There are many different schools of thought in astrology. Strange as it might seem, in the right hands all of them seem to work, even ones that contradict each other. Western Tropical astrology versus Vedic astrology is perhaps the classic illustration – those two systems can’t even agree on where Aries is! I think of myself as a Capricorn, but in Benares I am transformed into a Sagittarian. It’s confusing, but I like to keep the word “versus” out of the discussion as much as possible. Both systems, Western and Vedic, can help people. Both can illuminate the mystery we call human life. Reading an astrological chart is not linear and logical like reading a newspaper or a column of figures. I always despair when someone asks if I can “take a quick glance at their chart.” There is no such thing as “a quick glance.” Deciphering the message of the planets is a lot more like interpreting a dream or a poem – there’s more than one right way to make sense of it, in other words.The last time I had a reading myself, it was actually with a Vedic astrologer. That was intentional. I knew that if I asked an evolutionary astrologer to look at my chart, my ego would get in the way. I’d be too busy “correcting” the person to learn anything. But Vedic – I know almost nothing about it, so I was able to simply listen. It was helpful, so long as I focussed on the plain English of what the astrologer was saying, and ignored the discordant astrological language. Me, a Sagittarian? Mister work-all-the-time Capricorn? Forget about it.
Anyway, I am writing all of this because in this newsletter, I am going to jump into one of the bloodiest shark tanks in the whole chaotic, contentious astrological community – the question of which house system to use. There are at least a dozen different ways of laying out the houses of a chart, maybe more. When I was a young astrologer, I tried as many of them as I could find, naturally always using my own chart – and the realities of my own experience – as the acid test. Very little in astrology is ever totally clear cut – again, a chart is more like a dream than a computer manual. But during those early years Placidus houses won the battle for my heart and my mind. I’ve used them ever since, successfully, with thousands upon thousands of clients over the past fifty years. Nowadays, I rarely even consider other systems.That said, I am miles away from being a “house system fundamentalist.” I respect the work of many astrologers who operate in different frameworks. As Robert Hand once quipped, “which is truer, French or German?” Obviously one can lie in either language – or illuminate us all with the nectar of truth. That said, in my old apprenticeship programs and in my current online school, the Forrest Center for Evolutionary Astrology, I do insist on everyone using the Placidus system. That is mainly so that we are all speaking the same language. In those programs, I am narrowly focussed on teaching my own system rather than giving a cross-cultural overview of the wide world of contemporary astrological practice. It’s a trade school, not a university.
Technically, the Placidus system is actually easy to explain. Most, but not all, systems of house division rely on the eastern and western horizons plus the meridian, which is the line connecting the noon point and the midnight point. These are the familiar four angles of the birthchart, and there’s nothing controversial about their locations: sunrise, sunset, noon, and midnight. The intervening cusps are the ones over which astrologers squabble. Here’s how Placidus works. Start your stopwatch at sunrise. Stop it when the Sun reaches the highest point it will reach in the sky that day – that’s the Midheaven, and roughly corresponds to high noon. How long a period of time elapsed? In average terms, the answer will run about six hours, but that figure varies enormously with the seasons. Go ahead and start with the idea of six hours. Where was the Sun after two of those hours had passed? That’s your 12th house cusp. Two more hours? That’s the 11th house cusp. Once you’ve got houses 12 and 11 nailed down, you already know 6 and 5 – they are always directly opposite 12 and 11 – if your 12th house starts in mid-Cancer, your 6th house starts in mid-Capricorn, in other words. Now time the passage of the Sun from high noon down to sunset, do the same equal division of time, and you’ve got the rest of the Placidian house cusps.
I am unclear about the ratio of diplomacy to truth in what I am about to say. I know there’s some of both in the mix. When challenged about my adherence to Placidus houses, I often say that, of all the house systems I have tried, Placidus seems to be the one which best answers the questions in which I am interested. And not all astrologers are interested in the same questions! Personally, I am eternally drawn to wondering about how the soul’s journey through life casts a shadow on our psychological processes – how soul and psyche mirror each other. I am interested in helping people grow, both psychologically and spiritually. The Placidus system addresses those kinds of evolutionary issues eloquently and reliably. On the other hand, I am not drawn to questions about money or when I will get married or which horse will win the race. I don’t do anything with medical astrology. I am not interested in the stock market. Maybe other house systems would do better in those areas, I don’t know.
Astrologer Anthony Louis makes the point that Placidus houses represented something really prescient in that they anticipated the Einsteinian notion of “a spacetime continuum.” With Placidus houses, we are talking about the geometry of spacetime rather than just the three-dimensional geometry of space alone. Louis also points out that the origins of the Placidus system are truly ancient. I’ll give you the quick version of the history here, but if you want to learn more just Google these four words: Anthony Louis house systems. As you’ll discover, Louis is a true scholar, but one with the gift of writing clearly while never trying to impress anyone with erudite obfuscation. I really appreciate all that he has contributed to the uplifting of modern astrological discourse.
That’s it, really. The only complication is that, as we mentioned, the sunrise-to-noon figure is not always six hours. In winter, for example, the daylight hours are shorter. Depending on where you live, maybe there may only be sunlight for, say, ten hours. That means it will not take as long for the Sun to reach its highest elevation and go down again. But you still calculate Placidus houses in exactly the same way – you are simply trisecting the time it takes for the Sun to pass through each quadrant of the chart. Each one-third of that time marks a house cusp. The math may be tricky, but the basic concept is, as you can see, really simple.
Anyway, let’s get to the quick version of the long history behind Placidus houses. We start by going back to the city of Alexandria in Egypt in the second century A.D. There we find Ptolemy, often viewed as the father of western astrology. He wrote his famous Tetrabiblos which includes the method of house-calculation which later, after following a winding road, came to be known as the Placidus system. So the system goes back at least that far – although it is obscure where Ptolemy himself got the ideas behind it. The Placidus system may be much older.
Skip forward some centuries, add the Dark Ages to the mix, and we come to the work of an astrologer known as Regiomontanus. Born Johannes Müller von Königsberg, he was a mathematician and astronomer living in Germany in the 15th century. According to Anthony Louis, Regiomontanus misread or misunderstood Ptolemy and created a system of house division based on errors of translation. “Regiomontanus” houses soon became the dominant system all across Europe.
Meanwhile, back in the 11th century, in Muslim Spain, Jewish scholar, Ibn ben Ezra, had correctly understood Ptolemy’s work, and had written about it – in Hebrew, which few people outside the Jewish community could read.
Finally, enter an Olivetan monk named Placidus de Titus, who was a 17th century professor of mathematics, physics, and astronomy at the University of Pavia in what is now Italy. Unlike Regiomontanus, he read Ibn ben Ezra’s take on Ptolemy correctly, published his work, and thus the so-called “Placidus” house system burst upon the western world, under a misleading name, and about a millennium and a half after Ptolemy had first written about it.
Bad astrological theory can thrive in discussion groups, but it fails miserably and painfully in the counseling room. Sitting with clients, talking about their charts, if you say something they know simply does not fit their reality, it is painfully awkward for both them and you. And of course if you say something that moves them or ignites the lightbulb of insight over their heads, it’s an uplifting experience for the astrologer as well as for the client. That was as true in the 17th century as it is today.
Bottom line, Placidus worked better than Regiomontanus and so it soon took over.
There are many other systems of house division – Koch, Morinus, Porphyry, Alcabitius. Again, I am not a fundamentalist about any of this. I just know that Placidus houses have served my clients and myself very well for a long time. More importantly, they have been around for a couple thousand years and they have stood the test of time.
Are they the final answer? Is there a final answer? I have no idea. One problem is that, in common with many systems, Placidus houses break down at extreme northerly or southerly latitudes. Just think of the “Land of the Midnight Sun.” Where there is no sunset, how can there be a Descendant? Where the Sun never rises, as in the arctic winter, how can there be a Midheaven? Perhaps some genius not yet born will answer these questions and come up with a better system. Studying the lives of Finns, Laplanders, and Inuit people might be the path to the answer.
Some astrologers use Equal houses. Again, bless us one and all. But personally, I just don’t like that floating Midheaven. Why have a little island of 10th house energy floating around in the 9th house? That’s just too sloppy for me.
Then there are whole sign houses, where if you have Gemini rising, anything in Gemini is in your 1st house, anything in Cancer is your 2nd house, and so on. These are the heart of the Hellenistic system, which has experienced a rebirth in popularity over the past twenty years or so. My friend Chris Brennan has done brilliant and popular work spearheading that resurgence.
As I have already emphasized, I think that many distinct forms of astrology can all contradict each other and still all produce helpful results, just as there might be several helpful interpretations of the same dream. But give me a timed Ascendant, and I am a lot happier. I see a lot of difference between a planet in the 12th house and one in the 1st house, even if they are both in Gemini. Saying this will get me in trouble, but personally I think that whole sign houses were a brilliant work-around regarding a serious practical problem the astrologers of antiquity faced: they didn’t know what time it was. They had no clocks.
So that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. I speak Placidus. That’s the system I use and that’s what I teach. It has never failed me, except with births at extreme latitudes. I happily encourage newcomers to astrology to give it a try and see if it speaks to them. Ultimately though the true test is always your own heart and your own experience.