ASTROLOGY 101: Basics of interpreting a chart
The chart you have is a map of where on the zodiac, at the moment of your birth, all of the planets were located, and the distinct meaning and signification of those placements. These planetary placements can tell you a ton about your life path, potential and personality characteristics. You can always see a professional astrologer for their interpretation, but it’s also a great feeling to learn to figure out your chart yourself and take your self-understanding to the next level.
If you don’t have your birth chart yet, watch this video on how to pull your chart in less than 30 seconds on Astro.com.
Once you have your birth chart - congrats! You’ve completed step one. To to begin figuring out what this all means, take a look at the overall shape and balance of signs that are represented. Once you have a sense of what each of the planets and the signs mean, you’re starting your interpretation. After you get comfortable with this you can add extra components like the houses, aspects between planets, transits and so on.
INTERPRETING THE SIGNS
Start by looking at the overall patterns on your chart. If you pulled your chart on a service like Cafe Astrology or Astro.com, there is a box grid in addition to your actual chart that serves as a key if you’re not sure how to read that intimidating circle yet (figure 1). Each of the zodiac signs, the planets (which for the purpose of this article, will include the Sun and Moon, which are not technically planets, the North and South Nodes and the Rising/Ascendant), and asteroids is represented by a symbol called a glyph. Look at where the planetary glyphs fall on the circular chart - is there any one sign that has a predominance of any planets, or at least more than one planet? You’ll know that this is an important sign for you.
If you pulled your chart on Astro.com, you will see a smaller 12 box grid just below the image of the chart itself (figure 2). This key gives you the balance of elements and modalities in your chart, which are the fundamentals for understanding each of the twelve zodiac signs. These are essentially two different ways to categorize the signs that are represented in your chart.
Fire signs (Aries, Leo, Sagittarius): excitable, assertive, courageous, concerned with creative affairs like art and abstract ideas. Warm, passionate, and often blunt.
Earth signs (Taurus, Virgo, Capricorn): practical, logical, level-headed, concerned with real-world affairs like money and career. Strives for simplicity and stability.
Air signs (Gemini, Libra, Aquarius): witty, social, analytical, concerned with intellectual ideas like pro/con scenarios and hypotheticals. Loves debate and playing the devil’s advocate.
Water signs (Cancer, Scorpio, Pisces): protective, sensitive, intuitive, concerned with emotional affairs. Loving, nurturing, and and can have psychic abilities.
Cardinal signs (Aries, Cancer, Libra, Capricorn): enterprising, initiating, natural leaders. Great at beginning new projects, organizing other people, and making decisions.
Fixed signs (Taurus, Leo, Scorpio, Aquarius): tenacious, stubborn, steadfast. Ride or die, loyal sometimes to a fault. Great with follow-up and finish-through.
Mutable signs (Gemini, Virgo, Sagittarius, Pisces): adaptable, flexible, uncommitted. Behavior often changes and adapts to environment; non-confrontational. Present in the moment, whether in their body or in daydream.
Look at the distribution of the elements and the modes in the 12-box grid. Is there one element or one mode that predominates over the others? Or is do you have a lack of any one or the other? Maybe you have a pretty even balance of signs across your chart, which can either make you even-headed or highly conflicted.
Putting together the element and mode of each sign can tell you a lot about its qualities and attributes. For more specific information on each of the signs and what they signify, start with this basic article.
INTERPRETING THE PLANETS
I won’t provide an interpretation of each of the planets, as there is a lot of really good information out there on each of the planets and the subjects or areas that each of them rules. If right now, you only know your sun sign (or your star sign, etc.) it will be mind-blowing to know that each of the planets represents a set of ideas or aspects of life, and where they show up in your chart will show you how they are expressed on an experiential level.
Start with looking at the three most important points in your chart - the Sun, Moon, and Rising Sign. The sun is always at the forefront of horoscopes in pop culture astrology because in our patriarchal society we value the sides of ourselves which is active, productive, goal-oriented, ego, enterprising. However, the more passive, emotional, security-oriented moon tells us a lot about our personality, who we are when people aren’t looking, and what makes us feel safe at home. And the rising sign (also known as the ascendant) is equally important because it shows how we first meet the world in instincts and responses. The rising sign was the zodiac sign that was literally rising on the eastern horizon at the moment of your birth, so it is what people see of you first and how you present yourself subconsciously to others. Because it is also the first house cusp, you’ll see that it sets up our whole life path and story of our development once you get into the houses and what they signify in our chart.
The planets vary by level of importance based on their proximity to our location on Earth. As you move farther out through the signs, their obit becomes slower and slower from our perspective - the Moon changes signs every 2 and a half days and orbits the full zodiac every 28 days, while Saturn changes signs about every two and a half years. Uranus was not even discovered until 1781, Neptune in 1846, and astrologers were doing interpretations solely based on the Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn until then. Pluto was discovered in 1930 and just a few years back, astronomers demoted it as a “dwarf planet”. In interpretation, they tell us less about the individual’s personality so much as the generation they are a part of and their relationship to their peers. I find that these planets are most significant when found directly conjunct, opposite, or 90 degrees from one of the inner planets in a chart.
For more specific information on each of the planets and what they signify, start with this basic article.
INTERPRETING PLANETS & SIGNS TOGETHER
Once you have a general sense of what each of the planets and the signs signify, you can get a sense of what it would mean to put them together. If a planet is the “noun” which tells you the subject of what you’re looking at, the sign is the “adjective” which flavors how it will be expressed.
For example, with Venus in Sagittarius, we know that we’re looking at how you love and what you value (Venus) and we know that we’re talking about adventure, fun, travel, living in the moment (Sagittarius). So, putting those two pieces of information, we know that you love traveling and adventure with your loved ones - Sag is a fire sign, so you likely value having fun experiences with a partner, and you want to expand your partner’s mind in some way. We know that Sagittarius is a mutable sign so Venus in Sag may not want to be tied down romantically, or maybe they change their mind about wanting a serious relationship or not. They may spend their money recklessly and try to measure experiences rather than money in a savings account or other more “practical” accomplishments.
Another way to categorize the relationship between your signs and your planets is by the concept of planetary dignity. Essential dignity refers to the relative strength or weakness of a particular planet in a sign, assigned categorically and based on how well their energies combine.
Planets that are found in the sign of their domicile (e.g. Mars in Aries) are typically strongest and most expressed in a birth chart.
Planets in detriment, the sign opposite the domicile (e.g. Mars in Libra, the sign opposite Aries), are weaker and expressed in a more negative or challenging way in the chart. These planets may end up becoming a hidden gift if you can learn to work with their energy!
Planets in the sign of their exaltation (e.g. Mars in Capricorn) are also well-expressed; they represent our active talents and assets.
Planets in fall, the sign opposite the exaltation (e.g. Mars in Cancer, the sign opposite Capricorn), are also expressed more weakly and problematically until their challenging nature is harnessed and used for good.
At this point, you can do/practice basic astrology. Congrats! Once you memorize the basic qualities of the signs and the planets and get comfortable putting them together, you’re in a great place. At this point, you can start adding in other pieces of interpretation like the planetary houses (the “adverb” to the planets’ “noun” and the signs’ “adjectives”), and the aspects (angles between the planets that represent conflict or harmony in a chart). Stay tuned for more on that soon, maybe here, maybe somewhere else…