The Ancient Theory of the Twelve Houses

The Twelve Houses
some historical definitions of the houses

The scheme of the 12 houses of the Horoscope is well known and fairly consistent in meaning throughout the astrological world, but little has been written about how the definitions of the houses were established. Many modern astrologers seem to be content with the description of them as directly analogous to the signs, but every aspect of the craft of astrology is built on sound philosophical principles rather than naïve generalizations, and the 12 houses are no exception.

Ancient authors assigned a distinct set of attributes and rulers to the houses of the Horoscope: the first house was not thought to have anything to do with Aries, either by nature or by rulership. According to some authors, Saturn was traditionally associated with the 1st house, because it was considered the eldest of the planets, and the planet through which the unmanifest comes into existence: the planet through which the hidden emerges into our world. Saturn is also the first of the planets in the Chaldean order, as we have seen in a previous chapter.

The planets were associated with the houses such that the order repeated itself after the 7th: Saturn was the planet of the 8th, Jupiter the 9th and so forth. Interpretations of planets in the houses were also considered so that Saturn in the 1st may exhibit the positive traits of caution and persistence, even if it were in Aries, Cancer or Leo, and an afflicted 1st house marked the native with the negative attributes of Saturn (slow, lame, unfriendly and so forth).

There was a set of geometric themes that made their way into Greek philosophy from Egypt, and in these themes, the number 3 was considered the first human number, the number that gave structure. The least number of legs a stable chair or table can have is 3 – the tripod or triangle was considered the first of human-created structures, by way of its simplicity.

A triangle is a half of a square, and the square or cube was considered the most stable form that could be created by humanity. By multiplying the number of sides of these two forms, we arrive at 12. The importance of the number 12 was clearly symbolized in Egyptian physical and literary structures, and it is probably from there (and cycles of the Sun and Jupiter) that the decision was made to divide the heavens into 12 sectors of 30 degrees each.

Without going into a discourse on sacred geometry, suffice to say that the observation of the sky took place in 3 visible and one invisible direction. The Eastern and Western horizons were studied to see which planets rose and set, while the Midheaven, which was due South, showed the most elevated body at any given time. The Lower Heaven (IC) was exactly opposite the Midheaven. The ancients knew that each planet, including the Sun and the Moon, passed these points every day, and defined these “pivots of the heavens.”

astrologerOlder Babylonian (Chaldean) tablets show the heavens divided by 8 3-hour periods, called watches, but nothing like the 12 ‘topical’ houses existed at that time, according to the best research available. It was in the written work of the early Hellenistic era astrologers that the first systematic explanation of the houses occurred. Even Manilius, writing in the first two decades CE, wrote of the houses with enough deviation from the philosophical standard described below to demonstrate that although the heavens were already being divided and subdivided by 12, this formulation of house meanings was just being systematized.

The Horoscope, or Horoskopos, was, in fact, the Greek name for the degree of the zodiac on the Eastern horizon at birth, or the Ascendant. The Ascendant was calculated by degrees, but the whole sign house system was commonly used for interpretation. In this system, if the Ascendant was 23 degrees of Taurus, the whole sign of Taurus would be the 1st house, Gemini would be the 2nd and so on. What we call the signs today were considered the houses of the planets: the house of Mars meant the sign Scorpio (or Aries), and the 8th house was the 8th sign from the one rising at the time of birth, or in their terms, the 8th house of the Horoscope.

Chart drawn in 497 CE by Rhetorius

Systems of mathematical house division (primarily the Porphry system, in which the quadrants subtended by the ascendant and midheaven axes were trisected) were used by the ancients to determine planetary expressiveness. It was based on the idea that the ‘zones’ in which a planet was turning a corner were places where it was busy, or able to express itself fully. Two other zones were defined in which they could, play a supporting role (because they were in signs that were pushing others toward the pivotal signs, and others in which, being exhausted by turning the corner, they would have little or no expressiveness.

Somehow, these quantitative calculations became confused with methods of interpretation, and the ancient tradition fell by the wayside. While the traditional method seems overly simplistic, its efficacy cannot be denied: Vedic astrologers have used whole sign system of interpretation for many dozens of generations.

The meanings the houses came from the idea of fate, which was an important topic of discussion in various schools of Greek philosophy. Some Hellenistic astrologers were strict determinists, and some weren’t. They all had a rich vocabulary concerning matters of fate and destiny – philosophers’ discussions about the nature of free will, wisdom, chance, causes and the nature of the soul are some of the most read-worthy collections of ancient wisdom that exist.

Fate, or Moira, was a term that had a sense of something being distributed or portioned out – not unlike the concept of Maat in Egyptian mysticism. It was definitely not an essential characteristic or a driving force – fate represented the chains of causality through which ‘essence’ is fitted with form. The Moira of the universe elicits the forms and motion of the stars and planets – fate is not exclusive to humanity. Fate, in this sense, was more like the laws of physics than the retribution or gifts of the gods.

abu_masharIn this regard, the houses may be considered as “agents” or “domains” of fate, distributing the results of one’s actions according to the various departments of human experience, as determined by the “accident” of birth, and the relationships of the planets to the various places (pivotal, supportive or diminishing), as we shall see below.

The ancients considered each planet as having a degree of ‘dignity’, or eminence. This defined how true to its fundamental nature a planet was. Planets in their own sign, triplicity or term were considered as being more representative of their basic nature, as were planets in direct motion and well-situated according to the sect in power. While most of the essential dignities were determined by the planets positions in the zodiac, the most basic doctrine of sect was determined solely by the Ascendant, because sect is defined by the position of the Sun being above or below the horizon.

The Horoskopos also generated the Lots (Sahams in Sanskrit). The Lots are an expression of the zodiacal position of the planets and the relationship between Horizon, and the Sun and Moon. These astrological points were interpreted rather differently from the planets, as later astrologers tend to do. They neither cast nor received aspects, and were considered more like places than bodies. The lots were considered as directly related to one’s fate. Even relatively recent English literature uses expressions such as ‘one’s lot in life’.

In Plato’s Timaeus, it was said that a soul chooses their incarnation by choosing lots, and then waits until the planets align so that these lots are arranged properly, before they could enter a new human lifetime.

dendera-zodiacEvery day, the 12 signs carry the planets with them as they rise and set – this is called the Diurnal motion of the heavens. The signs rise from the Ascendant to the Midheaven, and then begin to descend until they reach the Descendant, and continue until the Lower Heaven is reached, at which point they begin to rise again. The places at which they change their relationship to the horizon, and the places at which they change status from ascending to descending were considered to be of tremendous significance, like a daily analogue to the annual course of the Sun. They were called “Kentrons” or “pivots” by the Greek astrologers (Vedic astrologers call them “Kendras” or corners).

It is sometimes a little hard to realize the importance of this view when looking at a chart on paper, but if you stand outside this principle upon which the houses are based becomes simple – the Eastern and Western horizons and the meridian (the North/South axis) remain fixed (from our perspective) and the heavens move across them. The whole principle and meaning of the houses rests on this apparent phenomenon.

This observation also makes it clear that the houses on either side of the pivots are related to them in a very specific way. The declines, or cadent houses, carry planets away from the pivot point. Declines are the signs that rise, set etc. immediately before the sign in question: consider if Leo were the ascendant – Cancer would be the decline. Planets in Cancer would be moving toward Leo (unless they are retrograde, in which case they are moving away from Leo), but, from our perspective, they would appear to be carried away from the horizon.

The succedent houses were the ‘bearing’ or ‘supporting’ places, where planets moving away from a pivot point by their own motion are returned to that pivot by the diurnal motion of the heavens. In other words, the direct motion of the planets moves them in a counterclockwise direction at their own speed in a circular chart, while the apparent motion of the heavens moves them in a clockwise direction, towards the pivot, at a much faster rate.

Is there someone at the helm?

The First House was called the “Helm” by Hellenistic authors. The traditionalist John Frawley calls it “the ship that one sails in” meaning the vehicle of the soul’s journey on Earth. The idea of one’s life being like a sea voyage was the central metaphor of Hellenistic astrology, and on a ship, the helm controls where one goes by moving the rudder (or by using the wheel in more modern boats). The first house represents one’s appearance, wellbeing and overall fortune. The body, the early life and the environment are described by this house. Saturn is the planet through which the unmanifest takes form, and is the representative of the first house, which describes our birth, the event of our entry into the material world.

The Second House, or the ‘Gate of Hades’ (the exit from the underworld), represents that which supports us; that which works to secure our wellbeing. This house traditionally is concerned with money and moveable assets, because as the planets try to move away from the Horoskopos by their own motion, they are brought back to the horizon by the much faster motion of the heavens, just like a good investment. All sorts of trading and commerce are located in this house, and many of the Hellenistic writers placed business partners (people who are assets, therefore the more recent assignment of the ‘second in a duel’) here. The Hindus include food in this house, because it supports the body. Jupiter, the benefic associated with prosperity and wealth, and the second planet of the Chaldean order, was associated with this house.

The Twelfth House, called the ‘Evil Spirit’, is where we would find planets that have been carried away from the Ascendant by the diurnal movement of the heavens. This aptly describes Vedic astrology’s defining of the 12th as the house of loss. The more recent name, ‘the house of self-undoing’, makes sense from this perspective, because planets associated with this house would ‘take away’ from the rising sign, or the individual’s well-being and attempts to further their goals. It also represents thieves and “secret enemies” in that planets moving to join and bolster the rising sign are being taken away by diurnal motion. In the Chaldean order, Venus is associated with the 12th.

The next triad surrounds the 10th house. The 10th was known as the house of ‘Action and Occupation’ by Hellenistic practitioners, and the Hindus call it Karma Bhava or “action house”. This pivot is about what one does; one’s work or achievements. The 10th also describes the reputation and rank of the individual. This house often represents marriages, especially when the marital state is linked to status. Many Hellenistic astrologers placed children here, as an expression of duty. Mars is the Chaldean planet of this house, representing the honor or dishonor gained through taking action.

The 11th house, called the ‘Good Spirit’ promotes (supports) the career through friendships, introductions, patronage and alliances. This is the origin of the modern ‘friends’ attribution, or the old adage “it’s not what you know (the 9th), it’s who you know” that people often use as a reason for career success or a rationale for the lack thereof. It can also describe resources that support one’s efforts, including gifts or grants from the government. The Chaldean ruler of this house is the Sun.

a king consulting the oracle

Hellenistic writers associated the 9th house with the visiting of oracles and seers: it showed them the assistance or information received from the divine, and how the native gets it. It also concerns what we now call pilgrimage: the ‘journey’ to the divine, in the form of travel or spiritual learning and practice. The knowledge gained from such a journey was considered the highest knowledge one could receive, hence the modern appellation ‘higher learning’ – the ancients would not apply this to college courses or advanced job training. This house is called ‘the Good Decline’ by Valens and was also known as the ‘House of the God’, because it shows how one surrenders their own authority (10th) to that of a higher power, whether God or King. Jupiter is the planet associated with this house.

The 7th house group is centered on the pivot generally associated with marriage and death. The ascendant was associated with the idea of emerging into selfhood, while the descendant was associated with merging into the other. Most traditional and Indian sources associate the 7th with death, because it represents the daily disappearance of the source of life, the Sun. It is the house in which the person joins with another; this could mean by marriage, in business partnership, or in a rivalry or competition. As in Hindu astrology, foreign travel was placed here by the Alexandrian astrologers. The Moon is the Chaldean ruler of this house.

The 8th is the ‘Idle Place’ and shows what pushes the native toward the underworld. Fermentation, corrosion, and all phenomena resulting from stagnation belong here. Death, as an event, is disappearance from the light of day, which is really the 7th house. The good side of the 8th is that it represents money from death marriage or partnership, hence the universal association with wills, legacies, returns on investments and insurance payments. Some Hellenistic authors placed enemies here – enemies do not appear in the 7th until the Medieval era. Modernists put sex here – this is clearly a mistaken association with Scorpio. The sex act, in a clinical sense, clearly belongs to the 7th; its recreational value belongs in the 5th. Saturn is the Chaldean planet of this house.

The 6th house is ‘Bad Fortune’, or the illnesses, accidents and other misfortunes that tend to separate the native from their loved ones. Both Hellenistic and Indian authors place enemies in this house, as well as slaves (servants, tradesmen, sub-contractors etc.). People represented by the 6th do the hard or impolite work that others won’t, and handle the burdens of other’s lives. Mercury (god of thieves and servants) is the planet of this house.

The 4th house is the ‘Foundation of Happiness’. It is usually associated with one’s roots, one’s nation and the foundation in life: in short, all things that help the native “stand firm”. This house shows what the native is willing to defend and what they can (or have to) support, hence the classical association with one’s home and family. The dwelling place was assigned to the 4th in ancient times, as it is today. The 4th also represents permanence, immovable property and real estate. The Sun is the Chaldean planet of this house.

The 5th house, from which planets are “brought to” the foundation, is known as “the Good Fortune” by Hellenistic authors. It was considered the place from which all mundane good fortune came to the native, as opposed to the divine gift of knowledge or prophecy from the 9th. Friendship, the blessing of children who will grow to bring honor to one’s “house” and philanthropy are placed here by the older writers, but the association of the 5th with fun and enjoyment seems to be a later invention that came about because the Chaldean ruler of this house is Venus.

The 3rd house, called ‘the Goddess’, is the place of those who are born with the bearer of the chart, or the siblings. It also represents those who are welcome in the home, but do not stay there, such as visitors and neighbors. Scholars have noted that there was a host/guest relationship implied in the language used to describe this house. The host/guest relationship was sacred to ancient people, and hospitality was usually extended to anyone who did not threaten them. This relationship, as described by this house, also referred to travel. This travel could be to the next house or many miles, but there was an expectation of hospitality or patronage that does not exist for the 9th house, which represents a journey into the unknown. Mars is the Chaldean ruler, representing the strength from comradeship that humans share when working for mutual benefit.

By considering the diurnal movement of the heavens, we can see how the original meanings of the houses were derived from the motion of the heavens. Considering this support/pivot/decline pattern, and opening up the view of the houses to include the Chaldean rulers is a rewarding exercise in chart analysis. It is also a strong introduction to the philosophy underlying the horoscope, and a glimpse into the depth and profundity of the ancient doctrine of astrology.