How to Interpret Houses in Astrology — Part 11: The Tenth House

We come at last to the other house I specialize in: the tenth.

The question of, “what do I want to do when I grow up?” continues to haunt me even now in my early thirties. What will my impact on the world be? What work is my dharma, for lack of a better word?

We spend tremendous trying to discern the answer to this question. The scripts that previous generations hand down to us for what “meaningful work” or a “successful career” look like are as vague and varied as layers of clouds channeling the light of a sunken sun after it dips below the horizon. There’s no clear answer.

The conversation in my world, especially during my adolescence, often framed this question in the swirly language of vocation: “what is God calling you to do?” It was, of course, an assumption that each individual human had a stunningly unique calling on their lives. In the evangelical landscape, there was certainly a hierarchy of callings: missionaries were A-rank, followed closely by clergy, then, you know, bible-y people. Chapel speakers and visiting missionaries told us, in no uncertain terms, that unless we considered missionary service, we hadn’t really engaged with the question of call.

Meanwhile, communal expectations placed a tremendous psychic weight on getting the answer to this question: it had to be right, or God would make your life miserable until you did what He wanted you to do (and it was always the male version of God who behaved like this).

Many a night I prayed with burbling ululations, demanding God show me precisely what my path was to be, and to confirm it, with some sort of sign. I watched with dank envy as my peers, stout and stalwart, signed up to be missionaries, or officer candidates in the military, or teachers of music, or accountants, or seminarians—each assured of the work that lay ahead of them, each assured that their path was right.

Meanwhile, I fumbled and floundered my way into my vocation, wrangling and jangling for a decade, only to discover that Augustine of Hippo had already figured it out:

āma deum et fāc quod vīs. 

“Love God and do what you want.”

The Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor, a writer and Episcopal priest, relates a similar story of the time God finally offered her an answer:

“…I no longer remember which night it was that God finally answered my prayer. I do not think it was right at the beginning, when I was still saying my prayers in words. I think it came later, when I had graduated to inchoate sounds. Up on that fire escape, I learned to pray the way a wolf howls. I learned to pray the way that Ella Fitzgerald sang scat.
“Then one night when my whole heart was open to hearing from God what I was supposed to do with my life, God said, ‘Anything that pleases you.’
‘What?’ I said, resorting to words again. ‘What kind of an answer is that?’
‘Do anything that pleases you,’ the voice in my head said again, ‘and belong to me.’
…I was so relieved that I sledded down the stairs that night. Whatever I decided to do for a living, it was not what I did but how I did it that mattered.” (An Altar in the World, 110).

That’s the great joke of vocation. Once all the layers of societal pressure are removed from it, it lays bare, like a pearl in an oyster, covered in the soft animal of our anxieties and locked tight in the hard shell of expectations: none of us has a vocation to do anything beyond being fully ourselves, precisely as we were meant to be.

(Please substitute “love God” here for whichever practice cultivates goodness and generosity, if God-talk is still troublesome for you.)

This is the top note that I attempt to hit in all of my vocational consultations with my clientele, who come to me from all levels of education and experience. They’re often facing the question not so much of “what should I do?” but rather “what do I want?” Indeed, dear Reader, what do you want?

After hundreds of vocational consultations I’ve come to believe that there are two crucial conversations to have when we’re learning to interpret the tenth house. The first is the difference between vocation and profession. That’s an easy enough distinction to frame: what you do and what you get paid for are two circles in a Venn diagram that may, or may not, overlap to varying degrees. If the same planets are implicated in both the affairs of the 2nd and of the 10th, chances are that vocation and profession overlap a great deal.

The second, and more important, conversation is the question of praxis: what we do.

The Tenth House as Praxis

In Greek, the word that describes the tenth house in astrology is “praxis,” from which we get the English word “practice” (or the name of the Praxis examinations for new teachers in the United States). In Greco-Roman antiquity, historians often titled their biographical monographs some sort of variation of “Acts:” for instance, “The Acts of Caesar,” “The Acts of Domitian,” or “The Acts of the Apostles,” which is the title of one of the books of the New Testament. The Greek word translated as “acts” in these titles is also the Greek word “praxis.”

If we consider the nature of the “acts” as a literary form, we can think about praxis, and thereby the tenth house in astrology, like this:

The tenth house describes the stories that are told about you.

Classical authors are in uncommon agreement about the impact of the midheaven. Firmicus Maternus, a Roman astrologer from the 4th century CE, argues that the midheaven affects all our actions and dealing with others, saying, “In this house, we find life and vital spirit, all our actions, country, home, all our dealings with others, professional careers, and whatever our choice of career brings us” (Matheseos Libri VIII II.xix, trans. Bram, 50-51). All these matters would end up in any standard biography.

The praxis story is necessarily a public one, because of the nature of the tenth house itself. The midheaven degree, which is the cusp of the tenth house in quadrant house systems, is the most elevated part of the chart. Planets here are at their highest point in their diurnal journey—which is especially obvious if you see these planets at nighttime, for they’re easy to spot.

Because the tenth house is an angular house, it is effective, meaning that planets placed here have ample opportunity to carry out actions relative to their nature and to the topics they rule by house. Planets in the tenth are bright, loud, and visible (barring interference from the Sun), but that doesn’t always mean that they’re operating in the most constructive manner. As with everything, assess the condition of the planet, and judge accordingly.

If you’re using whole sign houses, it’s important to note that the tenth whole sign house is not always in alignment with the midheaven degree. One way to approach this topic is to look both to the nature of the planet that rules the midheaven as well as the planet that rules the tenth sign to derive more information about the nature of an individual’s praxis.

(Or you could, you know, switch to quadrant houses.)

Before we get too far into the weeds, I should note that the tenth house is not just about career and vocation. Classical writers also looked to the tenth house to discern matters relative to judgment and to authority, for instance one’s relationship to the king or to local governors. In horary, an afflicted tenth house is a non-starter for positive outcomes. Again, the tenth house answers the question, “what stories are told about this situation?”

”But what should I do with my life?”

I’ve seen people in three different phases of the “what do I do with my life?” conundrum.

The first phase is the person who simply has no idea what they want to do and no idea what the chart suggests they’d be good at or naturally gravitate toward. Most of my clients in this situation are pre-Saturn return (younger than 29), sometimes even pre-second Jupiter return (younger than 24). For these age groups, I’ve found it important to explore the vocation/profession distinction and to strategize with them about how to live out their tenth house story in effective ways—especially if there are remediatory interventions that might be helpful.

For example, a young person with Venus ruling the MC in Capricorn conjoined the 5th house cusp, applying to the square of Mars in Aries with reception? To me, that looks like someone who might find success as a musician in a military performing ensemble.

The second phase is the person who is already living into some sort of unconscious manifestation of the placements relative to the tenth house, who perhaps isn’t working in a setting that is giving full voice to all the stories that those planets want to tell, or who, by circumstance is in kind of a crummy work situation.

For example, the jaded pharmacist with a Mars/Venus conjunction in Capricorn in the sixth might be doing great as a shill for big pharma, but if their ascendant ruler Moon isn’t being nourished by having the opportunity to exalt in nurturing communities from where she transits the beginning of Taurus in the 10th quadrant house, there’s something amiss. This is where we then look to the whole picture—Sun, Moon, Ascendant, Fortuna, Syzygy, MC, & their rulers to assess what is going unmet.

The third phase is the person who understands intrinsically what it is they want to do but need some sort of external validation through an interpretation of the chart that enables them to see that, yes, they are in fact allowed to do that, and it will go well, and yes, the timing is right.

That one person with Jupiter ruling the MC from his detriment in Gemini conjoined the IC and configured to an applying sextile of the 9th ruler Mars in Aries? And it’s a Jupiter profection year from the sect light, and they’re coming up on a Mercury profection from the ascendant? Time for them to do some writing on spirituality and push some buttons.

Again, my advice is always, “love God and do what you want.” Each of these three phases addresses the question of “what do I want?” in a different way, requiring different answers.

The Significator of Art or Craft

One additional consideration here, for the overachievers in the audience: Lilly judges a person’s profession based not only on the nature of the midheaven and its ruler, but also in accordance with a planet known as the significator of magistery or art, saying,

“You are to consider Mars, Venus, and Mercury; Mercury shewes the Wisdome and parts of the mind; Mars the Strength of body to endure; Venus the Delight: If then any of these is posited in places of Heaven fit to designe Magistery, that is, in the 10th, 1st, or 7th, in their owne Dignities, no Combust, or under the Sun beames, that Planet so posited, or those Planets, shall have signification of the Art, Profession, or Magistery the Native is inclinable unto.” (Christian Astrology, 625-626),

Lilly rattles off another list of consideranda, and continues,

“If none of these considerations will hold, take him of the three Planets who according to the first mover anteceds the Sun [viz., which planet of Mars, Mercury or Venus rises before the Sun], and give unto him dominion of the Profession…”

He concludes,

“I have ever gathered much knowledge concerning the Trade of any that came unto me, from the Signe of the 10th, from the Signe and house wherein the Lord of the 10th was placed.”

So, if we’re feeling frisky in our own interpretation of our chart, we can use the significator of art to flesh out additional information for talents that might be especially pertinent to our praxis story. (For example, my angular Venus fits the bill here, which we would expect to signify musicianship—and so it is, even though that’s not my main vocation.)

One final note

The modality of the sign of the midheaven, and the sign where its ruler is placed, often indicates how many roles a person will undertake in their life. Cardinal signs suggest that a person has an entrepreneurial approach to the work and may be the first in a company or in an environment to undertake something. Fixed signs imply stability, doing one thing for a long time, and depending on other indicators, mastering a craft. Mutable signs (or double-bodied signs) imply having several different occupations, or filling several different roles. Flexibility is paramount (and they’re the least likely to work 40 years in the same company and then retire—it’s a miracle if they stay in the same place for four years).

How to interpret the tenth house in your natal chart

When we begin to interpret a person’s praxis story, we’re looking at the following questions:

  • What are the essential traits of the occupations to which this person is naturally inclined?
  • How straightforward will this person’s success be?
  • What will their overall stability be like in their various positions?
  • What tendencies does the nature of the midheaven sign itself indicate? The planet that rules it? The placement of that planet?
  • Bonus points: what is their significator of art or craft?

I’ll walk through an example chart with this one that should be fairly well-known: Claude Debussy!

Here’s his chart, in Placidus houses:

For those unfamiliar, Claude Debussy was a composer of classical music and is perhaps best known for his lush and lusty impressionist music, such as his work for piano Clair de Lune from the suite Masques et Bergamasques. (You’ve heard this piece of music before, even if you don’t recognize the title—I guarantee it.)

Why not listen to this clip while we continue?

Monsieur Debussy’s MC is at 10°08’ Taurus. We’re leaving Pluto out of the considerations for now. Let’s think natural significations of Venus to start off: aesthetic beauty, harmony, balance, and especially here since Taurus is an earth sign, artifice. She’s the natural significator of music and harmony, so we know that we’re talking about someone for whom the perfection of aesthetic forms is paramount: this is the nature of Taurus.

We then look to Venus, the ruler of Taurus. Here, Venus is at 00°58’ Leo, in the 12th house. Venus is also the planet that rises immediately before the Sun, so she meets at least one of the conditions of being a significator of art. Debussy was also born before sunrise and therefore Venus is the benefic of the sect. She makes no aspects to any other planets, and she has no dignity.

In the classical model we would call her “feral,” like a feral cat: just kind of doing her own thing, responsible to no one. The 12th house is the realm of symbol and shadow, and Debussy’s musical aesthetic was heavily influenced by the Symbolist movement, as seen in his set of 24 Preludes, written to suggest a single image such as “footprints in the snow” or “a sunken cathedral.”

To summarize, Venus as the 10th ruler draws matters of Debussy’s profession towards matters of the 12th in a performative Leo style with a fierce independent streak.

Debussy was a musician who, though not quite feral, achieved fame through doing his own damn thing. While he was trained at the Conservatoire de Paris, he famously refused to follow the accepted rules of composition and drove his professors batty. Nevertheless, in 1884 he won the Prix de Rome, a coveted award for a young composer, which provided him with the opportunity to travel to Rome and stay at the Villa Medici while working on new music.

That didn’t go so well, though. His institutional sponsor chided his music as being “bizarre, incomprehensible, and unperformable.” This is, of course, all augmented by the fact that Debussy’s ascendant is Leo, and we find the Sun there, out-of-sect, and Debussy’s Mars forms a trine to the 5th house cusp (while afflicting Debussy’s 9th house—he was highly critical of church music).

Though Debussy’s life expressed his art through music, this chart could have made for a painter, or a choreographer, or any other maverick artist of the Parisian avant-garde in the late 19th century (perhaps the Saturn-Uranus square speaks to this cultural moment more broadly). Had he chosen another profession, his vocation would have been the same sort of story, with Sun and Moon testifying strongly to his essential nature as a self-assured public figure with stories told of him as being a fiercely independent purveyor of high art that refused containment within anyone’s expectations.

This is the richness available when we begin to explore the praxis stories in our charts, and I encourage you to begin looking to yours.

To recap:

  • The nature of the sign on the midheaven describes the general sort of story that your work in the world tells. The individual planets import their meanings into the signs they rule.
  • The nature of the planet that rules that sign, and the planets placed in the tenth house, inform the work itself and public perception. For example, the sixth ruler in the tenth house might suggest work in the medical field.
  • The story is never just about profession or occupation: there is always a bigger component that will likely work out in whichever work a person finds themselves undertaking.

As I mentioned, I specialize in the tenth house and I also have on-the-ground experience as a vocational counselor, dealing with the nitty-gritty of vocational selection and training. The great irony, of course, is that I never did figure out exactly what I was supposed to do writ large. It’s been helpful for me to think about life in chapters: “what am I to do in this chapter?” is much easier to answer.

It takes a lifetime to live out a natal chart, after all.

Featured image by Adeolu Eletu via Unsplash

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