Interpreting the Natal 8th House (Part 1)
Updated: Sep 30
Difficult to Interpret Series
In today's article in this series, we'll look at the 8th house of a natal chart and break down its components in order to get a sense of how to approach it. In Part 1, we'll examine the historical and modern meanings of this house and set up some syntactical rules for interpreting the signs, rulers, and any planets in this house. In Part 2, we'll see how this plays our in some chart examples.
Historical and Modern Significations of the 8th House
Let's start with what the 8th house of a chart signified for some authors in antiquity.
In Paulus: "The 8th is called the Idle Place since it is inharmonious and unconnected from the Horoskopos.".."The 8th place which we called the Idle, this one signifies different matters in life according to the stars occupying the place. It also signifies the reckoning about death. for if there are benefics here, they give inheritances and profits from fatal occasions." [He goes on to describe different planets in the 8th, most of them engendering bad luck according to the nature of the planets placed there.]
In Maternus: "This house is called Epicatafora. It is, however, a passive house, since it is not in aspect to the ascendant. From this house is discovered the kind of death. But it is necessary for us to know that no planet rejoices in this house except the Moon, and then only in nocturnal charts. If the waxing Moon is found in this house in a nocturnal chart, and if she is not in aspect to any unfavorable planets, and if Jupiter is in trine or sextile aspect to her in her own sign or in the sign of Venus or Mercury or Jupiter, or in the terms of any of these planets, this portends the greatest good fortune and riches beyond measure, great glory of material power and outstanding recognition in worldly position.
In Ibn-Ezra: "The eighth house denotes death and inheritance and loans, separation, grief, and loss. The 1st ruler of the triplicity denotes death; the second anything ancient; and the third, inheritances."
In Al-Biruni: "death and its causes, murder, poisoning, evil effects of drugs on the body, inheritance, wife's property, expenditure, poverty, extreme indigence, feigning death."
While there is some variation from author to author, in general, the 8th house seems to be connected to death or to material gains connected to death. Often, resources or wealth belonging to the "wife" are also mentioned in this house, but we can assume that a spouse or partner in general is meant, since we are obviously dealing with a derived meaning that comes from the fact that the 8th house is the 2nd house (of money and resources) from the 7th (of spouse or partner). It was just that most readings in antiquity were probably given to men, thus their 7th house was usually "the wife".
The name of this house as the Idle Place in Hellenistic sources, can be traced all the way back to Sumeria, a fact that most historians of astrology ignore, since they assume that the meaning of the houses must post-date the first recorded appearance of the use of an Ascendant in Hellenistic Egypt. However, in Babylonian astrology, the calendar months were conceived of as having both a terrestrial and astral component as early as the mid 2nd millennium B.C.E., centuries before the Zodiac was even in use. In fact, you don't need to create a house system to understand the Sun's trajectory over terrestrial space throughout the year and to connect it with months. This is one of the oldest, most universal and most significant "astrological" concepts that mankind has ever devised. And nowhere is it best illustrated as symbolic astrology, than in the Epic of Gilgamesh (for more on this, see my presentation on the terrestrial astrology in the Gilgamesh Epic from UAC 2010). In Sumeria, the 8th month of the calendar was called Apin.Du.A, which meant "The month the seed plow is let go". Cohen (The Cultic Calendars of the Ancient Near East) says this was the month when work in the fields was completed, the plow was put up, and no festivals were held. As in the Hellenistic 8th place name, this month was considered "an idle time." And in fact, in tablet 8 (of 12) of the Gilgamesh story, after many months of adventuring, our hero comes to a halt, holds a funeral for his deceased companion, Enkidu (who, not coincidentally dies in tablet 7), and strips off his clothes to wander the dessert while obsessing about his own mortality (the numbering is not an accident, as each tablet corresponds symbolically to a month and place). During the burial he lists all of the valuable gifts that will be buried alongside his departed friend. This listing of Enkidu's burial gifts is quite long and significant because it seems out of place in the larger narrative. It is almost as if it was added there to make a point. Thus, some of the same astrological 8th house themes of idleness, death and material wealth belonging to a companion and linked to death are mentioned in the 8th tablet of this very old story.
Now that we have an idea of how far back these traditional 8th house themes come from, let's take a look at what modern astrology has to say about this house. From wikipedia we read:
"The eighth house stands for metamorphic processes in a person's life - for example, times of crisis which cause changes on a fundamental level. This house is associated with death which can also be understood as a metamorphic process; however, it does not indicate the time of death. "Metamorphosis" can mean: from the depths of sexuality with its spiritual aspects, during which the "I" merges with the other, to all other processes in which a person is forced to relinquish something or someone forever. The sign on the cusp of the eighth house together with any planets placed within it indicate how an individual will come to terms with the endless process of 'Dying and Becoming'. The eighth house indicates the type of bonds we form after the initial encounter which takes place in the seventh house, while touching on taboo themes and the deeper motives behind our actions, too. The eighth house is also concerned with what we inherit – both spiritually and materially (including any kind of financial inheritance)."
Again, there is some variation by author, but in general, this house is thought of as the house of sex, death and taxes. The traditional emphasis on death has been psychologized into a metamorphic inner process (echoes of Pluto's supposed modern rulership of Scorpio) and in most modern authors, the process of cathartic growth is said to be shown by this house. While some authors of a less pragmatic bent have turned material inheritances into "spiritual ones", this is not common and we still see many modern authors referring to this house as a house of debts, banks, insurance, material inheritances and other forms of monies in the possession of other people. Again, this is because we are dealing with the 2nd house from the 7th. It is unclear where "the bonds we form" come from, since we form bonds with different people in lots of different houses, but in particular the 7th. However, sex is a theme that is frequently invoked as a part of this house, probably initially because of Scorpio's traditional connection with the private parts, although other more speculative explanations, such as the above one, abound. This is despite the fact that traditionally, sex was always associated with the 5th house because Venus was said to have her joy in the 5th. [The planetary joys, which date back to Babylon, actually play an important role in the history of the meanings of the houses, as is apparent in the telling of the Gilgamesh story. But this is a topic we don't have time to get into here. I recommend Chris Brennan's paper, where he discusses the topic of the planetary joys in connection with the house meanings.) No planet has its joy in the 8th house, so we have to look elsewhere for our clues.
Having done this abbreviated historical overview, we can now get into what the charts empirically appear to be showing most reliably about this house. Our aim is to simplify interpretation, without losing any consistency and reliability. We want to focus on a core meaning that will serve us in interpreting as many charts as possible. First, let's start by ruling out sex as part of the core significations of the 8th. Every sign has a correspondence with a part of the body. But these biological significations were designed to be used in medical readings. Sex, to the extent that it is a pleasurable experience, is often seen in the 5th house of the chart, not the 8th. However, to the extent that sex does exist in the life as a source of anxiety or obsession, it may be testified about to in the 8th, although it is not historically a part of this house's meanings.
Now let's tackle the subject of death, since modern astrology tends to shy away from it. While we can confirm that this house does often come up when death is present in the life of the native, it is NOT the case that we can delineate the native's own death from this house. I have studied many death charts to try to confirm the native's manner of death and its timing through this house and have not found any reliable evidence attesting to this.
I have argued elsewhere that houses are actually umbrella categories for many things. The key is to discern the broader category under which these topics fit. Empirically, this house is indeed connected to anxiety, grief, loss, and most especially obsessions. In the Babylonian epic, Gilgamesh becomes tormented and obsessed with his friend's death in the 8th tablet, and it is this obsession that launches him into the 2nd half of his narrative journey. The metamorphic cathartic process that modern astrology describes cannot in fact take place without first understanding the loss, grief, obsession or anxiety that is described under this house. In fact, this house seems to consistently describe the single largest mental preoccupation that a native will carry throughout his life. Geographically, it is connected with the northwestern part of the chart, which in Babylonian geography corresponded to the dessert, which they believed to be inhabited by demons. It is for this reason that Gilgamesh strips naked and runs through the dessert like a haunted madman. He is plagued by his inner demons. So too, in natal charts, this house often describes our own inner demons, fears or the obsessions that haunt us and wreck turmoil in our life. Most inner demons are not as dramatic as Gilgamesh's. Most of us carry on and can live fairly normal lives even while we carry our own brand of specific inner issues. So let's talk about the other interpretation of the 8th house that IS often also outwardly apparent: money. The 8th is a money house, but it is opposite the 2nd. Thus, whatever monies it describes, are resources that are not in the native's current physical possession, even if they do belong to him/her. And in fact, we can see all sorts of financial instruments and places come up in the 8th such as banks, debts, loans, insurance, inheritances, investments, unrealized income, etc.
Now, one thing that is interesting, is that even when the 8th shows us the demons we carry, they are often intimately tied to resources that are in the hands of others. This makes total sense, since the 8th does not stop being the 2nd from the 7th, even while it is showing us our own demons. [I will point this out when we look at example charts in Part 2 of this post. ]
The Dynamics of a House: its Sign, Ruler and Planets in it
We now turn to the technical section of this exercise. Interpreting a house means you must not only know its meaning, but also know how to integrate the function and meaning of all of of its other components. Let's start with the sign on that cusp.
All signs represent needs. Psychologically, needs are what drives personal action, even when we are dealing with horary or mundane charts and don't have the native as the center of our interpretation. It is the job of the planets to fulfill the needs of the sign(s) it rules by domicile. So that is the dynamic between a planet and its sign. The need of a sign also drives the creation of the house. It is the job of the planet to bring forth the house matters by trying to fulfill the need of its sign. So that is the relationship between sign, planet and house. Let me give you an example: Libra is a sign that shows a need for balance and equanimity. Because signs are compensatory by nature, the fact that we need these things tells us that we may not have them in that domain. So if Libra is on the 3rd, a native may not just desire to write a book, he may want to write a fair and balanced book, possibly because he sees that what he wants to write about may not have been covered previously in a truly equitable manner. He is driven by a need for balance to write something. Or perhaps the need to form a writing partnership drives him to bring forth a book that he would not otherwise have written.
A sign on the 8th is the same. Except that in this case, what is being created through the sign's need is a source of turmoil. Make no mistake about it, the 8th house lord and sign do NOT describe our growth or rebirth. Yes, we can and often do learn to get over our obsessions and fears; as we will see in the example charts in Part 2. But transcending the 8th house issue happens through planets operating upon that house, not those generating it. The 8th is the place that houses those demons that keep us idle and hold us back from progressing forward. The 8th is not about sex or our own death, unless these become our particular obsessions. But it is always about the self-created cross that we each bear, no matter how small and insignificant it may be for some of the less tormented. So onto part 2...