by Eric Francis Coppolino | PDF available here
When you look up an encyclopedia definition of astrology, you usually get something like “the study of the positions of the planets as they influence affairs on Earth.”
That’s quite a leap. How we get from the “positions of the planets” to “affairs on Earth” is to understand the houses. The houses focus the topics of astrology. Sometimes described as representing the departments of life, the houses are a practical matter. There’s nothing cosmic or mystical about them, except for a hint of poetry that describes human existence.
Patric Walker, one of the great astrologers and horoscope writers of the 20th century, once remarked to his colleague Jonathan Cainer that “it’s all in the houses.” Walker was a master of getting the topic area correct. The way you do that is knowing what house you’re writing about.
In the simplest terms, the houses projects the zodiac onto the Earth, where astrology actually happens. They are local affair; if you cast a chart for the same date and time for cities around the planet, the configuration of houses is what changes. If the time at one location moves, the most noticeable thing that changes is the pattern of the houses.
They are the most specific and most useful tool in the chart, providing the context for the reading. They also provide an organizational framework for understanding all of astrology.
The houses are the equivalent of the positions in a tarot spread. You can know what all the cards mean, but the way you extract that meaning is by understanding the positions they land in. Think of the planets and the signs as the tarot cards themselves, and the houses as the placements within the spread. The Magician suggests one thing as the first card (the significator) and another thing in the position of negative feelings, or the outcome. A card suggests one thing as a past factor, and another as a future factor. Looking at the card itself, you get half of the meaning. Looking at where it lands, you get the rest of the meaning, and the wider context of the cards around it.
As with the positions in the tarot spread, the houses provide the basic syntax of the reading: how to frame a question; how to know where the action might be in a client’s life; how a planet in your own chart manifests.
Most discussions about the houses are not about how to use them, but rather, are debates about the supposedly right system, and more lately, the feud between the whole-sign houses camp and the quadrant houses (i.e., Placidus- or Koch-type houses) camp. I’ve followed these discussions for a long time. They tend to be as ridiculous as the 13th sign hoax, and about as intellectually satisfying. I’ll come back to that supposed controversy, since it holds a key to understanding how houses work and how to read them. They have nearly everything in common.
Using the tarot metaphor again, we rarely hear arguments among tarot readers about what’s the best deck, or what’s the best spread. The discussion is how to understand your cards, and how to read the spread you work with. A good tarot reader can read any spread, or make up a new one. As long as you know what the positions in the spread mean, the spread will be legible. Tarot readers are also taught to pay attention to what cards fall out of the deck; they honor that it’s all one interesting coincidence. Astrologers would benefit from adopting this viewpoint.
Applying the idea of a tarot spread to astrology, let’s say there’s a conjunction of Venus and Mars in a chart. If that conjunction is in the 1st house, it will suggest one meaning (for example, the person might identify as bisexual), while if it’s in the 10th house, it will suggest something different (a power partnership between a man and a woman, for example). It’s the same conjunction in the same sign. The house is what provides the context and therefore the meaning of the conjunction. There are other contexts, such as aspects, but those aspects still gain their relevance to the situation based on what house the planets fall in.
I’m here to offer you a simple idea. If you want to understand astrology, understand the houses. If you want to do coherent readings, understand the houses. It’s easy, and it’s fun: fun like riding a bike instead of just looking at one. Incidentally, learning to read tarot cards is, I believe, an essential factor in learning to read astrology. Tarot is much simpler, and it will, with a little practice, give you the feeling of connecting the data to an interpretation. Because of its often overwhelming complexity, it’s much more difficult to get that feeling from astrology.
Technical: Houses and Signs
The Earth orbits the Sun, and it also rotates within the zodiac. When we talk about the houses, we’re talking about that rotation, that is, the spinning of the Earth. That is how, during the course of the day, all 12 signs cross the horizon and indeed occupy each of the houses at some time.
Imagine that the Sun is in Aries. At sunrise, the Sun will be in the east, and Aries will be the rising or ascending sign. At noon, the Sun will be high in the sky, and Aries will be on the midheaven. At sunset, the Sun will be in the west and Aries will be the descending or setting sign. The Sun, Moon and planets move slowly, and they follow the signs as the world turns.
The houses don’t move. The 1st house is always to the east, just below the horizon. The 12th house is always to the east, just above the horizon. The 10th house is always above and slightly to the east; the 9th house is above and slightly to the west. From anyplace on Earth, at any time of day or night, you can point to one of the houses. It’s true that the house cusps move a little based on the time of day and the time of year, but the house is always in the same general direction.
This will remind you that the houses are a mundane affair, associated with existence on our planet. All the other planets follow the course of the Sun through the day, and if you cast a chart for any given moment, the rotation of the Earth is stopped, and the various planets and signs fall into the context of the houses. If you’re new to astrology, getting this one idea will save you years of puzzlement and frustration.
House cusps, which are imaginary lines extending from the Earth into space, intersect the various signs. That meeting of a house cusp and a sign is the first step to reading the houses. That’s the context. Most astrology theories agree that the 4th house represents one’s home. What kind of home will some one have? Well, it’ll be one kind with Taurus on the 4th, and a very different kind with Aquarius on the 4th.
We might speculate and say that someone with Aquarius on the 4th will be content having all the cables for their electronic gear exposed. It’s easier to arrange your stuff and to troubleshoot a problem that way. Someone with Taurus on the 4th will either have a lot less gear, or want the cables tucked into the walls where they don’t have to look at them. The cables are just tacky.
That is an interpretation. How did we get there? The house represents the topic and the sign represents the style of expression of the topic.
Houses don’t have planets inherently associated with them. It’s not true that “Mercury rules the 3rd house.” It is true that Mercury rules Gemini, whatever house Gemini happens to occupy. Signs are connected to the planets that rule them, while houses take on that cast from the signs that occupy a house. It’s the intersection of houses and signs that makes astrology comprehensible. I’ll be using this word a lot: this is about context.
One last point. The signs of the tropical zodiac, i.e., the signs, are each 30 degrees. They are the division of the wheel of the heavens into 12 equal slices.
The houses (except for whole-sign houses, and equal houses) will be of varying sizes. In one chart, the 8th house might be 15 degrees across, while the 11th house is 45 degrees across. This will vary with the time of year, the place on Earth, and to a lesser extent, the time of day. If you cast a chart for Iceland on the winter solstice using Koch houses, the 2nd and 8th houses come out to 92 degrees each! The 4th and 10th houses are about six degrees each.
If you cast using Placidus houses for the same data, the 7th house comes out to 120 degrees, intercepting three full signs, and part of two more. (This is where equal houses or whole sign houses could come in handy as a practical tool, but I would definitely want to read the actual chart and see what I can get from it.) Play around with your astrology software using different places on Earth for the same date and time and you’ll see what I mean. If you cast using Koch houses the winter solstice for Panama City, right near the equator, you get a chart with nearly equal houses.
How You Know You Understand a House
There’s a topic, or rather, an intellectual key, that would be helpful to astrology is epistemology. That’s the study of how you know what you think you know. It’s the philosophical equivalent of fact-checking. When a reporter writing an article states a fact, the editor has a right to know, “How do you know that?” Astrology needs this concept rather dearly, and I’d like to introduce it today as it relates to the houses. I’d like to share with you my three keys to knowing when you understand a house.
The first of my three keys to knowing whether you understand a house is you see the relationship between the themes that authors describe. The second is identifying the physical place that a house represents, and knowing when you’re in that place. The third is understanding the human relationships described by a house.
Initially, the various meanings of a house can seem to be an abstract or random pastiche of themes. Astrology students try to memorize them. Let’s see, the 8th house represents shared finances, spouses, funeral homes and really intense sex. The 5th house represents gambling, artists and art studios, children, and sex. The 11th house represents hopes and dreams, your friends and professional income. This all makes perfect sense if you’re on mushrooms.
The key to understanding the houses involves study and experience — lots of study, meaning reading diverse viewpoints, and then reading charts: both natal and mundane. One of the flaws of modern astrology is its over-emphasis on psychology. (Robert Hand once remarked in a conversation that “all modern astrology is psychological astrology.”) in a Even when you’re doing psychological astrology, though, it helps to put the issue onto the ground.
Let’s take the first key, understanding the confluence of themes represented by a house. We can start with the premise that the themes are indeed related — they’re not tossed into the house randomly. Astrology is a representation of reality. It’s not an abstraction from which we deduce reality, though sometimes it can feel that way. The thing to remember at all times is that while there are 12 houses, society is changing constantly. So there will be more and more things to include in a house, while the theme that relates them remains more or less the same.
Understanding the confluence of themes takes some study, some imagination, and lots of practice. Study includes looking at modern definitions of the houses, and then tracing that history back through older books to see some of the seed ideas.
For the purpose of the early historic meaning, I suggest going back as far as William Lilly in a book called Christian Astrology. This was the first astrology textbook published in the English language. Yes, it’s fun to dive into ancient Greece and go exploring with the guys in togas. Reading Lilly, a British astrologer from the 17th century, we start to hear a familiar voice, and see a world that we recognize: cases involving someone figuring out where the shipment of fish went, trying to locate a dead body, determining whether the client will inherit money, and various questions that real people ask astrologers to the present day.
Let’s look at some examples. I cannot do all 12 houses at this length for this article; so these are intended as models to help train your thinking.
The 6th House: Doctor’s Office, Barnyard, Everyday Life
In a modern context, the 6th is about health and wellbeing. It’s also about service, in terms of servitude, slavery, and being an employee. There’s the “small animals” aspect of the 6th, and there’s the military service aspect. It’s also been described as the house of everyday affairs, though it would seem to share this with the 3rd. If we refer to Lilly’s take on the 6th, he sums it up as, “Of Sickness, Servants, Small Cattle.” Small animals fit the picture because they’re a kind of employee who serves its master. Sheep, goats, donkeys and dogs all work for a living.
It’s pretty easy to thread the needle on this house: everything comes back to service, serving, and those who do the work. The 6th is where one refers to for information about the length of an illness, the diagnosis and the healing process. In a contemporary context, you might describe this as healing, wellness and health maintenance. The 6th can indeed provide diagnostic clues (Neptune in the 6th by transit or natal placement cautious of difficulty making a firm diagnosis, for example. It might also describe someone who has challenges keeping a job).
The maintenance factor applies to taking care of animals, taking care of one’s job responsibilities, and for a military person, maintaining their skills and equipment. Indeed, for most people, it’s what takes up most of our day with routine activity. The 6th is where we spend much of our time. If we refer to the joys of the planet, Mars having its joy in the 6th seems connected to the military service aspect of things, but also the need to apply some motivation to everything we do in this house.
Barbara Hand Clow once described the ideal mental state of the 6th as getting lost in one’s work. It’s the feeling of embarking on a task, and looking up and noticing that three hours have gone by, but it seems like a few minutes. When that happens, you know you’re fully involved in what you’re doing. Sadly, plenty of people experience boredom at work. That fully-involved feeling of time going by in an instant means you have a job you love.
Because the 6th is about work, we might mistake that for career. There are indeed people whose professional ambitions are located in the 6th: they might want to do a job they like, and go home. Or they might just need to work for money, and not care much about what it is, though that would add the “servitude” theme. I think of the 6th as describing attitudes and values toward work itself, and the 10th as describing aspirations and ambitions. Ideally we would get the two into harmony.
Physical spaces described by the 6th are one’s office, study, workshop or work area; the healing room, the doctor’s office, or the small medical center (as opposed to a hospital); the barn and it surroundings; and the base camp or training camp for a military operation. In prior eras, people spent much more of their times in the latter two kinds of places. Physical locations of the 6th have the feeling of purpose, order and productivity (a bit Virgoish).
But their particular style is also dependent on the sign that intersects the 6th cusp, if we’re reading a natal chart. Someone with Libra on the 6th needs a beautiful work place, with light and plants and decent furniture, where people get along. Someone with Sagittarius on the 6th might travel for work, or work across international lines. Someone with Sagg on the 6th also needs a lot of space to work, to spread out their various diverse and undoubtedly interesting projects. They should probably design a space with the bookshelves built in.
Relationships of the 6th house include those with colleagues, co-workers, supervisors and clients. While the 7th house is usually considered the house of relationships, it’s interesting to note how many of those relationships originate in the 6th. For people who spend as much time at work as most of us do in Western society, the 6th is an important source of friendships, which frequently morph into 7th house-type partnerships and marriages. Note that there’s a progressive step from the 6th to the 7th in this regard. People who meet as co-workers could have an idea and become business partners, or fall in love and become marriage partners.
The 5th House: Children, Sex, Games of Chance, and Art
Contemporary astrologers seem to associate the 5th house with art and creativity, with children and with gambling, which I’ve always found amusing. It’s less random than it may seem at first. The meta theme of the house is the relationship between pleasure, creativity and risk. Or, paraphrasing Jesus, it’s the house where we become as little children, or make them.
Lilly devotes nearly all of his chapter on the 5th house to questions of pregnancy, childbirth, and whether and how many children a woman will have. In horary, one would look there for determining whether a woman is pregnant, how long since a woman has conceived, what time the birth will be, whether it will be a day or night birth, or whether the child will be male or female. As medical science has caught up with most of these matters, we’re free to take a wider view of this house. The 5th is a good example of how the meaning of houses develops as society evolves.
One of my teachers once said that procreating does not necessarily mean making children. It can include that, but now, at least with the relative privileges of Western society, we have the option to procreate as people who create our lives. This includes in relationships. Success is not guaranteed; one must take a risk to live in this way, and that risk is has the feeling of a game of chance, or what some describe as speculation.
To embark on a life path as an artist is to gamble or speculate on your own creativity. If you go to school to be an accountant or lawyer, you’re a lot likelier to get a job than if you embark on a career as a bass player. That said, many people with professional degrees are now finding themselves in a position where they need to put some real creativity into finding satisfying work.
Unlike those who live in the 6th house, where service and duty are necessary, an artist who lives in the 5th will often live in a way that’s pleasurable and fun in order to maintain their creative flow. There is indeed something childlike about many artists; they are motivated by different intentions than those who see their role as to perform a function. With the 5th there is the feeling of doing something for its own sake, rather than because you have to. However, the service aspect of the 6th also has that quality of doing things for their own sake — only you’re doing whatever that is for someone else. Art must always be in service of the artist first, and if others like it, all the better. You could make a lot of money as a painter, but it’s not guaranteed: that’s the element of speculation or risk.
Let’s consider the sexual aspects of the 5th house, which are distinct from any other house. Clearly since sex sometimes makes babies, that theme originates from the 5th house questions around pregnancy and childbirth. However, we now live in a time when pregnancy is optional and when we admit that sex is for fun, and that procreation is not just about making babies.
Sex in the style of the 5th is like a spontaneous encounter on the art studio couch. It may involve the chance encounter, echoing the “games of chance” theme of the 5th. It might be sex in the back seat of a car, or in the supply room. I’s the sex that happens spontaneously, in the style of teenagers or adults still in possession of their volition and individuality. It’s not the marriage bed. There’s no sense of duty with 5th house sex, and it may never happen again. It’s creative, passionate and experimental, just like art.
To sum up, places associated with the 5th house are art studios, places where games of any kind are played (from casinos to climbing walls to Off-Track Betting), art supply stores, playrooms, adult play-spaces, the recreational area of a house (the man-cave, whereas the family room would be part of the 4th).
The relationships of the 5th house include artist-model, artist-assistant, creative collaborators of any kind, passionate lovers, young lovers, dealer-player relationships, friendly competitive relationships and playmates of any stripe.
Transition Zones: Brackish Estuaries of Astrology
Now that we’ve delineated two example houses, let’s introduce a new concept: the transition zone between houses. There is a quirk of the astrological chart that causes a distortion. The houses are separated by a line, while the signs don’t get a line; you read the degree number for confirmation when the new sign begins. I notice astrology students trying to be sticklers about what house a planet is in.
In my experience, the signs are the elements with the clear beginning and end, and the houses are the elements that blend into one another. William Lilly references this in his five-degree rule: he says that anything coming within five degrees of the house cusp can count as being part of the next house.
Signs do not really have cusps. They begin and end. I recognize there are other viewpoints; for example, some people born in late Libra feel like they’re part Scorpio, though that may be due to having inner planets there. The sign transition is significant when considering rulerships. Libra is ruled by Venus and Scorpio is ruled by Mars. That’s a clear distinction. House cusps always intersect a sign somewhere, so at least we know what planet is the ruler of that particular house.
Yet I suggest experimenting with the idea that not only are the house cusps permeable, but they represent transition areas, in astrology, biology and human society. Remember that the houses are about existence on Earth, having nothing to do with the sky or the heavens or the cosmos. On Earth, there are many transition areas, and people who serve in blended roles, and sometimes there are represented as house cusps.
Let’s use the 5th and 6th houses as an example. If the 5th house represents the art studio and the 6th house represents the office, we have a little zone that talks about spaces that serve both purposes, and people who work both aspects of life at once. Imagine a place that serves both as studio and office. An herbalist’s workshop, where the practitioner is part artist and part clinician, would count.
I once visited a prominent literary agent living in the Seattle-area. She had an office built into her custom-designed kitchen. It was like a fully functional desk nested in right next to the oven and kitchen counter. This is a little like the 4th house (home, kitchen) blending into the 6th house. There are professional bakers and caterers who work out of their homes; you might look for symbols for their workplace on the 4th/5th house cusp.
Each of the houses has these. You can delineate them using our three-step guide: confluence of themes, physical spaces, and relationships. State of mind associated with the house also counts. For example, the 12th house is associated with dreams and trance-like states. The 1st house is associated with some tangible notion of identity and physical reality. Yet many people walk around all day long in a mild (or deep) trance state, leading one astrologer to define the 12th house as “normal waking consciousness.” The film Waking Life describes lucid dreaming and the action morphs back and forth over the 1st/12th line. The film addresses the question of what it means to be dreaming versus what it means to be awake. This is the inherent question of the 1st/12th line.
Seen another way, the 1st house is who we say we are, and the 12th house is who we know we are but would never (or rarely) reveal. I consider the 12th house that of unspeakable secrets (contrast with the 8th, the secrets we love to tell others).
As another example, the 10th, 11th and 12th houses all have a public quality, though it expands from house to house. The 10th is about one’s reputation, the 11th is about groups where the number of people are countable (the small public), and the 12th is very large audiences, the general public, a mass readership and so forth. This works as a gradient, with the house cusps describing the transition areas as the size of the audience or public increases. Follow that pattern through the 12th and into the 1st and we could say, “It all comes back to you.”
In order to read a chart, it’s necessary to loosen up your thinking and not be as rigid as many modern theories of astrology strive to be. Astrology requires imagination, observation and experience as well as study in its various theories and supposed orthodoxies. I recognize that the classical astrology movement, in its many forms, often pressures students into thinking there are absolutes, or that the reading of a chart must drive toward some form of tangible, provable resolution of the question. There are times you will need to have a distinct yes or no answer, but even getting there requires taking some creative steps, assessing the situation in real-life, and making value judgments.
There are lots of astrology books and articles and theories. In truth, no chart you will read as part of your actual work as an astrologer will be in one of those books or articles. You’re almost always reading a chart that has not been written about or that no other astrologer has ever seen. Therefore, you must bring your own interpretative skills and your own fresh, and informed perspective.
The Whole Sign House Non-Controversy
Long before Project Hindsight told us about whole sign houses, and way before astrologers started dividing up into camps accusing one another of reading the wrong kind of chart, newspaper astrologers were using whole-sign houses as part of their busy trade. They call them “solar houses,” meaning houses counted off of the Sun’s position, with the first degree of the Sun’s sign counting as the 1st house cusp. When someone knows how to read this method, you can get stunning relevance and accuracy without any natal data at all.
Then came the monograph Whole Sign Houses by Rob Hand, which is on my short list of books I would bring to another planet. Rob is a philosopher who takes a circumspect view of the matter, which I would recommend. This is not a question of right and wrong; rather, it’s a matter of whole-sign houses adding an extra layer to the chart. While I don’t have space to give a detailed chart example, we can illustrate an idea using a random chart cast for the moment I’m writing this article.
The section I’m showing is of the 7th and 8th houses of a chart. Using whole-sign houses, we would say that the 7th house actually begins at 1 Aquarius rather than at 27 Aquarius. All of those Pisces planets, under this approach, would count as the 8th house. The 8th cusp would do what a cusp really is supposed to do, which is to be a peak of energy within the 8th.
There are other ways to look at this. For example, you can view all the Pisces in the 7th as a wide zone where the themes of the two houses overlap. The overlay widens the transition zone in the approach that I described above. It’s true that the themes of the 7th and 8th have a lot in common, and this chart emphasizes that fact. For example, the Moon is in the transition zone between 7th and 8th. Neptune has a wide orb of influence, which expands the effect, and so on.
Rather than debating what house system is right, why not look at the situation you’re reading for, then look at the chart, and ask how you would best describe it astrologically? Just embarking on that questioning process will help loosen up your thinking. If you think of the chart as a sketch with some interesting details, rather than as a concrete map to reality, your approach to reading will become more flexible, and you’ll give yourself room to experiment.
Houses are a tool, granted, an important tool for reading a chart. What they teach is not law but rather guideline, similar to the relationship between music theory and music itself. Like music, astrology is part art, part craft. It’s both technical and part intuitive, rooted in tradition and a facet of the modern world. If you honor both sides of these various equations, you will bring elegance and originality to your work.