How to Understand the Planets in Astrology, Part 1

Time for a new series of posts! This time around, we’re going to be taking a look at the planets in astrology.

Each of the posts in this series is excerpted from my 2019 book, Charted Territory, and reflects my understanding of the planets at that time. The reality (as any student of astrology will be quick to affirm) is that you never stop learning about the planets. So, the posts in this series represent where I stood in 2019, and as part of the series, I’ll be gleefully correcting myself the whole time just to show how these understandings shift and change over time.

The first thing to keep in mind when lifting the hood on the astrological engine is this: planets are the most important part of astrology. Without planets, there is no astrology.

So, what is a planet, anyway?

Yes, they’re the “wandering stars” that accompany our Sun and our fragile planet through our voyage through the cosmos. Symbolically, they’re the entities whose connection to space and time gets baked into our stories. Their principles and purposes craft our plot beats and come into manifestation through the way we live our lives.

Planetary natures, desires, preferences, and power get impressed on the slices of the zodiac that they rule, and their ability to carry out their role is where the meat of this language of symbols lies. Their interactions with one another in time and space correspond with (notice I did not say cause)* the unfolding of events here in our earth-bound layer of existence.

*[In 2021, I have the language to distinguish between layers of causality now, thanks to Integral Theory and my deepening engagement with Vedic philosophy, so… yeah, some salt needed here.]

Without planets, astrology falls apart; there are ways of doing astrology without signs, houses, or even aspects, but there’s no astrologer that I’m aware of today that omits planets from the equation. Planets are the most important part of astrology.

Each planet is more than just a data point in the chart: it’s like a data nexus. A bundle of energies touching different aspects of life. Including the outer, invisible planets, we have ten centers of narrative gravity to keep track of, each with their own personalities and predilections. Each of them carries layers of myth and magic, accrued like sediment over millennia.

Meanwhile, skeptics holler from the sidelines that planets cannot possibly influence human existence—much less have natures, desires, wants, needs, personalities, and so on.

But they do. Too bad.

Planets imbue the signs that they rule with their meaning, not the other way around.** If someone is born in early December, their Sun is in Sagittarius. As a result, there’s a solid chance that they have a taste for adventure and love to accrue insider information wherever they go. That’s not because Sagittarius the sign is essentially about adventure and fun. In this example, Sagittarius receives its significations (the astrology jargon for “meanings”) from its ruling planet, which is Jupiter.

[**I actually believe that each individual sign is its own living causal entity on the highest levels of manifest reality, or to put it in the language of the tradition of Jyotisha I am studying right now, a “jyotir-linga” delineated by the coming-together of the Sun and the Moon as Shiva and Shakti, but… that’s for another series.]

The popular American astrologer Christopher Renstrom uses the evocative turn of phrase “a child of…” to describe the nature of a person with a peculiar tie to a sign, vis-à-vis the Sun. So, a person with a Sagittarius Sun is a “child of Jupiter.” The Sun, which represents conscious purpose and essential desire—that is, what one wants out of life—inherits its expression from Jupiter’s rulership of Sagittarius.

In the traditional astrological literature, each sign was described as being one of the planet’s “homes” or “domiciles.” A planet manages that pocket of celestial real estate and has final say over everything that happens within. Mars’ signs are decorated in leather and rivets with heavy metal blasting from towering speaker racks that shake your very bones. Jupiter’s signs are rich with feasting and frankincense. They fly upward from a banquet hall in soaring arches and towering statuary to draw your attention to what lies beyond the mortal coil. The Sun’s sign is gilt and mirrored from ceiling to floor so that wherever he goes he can see and be seen in his royal splendor.

A Leo is not performative or ego-centric simply because they are a Leo, but because they are a child of the Sun, and the Sun is at home in his palace in Leo (which looks an awful lot like Versailles, built by the Sun King himself—who, ironically, was actually a Virgo.***)

***[Another big difference between my practice in 2019 and my practice as it is today is that I’m now using the sidereal zodiac for natal astrology almost exclusively, which is the subject of a forthcoming essay. That said, Louis XIV, the Sun King, was definitely a sidereal Leo.]

Coming back to our example of the Sun in Sagittarius, the Sun finds himself in the towering halls of Jupiter’s cathedral of wisdom, carried aloft by legend and liturgy and curls of incense smoke wafting through the air. Through the cathedral’s windows, uncharted landscapes unfold before him, and the beauty of new experiences latches on to him. What the Sun wants in this instance is to continue his upward journey, to gain perspective, to behold everything, to escape the confines of the limits with which others have shackled him and soar into a brilliant, transcendent vision of the world not as it is but as it could be. That’s what it means for the Sun to be in Sagittarius.

So, it is with each planet when it visits a sign ruled by another planet. Each planet is a character in an endless drama. They have plans and priorities, and the specific expression of their plans and priorities is determined by the environment in which they find themselves. But what does a planet want, essentially?

The starting point for understanding the character of a planet is the idea of sect.

A planet’s sect is a simple idea. Almost offensively simple. But understanding it well allows one to draw out all the subtle nuances in their birth chart.

Think of any team sport. Now, even though I’m a flagrant homosexual I still know something about athletics. In most games that I’m aware of, there are two opposing teams competing against one another to see who can, well, do sports the best. In astrology, these teams are called the “sects.”

The word “sect” itself comes from the Greek word hairesis. That word gives us the English word “heresy,” but in Greek it simply connotes “the team that you’re on.” In this case, the two teams are the day team (“diurnal sect”) and the night team (“nocturnal sect”). The two team captains are the Sun and the Moon—it should be obvious to which team each captain belongs.

The Sun leads the day sect, and the Moon leads the night sect, of course.

Either sect has a different play style, too. The day team focuses on identity, public image, maturity, and creating cohesive narratives out of specific information. The day team plays through wisdom and strategy refined over years and years of play. Their play style is rational, heady, far-seeing, strategic.

The night team’s focus is everything that is instinctual, subconscious, and nuanced; they play by faith, not by sight, in other words. They move more quickly and don’t get too caught up in strategizing; their play style is intuitive, exciting, and tied to emotional drive as they make their way across the court.

The Sun leads Jupiter and Saturn on the field, while the Moon captains Venus and Mars. Each of the teams has a good cop and a bad cop, or in classical terms, a “benefic” and a “malefic.” Some publishers in the 1980s wouldn’t even let astrologers use those words, by the way. From a marketing standpoint, using such strong language was bad for business. “Bad stuff doesn’t happen—that’s too negative! We want our readers to focus on growth and empowerment,” went the reasoning. (Sweetie, bad stuff happens sometimes.) The day team’s benefic is Jupiter, and its malefic is Saturn; meanwhile, the night team’s benefic is Venus, and its malefic is Mars.

Mercury, however, is a special case. This planet can be either on the day team or the night team, and he (or she) is neither essentially benefic or malefic. Mercury is also gender-fluid in terms of expression. That said, we’ll address this special case when we get to him.

I haven’t mentioned the three outer planets, Uranus, Neptune, or Pluto, none of which are visible to the naked eye. As astronomers discovered these planets, astrologers worked to try to figure out what to do with them. One approach was to include them in the line-up of the visible planets but considering that it took significant technological advances and centuries of observation to figure out that they were even there, it doesn’t seem like they should work the same way as the visible planets we can see in the night sky.

In my opinion, the outer planets Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto function more like referees in the game. They don’t serve either team. Rather, they adjust the rules of engagement according to their peculiar concerns and impact the obstacles that either team must navigate in striving toward their goal.

One of the other important facets of classical astrology is the role of fixed stars. Most folks know at least a handful of them—stars like Polaris, the pole star in the northern hemisphere, or Sirius, the brightest fixed star in the sky, called the “dog star.” Because they’ve got such a rich history of myth and magic but aren’t as crucial to understanding the game at play between the planets, we won’t do a deep dive into them in this [series]. This is just something to keep in a back pocket for later: the fixed stars work more like individual players’ corporate sponsors, the teams’ owners, or the international conglomerate with their name on the arena where the teams play.

Next up: The Sun.

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