Ecliptic-based houses

Let’s look at each of the major house systems one by one with a view to understanding how they are calculated and how this might affect the symbolism of the horoscope.

The easiest house systems to calculate are the ones that are directly based on the ecliptic. The three major house systems based directly on the ecliptic are (1) the whole sign house system, (2) the equal house system, and the (3) Porphyry house system.

To understand these systems and what they might symbolise, let’s review what the definition of the celestial circle known as the ecliptic.   

The ecliptic is the plane of Earth’s orbit around the Sun. From the perspective of an observer on Earth, the Sun’s movement around the celestial sphere over the course of a year traces out a path along the ecliptic against the background of stars.

Here is a helpful illustration of the ecliptic:

As you can see from the illustration, the Earth revolves around the Sun and as it does so, from the perspective of someone on Earth, we see the 12 signs of the zodiac, a different sign each month! The ecliptic in the above diagram is the celestial circle in red, which, being a circle, is divided into 360° of celestial longitude, and is the circle we see represented in two dimensions when we look at a horoscope.

In astrology, each of these signs which we find along the ecliptic are divided up into 30° of celestial longitude. Of course, astronomically speaking, these constellations of stars do not literally and uniformly take up exactly 30° of longitude, indeed some of them are larger and some are smaller. It was towards the end of the 5th century B.C. that Babylonian astrologers divided the ecliptic into 12 equal “signs”, by analogy to the 12 months, each sign containing 30° of celestial longitude, thus creating the first known celestial coordinate system.

This system of division of the ecliptic was used by the ancient Greeks in the form that is now called “whole sign houses”, where the division of the ecliptic was made into 12 portions of 30° each, each of these portions known as “houses”.  The two other house systems that were used during this period were the equal house system, and the Porphyry method of division.

It is not my purpose here to debate the prevalence of one house system over another during the Hellenistic period, nor will I make any attempt to conjecture how and for what purpose these systems were used in ancient times. My aim here is to simply define how these systems are calculated and how we might begin thinking of their symbolic significations in a contemporary context.

The Whole Sign House System:

  • The Whole Sign House system uses the zodiac signs on the ecliptic to define the twelve houses.
  • The zodiac sign which rises over the horizon at the time of the birth or event defines the entire first house. The remaining eleven signs create the rest of the houses, moving in a counter-clockwise direction.
  • Each house begins at 0° of the zodiac sign and ends at 29° and is thus 30° in size.
  • This is a non-quadrant house system and does not use the ascendant or midheaven to define the beginning of the first and tenth houses. The ascendant and midheaven in this system are floating. The ascendant always defines the first house. The MC can be present anywhere between the ninth and eleventh houses.

The Equal House System:

  • The Equal-House system is a variation of the Whole sign House system (WSH). The difference is that the degree of the ascendant defines the start of the first house and becomes the starting degree of each of the remaining eleven houses.  The MC floats and does not define the start of the tenth house.
  • Symbolically speaking, the personal point of the degree of the ascendant is emphasized in this system as a defining feature which dictates the remaining eleven house cups. The symbolism becomes a bit more tied to the earth in that the eastern horizon takes on an elevated importance.
  • The equal house system is a non-quadrant house system.

Porphyry – a quadrant house system:

In quadrant house systems the ascendant and descendant define the first and seventh house cusps, and additionally, the midheaven (MC) is used to define the tenth house cusp, while its opposite point the I.C. (Imum Coeli) defines the cusp of the fourth house.

This creates four sectors or zones within the circle of the ecliptic, otherwise known as quadrants.

The earliest quadrant house system, used in Hellenistic times, is known as the Porphyry house system, named after the third century Neo-Platonist Porphyry, although he was not its creator as this system was described in the second century by Vettius Valens in his astrological textbook entitled Anthology.

In the Porphyry system of houses, the span of the ecliptic between the horizon and midheaven is trisected equally to produce three houses. Because the number of degrees between the horizon/ascendant and MC/midheaven varies according to location, time of day and season, the quadrants are not of equal size.

So, the three houses from the rising quadrant, i.e., from the degree to the culminating degree (MC), houses 12, 11 and 10, will be a different size to the setting quadrant, i.e., houses 9, 8 and 7.

This difference is carried over diagonally across the horoscope into the houses below the horizon.

So, in Porphyry, the ascendant forms the first house cusp, and the MC forms the 10th house cusp.  The Porphyry system, though quadrant, is still based on the ecliptic, as are whole sign houses and equal-houses. Yet one could say that symbolically it is more earth based in that a heightened important is given to the ascendant and MC; also, the geographical location of where the chart is cast is highlighted insofar as the cusp of the first and tenth houses reflect the earth-bound location.

Initial conclusions: Whole Sign houses, Equal-houses and Porphyry houses are arrived at through division of the ecliptic, which is a celestial circle. So in order to understand its symbolism, we need to reflect upon what the various celestial circles might symbolise.

The celestial circles used to arrive at the major house systems are as follows:

  • The ecliptic
  • The prime meridian (runs north through south through the poles)
  • The prime vertical (runs east through west through the zenith)
  • The celestial equator (which is projected from the earth’s equator)

Returning to our consideration of the ecliptic, where is the ecliptic located? 

It is the apparent path the Sun takes around the earth when viewed from an earth-based, geocentric perspective.

It is extra-lunar rather than sublunar.

A good deal of symbolism could be drawn from this.  We will begin to consider it after we have covered the other major house systems and how they are calculated.

Next up: House systems coming out of the astrolabe.

House Systems

In my last post we spoke of how varying house systems have gone in and out of style over the years. In my case, during the 70s I used Campanus houses, Koch in the eighties, switching over to Placidus in the 90s through the 2000s. Then I started using exclusively whole sign houses for a time, then I switched to Regiomontanus.

All these systems worked fine and gave good results.

So what gives?  If they all work fine, then why use one over the other? 

For many of us, we use the house system that our teachers used.  I used Campanus in the 70s because that’s what Charles and Vivian Jayne used. I used Koch in the 80s because Robert Hand, Marion March and Joan McEvers were recommending using it. I later used Placidus because that’s what most of my astrologer friends were using.

I got into WSH because Robert Hand (after the late 80s) and more recently Chris Brennan among others were saying that WSH was the system that Valens mainly used. Lilly used Regiomontanus for horary and natal and elections, so I started using that, also.

The point I’m making is that often the house system we use is a result of who we happen to study with.  We find that it works well and get used to it.  If we switch it makes us uncomfortable because some of the planets are in different houses, yikes!

And of course, sometimes we make a switch to other house systems because we want to experiment with ancient, medieval, or renaissance techniques, and thus want to work with the house systems that were used during the period that we are looking at.

That being said, it is all very well to use a house system because that’s what our teacher used, or because this or that ancient, medieval or renaissance astrologer did or didn’t use it, but now that we’ve looked at these various techniques, it would be nice to have a discussion that looks at each of the major house systems and compares them, looks at how they are arrived at and what they are based on, and above all, to explore the symbolic implications of each of them, and based on that discuss the strong points of each one.

I propose to do that in my next post, but in the meantime, I’ll make two blanket statements about the subject:

  1. The various house systems are calculated and based on varying celestial circles: some are based exclusively on the ecliptic, some use exclusively the celestial equator, some use the prime vertical, and others use diurnal circles. So to understand how the house systems differ, we need to look at the celestial circles that they are based on and think about what they might symbolise.
  2. That the reason all the house systems seem to work, even though a planet in one system might be in a different house in another system, is because they are looking at the same subject from a different perspective!

For example: I was looking at a natal chart that had a stellium of planets in H12 in Placidus.  But in WSH, most of them switched over to the first house.  So, what is the story here?  Is one “right” and one “wrong”? Absolutely not!

I know this native very well, the H12 chart (Placidus) chart described a psychological/emotional issue that the native had to deal with.  The H1 (WSH) chart perfectly described a completely different area of the native’s life!

The point here is that if one chooses two use two house systems to describe the same native, we don’t get to choose the one we like best!  We must use BOTH! For the two charts are describing the same native from different perspectives.

I’ll stop here.  Next time, we’ll look at each of the major house systems and go into more detail vis-à-vis how they are calculated and what they might symbolise.


House systems (1) from December 2020

I wanted to do a post on my checkered past with astrological house systems:

In the seventies I used Campanus houses because my aunt and uncle were professional astrologers and that’s what they used. I was not yet an astrologer in the seventies.

In the eighties, I decided I wanted to cast my own charts. This was a bit before the time astrological software was commonly used, so with the aid of my trusty copy of The Only Way to Learn Astrology (Vol 2) by Marion D. March and Joan McEvers, I learned the math for casting charts by hand.  March & McEvers recommended using Koch houses, and the Table of Koch houses book came with a handy form by Robert Hand that one used to do the calculations.  Hand said he liked Koch because it put his Mars in the fifth house, rather than the sixth! Since it did the same for my Mars, and because I figured if Koch was good enough for Robert Hand, it was good enough for me, I started using Koch houses.

Then the 90s came and astrological software made using house systems as easy as pulling down a menu.  I started using Placidus because that’s what most of my friends were using.

The readings I got from astrologers who read my chart using Campanus were accurate and spot on.  When I started reading charts myself using Koch and Placidus, aside from sometimes putting planets in different houses, I got consistently good results.

Then, about five or six years ago I was having coffee sitting in a Parisian café with my friend Lynn Bell, who was telling me about her work with the planetary joys and the good and bad daemons of the eleventh and twelfth astrological houses. At that point in time, I didn’t fully understand what a planetary joy was, so Lynn helpfully explained that it was a concept coming out of traditional astrology. I figured I had better find out more about this branch of astrology…

So I downloaded a workshop by Demetra George entitled “Traditional Astrology 101”.  Looking back, I think it should have been called “Ancient Astrology 101”, since what it covered was Hellenistic astrology, but I found it fascinating and eventually enrolled in Chris Brennan’s Hellenistic astrology course, which covers the subject exhaustively. I also took some workshops with Kelly Surtees and Austin Coppock, all of whom used whole sign houses in their work, so I started using whole sign houses, too. 

I got good results using whole sign houses.  After completing his full Hellenistic Astrology course, I took my first introductory horary course with Brennan, and whole sign houses were used.  Horary is an area of astrology where you one can’t fudge around.  You either get it right or you don’t in horary, it scary that way for the astrologer. I got consistently good results using WSH in horary as well as in natal charts.

About twenty years ago, I apprenticed with a Welsh magician and studied ceremonial magic with him, eventually joining a lodge based in the UK. Through Brennan’s Astrology Podcast, I became aware of astrological magic and a magician who had been practicing it for many years, Christopher Warnock. My own work in magic only touched on astrology, so about two years ago I began my studies with Warnock, who specializes in the astrology of the Renaissance and all things Lilly! It is normal when we study with an astrologer that we use their house system, so I started working heavily with Regiomontanus. After studying magic for about a year with Warnock, I embarked upon and completed his full horary course; and it being astrology of the renaissance, we worked with Regiomontanus houses.  I got good results from this system also.

The point I’m making here is that I got good results from using a wide variety of house systems.  What gives? Is one better than the other? Why would I use one over another? Is deciding which system to use a matter of fashion or taste? Or peer pressure?

Well, of course it could be any of those things. But one likes to think, when we move past our teachers and start thinking for ourselves, that there might be a deeper reason for choosing one house system over another than doing so because it is what another astrologer used, be this astrologer a modern one or one of yesteryear.

I have ideas concerning how to go about doing this that I would like to share, which I will do the next time I post.


From 27 June 2020: Tropical vs Sidereal Astrology

A study group that I’m part of was looking recently at three possible zodiacs: the constellational zodiac, the sidereal zodiac, and tropical zodiac.

For those who are not quite sure what the differences are between these zodiacs, I’ll provide an explanation below, but I’d like to start off with the point I wanted to make first.

I’ve heard debates from time to time within the astrological community on the subject of which is better: the sidereal or the tropical zodiac. My viewpoint is that this is a dumb question, it’s asinine. As Robert Hand once famously said concerning the various house systems, asking if one is “better” than the other is like asking if German a better language than French.

It could be argued that both zodiacal systems couldn’t be “true”. It must be a zero-sum situation. One must be false and the other true, because in one system a person’s Sun can be in Libra, but in the other their Sun is in Scorpio. So how could they both be right?

The response to that question is: when looked at within the parameters of its own system of correspondences, each tradition (sidereal and tropical astrology) is “right” with respect to itself. It is like taking a photograph of someone from two different perspectives. We are looking at the same person, but from different points of view.

Indian astrology is based on the sidereal zodiac. It goes back 2000 years or so and it works just fine! So does Western sidereal astrology.

Tropical astrology has a history going back to early Hellenistic times, and it works just fine, too!

So which zodiac do I use? I use the tropical zodiac. Why?

Well, to be honest, I learned astrology at the feet of my uncle and aunt (Charles and Vivian Jayne), and they used the tropical zodiac, so that’s why I use it. And these days I have my hands full getting my head around medieval and renaissance astrology, so I don’t have time at present to add sidereal astrology to my toolkit. I’ll leave that to those who specialize in it. Just as there are many traditions within the community of magic, so there are within
astrology: we each choose the path that has heart for us.

Ok, that’s my viewpoint. In case you have no idea what I’m talking about, here is a quick explanation of the different zodiacs:

The constellations in the sky are not of equal sizes. For example, the constellation Virgo is much larger in terms of zodiacal longitude than Cancer. They are of unequal size. This is the way the stars look in the heavens when we view them. This is the zodiac that the ancient astrologers used.

Eventually, by the 5th century BCE, the astrologer-astronomers of Mesopotamia standardized the zodiac so that it contained twelve signs of exactly 30° each. This is referred to as the sidereal zodiac and is an idealized division of the zodiac – the ecliptic of the Sun – into 12 equal parts: 12 signs of 30° each. The sidereal zodiac roughly corresponds visually to the actual constellations that we see in the sky.

When Hellenistic astrology was developed a few centuries later, the seasons were roughly aligned with the sidereal zodiac. The beginning of the seasons aligned with the cardinal signs: Aries, Cancer, Libra, and Capricorn.

The tropical zodiac is measured relative to the seasons; its starting point is the vernal equinox at 0° Aries. After that, the other signs are measured out in 30° increments starting from there.

That the qualities of the 12 signs were drawn from both the sidereal and tropical zodiacs became problematic later on when the two zodiacs started drifting apart due to an astronomical phenomenon called precession. this phenomenon is known as the precession of the equinoxes.

Precession is due to the Earth wobbling on its axis very slowly over the course of 26,000 years. The result is a drift between the two zodiacs of about 1° every 72 years, with the two zodiacs differing presently at about 24°. This ends my brief technical explanation.