If anyone asks you, “What’s your sign?” you’ll probably answer with your sun sign. You know that by virtue of knowing when your birthday is. If you know anything else about your birth chart, you’ve either visited an astrologer or sat down with an ephemeris or, most likely, plugged your date, time, and place of birth into a free online chart drawing program.
Western astrology tends to equate sun sign with the person, sometimes to the exclusion of considering anything else in the chart. Not every version of astrology does. Not even every version of Western astrology does.
Western astrology--the kind I practice, and the kind you are most likely to encounter if you are not from India or China--is divided into two basic forms: traditional astrology and modern astrology.
Traditional astrology is, essentially, astrology as it was practiced for centuries before the invention of the telescope and the discovery of “new” planets that could not be seen with the naked eye. In traditional astrology, only the planets from Mercury to Saturn, plus the sun and moon, are used as astrological planets. Only the Ptolemaic aspects (sextile, trine, opposition, square, and conjunction) are used. Traditional astrology focuses mostly on predictive methods, not on explaining the personality. As one traditional astrologer friend of mine put it, the king didn’t consult an astrologer to find out what kind of person he was. He already knew that. What he wanted to know was if he would win the battle.
Modern astrology is the newer version, stemming from a revival of Western astrology in the late nineteenth century. Before that, astrology had fallen out of favor, and mostly out of use, in Europe and its conquests. The relationship between Christianity and astrology has never been an easy one, and after the Renaissance arrived, bringing with it the Protestant Reformation, the scientific method, and, most crucially, a gradual but eventually thorough divorce between the science of astronomy and the art of astrology, astrology virtually disappeared. It was ultimately revived by the Theosophists, by which time Uranus and Neptune had been discovered, and Pluto would be discovered within decades.
This new version of astrology added the (relatively) recently discovered planets, assigning them astrological functions and sign rulerships. It also added other aspects besides the Ptolemaic ones, and brought more of a focus on psychology, explaining the personality, and matching personal traits with signs. While modern astrologers may also make predictions, they tend, overall, to have a less deterministic and more choice centered approach than traditional astrologers. (There are exceptions on both sides, but this is the general trend.)
Similar to how various cultures locate the center of personality in the heart, or the brain, or the liver, or the lower belly, various forms of astrology place the center of the birth chart, the primary indicator of the person, in different places. Modern astrology assigns that function to the sun, but in traditional astrology, the ascendant holds that primary role, with the sun providing some supporting detail. In Vedic astrology (India’s version), that function is assigned to either the moon or the ascendant, depending on which branch of Vedic we’re talking about.
Yet every form of astrology puts the sun or the ascendant or the moon at the center. There is no version (at least, no widely practiced version) that considers Mercury or Mars to be the center of the chart. (Chinese astrology is loosely based on Jupiter cycles, but that’s a subject for another post. It also gives the moon a central role.) So, whichever way we look at it, the sun, moon, and ascendant are, in one way or another, primary indicators of the person.
Up next: A look at the moon