Astrologers call the relationship between planets aspects.
(Hint… when you are learning astrology, always ask “why?” The answer is usually a clue to help you remember something important.)
Answer: the Latin word aspectus means things like “to see, look at, to appear to, to behold.”
And so planets in aspect see eye-to-eye, so to speak. They share a common ground, and therefore can help support one another – or perhaps push each other’s buttons.
Think of a family, all living under the same roof. Family members may not always get along, but they are always connected to one another.
Why do astrology aspects mean what they do?
If you’ve spent any time reading astrology books, you might be familiar with some version of this story…
“Once upon a time, in days long ago, starwatchers noticed that certain relationships between planets resulted in certain effects on earth. Over centuries, they studied and recorded, and eventually astrology was born.”
It’s a lovely myth. But unfortunately, there’s little evidence that it actually happened that way.
Rather, many astrological concepts can be traced back to the Classical and Hellenistic Greeks notion about an “ideal” reality. In other words, astrology sprang from observation of planets, yes, but also a lot of mathematics and logic about what a “perfect” and divine order would look like.
Exploring the meaning of aspects is a good chance to understand what they were thinking.
Perhaps the oldest teaching chart in astrology is called the Thema Mundi, which loosely translates as the “chart of the world soul.” It’s a hypothetical chart of the birth of the cosmos, or a golden age when everything was new and exactly where it was supposed to be.
As you can see, each of the seven visible planets (we’re including the Moon and Sun as “planets” to make it easier to talk about) is located in the Zodiac Sign that it rules (check out the article on Zodiac signs if these are new concepts.)
It’s not a “real chart,” in the sense that the planets can’t actually line up like this in the real world. (Though we’re going to have a rare moment when three of them do in November 2019.)
But the “meaning” of the aspects comes from the relationships between planets in the Thema Mundi.
For example, the planet Venus in Libra forms a 60-degree aspect to the Sun in Leo. Therefore, a 60-degree aspect (which astrologers call a sextile, or 1/6 of a circle), is a harmonious aspect, because it brings the sweet-nature of Venus.
I’ll explore each of these aspects below…
The meanings of aspects in astrology
And now you can see that, thanks to the Thema Mundi, astrology’s traditional aspects include:
- the sextile (Venus, 60 degrees, or 1/6 of a circle)
- the square (Mars, 90 degrees, or ¼ of a circle)
- the trine (Jupiter, 120 degrees, or 1/3 of a circle).
- the opposition (Saturn, 180 degrees, or ½ of a circle)
Planets in the same sign together are called “conjunct.” The word conjunct springs from a Latin root that means “to join together” or “to yoke.” It’s the same place we get the word “conjugal” from – as in conjugal visit. As in having sex.
(I told you should always ask “why?” when studying astrology… You’ll learn fun stuff!)
As mentioned in the example above, planets in sextile, or 60 degrees apart, take on the qualities of Venus.
Consequently, the planetary energies flow smoothly with a little effort, so they open into new possibilities and new connections.
And so it’s no surprise its keywords include things like: cooperative, friendly, harmonious, pleasant, easy, relaxed, helpful, balanced, opportunity, soft, lazy. These are all Venus’ qualities too.
Planets that are sextile also share the same Zodiac sign polarity; in other words, they are both either day signs or night signs. So they got that going for them too.
Just like you’d expect from Mars, squares (90 degrees apart) connote achievement through strife. The planetary energies conflict. However, through effort over time, the internal and creative tensions can bring rich rewards.
The common astrological keywords for squares are all Mars’ related words: achievement, success, power, force, action, excitement, impulsive, challenge, clashes, conflict, confrontation, crisis, discord, disorder, frustration, friction, stress, struggle, tumult, irritation, cross-purposes, antagonism
Another way of looking at it, planets in square to one another are sitting in signs with the same mode of action (cardinal or fixed or mutable), but a different polarity and element. They have the same style in taking action in the world, but they often have conflicting goals or motivations. Hence the friction.
Jupiter’s the planet originally known as “justice,” but today we’d think of it more as the planet of feeling like you’re “in the Zone.” When you’re graced by a jovial trine (120 degrees), you’ve got that expansive, happy feeling of being supported by the cosmos itself.
And so, again, no surprise that the common keywords for trines include: supportive, flow, benefit, enthusiastic, expansive, visionary, talent, reward, joy, luck, optimism, reward, growth, merciful, overindulgent, lazy.
Trines also involve planets in Zodiac signs with the same elemental flavor. When planets can take for granted their seeking the same thing, the planetary energies flow smoothly. It’s all win-win (at least, it is if you can get up off the couch and do something.)
Saturn’s forté is bringing us down to earth. But that also means having really good boundaries between “you” and “not you” – Saturn’s keenly aware of the things which divide us.
And so are oppositions (180 degrees). The planetary energies are polarized. Each planet tries to take the upper hand in a me-versus-them outlook, and outer events can intensify their interaction. Cooperation and awareness are necessary to foster growth.
The most common astrology keywords for oppositions resonate with Saturn themes: polarization, confrontation, conflict, cooperation (or lack thereof), partnership, compromise, awareness of otherness, separation, fulfillment, harvest, culmination.
Opposing planets are in signs with the same mode of action and polarity, but a different element. That’s part of what makes them so tricky – they have much in common, but you also have to respect diversity in order to get along.
Planets are conjunct (0 degrees) when they’re in the same sign. Of course, depending on the planets involved, this can be an easy relationship or more problematic.
Because they have such similar wants and styles, they can create a beautiful friendship… or drive over a cliff like Thelma and Louise.
Common astrological keywords for conjunctions include: beginnings, new cycles, initiations, pioneer, consolidate, concentrate, intensify, strengthen, empower, emphasize, prominence, focus, unify.
The Evolution of Aspects
Now, you’ve studied astrology before, you might have already realized that astrological concepts shift over the centuries. Like a game of telephone, sometimes things get lost along the way…
The concepts of astrological aspects is no exception.
Just glancing at the Thema Mundi, you might have already realized that the earliest type of planet relationships are aspects by sign.
As we just explored, the Zodiac signs in which these planets sit share something in common, such as the same mode, element or polarity (again, check out the article on Zodiac signs if these are new words.)
So, for example, all planets in the Earth signs Taurus, Virgo or Capricorn are in aspect to one another, because they are all viewing the world through earthy, pragmatic lenses. Or all planets in Cardinal signs are in aspect to one other, because they all share the cardinal way of tackling life challenges.
In other words, planets in aspect by sign have something in common with the filters by which they view the world. These are like friends (or antagonists) living in under the same roof together. They always find a way to get along – eventually.
The next type of aspect isn’t talked about much at all in modern astrology, though most modern astrologers use them without realizing it…
While nowadays we may not spend much time under the stars, the folks who invented astrology centuries ago did. Every night.
And when you do this, you’ll notice that just because planets are represented on a flat paper in signs that are in aspect with one another, that doesn’t mean they actually LOOK LIKE they have the same relationship in the physical sky.
A three-dimensional sky creates optical illusions based on the position of the observer’s horizon line.
And so astrologers used In mundo aspects to describe how planets visually appear in the sky.
In fact quadrant house systems – like Placidus or Koch — are an attempt to capture in mundo aspects visually in a chart. And so planets in the Ninth house in Placidus, are making an in mundo aspect with planets in the First House. (Confused? Don’t worry, you probably haven’t read the article in our series on Houses yet…)
And don’t worry about the details right now… just know that when astrologers stopped looking at the actual sky, we forgot why we did certain things. Which is sad, because some of those things are really cool – like the fact you might have had “hidden” trines or squares in your own chart and not even realized it…
Aspects in the most modern sense could be called aspects by degree.
Aspects by degree are newer, in the sense we needed a high degree of accuracy in our chart calculations to precisely locate the positions of planets. This came with the evolution of technology such as clocks, astrolabes, and books of planetary positions.
Aspects by degree indicate an even more close, more intense connection between two (or more planets). These are like people in a room actively engaged in a face-to-face dialog, sharing their experience of the world.
Astrology Aspects and Orbs
Modern astrologers use the word “orb” to define the minimum angular distance between two planets to be considered in aspect by degree. On a modern astrology chart, these aspects by degree are sometimes indicated by lines drawn across the middle of the chart (lovingly called “spaghetti.”)
Astrologer are said to use “wide” or “narrow” orbs, depending on their preference. (Though it’s not uncommon for astrologers to use narrower orbs as they become more experienced.)
Common orbs for relationships between planets or other chart elements are:
- 8° or 10°– Sun and Moon
- 6° to 8° — Starry visible planets
- 4° to 6° — Outer planets
- 2° to 5° — Chart points such as the Ascendant, MC and Nodes
- 1° to 2° — Fixed stars, lots or asteroids
(Don’t worry if you don’t know what some of these things are yet… there’s always more to learn in astrology!)
Some astrologers also vary their allowable orbs by the type of aspect involved:
- 8° or 10°– Conjunctions and oppositions
- 6° to 8° — Squares and trines
- 4° to 6° — Sextiles
- 1° to 3° — Minor Aspects
Modern Astrology’s Minor Aspects
Modern astrologers – especially since Johannes Kepler — have added additional aspects by degree, collectively known as “minor” aspects.
Perhaps the most commonly used minor aspects are the semi-sextile (30 degrees) and the inconjunct (150 degrees). (Kepler referred to the inconjunct as a quincunx, a reference to a coin dating from the Roman Empire worth 5/12 of the standard bronze coin.)
The semi-sextile and the inconjunct don’t appear in traditional astrology, since planets in this relationship have nothing in common, neither the element, polarity or mode of action. In other words, they can’t “see” each other and therefore have no common ground.
It’s this inherent incompatibility that’s the source of the modern notion these represent aspects calling for “adjustment.” There is always a sense of discomfort between them, that can’t be easily overcome. (These are especially problematic in relationship astrology, but that’s an article for another day.)
Astrologers have also conceived of a more numerological theory of aspects based on other whole-number divisions of a circle.
Their meanings come from the traditional numerological associations with the numbers.
- Quintiles – based on divisions of 5, or 72 degrees. Creative energy & talent.
- Septiles – based on divisions of 7, or 51.25 degrees. Fascination & inspiration.
- Octiles (also called semi-squares and sesqui-squares) – based on divisions of 8, or 45 degrees. Frustration & discernment.
- Noviles – based on divisions of 9, or 40 degrees. Charismatic & mystical.
(This numerological theory for aspect is also the inspiration behind a harmonic astrology, a modern school of astrology, as well as the divisional charts in Indian (Vedic) astrology.)