A system that describes the entirety of life will account for the parts that aren’t fun as well as the peaks of human existence. One way astrology does this is through the houses. Most of the houses cover matters that are neutral to pleasant, such as the self (1st house), pleasure and creativity (5th house), and hopes and goals (11th house). But there are three houses that cover “bad” topics: illness and inequality (6th house), death (8th house), and self-undoing and hidden enemies (12th house). It can be tempting to think of these three houses as being bad themselves. Admittedly, that doesn’t sound right. Lots of people have planets in these houses—does that mean they’re fated to be unhappy?1 Isn’t it healthier to view all of life’s ups-and-downs with equanimity?2 Aren’t labels like “good” and “bad” limiting? And perhaps there’s suspicion that this division into good and bad is another vestige of traditional astrology that is best left to fade away entirely.
Well, yes. And also no, because modern astrology isn’t totally divorced from its traditional roots. It has inherited some of the dread of the “bad” houses, although somewhere along the line the rationale behind them was generally forgotten. Which also means that the reason for some houses being “good” has also been generally forgotten.
Aspects, modern and traditional
Modern astrology sees the relationships between planets in terms of the aspects (angles) between them. There are five classic aspects used from traditional days to the present:
- The conjunction: 0°(neutral)
- The sextile: 60° (easy)
- The square: 90° (difficult)
- The trine: 120° (easy)
- The opposition: 180° (difficult)
Because they see aspects as based in geometry, modern astrologers may also use other aspects that they find meaningful, like the quincunx (150°), the quintile (72°, or ⅕ of a circle), the septile (51° 26’, or ⅐ of a circle), and so on. Because two planets are rarely in a perfect angle to each other, there’s some wiggle room with those measurements, called “orb.” Different aspects have different orbs, and generally the classic aspects have wider orbs, i.e. more wiggle room.
Confusingly, traditional astrology uses the same terms as in modern astrology, but based in a paradigm of vision rather than geometry. Much of the traditional astrological symbolism around light and vision didn’t really make it into modern astrology. For instance, orb wasn’t a property of an aspect, it was a property of a planet, and brighter planets like the Sun had larger orbs than dimmer planets like Saturn. That analogy of what is easy to see and what is harder to see has a lot to do with house meanings.
Lines of sight
Imagine someone standing in the 1st house, the house of self, the strongest house in the chart. Anything (any planet) in the 1st house with this person is easily seen by them because it’s right there (the conjunction: 0°). So the 1st house is a strong place for a planet to be. This 1st house person has a clear line of sight to the 7th house, directly across from them (the opposition: 180°). The 7th house is also a strong position for a planet to be in because it’s so clearly seen. It rules equal relations: the spouse, the close friend, the business partner, but also the nemesis and the open enemy. This person in the 1st house can also see the 4th and 10th houses, 90° away (the square), and again, these are also strong houses for planets to be in. Here is your private life, heritage, and home (4th house), and your public life, career, and reputation (10th house).
This 1st house person also has good lines of sight, although not quite as great, to the 5th and 9th houses (trine: 120°). The 3rd and 11th houses are also good (sextile: 60°).
Out of sight
That’s it for the classic aspects, but there are still four houses unaccounted for, and three of them are the supposedly “bad” houses: the 6th, the 8th, and the 12th. Because they don’t aspect the 1st house, these houses contain things that symbolically can’t be seen. Because the 1st house person can’t see these houses, they’re ignorant of what’s there, they don’t understand it, they can’t manage it. So consider the things associated with these houses in terms of ignorance, misunderstanding, and denial. They’re often things we’re not comfortable discussing and that we were taught it’s rude to ask about.
- 6th house: illness; situations of inequality, especially involving work
- 8th house: death, occult (literally means “hidden”), loss, fears and anxieties
- 12th house: secret enemies (if you knew who they were, they’d be in the 7th house of open enemies), self-undoing (think any psychological issue that’s interfering with your life but which you can’t see clearly)
And when you’re uneasy talking about something and you’ve picked up on a lot of messages telling you to not bring the matter up, it’s not long before it feels “bad.”
The 2nd house
Given what I just said about the houses that are out of sight and their connection to Things We Don’t Talk About, you may already have worked out how the 2nd house fits in with the other three. The 2nd house rules movable possessions, material comforts, wealth, and resources. At first glance, this is a desirable house, one of the “good” ones—who doesn’t want a good salary, a nest egg, to be out of debt? But consider: it’s often considered rude to ask how much money someone makes or what their net worth is. Pay gaps such as those between men and women or between people of different races may be associated both with the 2nd house and with the 6th; either way, they’re a point of contention. Many people aren’t comfortable managing their own money, or only for everyday expenses, while taxes and investments overwhelm them. Possessions themselves can be a sore spot: think of clutter and its big bad sibling, hoarding. How many people are reluctant to have people over because they’re ashamed of their messy homes? Modern psychological astrology acknowledges the monetary wealth part of this house, but often writers sound more comfortable assigning self-esteem and resource management to it. We may say that all [people] are created equal, but poverty definitely doesn’t have the cachet of wealth.
None of the above dictates that you must treat an astrological house as either good or bad. Certainly they vary from one chart to the next, and people can have negative experiences with apparently positive houses and vice versa. But it helps to know why a system is the way it is when figuring out how to work with it.
1 I hope not: I’ve got planets in all three of these houses.
2 Good if you can manage it. Usually I can’t.