Anatomy of an Aspect
Updated: Jul 26, 2020
Today, I'd like to talk about aspects in the astrological chart. Aspects are angles that are formed when two planets are considered relative to one another. They are an easy concept to understand astronomically, but in my opinion, quite a difficult one to master in terms of interpretation. The reason for this has to do with the fact that aspects are an advanced concept relying upon the understanding of a large number of smaller concepts that must be learned beforehand. Yet, in most astrological instruction, aspects are one the earliest things to be taught to new students, who are told to "blend" the meaning of planets in aspect, as one might with paint colors, without much attention to what the actual angle is contributing to such delineations or how much the planet's placement by sign, house or degree might be shaping these interpretations. To be fair, it is extremely difficult -- if not impossible -- to "blend" all involved factors, each symbolizing disparate meanings, into coherent delineations without first acquiring a clear grasp of the unique function of each of those factors.
In this post, I will attempt to describe how the various concepts involved, contribute to the overall picture given by the aspect. Because I want to speak in some detail and cover a few lesser known concepts, I'll need to assume you are familiar with the basics of chart terminology, as well as house and sign symbolism. But I'll go slowly and try to explain things in enough detail. If we were doing a generic psychological interpretation, we could probably take any aspect from any celebrity chart as an example and confirm our findings in a biography. But because I want to show you that aspects are actually very rich in detail and also tell an external story, I will have to rely on a chart that I know more intimately: my own.
Let's start simply with the two planets we want to focus on: the Sun and Saturn. I'll briefly outline the standard approach before I diverge from it. I have removed all other planets so as to avoid distraction; but have retained Mercury, since it is in the same degree as the Sun and therefore will play a role in our interpretation (but more on this later). To begin with, you will notice that the Sun is at 5 degrees and 40 minutes of Gemini,while Saturn is at 28 degrees and 02 minutes of Pisces. If we count how far ahead in the Zodiac the Sun has traveled from Saturn (counting counterclockwise from Saturn, it is the smaller angle between them), we find that it is 22 degrees and 22 minutes short of a forming a 90 degree angle to Saturn. The 90 degree (square) angle is considered to be a "powerful" angle. In fact, the 60 (sextile), 90 (square), 120 (trine), and 180 (opposition) degree angles are all considered important, each in their own particular ways. Zero degrees (conjunction) between the planets is also powerful, but considered slightly differently from an aspect. But all of these angles are known as "Ptolemaic aspects" (after Claudius Ptolemy).
Now, some students of medieval and modern astrology are taught that if the two planets are too distant from those Ptolemaic angular degrees, they may be past the point where any influence is noticeable. The problem is that there is a considerable debate among those astrologers, about how close to those positions two planets actually have to be to have any affect on each other. In other words, is 22 degrees distance from a square (i.e. 90 degree separation) too far for the Sun and Saturn to be "influencing" one another? With regard to this debate, I follow an approach that comes from the Hellenistic tradition. We do not consider the influence of aspects to depend upon their degree, but rather upon their signs. Thus, planets that are 4 signs apart -- regardless of degree -- are considered in square aspect to each other. Since Gemini and Pisces are 4 signs apart, then Sun and Saturn in this chart are considered to be square one another.
The Planets Involved Aside from making the calculations much easier, this idea that it is the signs that are in aspect, has an important bearing upon the way we interpret planets in them. But before we get into the role of the signs, let's establish the essence of these two planets. For my students, I teach that planets are pure dynamic form and that they always represent a type of action or change. They are NOT objects or topics found in the world, they are inner dynamics that when externalized, will shape or be embodied by the material world. Each planet is associated with a principle (these originate largely from the work of Robert Schmidt). The Sun's principle has to do with selection. Think of the Sun as a strong beam of light that emanates from a narrow source that can be controlled, not unlike a flashlight or a laser beam. As it does so, it makes certain objects stand out from others by virtue of being embraced by that light. Therefore, everything that we've come to associate with the Sun, is in one way or another reflective of that process of standing out or being selected from among other things. Thus, we can imagine the will to choose, as a psychological function allowing us to select from life's options; or honors awarded, as a recognition allowing one to stand out from others in some endeavor; or kings and leaders, as those who stand out from others in order to make decisions in our name, etc. When the Sun is activated in a chart by some timing method, generally-speaking, it indicates that the decision-making function is activated in us or in others who's choices might impact upon us.
Saturn has been described by the Babylonians as the "Sun of the night". And while there is debate over what this actually means, this description works well with the principle that Schmidt used to describe Saturn: necessity. Just like the Sun is absent at night, necessity can be restated as the absence of choice. And because it is the slowest moving traditional planet, it describes a dynamic process that is quite slow in the making. Therefore, when Saturn activates in our charts, we are confronted with the act of making a long-term commitment to something, not because it was selected from among a basket of good options, but because there were constraints and a strong necessity in doing so. Saturn is often believed to bring "obstacles and roadblocks" because of this compulsory or restrictive quality to its process, particularly when it is embodied by others who bring it into our lives.
You can see that the meaning of these planets is almost contradictory in nature, making them quite difficult to "blend" together into a coherent description. "Blending" is not the best way to work with planets in aspect. In cookbook interpretations of what are considered "negative" Sun-Saturn combinations (that is, the square or opposition aspects), Saturn is judged to psychologically dampen all that the Sun stands for: one's will, self-expression and ego, are made more difficult or painful. In more "positive aspects" (i.e. conjunctions, sextiles or trines) Saturn is judged to contribute its strengths to the personality or ego: the native is made more responsible, hard-working and mature. And while these psychological or personality-driven interpretations are not incorrect per se, they don't really tell us what happens when these aspects are activated in the outer life under different circumstances. In other words, what happens when the Sun directs to the exact square with Saturn? Do we see an expression of a weakened will or ego? What about when Saturn conjuncts the natal Sun by direction? Do we experience a situation that calls for greater responsibility? The problem with character-driven interpretations is that they are static and do not contemplate how these planetary principles can be used by us in shaping our LIVES. Static, internalized views of the planets can too easily turn us into victims of their "actions". To understand the planets as dynamic principles that transcend the individual, we need to understand the factors in the chart that describe the outer world in greater detail.
So let's look at a factor that functions like a go-between the inner (of the individual psyche) and outer (of the individual life) worlds: the signs. As I've mentioned in the past, the signs represent needs and have a compensatory function. That means that they address the lack of something in the outer world that is required, desired or useful. We can symbolically see that it is something in the outer world because the sign delimits the region of a house, that is, the terrain or landscape of the outer world (albeit as it is represented within the mind through symbol). Therefore, the sign makes a statement about the lack of something present in a particular region of our lives. This perceived lack, becomes the impetus for the action undertaken by the planet that has domicile dominion over that sign. Said another way, a planet acts in order to fulfill the need shown by the sign over which it rules by domicile. Thus, the Sun acts to fulfill the need shown by Leo, its domicile; and Saturn acts to fulfill the needs shown by Capricorn and Aquarius, its two traditional domiciles.
Now let's examine what those sign needs are and how they signal a lack in the terrains in which we find them. In terms of its seasons, Leo is the sign that marks a time, primarily during adolescence, for identity-formation. Identity or self-concept often consists of cultural, occupational and physical components. Thus, wherever we find Leo, we find the lack of clear identity becoming the motivational source of solar activity. When Leo is on the cusp of the 1st, the need to clearly define one's own identity will become the main issue driving the will and decision-making capacities of the Sun. Since this Sun is placed in the 10th house, we know decisions about one's occupation will play a large role in trying to fulfill the need for self-identity. But it is also in the 11th house's sign; that means the 11th and 10th overlap because of this planet and must therefore be read together. So we get the Sun making decisions about occupational affiliations and friends. (This is a very basic delineation, there is far more in this Sun's position which I will get into shortly. For now, I just want to draw a functional sketch of a planet's relationship to its domicile.)
Capricorn signals a developmental stage of life in our 60s. It is a time for the end of work when we evaluate our life's public achievements, successes, and that which we want to leave as a legacy after we're gone. It is also a time for accepting our past failures and limitations. Wherever we find Capricorn, we perceive a need for accomplishment of desired goals. It is a perceived lack of accomplishment that drives Saturn to make long-term commitments to that which it judges to be a necessity. When Capricorn is on the 6th, one perceives a strong need to accomplish one's ambitions and goals through work and service. These are not occupational goals (as in the 10th), these are accomplishments with regard to one's daily tasks.
But Saturn also acts in order to fulfill Aquarian needs. Aquarius signals the next phase of life (67-73), when we examine what we have retained in terms of social connections. Aquarius is a sign of universal love and sociability, but it is experienced at a time when many seniors may lose spouses or friends and experience solitude and often loneliness. As compensation, the sign indicates a need for social inclusion. Where you find it, is often a place where one works hard to try to overcome some sort of social division or isolation, whether that is within the family circle or outside of it in the larger society. With Aquarius in the 7th, there is a perceived need for inclusion in one's relationships. But because Saturn rules both the 6th and the 7th, the lack of colleagues or working relationships may become an issue during times when Saturn is particularly active. And since Saturn is in the natal 8th, it will make its longest lived working relationships through commitments in places where we find the resources of others or where we find our anxieties and obsessions (click for more details on interpreting the 8th house). [I should add that the two principal career paths that I was exposed to were in psychology and banking, both of which involved the 8th house.]
So to summarize, we have seen that this Sun is trying to fulfill issues of personal identity by making decisions regarding my occupational affiliations, that is, who I associate with through my occupation. Saturn is trying to fulfill the need for accomplishment and inclusion through daily working relationships. Even though these planets are very different, they will become active during situations involving decisions and commitments about working with others.
The Aspect in Action
Now the best way to see the essence of an aspect, is not by looking at it statically in a natal chart. It is by examining when this aspect actually activates in the life. But how do we know when that is? After examining various timing methods, I've found that the best way to do this is to direct the planets to a position that completes the aspect to the exact degree. [I do this by using a system of directions known in the literature as circumambulations or Ascensional Degree directions. I use my own calculations, but you can calculate yours online here.] With ascensional timing, the actual rate of motion varies depending on which signs the planet is moving through. But on average, we are allotting a 1 degree per year symbolic rate of motion. That means that if we direct the Sun, it will reach 28 of Gemini, forming a partile (meaning to the exact degree, but not necessarily minute) square to natal Saturn, in September of 1987.
In the summer of 1987, I had left a full-time job as a teller in a bank so that I could attend college. But my parents could not afford to pay for my school, so I needed to keep working. I decided that I would try to find a job in a bank that would allow me a flexible schedule. It so happened that a friend of mine had previously worked in a bank that was looking for bi-lingual employees and that liked to hire part-time students as tellers. In September, I applied and was hired immediately. I ended up working with other students with whom I made life-long friendships. (I'm disclosing quite a bit of detail about this event, because some of these details will become apparent in a more detailed analysis of this aspect below.)
Getting back to our earlier interpretations of the planets, we recall that one of those Saturn in the 8th interpretations posited a need to make a long-term commitment to a place holding other's resources (such as a bank). In this case, the necessity, constraint, or lack of choice in the matter was elicited by the need to pay for college. And this commitment would be made in the service of fulfilling the need to achieve an employment goal (6th Capricorn). The interpretation of the Sun in the 11th also stated that I would be making a decision about my occupational affiliations and/or friends. And that this decision would be made in order to fulfill a need to shape my identity. There are more specifics embedded in the angle involved between them. For example, we have not yet addressed the signs in which the planets are themselves located. Before we do that, we need to examine what we know about the delineation of angles themselves before we look at this angle in particular.
Angle is Place
I briefly mentioned above that in modern astrology aspects are often classified into "difficult" or "easy" categories based upon their angles. In traditional astrology, aspects are categorized as difficult or easy based upon whether malefic or benefic planets are involved. In this case, the involvement of Saturn (a malefic planet) would make this aspect a challenging one. The reality is that the "hard" angles (i.e. squares or oppositions) have little to do with the level of difficulty of a situation. And while Saturn and Mars can be difficult planets to experience, their involvement in aspects also does not always indicate a difficult event. Certainly, I did not consider my decision to find part-time work to be particularly challenging nor did that decision turn into an obstacle.
So how should we interpret the nature of an aspect? First, we need to realize that an angle (when based upon sign distances) is just the zodiacal space that exists between two planets in motion relative to each other. That space, when projected onto the earth, is no different than the space occupied by the signs over the houses. So angle is no different than place and can in fact be interpreted in the same way that we count and interpret the houses in a chart. In other words, if the Sun is in an opening square to Saturn (that is, it is 4 signs ahead of Saturn in zodiacal order), than it is also 4 places from Saturn's place. [This concept necessarily implies the use of whole-sign or equal house systems. Any quadrant house system (such as Placidus or Regiomontanus) will not work with this approach to aspect delineation.] Knowing that Saturn is located in the 8th sign (Pisces) and Sun is located in the 11th sign (Gemini), we can restate this from the point of view of the moving planet -- the Sun -- as the 11= 4 of (or from) 8; or said another way: The place of friends that is selected is also the physical property of the bank.
However, the Sun's placement is not just 4 signs ahead of Saturn. If we continue to count forward around the chart -- from Gemini back to Pisces -- we find that the Sun is also 10 sign-places behind Saturn. If we write this from the perspective of Saturn, we get 8 =10 of (or from)11. If we delineate that, we get that the bank we commit to, is also the place of business or of the occupation of a friend. Indeed, the bank which I selected as a place to work in ended up being a place of friends in two ways: it was a place where an existing friend had previously been employed, but it was also the place where I encountered new friendships that still exist today. Although this is an eerily clear description of the circumstances involving a major September 1987 event, we should not look upon it simply as a bit of clever wordplay with derivative houses. We should understand what is happening conceptually because it gives us a better insight into the symbolic dynamics of the chart. So what is the larger picture here? All aspects are segments of a larger cycle between two planets. We tend to focus on the smaller angle up to 180 degrees. But there are actually two angles at play in the cycle. The start of the motion always begins from the place of the natal planet, which we can envision as the static placement, since the natal planet is "frozen in time", so to speak. In our example Saturn's is the place where we start the cycle and where the drive for the motion arises. It is here where the sign of the planet's placement becomes important. So how do we delineate Pisces in the 8th? Pisces is the sign of the last years of a person's life (roughly 73-80). During this time, we become more limited by our bodies and there arises the need to transcend our physical limitations. This idea of transcending limitations is present in the knot that binds the two fish, who are symbolically trying to swim away in opposite directions from that binding. The object of transcendence is shown by the house where we find Pisces. When we find Pisces on the 8th, we encounter the need to transcend the limitations arising from the resources that others possess. In my case, I was limited by my family's inability to finance my schooling. In the case of the bank, they are limited from receiving other accounts, by their lack of employees. At that start, Saturn finds itself in a place where it is forced to make a commitment to the bank because of those limitations. But its ultimate goal is to become included into a working relationship or employment (Capricorn 6th and Aquarius 7th). This is the real motivating drive of this aspect and the source of the action found in the solar placement. In other words, the placement and condition of the natal planet tells us the starting condition that will propel a response from the "moving" planet.
So let's look at the moving planet in terms of that cycle. We can think of the Sun as "a decision-making entity" that "sees" (the word "aspect" comes from the Latin, aspectare, which means to "see") the planetary situation in the 8th, and then seeks out a solution by traversing some terrain until it comes to a potential option -- in this case, in Gemini, in the 11th. Here, the Sun "stops" and decides to take action. The terrain traversed consists of a distance of 4 signs/places. As we've seen, it is a derived 4th place that belongs to (that is, "arises or comes from") the 8th. [House derivation is an important technique that is used widely in our linguistic approach. We will have more to say on this in the future.] But dynamically, this part of the planet's cycle represents the "seeking" part. You may think of it as the part where the planet is looking for a viable solution, which it finds in the house where it is located when it perfects the aspect to Saturn. In this case, the decider found possible employment in the physical property of the bank (4 from 8) where I also find friends, (since that = the 11th). I'm unsure whether this is 11th because my friend used to work there, or because I would find new friends there -- perhaps it reflects both. Gemini describes the need encountered in this place. In the 11th, it represents a need for communication and learning from friends or colleagues. As I mentioned, many of the other tellers that worked in the bank were students, but all retail work is itself a Mercurial function (the word "merchant" having its root with Mercury). What is most interesting, is that we often encounter a dual aspect in the place where we find Gemini. In this case, the bank served a primarily ethnic community and many of the tellers -- myself included -- were in fact hired because we were bi-lingual and thus, had a need to communicate in two languages! A side note about Mercury: It is located natally at the same degree as the Sun, which means that it will direct at the same rate as the Sun. Therefore, when the Sun aspects Saturn, Mercury will also be doing the same thing. And since Mercury represents the need to communicate ad learn, it signifies that the desire to go learn and communicate was not only very much tied to this decision (I wanted to study Journalism), but it will always be tied to all my identity-building decisions.
The last section of the cycle is shown by the angle that comes from the Sun's place back to Saturn's place. In this case it is given by the formula 8 =10 from 11, and depicts the bank as the occupation place arising from the place of my friends. Remember that the Sun's ultimate agenda is to shape my identity. Here, the occupation that derives from this place shapes my identity, both as a teller, but also as a member of this Portuguese community. (Remember the 11th is the 4th from the 8th. It is a bank rooted in a specific land.) Dynamically this angle represents the outcome that arises from the action taken by "the seeking planet". In other words, it is what we "see" arising out of the Sun's action. Having a 10th place angle become equal to the 8th tells us that we will find my occupation in an 8th house place (such as a bank) as the result of this decision.
1. Interpreting an aspect in a natal chart by simply "blending together" the basic meanings of each planet involved, and applying them internally to the person whose chart you are looking at, will only achieve a limited and static impression of a person's psychology. It will tell you nothing about how a person may have evolved or changed over the years away from that birth tendency, nor will it tell you how that aspect may manifest in the life when it is activated. Aspects (and for that matter the chart as a whole) do not represent "energies" within us. Aspects are imprinted templates indicating change that we (and the world) creatively participate in.
2. Aspects contain a formal essence, shown by the planets, and a material composition, shown by the signs, houses and cycles. As such, they can and should be externalized
onto the life, rather than just interpreted in terms of their impact upon the native's character or psyche. But to interpret them correctly on an external level, one must master these other factors first.
3. Some planets in aspect are not better or worse than others, despite their traditional categorization as "benefic" and "malefic". Yes, some planetary principles are more pleasant than others. But they are pure essences and we need to creatively employ all of them in our lives, as needed. Contrary to the static character view of a chart, they are not always active; they are activated by different situations and circumstances depending upon when their "seasons" roll around. At some times and under some situations, we require one "tool", while at other times we require another tool. Familiarity is what makes a planetary essence more or less easy to work with. Like Tom Hanks in Castaway, if you live your life as a workaholic, under constant deadlines, and emotionally uncommitted, you will do well in isolation on a deserted island because you will already be very familiar with the essence of Saturn.
4. Angles are not "hard" or "soft". Angles are segments of a cycle of a specific type of change indicated by the formal essence of the planets. The opening segment (i.e. from slower planet to faster planet; or in timing methods: from natal planet to moving planet) represents the "seeking" portion of the cycle, when the planet looks for a situation to help resolve its need. The closing segment (i.e. from faster planet back to the slower planet; or in timing methods: from moving planet back to the natal planet) represents the outcome created from the action of that "seeking" planet.
5. The best way to test out a natal aspect is to see it activate within a moment in time. Hellenistic directions carry the largest impact and are reliable in their effects. Therefore, they are a great way to test natal aspects in action.