The Signs of the Zodiac
So far we’ve looked at the origins of astrology, the meanings of the planets, planetary loudness, and general planetary prominence. A discussion of the signs of the zodiac, which figure so prominently in popular astrology, has been put off until this point. This is because the significations of the planets are more central to work in ancient astrology than those of the signs of the zodiac. However, the signs of the zodiac are very important in their own right, so let’s take a look.
An Examination of the Most Important Facets of the Zodiac
We’ll look at the key features of the signs, as well as how they relate to the fixed stars (sidereal) and the seasons (tropical). I show that the most commonly used features of the signs stem from the tropical (seasonal) cycle, while the sidereal (fixed stars) features play a comparatively minor role. Additionally, we will explore the 4 signs in every chart that refer to prominent personal matters (the “stakes”).
Moving Beyond Signs in Popular Astrology
Nearly every test of astrology by the scientific community has been a test of Sun-sign astrology and Sun-sign-based newspaper horoscopes. It is ironic that the newspaper blurbs are called “horoscopes”, as the term “horoscope” (from horoskopos) initially referred to the hour-marker (rising sign). The rising sign is quick to change, being a different sign about every two hours. Contrast this with the Sun-sign which changes once a month.
In ancient astrology, the most important sign is this fast moving rising sign, rather than the slow-to-change Sun sign.
And so, the domicile occupying the rising [place] is called the horoscope; the effect of this [is] over the body and life of a man itself, and all his undertakings. (Abu Ma’shar, The Abbreviation of the Introduction to Astrology, Book I, 109, Dykes trans., 2010, p. 71)
The Rising Sign Depends on Location, Hour, and Date
In Hellenistic astrology, the rising sign is the symbol of the individual. The rising sign is based on the primary motion of the Earth, its rotation. The eastern horizon moves through all 12 signs in 24 hours (about one sign every two hours). In other words, in ancient astrology, the personal symbol is a factor of the location, time of day, and time of year of the birth.
Sun-signs are a factor which applies to everyone born in a given month-long period, no matter the location of the birth. By contrast, you can have a completely different rising sign from someone born at the same time as you in a different part of the country or someone born at the same time of day at a different time of year. Similarly, it can be different from someone born in the same hospital a few minutes later (if you were born near the end of the sign).
I the Ascendant, life, steering-oar, body, breath. (Valens, Anthologies, Book IV, Ch. 12, The Names of the Twelve Places, Riley trans., 2010, p. 80)
Signs Contain Micro-Signs
Nearly all Hellenistic astrologers also utilized the twelfth-parts. These are twelfths of the sign that project into other signs. In this division of the zodiac, the first 2.5 degrees of each sign corresponds to the sign itself, while the next corresponds to the next sign, and so forth. These twelfth-parts are neglected today but they are a feature of the zodiac that is almost old as the zodiac itself. The twelfth-parts date back to at least the 5th century BCE. See my introductory article on the twelfth-parts for more.
The twelfth-part of the rising sign (Ascendant) changes about every 10 minutes of clock time. Someone born at 10 am may have Taurus of Sagittarius rising (i.e the Taurus micro-sign in Sagittarius) while someone born at 10:10 am may have Gemini of Sagittarius rising. The twelfth-parts are one of the most important divisions of the zodiac and they apply to the zodiac as a whole. Not only the rising sign has a micro-sign, but also the signs of the Sun, Moon, and all other chart factors. The twelfth-parts bring in a degree of complexity and nuance that is lacking in popular astrology.
Faster Factors are More Personal Factors
The Sun was not symbolic of the personal ego or personality center in ancient astrology. Rather, as discussed in the first lesson, the Sun symbolizes power, popularity, brilliance, and the father. 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, check out Ptolemy’s instructions for examining “the quality of the soul“.
In a chart, we can see how the Ascendant (rising sign), symbolic of the person, interacts with the Sun, symbolic of power, honors, and brilliance. The Sun does not need to symbolize the person or their ego.
In a nativity the all-seeing sun, nature’s fire and intellectual light, the organ of mental perception, indicates kingship, rule, intellect, intelligence, beauty, motion, loftiness of fortune, the ordinance of the gods, judgement, public reputation, action, authority over the masses, the father, the master, friendship, noble personages, honors consisting of pictures, statues, and garlands, high priesthoods, one’s country other places. (Valens, Anthologies, Book I, Ch. 1, Riley trans., 2010, p. 1)
Signs are Not Constellations
The 13 Signs of the Zodiac?
You may recall sensational news stories about a 13th sign of the zodiac. Often these stories would be accompanied by click-bait headlines declaring that “you have a new Sun sign”. These stories were based on the work of an astronomer who was trying to draw some criticism of astrology for its supposed lack of logic. The idea was that there are 13 constellations which fall on the ecliptic. Recall that the ecliptic is the 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 now passes through 13 constellations, not 12 as in ancient times, there are now 13 signs of the zodiac. However, he made the mistake of confusing constellations for signs of the zodiac. His mistake has fostered widespread ignorance regarding the difference between a sign and a constellation. As of this writing, even the Wikipedia entry for the constellation Ophiucus, the so-called 13th sign, now addresses the difference.
Constellations are Groups of Stars, Signs are Mathematical Divisions of the Sky
Constellations are special groupings of stars. They have been used in astrology for many thousands of years. They are much older than the signs. The twelve zodiacal constellations have varying dates of origin, with Taurus going back as far as the bronze age (4,000 BCE). The twelve constellations on the ecliptic were not regularized into “signs” until about 600 BCE (by the Babylonians).
Signs, unlike constellations, are all equal in size, at exactly 30 degrees each. Constellations dramatically vary in size and traditionally lack clear boundaries. The signs are 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. 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 in Ancient Astrology
Stars and constellations were also used in ancient astrology. Some astrologers, such as Manilius and Ptolemy, extensively used the constellations and the stars within them. Sometimes they even used extra-zodiacal constellations (like Ophiucus) to provide additional significations. But these stars and constellations indicate separately from the significations of the signs of the zodiac.
Signs as Feature Bundles
Importance of Equinoxes and Solstices
In the discussion of planetary advancement, we looked at the early importance of planetary alignments at a location among ancient cultures. Those alignments were with the local horizon (Ascendant/Descendant) or meridian (MC/IC). The most important of such alignments were typically those on the days of the solstices and (approximate) equinoxes. Equinoxes and solstices are important points in the Sun-Earth cycle and also mark seasonal transitions in the year.
Most importantly, the equinoxes mark the intersection of the ecliptic (path of the Sun and classical planets) and the equator (rotational path of the Earth), while the solstices mark the maximum deviation of those paths. In other words, the equinox points are the intersections between the road traveled by the planets (ecliptic) and the road traveled by the Earth (equator), so they are of central importance in traditional geocentric astrology.
Equinox means Equal Daylight and Dark
The equinoxes are the times when the day and the night are of equal length. Day being sunrise to sunset and night being sunset to sunrise. At least this is ideally the case. In actuality, due to refraction and landscape variation, the day and night are usually of slightly different length on the equinoxes. Less controversially, the solstices are the times of the longest day or the shortest day (longest night), as well as the points of sunrise and sunset on the local horizon appeared to stop and change directions. Therefore, the solstice dates could be precisely found by people even many tens of thousands of years ago. The change in the length of day and of daylight is due to the extent to which the northern hemisphere of the Earth is inclined toward or away from the Sun.
The point where the Sun travels farthest north (geocentrically) is the summer solstice. From a modern Sun-centered perspective, it is at that point when the northern half of the Earth is furthest tilted toward the Sun. The point where the Sun travels farthest south is the winter solstice. At that point the northern half of the Earth is tilted furthest away from the Sun.
When the Sun crosses the equator toward the north it is spring equinox. From a Sun-centered perspective, it is after that point that the northern hemisphere will begin to tilt toward the Sun. The Sun crossing the equator toward the south is autumnal equinox. It is after that point that the north begins to tilt away from the Sun.
Two signs are called equinoctial, the one which is first from the spring equinox, Aries, and the one which begins with the autumnal equinox, Libra; and they too again are named from what happens there, because when the sun is at the beginning of these signs he makes the nights exactly equal to the days. (Ptolemy, Tetrabiblos, Robbins trans., 1940, I.11, cam. p. 67)
Beginning in Spring
Hellenistic astrology began in the last couple centuries before the start of the first millennium. At that time, the signs of the zodiac where loosely situated over the constellations from which they are named. However, the zodiac, unlike the constellations, had a starting point. The starting point was the beginning of the sign of Aries, which is the spring equinox.
The zodiac is essentially a circle with no beginning or end, but the sign of Aries is considered to kick things off as it signals the transition to spring in the northern hemisphere.
For this reason, although there is no natural beginning of the zodiac, since it is a circle, they assume that the sign which begins with the vernal equinox, that of Aries, is the starting-point of them all, making the excessive moisture of the spring the first part of the zodiac as though it were a living creature, and taking next in order the remaining seasons, because in all creatures the earliest ages, like the spring, have a larger share of moisture and are tender and still delicate. (Ptolemy, Tetrabiblos, Robbins trans., 1940, I.10, cam. p. 61)
Northern Hemisphere Orientation
Horoscopic astrology has a bias for understanding the signs in terms of the northern hemisphere due to originating in that hemisphere. Some find this bias disquieting. However, the northern hemisphere is the dominant hemisphere when it comes to human affairs. The northern hemisphere accounts for more than two-thirds of the habitable land on earth. Additionally, about 90% of humans on Earth live in the northern hemisphere.
More importantly, the association of the sign qualities, both seasonal and constellational, in the early Hellenistic period when this system came about is a foundational moment for this system. The sign associations which often derived from circumstances that held in the particularly era and place of the birth of Hellenistic astrology, nevertheless hold for Hellenistic astrology in our era, despite the shifting of the constellations and the different seasons experienced at different latitudes including south of the equator.
Decomposing Signs into Features
The signs of the zodiac take on their astrological significance by way of a conglomeration of various features. Some of these features are based upon the yearly solar cycle, reflecting the light, seasons, and calendrical year. In fact, the most important features used in Hellenistic and Persian astrology are based on this yearly solar cycle. Other features are based upon the images of the constellations, their associations, and the significations of the stars.
In the centuries that followed the advent of Hellenistic astrology, it migrated to India, where it transformed the astral lore of the subcontinent (see Yavanajataka). However, the relationship between the seasons and the stars changes over the centuries. Due to what’s called the precession of the equinoxes, the equinoxes slowly move backward across the backdrop of the constellations. They do this 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 seasons are key to the nature of the signs.
Two Zodiacs: Which do you choose?
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. In this way, the signs always correspond to the same seasonal light/dark relationship. This is now known as the Tropical Zodiac.
The tropical zodiac was used by Greek astronomers pretty much as soon as the zodiac entered Greece from Babylon in the 5th century BCE. Earlier in that same century comes our earliest evidence of the Babylonian regular twelve sign zodiac of 30 degrees per sign.
From the Babylonian
The Babylonian regular zodiac was derived from the application of the Babylonian ideal soli-lunar calendar. A lunar month is about 30 days (closer to 29.5), and there are 12 lunar months in a year, yielding a 360 day ideal year. The vernal equinox occurred during the first month of the Babylonian calendar. The Babylonians traditionally used 17-18 zodiacal constellations. In an attempt to correlate the constellations with an ideal calendar of 12 months of 30 days, they first equated groups of constellations with months. This led to a division of the zodiac into 12 regular 30 degree sections, roughly correlated with both the calendar and the unequal constellations (which greatly varied in size). The zodiac started with the constellation in which the equinox occurred (the hired man, which equates to our Aries). However, the Babylonians started the zodiac 8 (System B) and 10 (System A) degrees back from the vernal equinox, where the equinox was supposed to fall in the first month.
The Babylonian zodiac was intended to be both tropical and sidereal. However, the Babylonians did not know about precession. Additionally, accurate calculation of the equinox required a more sophisticated geometrical astronomy than the Babylonians possessed. The Babylonians had studied planetary periods relative to each other (synodic) and to the stars (sidereal), so their mathematical astronomy upon which their tables were based resulted in sidereal positions. By contrast, over time their calculation of the equinox was off (equinox was no longer at 8 degree sidereal Aries).
The ancient Greek astronomers were geometrically oriented. They could calculate a precise equinox. Many notable Greek astronomers and astrologers placed the start of the zodiac at the equinox as soon as the zodiac entered Greece. Initially they did so for reasons independent of precession, namely that it made more sense to them to start the zodiac right at an important juncture in the relationship between Earth and sky, rather than 8 degrees from it. The tropical zodiac became the dominant zodiac of sophisticated Greek astronomy. The Antikythera Mechanism (2nd or 1st century BCE), is the first mechanical computer and is believed to have been used for astrology. It was based on sophisticated Greek geometrical astronomy, including tropical zodiac calculations.
The work of Hipparchus on precession was not widely known until some time after Ptolemy (2nd century CE) popularized it. Many early Hellenistic astrologers (most notably Thrasyllus and Vettius Valens) show evidence of having believed the equinox was at 8 degrees Aries. They did so at a time when the zodiacs had shifted so much that the tropical and sidereal zodiacs were nearly aligned. In other words, they erroneously believed the vernal equinox was at 8 degrees Aries at a time when the equinox was around 1-3 degrees of sidereal Aries. We do know that Valens used updated sidereal tables for his positional calculations, so this is further evidence for the lack of knowledge of precession. In other words, many early Hellenistic astrologers, like the Babylonians, thought their zodiac was fixed both tropically and sidereally. Their tables derived from the sidereal periods which were easier to come by and didn’t depend on sophisticated Greek geometry. For more details on these matters and the history of the zodiac, please see the article “Why Use the Tropical Zodiac?“.
East and West Diverge
Following Hipparchus’ discovery of precession (2nd century BCE) and Ptolemy’s advocacy of the tropical zodiac (Almagest; 2nd century CE) on the basis of precession, western astrologers adopted the old Greek standard of starting the zodiac at the vernal equinox. By and large astrologers no longer poorly imitated the original Babylonian zodiac or asserted the equinox was at 8 Aries. Neither did they use a sidereal zodiac marked by way of a reference star.
By contrast, in India, the trend of defining the zodiac by way of a reference star prevailed. Today, it is usually Spica which marks the beginning of Libra. This Sidereal Zodiac ensures that the signs always loosely overlay the constellations for which they are named.
Today, the choice of two zodiacs has caused quite a stir. Astrologers in the west often choose the Tropical Zodiac simply because they are western. Those in India choose the Sidereal Zodiac simply because they are Indian. Arguments made for the Tropical Zodiac typically include the readily apparent effect that the Sun’s passage through the 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 loosely overlay the constellations for which the signs are named.
The Origin of Features Matter
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 of these features is the rulership of signs by planets. This feature is almost certainly tropical in origin. By “tropical” I mean it is based on associations with the solar year and the seasons which are functions of the relationship between the eliptic and equator as marked out by the equinoctial and solstitial points.
The Lights (Sun and Moon) are assigned the signs of summer in the northern hemisphere (Cancer for the Moon and Leo for the Sun, approx. June 21st to August 21st). Saturn, the lord of darkness and cold, is assigned to the signs opposite. These are the signs of winter in the northern hemisphere (Capricorn and Aquarius, approx. December 21st to February 20th). These rulerships originated with the signs, not the constellations, and are clearly related to the seasons. Therefore, the planetary rulerships are intimately tied to the tropical zodiac.
A Place for Two Zodiacs?
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 it’s instructive for us to divide the features into two types: those derived from the tropical cycle and those derived from the constellations. The tropical zodiac is the appropriate zodiac for the most commonly used significations in ancient Hellenistic and Persian astrology. However, there are important significations which appear to be sidereal in origin.
Perhaps we should use two zodiacs, one for signifying the tropical features and another for signifying the sidereal ones. It is possible, though in practice I use the tropical zodiac for both. Zodiac features are symbolic and the two zodiacs roughly coincided around the birth of Hellenistic astrology. I take the tropical features as more fundamental. They reflect the important role the annual calendar played in their being 12 signs of 30 degrees starting with Aries in the first place. The constellations were fitted to the 12 idealized solar months, rather than the other way around (the Babylonian zodiac was 17-18 constellations). Therefore, I view it as the constellations lending their names and associations to the tropical signs at the birth of the zodiac. But let’s look at the iconic origins of various sign features.
Tropical Sign Features
Domicile and Exaltation Rulerships
As noted, the most important sign feature that is 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. The other 5 planets get two signs each straddling those of the Sun and Moon based on planetary speed. By this arrangement, the signs of Saturn are opposite those of the Lights.
Take a Few Minutes to Learn the Signs
If you are unfamiliar with the glyphs of the signs and the planets, you should take a couple days to familiarize yourself with them. You can find flashcards for planetary glyphs, helpful mnemonics for signs, and there’s more help here with a video.
The Domiciles of the Planets
In the image below, you can see that the Moon rules Cancer and the Sun rules Leo. Mercury is the fastest of the 5 other planets and it rules Gemini and Virgo. These are the signs on either side of those of the Sun and Moon. Venus is the next fastest and she rules Taurus and Libra, Those are 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. Saturn, the slowest, rules Aquarius and Capricorn which are on either side of those of Jupiter, and opposite the signs of the Lights.
Signs are the Houses of the Planets
The signs are domiciles of their rulers. Domicile means house. So the signs are the houses which belong to the planets. For example, if someone was born with Cancer rising then they have the Moon’s house rising. Cancer would be considered the 1st House of the chart and the Moon, ruler of Cancer, would be the ruler of this 1st House. The ruler is viewed as the 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 of the 2nd House. This continues in the order of the rising of the signs in a chart.
Houses and zones of the stars [are what] they term the 12 twelfths of the zodiac, which they also call signs. Of these, the most northerly and closest to us are given to the luminaries–to the Moon, Cancer; and to the Sun, Leo. And [then] in order to the one nearest them, Mercury, [they give] Gemini and Virgo; after which, to Venus, Taurus and Libra; then, to Mars, Aries and Scorpio; then, to Jupiter, Sagittarius and Pisces; then to Saturn, the one farthest from us, Capricorn and Aquarius. (Porphyry, Holden trans., 2009, Ch. 5, p. 9)
Planetary Houses and Planetary Spheres
Recall from the lesson on the planets that the Moon is the closest to Earth, while Saturn is farthest away. Porphyry’s quote above highlights the fact that the Moon’s house is the one that is the closest to us in the northern hemisphere. It starts with the point where the ecliptic hits its northernmost point. This is the same place where the Sun marks summer solstice. By contrast, the first house of Saturn, Capricorn, starts where the ecliptic is farthest away its southernmost point. Capricorn starts at the position where the Sun marks winter solstice. In this way, the Moon’s house is marked by the closest point and Saturn’s by the point farthest away, mirroring their distance from Earth.
Meaning of Domicile
The planets have a connection with, an influence upon, and a responsibility to their houses. The planets want to be able to see or monitor their houses (this is done by configuration, the topic of the next lesson). When they see their houses they can more directly influence the affairs of their houses. A planet has the most direct influence on the affairs of the house it is in. So a planet in its own house is less dependent on circumstance. It is more independent and unencumbered in its indications. Such a planet will be less dependent upon and influenced by the relationships it has with other planets, for good or ill.
In Lessons 6 and 7, we will learn how to assign responsibility for various topical areas of life to the houses. The rulers of a house, especially the domicile lord, influence the manner in which these topics are indicated to manifest in the life.
Each sign is either masculine and diurnal or feminine and nocturnal. This distinction is derived from the domiciles of the Sun and Moon. The Moon’s domicile, Cancer, is feminine and nocturnal. The Sun’s domicile, Leo, is masculine and diurnal. The signs then alternate in order as masculine/diurnal and feminine/nocturnal. I’ll just state them as diurnal or nocturnal, but know that diurnal signs were also said to be masculine, and nocturnal ones were said to be feminine. So, the next sign, Virgo, is nocturnal, then Libra is diurnal, Scorpio is nocturnal, Sagittarius is diurnal, Capricorn is nocturnal, Aquarius is diurnal, Pisces is nocturnal, Aries is diurnal, Taurus is nocturnal, and Gemini is diurnal.
Note that air and fire can lighten and rise, as this will help you to remember that Air and Fire signs are diurnal/masculine. Water and earth can darken and sink. Water and Earth signs are nocturnal/feminine. For more on the elements, see the discussion of triplicity below.
There are 12 houses. The Sun has a masculine or diurnal house (Leo) and the Moon has a feminine or nocturnal one (Cancer). What about the other 5 planets and the remaining 10 houses? Each of the 5 non-luminary planets has two houses, a day house (diurnal) and a night house (nocturnal).
Meaning of Sign Gender
Diurnal signs are symbolic of masculine and extroverted or overt traits related to a set of indications. Nocturnal signs are symbolic of feminine and introverted or covert traits related to a set of indications. However, sign gender is only a minor indication of introversion and extroversion.
Modern Sign Associations: Ruler Plus Gender
I bring up the gender of the signs because the modern associations of the signs largely derive from the domicile lord plus the gender of the sign. Although, three signs have some associations which also derive from their modern planetary ruler (Uranus with Aquarius, Neptune with Pisces, Pluto with Scorpio).
Associations such as those of Leo with leadership and confidence (Sun) and Cancer with sentimentality and emotion (Moon) come right from the rulers. Furthermore, compare the playfully clever and curious Gemini of modern descriptions (extroverted Mercury) with the critical and self-deprecating Virgo (introverted Mercury). Taurus is described as slow and sensual (introverted Venus) while Libra is harmonious and indecisive (extroverted Venus). Aries is pioneering and loud (extroverted Mars) while Scorpio is touchy and strategic (introverted Mars). Sagittarius is adventurous and optimistic (extroverted Jupiter) while Pisces is dreamy and mystical (introverted Jupiter). Capricorn is conservative and managerial (introverted Saturn) while Aquarius is independent and stubborn (extroverted Saturn).
A Note on Modern Sign Associations
If you’ve been exposed to a lot of modern astrology, as I have, then the modern associations of the signs, derived from their rulers, will immediately jump out at you. However, I would avoid thinking of the signs this way. Think of the signs instead based on the other features discussed here. The ruler’s influence on the nature of a specific house will vary according to whether it is in the house, configured to the house, and the relationship of the house to other planets. There is more to the signs in any given chart than the ruler and the gender of the house, so please consider all of the sign features explored in this lesson.
Exaltations of the Planets
Each of the planets also has a sign that is said to be its exaltation or kingdom. The motivation for this is not as clear, but appears to also be based on tropical considerations. The exaltations center around the signs of the equinoxes and solstices. For instance, the Sun and Moon are associated with the signs of spring in the exaltations.
Exaltations Emphasize the Equinoxes and Solstices
The Sun is exalted in the sign of the spring equinox (Aries). The exaltations of the Moon (Taurus) and Venus (Pisces) straddle that sign. Saturn is exalted in the sign of the autumnal equinox (Libra), which is opposite that of the Sun. Mercury is exalted in a sign that straddles that sign (Virgo). Jupiter is exalted in the sign of the summer solstice (Cancer). Mars is exalted in the sign of the winter solstice (Capricorn).
Therefore, the four slowest planets, Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, and the Sun are all exalted at the four signs that start with the equinoxes and solsitices (Aries, Libra, Cancer, Capricorn). The other three planets are all exalted at signs which straddle one of the equinoctial signs (straddle Aries or Libra).
Additionally, Porphyry noted that the signs of exaltation are in configuration to the domiciles. The diurnal planets (Sun, Jupiter, and Saturn) are exalted in a sign that is trine to one of their houses. The exaltations of the nocturnal planets (Moon, Venus, and Mars) are sextile to one of their domiciles. Configurations are the topic of the next lesson, so don’t worry too much about this at this time.
Meaning of Exaltation
The exaltation is a house where the planet is given more power and freedom to act. The planet is a celebrated guest of honor. The sign opposite a planet’s exaltation was called its fall or descension. The house of its fall was considered a place where a planet is more downtrodden in its significations, like an unwelcome guest. I personally liken the effect to the planet being given aid or freedom to realize its significations (for good or ill). Similarly, the house of a planet’s fall is a house where it is being disadvantaged or restricted (fall).
And the signs opposite the exaltations are their falls, in which they have weaker powers. (Porphyry, Holden trans., 2009, Ch. 6, p. 10)
Exaltation Lords are Rulers Too
The planet who has its exaltation in a house was also considered to be a ruler of the house. An exaltation ruler also has the ability to aid in the managing of the affairs symbolized by the house.
They are said to be co-ruler with each other, whenever it is their domicile or their exaltation. (Porphyry, Holden trans., 2009, Ch. 7, p. 10)
Avoid Detriment and Point Systems
Some astrologers use a similar concept for the signs opposite a planet’s domicile, calling them the “detriment” of the planet. This concept of detriment did not figure into Hellenistic astrology as a distinct or widespread concept. The notable figures of Hellenistic astrology didn’t use detriment and I don’t advise using it either.
Starting in the late medieval period and continuing to this day, many astrologers have assigned point values to the different forms of rulership. This is a practice started by a medieval Persian astrologer, based loosely on a technique by Ptolemy . However, in Ptolemy’s technique he gave each ruler and each aspecting planet one point, rather than having a weighted point system with a stress on sign placement like the medieval system. I find this to be more misleading than useful and I strongly advise against the practice.
Quadruplicity and Stakes
Quadruplicity is a fancy word for a grouping of four signs. This very important concept creates three types of signs. Signs of each type 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 are those which start with an equinox or solstice. The cardinal signs are also called the changeable, moveable, tropical, or equinoctial signs. They mark the turning of a new season, and thus a bold step in a new direction. Cardinal signs are associated with frequent change, boldness, and fast initiation. However, they are not associated with depth or staying power. Mercury in a cardinal sign was considered good for oratory ability, as cardinal signs signify quickness and bold projection.
The cardinal signs are as follows: Aries (0 degrees Aries is the point of the spring or vernal equinox); Cancer (0 degrees Cancer is the point of the summer solstice); Libra (0 degrees Libra is the point of the autumnal equinox); Capricorn (0 degrees Capricorn is the point of the winter solstice).
Each cardinal sign is followed by a fixed sign. These are also called the solid signs. These are the signs at the heart of the season when 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 important endeavors. Dorotheus recommended their use in elections 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. These are also called the common or twin signs. These signs are said to participate in two seasons. They mix the season that is drawing to a close with 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 complicated) but were helpful in elections where socializing was desired. Mercury in these signs was thought to be a bad indication for intellect by some astrologers. This is because mutable signs are unstable, 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, as their topics are the cornerstones of life. “Stakes” is the preferred translation given by Ben Dykes, Ph.D. for “kentra” (spike, prick), the Greek term for these places. These places operate to fix the sky (signs) to a location with four corners like stakes are used to fasten a tent.
Four Key Topics
The stakes of a birth chart are those houses which form a cross with the rising sign. The rising sign is the 1st House, pertaining to the individual/body. The 10th House, pertaining to the career/attainments is an important stake of the 1st House. The 7th House, opposite the first, pertains to marriage/partners. The last stake is the 4th House, pertaining to family/home. We will return to the assignment of life topics to the houses in Lesson Six.
Stakes of a Chart; Stakes of a Planet
Planets in the stakes of a birth chart have a type of personal prominence. They have a strong influence upon the person, as they are in the house of an important area of life. These houses are also strongly configured to the rising sign (the next lesson explores configurations).
We can also use the term “stake” for any house that forms part of a cross with it. In other words, a sign’s stakes are those signs of the same quadruplicity (cardinal, fixed, mutable). While the stakes of the chart are those signs in the same quadruplicity as the rising sign, the stakes of another house or planet in the chart are those signs of the same quadruplicity as that house or planet. Those stakes are particularly influential upon the house or planet, much like the stakes of the chart are influential in the life of the individual.
Barack Obama’s Chart Stakes and Quadruplicity
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.
Obama has Aquarius rising, which is a diurnal/masculine sign 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. Therefore, Venus is the only planet in one of the stakes of Saturn’s position.
Triplicity and Elemental Lords
Triplicity is similar to quadruplicity but signifies groupings of three signs. These are 4 groups of signs that are in triangular relationships to each other (trine each other). Today these 4 groups are identified by the elements: Fire, Earth, Air, and Water.
In early Hellenistic astrology, the triplicities were originally associated with the winds and directions rather than the elements. However, here I will label the triplicities by element as is commonly done. There are three signs in each triplicity or element. Each element has one cardinal sign, one fixed sign, and one mutable sign.
Triplicity is Tropical
Triplicity is of tropical origin as it was originally associated with the directions. The tropical signs are fixed in terms of their direction. In fact, this is built into our concepts of the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn. The Sun reaches its greatest northern latitude (the Tropic of Cancer) on the summer solstice, which marks the beginning of the sign Cancer. The Sun reaches its greatest southern latitude (the Tropic of Capricorn) on the winter solstice, which marks the beginning of the sign Capricorn. The sidereal signs are not directionally fixed with relation to the Earth, as the direction of a given sign shifts over time due to precession.
The triangles are also associated with another system of rulership, called the triplicity rulers. Each triangular set of signs has three triplicity rulers. An element is associated with one planetary ruler by day, another by night, and a third which is a lesser participant. The triplicity ruler of the sect of the chart was typically used to signify the primary and initial influence. Triplicity rulers were akin to a support network of friends and family, helping one to achieve what could be impossible on one’s own.
Triplicity and Timing
Triplicity lords were often used to show the timing of greater and lesser support from others in one’s life. This could allow one to look at how some states of affairs (such as a relationship) could change over time. The first triplicity lord (the one of sect) showed the initial support. The ruler of the other sect showed the secondary influence. This secondary influence was usually thought to take over after the minor years of the first lord or the ascensional time of the sign occupied by the first triplicity lord. At least in Medieval astrology, the third lord came to signify the final nature of support, though we don’t see significant evidence of this in the Hellenistic period.
Triplicity as Reinforcement
Additionally, when a planet was in a sign which it ruled by triplicity then it was seen as having some extended support which could make it more prominent or reinforced in its significations. For instance, a planet in triplicity (or house, exaltation, or bound) might be protected from any weakening effect of being under the beams of the Sun.
The Fire Triplicity
The Fire triplicity has Aries as its cardinal sign, Leo as its fixed sign, and Sagittarius as its mutable sign. It is a masculine and diurnal (day) triplicity. Its rulers are the Sun by day and Jupiter by night, with Saturn participating. The Fire triplicity is particularly associated with power and leadership. Fire signs are associated with the east because their cardinal sign Aries is to the right of the northernmost sign, Cancer.
The sun, being fiery, is most related to Aries, Leo, and Sagittarius, and this triangle of the sun is called “of the day-sect” because it too is fiery by nature. The sun has attached Jupiter and Saturn to this sect as his co-workers and guardians of the things which he accomplishes […]. Therefore the sun is the lord of this triangle for day births; for night births Jupiter succeeds to the throne; Saturn works with both. (Valens, Anthologies, Book II, Ch. 1, Riley trans., 2010, p. 25)
The Earth Triplicity
The Earth triplicity has Capricorn as its cardinal sign, Taurus as its fixed sign, and Virgo as its mutable sign. It is a feminine and nocturnal (night) triplicity. Its triplicity lords are the Moon by night and Venus by day, with Mars participating. The Earth triplicity is particularly associated with the working of the land. Earth signs are associated with the south because Capricorn marks the winter solstice which is at the southernmost point on the ecliptic.
Next the moon, being near the earth, is allotted the houserulership of Taurus, Virgo, and Capricorn, a triangle earthy in nature and the next in order. It has Venus and Mars as members of the same sect […]. Therefore for night births the moon has preeminence; in the second place is Venus; in the third is Mars. For day births Venus will lead; the moon will operate second; Mars, third. (Valens, Anthologies, Book II, Ch. 1, Riley trans., 2010, p. 25)
The Air Triplicity
The Air triplicity has Libra as its cardinal sign, Aquarius as its fixed sign, and Gemini as its mutable sign. It is a masculine and diurnal (day) triplicity. Its rulers are Saturn by day and Mercury by night, with Jupiter participating. The Air triplicity is particularly associated with culture and movement. Air signs are associated with the west because their cardinal sign, Libra, is right of the southernmost sign, Capricorn.
Next is the airy triangle of Gemini, Libra, and Aquarius. For day births Saturn will rule this; Mercury will operate second; Jupiter, third. For night births Mercury will lead; Saturn will come second; Jupiter, third. (Valens, Anthologies, Book II, Ch. 1, Riley trans., 2010, p. 25)
The Water Triplicity
The Water triplicity has Cancer as its cardinal sign, Scorpio as its fixed sign, and Pisces as its mutable sign. It is a feminine and nocturnal (night) triplicity. Its rulers are Mars by night, and Venus by day, with the Moon participating. The Water triplicity is particularly associated with all things water. Water signs are associated with the north because Cancer marks the summer solstice which is at the northernmost point on the ecliptic.
In the same fashion, next is the moist triangle of Cancer, Scorpio, and Pisces. Mars will have the houserulership for night births; in the second place is Venus; in the third the moon. For day births Venus will lead; after it comes Mars; then the moon. (Valens, Anthologies, Book II, Ch. 1, Riley trans., 2010, p. 25)
An Example with Rulership, Quadruplicity, Stakes, and Triplicity
Cardinal Stakes with Mars, Venus, and Jupiter Advancing
Bill Clinton has the sign of Libra rising as the 1st House (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). Only Libra is occupied, with Mars, Venus, and Jupiter all in it and advancing. Mars is prominent on the Ascendant.
We expect him to have a very Mars-y life, one that is in a sense quite combative and competitive due to Mars in the 1st and on the Ascendant. Also, we generally expect Mars, Venus, and Jupiter to directly signify in relation to more important matters in the life (stakes). As Venus and Jupiter are benefic, they tend to bring success and fortune circumstances to the significations of Mars. The Ascendant, Mars, Venus, and Jupiter are all ruled by Venus, so we expect the self to be strongly influenced by aesthetics and sexuality, especially with Venus in the actual 1st House.
Cardinal and Air Rising with Venus and Mars Together
Venus and Mars are out of sect, and Mars, as a malefic, signals trouble in relation to Venusian matters (cardinal is bold and impulsive). His initial aspirations to be a professional musician are also very clearly shown by the presence of Venus and her rulership of the 1st. Libra is a cardinal sign, so we expect a bold expressive character. The planets in the 1st House also make their more important expressions in terms of boldness and rapidly sweeping changes in circumstances. The 1st House is an air sign, so we might expect the self and the planets in the 1st to have a strong connection with thought and movement.
Saturn with the Sun and Mercury in Fixed Leo
Clinton was born during the day and Libra is the exaltation of Saturn. Also, Saturn is the triplicity lord of Libra (an all air signs) by day. Therefore, 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). Saturn is also with the Sun in the same house, and the Sun rules the sign Leo and the fire triplicity by day. Therefore, the solar influence (which is of power, exposure, prominence) is very strong. Saturn is also with Mercury, the planet of intellect. Saturn, Mercury, and the Sun are in a fixed sign, so they signify in a more stable and progressive, less episodic, manner. As they are all with each other they mix their significations of leadership and honors (Sun) with struggle, authority, and discipline (Saturn), as well as communication, commerce, and analysis (Mercury).
Other Tropical Features
Rising Times and Symmetry
There are a great many additional features of signs that are tropical in origin but of less importance. For instance, whether signs were of short or long ascension (i.e. taking more or less than 2 hours to rise) was an important consideration in choosing times for actions according to Dorotheus. Similarly, there are relationships which pertained to signs and degrees mirroring each other (i.e. equidistant) across the points of the equinoxes and solstices (see my article on symmetry).
Northern and Southern Signs
Additionally, the Persians spoke of the southern signs (Libra thru Pisces) as being cold while the northern signs (Aries thru Virgo) were hot. In this case, both the directions and the temperatures are a reference to the tropical cycle.
The signs were also divided up into seasonal quarters. Spring signs (Aries, Taurus, Gemini) are hot, moist, infant-like, and sanguine. Summer signs (Cancer, Leo, Virgo) are hot, dry, young, and choleric. Autumn signs (Libra, Scorpio, Sagittarius) are cold, dry, middle-aged, and melancholic. Winter signs (Capricorn, Aquarius, Pisces) are cold, moist, elderly, and phlegmatic.
Note on Tropical Features
These other features of the signs are not used as commonly as those cited in the previous section, so we won’t explore them in depth. However, I note them because they figure into some techniques of Hellenistic astrology. Planetary rulership, exaltation rulership, triplicity, quadruplicity, sign gender, ascensional times, sign symmetry, the division into northern and southern signs, and the seasonal quarters all relate to the tropical cycle. Therefore, most of the features of the zodiac that are most important to us in Hellenistic astrological chart work should rely upon the tropical zodiac.
Main Sidereal Features
The Greek word for sign, zoidion, meant image or species. Indeed some of the features of the signs are 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, while one in Sagittarius would affect horses, and so forth.
Additionally, there are some sign classifications that pertain to the imaged category or species of the signs. For instance, some signs are four-footed, others lack a voice (because they image animals lacking a voice), and some are rational (because they include an image of a person).
These sign associations are used less often than rulership, quadruplicity, and triplicity, but they are important to some techniques. 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 these types of considerations.
Star Cluster Delineations
Certain segments and degrees of signs have distinct significations in many Hellenistic texts, based on stars and segments of constellations. 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. This material is truly sidereal in origin. The sidereal zodiac or even the constellations themselves are more appropriate to this type of delineation than the tropical zodiac.
There is an Egyptian division of the signs into thirds, called the decans. The decans were used for time-keeping in ancient Egypt. As the decans were based on the rising of 36 different star clusters, they are a star-based (sidereal) division.
The nakshatras, a division of the sky into 27-28 lunar mansions, have been used in India since before the arrival of Hellenistic astrology. They are associated with star clusters which the Moon passes through over its 27-28 day monthly cycle. They are probably not appropriate for use with the tropical zodiac. A similar lunar cycle division into 28 mansions also appeared in ancient Chinese astrology. In Arabic medieval astral magic, a 28-mansion division derived from the Indian nakshatras was used.
Bounds or Terms
There is one last division of the signs which we need to address. It is one which we will be using in future lessons. The bounds or terms are divisions of each sign into 5 segments. Each of the five non-luminary planets rules one of the segments (bounds) in each sign. As each sign is a planet’s house, think of the bounds as five rooms of the house. Each room belongs to a planet (except the Sun and Moon).
The bounds are unequal divisions of the signs. No one knows the rationale behind this division of the zodiac. Some authors (including Ptolemy) proposed multiple systems of dividing the signs into bounds. However, the most widespread and the oldest (see this article on pre-Hellenistic evidence for bounds), are the Egyptian bounds.
Download a Bounds Reference Chart
Project Hindsight provides a convenient rulership tables PDF which includes the Egyptian bounds (and other rulers). If I’m online and need to look up bounds quickly, I typically check the Altair Astrology page for his article on bounds, as it has an easy-to-read table. Additionally, the bounds are displayed in almost all charts on this site, as I use the Valens software (a version of Morinus) or Traditional Morinus. Both programs allow one to view the bounds within the chart.
Two Zodiacs Revisited
In conclusion, both the tropical and the sidereal zodiacs have their own motivations. We are primarily concerned with significations that are tropical in nature. However, the western astrologer may be missing out on a chunk of significations which are sidereal in origin. The sidereal zodiac appears best suited for image associations and delineations of degrees and clusters influenced by stars and constellations. Perhaps one day we will come to find some happy synthesis in the use of both zodiacs for those domains where they are most appropriate. For now, I will stick with the tropical zodiac for use in these lessons.
You now have many new tools to work with. The rising sign is particularly symbolic of the person, so take a look at the sign of the Ascendant, and that of the Moon, in various charts. Pick apart the possible significations based on the features of the signs. Look at which planets are in the rising sign and which are with the Moon.
Next, take a look at the rulers of the Ascendant. The domicile ruler pertains more to the character and spirit of the person while the Ascendant itself pertains more to the body and temperament. Examine the nature of the rulers and how they are affected by the significations of the sign. How might character and bodily temperament change over the life based on the triplicity lords of the rising sign and those of its ruler?
You also 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.
Valens, V. (2010). Anthologies. (M. Riley, Trans.) (Online PDF.). World Wide Web: Mark Riley. Retrieved from http://www.csus.edu/indiv/r/rileymt/Vettius%20Valens%20entire.pdf
Featured image of the Dendera zodiac (cropped)by Louvre Museum [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Twelfth-parts of Aries image by groupuscule (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Domicile rulerhips and Exaltation rulerships images are by Meredith Garstin (Meredith Garstin) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons
Image of Surya surrounded by the signs of the zodiac is in the public domain.
Celestial map image from the Zubdat-al Tawarikh in the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts in Istanbul, dedicated to Sultan Murad III in 1583 (in the public domain).