Learn the Meanings of the Planets
In the last article of this series, Lesson Zero, I introduced the history of astrology and the reasons for studying ancient astrology. Have you ever wondered what the planets mean (signify) in astrology? In this article, we will explore the meanings of the planets and how to read their symbols, as well as how to avoid a few pitfalls along the way.
A Note on Astrological Terminology
The terminology of ancient astrology is sometimes confusing because ancient astrologers were also the first astronomers. Modern astronomy developed over the last few centuries and has taken the same terminology used by ancient astrologers/astronomers but often with a change in technical meaning and application. This re-defining of terminology has been a source of confusion. It is also behind many false assumptions made by critics.
What are Stars?
It helps to think of the ancient astrological terms as being based more on visual considerations while their modern astronomical equivalents are based on physical considerations. For instance, in ancient astrology, a ‘star’ is basically a glowing heavenly body so it included not only the stars in the modern astronomical sense (defined by their composition) but also the planets and the Moon. Therefore, ancient astrology distinguishes the “fixed” stars from the “wandering” stars.
When a Planet was a Type of Star
The term “planet” causes more confusion than any other, Not only does ‘planet’ have a different meaning nowadays, but modern astrologers have tended to use the term in the astronomical rather than the astrological sense. For instance, in ancient astrology, the “planets” are the seven wandering stars. These seven glowing lights are seen to wander in a regular path along the ecliptic (i.e. the path of the Sun) moving from west to east. They include the Sun and the Moon, though the Sun and Moon were given special status among them as the Lights or Luminaries.
A Planet by Any Other Name
The astrological planets didn’t include the modern astronomical outer planets Uranus and Neptune, nor the dwarf planets like Pluto and Eris. These so-called planets are not stars in the ancient sense (and thus are not wandering stars) because they are not visible glowing heavenly bodies. For this reason, some modern-day traditionalist astrologers who like to use these modern astronomical planets have taken to calling them “the invisible planets”, or simply “the modern planets”. In this way they can be distinguished from traditional astrological planets.
The Planets – Order and Symbols
The 7 planets of ancient astrology are typically ordered in terms of apparent speed. This order was conceived as spheres around the Earth which were the domains of each planet. At birth the soul would descend from the fixed stars, then through the sphere of Saturn and the rest of the planets to the Moon, and then to Earth. The soul would take on different physical and spiritual qualities along the way, in parallel to fetal development. At death, the soul would ascend from the Earth upwards through the spheres of the Moon, Mercury, and so forth, tested at each sphere and shedding some worldly attribute (possibly influencing the Christian conception of the seven deadly sins according to some scholars). This order is sometimes called the Chaldean order of the planets. Typically, the order starts with either the slowest planet, Saturn, or the fastest planet, the Moon.
- The Moon
- The Sun
- The Moon
Remembering the Planetary Order
The Sun is in the center of the list, dividing the rest of the planets into 3 “inferiors” (Venus, Mercury, The Moon) and 3 “superiors” (Mars, Jupiter, Saturn). Closest to the Earth is the Moon, while furthest is Saturn. To aid memory, note that the crescent of the Moon and the rings of Saturn are both wispy circles on either end of the list.
You may have heard the expression that men are from Mars and women from Venus. Mars has to do with masculinity and Venus to femininity. In the planetary order, they they flank the Sun on either side. To aid memory, note that Venus is like a feminine sexual organ pulling into the direction of Earth while Mars is like a masculine one pushing out to the stars. The giant Jupiter is out toward Saturn and the tiny Mercury in toward the Moon.
Learning the Planetary Glyphs
The glyphs for the planets can also be seen here. The glyphs for the Sun and Moon (Sol and Luna above) are pretty easy to grasp. Many are also familiar with the glyphs for Venus (like a stick person, think “female person”) and Mars (a circle with an arrow, think “erection”). The glyph for Mercury (Mercurius above) is pretty easy to grasp, as it looks like a stick person with a winged hat – Mercury is the messenger.
The symbols for Jupiter and Saturn (Iupiter and Saturnus above) are the most confusing for beginners. They are derived from the Greek Z for Zeus and K for Kronos respectively. Jupiter looks like a 4; think 4 corners and peace of mind. Saturn looks like a cross with a tail; think cross to bear and a little devilish.
The Basic Meanings of the Planets
The seven planets are the most important symbols in the astrological language. Your ability to read a chart will depend upon being able to get a sense of their main meanings and associations, as well as their quality or energy. It is very easy to be misled when reading a chart if you do not have a clear idea of the distinctness of each planet. Master these 7 notes of the music of astrology.
As I explain the meaning of each planet, think about people, actions, and things in everyday life that these planets can describe as adjectives.
Short List of Planetary Associations
Ancient, dead, land, raw resources, dark, fear-inducing, lack, obligation, duty, macabre, cold, doubting, restrictive.
Lofty, opportune, joyous, generous, open, fertile, popular, teaching, warm, trusting, expansive.
Fiery, intense, aggressive, dangerous, bold, pack-animals/swarm/march, very hot, disagreeable, explosive.
Vibrant, powerful, prominent, rational, leading, pioneering, hot, influential, attention-getting.
Beautiful, pleasurable, friendly, sensual, sexual, mysterious, intoxicating, wet, agreeable, soothing.
Clever, skilled, complex, cunning, numbers, language, business, transporting, dry, knowledgeable, informative.
Primal, powerful, idiosyncratic, irrational, natural, familial, nurturing, journeying, wet and changeable, personal, intimate.
Describing People with Planets
Let’s think of a few well-known figures and what planets we’d associate with their lives and personalities. There are no right or wrong answers in this exercise. Simply try to keep the planets distinct and think of why some signification applies to a certain aspect of the life or personality.
He doesn’t strike us as very dark and foreboding (Saturn). His personality seemed a bit Jupiterian, i.e. lofty, joyful and expansive. He doesn’t strike us as hot-tempered at all (Mars), but he did deal with themes in his professional life of intense energy. The genius, pioneering, and attention-getting significations of the Sun seem to pertain very strongly to his life’s work as a whole. He doesn’t strike one as particularly sensual or artistic (Venus) but he has more of a mysterious friendliness than a gregarious Jupiterian friendliness.
Mercury seems to have had a major impact on his life’s work as a whole as it very much was concerned with numbers, knowledge, complexity, and information. As far as scientists go he seems more lunar than typical in his personality, in that he appears more natural, idiosyncratic, intimate, and embracing of the irrational. Overall, it would seem that his legacy is particularly well-described by Mercury and the Sun, while his personality seems more lunar, Jupiterian, and possibly Venusian.
Bjork strikes me as very lunar in many ways as her art seems to stress a certain natural, primal, intimate, and irrational side of things. She is an artist which automatically brings to mind Venus but in her style and approach, she seems to stress attention-getting vibrant creative genius (Sun) and intimate personal expression (Moon).
It’s hard to imagine the guy as anything but a dark, duty-bound, doubtful figure aiming to strike fear into con artist New Age gurus, which is Saturn all the way. As a magician, he’s clever, an entertainer, and an attention-getting rationalist, so Mercury and the Sun also come to mind.
As a leader, the Sun definitely comes to mind as having a prominent role to play in the life. Personality-wise he seems somewhere between Jupiter and Saturn, between open and gregarious Jupiter and the cool formal sternness of Saturn. His general tendency to be attended by luck and popularity is consistent with Jupiter.
Useful Planetary Groupings
There are some ways of grouping or organizing the planets that are particularly useful and meaningful.
Benefics and Malefics
One of the most important groupings is according to the tendency to signify pleasant or unpleasant things. Two of the planets (Jupiter and Venus) tend toward signifying the most enjoyable types of things while another two of the planets (Saturn and Mars) tend toward signifying the most unpleasant and challenging things.
The Benefics tend toward fortuitous balance.
- Jupiter – Temperate, fertile, joyous, high, opportune, sweet.
- Venus -Temperate, fertile, pleasurable, beautiful, satiated, fatty.
The Malefics tend toward unpleasant extremes.
- Saturn – Cold, depressed, slow, extremes of lack of life and activity, rotten/sour.
- Mars – Hot, angered, overloaded, extremes of violent energy, bitter.
The Lights and Mercury
Three planets are neither benefic nor malefic. The Sun and the Moon signify powerful and important things. Mercury, the planet most closely associated with rationality, is complex and can assist in bringing about pleasant or unpleasant things.
The Lights tend toward prominence and influence, which is neutral but often desired.
- The Sun – Attainment, honors, leadership.
- The Moon – Depth, naturalness, subjective significance.
Mercury is amoral, complex, and combining. It is neutral but also tends toward argument, contention, and dryness so it was considered by some to tend toward slight displeasure.
Another very useful and important division is called “sect”. Three planets are more associated with the day and the sky (i.e. above the horizon), and three with the night and the ground/underworld (i.e. below the horizon). Mercury is neutral, affiliating sect based on specific circumstances. Each sect is led by a Light and has one benefic and one malefic. We will return to sect frequently in future lessons, as it is an important factor in astrological interpretation.
The Diurnal Sect
The day or diurnal sect is led by The Sun, with the benefic Jupiter and the malefic Saturn. These planets are also more associated with the realm above the horizon, which is more sky-like, soul-oriented, or abstract. Therefore, they tend to signify along more social, mental, and spiritual lines.
The Nocturnal Sect
The night or nocturnal sect is led by The Moon, with the benefic Venus and the malefic Mars. These planets are also more associated with the realm below the horizon, which is more Earth-like, body-oriented, or tangible. Therefore, they tend to signify along more familial, physical, and resourceful lines.
Contrasting the Two Pairs of Benefics and Malefics
All of the planets can signify along either abstract or tangible lines. However, the day benefic and day malefic will usually pertain more to social and mental benefits and problems, while the night benefic and night malefic will pertain more to physical and familial or intimate benefits and problems. The day malefic Saturn would be more likely to signify something like imprisonment or depression (a social or mental problem). By contrast, Mars would be more relevant to something like assault or a family argument (a physical or familial problem). Similarly, the day benefic Jupiter will tend to signify getting a job or having a spiritual experience (a social or mental benefit). By contrast, Venus will tend to signify a delicious dinner or a great sexual experience (a physical or intimate benefit).
Take It Further
Now that you are familiar with the basic associations of the planets, I’d like you to look at two different ancient perspectives on the significations of the planets. Vettius Valens and Claudius Ptolemy are both very important Hellenistic astrologers who practiced in the 2nd century CE. Valens was more in line with the astrological thought of his day (and the Mesopotamian’s before) in that he viewed astrological indications as signs (like writing in the sky from a higher power). On the other hand, Ptolemy sought to understand planetary influence in a physical and causal way, using the Aristotelian physics of his day.
Look over the first chapter of Valens’ Anthology (click the link) in which he describes the planetary associations and their significations for character. Compare and contrast these with Ptolemy’s description of the powers of the planets (click the link). Ptolemy’s descriptions are very weather-oriented. However, later in the Tetrabiblos when he describes actual characteristics and events in terms of the planets, we find that he associates the planets in much the same way as Valens. It is worth reviewing the first chapter of the text by Valens multiple times.
Think about the basic planetary associations and the indications given by Valens. Which planet or planets play the greatest role in your life? What planet best describes your personality? Which one best describes your work and favorite hobbies? Ask yourself these questions about loved ones as well.
The planets can span nearly any topic in life, so also think about people, place, things, and events in general in terms of the planets. If someone goes on vacation think “Moon”, as she journeys. If someone is frequently commuting for work, think “Mercury”. Seeing a major CEO, think “Sun”. A homeless person should make you think “Saturn”, and a lottery winner should make you think “Jupiter”. An attractive musician should have you thinking “Venus”, while muscles and tattoos should have you thinking “Mars”. A computer database is “Mercury”, while an explosion is “Mars”.
Practice thinking like this and in the next lesson, I’ll address one way to find the general prominence or “volume” (as in loudness) of a planet’s significations in someone’s life.
Featured image is in the public domain.
Luna de Septiembre (September Moon) by ANDY ABIR ALAN, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=54698423
Uranus image is in the public domain.
Music of the Spheres image is in the public domain.
Astrological Glyphs images are in the public domain.
Einstein image is in the public domain.
Bjork image by Zach Klein from New York, New York, USA (Bjork, Hurricane Festival) [CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons
James Randi image is in the public domain.
Barack Obama Portrait 2006 by By Ari Levinson (Autumnfire), minor cleanup edit by Chicago god. (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons
Solar eclipse image is in the public domain.
Statue of Good and Evil image is in the public domain.