More Than One Way to Slice a Chart
Houses are arguably the most contested area of basic astrological practice.
While there is almost universal agreement as to their importance (considerable)
and meaning (environment, where we meet the energies), there are many
differing opinions about which system to use and how to use it. There
are well over a dozen house systems, as well as disagreement about the
significance of house cusps. Few astrologers understand the underlying
symbolism of the houses because the construction of most systems is
much more abstract than the calculation of planets' positions in the
The Placidus system is the most popular one in the western world, its
success based as much on widespread publication and distribution of
its tables as its efficacy. It is based on the tri-section of the semi-diurnal
arc, a process that divides the distance/time between the Midheaven
and the Ascendant. In fact, most systems use the Midheaven as the cusp of the Tenth House and the Ascendant as the
cusp of the First House. The differences come in the calculations of
the other house cusps, called the intermediate houses.
"Tri-section of the semi-diurnal arc" (division of one quarter of the
day into three parts) is not a phrase that rolls easily off the tongue.
It does not paint a picture that opens the mind to understanding. It
is, rather, an arbitrary mathematical system that has become the standard
for the majority of western astrologers. But, without a symbolic understanding
of this technique, we are accepting it on faith and by experience. The
notion that "it works" and is therefore the correct system weakens astrology.
I accept that "it works" is a valid reason to use a technique, but not
to tout it as better than those that don't work for you. Each astrologer
is going to resonate with different techniques. The magic, then, lies
in the practitioner, not in the technique.
Many astrologers interpret house cusps very precisely.
That is, if you have a planet 1 minute of arc (a 60th of a degree) from
the cusp of the Third House it is still interpreted as if it is in the
Second House. Transits and progressions, too, are reported when crossing
cusps. I have some questions about this approach for several reasons:
Different house systems will give different cusp positions
A 4 minute error in birth time will move cusps about one degree
Ptolemy gave a 5 degree orb to house cusps (with Equal House
Hindu Bhava system reads the middle of a house its strongest
The Gauquelin research suggests an orb to house cusps
The Huber School recognizes peaks within a house, not at the
once asked astrologer Rob
Hand which house system most accurately represents what we
see in the sky, that is, is most correct astronomically. He told me
that each one is correct within its own system, through its particular
lens. Each represents reality according to its own rules,
perfect in its own universe, but dumb to all the rest.
While Placidus is the most popular house system, such diverse twentieth
century astrologers as Dane Rudhyar and Charles Jayne used the Campanus
system which has some great logic going for it. In this system, the
horizon (Ascendant/Descendant axis) is a great circle, like a disk,
that we're standing on. The meridian (MC/IC axis) is a vertical circle
passing through the north and south poles. The Prime Vertical is another
vertical circle passing through the east and west points of the horizon.
Campanus divides the Prime Vertical to produce its cusps.
Yet in practice I didn't like what it did to charts generally (enlarged
first and seventh houses), nor what it did to mine, so I set it aside.
Lewi used the Equal house system. Some twentieth century English astrologers
promoted it because it did away with the great extremes of house sizes
at latitudes far from the equator. It's also found in many traditional
systems. But, since houses are measured in equal 30 degree arcs from
the Ascendant, the Midheaven is excluded from the house building equation.
I like Rudhyar's idea that we must include the Midheaven (vertical axis
or "spine" of the chart) because "we don't live lying down."
of my colleagues and I use the Koch house system. My teacher started
using it, I liked the book it first appeared in, and it was written
by a triple Virgo. I took it as an improvement of the Placidus system,
but don't think of it that way any more. It's just part of the way I
tune my instrument. Clearly, no single system has demonstrated universal
If birth times are not reliable, how can you pin an interpretation
on the precise position of a house cusp? I was present at the births
of my two daughters and saw that birth was much more of a process than
a single event (moment). There's the onset of labor, the head coming
out, the body coming out, first breath and cutting the cord. First breath
is the most common and logical measure. My daughters had first peeps—small
sounds less dramatic than the classical lusty cry we imagine to trumpet
the moment of birth. Additionally, the cords were not cut for some time
after that first breath, further muddying the waters with respect to
the separation from mother and beginning of independent life.
Jayne's extensive work with rectification led him to conclude that the
effective moment of birth for chart calculation purposes didn't necessarily
coincide with the first breath (or any specific physical event). The
chart that worked, according to Jayne, might actually precede or follow
the birth. Vladimir Bogdanov is another astrologer who argues that birth
may not be a moment, but a series of events.
Another issue to consider is that of intercepted signs.
I've always been bothered by their use in chart interpretation. First,
there are so many questions about houses that it seems pretty shaky
to base an interpretation on a principle so poorly understood. Second,
the notion that a planet's energy is inhibited by the tri-section of
the semi-diurnal arc is quite a stretch. Third, they tend to be interpreted
negatively and distance the client from the planet's energy.
Planets are real, the seasons (signs) are real, aspects are real, but
houses are a based on many different and often obscure formulae. Diminishing
the power of a planet (a strong principle) by an intercepted sign (a
weak principle) is neither logical nor constructive.
understand that individuals claim to see the influences of interceptions,
but anything important in the personality is likely to manifest itself
several ways in the birth chart. Quite a few years ago when I spoke
out against the importance of interceptions, someone responded by saying
that her Aries Sun was intercepted and that she certainly wasn't a very
aggressive Aries. I asked if Neptune was opposed her Aries Sun. It was!
In other words a solid principle (aspects) explained the condition very
May Not Be Finite Points
Now, if cusps are not absolute points, but shifts in
the energetic wave, how can we interpret them. I like to use orbs of
about 5 degrees with house cusps. This is in recognition of the uncertainty
due to the reasons mentioned above, as well as an appreciation for process.
What is the meaning of the Second House becoming the Third? Rather than
having a rigid boundary between self-worth and possessions (Second House)
and observation and communication (Third) I prefer to consider how two
becomes three. When are we sufficiently rooted in our sense of self-worth
to begin taking notice of our surroundings? What is the relationship
between what we have and how we see?
This seems to be a more sophisticated approach to looking at houses.
The purpose is not to cloud the issues, but to see the many shades of
gray between black and white. It is to remind us that cycles have no
beginning or end and that life is about movement. This kind of approach
also trains the astrologer to stay open-minded. It encourages movement
of the mind, rather than rigid rules.
Our techniques affect our interpretations. The attitude that we bring
to astrology will determine a great deal of what we get out of astrology.
If we seek absolute answers within absolute systems we may be rewarded
with occasional insights, but will also be punished with severely limited
choices and perceptions. An appreciation for nuance—a desire to see
process, rather than product—works like life, something alive and dynamic,
even if it is a bit uncertain at times.
For a more technical understanding of houses see Michael
Munkasey's article An
Astrological House Formulary. Also look for
Elements of House Division
by Ralph Holden (L.N.Fowler Ltd.,1977) and Tools
of Astrology: Houses by Dona Marie Lorenz (Eomega, 1973).
Both, unfortunately, are out of print.