Imagine yourself to be an astrologer of long ago. A child has just been born to the royal family, and you are asked to read the child’s nature and fate from the stars. You stand outside, looking toward the east, where the Sun, Moon, and planets rise each day. One by one, you watch the signs of the zodiac appear over the eastern horizon and rise overhead. You note the planets when they appear, and any other portents the sky provides. If you stood there for an entire day (and if you could see the stars during the daylit hours), you would have seen the entire sky rise and circle overhead, and you would be looking once again at the same stars you saw the day before, when the child was born.
This imaginary exercise is a good starting place for appreciating what astrological houses are about. The circle of the sky is divided into twelve segments, each of which, by tradition, applies to certain areas of life. The first of these segments, which our imaginary astrologer would encounter in the first hours after the child’s birth, gazing east, is the most potent, as it shows how the person presents themselves to the world, the things that will most visibly distinguish this life from any other. The second segment, which would appear to our astrologer a couple hours later, shows what resources the child will have to draw on, to make a way in the world. And so it goes, around the circle of the sky.
These segments are called houses. Depending on the time and place of birth, a house may contain any of the planets, and any sign of the zodiac. The planets and signs seen in each house show us what energies are active in that area of a person’s life.
In classical astrology, each house had a Latin name that indicated, quite clearly, what it was about. The first house was vita (life), the second lucre (wealth), the third fratres (siblings), and so on. If you wanted to know if a person would be wealthy, you would find the answer in what planets and signs were in the house of wealth.
Today, we mostly refer to the houses by number, which makes them seem more mysterious and strains the memories of new students of astrology. I like to refer to them by names, although some of the old names need a little updating to fit into our modern categories. Here are the house names I like to use:
There is a modern tendency to blend the meanings of the houses with the meanings of the signs, which I think is unfortunate. The signs are the ways in which we express our life energies. The houses, on the other hand, are the areas of life, the particular activities we engage in. Remember the game Clue? To solve the mystery, you needed three pieces of information: the name of the murderer, the murder weapon, and the room of the house where the murder took place: Colonel Mustard with the rope in the conservatory. Who, how, where. Astrology works very much the same way: the planets say who (what basic energy is expressing itself), the signs say how (what flavor or way of operating that energy takes on), and the houses say where (what part of my life I can expect to see that energy working in).
Now, there are certainly some “natural” connections or harmonies between the planets, signs, and houses. Venus is the energy of attraction. If Venus is in Libra, we express attraction harmoniously and diplomatically, which seems a dandy combination – much easier than trying to express our competitive energies harmoniously, or trying to express attraction through diligence and dedication, for example. And, if that Venus in Libra is also in the seventh house, the House of Partnership, we will be expressing attraction harmoniously in our marriage or other close relationship, which one would expect to be a good recipe. But if that Venus in Libra happened to be in my ninth house instead, the House of Discovery, I would expect to see this harmonious, diplomatic, energy of attraction come out most clearly when I was traveling, learning new things, or following spiritual or intellectual pursuits. I might find that my happiest interactions with people are with my teachers or fellow travelers, rather than with a mate or partner.
When people run the houses and signs together in their understanding, they lose this important difference between the how and the where of planetary influences.
Incidentally, it is largely for the sake of the houses that astrologers are so intent on knowing one’s exact time of birth. The planets move through the signs of the zodiac over the course of weeks, months, or even years. But the houses spin by with each passing hour. A half hour, which doesn’t seem like much, can make the difference between whether you find your true calling in life in the House of Fun or in the House of Service!