As originally published at www.StarIQ.com
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 Zodiac.
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 system)
- Hindu Bhava system reads the middle of a house its strongest point
- The Gauquelin research suggests an orb to house cusps
- The Huber School recognizes peaks within a house, not at the cusp
I 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.
Grant 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.”
Many 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 anymore. It’s just part of the way I tune my instrument. Clearly, no single system has demonstrated universal superiority.
The Moment of Birth
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.
Charles 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.
I 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 well.
Cusps 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.
The use of Whole Sign Houses has grown considerably since this article was written in 1999. I appreciate its simplicity and how it avoids some of the complications of unequal house systems such as interceptions and extreme latitude distortions. However, recently I’ve been thinking that the perfect symmetry of the tropical zodiac doesn’t reflect the lack of symmetry in human experience. Therefore, the “distortions” of unequal houses represent this subjective quality that is missing in equal house systems.
Jeff Jawer is the CEO of StarIQ.com. He presents Planet Pulse, a daily audio and video forecast, with Rick Levine on StarIQ.com and Tarot.com. Jeff has a B.A. in “The History and Science of Astrology” from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and is a co-founder of AFAN and UAC. He writes Calendar column for The Mountain Astrologer and teaches astrology internationally. Jeff can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org