times before fully grasped. In this lesson we gained a few new tools which can be applied right away to charts. You now know how to find the ruler of a sign. The Ascendant, or rising sign, is particularly symbolic of the person, so you may want to take a look at the sign of the Ascendant, and that of the Moon, in various charts, and to pick apart the possible significations based on the features of the signs, as well as to look at which planets are in the Ascendant and those that are with the Moon. Also, take a look at the ruler of the Ascendant. The ruler was typically considered to pertain more to the spirit and direction of the person while the Ascendant itself pertained more to the body and its temperament. Examine the nature of the ruler and how that is affected by the significations of the sign. Now you have an additional planetary prominence consideration, that of a planet being in the stakes. Think about how a planet in a stake may impact a person. Even a planet that is not prominent in a general way may have a very strong influence over important matters in the person’s life by virtue of being in a stake. In such cases you’ll find the influence of the planet more focused in those areas of life, and less pervasive and broad in its significations.