Western astrology

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Western astrology is the system of astrology most popular in Western countries. Western astrology is historically based on Ptolemy's Tetrabiblos (2nd century AD), which in turn was a continuation of Hellenistic and ultimately Babylonian traditions.

Western astrology is largely horoscopic, that is, it is a form of divination based on the construction of a horoscope for an exact moment, such as a person's birth, in which various cosmic bodies are said to have an influence. Astrology in western popular culture is often reduced to sun sign astrology, which considers only the individual's date of birth (i.e. the "position of the Sun" at that date).

Since the mid 20th century, there have been a number of suggestions for reforming traditional western astrology, notably consideration of planets beyond Saturn discovered in the modern period, or new forms of sidereal astrology and introduction of additional signs (a 14-sign zodiac, or a 13-sign zodiac). Such suggestions however have been of limited influence.


Core Principles

Robert Fludd's 16th century illustration of man the microcosm within the universal macrocosm

A central principle of astrology is integration within the cosmos. The individual, Earth, and its environment are viewed as a single organism, all parts of which are correlated with each other.[1] Cycles of change that are observed in the heavens are therefore reflective (not causative) of similar cycles of change observed on earth and within the individual.[2] This relationship is expressed in the Hermetic maxim "as above, so below; as below, so above", which postulates symmetry between the individual as a microcosm and the celestial environment as a macrocosm.[3] At the heart of astrology is the metaphysical principle that mathematical relationships express qualities or ‘tones' of energy which manifest in numbers, visual angles, shapes and sounds – all connected within a pattern of proportion. Pythagoras first identified that the pitch of a musical note is in proportion to the length of the string that produces it, and that intervals between harmonious sound frequencies form simple numerical ratios.[4] In a theory known as the Harmony of the Spheres, Pythagoras proposed that the Sun, Moon and planets all emit their own unique hum based on their orbital revolution,[5] and that the quality of life on Earth reflects the tenor of celestial sounds which are physically imperceptible to the human ear.[3] Subsequently, Plato described astronomy and music as "twinned" studies of sensual recognition: astronomy for the eyes, music for the ears, and both requiring knowledge of numerical proportions.[6]

William Blake's characterisation of Isaac Newton working with the principle of Divine Proportion

Later philosophers retained the close association between astronomy, optics, music and astrology, including Ptolemy, who wrote influential texts on all these topics.[7] Alkindi, in the 9th century, developed Ptolemy's ideas in De Aspectibus which explores many points of relevance to astrology and the use of planetary aspects.[8] In the 17th century, Kepler, also influenced by arguments in Ptolemy’s Optics and Harmonica,[9] compiled his Harmonices Mundi ('Harmony of the World'), which presented his own analysis of optical perceptions, geometrical shapes, musical consonances and planetary harmonies. Kepler regarded this text as the most important work of his career, and the fifth part, concerning the role of planetary harmony in Creation, the crown of it.[10] His premise was that, as an integral part of Universal Law, mathematical harmony is the key that binds all parts together: one theoretical proposition from his work introduced the minor planetary aspects into astrology; another introduced Kepler’s third law of planetary motion into astronomy.[11]

Another core principle is exemplified by an astrological maxim used by the leader of early modern science, Francis Bacon: "The last rule (which has always been held by the wiser astrologers) is that there is no fatal necessity in the stars; but that they rather incline than compel".[12] Bacon advocated an emphasis on what he called "sane astrology" based on the study of subtle influences that "lie concealed in the depths of Physic".[13] His arguments reflect how astrology has always involved consideration of the psyche, a more recent expression of which can be found in the writings of Carl Jung and the development of modern psychological astrology.

The Zodiac

The zodiac is the belt or band of constellations through which the Sun, Moon, and planets move on their journey across the sky. Astrologers noted these constellations and so attached a particular significance to them. Over time they developed the system of twelve signs of the zodiac, based on twelve of the constellations through which the sun passes throughout the year, those constellations that are "Enlightened by the mind". Most western astrologers use the tropical zodiac beginning with the sign of Aries at the Northern hemisphere Vernal Equinox always on or around March 21 of each year. The Western Zodiac is drawn based on the Earth's relationship to fixed, designated positions in the sky, and the Earth's seasons. The Sidereal Zodiac is drawn based on the Earth's position in relation to the constellations, and follows their movements in the sky. Due to a phenomenon called precession of the equinoxes (where the Earth's axis slowly rotates like a spinning top in a 25,700 year cycle), there is a slow shift in the correspondence between Earth's seasons (and calendar) and the constellations of the zodiac. Thus, the tropical zodiac corresponds with the position of the earth in relation to fixed positions the sky (Western Astrology), while the sidereal zodiac is drawn based on the position in relation to the constellations (sidereal zodiac).

The twelve signs

In modern Western astrology the signs of the zodiac are believed to represent twelve basic personality types or characteristic modes of expression. The twelve signs are divided into four elements fire, earth, air and water. Fire and air signs are considered masculine, while water and earth signs are considered feminine.[14] The twelve signs are also divided into three qualities, Cardinal, mutable and fixed.[15]

Sign Dates
Aries.svg Aries (The Ram) March 21 to April 20.
Taurus.svg Taurus (The Bull) April 21 to May 20.
Gemini.svg Gemini (The Twins) May 21 to June 20.
Cancer.svg Cancer (The Crab) June 21 to July 21.
Leo.svg Leo (The Lion) July 22 to August 22.
Virgo.svg Virgo (The Virgin) August 23 to September 22.
Libra.svg Libra (The Scale) September 23 to October 22.
Scorpio.svg Scorpio (The Scorpion) October 23 to November 21.
Sagittarius.svg Sagittarius (The Archer) November 22 to December 21.
Capricorn.svg Capricorn (The Sea-goat) December 22 to January 20.
Aquarius.svg Aquarius (The Water Bearer) January 21 to February 19.
Pisces.svg Pisces (The Fish) February 20 to March 20.

Zodiac sign for an individual depends on the placement of planets and the ascendant in that sign. If a person has nothing placed in a particular sign, that sign will play no active role in their personality. On the other hand a person with, for example, both the sun and moon in Cancer, will strongly display the characteristics of that sign in their make up.

Sun-sign astrology

Newspapers often print astrology columns which purport to provide guidance on what might occur in a day in relation to the sign of the zodiac that included the sun when the person was born. Astrologers refer to this as the "sun sign", but it is often commonly called the "star sign". These predictions are vague or general; so much so that even practising astrologers consider them of little to no value. Experiments have shown that when people are shown a newspaper horoscope for their own sign along with a newspaper horoscope for a different sign, they judge them to be equally accurate on the average.[16] Other tests have been performed on complete, personalized horoscopes cast by professional astrologers, and have shown similarly disappointing results,[17] contrary to the claims of professional astrologers.

The planets

In modern Western astrology the planets represent basic drives or impulses in the human psyche. These planets differ from the definition of a planet in astronomy in that the sun, moon, and recently, Pluto and Ceres (considered as dwarf planets in astronomy), are all considered to be planets for the purposes of astrology. Each planet is also said to be the ruler of one or two zodiac signs, on the basis of a similarity or sympathy between planet and sign. The three modern planets have each been assigned rulership of a zodiac sign by astrologers and Ceres has been suggested as the ruler of Taurus or Virgo. The eleven planets used in astrology are as follows:[18]

Classical planets

These are the seven heavenly bodies known to the ancients and are believed to represent the seven basic drives in every individual (the sun and moon, also known as 'the lights', are included in this assessment alongside the planets). Astrologers call Mercury, Venus and Mars the 'personal planets', as they represent the most immediate drives. The 'lights' symbolise respectively the existential and sensitive fundamentals of the individuality.

The moon's nodes

Also important in astrology are the moon's nodes.[21] The nodes are where the moon's path crosses the ecliptic. The North, or Ascending Node marks the place where the moon crosses from South to North (or ascends), while the South, or Descending Node marks where the moon crosses from North to South (or descends). While Lunar nodes are not considered by Western astrologers to be as important a factor as each of the planets, they are thought to mark sensitive areas that are worth taking into account.

  • Northnode-symbol.svg - North or ascending. Also the ruler of Pathways and Choices.Node.
  • Southnode-symbol.svg - South or descending. Also the ruler of Karma and the Past.Node.

The horoscope

Western astrology is based mainly upon the construction of a horoscope , which is a map or chart of the heavens at a particular moment. The moment chosen is the beginning of the existence of the subject of the horoscope, as it is believed that the subject will carry with it the pattern of the heavens from that moment throughout its life. The most common form of horoscope is the natal chart based on the moment of a person's birth; though in theory a horoscope can be drawn up for the beginning of anything, from a business enterprise to the foundation of a nation state.


In Western horoscopic astrology the interpretation of a horoscope is governed by:

Some astrologers also use the position of various mathematical points such as the Arabic parts.

The primary angles

There are four primary angles in the horoscope (though the cusps of the houses are often included as important angles by some astrologers).

  • Ascendant-symbol.svg - The ascendant or rising sign is the eastern point where the ecliptic and horizon intersect. During the course of a day, because of the Earth's rotation, the entire circle of the ecliptic will pass through the ascendant and will be advanced by about 1°. This provides us with the term rising sign', which is the sign of the zodiac that was rising in the east at the exact time that the horoscope or natal chart is calculated. In creating a horoscope the ascendant is traditionally placed as the left-hand side point of the chart. In most house systems the ascendant lies on the cusp of the 1st house of the horoscope.

The ascendant is generally considered the most important and personalized angle in the horoscope by the vast majority of astrologers. It signifies a person's awakening consciousness, in the same way that the Sun's appearance on the eastern horizon signifies the dawn of a new day.[22] Due to the fact that the ascendant is specific to a particular time and place, it signifies the individual environment and conditioning that a person receives during their upbringing, and also the circumstances of their childhood. For this reason, the ascendant is also concerned with how a person has learned to present him or herself to the world, especially in public and in impersonal situations.[23]

The opposite point to the ascendant in the west is the descendant , which denotes how a person reacts in their relationships with others. It also show the kind of person we are likely to be attracted to, and our ability to form romantic attachments. In most house systems the descendant lies on the cusp of the 7th house of the horoscope.

  • Midheaven-symbol.svg- The midheaven or medium coeli is the point on the ecliptic that is furthest above the plane of the horizon. For events occurring where the planes of the ecliptic and the horizon coincide, the limiting position for these points is located 90° from the ascendant. For astrologers, the midheaven traditionally indicates a person's career, status, aim in life, aspirations, public reputation, and life goal. In quadrant house systems the midheaven lies on the cusp of the 10th house of the horoscope.

The opposite point to the midheaven is known as the imum coeli. For astrologers the nadir or IC traditionally indicates the circumstances at the beginning and end of a person's life, their parents and the parental home, and their own domestic life. In quadrant house systems it lies on the cusp of the 4th house of the horoscope.

The houses

The horoscope is divided by astrologers into twelve portions called the houses. The houses of the horoscope are interpreted as being twelve different spheres of life or activity. There are various ways of calculating the houses in the horoscope or birth chart. However, there is no dispute about their meanings, and the twelve houses [24]

Many modern astrologers assume that the houses relate to their corresponding signs, i.e. that the first house has a natural affinity with the first sign, Aries, and so on.


The aspects are the angles the planets make to each other in the horoscope, and also to the ascendant, midheaven, descendant and nadir. The aspects are measured by the angular distance along the ecliptic in degrees and minutes of celestial longitude between two points, as viewed from the earth.[25] They indicate focal points in the horoscope where the energies involved are given extra emphasis. The more exact the angle, the more powerful the aspect, although an allowance of a few degrees each side of the aspect called an orb is allowed for interpretation. The following are the aspects in order of importance [26]

  • Conjunction-symbol.svg - Conjunction 0° (orb ±8°). The conjunction is a major point in the chart, giving strong emphasis to the planets involved. The planets will act together to outside stimulus and act on each other.[citation needed]
  • Opposition-symbol.svg - Opposition 180° (orb ±8°). The opposition is indicative of tension, conflict and confrontation, due to the polarity between the two elements involved. Stress arises when one is used over the other, causing an imbalance; but the opposition can work well if the two parts of the aspect are made to complement each other in a synthesis.[citation needed]
  • Trine-symbol.svg - Trine 120°(orb ±8°). The trine indicates harmony, and ease of expression, with the two elements reinforcing each other. The trine is a source of artistic and creative talent, but can be a 'line of least resistance' to a person of weak character.[citation needed]
  • Square-symbol.svg - Square 90°(orb ±8°). The square indicates frustration, inhibitions, disruption and inner conflict, but can become a source of energy and activation to a person determined to overcome limitations.[citation needed]
  • Sextile-symbol.svg - Sextile 60°(orb ±6°). The sextile is similar to the trine, but of less significance. It indicates ease of communication between the two elements involved, with compatibility and harmony between them.[citation needed]
  • Quincunx-symbol.svg - Quincunx 150°(orb ±3°). The quincunx indicates difficulty and stress, due to incompatible elements being forced together. It can mean an area of self neglect in a person's life (especially health), or obligations being forced on a person. The quincunx can vary from minor to quite major in impact.[citation needed]
  • Semisextile-symbol.svg - Semisextile 30° (orb ±2°). Slight in effect. Indicates an area of life where a conscious effort to be positive will have to be made.[citation needed]
  • Semisquare-symbol.svg - Semisquare 45°(orb ±2°). Indicates somewhat difficult circumstance. Similar in effect to semisextile.[citation needed]
  • Sesquisquare-symbol.svg - Sesquiquadrate 135°(orb ±2°). Indicates somewhat stressful conditions. Similar to semisextile.[citation needed]
  • Quintile-symbol.svg - Quintile 72° (orb ±2°). Slight in effect. Indicates talent and vaguely fortunate circumstances.
  • Biquintile-symbol.svg - Biquintile 144° (orb ±2°). Slight in effect. Indicates talent and vaguely fortunate circumstances.[citation needed]
  • Retrograde-symbol.svg - Retrograde: A planet is retrograde when it appears to move backwards across the sky when seen from the earth, due to one planet moving more quickly relative to the other. Although it is not an aspect, some astrologers believe that it should be included for consideration in the chart. Planets which are retrograde in the natal chart are considered by them to be potential weak points.[citation needed]

Modern modifications to the Ptolemaic system

Modern planets

These are the planets discovered in modern times, which have since been assigned meanings by Western astrologers.

  • Uranus's astrological symbol.svg - Uranus: Modern ruler of the zodiac sign Aquarius.
  • Neptune symbol.svg - Neptune: Modern ruler of the zodiac sign Pisces.
  • Pluto's astrological symbol.svg - Pluto: Modern ruler of the zodiac sign Scorpio.
  • Ceres symbol.svg - Ceres: Some astrologers consider this dwarf planet being the modern ruler of the zodiac sign Virgo or Taurus. Nevertheless for other western astrologers this planet will never be used.[citation needed]

Sidereal astrology

There are two camps of thought among western astrologers about the "starting point", 0 degrees Aries, in the zodiac. Sidereal astrology believes that the starting point is at a particular fixed position in the background of stars, while tropical astrology (which is adopted by the majority of Western astrologers) believes that the starting point is when the position of the Sun against the background of stars coincides with the Northern hemisphere vernal equinox (i.e. when the Sun position against the heavens crosses over from the southern hemisphere to the northern hemisphere) each year.

As the Earth spins on its axis, it "wobbles" like a top, causing the vernal equinox to move gradually backwards against the star background, (a phenomenon known as the Precession of the equinoxes) at a rate of about 30 degrees (one Zodiacal sign length) every 2,160 years. Thus the two zodiacs would be aligned only once every 26,000 years and were aligned about 2,000 years ago when the zodiac was originally established.

This phenomenon gives us the conceptual basis for the Age of Aquarius, whose "dawning" coincides with the movement of the vernal equinox across the cusp from Pisces to Aquarius in the star background.

See also


  1. ^ Manilius (77) p.87-89 (II.64-67): “the entire universe is alive in mutual concord of its elements and is driven by the pulse of reason, since a single spirit dwells in all its parts and, speeding through all things, nourishes it like a living creature”.
  2. ^ Alkindi (9th cent.) is clarifying this point where he says in his text On the Stellar Rays, ch.4: “... we say that one thing acts with its elemental rays on another, but according to the exquisite truth it does not act but only the celestial harmony acts”.
  3. ^ a b Houlding (2000) p.28: “The doctrine of the Pythagoreans was a combination of science and mysticism… Like Anaximenes they viewed the Universe as one integrated, living organism, surrounded by Divine Air (or more literally ‘Breath’), which permeates and animates the whole cosmos and filters through to individual creatures… By partaking of the core essence of the Universe, the individual is said to act as a microcosm in which all the laws in the macrocosm of the Universe are at work”.
  4. ^ Weiss and Taruskin (2008) p.3.
  5. ^ Pliny the Elder (77) pp.277-8, (II.xviii.xx): "…occasionally Pythagoras draws on the theory of music, and designates the distance between the Earth and the Moon as a whole tone, that between the Moon and Mercury as a semitone, .... the seven tones thus producing the so-called diapason, i.e. a universal harmony".
    NASA has recently confirmed that the Sun, Moon and planets emit sounds in their orbits, each very different due to their various speeds and distances. After the sound files recorded by NASA are compressed many thousands of times, their ‘melodies’ become clearly perceptible to the human ear. The NASA sound files have been made available on YouTube: see for example 'Jupiter Sounds'; retrieved 7 August 2011.
  6. ^ Davis (1901) p.252. Plato’s Republic VII.XII reads: “As the eyes, said I, seem formed for studying astronomy, so do the ears seem formed for harmonious motions: and these seem to be twin sciences to one another, as also the Pythagoreans say”.
  7. ^ Smith (1996) p.2.
  8. ^ Hackett (1997) p.245 and Smith (1996) p.56.
  9. ^ An English translation of the Harmonica was recently published by Andrew Barker, in his Greek Musical Writings vol. II (Cambridge University Press, 2004). The work was also discussed by James Frederick Mountford in his article ‘The Harmonics of Ptolemy and the Lacuna in II, 14’ (Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, Vol. 57. 1926; pp.71-95). Mountford refers to Ptolemy’s Harmonica as "the most scientific and best arranged treatise on the theory of musical scales which we possess in Greek".
  10. ^ Kepler (1619) 'Introduction', p.xix. “Kepler did not ascribe any direct physical influence to the celestial bodies but supposed the astrological effects to be the result of instinctive responses of individual souls to the harmonies of certain configurations or aspects. A soul was also ascribed to the Earth itself, whose response to the aspects explained their influence on the weather”. In his Tertius Interveniens, 1610, Kepler defined the horoscope as the celestial imprint imparted at birth: Ch,7: "When a human being's life is first ignited, when he now has his own life, and can no longer remain in the womb - then he receives a character and an imprint of all the celestial configurations (or the images of the rays intersecting on earth), and retains them unto his grave". See translated excerpts by Dr. Kenneth G. Negus on Cura. Retrieved 15 August 2011.
  11. ^ Kepler (1619) Kepler's Third Law used to be known as the harmonic law. It captures the relationship between the distance of planets from the Sun, and their orbital periods. "The square of the orbital period is proportional to the cube of the mean distance from the Sun "[1]. See also Gerald James Holton, Stephen G. Brush (2001). Physics, the Human Adventure. Rutgers University Press. p. 45. ISBN 0813529085. http://books.google.com/?id=czaGZzR0XOUC&pg=PA45&dq=Kepler+%22harmonic+law%22. 
  12. ^ Bacon (1623) De Augmentis, p.351. The maxim that the stars impel but do not compel was used by Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century, "following the same line of argument as St Augustine and others before him" (A history of magic by Richard Cavendish; p.66., Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1977).
  13. ^ Bacon (1623) De Augmentis, p.351.
  14. ^ Myrna Lofthus, A spiritual approach to astrology, p.8, CRCS Publications, Sebastopol, CA 1983.
  15. ^ Robert Pelletier & Leonard Cataldo, Be Your Own Astrologer, pp. 24–33, Pan Books Ltd, London 1984; Maritha Pottenger, Astro Essentials, pp. 31–36, ACS Publications San Diego, 1991.
  16. ^ http://www.paranormal-encyclopedia.com/f/forer-effect/
  17. ^ The AstroTest, An account of a test of the predictive power of astrology, with references to other experiments.
  18. ^ Sasha Fenton, Understanding Astrology, pp. 106–15, Aquarian Press, London, 1991; Maritha Pottinger, Ibid, pp. 11–17, 1991.
  19. ^ a b c d Signs description
  20. ^ a b c Planet description
  21. ^ Derek and Julia Parker, The New Compleat Astrologer p. 149, Crescent Books, New York, 1990.
  22. ^ Jeff Mayo, Teach Yourself Astrology p. 71, Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1991.
  23. ^ Sasha Fenton, Rising Signs, pp. 13–14, The Aquarian Press, London, 1989.
  24. ^ Sasha Fenton, Ibid, pp. 117–8, 1991.
  25. ^ Jeff Mayo, Ibid p. 97, 1991.
  26. ^ Robert Pelletier and Leonard Cataldo, Ibid, pp. 57–60, 1984; Sasha Fenton, Ibid, pp. 137-9, 1991.

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