In a recent Facebook discussion a number of people reacted to my assertion that the 12 letter alphabet of astrology ignores basic principles and creates unnecessary confusion.
This article is published in response to requests to explain this point of view.
My understanding is that Zipporah Dobyns first introduced this the term “The 12-letter alphabet” in the 1970’s. This system has also been called the “ABC system of astrology”.
In the 12 letter alphabet system the houses are said to correspond with the signs and their planetary rulers. For example, the 1st house (A) is linked to the sign Aries (B) and to the sign’s ruling planet Mars (C). Together the house sign and planet combination is often referred to as “an archetype”.
In the adjacent diagram is shown the general layout preferred by those who use the 12-letter alphabet.
The 12 houses in the centre are aligned with the 12 signs in the central wheel and with the planetary rulers on the outside. I have greyed out the traditional rulers of the signs to highlight the general preference of those who use the outer planets as rulers of Scorpio, Aquarius and Pisces.
The combination of house, sign, and planet is sometimes referred to as an archetype. For example the first archetype is said to comprise the first house which is linked to Aries and its planetary ruler Mars. The second archetype links the second house to Taurus and its ruler Venus. This system of archetypes follows the circle of houses around the horoscope in an anti-clockwise manner.
Dictionary.com defines an archetype as
“The original pattern or model from which all things of the same kind are copied or on which they are based; a model or first form; prototype.”
The problem is that houses signs and planets are not things of the same kind. I explain below.
Objections raised in the defence of the 12-letter alphabet
A. There are 12 houses and 12 signs.
This is too much of a coincidence.
B. There are groups of signs planets and houses which are similar and called ‘archetypes‘.
1) Aries: initiative. Mars: action. First House: how we strike out as an individual.
2) Taurus: stability and enjoyment. Venus: comforts. Second house: money matters and living.
3) Gemini: interaction. Mercury: communication. Third house: learning and exchange of ideas.
4) Cancer: Homely, contained. Moon: mother. Fourth House: home, family.
5) Leo: expressive. Sun: self identity. Fifth House: creative expression.
6) Virgo: detailed, skilled. Mercury: study. Sixth house: Work.
7) Libra: engaged, gracious. Venus: relationships. Seventh house: the other.
8) Scorpio: destructive, intimate. Pluto: intense. Eighth house: transformation, sex.
I will comment on each of these archetypes in Part B.
Here I will describe some important differences between the signs and the houses.
Differences between the signs and the houses
1. Different systems
- The zodiac signs are a celestial system and exist only in the heavens.
- The houses are a terrestrial system relating to different aspects of our life on Earth.
The celestial and terrestrial worlds are fundamentally different and cannot be interchanged.
2. Different measurement
- The signs of the celestial zodiac are traced out by the Sun into 12 equal divisions as it crosses the equator on its northward journey.
- The houses measure terrestrial spaces above and below the horizon into 12 parts (places). These 12 parts are comprised of 4 quadrants each containing 3 houses.
The 12 divisions of the ecliptic and the mundane spaces above and below the horizon cannot be mixed.
In the ancient cosmological system, the universe was comprised of two basic divisions:
1. The world of the divine glory and perfection, comprising the The Prime Mover and the Zodiac. The signs belong in this sphere of divine perfection.
2. The world of manifest material reality which is subject to birth decay and death. The houses, which reflect our lives on the earthly plane, belong to the material plane.
Equating the divine with the mundane shows confusion about the structure of our universe.
4. Different cycle
- The signs describe a yearly cycle which is the apparent orbit of the Sun around the earth.
- The houses describe the apparent daily cycle of the planets as the earth spins on its axis.
5. Different make-up
- The signs are constituted from the combination of the 3 modes: cardinal fixed and mutable; the 4 elements: fire earth air and water; and the 2 polarities: diurnal/active and nocturnal/passive. Each zodiac sign is a unique combination of these principles.
- The houses are discreet areas of human experiences (physical, social, psychological, spiritual).
6. Different nature
- The zodiac signs are latent descriptive qualities which are not tangible. Planets traversing signs are energized according to the quality of the sign, qualified by the planet’s unique capacity to express this quality. The houses relate to specific environments of human experience.
- The zodiac signs energize the planets with specific qualities. The houses describe the area of life in which these energies manifest and their capacity to be expressed.
7. Opposite directions
- The signs are ordered in an ANTI-CLOCKWISE direction. The rising sign, which is determined by the time of birth, is located on the ascendant and the other signs are extended in an anti-clockwise direction around the chart.
- The houses extend from the horizon in a CLOCKWISE direction towards the MC, following the diurnal movement of the planets. This is the opposite direction to that of the signs. House numbering shows the order of planets as they rise across the Ascendant. Planets in the first house rise first across the horizon, planets in the second house rise second; and so on.
This last point often comes as a shock to astrologers who are accustomed to viewing the order of the houses from 1-12 in from the ascendant, down to the IC, then up to the Midheaven.
The numbering of the houses has to with the order in which planets rise above the Ascendant as the earth spins on its axis, and has nothing to do with a natural order of the houses in an anti-clockwise direction.
The signs and the houses do not flow in the same direction.
It is a fundamental error to assume that the meaning of the 2nd house naturally flows from the meaning of the 1st house; or that the meaning of the 3rd house is a flow-on from the meaning of the 2nd house; and so on.
The numbering of the houses actually refers to a flow in the opposite direction: the rising of planets across the ascendant. It’s like the houses are standing in a queue: planets in the 1st house get to rise first; planets in the 2nd house get to rise next; and so on. Planets in the 2nd house rise (or succeed – which is why it is called a sucedent house) into the first, and are second in line to rise above the ascendant.
The movement of the planets is from the ascendant up to the Midheaven, and from there to the descendant and on to the IC.
The numbers given to the houses (1, 2, 3 and so on) refers to order of the movement of planets as they move across the ascendant towards the Midheaven through the course of the day,
Response to the 1st objection
“There are 12 houses and 12 signs. This is too much of a coincidence.”
This objection is very superficial.
Above I have described above eight important differences between the signs and the houses which shows that interchanging the signs and houses does not make sense.
The signs are numbered in the opposite direction to the houses. That there are 12 signs and 12 houses does not imply that they are the same or that they can be interchanged.
The adjacent diagram shows the apparent path of the Sun as it moves through the houses. The Sun in the 3rd house moves into the 2nd house, and from the 2nd house moves (or succeeds) into the 1st house, and from there rises into the 12th house; and so on.
The same principle applies to the planets as they appear to move around the earth as it spins on its axis.
The meaning of the numbering of the houses relates to the order in which planets in the houses rise above the ascendant, with planets in the 1st house rising first, planets in the 2nd house rising next; and so on. House numbers are ordinal numbers; the relate to a sequence or series. They were not intended to show a natural flow or sequence in an anti-clockwise direction.
The association of the 12 houses with the 12 signs was a deliberate attempt to simplify astrology. This attempt has been attributed to Alan Leo in early 20th century England who was fighting a battle to avoid incarceration and sought to promote the idea that astrology was merely psychological.
While working with 12 simple principles that interchanges houses signs and planets may reduce the astrology teacher’s workload, it hinders rather than helps an understanding of astrology.
The mistake of extending the anatomical model
While it is true that there is an anatomical correlation between the signs and houses, with Aries and the 1st house both associated with the head; Taurus and the 2nd house associated with the throat and so on, it is a mistake to extrapolate this correlation to a psychological or other type of flow. There is no natural flow in a psychological sense from the 1st house through to the 12th house. While it is true that attempts have been made identify a sequential flow, it doesn’t make sense.
This mistake is compounded when the association of Aries and the first house with the head is extended to Mars; or when the association of Taurus and the second house with the throat is extended to Venus; and so on.
The 12-letter alphabet system suggests a natural flow from the 1st house down through the IC and all the way to the 12th house. However it simply does not make sense that the 5th house of children should come before the 7th house of relationships, or that the 8th house of death should precede the 10th house of career. If astrology does not make sense it is nonsense.
The fabric of house structure is constructed from different threads of meaning which bind them together, none of which has to do with a natural flow of the houses in an anti-clockwise direction. These threads include:
- The diurnal movement of the planets through the angles, beginning with the ascendant, then up to the Midheaven, down to the descendant and the IC..
- Aspect relationships between the 1st house of life and the other eleven houses.
- The joys of the planets.
- The association of the Chaldean order of planets with the houses.
There is not the space here to describe how each of these threads contributes to the make-up of the houses.
The addition of the modern rulers, Uranus Neptune and Pluto, to the 12-letter alphabet has further distorted the meanings of the 8th 11th and 12th houses.
The primary meaning of the eighth house has to do with the resources and movable possessions of the partner, death fear and loss, and inheritance. Connecting the eighth house with Scorpio introduces the idea of sex and intimacy to the meaning of this house, qualities which in the very long history of astrology it did not possess. It is the fifth house which has long been associated with sex.
The association of Scorpio with Pluto further compounds these misunderstandings and adds intensity, crisis, and transformation to the meaning of the eighth house.
The eleventh house is also an interesting case. The 12-letter alphabet system links the eleventh house with Aquarius and Uranus. Uranus is said by some to rule networking and as a result the eleventh house has become associated with groups. However Uranus is also associated with individualism, which is at odds with the eleventh house association with groups.
Using the modern planets as rulers of the Scorpio Aquarius and Pisces ignores some fundamental astrological principles, which are beyond the scope of this article to explore thoroughly.
Most astrologers I have met who use the modern rulers are unaware of the logic underpinning the ancient system of sign rulerships.
Consequently these same astrologers cannot explain what was so wrong with the original planetary rulers that they needed replacing. They don’t know what they don’t know. Did Mars stop being Mars? Is it true that the reason Mars rules Scorpio is no longer understood; forgotten? Perhaps it didn’t make sense that Mars would rule a water sign! Did Jupiter stop being Jupiter? These questions they seem unable to answer.
Go to Part B where I discuss the validity of the 8 ‘archetypes’ (combinations of sign-house-planet).
The Houses, Temples of the Sky, by Deborah Houlding. This is an excellent reference for understanding the houses.
On the Heavenly Spheres, A Treatise on Traditional Astrology by Helena Arelar and Luis Ribeiro. This comprehensive work is highly recommended for beginning and experienced astrologers.
Traditional Astrology for Today, An Introduction by Ben Dykes.
Scala Coeli, The Ladder of Heaven, A Collection of astrological Essays by Mari Garcia and Joy Usher.
The Horary Textbook and The Real Astrology by John Frawley.
Christian Astrology by William Lilly
Book of Astronomy (1 & 2) by Guido Bonatti translated by Ben Dykes
Other works by these authors.
My writings are informed by these and other authors such as Robert Zoller, Robert Hand and Joseph Crane. I do not mean to suggest that astrological study should be restricted to these few, or that one should be preferred to the other, but I do recommend them as a starting point.