BEYOND THE HOROSCOPE: ALL ABOUT THE 12 HOUSES
Want to truly unleash astrology’s power to answer the real-world questions that keep you up at night? Learn all about the 12 Houses!
The 12 Houses give material forms to the planets’ expression. Each House represents a different area of life – from you to others in your life, your reputation to family.
And so the 12 Houses provide the answer to your most common questions; knowing these can take your astrology to a whole new level of sophistication.
Bringing the Heavens to Earth
Much of astrology takes place in the sky… the planets, Zodiac signs, and aspects are all things happening in the heavens.
But it isn’t only about what’s “up there” — it’s also about how the Earth RELATES to the sky.
Even more so, it’s about how we can bring the heavens (aka the divine) into the matter, and help matter become more divine-like.
It’s the HOUSES in astrology that brings the action of the heavens down to Earth.
How the Sun moves through the sky during the day (in other words, how the Earth turns), forms the basis for house meanings.
And therefore encoded in the Houses is deep wisdom about the polarity of day and night, as well as how each planet dances within this polarity.
Now, if you read our article on astrology charts, you already know, an astrological chart is a map of the sky.
It’s drawn from the point of view of someone standing in the northern hemisphere facing south toward the Sun. Where the Sun rises in the East is on the left, and where it sets in the West is on the right. North is behind you.
In other words, the Sun appears to move clockwise across the sky, from East to West. East is on the left, and West is on the right; South is at the top, North is at the bottom (actually representing a point overhead on the other side of our planet from where we’re standing.)
One of the most common questions when learning astrology is: the Sun appears to move clockwise, why are all the houses numbered counterclockwise?
The simplest answer, that it’s the Earth that’s spinning, not the Sun that’s moving. And so the houses are numbered in the order they rise above the horizon.
The Great Circles
Now, imagine for a minute drawing lines through the sky, connecting the compass points, or around the horizon line. These lines — called great circles — form the framework upon which the astrological houses are built.
The major celestial great circles include:
- The Horizon line, or where the sky touches the Earth
- The Prime Meridian, the line that passes directly overhead, connecting the North and South poles
- The Prime Vertical, the line that passes directly overhead, connecting due East and due West.
- The Celestial Equator, the plane of the Earth's equator, extended into space.
- The Ecliptic, the path the Sun appears to travel through the sky (Because the earth is tilted on its axis, the ecliptic It tilted 23.5 degrees north/south of the Celestial Equator.
Over the centuries, astrologers have suggested numerous ways to build house systems from this framework – that’s why astrology has two dozen different systems of astrology houses! But let’s worry about them later… and first talk about why the houses mean what they do…
The Cosmic Playing Field: Chart Angles
A sports metaphor is really useful here. You can imagine these great circles marking about a playing field – only the field is your life! Or, at least the stuff you encounter in it.
We use the intersections of three great circles – the horizon, the ecliptic, and the prime meridian – to define the field. These points, traditionally called pivots or hinges, represent the “cross of matter” or the material plane. We also call them the chart’s angles.
The Ascendant (ASC), marks the point where the ecliptic crosses the eastern horizon. The Ascendant was considered the most important point in a chart because it determines your Rising Sign and all the other houses in the chart.
It represents how you “dawn” on the world – not surprising since it’s also where the Sun rises in the East. It also represents YOU. Your body, your appearance, your style. It’s associated with the First House.
Opposite the Ascendant lies the Descendant (DSC), or the place where the Sun sets in the West.
The Descendant is associated with the Seventh House. It’s opposite the first, so it contains what’s NOT you – or in other words. The Other. Especially the important others in your life – your spouse, partners (business and romantic) of course. But also the other side of a debate, the other team. Even your adversaries or competitors.
Along the north-south axis, we have the Tenth House and the Fourth House.
The Medium Coeli (MC), also known as the Midheaven, is located at the intersection of the ecliptic and the prime meridian in the sky overhead. It’s the highest point in the sky planets can travel during the day.
And so, because this area of your life contains the things that are literally the most elevated in the sky at the time, it also has to do with the highest potential of that moment. It’s related to your “calling,” in other words your vocation, or purpose in the world. We also relate it to your career, your status, or reputation. The MC is associated with the Tenth House.
Opposite this, there’s the Fourth House. When planets are in the Fourth House, you can’t actually see them from where you’re standing, because they are overhead on the other side of the planet; since it’s opposite the South of the chart, we call it the north.
Opposite the MC is the Imum Coeli (IC); it’s the intersection of the prime meridian and ecliptic that’s “hidden” by the Earth or the “lowest” point the Sun can sink.
At the bottom of the chart, it represents your roots, your lineage, and your heritage. Your ancestors and family traditions too. Your lands and estate. The IC is linked to the Fourth House.
The Cosmic Teams: Sect and Planetary Joys
If the angles create the playing field, the planets are the players…
Of course, it’s not a game, unless we have two teams – let’s call them the Day Team and Night Team. (The traditional word for team is “sect.”)
No surprise, the Sun is the team captain for the day-siders, and the Moon for the night-siders.
Each captain chooses its players. Sun drafts Jupiter, then Saturn. Moon chooses Venus, then Mars. And Mercury? He gets to referee.
Each planet gets assigned a place on the field according to their playing strengths (these are called the “Planetary Joys”). Then, each place became associated with all the stuff that allowed the planets to express themselves in the mundane, 3D world.
Let's look at each one…
House of the Moon is the Third House. It contains everything familiar to you. Brothers and sisters of course, but also the people you see around the neighborhood, or the coworkers you see every day. It’s also your habits and routines, and the places you visit on a regular basis – short trips to school or work or the grocery store. Basically it’s your comfort zone. The Moon was also associated with writing, and bringing the messages of the other planets down to earth, so the Third House contained those things too.
Opposite the Moon is the Sun, of course. And so, no surprise that the Ninth House is the House of the Sun. Remember, to the ancient Greeks the Sun was Apollo, who oversaw the Oracles of Delphi. And so prophesies, dreams and mysteries found their place in the 9th house. So did all ways to explore the mysteries, philosophy, religion, and the like. In other words, anything that can get you outside of your comfort zone so you can grow.
Of course, the House of Venus contains all the yummy things she loves. If you’ve ever studied astrology, you’ll already know that must be the Fifth House. It holds all acts of pleasure. Romance and sex absolutely. Plus vacations, playtime, and anything else fun.
The House of Jupiter contains all things which uplift and support us. Which, in a perfect world, are your friends. In medieval times this would be your guild. Now we think in terms of trade associations, support groups, even spiritual communities. Charities and philanthropy too. In astrology, this is the Eleventh House.
The House of Mars is known as the Sixth House. It’s was a place of hard work, those who worked hard, or those who work for you. It also a house of all your duties and obligations, that presumably require effort to fulfill. Also the house of illness or health, since maintaining your own body is a kind of obligation, so that it can serve you in return. Basically, all this alludes to the notion that Mars is at his best when he has a job to do, something constructive he can use his energy for.
The House of Saturn has been called the “house of hidden things”—aka the Twelfth House. Saturn sets limits and boundaries, all those things which set apart us apart. The hospitals, jails, and monasteries. But also going on retreat or sabbatical. You could even call it the house of taking a break from social media, too.
Last but not least is the planet, Mercury. He’s the god of all in-between places, also of reason and thought. He chose the First House as the house of his favorite things. As the house of the dawn, it’s the place in between day and night, and thus appropriate to the traveling planet. But it also suggested that reason and mindfulness is the best way to approach life.
(Plus, as the referee, it gives Mercury the best position for watching over the whole game.)
If you’re counting, we have two houses left without planets. That doesn’t mean they aren’t important. They just represented where the Sun was preparing to rise or set for the day. They were called the “gates of Hades” because the Sun traveled through the underworld during the evening hours.
So, the Sun “entered” the underworld in the Eighth House. It represents going down into the shadows, figuratively and literally. It’s the shadowy places of our unconscious, the stuff we prefer not to see about ourselves. And the place of taboos, criminals, and the other underworld denizens. Plus, of course, the house of death… since the dead travel down to the underworld too.
And the Sun “emerged” from the underworld in the Second House. What else comes out of the ground? In ancient understanding, riches of course. Gold, silver or other precious things. Also, the crops that sustained our life. So it’s a house associated with wealth.
There you go! Now you understand where the basic meanings of astrology’s 12 houses come from!
But, if you want to be really astrologically sophisticated, then you need to understand two other house meaning overlays astrologers use.
Overlay 1: Derived Houses
Now, the basic house meanings can answer many of your most pressing questions. But what about the more obscure questions?
Let’s say you want to ask about how you can be more supportive of your partner’s work.
You can use a technique known as “turning the chart,” or derived houses, to find new meanings.
First, find the house in your chart that represents your partner (that would be the Seventh House). Then starting with the Seventh House, count forward 10 houses, to find the house that represents your partner’s career. And you can use that house to answer your question: “how can I be more supportive of my partner's career.”
If you’ve been doing astrology, you’re actually using some derived house meanings and don’t even realize it. In fact some of the derived house meanings are so ingrained, we don’t even realize they are actually derived. For example, children are located in the Fifth House, because the Fifth House is the second house from the Fourth House or the things that belong to the family.
I know, these derived houses might seem confusing at first, but once you get used to the logic of it, you’ll love it – there’s really nothing you can’t ask a question about. It’s like adding an astrology extension pack.
Overlay 2: Natural Houses
Modern astrologers are also familiar with another house overlay – the natural houses.
Astrologers since classical times have pondered the relationship between the 12 Zodiac Signs and the 12 Houses.
In medical astrology especially, both the Zodiac signs and the houses have been used for diagnosis, placing the head at the top (Aries, or the First House) and the feet at the bottom (Pisces, or the 12th house).
But it wasn’t until the 1960s and 1970s that modern astrologers popularized the “natural chart” as the primary basis for interpreting house meanings. Considering that so much of astrology’s foundational theory had been lost, it made sense.
Under this system, which Zipporah Dobyns called the “12-letter alphabet,” the 12 Zodiac Signs are aligned with the 12 Houses and the planets. So the sign Aries is linked to the First House and Mars, Taurus to the Second House and Venus, Gemini to the Third House and Mercury, so on around the wheel of houses. That way, new students only had to remember the 12 letters (based on the 12 Zodiac signs), rather than a lot of different pieces.
This Natural House overlay is another one of the hot-button issues among astrologers right now. Those who learned astrology in the past 40 or 50 years use the Natural House overlay; those who’ve begun to relearn traditional astrology techniques, have stopped using it (or at least, don’t use it as much).
But the real lesson is that there’s usually more than one way to do something, and astrology is no exception. If you find yourself in an argument about the “right” system, you might be confusing the model, for what the model represents.