Rising Sign

Ascendant: Rising to Meet the World

Along with sun sign and moon sign, rising sign is the third leg of the prime triad. Taken together, the sun, moon, and rising signs sketch out the overall flavor of an astrological chart. If you know nothing else about your own birth chart, know your sun, moon, and, if possible, your rising sign. If you are interpreting someone else’s chart, consider those three signs first.

The ascendant--commonly abbreviated AC, or Asc--is the point exactly on the eastern horizon. In a birth chart, this is the point that was on the eastern horizon at the moment of birth. The rising sign is whichever sign of the zodiac this point is in.

To understand this more clearly, it helps to look at what exactly the zodiac signs are. A brief detour for that:

An astrological chart is a map of the sky surrounding earth: the sky above, and the sky below. If you lie on your back in an open meadow, looking up at a clear sky, you will notice how the sky seems to curve above the earth, as though it were a bowl laid over us upside down. 

Imagine that the sky is, in fact, a bowl. Now, imagine that it is actually two bowls, one arcing above us, the other below us. The one below is the sky below.

In fact, the sky below does exist. It is where the stars and planets, and the sun and moon, are when they are below our horizon. They may be visible on the other side of the world, if not to us, but even when we don’t see them above us, they’re still there. Astronomers can measure where we are in relation to each of the other heavenly bodies, whether we’re seeing them at the moment or not. Astrology, in fact, is based on exactly that kind of measurement--once upon a time, astrology and astronomy were the same discipline--but taken from an earth-centric point of view. Astrology measures where the planets are in relation to us. It also measures where the sun is in relation to us--which reflects where we are in our orbit around the sun.

This measurement is taken, in part, by determining which section of sky the planets are in. Each zodiac sign is a 30 degree section of sky. 180 degrees make up the sky above, another 180 make up the sky below, for a total of 360 degrees: a complete circle. 12 x 30 = 360. 

The signs continuously rotate through the sky, above and below, making a complete rotation in approximately 24 hours. At any given moment, one sign is rising, straddling the eastern horizon, while its opposite sign descends, straddling the western horizon. Between them, five signs lie across the sky above, the other five across the sky below.

Which sign is rising at a given moment depends on where exactly you are and what the given moment is. At sunrise, the zodiac sign that the sun is currently in is rising. At sunset, that sign is descending, while its opposite sign rises. Anytime in between, the rising sign is whichever sign is at the right distance in the zodiac from where the sun currently is, to be on the eastern horizon.

The times of sunset and sunrise vary from one location on earth to another, especially during the times of year closest to a solstice. But even if we’re looking at a time solidly in the day or night, where exactly the ascendant is will vary somewhat based on location. For that reason, exact time and exact place of birth are needed, along with the date, to cast an accurate birth chart.

Some people do not know their times of birth. That information is not always recorded on birth certificates, and when it is recorded, it may be rounded off to the nearest hour, nearest half hour, or nearest five or ten minutes. The ascendant moves approximately one degree every four minutes, changing signs approximately every two hours. (It’s not quite that exact. Some signs rise faster than others. Still, of the most crucial pieces of a birth chart, the ascendant is the one that moves and changes the fastest.) So, if you have a birth time that puts your ascendant in the very last or very first degrees of its sign, an inaccurate birth time could give you a different rising sign from the one you actually have.

Without knowing the rising sign, a fairly accurate chart can be cast. It just doesn’t include the ascendant piece. There is also a technique called rectification, practiced by advanced astrologers, that determines a more correct chart if birth time is unknown or rounded. If you do have an accurate birth time and can draw a chart with an accurate ascendant, you get more information.

Your ascendant shows how you meet the world, and how the world meets you. Surface personality, what people see in you when they first meet you, tends to reflect your rising sign. If you have any planets in that sign, and/or close to your ascendant, they add their message, so the rising sign alone is not necessarily a complete picture of how you appear to others. It is, though, one of your main archetypes. It is the mask you wear.

The ascendant is also the lens you filter the world through. If your sun and moon are both in water signs, but your ascendant is in an earth sign, you meet the world in an earth way, although the water element is also strong in your chart. (Sign elements are coming up in the next post.) A fiery Aries sun person may not meet the world in such a bold way if their ascendant is in dreamy Pisces. A Virgo with Sagittarius rising may present as more happy-go-lucky than analytical.

Finally, the ascendant is where your entire chart meets. Every planetary placement you have, every message in your birth chart, manifests in the world, and in you, through your ascendant. (If this statement is your first introduction to that concept, it may take a while to understand. Feel free to put it aside for later.)

In short, your ascendant tells us how you rise to meet the world.

Up next: Overview of the signs

Addressing Astrological Misconceptions: If I'm Not My Sun Sign, Where in the Chart Am I?

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

Astrology As Story Medicine

You’re picky because you’re a Virgo. You’re stubborn because you’re a Taurus. You’re indecisive because you’re a Libra. You’re arrogant because you’re a Leo. You’re a chatterbox because you’re a Gemini. You’re a space cadet because you’re a Pisces.


What passes for astrology in pop culture is primarily that kind of silly sun sign astrology. That kind requires no work. Everyone knows their sun sign by virtue of knowing when their birthday is (except for those born on cusp dates, usually between the 20th and 22nd of the month, who get told by some astrology columns that their sun sign is one thing, while others assert that it’s the other - but even those people can narrow their possible sun signs down to two).

A full birth chart tells you much more about yourself. But to create one, you have to know not just your date of birth, but also the exact time and place. The chart must be cast individually. Today, you can plug your birth data into any of a number of free online sites and get a chart instantly. Even professional astrologers typically rely on chart casting software. Before the advent of software, knowing your birth chart required a painstaking search through the ephemeris, careful calculations, and drawing the entire thing by hand.

With a complete birth chart, you have a bigger picture. Not just a Leo, but an eighth house Leo sun with the moon in Sagittarius and Capricorn rising. Not just a Taurus, but a third house Taurus sun with the moon in Gemini and Pisces rising. Not just a Libra, but a double Libra in the ninth house with Aquarius rising.

Sun, moon, and rising sign are the primary triad. The rest of the chart tells even more of your story. It’s like narrowing your address down to the street, building, and apartment number, instead of just saying you live in Boston, or in Massachusetts, or in the USA.

Astrology is a tool for telling your own story. It can also be a tool for creating it.

Astrology is story medicine. A powerful kind, but one that is often misused, and misconceptions abound. To be continued….