Learn natal astrology and dive deeper into your birth chart
Astrology is best approached from the ground up. For much of astrology’s history, by the time an astrologer used natal or birth chart techniques they were already skilled in event chart interpretation and prediction; they could successfully divine answers from horary charts and select helpful moments to begin new undertakings. Most astrologers also knew about natural medicine and humoral theory. An apprentice astrologer would develop and master these skills before broaching natal astrology, ensuring they were capable of diving into the depths that birth or natal chart analysis deserves.
Nowadays, the overwhelming majority of those of us who use astrology begin with nativities (that is, studying birth charts). Today, birth or natal chart astrology is often seen as the most accessible branch of astrology. That isn’t to imply it’s the easiest. The truth is that natal astrology is one of the more advanced divisions of astrology, which could easily take you a lifetime to master.
Natal astrology might feel so accessible because you have a personal entry point. Your moment of birth, and its corresponding birth or natal chart, maps out the dominant celestial themes that you will experience throughout your life.
From where I sit, the ideal way to start studying astrology is the same way it was done centuries ago: by starting with the simpler techniques, like horary and elections, before advancing to the more complex divisions of astrology, like natal and mundane. It’s like studying mathematics — algebra before calculus.
But everyone’s path is different and, if you’re a budding astrologer who has focus and drive, beautiful natal work can be crafted without experience in the more elementary branches. Sometimes you just need a few ideas for how to dive in. My advice? Start with the Ascendant and rely on the houses.
The power of the Ascendant
I know it’s common to start interpreting a chart with the Sun and then move on to the Moon. I think this can set you up for disappointment. The real power of a horoscope comes through the Ascendant. It’s through the rising sign that you take shape and form on all levels: physically, emotionally, mentally.
In this article, I’ll use an example of someone born under an Aries rising sign, or Aries Ascendant, to show this approach in action.
Aries is a cardinal fire sign. Cardinal signs are the initiators of the zodiac — as the seasons begin with them — and bring quick action and change. Fire brings inspiration, heat, passion. The combination of cardinal plus fire gives Aries its qualities of boldness and a yearning to lead or occupy frontlines. Aries has a quick temper and a penchant for rash decision-making, with a naïve, child-like approach to problem-solving. Mars is the ruler of Aries and they share similar qualities.
The planet who rules the sign on the cusp of a given house is the accidental significator of the affairs of that house.
With Aries rising, this person will likely demonstrate and reflect these qualities on every level. Aries rising can give sharp features in the face, beady but burning eyes, a lean and sturdy build, hair that glints slightly red, perhaps even a name that is connected to Aries symbolism like Mark (meaning “consecrated to the god Mars” or “to be warlike”) or Erica (meaning “powerful ruler”). There is often a scar or burn on the forehead, possibly from youth, since Aries is connected to the youthful season of spring.
Behaviourally, Aries rising can be quite daring and aggressive, always ready for what’s next but struggling to preserve what has already been started. Aries isn’t the greatest at negotiation and certainly doesn’t shy away from conflict.
This combination of Aries on the ascendant can give you a lot of information, but you must develop your profile further. You can do this by exploring the condition and placement of Mars in the birth or natal chart. As the planetary ruler of Aries, Mars will be the principal significator — a planetary body that signifies something else, describing it in physical and psychological ways — for anyone with Aries (or Scorpio) rising. This principal significator shows you in your own chart.
If Aries rises and Mars is placed in a fiery sign at birth, that enhances the fire-like flavour of the birth or natal chart. If Mars is in an air sign, the focus of all that fiery energy may manifest in the realm of ideas and active thought, like through lively discussion with peers and superiors. The placement of Mars further shapes your understanding of how this person expresses Aries energy.
Natural vs accidental signification
In modern practice, it’s common to look at a chart as a blueprint to the whole person, such that every planet has equal strength to say something about the individual. For instance, Mars describes initiative, passion, sex drive; Venus, one’s sensual nature; Saturn, the attitude toward responsibility and structure. To a certain extent, this is true. Each person reflects the predominating natural causes that were actively stirring at the time of birth, and astrology is one tool that measures that.
But this approach means you run into the issue of a natural or universal significator versus accidental signification. Mars universally governs those things under his purview, such as initiative, passion and sex drive. Venus universally governs sensuality. Saturn universally governs responsibility.
Start with the Ascendant, and rely on the houses.
When you rely on natural or universal significators, all you can derive from charts are vague generalities and woolly abstractions that leave everyone at the table feeling a little disappointed.
To get to the particulars that will really “wow”, you need to operate through accidental significators. To do this, use the houses to locate where certain energies are being expressed. This is what makes a chart for someone born at noon very different from someone born even an hour later — the degrees on house cusps have changed, often the signs on the house cusps themselves have changed and planets will have shifted houses.
Getting specific: 4th and 5th houses
In our example, with Aries rising, it’s likely that Cancer will be on the 4th House cusp. The ruler of Cancer is the Moon. In this case, the Moon will signify 4th House things. She will certainly have something general to say about the individual but, more importantly, she will say something very specific about the native’s father because fathers belong to the 4th House.1
Continuing on, our Aries rising individual will likely have Leo on the 5th House cusp, a sign ruled by the Sun. The Sun has universal rulership over your heroic drive and will give a general sense of the mind and motives of the individual.
In a more tangible sense, the Sun also provides specific insights regarding this person’s children (or child, more likely, because Leo is a sign that tends to give one or no children), what is done for leisure and entertainment and, in relevant cases, may even indicate a penchant for ambassadorships or diplomacy, as these are all 5th House topics.
Planets and people
Now, if you had approached this birth or natal chart the way modern textbooks suggest you should, you would’ve jumped straight to the Sun and Moon to describe your client. In doing so, you would have entirely missed that the luminaries — in this person’s birth or natal chart — have more concrete things to say about other people in the native’s life.
Remember, the planet who rules the sign on the cusp of a given house is the accidental significator of the affairs of that house. To determine this person’s relationship to any area of their life, you can look at the relationship between the significators — the ruling planets of the houses — involved.
2nd House and money
Following our example, Mars rules the Ascendant and is the person’s primary significator. Let’s assume that Venus rules the 2nd House of Finances as Taurus is on its cusp.
If you find Venus and Mars to be in some happy aspect, like a sextile or trine, you can reasonably presume that this individual experiences easy cashflow. This is enhanced if Venus applies to Mars because then the 2nd ruler of personal assets, Venus, is moving toward your client’s significator, Mars. It’s as if money comes to them!
But, if Venus and Mars are in a tense aspect and both retrograde, as with Mars chasing after Venus backwards through the zodiac, then you have an indication of excessive delays in the acquisition of wealth — and possibly even squandering of money.
People in positions of power: 10th House
If I wanted to understand how this person handled authority figures, I might look to how Mars is positioned in relation to the Sun or Saturn (planets that generally signify authority).
Truthfully, I’d be more interested in how Mars (the ruler of the person and 1st House in this example) interacts with the 10th ruler, because the 10th House has associations with power and authority. Let’s say Saturn rules the midheaven. If Mars and Saturn are in tense aspect, it indicates tense relationships with authority figures. If they are in a relaxed aspect, some degree of comradery, trust and cooperation is more likely.
The ruling planet of the Ascendant
You’d then modify your observations based on the sign and house the planets are in. You’ll notice an inherent magnetism to and from things related to whatever house the Ascendant ruler is in.
If, in our example, Mars, ruling the 1st House, is placed in the 2nd, the individual may focus a lot on money and acquiring wealth. If Mars is instead in the 5th House, Mars/this person may enjoy more carnal pursuits: sex, gambling and speculation, eating and drinking and so on. If Mars is in the 9th House, Mars/this person may find comfort in the heat that is generated by passionate study and learning, specialising in a field and aiming to be a pioneer in both thought and action.
Planet and sign pairings
How the planet — the one ruling the house in question — does these things will be shown by the sign that planet is placed in. If our Aries rising client has Mars in the 3rd House, they may be argumentative or seek debates for pleasure.
Let’s get more specific with the how. This person could have Mars in the 3rd House in either Taurus or Cancer. These are not signs well suited to Mars and, as a result, Mars — the individual — will have difficulty expressing his virtue, or the unadulterated expression of his quality, efficiently or effectively. There may not be a strong grasp on how to control his anger or frustration, and so debates that could have been engaging and illuminating become overwrought and temper-raising.
If, however, Mars was placed in Gemini in the 3rd House, some of that destructive tendency would fade away because Mars is (for lack of a better term) neutrally placed in Gemini. This individual may be cross with their words from time to time, but may also pose questions and ideas that stimulate the mind and lead to creative, previously unexplored solutions.
The expression of aspects
The same exercise is employed when examining how an aspect functions. Let’s return to the part where we assumed Mars was the principal significator and Saturn (as ruler of the 10th House) the significator of authority figures. Let’s also assume that Mars is in trine to this Saturn, an aspect which indicates an easy flow of energy between the two planets. How do you determine whether this association with Saturn benefits Mars (your client) or brings trouble and disappointment?
Remember that a trine aspect alone does not indicate a healthy connection. The Titanic sank on a trine of the Moon to Mars, and the ill-fated ship slipped to the bottom of the sea without much hesitation.
The power of a trine is in its ease and slack — it will only promise good and helpful things if the condition of the planet involved is healthy. That is determined by several factors, like the planet’s phase and by aspects it makes to other planets. First, though, you must determine condition by the sign and house placements of the planets involved.
Say that Saturn, who would rule and represent authorities in life when it’s the 10th House ruler, is placed in the 7th House of Partnerships and Relationships. It’s possible that your client will experience both romantic and business partners as quite authoritative.
The real power of a horoscope comes through the Ascendant. It’s through the rising sign that you take shape and form on all levels: physically, emotionally, mentally.
In such a case, it’s possible that Saturn will be in Libra (since Aries is rising). Saturn is exalted in Libra and so shows solemn people who have earned their wisdom, people with high standards and a tendency to tackle problems with justice and fairness as the barometers. Mars in trine to this Saturn, for the most part, benefits by the association.2
In an alternate version of this example, Saturn might still rule the 10th but this time be placed in Leo, in the 5th House of Children. Saturn has no significant relationship to Leo and even regards Leo as enemy territory. Saturn in Leo in the 5th House is liable to produce children who are “untoward”, as some of the older texts say. This could mean difficult, obstinate, masters of disobedience, or children who have a long-term relationship with the word “no”.
As Saturn rules the 10th House of Authority, an appropriate interpretation could be that this individual either exacerbates defiance or tries to neutralise it using force that establishes dominance. This type of a trine from Mars to Saturn would be far less beneficial, and may magnify issues of control across generations.
Birth or natal chart interpretation questions
You might find these questions helpful to get you thinking about how to interpret a chart:
- What topic am I curious about?
- What house does it belong to?
- What planet rules the sign on the cusp of that house?
- What sign and house is that planet in? How well can that planet express its own virtue?
- What phase is that planet in?
- What aspects does it form?
- Are the planets it aspects rulers of helpful or difficult houses?
- How do these considerations, when taken together, create a dynamic story describing the native’s experience of that topic?
With the above approach, you now have the ability to access great detail about a person’s relationship to their children or their attitude toward death, or even explore their sibling’s relationships with the parents. Generalities take a back seat to the unique situation of an individual’s birth or natal chart.
In many ways, astrology is that simple. As the great 17th-century English astrologer William Lilly once said about this exact approach, “The whole natural key to all astrology rests in the words preceding [being] rightly understood.”
Your principal significator
|If your Ascendant or rising sign is…||Your principal significator is…|
|Gemini or Virgo||Mercury|
|Taurus or Libra||Venus|
|Aries or Scorpio||Mars|
|Sagittarius or Pisces||Jupiter|
|Capricorn or Aquarius||Saturn|
The houses and their topics
|1st||You, your life and vitality|
|2nd||Moveable possessions, financial resources|
|3rd||Short journeys, communication, local community|
|4th||Hidden matters, ancestral lineage, the father|
|5th||Children and procreation, recreation, sport|
|6th||Illness and servitude, employees and tenants|
|7th||Those to whom you are engaged, whether in love or war|
|8th||Death, anxiety, loss, legacies of the deceased|
|9th||Philosophy and religion, mysticism, long journeys|
|10th||Success and glory, fulfilment of purpose, vocation|
|11th||Benefactors and friends, hopes, places of mending|
|12th||Loss, depression, slavery, hidden enemies|
- In modern texts, the 4th House is often given to the mother. This is an invention of the past few centuries and has no basis in any part of our astrological history. The 4th House speaks to parents generally, and the father specifically.
- I say “for the most part” because Saturn is in Libra, a sign in which Mars stumbles and struggles. Though Saturn is well placed in Libra and represents a very dignified expression of Saturn energy, Mars’ trine to Saturn still requires Mars to trade and engage in an element (namely, the sign Libra) that is foreign to him. This can be awkward and disenchanting at times but, on the whole, this aspect should beget some gratifying circumstances.
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