When you’re first learning about astrology, there comes a time—and it usually happens when you encounter your first quality sun sign horoscope— that you’ll come across the idea of “houses.” Houses in astrology are one of the crucial components of understanding your birth chart, and if you want your understanding of astrology to level up quickly, learning how the houses work and what they mean, both in general and for you, will be one of the quickest ways to understand how this kooky cosmic clock times trends in your life and in the world.
“Sure, but what are they?”
First, let’s put some vapor house on to get in the mood…
Imagine a department store.
Within a department store you have, well, departments, and you’re probably thinking of the sales floor: there’s housewares, men’s clothing, women’s clothing, automotive, sporting goods, automotive, and electronics (in most, anyway). The sales floor has quite a bit to do with how the store interacts with you, the customer.
But there are also parts of the store that you don’t see, too; things like the cash office, human resources, the loading dock, the employee lounge, and the warehouse area in the back. Sometimes there’s a concessions area with a Starbucks in front. Then there’s the checkout area, which is where the magic happens for the store.
Each of these areas serves a different function in the overall shopping experience. So, we might think of them as “functional areas.” And each of these areas has a middle manager who oversees the day-to-day operations of each department, while everyone in the store and all its functions, as well as its overall success, is under the purview of the general manager.
In astrology, each house in a chart is like one of these functional areas within a store. Each of the houses has a way in which it relates to you as an individual, and each house interfaces with an aspect of the outside world around you (just like each area in the store, sales floor or not, relates to the customer experience overall).
The Ascendant and its ruler represents the General Manager of the store, and every other department has its own manager, or what we call a “house ruler.”
So if each house represents a domain of your life, how do you figure out which domain goes where? Let’s look at a chart example.
If you’re looking at your circular birth chart, you’ll see it divided into twelve pizza slices. Starting with the point on the circle furthest over the left-hand side (the nine o’clock position), you will then count forward counter-clockwise to number them off. See where the Ascendant degree is in that graphic? Everything in a counter-clockwise direction, to the next line or “cusp,” is the first house.
So, the first house in that chart is the pie piece that starts at 26 Libra 46 and goes to 24 Scorpio 57.
However! A tricky bit quickly arises: when using quadrant houses, if a planet is within 5 degrees of the next house cusp moving in a counter-clockwise direction, we read that planet as being in the next house. Looking at that same chart, we see that Jupiter is at 24 Sagittarius 19, but the 3rd house line falls at 26 Sagittarius 44. Since that Jupiter is within 5 degrees, we know that this Jupiter is a 3rd house Jupiter.
That five-degree “buffer” until the dividing line is what we call the “cusp” of a house, which doesn’t mean boundary; it means point or apex, like the points on your canine teeth: it’s why those teeth are called “cuspids.” It’s the seat of power related to that house, and planets on the cusp have a big impact in the affairs of that house.
For example, we might think of the second house in your birth chart as your stock room: it’s where all your inventory and resources are stored. A planet sitting right on the 2nd house cusp is in the middle of your stock room, doing whatever it is that planet does: if it’s Jupiter, he’s making money for you, but if it’s Mars, he’s probably spending money. “You gotta spend money to make money, honey,” he says.
But, he’s not in charge of the stockroom. He’s just right in the middle of it doing his Mars thing.
Who’s actually in charge of the 2nd house? Well, whose turf does that cusp fall in? To figure this out, we look at the sign wherein the cusp falls, and see what planet rules it.
So, if the 2nd cusp falls in the sign of Leo, the ruler of Leo is then in charge of the 2nd cusp. In this case, the Sun rules the 2nd cusp and will describe your relationship to money in some way.
How do I figure out how to divide the houses in my birth chart? I heard something about whole sign/Placidus/Koch/&c. houses… what’s all that about?
Technical Ramble Alert!
What you’re thinking about is the issue of house division, which has been a logistical problem within the astrological community for centuries and has engendered more than one loud argument in restaurants at conferences throughout the years.
Conceptually, houses are divisions of local space using astronomical considerations. There are… more than a handful of different criteria around which you could divide this space. You could use time to divide space. You could use… space to divide space (how’s your spherical trigonometry?) You could just use the Zodiac itself to divide space. It’s like cutting a pizza into 12 pieces. We generally want the result to have nice, even pieces.
But different astronomical criteria (yes, astronomical, meaning things that we are observing about the sky) determine how those pieces are divided. Broadly speaking, most systems of house division use either a reference to a point in the Zodiac, usually the ascendant, and then project houses from there on a sign-by-sign basis (whole sign houses and equal sign houses do this), while others, like Placidus, bring the degree of the midheaven into the equation, creating some complicated math.
BUT HOW DO I PICK ONE
Just pick one and stick with it long enough to learn how it functions and why it functions. In my practice, I waffle between whole sign houses and Placidus houses for natal astrology (although I gave up whole sign houses for Lent this year to build some consistency of interpretation…), but I use Placidus exclusively for horary.
The point, especially if you’re new to learning astrology, is not to win an argument; the point is to have results that help lead you to richer understanding of your own chart and the charts that come into your life. So!
How do I actually interpret the houses in my birth chart?
Let’s start off with the idea of angular triads. There are four angles in your birth chart. As each day goes by, if you’re looking south, the sky appears to rotate in a clockwise direction. We call this direction “primary motion.” Planets rise at the ascendant, culminate at the midheaven, set at the descendant, and come to their lowest point at the imum coeli, AKA the cusp of the 4th house.
Those four turning points are called “angles,” and initially were described with a word that also meant “tent pegs.” Those four points are the most significant points in your chart, and anything placed within those houses has more to say about your overall life and experiences. So start off by looking to see if you have any planets in the 1st, 10th, 7th, or 4th houses.
Planets in the houses that come before the angular houses in primary direction (remember, clockwise is primary) are called “succedent.” If we think of each of the big four angle house cusps as a throne, planets the succedent houses (2nd, 11th, 8th, and 5th) will, as the day goes on, succeed to those thrones. Conversely, planets in the houses that come after the angular houses in primary direction are called “cadent.” They were on the throne, but now they’ve lost their opportunity and have fallen out of power (which is what “cadent” means).
We can then divvy out the houses into three categories: succedent, angular, and cadent. Planets in angular houses have all the opportunity in the world to manifest what they promise; planets in cadent houses have lost that opportunity and are regrouping. Planets in succedent houses are movin’ on up but aren’t quite there.
Now, just because a planet is in an angular house doesn’t mean that it’s doing its job well, which is why understanding planetary condition is crucial—but that’s for another blog post!
Let’s get to the overall meaning of the houses, then. I won’t go into the rationale for why these meanings are what they are; that’s been treated at length by lots of fantastic astrologers. What I do want to point out is that there’s disagreement on the meanings of some of these, for sure.
Modern astrology understands the meanings of houses that Dane Rudhyar articulated in his lovely book “The Astrological Houses,” where each of the houses is viewed as a part of an unfolding life cycle. That’s not what I’m presenting here.
What I’m presenting here represents the consensus of the classical astrological tradition as found as common threads through the astrological texts of the middle ages, renaissance, and baroque era. Try these out, see if you like them, and if you get stuck on the meaning of a house or if it doesn’t land, let it marinate until it clicks. Many of these are drawn from the “joys” of the planets: if a planet delights to be in a house, it impacts the overall meaning of that house.
- The first house is the joy of Mercury and it relates to you: your baseline personality, underlying motivations, style, appearance, and vitality.
- The second house relates to money, especially your money, and resources that you have access to which enable you to support yourself.
- The third house is the joy of the Moon and relates to communication in general, but more specifically to communication with people who are in your local space. There’s a “your zip code” element to the third; it represents your peers, siblings, neighbors, and really anywhere within commuting distance. It also relates to matters of the mind, gathering knowledge, primary education, news, rumors, and reports.
- The fourth house relates to matters of ancestry, parents, family, and your sense of “home;” it also relates to matters of the land, and the legacies that you leave.
- The fifth house is the joy of Venus and relates to matters of sensual pleasure, fun, recreation, procreation, and creativity. Sam Reynolds calls this the house of swagger; where you go to express yourself and put more of yourself in the world.
- The sixth house is the joy of Mars and relates to matters of disease and illness. It also relates to drudgery, hard work, labors, servitude, and people who work for you. It also represents pets and small animals!
- The seventh house relates to one-on-one interactions, most commonly marriage or romantic relationships, but it also has signification of anyone with whom we are engaged, such as the opposing party in a lawsuit, the business partner we would sign a contract with, or our enemies.
- The eighth house is the house of unavoidables: death, debt, and taxes. Since it opposes the 2nd house, it has significations of other people’s money. It also represents inheritances you might receive from the dead, as well as your relationship with fear.
- The ninth house is the joy of the Sun and relates to matters that enlighten and elevate our perspective: religion, philosophy, higher education, and travel to far-off lands. It’s everything that the 3rd house isn’t; if the 3rd is focused on here and now, the 9th is focused on everything else. Publishing and mass communication is part of the story here; 3rd is generating content, 9th is getting it out there.
- The tenth house, called “Acts” in Greek, is what you’re known for, the way you appear within public perception, career, vocation, and accomplishments.
- The eleventh house is the joy of Jupiter and relates to the people whose company you keep: friends, groups, affiliations, associations. It also describes the positive boons and opportunities which come your way and your aspirational longings.
- The twelfth house is the joy of Saturn and relates to matters of sorrow, isolation, separation, and imprisonment. Kelly Surtees describes it as a “Pandora’s Box” of all the stuff that you’d rather forget about that can be brought to the surface by transit.
Now, the key to interpreting how houses function is to figure out which planet rules the house and to look at the condition and placement of that planet in your birth chart. We can use this extremely basic formula to get us rolling:
My [nth] house cusp falls in [sign]. [Sign] is ruled by [planet]. [Planet] is in [good/bad/eh] condition in [x] house. My relationship to [nth] house affairs manifests in a [planet] style using [matters of the house the sign ruler is placed in]. This leads to [positive/negative/mixed] outcomes relative to matters of the [nth] house.
Since I’m a Sagittarius midheaven, I’ll use my own chart as an example.
In my chart, the cusp of the 9th house falls in Scorpio. Scorpio is ruled by Mars. Mars is in overall good condition in my chart in the 2nd house. My relationship to 9th house affairs manifests in a Mars style using matters of the 2nd house. This leads to generally positive outcomes relative to matters of the 9th house.
I’m an impulse spender when something resonates with a goal or ideal that I have. In fact, I spend a lot of money, but I try to spend it in accordance with my ethics around money!
Let’s try another one!
Say you have the 7th house cusp in Libra with Venus in Capricorn in the 10th in a night chart, applying to the conjunction of Mars, with the Moon applying to trine Venus from Taurus. That’s a strong Venus, helped by Mars and supported by the Moon. So it would look like this:
In your chart, the cusp of the 7th house falls in Libra. Libra is ruled by Venus. Libra is in overall good condition in the 10th house. Your relationship to 7th house affairs (relationships) manifests in a Venus in Capricorn style (strong, determined, suffers no fools) within the realm of your 10th house. This leads to positive outcomes relative to matters of the 7th house; you might meet your partner in a work setting, or you and your partner might join together to found a company (since in this instance, Mars would be your ascendant ruler as the ASC would fall in Aries).
Remember what I said especially about planets in an angular house (both Mars and Venus are in an angular house, the 10th here): this part of your chart will have a lot to say about your overall life story! It’s turned up to 11, so to speak. This synergy between Mars and Venus in your chart makes your professional achievements a major factor in the stories people tell about you.
What if I have empty houses in my chart?
That’s not anything you need to worry about. I’ve heard of people told that they won’t have kids because their 5th house is empty… that’s bunk, sorry. Even if a house is empty, it still has a ruler, and that ruler is still placed somewhere and doing something. If your 2nd house is empty, you’re not going to be broke because of that; look to the ruler of your 2nd and see what’s happening with it! Use the formula, tell the story!
That said, understanding the condition of a planet is crucial to getting accurate interpretations for each placement. I’ve not yet written a lot on understanding planetary condition, but if you want to do a deep dive, Demetra George’s new book is the text you want to get to start getting the mechanics in your head (affiliate link ahoy!): get it here!
Meanwhile, over the next twelve weeks, I’m going to be offering one post for each of the houses going through its ruler being placed in any of the other houses! That’ll cover every possible combination.
In the meantime, if you really want to do a deep dive into understanding your house placements, there’s no better way to do that than by working one on one with me in an astrology consultation. Your chart will come alive in ways you didn’t expect just by getting another set of experienced eyes on it, and I absolutely can’t wait to work with you!
Featured Image by Jakob Owens via Unsplash