Mundane Astrology Lesson 1: Definitions, and a Little Philosophy
Copyright © John Michael Greer 2021. All rights reserved.
Let’s begin with a few definitions, so everyone is clear on what is being discussed.
Astrology is the empirical science of the correlations between planetary movements and human affairs. It began more than five thousand years ago in valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, in what is now Iraq. The scholars of several ancient cultures in that area hypothesized that there might be connections between events here on Earth and the observed movements of the Sun, Moon, and planets, and they started keeping records in an effort to find out what those connections might be.
That was, as scientists like to say, a fruitful hypothesis. By 1600 BC astrologers were making detailed predictions based on the patterns their forebears had observed. By 600 BC, horoscopes in the modern sense of the word had come into use. Greek, Roman, Arabic, and Persian scholars in the centuries that followed made their own contributions to astrology. So did the astrologers of medieval and Renaissance Europe, and of course those of various corners of the modern world as well. It remains an active, evolving field full of new research and lively disputes.
Mundane astrology is the oldest branch of astrology, the one that analyzes and predicts political and economic trends on the basis of planetary movements. The kind of astrology that most people think of first, the astrology of individual personality and destiny as shown in birth charts, is called natal astrology or, if you like the old-fashioned term, genethliac astrology. There are several other branches of astrology. While they share a basic theoretical structure and many other features in common, each branch has its own tools and techniques, which have evolved over the centuries as astrologers checked their charts and predictions against events. Keep this in mind, because one common mistake of the inexperienced is trying to use the techniques of natal astrology in mundane work. Those often work very poorly.
The planets are the main active indicators in astrology. The word “planets” in ancient Greek literally means “wanderers,” and in earlier times it stood for every visible object that moves noticeably against the background of the stars. Later on, scientists divided things up further. Astrologers who want to be precise these days speak of the Sun and Moon as “the luminaries,” and Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune as “the planets.” Each planet has a certain distinctive influence on human affairs, and the condition and relationships of the planet in relation to the whole chart predict how things will turn out here on Earth.
No, nobody knows why. In astrology we’re in the position of people who lived before the time of modern physics, who knew that rocks fall when you drop them, but couldn’t tell you why that happens. This is why I described astrology as an empirical science. We don’t know the mechanism by which astrological effects work, and given the prejudices of modern science, it’s unlikely that we’ll get funding for the necessary studies any time soon. The fact that the cause is unknown, however, doesn’t keep the effect from being real. (Did rocks fall any differently before Isaac Newton figured out the laws of gravity?)
Benefic planets are generally favorable indications and malefic planets are generally unfavorable. The Moon, Venus, and Jupiter are benefic, while Mars, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune are malefic. Mercury is variable—he can be benefic or malefic depending on context—while the Sun is generally benefic but acts like a malefic when in conjunction with other planets. A planet conjunct the Sun is termed combust, and that means just what it looks like: the energies of the planet are burnt up by the Sun, metaphorically speaking, and have very little effect.
There are also two belts of smaller objects in the solar system, the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, and the Kuiper Belt out beyond Neptune. Much of the research and disputation mentioned above have to do with the role that asteroids and Kuiper Belt objects (KBOs) play in astrology. One of the asteroids, Ceres, is large enough that scientists class it as a dwarf planet, and at least two of the KBOs, Pluto and Eris, fall into the same category. Some astrologers use the dwarf planets. I don’t, because I’ve found that in mundane astrology, predictions based on them are unreliable.
The signs of the zodiac are 30° wedges of the zodiac—the band of the sky through which the planets move, as seen from Earth. Each sign has a symbol and a name, and is associated with one of the four traditional elements—Fire, Earth. Air, and Water—and with one of three modalities, also known as modes or qualities—cardinal, fixed and mutable. The elements are easy to understand if you treat them as metaphors, and tradition assigns qualities to each element to help with this: Fire is hot and dry, earth cold and dry, air hot and moist, and water cold and moist.
The modalities have to do with qualities of action: the influence of cardinal signs tends to come on strong and fade out quickly, that of fixed signs is there to stay, and that of mutable signs is elusive, changeable, and tricky.
| Sign | Meaning | Element | Modality | Ruler
| Aries | Ram | Fire | Cardinal | Mars
| Taurus | Bull | Earth | Fixed | Venus
| Gemini | Twins | Air | Mutable | Mercury
| Cancer | Crab | Water | Cardinal | Moon
| Leo | Lion | Fire | Fixed | Sun
| Virgo | Virgin | Earth | Mutable | Mercury
| Libra | Balance | Air | Cardinal | Venus
| Scorpio | Scorpion | Water | Fixed | Mars
| Sagittarius | Archer | Fire | Mutable | Jupiter
| Capricorn | Goat | Earth | Cardinal | Saturn
| Aquarius | Water-carrier | Air | Fixed | Uranus
| Pisces | Fishes | Water | Mutable | Neptune
The signs of the zodiac are not the same as the constellations—thus, for example, the group of stars labeled Aries is not the same as the zodiacal sign Aries. (In ancient times, the constellations used to be in the signs, which is where the confusion comes from.) The signs are counted from the point in the heavens where the Sun is located at the moment of the spring equinox. That’s zero degrees Aries. Measure 30° around the ecliptic in the direction the Sun moves, and you’re at zero degrees Taurus, and so on around the sky.
(All this refers to what is technically known as tropical astrology—no, that has nothing to do with casting charts under a palm tree with a pina colada in hand! There is also another school, called sidereal astrology, which anchors the signs to the stars rather than the Sun, and thus puts them in different parts of the sky. In the western world, at least, it’s much less widely used than tropical astrology, and in my experience, the forms of it practiced in the western world don’t yield accurate predictions. That said, there are some astrologers who swear by it.
(There is also Vedic astrology, also known as Jyotish, the astrological tradition of the Indian subcontinent. It is a sidereal system rather than a tropical system, but it has its own very different ways of interpreting the heavens. It works very well, and I’ve been interested to note that Vedic mundane predictions and tropical Western mundane predictions tend to parallel each other closely, despite the differences in the method. The maps are not the same but the territory obviously is! That said, I don’t practice Vedic astrology; if you want to study it, you need to talk to someone who does.)
Dignity and debility are the astrological terms for the strength or weakness of planets. A planet that is dignified has a stronger influence than usual, and the aspects of human affairs that it represents will share in that strength. A planet that is debilitated has a weaker influence than usual, and the aspects of human affairs that it represents will share in that weakness. There are two kinds of dignity and debility; essential dignity or debility comes from the planet’s placement in the zodiac, while accidental dignity or debility comes from the planet’s placement in the houses, and from the aspects between planets. (We’ll get to houses and aspects shortly.)
Rulership, detriment, exaltation, and fall are relationships that the planets have to the signs of the Zodiac. Every planet rules one or two signs and is exalted in one sign. When a planet is in the sign opposite to one it rules, it is in its detriment, and when it is in the sign opposite to the sign of its exaltation, it is in its fall. These are crucial in mundane astrology, because they have a potent effect on planetary dignity and debility. When a planet is in its rulership, it is strongly dignified. When it is in its exaltation, it is well dignified, and the things it rules also tend to take on unusually positive or constructive forms. When it is in its detriment, it is strongly debilitated, and when it is in its fall, it is debilitated and the things it rules also tend to take on unusually negative or destructive forms. The table below shows these relationships:
| Planet | Rulership | Exaltation | Detriment | Fall
| Sun | Leo | Aries | Aquarius | Libra
| Moon | Cancer | Taurus | Capricorn | Scorpio
| Mercury | Gemini & Virgo | Virgo | Sagittarius & Pisces | Pisces
| Venus | Taurus & Libra | Pisces | Aries & Scorpio | Virgo
| Mars | Aries & Scorpio | Capricorn | Taurus & Libra | Cancer
| Jupiter | Sagittarius | Cancer | Gemini | Capricorn
| Saturn | Capricorn | Libra | Cancer | Aries
| Uranus | Aquarius | Scorpio | Leo | Taurus
| Neptune | Pisces | Gemini | Virgo | Sagittarius
(The exaltations and falls of Uranus and Neptune are still being debated, as both these planets were discovered in recent centuries and research is still continuing on their astrological properties. I use the set worked out by 20th-century astrologer Ivy Goldstein-Jacobson, whose work generally informs my astrological practice.)
Triplicity, face, and term are minor dignities that the planets receive from certain areas in the zodiac. I use them in some of my charts, but they’re a refinement best added after you have some experience with the major dignities. A planet is peregrine if it’s in a part of the zodiac where it has no dignities at all, and this counts as a debility.
Aspects are geometrical relationships between planets as seen from the surface of the Earth. When two planets are in aspect, the things they rule are related, and the nature of the relationships can be read from the nature of the aspect. The major aspects are these:
| Aspect | Degrees | Nature
| Conjunction | 0° | Mixed
| Sextile | 60° | Helpful
| Square | 90° | Hostile
| Trine | 120° | Helpful
| Opposition | 180° | Hostile
A helpful aspect means that the phenomena indicated by the two planets help and strengthen each other, while a hostile aspect means that they struggle against and weaken each other. A conjunction is mixed because it depends on the planet. A conjunction with a benefic planet is helpful and one with a malefic planet is hostile. Yes, this means that when a malefic is conjunct with a benefic, the malefic benefits and the benefic is harmed!
The orb of the aspect is the wiggle room within which the aspect is considered effective. When the Sun or Moon is involved, the orb for conjunction, square, trine, and opposition is 8° to either side—so, for example, if the Sun is at 0° Aries and Saturn is between 22° Virgo and 8° Libra, they are in opposition. When the aspect is between planets other than the luminaries, the orb for a major aspect is 5° to each side—so, for example, if Venus is at 20° Gemini and Jupiter is between 15° Aquarius and 25° Aquarius, they are in trine. (These orbs are smaller than the orbs used in natal astrology.) In any case, the more exact an aspect is—in astrological jargon, the closer it is to perfection—the stronger it is, and the further from perfection it is, the weaker it is. Toward the edge of the orb, the weakness becomes serious; a planetary aspect more than 3° distant can be too weak to play an active role, depending on the strength of the planets involved.
Three of the minor aspects also sometimes play a significant role in mundane charts:
| Aspect | Degrees | Nature
| Semisquare | 45° | Hostile
| Sesquisquare | 135° | Hostile
| Inconjunct | 150° | Hostile
Give these aspects an orb of 5° when a luminary is involved, and 3° otherwise.
The houses, finally, are twelve areas of the heavens as seen from a particular spot on the Earth’s surface at a particular moment. Each house relates to a different department of human affairs. These departments are complex and important enough that we will be discussing them in detail in the second lesson of this course. There are various ways to calculate the houses, and yes, I’ve tried many of them. I find that the Placidus system works best for me.
The angles are the ascendant, midheaven, descendant, and nadir. At the moment for which the chart is cast, the ascendant is the point of the zodiac rising on the eastern horizon, the midheaven is the point highest above the horizon, the descendant is the point setting on the western horizon, and the nadir is the point furthest beneath the horizon. Most house systems, including the one I use, treat these as boundaries of houses. Planets that are approaching the angles as the sky turns are called angular; this is an important accidental dignity. Points that are just past them are called cadent, from a word meaning “falling;” this is an important accidental debility.
Those are the definitions you need to know in order to proceed—well, most of them. (A few others won’t make sense until we get deeper into the details of the astrological chart.) With this in mind, let’s consider a little philosophy.
Keep in mind when casting and interpreting mundane charts that astrology predicts tendencies, not certainties. “The stars incline, they do not compel” is a traditional way of saying this. A mundane chart doesn’t tell you what’s going to happen, it tells you what’s likely to happen. Since statistical tendencies tend to work out more reliably when many people are involved, mundane astrology is very often quite accurate, but it’s always wisest to state your predictions as probabilities rather than flat statements. If the Moon is angular, in her detriment, and square a strong Mars in a mundane chart, there is a very serious risk of war during the period governed by that chart—that combination of factors appeared, for example, in the ingress charts for Britain and Germany at the spring equinox of 1939, predicting the outbreak of the Second World War—but even in such a case it can sometimes happen that war is avoided.
This does not mean, however, that a mundane chart means whatever you want it to mean. This is the second crucial point to keep in mind in dealing with mundane astrology. If a mundane chart has the Moon angular, in her detriment, and square a strong Mars, unless there are other major influences that counteract this, you’re going to see a whopper of an international crisis, with war a very definite possiblity. Looking at that chart and predicting peace and love and brotherhood is a sign of blatant ignorance or outright dishonesty.
If mundane astrology were more competently practiced these days, I would not have to say this. It’s embarrassing to note, though, that a significant number of the astrological predictions made these days about politics and the future are just as wrong as the ones that predicted the total transformation of everything on December 21, 2012. There’s a simple if brutal reason for this: a great many people who make such predictions are using astrology as an excuse to believe what they want to believe, rather than studying it to see what the heavens actually have to say.
Thus I’d like to ask every prospective student of these lessons to spend some time reflecting on just what you want from mundane astrology. If you want to use mundane astrology to prop up your fondest beliefs about the future, whether or not those beliefs happen to be true, then please stop reading this and go away, because nothing in these lessons will be of any use to you. I’m sure you can find someone out there who can teach you how to spout astrologically flavored psychobabble so you sound like you know what you’re talking about. Mind you, all your predictions will be wrong, but as any mainstream economist can tell you, too many people couldn’t care less how accurate you are, so long as you tell them what they want to hear.
On the other hand, if you want to know what is likely to happen in politics, economics, and society, even if it isn’t what you want to happen, then you’ve come to the right place.
During the month you spend on this lesson, familiarize yourself with all the terms discussed above. In addition, if you can get one, read a copy of Parkers’ Astrology by Derek and Julia Parker. It’s a basic textbook of natal astrology, but it makes a good introduction to astrology in general and will give you some useful background for the lessons to come. If you’d prefer to read some other introductory book about astrology, or decide to read more than one, that’s fine too. Next month we’ll start talking about houses and their meanings—the essential framework of any mundane chart—and if you have a good working grasp of the foundations of astrology, you’ll be better prepared to make sense of what’s ahead.
(Please note that this is the only lesson in this sequence that will appear as a public post. All the other lessons will be available to patrons and subscribers at the Moonwatcher ($5 per month) level, and I will also be posting a series of case studies in mundane astrology for patrons and subscribers at the Sunwatcher ($10 per month) level. All this will eventually appear as a book—but my patrons and subscribers get access to it a couple of years in advance. Enjoy!)