There’s a big sky-full of stars out there along with a handful of planets. Where to begin? To what should we give the most credence? As a starting point, let’s examine the basic components of an astrological chart. From these building blocks, we can form more complex pictures.
First of all, most of astrology looks particularly at just the swath of the sky where the planets appear to circle us. This is the path of the earth around the sun and from our viewpoint, the apparent path of the sun around the earth, called the “ecliptic.” It’s basically a belt about the width of your hand when you extend your arm fully. Along this belt are the constellations of the ram, the bull, the twins, etc., which form the zodiac (from the Latin word for zoo, since they’re mostly animals in the zodiac constellations). All the planets travel on this “track.”
An astrological chart is a map of the heavens at a moment in time, freezing the positions of the planets, which are continually in motion. The chart is viewed from a particular spot on earth and is oriented toward that place, lined up with the directions from there. The directions on a sky chart are the opposite of those on an earth map since we’re looking up at the heavens instead of down at earth. East is on the left, west is on the right, north is at the bottom and south is at the top.
Since astrology is like a language (a foreign one to many!), an analogy from language class will help:
Planets are like verbs. They express drives that humans have in common, or they show energy in action.
Signs are like adverbs. They modify the expression of the planets’ influences, showing how they are being expressed.
Houses are another form of adverb, showing where planets’ energies operate. Houses are a segment of the sky relating to a certain direction. There are twelve houses and each represents different “departments” in our lives.
There are two key connections between houses and planets. First, a planet influences the matters of the house in which the planet is located. Second, by virtue of “rulership,” a planet has an impact on any house that begins with a sign that the planet rules (see the table below).
The final type of adverb is an aspect. This is an interaction of energies between two planets, showing whether they harmonize or clash. Aspects are divisions of the zodiac circle into various fractions. Oftentimes, when you see a chart wheel, there is a pattern of interlocking lines drawn between the planets – these represent the aspects. I usually say this is like your own “printed circuit board” and shows how you’re wired.
“Where is the subject?” you might well ask. The subject is the person, entity or event that the chart is describing. A chart can apply to anything with a beginning moment in time, whether that’s a person, animal, company or event. Now you know why beginning moments are so important: because any entity takes on the energy present at the time it begins. With that in mind, carefully choose the times you begin actions. When an astrologer searches for a good beginning time, that’s called “electing” the moment (or an “electional” chart). My Janet’s Plan-its calendars are a tool to help you elect good moments for your most important activities.
There is some correspondence between the planets and signs associated with the houses in what is called the “natural zodiac.” In her book, Finding the Person in the Horoscope, astrologer Zipporah Pottenger Dobyns referred to these as the “12-letter alphabet” of astrology. You can almost think of them interchangeably (but with the nuance of the distinctions listed above).
Here are the signs with their associated ruling planet, house and compass direction.
Aries Mars 1 East
Taurus Venus 2 Northeast
Gemini Mercury 3 North Northeast
Cancer Moon 4 North
Leo Sun 5 North Northwest
Virgo Mercury 6 Northwest
Libra Venus 7 West
Scorpio Pluto (traditional ruler Mars) 8 Southwest
Sagittarius Jupiter 9 South Southwest
Capricorn Saturn 10 South
Aquarius Uranus (traditional ruler Saturn) 11 South Southeast
Pisces Neptune (traditional ruler Jupiter) 12 Southeast
To illustrate one of these “letters,” day begins with the sunrise in the east, at the first house, which represents the self, aligned with Aries, a sign that acts independently, ruled by Mars, the planet of self-preservation and survival.
Using the 12-letter “alphabet,” look for potentials that are “said” more than once in a chart (repetition between planet/sign/house themes). These are the most emphasized traits in a person. An example might be a person who has the Sun (no matter what the sign) in the 7th House (which rules relationships), and the Moon in Libra (natural sign of relationships), along with Venus (ruling planet of love) conjunct (meaning teamed up with) Jupiter (a beneficial influence of increase). This person loves easily, perhaps too easily!
If you don’t already have your birth chart, do your best to find out your exact time of birth (the Hall of Records at your birthplace usually has that information), and then calculate your chart for free here: alabe.com.
Here is a good “plan of attack” for reading a chart:
First look at the Sun and Moon to understand their signs and houses, as well as the lunar phase during which you were born (discussed in my article Overview of Astrology). There’s a good discussion of the eight lunar phases at Forrest Astrology.
Next peruse the Ascendant or “rising sign” (the sign that starts the first house). It shows the lenses through which you look at life and the personality you show the world.
Then check how many of your planets are in each of the elements and qualities (also called modes). Do you have a lot of planets in one or two of the elements? Are you missing an element altogether? You probably have a strong “modus operandi” (this is a favorite term in detective work, meaning a way of operating) according to which of the modes you have the most planets in.
Next, examine the inner planets (Mercury, Venus and Mars), the signs and houses they’re in and the houses they affect by rulership. These describe your most personal experiences.
Don’t miss the lessons that your Nodes want to teach you!
Then consider Jupiter and Saturn, the “generational planets.” Their signs and houses have to do with your socialization and the role you play in your age group.
The outer planets (Uranus, Neptune and Pluto), called the “transpersonal” or “transcendental” planets, have more to do with big changes and slow long-term developments, both in society and in our personal lives (mostly according to the houses they occupy and rule, since they remain in a sign for many years). Along with them, you will probably also want to check out Chiron, an asteroid with almost planetary importance that acts as a bridge between the everyday world and the spiritual realm. Now that Ceres has been “promoted” to a “dwarf planet” (formerly it was called an asteroid), you’ll want to see what she can tell you about where and how you want to get things to grow and what you can harvest in your life.
The aspects in your chart show how all the pieces fit together (or which pieces are left out). I usually look at these last after I have an understanding of all the components, but there might be some aspects you just can’t ignore while examining the planets, signs and houses.
After you have a good understanding of your birth chart, you will know what parts of your life are affected and which of your potentials are activated as the moving planets (“transits”) make aspects to your chart. That’s when the fun really starts because that’s the major component of forecasting on a personal level. But that’s a topic for another time.