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Learn to interpret your natal chart with these simple steps

Learn to interpret your natal chart with these simple steps and begin a lifelong journey of discovery.

I was first introduced to astrology in grade school. My family had just relocated from California to the Oregon Coast and I was the new kid in town, eager to find a way to fit in. I’d met a group of kids my own age, all born and raised in the small coastal town, who would become lifelong friends.

We were curious kids with eclectic interests. We’d listen to Nordic and Maori folk music, work together writing or illustrating young adult vampire novels, and submit our families’ phone numbers and addresses to numerological assessment.

It was with this group of friends that I picked up my first book on astrology. To be fair, I’d already been exposed to the subject indirectly. In California, my friends had become obsessed with an astrology-infused children’s anime called Sailor Moon. The protagonist and her friends channelled the virtues of their “guardian planet”.

Sailor Mercury was known for her intelligence, Venus her beauty, Mars her audacity, Jupiter her indefatigable spirit, and so on. So, when I picked up this astrology book in my new town with my new friends, the material had somewhere to sit with me.

What the book said about the nature of the planets didn’t find me as a list to be memorised, rather as a recognition of something I’d already seen before. This recognition of astrology excited me. Even as a kid I dreamt of being an expert in something, and there I was with this fascinating subject, and I was ahead of the learning curve. Astrology and I took to each other immediately.

I nursed an unstructured interest in astrology throughout school, and, as a senior capstone project, submitted an astrological assessment of former US President Bill Clinton’s birth chart. I argued for astrology, earning an A+ with a comment from my teacher that state, “I am intrigued …”.

When I entered university, I found myself surrounded by engineers and scientists and serious people who stuck their noses up at my suspicious nonsense. I tried to argue in defence of astrology, as I had done before, but the results were not encouraging. In the end, I had to come to terms with the gut-wrenching realisation that I didn’t know a thing about practical astrology. I knew the vocabulary and the general meaning of the planets, signs, aspects and houses, but the light in my brain went off the moment it came time to issue a fluent, cohesive interpretation of a symbol or set of symbols.

Astrology was siphoning off more of my attention than I liked to admit, and I felt saddened that my obsessive interest hadn’t morphed into proficiency and aptitude. At this point I made a decision. I either needed to commit seriously to its study, in a disciplined and structured way, or abandon it altogether.

This was a galvanising moment for me. I enrolled in a certificate-level course in psychological astrology. After graduating, I enrolled in courses dedicated to traditional methodologies, before moving into professional practice in 2013. Since 2015,  I have been teaching astrology through the School of Traditional Astrology (STA), and present my work at industry conferences and events. In 2021, I moved into full-time practice.

Throughout my career I have been privileged to work with many new and experienced learners, which has deepened my own understanding of the material I intend to work with and how modern minds digest it. I used to think I would be a better astrologer if I could master all the complex schemes and layered timing techniques people were talking about. Many learners report feeling a similar pressure to memorise systems. But over the past ten years, one maxim has emerged: mastering the fundamentals is the best investment you can make.

Below, we’ll explore the foundational elements of chart interpretation, things you’ll want to get comfortable with before expecting success with more complicated layers of analysis.

Astrology is bigger than nativities

I started my education with birth chart astrology, as most of us do. However, astrology has a wide range of applications that extend beyond one person. Astrology can be used to answer questions, to understand the root cause of present circumstances, to locate missing persons or things, to find suitable times to start or stop activity, to negotiate between warring parties, to forecast agricultural yields and weather, to find arable land. If it concerns humans, it can be done with some form of astrology.

The best way to know what’s reliable is to find what works in all branches of astrology. If something only works for one application of astrology, then it can’t be foundational. At best, such techniques provide colour. At worst, they distract the astrologer from more obvious themes and obstruct better, more nuanced interpretations.

This DIY chart interpretation guide addresses that gap, focusing on the core tenets of astrology that inform every instance of its use.

Get your default settings in order

New astrologers have their choice of house systems, zodiacs, dignity schemes and calculation methods for the lunar nodes and part of fortune. There are nuanced discussions happening in the community about the logic of one system over another. Most of this will be lost on the beginner, so give yourself permission to worry about the intricacies involved in making these selections at another time. For now, we just need to get you started with a system that is reliable.

I advise beginners to use the tropical zodiac, and either the Placidus or Regiomontanus system of house division. Some astrologers will choose to use simpler methods for dividing houses, like the equal or sign-as-house (whole sign) methods. In my experience, students who start with quadrant divisions (like Placidus or Regiomontanus) have an easier time learning astronomy and the more nuanced techniques that will come with advanced study, so a quadrant system is highly recommended for beginner– or intermediate–level astrologers.

The foundations of astrology don’t require adept use of triplicities, terms or faces, so don’t worry about whether you choose the Dorothean or Ptolemaic triplicities, the Egyptian or Ptolemaic terms, etc. The same goes for the lunar nodes and part of fortune, using your software’s default calculation method is fine.

Step one: take stock of activity on the angles

On any horizon, there are four main pillars, with planets and signs moving in relation to them as the day progresses. The rising angle, or the ascendant, shows things that are newly coming into focus, emerging and impressing their influence on the things shown by the 1st House. Activity in the setting angle describes themes most immediately experienced through engaging with our opposites in love and war.

The culminating angle crowns the chart, and planets in the midheaven express themselves overtly in ways we can see and quickly identify with. The angle underneath the earth shows repressed themes, things that are hidden and harder to see, as well as archetypal patterns that are deeply embedded in the subject’s reality.

The closer a planet is to an angle, the more confident you can be in that planet’s importance. Remember that the cusps of houses exercise a 5°orb of influence, so if the midheaven is at 11° Cancer, you should consider a planet at 7° Cancer as an angular, 10th House influence, even if your software draws that planet in the chart’s 9th House. Cusps are not hard lines or boundaries, but seats of power; like roaring furnaces, a cusp’s power radiates equally on all sides.

Let’s take the example of Saturn in the ascendant. Saturn is a binding and limiting planet with the power to preserve whatever it touches. There is no warmth to this planet. It has strong associations with fear and nervousness, however Saturn also represents the pinnacle of pragmatic wisdom and therefore tends to see its more negative outlook as being realistic.

In a question about whether to invest in a certain property, Saturn in the ascendant would tell the astrologer that the client is looking for a warning. They know this plan is unwise and likely to go from problem to problem, but Saturn can be mistrustful even of its own conclusions. This would be a serious indication that even if the opportunity were right, this particular client would be liable to mismanage affairs and experience a loss.

The astrology of such a chart only has to address that situation in play. Birth charts have a much wider berth and will contribute to countless situations throughout a lifetime. In a birth chart, Saturn in the ascendant carries the same type of energy but is less acute and more distributed in its effect. This becomes the signature for someone who champions the value of stability, thinks of the long haul and undertakes precautions. Unless afflicted in some meaningful way, Saturn’s preserving influence in the ascendant makes for long lives and good health into old age.

Whatever type of astrology you’re doing, Saturn in the ascendant will impress its influence upon the one who took, or is taking, action. Astrologers then mix in a bit of their own human intuition as to the expected impact.

Angular planets in birth charts can manifest gradually throughout a lifetime, so the impact will be distributed over time. With political astrology, manifestation is distributed both over time and across a vast population, so a wider variety of manifestations is reported. With question-based astrology, the symbol’s timeline is more compressed and often presents itself as an urgent influence in the escalating situation.

The point is, don’t forget to bring your common sense along with you when you’re interpreting a chart.

Let’s look at another example of an angular planet: Jupiter conjunct the IC, or 4th House cusp. In a question about purchasing a property, this would likely manifest as a big, spacious house with lush, fruitful vegetation and an oak tree out front (ruled by Jupiter) with an address on Olive Street. It argues a good investment.

In a birth chart, this symbol would be less compact, as it pulses across an entire lifetime. Maybe they don’t ever live on Olive Street but they do well in property generally. We might find our personalities underpinned by a philosophy of advantage: “When things go right, we’re ahead. When things go wrong, there’s always a way to turn the situation to our benefit.” The Jupiterian theme of uplift has subtlety worked itself into the deeply rooted beliefs we have about life.

You’ll also want to watch for major themes on angles that are not planetary in nature. Perhaps both luminaries are in the angles, or both Jupiter and Venus, or both Saturn and Mars, or all angular planets are retrograde. When patterns repeat themselves in a chart, it’s loaded with meaning and significance. Notice whether the angles are all in (a) cardinal signs, which suggests that this astrology relates to themes of quickness and change; or (b) fixed signs, which reinforces themes of permanence you may find elsewhere in the chart; or (c) mutable signs, which show a blend of energies that avoids extremes but can introduce confusions and reversals.

Step two: check your big three

The degree rising on the ascendant and the configurations of the two luminaries (the Sun and the Moon) is of the utmost importance in astrology. When I was still self-taught, trying to read charts for friends and famous people, I didn’t even know where to begin. I didn’t understand back then that, like nature, astrology reflects a natural hierarchy. The two luminaries give light, heat and life to creation, and are the centre of the scheme. There can be no more important degree than the ascendants, because that will determine whether the luminaries are above or below the Earth.

Pay attention to the sign that is rising. Notice the image of that zodiac sign. Is it a scorpion, a lion, two twins, a set of scales held by a human hand? Each of the zodiac signs has a rich narrative history that should be incorporated in your assessment of the ascendant. The signs are the homes of the seven visible planets. Consider what planet rules the degree ascending and the motivations and behaviours commonly attributed to that planet.

As an example, in a question about property, the ascendant in Aries makes Mars the representative of the person asking the question. Aries is in the image of a ram, and rams are known for being hard-headed, aggressive and rash. Mars is an impatient planet, so together these may describe the prospective buyer as trying to rush things along faster than good sense dictates. In a birth chart, Aries rising describes someone brave and daring, willing to fight when fixed on a target, and, like its fleece, in a perpetual state of renewal. Mars ruling the ascendant would describe the person born as someone imbued with energy and passion, ready to take on the world. They often get themselves into trouble when they’re not thinking things through, or fail to see fault in their actions.

With the luminaries, note the phase of the Moon. Are the Sun and the Moon in orb of an aspect together (as a good rule of thumb, use an orb of 8°)? These two illuminate themes in the birth chart, making it ideal to see them working together. If there is no aspect, note what planets they do connect to, in order to get a sense of which themes are receiving attention.

Step three: note the closest aspects

Planets in aspect generate activity between the houses they rule and the houses they are placed in. Separating aspects are those that have already reached their exact distance (ie. 60° apart for the sextile, 90° apart for the square). They describe things in the past. In a property question, separating aspects show recent activity that led up to the present dilemma. In a birth chart, they point to themes that actively attended the parents’ lives before our births. As we get older, they describe the situations that we seem to have a better knack for catching in the rear-view mirror.

Applying aspects, or aspects that have not yet reached their exact distance, show things that are still growing and ahead of us. In a property question, they show how the situation will continue to develop. In a birth chart, they show us the road that will continually build in front of the person born, in new and interesting ways, along with chances of mastering the gifts that aspect are never-ending.

The closer the aspect, the stronger its influence will be. Any aspect within 3°, with one or both planets in angles, will make the aspect markedly pronounced.

Step four: interpret house by house

After you’ve taken stock of the main planetary themes on angles, assessed the big three, and accounted for the chart’s closest aspects, you’ll be reasonably settled into the overall tone of the chart. Your next step is to be clear about what it is you’d like to interrogate, then explore that theme’s potential within the chart.
If you want to know something about finances, whether in a birth chart or a question or political chart, you would look to the 2nd House, see what planets are placed there, what sign is on the cusp, what planet rules it, what house it’s placed in, and whether it is receiving helpful or hurtful contacts and from which planets, and which houses do they rule.

For instance, if Libra was on the 2nd House cusp, the sign of balance minimises the likelihood of extreme poverty or wealth. This is a human sign, so it suggests earnings to come from things that keep civilisation in motion, perhaps related to law or courts, or anything that involves assessing, such as data analysis or tax collection.

This sign is ruled by Venus. Venus tends to accumulate wealth through adornment and lush trappings. If Venus were in the 3rd House, we could assess this both for cadency and topic. Cadency lessens the pulse or influence money is likely to have on the situation, but by being in the 3rd House, closely associates contracts, messages, travel and communication with themes of financial gain. If Venus were in square with Mars, ruler of the 8th House, we could say that the chart describes money being lost through debt or through mixing money with an intimate partner. If Mars were in the 11th House, it indicates that the loss would come about through associations with friends,
or some other 11th House theme.

In Lilly’s Christian Astrology, he writes one of the most succinct passages on chart interpretation that I’ve found to date: “Secondly, you must then consider the matter propounded, and see to which of the twelve houses it does properly belong: when you have found the house, consider the sign and lord of that sign, how, and in what sign and what part he is placed, how dignified, what aspect he hath to the lord of the ascendant, who impedits your significator, who is friend to him, viz. what planet it is, and what house he is lord of, or in what house posited; from such a man or woman signified by that planet, shall you be furthered or hindered; or of such relation to you as that planet signifies; … if lord of such a house as signifies enemies, then an enemy verily; if of a friendly house, a friend: The whole natural key to all astrology rests in the words preceding [being] rightly understood.” (Christian Astrology, pp 123-124. 1647).

This paragraph is, in essence, the best advice I think we can get on chart interpretation. It’s one step at a time, with the major anchors secured first to allow the rest to find their proper place in delineation.

Enhance your astrological journey by keeping track of your insights and observations in a natal chart notebook.

Article Featured in WellBeing Astrology 2024 

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