Urania's Well: Astrology for Changing Times

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What is a Natal Chart, Anyway?

Posted by on in Culture Blogs

I’m going to start a series of occasional lessons —  I’ll try to do at least one or two a month — on how Witches, Pagans and other magickal and spiritual people can use our own natal charts both to help time our magickal workings, and to adjust our spiritual practices to take advantage of the prevailing astrological "weather". This is Lesson One, in which we learn exactly what the heck we are looking at when we look at a natal chart - a chart that is calculated (we usually say "cast") for the moment and place of a birth.

I’ve given a lot of thought to how best to approach this, and I’ve decided I am going to try to keep these lessons as simple as possible, while providing links to articles that go into more depth for those of you who want it, so watch for the links in the text. Also, I’ll be teaching the system of astrology that I use, which is modern, Western astrology, using Placidus or Koch houses.

To read an astrology chart, there are only a few things you need to know:

  1. The circle of the chart (also called the horoscope) is the circle of the ecliptic — the Sun’s apparent path around the Earth.
    This circle is divided into 12 signs, and each sign takes 30 degrees of the 360 degree circle. The Earth rotates through all 12 in a day, while the Sun appears to rotate through all twelve in a year. 
  2. These signs are named after, but not aligned with, the constellations of stars that share their names.
    This is an important point. In Western astrology, the division of the ecliptic into signs is based upon the point of the vernal equinox, NOT on the positions of the constellations. So when your friendly local astronomer starts going on and on about how astrology can’t work because of the precession of the equinoxes, tell them to read this article. Something else I want to emphasize here: An astrology chart is an accurate map of the sky for a given place and time.  The Zodiac is a valid celestial coordinate system, and the planetary map that is an astrology chart is based on solid, scientific astronomy. We get beyond astronomy and into astrology when we add the houses…
  3. The circle of the horoscope is also divided into houses, which delineate different areas of life. There are always 12 houses, but the houses are not always 30 degrees each. It depends on the house system you use — and there are many of them. In Western astrology, Placidus is the most common system, the one I use most often, and the one I will be describing here when I discuss the houses.

The concept of houses is what usually confuses people most when they are learning astrology.  You can think of the houses — a way of dividing the ecliptic — as a transparency layered on top of the circle of the Zodiac — the division of the ecliptic into the 12 signs of 30 degrees each starting at zero degrees of Aries, the point of the vernal equinox.

Now, that transparency of the houses will always be positioned with the cusp (the point where one house begins and the previous one ends) of the first house in the eastern position, the middle of the left half of the circle, and that position is dependent upon the location of the birth. The houses do not move. What moves is the circle underneath, the Zodiac, the ecliptic divided into 12 equal signs, as the Earth rotates through the 12 signs in a day. Here is a chart of what we call  the “Natural Zodiac”. You can see how the signs follow each other around the ecliptic when 0 degrees of Aries is on the cusp of the first house. The planetary glyphs within the houses are the rulers of that sign and house. (Don't worry...all will be revealed in good time...)

Here’s a visual that might help some of you. Pretend you are standing in the place where you were born. Face east. You can stand there for a day or for a year, and you’ll still be facing east. Now, pretend that, while you were standing there, someone drew an astrological chart around you, with you in the center. If you are facing east, you are facing the cusp of the first house, which doesn’t change. East doesn’t change, and the cusp of the first house is always in the east. However, the Earth is moving constantly, and rotates through the entire circle of the Zodiac in a day, which means that the sign of the Zodiac which is rising in the east at any given moment, and the positions of the planets relative to where you are standing is changing constantly.

So at the exact time when you were born, a specific degree of a particular sign was on the eastern horizon at the moment of your birth. This is the Ascendent, a.k.a. the “rising sign”.  The point directly opposite it — the same degree of the opposite sign — is called the Descendent. The Midheaven, or MC (for the Latin “Medium Coeli”  — “middle of the sky” ) is the point that is due south in the northern hemisphere. (It’s due north down under. Either way, it follows the path of the Sun). The point directly opposite the MC is called the IC, or Imum Coeli — “bottom of the sky”.

The Ascendent is the cusp of your first house, the Descendent the cusp of your 7th house. The MC is the cusp of your 10th house, and the IC the cusp of your 4th.  The fact that the Midheaven is at the top of the chart, but is considered the most southern point of the chart confuses a lot of people. It will be easier to understand if you visualize it. If you are standing in the middle of the chart, facing east, you turn right to face south, which means you will be facing the noon position, or the top, of the circle of the chart.

Also at the exact time and place you were born (Are you still standing on that chart? It’s OK, you can sit down now), the planets were in a particular alignment, each in a particular degree and sign of the zodiac, and so will fall in a particular house. Add them in, and now you have your chart. 

Don’t panic if you can’t visualize how the three-dimensional solar system translates onto that two dimensional piece of paper, though it does help to have a clue about what you are looking at, and this page may help you with that. 

Before we end this lesson, I need to give you the symbols, or “glyphs” we use for the signs and planets, because astrologers use symbols instead of words to fit all the signs and planets onto a chart.  Here’s your cheat sheet. As you might expect, there are esoteric meanings to the shapes, but you don’t need to learn any of that now.

I’m going to use the chart of magician, Thelemite, and rocket scientist Jack Parsons  as an example during these lessons. Parson’s birth data is thought to be accurate, and events of his life, his death, and some of his magickal workings are well-documented, which makes his chart useful for our purposes. You can see the chart here. If you plan on following along with these lessons, I suggest you bookmark it or print it out, or, better yet, plug the data into your own astrology program.

And yes, there is homework! I want you to translate the symbols on Parson’s chart back into words. Here’s the assignment. As you will see, I’ve gotten you started, but you should fill in the rest.

Next lesson, we’ll look at the planetary rulers of the houses and signs, and the meanings of the signs. If you have questions, please feel free to ask in the comments section. And if you want to make sure that you are notified of the upcoming lessons, be sure to click on the “Subscribe to this blog” link up there at the top.

Until next time!

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Diotima Mantineia began studying astrology in 1968, taking classes from Zoltan Mason in New York City. For the next 22 years, she practiced astrology only for herself and her friends, continuing her studies while watching an increasingly humanistic, psychologically oriented, modern astrology blossom through the work of leading astrologers such as Noel Tyl, Liz Greene, Rob Hand, Marion March, Stephen Arroyo and Howard Sasportas.

In 1986, Diotima began her study of Wicca and started reading Tarot, discovering that she is a gifted intuitive. In 1991, she began practicing both astrology and Tarot professionally.

She majored in plant and soil science both in college and grad school, and grows much of her own food and "materia magica" on her land in the mountains of western North Carolina.

Diotima’s personal spiritual path is rooted in the Western mystery traditions, the principles of Yoga, and a profound connection with the natural world. Wicca gives structure to her spiritual journey, and she utilizes shamanic practices for healing and to live in harmony with Nature. Over 15 years of studying Chinese martial arts has given her a deep appreciation of Taoist thought which has strongly influenced her magical and personal philosophy. You can find her at www.uraniaswell.com

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