Western Astrology Explained
What is Astrology?
Astrology is a system of divination that assigns meaning to planets and their positions.
The meaning of each planet is generally based on symbolism relating to concepts like the classical elements (fire, water, air, earth), and what we now called “mythology” but was once theology (Kabbalah, and the Greek and Roman Gods).
Western astrology (Hellenistic-birthchart-natal-astrology), the kind we cover below, specifically works this way. Other types of astrology are similar, but draw inspiration from their respective culture’s symbols.
This page assumes you understand the difference between natural sciences (like physics and meteorology), metaphysics (philosophy), theology (gods and mythology), and social sciences (like psychology). Astrology is a pseudo-science that combines all these areas of study in the name of divination.
TIP: This page is in three sections. First, we explain How Astrology Works, then we give an overview of How to Understand the Astrological Symbols Conceptually, and then we explain How to Understand the Meaning of Astrological Symbols.
This wheel shows the signs, houses, elements (by color), and modes. Essentially it works as a simple key for understanding astrology.
How Does Astrology Work?
Astrology works like this: It’s a cold reading system and divination system based on the human condition. Different symbols, based on the longstanding meanings of elements and mythology, are related to aspects of the human condition and planets and signs are assigned symbols. When doing astrology one derives meaning from the relative position of the planets in different signs. The meaning of the planets and signs and their relation are then used to for-tell things about a person, a group of people, an event, etc (that entity for which the reading was done).
Astrology is part cold reading and mentalism, and part psychological analysis, synthesis, and intuition. It is historically and psychologically interesting, but it is no more magical than reality already is. One can argue it seems to work because it assigns deep but broad meaning to symbols and encompasses all the aspects of the human condition and that any reading will apply loosely to anyone in this sense.
Yet, since part of a reading is the interpretation and the intuition of the reader, and since the planets are physical bodies, there is room to consider more the more mystical aspects that science can’t prove.
You can think of astrology as simply cold reading, or you can see it as semi-mystical, either way, I argue it is rather useful both historically and from a psychological standpoint.
Astrology Explained: What Is Astrology?
TIP: Tarot uses the same symbolism as astrology, so once you get astrology tarot is easy to pick up. In terms of Joseph Campbell, Astrology and Tarot are both depictions of the heroes journey, the only story ever told (the mono-myth and its relation to the human condition).
Guide to Western Astrology: How to Understand the Astrological Symbols Conceptually
In general, each astrological symbol is defined by its relationship to other symbols, and the “energy” of those symbols (AKA meaning of those symbols).
We can know a sign, by knowing its house, by understanding its duality, by being familiar with its element, by realizing the associated planets and gods, and by having studied the meanings of each of those things. Astrology is similar to the study of the literal forces in the universe and other fundamental systems in this respect. As one would say in astrology or tarot, “as above, so below.”
Astrological Wheel Versus an Astrological Chart
The basic astrological wheel shows the signs planets and houses in their natural position. We use this as a key to understanding the symbolism presented on this page as well as all other astrological readings. When you do an astrological study, you compare charts to the wheel in its natural position, and sometimes, multiple charts to each other and the wheel. The wheel never changes, but the plotting of the planets on the chart changes with positions in space and time.
- Astrological wheel: The wheel in its natural position with Aries in the 1st house and all planets in their respective sign/house.
- Astrological chart: The wheel adjusted for the position of celestial bodies over time and space, commonly a birth chart.
TIP: People will try to tell you how to do a chart before you know anything about astrology, this is fun, but reading charts is “high level” astrologically speaking. If you do feel the need when starting out, use simple birth charts, not the comparative type. If you want to do a “birth chart” you can use astro.com. That said, it is best to study the symbols and their relationship in the astrological wheel before “doing an astrology chart.” As with anything else, you need to learn the foundation first.
How to Understand the Meaning of Astrological Symbols
There are 12 signs, with 12 corresponding houses as represented by a fixed astrological wheel in the standard position with Aries in the first house. Each sign has one or more ruling planets that help define its “energy.” The signs are split into four quadrants (self, interpersonal, social, spiritual), four hemispheres (extroversion and introversion), and three modes (beginning, middle, end) which further define the energy of the house, signs, and planets within. Each sign, house, and planet is also assigned one of four types of elemental energy (earth, air, water, fire) and one of two polarities (yin, yang), which define the energy even further.
FACT: Most Hellenistic western astrology is based on western theories of elements and gods. The polarities, however are rooted in Eastern thinking.
You Understand a Symbol by Knowing its Properties
The meaning of each astrological symbol is fixed and defined almost exclusively by its properties and its relation to other symbols on the astrological wheel. The twelve icons and the relationships between them are their meaning (see general systems theory).
For example, the sign Aries has very little meaning beyond its polarity, elemental energy, mode, hemisphere, quadrant, house, ruling planet, and ruling God. By the time we work our way up through the symbols, there are only a few properties attributed to Aries that can’t be gleaned from its related symbols. What this means should be clearer as we move on.
Polarity and Elements are the Key
I advise you to study yin, yang, earth, wind, air, water, and fire before trying to memorize meanings of the 12 signs. The elements and polarities are the key to astrology in many respects, remember, a sign is a collection of properties. IT IS NOT SOMEONE’S INTERPRETATION OF ITS MEANING. Even though this is metaphysics, you should not mistake someone’s interpretation of a symbol as a fixed element. The language of astrology is its symbolism, celestial positions, and energy.
Example of How Astrology Works on a Core Level
Putting together what we learned above before we go into more detail:
Astrologically speaking, Aries is “beginning fire energy,” associated with the 1st house, and Mars. So an astrologer will see Mars, the 1st house, Aries, or another related symbol, and understand each through the lens of “beginning fire energy” and “yang energy.” It’s a simple trick, but its usefulness rests on one’s ability to understand how concepts like “beginning fire” apply to the human condition.
A simple reading might be described as, “the energy of birth, like a baby coming to life, starting a new project, getting that ‘fire’ in one’s belly or the inspiration and the willpower to advance your drive. Yang is outward. Fire is excited energy similar to willpower, drive, and determination.” Now think about how this knowledge could be applied to a person’s read or a chart. Now think about what it may mean in relation to other “energies.”
The meanings of symbols tend to be like their sound suggests. They get deeper as you contrast many symbols at once with the subject of the divination in mind, but while alchemic mixes can get complex, the core concepts are simple (see the chart below for a list of meanings).
In simple terms, we can see how this system can be used for newspaper astrology to say something like, “you’ll have the drive to get work done today, don’t let your hot head get in the way,” or something for a personal reading about love such as “a new relationship is bound to heat up, but its not time to get complacent, it’ll take drive and determination to keep the flame alight.”
Guide to Western Astrology: The Meanings of the Astrological Symbols
Below we cover the basics of how to understand astrology and all its most important related symbolism with the help of charts sourced from Wikipedia. Note: all charts below are collected from Wikipedia except when noted.
Spending a little time with concepts below will help you figure out the way in which astrological readings get done. Time spent studying helps us understand what a newspaper reading is and isn’t, and it will help us understand how a great reading from an expert can go far beyond pseudoscience and into an exploration of our inner psychology and spirituality.
Overview of Astrological Signs and Properties
First, we will layout all the properties of each sign, then we will discuss each property in detail. This chart is a creation of Tom DeMichele for FactMyth.com; it’s based on the standard meanings of astrological symbols and their relationships to each other.
This astrology overview chart is a useful key to your understanding all important astrological information at once:
|House||Related Sign||Polarity and Element||Modality, Quadrant||Ruling Planets and Greek Gods||Interpretation (by Tom DeMichele)|
|1st – House of Self||Aries||Yang (white), Fire (red)||Cardinal, Personal Identity, Self||Mars (Aries)||Male, red, outward, ego, fire, begging, birth, willpower.
|2nd – House of Value||Taurus||Yin (black), Earth (green)||Fixed, Personal Identity,Self||Venus (Aphrodite), Earth||Female, green, money, land, property, physical interaction, physical comfort, and the physical realm.|
|3rd – House of Communication||Gemini||Yang (white), Air (orange)||Mutable, Personal Identity,Self||Mercury (Hermes)||Male, orange, interpersonal communication, travel, conversation, overthinking.|
|4th – House of Home and Family||Cancer||Yin (black), Water (blue)||Cardinal, Personal Expression, Interpersonal Communication||Moon (Artemis)||Female, blue, family, home, security, empathy for the in-group.|
|5th – House of Pleasure||Leo||Yang (white), Fire (red)||Fixed, Personal Expression, Interpersonal Communication||Sun (Apollo)||Male, red, love, romance, outward self expression, the actor, the rock-star, lust.|
|6th – House of Health||Virgo||Yin (black), Earth (green)||Mutable, Personal Expression, Interpersonal Communication||Mercury, Chiron||Female, green, analytical, details, caring, nurse, systems, healing, alchemy, and physical science.|
|7th – House of Partnership||Libra||Yang (white), Air (orange)||Cardinal, Social Identity, Community||Venus||Male, orange, business, diplomacy, politics, mass communication.|
|8th – House of Reincarnation||Scorpio||Yin (black), Water (blue)||Fixed, Social Identity, Community||Mars, Pluto (Hades)||Female, blue, cycles, rebirth, lust, espionage, intrigue, secrets, the “dark” side of politics and love.|
|9th – House of Philosophy||Sagittarius||Yang (white), Fire (red)||Mutable, Social Identity, Community||Jupiter (Zeus)||Male, red, focused energy, travel, like an arrow hitting the bullseye, theory, philosophy, and realization.|
|10th – House of Social Status||Capricorn||Yin (black), Earth (green)||Cardinal, Social Expression, Spiritual||Saturn (Kronos)||Female, green, greed, money, capital, markets, outward figureheads (CEOs), power, head of household, progress toward the top.|
|11th – House of Friendship||Aquarius||Yang (white), Air (yellow)||Fixed, Social Expression, Spiritual||Saturn, Uranus||Male, orange, science, social groups, large in group, society, technology.|
|12th – House of Unconscious||Pisces||Yin (black), Water (blue)||Mutable, Social Expression, Spiritual||Jupiter, Neptune (Poseidon)||Female, blue, spirituality and emotion on the deepest level, the stars, the universe, dark energy, the unknown, ending.|
Yin and Yang (The Fundamental Duality)
In the west yin and yang can seem a little new-age-y, but this expression of the fundamental duality of the universe is anything but.
Every astrological symbol is either Yin or Yang, so may as well familiarize yourself with this before moving onto elements, modes, etc. The chart below is well complied by astrolibrary.org.
TIP: In the traditional view, Yang is male and Yin female. As you can imagine some people don’t like associating the sexes with energy types. So know that not everyone chooses to use the association. I prefer it, but it’s a matter of taste. Neither male, positive, or female, negative, is meant literally. It’s just an expression of how the fundamental duality of the universe manifests on different levels. Like in physics, “dark” energy isn’t evil… it’s just a way to describe energy we can’t see. The Yin energy.
The Astrological Elements (the Classical Elements)
Below we see each of the elemental symbols. This, even more than yin yang, is the foundation for everything in astrology. The human condition can largely be expressed in terms of elements. Each element has properties; the trick is to associate each astrological symbol with its properties, and the elemental properties are some of the most important..
In a nutshell, fire is energy, air is intelligence, earth is the physical world, and water is emotion and spirituality.
Each of the elements is either yin or yang and that, in turn, defines what sign, house, and planet is yin or yang.
NOTE: Every single astrological symbol has the properties of polarity and element. Every single symbol can be understood by these factors.
|Polarity||Element||Symbol||Keywords||Signs (in order from beginning, Sustaining, and ending)|
|Yang (Male)||Fire||Enthusiasm; drive to express self; action||Aries; Leo; Sagittarius|
|Air||Communication; socialization; conceptualization||Gemini; Libra; Aquarius|
|Yin (Female)||Earth||Practicality; caution; sensation; material world||Taurus; Virgo; Capricorn|
|Water||Emotion; empathy; sensitivity; spirit||Cancer; Scorpio; Pisces|
The Three Modalities (The Modes)
Now we will think about elements and dualities from the perspective of begging, middle, and end. What is the start of intelligence? What is the end of something physical? A lot of the meaning of signs is gleaned from modality.
Putting The Elements and Modes Together
The chart below shows how each sign relates back to an element and mode. As you can see each sign has a unique combination of elements and modes.
How does the start of something with fire energy relate to the nature of Aries? How does the ending and most exhausted state of water (spiritual energy) define Pisces?
Ruling Planets (Domiciles)
Each planet is defined by its sign; each sign is defined by its planets. This means we can understand mars by understanding Aries, and we can understand Aries by understanding mars. We can also know more about Aries and Mars by their “beginning (cardinal, starting) fire yang” energy.
When doing a “birth chart” the sun and the moon are the most powerful energies. Whatever sign the sun is in is your “sun sign.” This is why it is sometimes called “sun sign astrology.” The sun represents your outward energy. The moon represents your inward energy. Each planet has its elemental energy.
TIP: Each sign has a ruling body, a specific planet that defines it most. With that said, Taurus, Aquarius, Scorpio, Virgo, and Pisces in a way have two ruling bodies, one classical and one modern. You can choose to use the modern interpretation or not. The association of signs and planets has shifted slightly over the years. You should either learn the classical planets or learn both the classical and modern ones. Don’t just learn the modern planets.
Classical element, and simple meaning
|♈||Aries||Mars (fire, outward energy)||Mars|
|♉||Taurus||Venus (earth, inward energy)||Earth|
|♊||Gemini||Mercury (air, thought)||Mercury|
|♋||Cancer||Moon (water, spirt and emotion)||Moon|
|♌||Leo||Sun (fire, outward energy)||Sun|
|♏||Scorpio||Mars||Pluto (water, spirit)|
|♐||Sagittarius||Jupiter (water, luck)||Jupiter|
|♑||Capricorn||Saturn (earth, work)||Saturn|
|♒||Aquarius||Saturn||Uranus (air, science)|
|♓||Pisces||Jupiter||Neptune (water, spirit)|
The Gods of the Planets
Each planet relates to a ruling God. You can see more information here. The Gods are from a few different religions, but you only have to learn Greek and Roman gods for eastern astrology. Since Planets are named after their corresponding God, the correlation shouldn’t be too hard to make. The personality of the God helps further define the nature of the planet along with its polarity and element.
The Aspects and Dignity, Detriment, Exaltation, and Fall; Comparing and Contrasting Positive and Negative Relationships
Once we understand what all the symbols mean, we can understand their relationships between each other. Relationships are known as aspects.
We can look at how planets relate to each other in a reading.
The basic aspects are: conjunction, sextile, square, trine, and opposition and these relate to good, bad, and neutral relationships between planetary positions on an astrological chart where conjunction is planets zero degrees apart and opposition is 180.
- Trine – angle of 120° (harmonic energy)
- Sextile – angle of 60° (complimenting energy)
- Square – angle of 90° (conflicting energy)
- Opposition – angle of 180° (contrasting energy)
- Conjunction – angle of 0° (intense energy)
This same concept can be applied in non-readings to the astrological wheel (in order from good to bad) as dignity, detriment, exaltation, and fall.
Understanding the “compare and contrast” energy aspect of this pursuit is the most difficult part of astrology, but you need to know that it’s all based on the properties of each symbol. For instance, Leo is in its fall in Libra, because of the unfavorable geometric relationship or aspect on the astrological wheel.
TIP: Remember, like with any aspect of a reading “conflict” and “contrasting” is not necessarily “bad.” How one relationship between energies should be interpreted depends on a broader reading of a chart.
The Houses and Related Divisions; the Different Effects of Astrological Houses
Each house relates to a sign. Aries is the first house and the first sign. The meaning of both are essentially the same on the astrological wheel, but in any given chart you’ll be comparing and contrasting houses and signs.
Houses also represent a few more astrological keys.
Ascendants, Descendants, and Midheaven
The line between a person’s 12th and 1st house is called an ascendant and the line between the 6th and 7th is called a descendant. The Midheaven is a similar division that denotes the southern highest point above the horizon in a birth chart.
Quadrants and Hemispheres
The houses can be broken up into hemispheres and quadrants. These work together to give the houses and signs meaning. You can understand them most easily through the quadrants (which account for the significance of the hemispheres).
They work roughly like this:
- Eastern Hemisphere (Houses 1, 2, 3, 10, 11, and 12): Inward Social (focus on self).
- Western Hemisphere (Houses 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9): Outward Social (focus on others).
- Northern Hemisphere (Houses 7 – 12): Inward self (focus on self).
- Southern Hemisphere (Houses 1 – 6): Outward self (focus on others).
NOTE: Yes, the southern hemisphere is on the top of the chart and north is on the bottom.
- Quadrant I (Houses 1, 2, 3): Personal Identity, self (ego, id, physical self)
- Quadrant II (Houses 4, 5, 6): Personal Expression, interpersonal relationships (social)
- Quadrant III (Houses 7, 8, 9): Social Identity, groups, and communities (collective)
- Quadrant IV (Houses 10, 11, 12): Social Expression, Spirituality (emotion, mediative)
Here we can think of, for example, Aries as being of the 1st house, and we think of Ego, ID, Physical self, inward social, outward self, energy as properties of Aries. In this sense we can know more about Aries, or know more about the first house when it comes up.
A Simple Ruleset for Astrology
In order to tie this all together you might want to use the following ruleset that I constructed based on the information above.
When trying to figure out the meaning of an astrological symbol or its relationship to another symbol, ask the following questions:
- What is the polarity?
- What is the element or mode?
- What is the hemisphere or quadrant?
- What are the ruling planets or Gods?
- What is the house or sign?
Then ask “what does it mean in its current position?”, then finally ask yourself, “what does that mean concerning the rest of the chart?”
Framing the Reading
The above is all the symbolism you need to know to give a reading. Let’s end with a few tips for framing a reading.
When you give an astrological reading, you have to set the stage, or frame it (see frame of reference). It can be helpful to understand the ways in which astrology is and isn’t real before moving forward, or how astrology is different from astronomy. The person you do a reading for will likely question your ability to tell the future, so it is helpful to know some fun junk science about how the moon affects the tides to set the mood. There is a fine line between lying to your client and making a reading fun.
The video below will help tie all these concepts together.
Advanced Astrology…. for beginners: a crash course in practical astrology (part 1).
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