The Rationale for the Significations of the Houses

The Rationale for the Significations of the HousesThis episode is a solo show where I focus on a discussion about the differences between the ancient and modern rationales for determining what each of the 12 house signify in a chart.

I’ve been wrestling with an issue recently where the conceptual notion underlying the houses is completely different in the traditional and modern approaches, and while there is some overlap, most of the time the significations are derived from different things.

The question I have at this point is whether these two approaches can or should be reconciled. Some traditional astrologers think that the two approaches should not be mixed together, while others think that they should.

During the course of the episode I try to outline and frame the debate for those who aren’t familiar with it, and explain some possible conclusions that one might come to.

News & Announcements

  • First, sorry I haven’t recorded any new shows in a while.
  • My main focus over the past few months has been recording a new series of lectures for my Introduction to Hellenistic Astrology Course.
    • New lectures on the domicile lord of the ascendant, rulers of the houses, triplicity rulers of the sect light, etc.
    • Once I’m finished with that I will be raising the price, but you can still sign up now for the lower price.
    • I talk about this a little bit more in this blog post on my website.
  • Just got back from NORWAC, and it was a great conference.
  • ISAR is holding a conference in Phoenix in September, and I’m doing a post-conference workshop there on using ancient astrological techniques in modern practice.
  • I recorded a new lecture on how to rectify a birth chart that is available for purchase on my website.

Show Notes

  • During the course of putting together the new lectures for my Hellenistic course I’ve been doing some research.
    • I built a database of a few hundred chart examples with AA times for my new lectures.
    • Used over 70 examples in the ruler of the Ascendant lecture.
    • I also did a literature review of all of the significations the Hellenistic astrologers used.
  • This led me to see much more clearly the differences between the ancient and modern approach to the significations of the houses.
  • In modern astrology the significations of the houses are largely derived from the 12 letter alphabet (a.k.a. “natural houses”).
  • In ancient astrology they were largely derived from 3 things: 1) angularity, 2) configuration to the rising sign, 3) the joys of the planets.
  • This is one of the major divides between the ancient and modern traditions.
  • One of the questions is whether these approaches should be reconciled.
  • In the domicile lord of the Ascendant lecture I started seeing evidence of Mercurial significations associated with the 3rd house.
    • This led me to wonder whether I should reconsider using the natural houses, since then Gemini would be associated with the 3rd.
  • First I tried to see if there were any decent explanations for this within the context of traditional astrology.
  • Mercurial significaitons started entering into the 3rd in the early Medieval tradition (messengers, legates, messages), but it is not clear from where.
    • These significations weren’t there in the Hellenistic tradition.
  • Possible traditional explanations?
    • Does it have to do with the Moon since that is its joy?
    • The Egyptian god Thoth was originally a Moon god.
    • The Thema Mundi is Virgo.
    • Or can the Moon itself indicate messengers because of moves between the planets.
    • Link to the discussion on Skyscript.
  • Or is it really just because the 3rd house should be associated with Gemini in some way due to the natural houses?
  • Should the two systems be reconciled, or should traditional astrologers continue to avoid the natural houses?


A full transcript of this episode is available: Episode 17 transcript

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  1. Chris:

    Know the twelve letter alphabet was created by the late Zip Dobyns. I know of no one who used it previously, either by that name or any other. The equation of planets with signs with houses is absurd. It can be said that many previous astrologers muddled houses and signs, which can still be seen in writing about the nodes, where “node in a sign” is in many cases really “node in the house”. See also Rex Bills, who seems to have had a clear concept of houses, signs and planets circa 1960. Houses have been the last major element of astrology to emerge. This process is still underway.

    Please do not fall into the ready-made trap of dismissing “current” astrology that you may not understand, and then replacing it with some other system that you have studied intensely. This mistake had previously been made by “new age” astrologers who dismissed what they called “fatalistic” astrology. Which they had not studied. I have noticed many former astro-psychology people who have gone straight from that, directly into Hellenistic astrology but who were, in fact, unable to read a chart in either system. The astro-psychologist projected psychological rationalizations, the Hellenists calculate endless details that only rarely relate to the individual in concrete terms.

    This mistake is, as I think of it, typical of those who are self-taught, who have learned, for example, BEETHOVEN without learning the context in which he lived, nor the music that came before, nor the music that came after. They are one-dimensional and even their understanding of their hero, whoever or whatever it may be, is tinged with idealism and worship. James Herschel Holden would have been an excellent teacher, as he was most broadly learned. You will learn a great deal about astrology in reading his massive book, Biographical Dictionary of Western Astrologers, published shortly before he passed.

    Joys: As it happens, I have a rising ruled by Mercury, Moon in 3, Saturn in a Venus sign in 5, Mars in 6, Sun in 9 and Jupiter in 11. I like your rationale of why the Moon joys in 3 and Sun in 9, but I would point out the foundation is not distance, but largeness of ideas, where the Moon is quick and immediate, while the Sun is far and abstract. Which accounts for the intellects of Goethe, Newton and myself, among others, who had their Suns and Moon in those houses, although in different signs. Newton had them reversed, Sun in 3, Moon in 9.

    As the Greeks had only hash marks for a number system, they were unable to actually compute houses, but as they had a strong sense of them, it would appear the Greeks did not invent astrology so much as were recovering an earlier system. How much earlier I do not know, only that the underlying number system that would actually calculate houses (and permit their eventual delineation), as opposed to signs, had completely disappeared.

    The twelve letter alphabet, as tied to houses, collapses as soon as the early Europeans move away from Equal, Whole, and Porphyry houses towards Campanus and Regiomontanus, which were calculated using the new Arabic number system, brought to Europe in 1202 by Fibonacci and not fully exploited or understood for another 300 years or so. (First developed in India around 300 AD, in use by the Arabs by 900 or so.) Astrology in northern Europe (40-60 degrees north) was hindered until a number system could be found to empower them to accurately describe the sky. Failure to develop such a number system in China, at the same latitudes, resulted in a unique kind of astrology that largely does not use the sky at all. The twelve animals/5 elements relate to the Jupiter-Saturn cycle (5 of Jupiter, two of Saturn = 60 years). The Chinese diurnal cycle, at the other end, seems to be related to planetary hours. There are 2 or three levels in between. All because China did not have a number system until Mao imposed Arabic numbers less than a century ago. In other words, if you lived above 35 degrees north (or south), if you only had hash marks for numbers (China’s number system was even cruder than that), then you did not have astrology, full stop. The Tibetans developed a system of astrology based on the human hand, again, because the had no number system to describe the sky above them.

    Houses and signs did not take on independence from each other until, first, latitude above 30 degrees forced the realization they were different, which required a better number system than Ionic or Roman, and then enough time had passed to realize that houses were, in fact, the key framing system to astrology as a whole. Which Morin hinted at. Alan Leo developed natal interpretation, which, so far as I can tell, did not really exist before 1900. Astrology before 1900 was largely horary, mundane/judicial and medical. Natal astrology before 1900 was largely limited to forecasting, Lilly’s Book 3 being a good example. So was Vettius Valens. Vedic astrology, located in a region of the world that is very nearly equatorial, is strongly house-based but weak with signs.

    Fifty minutes in to your show and still talking about the twelve letter alphabet. The people who founded Kepler College had to work with what they had. At the time Zip Dobyns was either still alive or had just passed. I do not know if by that point in her life she was trying to pass off her system as ancient, but I believe she in fact claimed to have invented it. The reason Kepler was the way it was, was because of the general sad state of astrological education at the time. Initially it was going to teach astropsychology and not much else, there being no one who knew anything else. (Olivia Barclay, Carol Wiggers and Sue Ward being the only significant horary teachers, who were either elderly or making a good living on their own and so not available.) At some point fairly early on one or more Hellenists grabbed ahold of Kepler and made Hellenistic astrology the primary focus. Which I thought unfortunate. Astrology is far bigger than that and has in fact advanced greatly since then and is still changing today.

    At one hour and one minute into your talk, Lilly in fact gave emissaries and ambassadors to the 5th, not the 3rd. Mercury in the 5th relates to children, which are of the 5th, and by extension, the 5th would also includes those with certain Mercurial occupations.

    I wish the Hellenists would read charts, rather than discuss theory. Reading charts with a house framework, you will quickly learn the most surprising things about the twelve houses. In reading charts by means of houses your understanding of planets will not appreciably change, nor will your understanding of the signs, but what you know of houses will change, along with your use of aspects.

    I did not know you were 29-30-ish. If you keep with astrology for another 20 years, you should do well. Your concept of the sign on the ascendant, the ruler of the ascendant placed by sign and house, is powerful, though I regret to say, not unique nor particularly Hellenistic. You can derive it from Morin, as he implies it. I developed it independently over the past several years.. You might be able to extend the underlying concept to the natal chart as a whole. Presuming you have boiled it down to its elemental simplicity, which so far I’ve not seen you do.

    The “natural house” system has nothing to do with planets. The natural house system collapses as soon as you attempt to delineate empty houses, which eventually every astrologer tries at least once. There are no “traditional” rulers for the houses. If a planet that joys in a house is found in that house, it is a powerfully placed planet. Otherwise, the Moon only rules the 3rd if Cancer is on the cusp. (Or, in more modern terms, Mercury only rules the 3rd if Gemini or Virgo is on the 3rd.) If Scorpio is on the cusp, then Mars rules, from whatever house and sign he may be placed in. If the Moon is in the 3rd but not in Cancer, then it does not rule it. Joy and rulership, like houses and signs, are not the same.

    One cute thing about your own chart is that you do not have your Moon in the 3rd, as you’ve missed the most salient feature of the Moon in that house, which is instinct. Not travel. Valens got it right, which is another reason why I think he was recovering an earlier astrology.

    Over an hour into your talk: please make an effort to learn current astrology and not Zip Dobyn’s mal-formed shortcuts. I know what the 12 Letter Alphabet is, I have read it in her books. Only Zip’s students quoted it chapter and verse. Only she ever used that term.

    We are now at 1:31 in your talk. Why are you confusing the annual cycle (the zodiac) with the diurnal rotation (houses)? What connection is there between these two, if any? The ratio between the two is 365.25 : 1. They even move against each other. The only explanation for pairing signs with houses would be the utter stupidity of the astrologer. Early 20th century English astrologers would know the difference. So did Alan Oken, writing in the 1960’s, as you may read in his book, Alan Oken’s Complete Astrology. So did Sakoian and Acker. The derivation of 12, as opposed to 10 or 11 or 13, is a subject for another time.

    Over at Skyscript, Therese W. is developing the idea that Hellenistic astrology was in fact sidereal. Which I could agree with, since Hellenistic was primarily a forecasting system, like all other sidereal systems, including Vedic and that of Cyril Fagan. (Vedic notably lacks horary, mundane, medical, etc., or are so little developed as to be virtually non-existent.)

    To answer your query, the 12 Letter system will be abandoned, as it was never more than a make-do invented in the mid-20th century. Houses, as independent from the signs of the zodiac, started to develop with the invention of Campanus houses in the 13th century, was extended by Regiomontanus and then extended further with Placidus. All of which was made possible only by the introduction of Arabic numbers. 1202 is one of the most important dates in European history. Morin pointed out – maybe invented – the accidental system for reading houses, which is to say, the exact sign and degree on the cusp of a house had significance. Which for centuries has been resisted as a “horary” technique imposed on Ptolemy’s idealistic sign-based system. You will find this noted not only by Vivian Robson but also by James Holden, as well as the entire Morin school, of which Holden was a student. As I’ve been asked, if I had to pick a school of astrology, I’d study Morin. Hands down. Gets you right into a chart. Not horary, not Liz Greene, not Hellenistic, not Vedic.

    I might be among the first to combine Morin’s “accidents” with Leo’s delineations. Until a couple of months ago I had not thought the combination to be in any remarkable (it seems so obvious) but the results are extremely powerful.

    I will finish with the observation that, presuming astrology has an underlying intellectual basis, the Morin system, or something very like it, will displace the Hellenistic system unless the Hellenists can make a clear and compelling case. Which I have not yet seen, but would like to. If, on the other hand there is not sufficient intellect, then we will stagnate with sun signs and astropsychology. Over the long term, Hellenistic astrology will likely be too fussy to be learned. The intensely erudite Benjamin Dykes is a case in point, alas. I like and admire him, but he is impossibly hard to learn.

    David R. Roell

    • Chris Brennan says:

      By “emissaries” I meant “legates”, which were associated with the 3rd in the Medieval tradition.

      Zip Dobyns came up with the name “12 letter alphabet”, and certainly became one of the main proponents of the idea, but it is not unique to her, and you can see it being used already by Alan Leo in the early 20th century, and then later rationalized by Rudhyar. It is often Rudhyar’s rationalization of it that modern astrologers draw on when trying to explain the conceptual underpinning of their approach, not Dobyns.

      • William Lilly, Book 2, pg. 235, Chapter 41. I quote:

        The Lord of the fifth shall represent the person of Ambassador, the Moon shall herein be admitted to have signification, that Planet to whom either the Lord of the fifth house or the Moon do apply to, shall show the cause of his Embassy, or you may take judgement from both those Planets to whom they apply.

        On the next page we have the following:

        Of a Messenger sent forth upon any Errand for Money.
        Herein give the ascendant and his Lord to him that sends, the seventh house and his Lord to him to whom the Messenger is sent, the Message to the Moon, the Lord of the fifth to the Messenger and managing of the Business (etc.).

        William Lilly had one of the most extensive astrological libraries of his day and used it to his best advantage. His critics say that he did nothing more than copy the ancients, and while that is not strictly true, Lilly did not innovate to any great extent. He used what he had learned in masterful ways. He gives his bibliography in the back of his book, which in my edition (2004) I moved to the back of Book 2. To the best of my knowledge Kepler does not use Lilly’s text, which is a pity, as there are few finer. You will say this is not natal, which is not the point. Natal astrology did not become nuanced until the 20th century. Prior to that it was mostly an excuse for forecasting, one way or another.

        Elsewhere I have established that Dane Rudhyar could not read his own chart, but we shall not dismiss his writing for so trivial a reason. We shall, however, consider he is a philosopher and not a working astrologer and judge him accordingly.

        It seems you have read one subject in one way. That is an excellent beginning, or why the first Saturn return is so hard.

  2. In Astrology of Personality, 1991 edition (Aurora), pgs. 181-3, Rudhyar gives the twelve traditional interpretations of the houses, and then twelve philosophical interpretations. Neither bear any resemblance to signs. In a footnote at the bottom he notes the house-sign co-relationship (Aries = 1st house, etc.) and says, “We would be inclined to believe that these co-relations are interchangeable, according to the level of being at which one establishes itself. A co-relation which is true physiologically may have to be reversed at the psychological level.” Which is typical Rudhyar. Elsewhere you will note New Mansions for New Men is about houses (not signs) but in a very abstract fashion. His book on houses per se is not in print at this time so I am unable to reference it. (Published by CRCS, which is Stephen Arroyo.) Unless you know of some other Rudhyar reference, this is not Dobyn’s letter system. Nor, from Rudhyar’s explicit words, did the ancients confuse houses with signs: Traditional meaning of the third house, according to Rudhyar: “Brethren, neighbors, short journeys, letters, lower mind.” Which is nearly Lilly, word for word, and not Gemini at all. Gemini has to do with children, not one’s co-borns. Rudhyar reinterprets this to become, “Relationship of personal self to physical substance, of Sower to Soil: the Seed” etc. Which is still not the letter system. It is odd you stumble over this point and bring Rudhyar into it. You need better books.

    • Chris Brennan says:

      So Rudhyar explicitly says in that quote that he sees Aries and the 1st house as interchangeable, but you still want to say that this concept was invented by Dobyns? I understand that Dobyns took the idea further than Rudhyar did, and helped to codify a large part of the actual form that it took in much of the later modern astrological tradition, but she didn’t invent it herself. The concept was already in circulation long before she got into astrology, as demonstrated by the quote you just cited from Rudhyar himself.

    • Chris Brennan says:

      Here is C. E. O. Carter using the same system before Dobyns:

      “I shall deal chiefly with Leo rising and Sun in Leo, but I mention that some of the most Leo people I know have heavy stresses on the 5th house and next to nothing in the sign. It used to be said that sign was character and the house the field in which it is expressed, but frankly this is wrong. It is, in my view, a major mistake. The lady who interviewed me on television recently struck me as one of the most Leo persons imaginable. But her natus showed nothing but Neptune in that sign: however, she had Sun, Venus, Jupiter and Mercury in the 5th, with Mars close to the cusp. You may imagine that Mercury conjunction Jupiter, with Capricorn rising, and with this satellitium in the 5th, made her one of the most self-confident persons imaginable. She insisted on announcing me as “President Emeritus of the Astrological Lodge of the Theosophical Society”although she didn’t know what “Emeritus” means and also asked me what “theosophical” signified. She said the title sounded so fine! If that isn’t Leo, I don’t know what is!”


  3. MingWei says:

    Hello David Roell
    I am afraid that I can not easily agree with your view “ Over the long term, Hellenistic astrology will likely be too fussy to be learned. The intensely erudite Benjamin Dykes is a case in point, alas. I like and admire him, but he is impossibly hard to learn.”
    (1) We still are on explorative stage. Many basic jobs should be prepared ,like translation , discussion etc.
    (2) Why we feel the Hellenistic astrology is too difficult to analyze or practice a real chart or hard to learn since many classical text or book are seldom including the chart examples except William Lilly’s Christian Astrology ! However we can do this job but at first we should know What’ we use , that is , the history ,the principle of our practice rules or methods .Chris , Ben , and James Holden and many other teachers have do many this kind of basic or essential jobs ! We can not lose our confidence!

  4. D.Donovan Kinsolving says:

    Hi, Chris! Finished listening to this podcast today.

    My opinion (and that’s all it is): keep the two concepts of houses separate.

    I’ve read and heard much of Robert Schmidt’s material. Regarding the Joys: OK, I don’t know whether I’m recollecting this from Hellenistic material, or recognizing it, but I notices that diurnal Sun, Jupiter and Saturn have Joys in houses above the horizon; nocturnal Moon, Venus and Mars have Joys below the horizon; Mercury, which can be one or the other, has its Joy in the First House, which normally is both above and below the horizon.

    I have have never been happy with the “12-letter” system of equating houses with the signs, nor with equating planets with signs, nor with the name itself. (“Letters”?) This has always seemed simplistic, in addition to the reasons you stated which I share.

    You mentioned a project where you compiled Hellenistic interpretations of planets-in-houses. Will you be publishing that anywhere? The second step of collecting AA-rated horoscopes and noting the Ascendant ruler’s house position also sounds interesting. Will you be publishing this database (and possibly any notes)? I ask this because I am a Fagan-Bradley Siderealist, so naturally I wonder what the results would be in the Sidereal Zodiac. (Tropically, I have ruler Venus in 1st; Sidereally, I have ruler Mercury in 3rd Whole Sign House, and to tell you the truth your capsule description of the latter condition fits me very well.)

    You spent a lot of time about Moon, Mercury and the 3rd. What results, fitting or otherwise, did you find with other positions?

    Thanks for your contributions

  5. D.Donovan Kinsolving says:

    Just to follow up, I’ve explored further on your blogs and articles and have found that, indeed, this pattern of the Joys has already been noted by you.

  6. You are referring to a >>footnote<<. Rudhyar makes a different point. (You do not have the book in your possession?) It is true that some astrologers have long conflated houses with signs but it is also true than all trained astrologers did not. In his footnote Rudhyar noted the conflation and said that, well, sometimes in some cases the conflation works, but sometimes and in some other cases conflation does not. He does not attempt to say why the conflation sometimes works and sometimes does not. He is not establishing a rule about conflation, his points are elsewhere. Dobyns did not derive anything from him so far as I am aware, certainly not signs = houses = planets = 12 letters. Dobyns, along with Emma Belle Donath, were known for early work with asteroids, as was H.S. Green many years before. Everyone is different, everyone has his own story, the threads are many and diverse.

    The reason why conflation works so well and is condemned so strongly is that it short-circuits the astrologer's training. It is like telling a child that he can eat only candy. Not only is such a diet unhealthy, it stunts the overall development of his sensory organs. Anyone who does astrology for a living will tell you there is virtually no connection between houses and signs, they are entirely different. Confuse this point and you cripple your study. The critical factor about houses is their ability, via planetary rulerships, to frame both signs and planets, thus superseding aspects, for example.. With a proper understanding of signs, astrology becomes a vastly powerful tool.

    Charles Carter was a very great astrologer but was unable to comprehend horary, for example, and for reasons that elude everyone who has read his remarks. The remarks you quote refer to television, which would date it to the 1950's or 60's, when he was elderly. The horoscope he quotes can be worked out to within a couple of days. I would like to know the position of Saturn. I may get back to you later on that.

    You do very well as an interviewer, far better than I ever could.

  7. Might you lean towards the Planetary Joys over the Thema Mundi? Can the Thema Mundi be defended if the Planetary joys are taken into consideration? I am struggling with the Thema mundi.

  8. hey chris,

    as i understand you use whole sign houses, then wouldn’t the natural order of the zodiak be:
    1st house – aries – mars, 2nd house – taurus – venus etc.
    it looks like the 12 letter alphabet was derived from there.

  9. Here it is May 2016 and I am saddened to see that I discovered late Dave Roell just recently – but at least, his writing exists in blogs such as this. I do not put myself anywhere near his league but I would like to say, regarding the Dobyns 12 Letter Houses debate, and the reference to Carter by Chris, that a stellium in the 5th house of a person perceived to be Leonian, and who does not have a Leo Sun or ASC, does not necessarily make the 5th H the house of Leo. To my mind, you would need a lot of statistics to support such a claim and at the very least, the whole chart to look at. I happen to know one individual who does have an Aquarius stellium in the 5th including the Sun, Venus and Mercury, as part of a grand air trine that involves Jupiter on the MC in Gemini. She is married to an elementary school teacher, worked herself as a para-professional in an elementary school in her neighborhood, and is obsessed with her own kids above all else. (Ruler Saturn is in Scorpio in the 3rd H). Lots of Mercury there, and very little Leo. This individual is not in the least expressive or commanding – would never stand in front of a group to speak, and is not given to bombast at all. There is no sitting on the thrown, no drama, and no beaming sunshine entering the room. The Mercury ruled Virgo ASC prevails whose ruler is part of the stellium, as does the Capricorn Moon combined with the detached Aquarius Sun, oooh, Mars in Scorpio in the 3rd. So there is my one example. Just saying ……

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