If 'all the world's a stage' as Shakespeare famously put it, then the houses in Astrology are our very own Astrological stage where all the celestial drama plays out.
The houses, alongside the planets, zodiacal signs, and aspects, are one of the integral components in Astrological study and practice. It's commonly said that the planets tell us 'what' we're talking about and the zodiac signs describe 'how' it feels, with the aspects deftly explaining how certain planet-sign combinations interact, for good or for bad. The houses, however, have a singularly important purpose: they tell us 'where' it happens.
WHAT ARE THE HOUSES
The ancient Babylonian Astrologers were likely the first to use houses in Astrology but our first recorded evidence of the Astrological houses in use dates to 22 B.C.E. and was recorded in Manilius’ work Astronomica.
The houses in Astrology are 12 different segments in the Astrological chart, similar to slices of pie, which contain or embody particular areas of life activity. The houses are numbered one to twelve in a linear fashion, starting with the house of the Ascendant and continuing counter-clockwise until they finish with the 12th House; any zodiacal sign can rule any house.
The houses also act as the 'homes' of the planets in our natal charts, and the presence or absence of planets within the houses can help describe where we seek or deny the expression of that planet's intentions. Some houses have a nature that is more or less conducive to certain pursuits, as we'll discover.
Taken as a whole, the 12 houses successfully describe life as it truly is, full of rich experiences that are bleak, bountiful, and everything in between. While many will have certain houses of their natal chart more or less active, over time we experience the entire chart as we move through a cascade of Astrological transits and progressions.
When we begin to study the houses, we bring the planets down to Earth and into our lives. What was once out of reach - the planets, twinkling in the sky so very far away - can now be seen at play in our lives.
The Houses are unquestionably one of the more hotly debated elements of Astrological practice, and amongst professional Astrologers, the lines of division (pun intended) are quite strong.
Firstly, there is the issue of house division. Most Astrological sites have the Placidus house division as their default chart setting, and that usually means that many of us also first encounter our natal charts in Placidus. There are an endless variety of house divisions, including but not limited to Koch, Regiomontanus, Campanus, Porphyry, Equal signs, and Whole Houses. Some Astrologers consider one house division sacrosanct over all others, while many Astrologers switch and bait between house division systems as they see appropriate, using a certain system for natal charts and another for horary or mundane charts.
If you're new to Astrology and the use of house systems, I can only offer this one bit of advice: à la Goldilocks, just keep trying until something fits.
Secondly, there is an ever-widening gap between traditional and modern Astrologers and their understanding of the houses and their meanings. While I'm considerably democratic about house divisions and most applications of Astrological knowledge, I must admit it’s my opinion that the sanitizing hand of modernity has been not only inaccurate but also unkind to the Astrological houses. In example, while the 8th House may very well be transformational, it also involves physical death; the 12th House may certainly be a place of spiritual accomplishment, but it's likely to be wisdom won through abject pain and not pleasure. The more we remove 'uncomfortable' topics from the Astrological chart, the more we may inadvertently bypass the reality of life, which is at times painful or traumatic.
Lastly, the last 100 years of Astrological study has conflated the zodiacal signs with the houses, whereby Aries rules the 1st House, Taurus the 2nd House, Gemini the 3rd, and so on. There is much evidence to suggest the contrary, and while it's certainly a topic worthy of discussion, it's one I won't be entering into here. For more on this topic, I recommend a thorough reading of Deborah Houlding's must-have work 'Temples of the Sky.'
With all of that said, we're now we're ready to examine each house individually.
The 1st House – Life & Breath
The 1st House is potentially the most important house of the natal chart. The planets within this house, as well as its planetary ruler by sign and house, give invaluable insight to one's inherent, intuitive way of being, in addition to how we are most commonly perceived. This is the only house of the chart about just us - this is the space of me, myself, and I.
Significantly, this house holds the Ascendant, the point representing the Sun's daily rebirth. On a spiritual level, the Ascendant, or ‘horoskopos’ (hour-marker), is the moment a new soul starts out on its life journey. In ancient Astrology, the Ascendant was sometimes called the ‘helm’ and the Ascendant ruler ‘the steersman’; these points act as guides or help one navigate through life, successfully or unsuccessfully.
Planets in the 1st House are strongly felt and expressed, for good or for bad. Sometimes, these planets help describe our manner or appearance: Venus in the 1st folks may be particularly appealing in a Venusian way, while Saturn in the 1st may create a Saturnine, buttoned-up demeanor. The 1st House sign and ruler are also connected with one's sense of health and vitality.
1st House themes: how we are perceived, personality, our image, behavior or manner of being, health and vitality, one's general disposition, appearance, the body.
The 2nd House - The Gate of Hades
Traditionally referred to as the 'Gate of Hades,' one might ponder whether or not the ancients were warning us against the slippery seduction of materialistic pursuits.
The 2nd House is well known as the house of money, with the ruler of this house and the planets within it describing our financial capacities, or lack thereof, as well as our attitude towards money. It's handy to know when we approach the 2nd House that a 'talent' was once considered both a measure of moolah and weight, hence the modern associations between this house and one's talents and self-esteem, which is itself a valuable resource.
An active 2nd House may indeed imply financial fertility or an over-attachment to one's funds; transits to the 2nd House often test our understanding of our relationship between the material and non-material.
2nd House themes: money, assets, wealth, income, our resources, financial matters, how we earn our income (by house and ruler), 'moveable' assets (jewelry, etc.), self-worth, self-esteem, our talents, our money (vs. the 8th House and other's money).
The 3rd House - The House of the Goddess
The 3rd is frequently referred to as the best of the worst houses, and the worst of the best. As a cadent house, it’s not particularly powerful, but it lacks the negative associations of the other cadent houses, some of which involve illness and imprisonment.
Being that this house deals with siblings, it was explained to me like this by Demetra George: being that much of ancient life depended on your position relative to your siblings, the matter of brothers and sisters was oft-plagued with disconcerting situations. At the passing of the family head, brothers would need to compete for their place as patriarch, and amongst sisters, there was an unwritten rule that the eldest should marry first - particularly hard knocks if you're the last in line with an overly keen lover.
Otherwise, the 3rd House is really about one's daily environs. This part of the chart embodies the coffee shop you visit every morning and the park you pass every evening on your way home from work. 3rd House places and spaces are ones where we feel comfortably acclimated and familiar. With that safety in hand, we can be expressive, communicative, and easily engage with parts of our community.
Bonus: if you have your natal Moon here, you can rejoice in the knowledge that the Moon, the ancient symbol of the Goddess, is perfectly at home here, in her 'House of Joy.' Associations between the Moon and the 3rd House are many: the Moon travels short distances, lives in our celestial neighborhood, and the ancient Egyptian Moon God Thoth, who was associated with Mercury, was also the God of scribes.
3rd House themes: siblings, friends that feel like siblings, family members outside of the nuclear unit, aunts, uncles, cousins, extended family, one's community or culture, the neighborhood or local vicinity, short-distance travel, our daily commute, transportation, mundane knowledge, lower education (everything up to University), writing, communication, language, contracts, telephones, daily media (newspapers, magazines), rituals.
The 4th House - Lowest Heaven
Tolstoy famously said that "happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." By studying the 4th House, you can start uncovering your origin tale, and its singular brand of pleasure and pain. The 4th House is the roots of our chart: sitting at the bottom of the wheel, it not only touches the Earth itself but involves everything Earthly, such as land, and everything hidden below terra firma, as in the case of mining, oil, and minerals. Relatedly, the 4th House contains our roots too, in the form of the subconscious emotional landscape of our childhood home, our family dynamics, and particularly the father.
Planets here may be slightly less outwardly expressed than others. Home, after all, is a space where we are hidden away from public life; we are 'behind closed doors.' Accordingly, the 4th House contains the texture of our private lives, both in how it played out in our childhood and how we may wish to cultivate it for ourselves as we mature. A full 4th House may indicate a particularly potent connection to one's family story, ancestral lands, or home.
Aunties, uncles, cousins and the like, though they are most obviously family, are a 3rd House topic.
4th House themes: parents, the role of parents in our life, family, childhood and our experience of it, our ancestors and roots, grandparents, ancestral lands, home, houses, the sale and purchase of homes, land, the father and experience of the father, private life, 'the beginning and end of all things.'
The 5th House - Bona Fortuna
If you're aiming to drink too much, spend too much, shag too much, and regret nothing, welcome home. This is just your kind of place.
Unlike the 7th, which is a more formalized experience of relationship, the 5th House is where we let it all hang out and experiment with romantic entanglements just for fun (with a capital F). Equally, it should be noted that while some attribute sex - le petit mort - to the 8th House, sexual enjoyment and bodily pleasure sit altogether more comfortably in the 5th House than the 8th, which is known for its connection to actual death.
Indeed, this house was known as 'Bona Fortuna' (Good Fortune) or 'The House of Pleasure.' Perhaps the only danger to this house is too much of a good thing; a loaded 5th House or strong transit to the 5th can make us carelessly ramp up the good times, leaving us skint and spent. It is, however, a definitively creative and fertile section of the chart, so it's equally able to generate artistic output, as it is fervent escapism. Planets in the 5th can describe one's experience of conception, childbirth, and children.
Bonus: if you have your natal Venus here, you're in luck. In traditional Astrology, this is Venus' 'House of Joy,' appropriate seeing as it includes most of her favorite hobbies.
5th House themes: joy, pleasure, children, romance, sex (NSA), self-expression, creativity, art, creative projects, hobbies, sports, love for love's sake, fertility, gambling, games of risk, risky romance/sex, the stock market, pregnancy, holidays, entertainment, gifts, scandals, luxuries, indulgences, parties, sports, theatres, parks, and all places of pleasure/leisure.
The 6th House - Mala Fortuna
The 6th House, like other difficult parts of the birth chart, has undergone a significant repackaging of its wares. Originally the house of 'Mala Fortune', or Bad Fortune, the 6th was once the abode of a rather disagreeable assortment of topics, namely slavery and servitude, hard graft and poor health; today, it is often wrongly ascribed the role of health and work.
While health is sometimes attributed to the 6th, vitality in itself is better understood through the 1st House and its ruler, hence the Ascendant's role as the place of 'Life and Vital spirit of men,' according to the ancient Astrologer Firmicus Maternus. Technically, the 6th House does not connect to the Ascendant except by quincunx, a 150-degree aspect also known as 'aversion'; taken further, the nature of the 6th House is averse to the health of the person and more clearly represents the absence of vitality than its presence.
That said, in so much as challenges to the bodily system can generate a need to pursue better health in the form of daily maintenance - an exercise routine and healthy diet, perhaps - transits to and planets in the 6th House can indeed generate positive health outcomes in the long-term. The 6th's role in work, as opposed to one's career, a 10th House affair, is the daily efforts we make, step by step, putting in the hard yards that will eventually lead us towards accomplishment. It's not sexy, but it's what most of us know as reality: there are always errands to be run, clothes to be washed, mouths to be fed.
Pets and smaller animals also belong to the 6th House, owing to the fact that many animals were originally used in a service capacity: cats on a farm chasing down mice and dogs used on the hunt, for example.
Bonus: if you have your natal Mars here, you may be better placed than most to gather up Mars' warring ways for the good, being that this is his traditional 'House of Joy.' I have known a great many Mars in the 6th folks to serve others with all manner of sharp instruments, one of Mars' significations: hairdressers, tattoo artists, surgeons, and acupuncturists, to name just a few.
6th House themes: work (vs. career, a 10th House matter), service, slavery, servitude, the daily grind, day-to-day tasks, menial or mundane work, errands, and tasks, accidents, illness, abuses of power, injuries, health regimens, health/healing, the health industry, infirmity, employees, domestic help, those who work underneath you or whom you manage, physicians and doctors, animals and pets, housework and chores.
The 7th House - House of the Descendant
Whereas the 5th House holds no-strings-attached paramours, here we are more likely to encounter marriage partners or longer-term arrangements in love or business.
And who said the ancients didn't have a sense of humor? In the 7th House, we also find ‘open enemies,’ those folks who we can clearly identify from afar as our adversaries.
However quaintly we may regard the ancient Astrologers from our modern pedestal, they obviously knew more than enough about the reality of romantic attachment to understand that these engagements hold both pleasure and pain, and further, that however much we project all of our fuzzy, rose-goggled visions onto others, that sooner or later reality comes bursting in via betrayals, insults, and challenges.
Some of the saltier interpretations of this house are due to long-standing correlations between the ancient Egyptians, their worship of the Sun, and the horizon line shown by the Ascendant and Descendant. In the 1st House, and more specifically, at the Ascendant, the Sun rises: Ra, the Sun God, lives again and mankind is safe. Yet in the 7th House, which contains the Descendant, the Sun disappears below the horizon at sunset, and Ra embarks once again on his heroic journey to slay Apophis, his Underworld foe - hence, the connection to enemies.
7th House themes: marriage, marriage partners, committed long-term romantic partners, business partners, enemies (specifically, known enemies), our experience of 'the other,' our experience of the 'not self,' what we project onto others, opposing forces, energies given to others.
The 8th House - Epicataphora
The Greek term for the 8th House, Epicataphora, meaning 'falling down into the Underworld' represents the Sun's path in the sky as it sinks towards the horizon, which many ancient cultures feared was the death of their solar God; death is still the primary meaning of the 8th House.
Many modern Astrologers relate the 8th House as a point of evolution or transformation, perhaps pulling on from the association with death and expanding it to include a subsequent rebirth. While this may be philosophically accurate on some level, given that soul expansions often follow traumatic contractions, there is no way around it: this is not a happy house and rebirth does not always follow death.
Even at its best, the 8th House is still a challenging part of the chart. Covering everything from our deepest fears to the harshest abuses of power, our connection to the 8th House and the planets within it describe our relationship to loss.
Transits to and planets within the 8th may be particularly disturbing, but for some, these raw experiences may be just the ticket: doulas, healers, and psychopomps of any form may gain considerable skill for their crafts via the 8th House.
Although no planet in the 8th House is particularly happy, the waxing Moon was said to be fertile for financial affairs.
8th House themes: death, mental anguish, vagaries of the mind, anxieties, fear and negotiation of loss, mental afflictions, the raw and primal emotional landscape, inheritances (both financial and emotional), financial support of one's spouse or business partner, other people's money, collective resources, debts, loans, taxes, abuses of power, sexual violations, the occult.
The 9th House - The House of God
The 9th House is all about long-distance journeys, whether those happen out on the high seas or deep within our hearts.
This house is full of life-enhancing, boundary-bursting experiences that take us beyond the mundane and right into the heart of life's greatest questions. Who are we? What is God? And, what is the purpose of human life?
Many roads lead to Rome: some will seek the answers sitting in a pew, while a few will strike out for foreign lands in search of the same; still, others will explore the depths of the soul from within the confines of the library. However this wisdom is sought, the 9th House's aspectual relationship to the 1st House suggests that the expansive pursuits of the 9th may engender personal growth.
At its worst, an afflicted 9th House can lead to the shadow side of beliefs in the form of dogma or cult-like devotion to a higher power; some charts may instead demonstrate nihilism and an aversion to these topics.
Bonus: if your natal Sun is here it may be ultra shiny and happy, as this is the 'House of Joy' for the Sun.
9th House themes: religion, churches and the clergy, spirituality of all kinds, University level and higher education, higher wisdom, foreign and long-distance travel, foreign people, dreams, visions, Astrology, beliefs, divination, meditation, mystic pursuits, grand mysteries, the journey of the guru or spiritual seeker, lawyers, publishing, the unfamiliar.
The 10th House - Mesuranima
The 10th House is arguably the strongest house of the chart, second perhaps only to the 1st House.
Here again, the importance of the Sun to the ancient Astrologers cannot be underestimated: as the Sun rises in the 1st house, it reaches maximum height and brightness at the 10th House, which represents the midday Sun's blinding power at high noon.
Beyond its most common association with career, the 10th House is how we present in public: are we dynamic, admired, resented, scandalized? Whether for good or for bad, this house is a place of high visibility, and with visibility comes admiration - or condemnation. The business of this house is to take the pre-existing 4th House foundations and build towards an independent public profile, cobbled together through our actions and interactions.
Understandably, one's reputation was previously earned in part by one's family (and in many societies, still is), thus the relationship between this house and one's mother: while the father might be responsible for carrying the family name, it is the mother's indiscretions who can undo them in an instant.
Although no planets have their joy here, strongly placed planets can bring career success or social standing, while afflicted planets can deny the same.
10th House themes: career (vs. everyday work), our desire for career success, reputation, honors, awards, prizes, power, leaders and kings, judges and the law, authority, employers, public appreciation, recognition, being in the public eye, social standing, fame/infamy, distinction, the mother, what we inherit from the mother.
The 11th House - Good Spirits
Jean-Paul Sartre said 'Hell is other people' - clearly he was not an 11th House kind of guy.
Traditionally known as the 'House of Good Spirits,' the 11th House is a part of the chart where we forge social connections with others. While the 11th is most commonly associated with friendships, this house also involves the greater network of acquaintances and the contacts one amasses throughout life.
The 11th is a very hopeful house: through the study of its ruler and the planets within it, we may understand our approach to friends, groups, and clubs, as well as our relationship to hope itself. And while the 11th House is ultimately a pleasant part of the chart, afflicted planets found here can deny lasting friendships, create painful experiences within group settings, or generate hopelessness.
Humanitarianism, communes, and collective activism also belong to this house.
Bonus: Jupiter's presence in this part of the chart may be particularly joyful and lucky, even by old Jove's standards, as this is his traditional 'House of Joy.'
11th House themes: friends, benefactors, beneficial fate, groups, our social network, stepchildren and other people's children, hopes, aspirations, activism, groupthink, collectively-focused groups or hopes, clubs and societies, allies, helpers, parliament and Congress, the 'king's court', powerful people and VIPs, support, freedom, assistance.
The 12th House - Bad Spirits
As the Sun rises out of the 1st House at daybreak, it next enters the 12th House. Any planets here disappear behind the incoming rays of the Sun; similarly, the 12th House is a place of all things hidden or clandestine. That may involve being hidden away from society altogether, as the 12th is connected to all matter of isolation, like prisons and asylums.
The 12th House ruler and planets within it also touch upon the things we hide from others, like addictions and illicit compulsions, or those things that lie out of reach even for ourselves, like subconscious patterns of self-sabotage.
Audre Lord said it best: "The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house." This is a part of the chart best negotiated via deep-trawling techniques like Jungian therapy and Shamanic healing, or at the minimum, with a worthy psychopomp-cum-vizier by your side.
Like the 6th and 8th Houses, the 12th House has been refashioned in modern times to incorporate softer topics like dreams and mysticism, but even the most cursory reading of the 12th House throughout history will lead one to understand the true nature of this house, which is that of trial and tribulation.
Bonus: Saturn in this part of the natal chart may help you compartmentalize and overcome pains produced by the 12th House, as this is Chronos' traditional 'House of Joy.'
12th House themes: retreat, isolation, imprisonment, incarceration, institutionalization, poverty, suffering, addictions, illness, the 'self undoing', self-destructive tendencies, paranoia, hidden enemies, hidden pain, secrets, the subconscious, karma (or things we perceive as karmic), detrimental fate, depth psychology, shadow work, the path of the Bodhisattva, step-parents.Recommended works for further reading:
The Houses: Temple of the Sky by Deborah Houlding
Astrology & the Authentic Self by Demetra George
A History of Horoscopic Astrology by James Holden