Like a circle in a spiral, like a wheel within a
Never ending or beginning on an ever-spinning reel...1
The astrological chart is based on the circle of the zodiac. This circle is designed to show the relationship between earth and sky. For astrologers it is a brilliantly effective framework; it captures and describes current positions and also perpetual cycles of the Sun and the planets as perceived from the earth. In its basic form as a circle, the zodiac has no beginning and no end.
Astrology charts come in a bewildering array of formats and styles. Imagine – down the centuries and across the globe – a carnival of charts, emanating from all directions; mysterious hieroglyphics from early civilizations, magical hand-drawn charts and sophisticated computer-generated charts, all mingling together! So very different from one another, yet all connected by the device of the zodiac. This circle has proved its value. One reason it works so happily is because of the angles.
The four angles of the chart form two pairs – Ascendant and Descendant, Imum Coeli (IC) and Medium Coeli (MC). These divide the journeys of the Sun, diurnal and annual, into four stages.
Ascendant and Descendant correspond to sunrise and sunset, annually to the equinoxes. IC and MC correspond to midday and midnight, annually to the solstices. By taking stock of the Sun's position in relation to the angles, we can estimate how far the Sun has travelled along its path at any time of day or at any point in the year.
In her book Astro-Mythology, Valerie Vaughan describes how Native American tribes combined study of the stars with their understanding of Nature. Their inspiration often came from vision quests. Sun Bear, a Chippewa medicine man, set forth a system of earth-astrology based on the Medicine Wheel, the unity of the four cardinal directions:
The Native American system envisioned by Sun Bear, like most others throughout the world, relates the four directions to the four seasons and the four elements. North refers to winter, which begins cyclically with the Sun located in what Western astrology calls Capricorn. The East is spring and begins with the Sun in Aries. The South corresponds to summer and the Sun in Cancer, and the West relates to autumn and the Sun in Libra.2
Throughout the world ancient monuments continue to evoke a sense of the reverence with which early people watched the sky. They worshipped the Sun, identified four turning points that gave structure to its movement and then lived in tune with the rhythm of this cycle. From massive rocks they created temples and circles that aligned with their Sun-god's journey. The pagan calendar, the Wheel of the Year, derives from the annual journey of the Sun; Yule, Oester, Litha and Mabon coincide with solstice and equinox points. For pagans the cycle of the seasons is not only a measurement of time – it also describes a quest for balance, played out through dynamic interaction between the forces of Light and of Darkness.
So back to astrology's charts. Like stone circles, they represent the heavens. If the zodiac marks the boundary of a field, the angles are those standing stones that give structure to its sacred circle.
As symbols of the fundamental connection between the four cardinal directions, the four elements and the four seasons, the four angles are loaded with significance. No wonder they are recognised as potent points of the astrological chart!
The angles divide the chart into four quadrants. This structuring transforms the circle of the zodiac into a cycle. Two Sun cycles – daily and perpetual – are represented by the zodiac. We experience both of them as the interplay of light and dark.
North of the equator the Sun's annual cycle begins with the spring equinox, the day on which the Sun moves from the southern to the northern hemisphere. This is a point of balance – the hours of day and night are equal. For the next three months, as the Sun moves further north, the sun rises earlier and sets later, increasing our ration of light as the hours of darkness are eroded. This continues until the summer solstice, the longest day. The word 'solstice' means sun stands still. It is a turning point; the Sun appears to pause in the sky before making its way back to the southern hemisphere, mirroring the journey of the past three months. Hours of daylight gradually diminish until the autumn equinox, a point of balance when hours of light and dark are again equal as the Sun moves into the southern hemisphere. In the north daylight dwindles until the Sun reaches the winter solstice, the shortest day. In an example of the interplay of macrocosm/microcosm that underpins astrology, this yearly sequence of equinox, solstice, equinox, solstice, is reflected in the daily pattern of sunrise, midday, sunset, midnight.
The journey of the Sun offers a template for all planetary cycles. In astrology this is spelled out through the language of major aspects. Every planetary, and inter-planetary, cycle is defined by the sequence of conjunction, waxing square, opposition, waning square, conjunction or return. Any web of aspects and aspect patterns, however complex, can be unravelled back to this fourfold process. Month after month the Moon provides us with a vivid, often visible, example of its own fourfold cycle, another version of the Sun's progress from one angle to the next.
Each of the four angles plays an individual role in the astrological chart and is also part of a complementary pair that defines the chart's horizon or meridian. Integral to these two pairs is the contrast between points of balance, the equinoxes, and points of extreme, the solstices. All four angles combine with one another to create astrology's perception of life as cycles of experience spiralling through the axes of the chart.
The angles, like the Moon's nodes, are points in space. They are qualitatively different from planets and other physical entities in the solar system. So how can we accommodate this difference? Dane Rudhyar, a pioneer in the use of cycles in modern astrology, recommends the Sabian Symbols as another string to our bow:
...the importance of the degrees of the zodiac at the four angles of a chart can hardly be overestimated......these (Sabian) symbols can be a significant tool in the hands of an intuitive interpreter who does not force a philosophical or social point of view upon them but allows every detail of the symbolic image or scene to speak for itself.3
Including the Sabian Symbols in our interpretation of the angles adds a poetic dimension that can refresh our sense of the magical history surrounding the angles. It also adds emphasis to the importance of the angles as signposts in the passage of time.
In The Astrology of Personality, Dane Rudhyar describes equinox and solstice as “...periods of special activity of the life force and of special release of power”.4 He explores their specific qualities:
It was clear, however, that the types of release that occurred during these four crucial periods were of different natures. At the equinoxes came the times of greatest momentum of life; at the solstices of least momentum: just as if we watch the oscillations of a pendulum we see its motion being the fastest when it crosses the point of equilibrium and the slowest when it reaches its end position. 5
In the daily cycle of the Sun, sunrise and sunset are dramatic moments; the change-over between day and night sets the tempo of our lives. This bold purpose translates into astrology. In many charts the horizon is drawn in strongly, ascendant and descendant really stand out. This axis is a constant factor, blissfully unaffected by house systems. All astrologers, and many non-astrologers, know the zodiac position of their natal ascendant or rising sign.
On a daily basis, the Sun's extreme positions are less defined. Without using a clock, midday and midnight can be difficult to pinpoint. The Sun's high-point tends to merge into a sunlit process; its low-point becomes hidden in the shrouds of deepest night. In the astrological chart the positions of IC and MC are neither obvious nor secure. According to house system, these two points either hover between several houses, (e.g. Equal House) or sacrifice their individuality to a merger with the 4th and 10th house cusps (e.g. Placidus). Many astrologers, but few non-astrologers, know the zodiac positions of their natal IC and Midheaven.
When we consider the Sun's annual journey the solstices reveal their importance. Extremes of darkness and light coalesce around the shortest and the longest day. This distinguishes them as pinnacles in the pattern of the year with its dynamic interplay of light and dark.
Astrologically the horizon announces our arrival on planet earth; the meridian describes the pathways of our journey through life. The significance of the IC/MC axis may not be immediately obvious; it emerges in its own time and when it does we recognise it as profound and far-reaching.
Nowadays the astrological convention is to abbreviate Imum Coeli and Medium Coeli to their initials, IC & MC. It is interesting to consider older names for these angles. Definitions of Imum Coeli include the lowest heaven6 and a literal translation as the undersky.7 Such evocative phrases conjure up a sense of the IC as a territory in its own right – a worthy counterpart for the Medium Coeli's description as the middle of the heavens8. Definitions as Northern Angle (IC) and Southern Angle9 (MC) also invest this fundamental structure of the chart with more dignity than their current acronyms.
As the undersky, the IC is always hidden. It stands like the portal into a mysterious zone. The realm of the lowest heaven is vast; it encompasses all our past(s), all the detail of our origins and our roots – and all our secrets. It is another world, an inner world, experienced on a level as profound as the deepest darkness of night-time and of winter. Like the earth below our feet, this realm is the fecund darkness where seeds germinate, where roots develop intricate and enduring networks.
In contrast the MC, the middle of the heavens, reminds us that even the sky has a summit, a crowning glory. It suggests all that is light, airy and open. Its sense of infinite possibilities beckons us to venture forth on the wings of our aspirations and our dreams. This realm is spacious enough to accommodate us – time after time. Think of a tree such as Yggdrasil, the immense ash tree central to Norse cosmology. The IC, the undersky, is reflected by invisible roots that are vital for stability and nourishment. The MC, the middle of the heavens, flourishes out into a visible canopy that reaches for the sky.10
The four angles form a cycle; they also work as two complementary pairs – Ascendant/Descendant, IC/MC – and each angle is intrinsically important as an individual point in the chart. We can look at this process more closely by engaging a case study – the birth chart of Toby.
1. The four angles as a cycle
Our first encounter with a birth chart makes an immediate impression. This is likely to combine general information with odd details. Both are valuable, often setting the scene and the tempo for subsequent findings. More systematic chart appraisal could begin with looking at all four angles together. How does their cycle contribute to the story of the chart as a whole?
The four angles of Toby's chart fall in fire and air signs. Upbeat ascendant in fiery Leo is complemented by the wider perspective of descendant in Aquarius, an air sign. This interplay of impulse and consideration is affirmed by the angles of the meridian. Toby's Libran IC, inherently calm, looks poised to be ruffled by Aries on the Midheaven. The four angles' interaction of fire with air suggests that, while self-expression is vital for him, he is inherently aware of what lies beyond his own immediate concerns.
Toby's Ascendant and Descendant are in fixed signs, indicating that he has determination and will-power. He is likely to be loyal, both to his own aspirations and to the people in his life. The angles of the meridian fall in cardinal signs. This introduces qualities of initiative and of authority; Toby is motivated to take control of his own life. All four angles, by element and quality, share a predisposition towards yang energy – towards tangible aspiration in a visible world.
2. The axis of the IC/MC
The angles of the meridian, like those of the horizon, function effectively as an interdependent circuit. Their axis guides the journey in which the personal and private (IC) transforms itself into the shared and public (MC). In contrast to the horizon's announcement of identity, the axis of the IC/MC is subtle. It takes time, maybe years and years, to reveal itself. It is liable to shift and shift again as experience of life exposes different facets of character.
As a young boy Toby developed a passion for football. His IC/MC axis found an apt field in the beautiful game's combination of commitment to the team (Libra) with the chance for personal glory (Aries). Toby played in defence. As a young adult, he captained a local team; moments of glory came thick and fast, culminating with him holding aloft the big silver cup (Aries MC).
Toby and football made a good team. In the light of his natal chart their union falls into place as one expression of his IC/MC interaction, one example of how belonging (Libra) and independence (Aries) can work together. For Toby's easy ways with people (Libra) made him a fine team member while his instinct to challenge himself (Aries) kept his game edgy and fresh. Perhaps it is testament to the inherent loyalty of a Libran IC that Toby and Kris, fellow defenders aged 10, recently played best man for one another's weddings.
3. The houses of the IC/MC
Toby's awareness of the people around him (IC) combines with an impulse to make an individual contribution (MC). This quality of his meridian plays out in various dimensions of his life. House positions of these angles offer another perspective on their significance.
In Toby's natal chart, the IC falls in the 3rd house, MC in the 9th. This suggests that, for Toby, life-experience, rather than status, may be the ultimate goal. In the natural chart the 3rd house is ruled by Mercury, the 9th house by Jupiter. This brings in a sense that perception and communication, travel and ideas, are likely to feature in Toby's story.
Toby spent his childhood in Stroud, a small rural town with lively networks of activity. He enjoyed school, especially sporting activities; his social circle widened as naturally as ripples in water. He left home to study for a degree in Leisure Management and then spent several years living in large cities – Birmingham, Bath, Bristol. In 2005 Toby experienced a crisis in his personal life. Jupiter was moving through Libra, home of his natal IC – change was in the air. In May 2005 Mars moved into Aries; Toby saw the freedom hidden within apparent loss – and took his chance. Alone he set off for Asia and Australia, the other side of the world. With hindsight this adventure proved to be a turning point. Long hours spent travelling gave him time to take stock. Exposure to completely different lifestyles and attitudes gave him a whole new perspective on his own life. He made many friends – and he met the lovely girl who, several years later, became his wife.
In the light of astrology, Toby's journey shows its true colours as an expression of his IC/MC. This axis, with its innate trust in life (Libra) and its pioneering impulse (Aries), provided Toby with the outlook and the spirit to deal with his crisis in this particular way. And it was the qualities inherent in these angles that brought about such a happy outcome. Toby has settled in Stroud – his 3rd house sanctuary now redolent with valuable experience, courtesy of its 9th house counterpart.
4. Angular planets
Planets conjunct an angle add a further dimension to our understanding. Toby's MC, powerful in its own right, is in the same sign as his Aries Sun. Even closer to the Midheaven lies Mercury, its retrograde direction adding intrigue to the plot. Retrograde planets tend to generate self-motivation; Mercury retrograde enhances thinking for oneself. A feature of Toby is that, for personal decisions, he ponders alone, however long it takes, until he reaches a way forward that satisfies the spirit of Aries MC and the realism of retrograde Mercury. Toby, Aries to the core, is actively engaged with the outside world. He is effortlessly realistic – as if the presence of Mercury retrograde is a steadying influence, adding a dose of realism to the dynamic duo of Aries Sun and Midheaven.
Mercury's influence in Toby's life is evident through a pattern of dualism. Toby's career has two main strands. He spends half the week in school (3rd house) as manager of an inclusion unit that seeks to restore a sense of order to disruptive pupils (9th house). Idealistic Aries wants to make a difference – harnessed by Mercury retrograde's affinity with what is possible. For the rest of the week Toby runs his own business – a company that hires out all the paraphernalia that makes each wedding reception distinctive and gorgeous. Toby is in his element - Libra IC relishing this involvement in local events, Aries MC challenged to grow his company in line with his vision, with Mercury retrograde like a helpful editor, keeping it real.
5. Planetary rulers of the IC/MC
Many features of an astrological chart gain significance when we can see how outer activity reflects inner experience. IC and MC, most private and most public points in the chart, are pivotal instruments for this concept of union. Planetary rulers of these angles indicate how the essence of the IC/MC polarity may be experienced in real terms.
Venus is the ruler of Toby's IC. In his natal chart she appears poised in the 7th house, affirming the importance of relationships in Toby's life. Her position in Aquarius, another air sign, reminds us of her affinity with far-reaching ideas. Venus' strongest aspects are with the outer planets, suggesting that Toby's innate sense of values has repercussions through wide fields of experience.
Mars, ruler of Toby's MC in Aries, is a natural counterpart for Venus. His position in Pisces brings the water element into the equation. From the 8th house, exactly conjunct Toby's south node, Mars invests the story of the angles with undercurrents of sensitivity and imagination. Mars forms a sextile with Toby's Capricorn Moon and, like Venus, makes aspects with the outer planets.
Venus and Mars are bonded together by a rich cultural heritage of mythological themes. They make a good team as rulers of IC and MC for Toby, a person whose own happy marriage is reflected in the outside world through a successful business centred on weddings.
6. Sabian symbols11
The Sabian Symbol for Toby's Ascendant is: Elderly man gazes at moose head on clubroom's wall. For his MC the symbol reads: A woman's hat with streamers blown by the east wind. Both images enhance the chart's themes of personal achievement within a context of group activity.
The symbol for Toby's Descendant is A Hindu pundit reveals himself suddenly a great healer and, for the IC, A fireplace blazes mysteriously in a deserted farmhouse. These evocative images bring an aura of mystery to Toby's natal chart. Their suggestion of unseen powers is perhaps a reminder of how astrology conjures up those subtle dimensions that underpin and motivate the more tangible levels of our life-experience.
The zodiac is like a medicine wheel – we all carry its imprint deep within our psyches12
This exploration from astronomical and historical perspectives provides a broad and colourful background for the angles of the natal chart. It also emphasises how the whole vast realm of astrology is based on people's lived experience of the sky – and that this is as relevant today as it ever was.
In astrology, as in the sky, the Sun forms a natural focus and centre; its perceived journeys are pivotal to our understanding of time. The angles provide a structure for measuring the Sun's movement – and a means to comprehend the patterns within each planet's cycle.
Symbolically the four angles are gateways into place and time. Astrologically the four angles hold the essence of our place in the world (Asc-Desc); and they tell the story of how we can mobilise this essential facet of our character as we envision and then reach for our dreams (IC-MC).
1 Alan & Marilyn Bergman, English lyrics for The Windmills of Your Mind, 1968
2 Valerie Vaughan, Astro-Mythology: the Celestial Union of Astrology and Myth One Reed Publications, Amherst MA, 1998, p.115
3 Dane Rudhyar, The Astrological Houses: The Spectrum of Individual Experience CRCS Publications, California, 1972, pp.174-175
4 Dane Rudhyar, The Astrology of Personality: A Re-formulation of Astrological Concepts and Ideals in Terms of Contemporary Psychology and Philosophy Aurora Press, Sante Fe NM, 1991, p 204
6 Nicholas de Vore, Encyclopedia of Astrology, Littlefield, Adams & Co. New Jersey, 1980, p.226
7 Leslie Fleming-Mitchell, The Language of Astrology: an Insider's Guide to the Language of the Experts, WH Allen & Co, London 1981, p.46
8 Howard Sasportas, The Twelve Houses, Understanding the Importance of the Houses in Your Astrological Birth Chart, Harper Collins, London 1998, p.29
9 Nicholas de Vore, Encyclopedia of Astrology, Littlefield, Adams & Co, New Jersey, 1980, p.226 and p.257
10 For example, see www.norse-mythology.org/cosmology/yggdrasil-and-the-well-of-urd
11 All references to Sabian Symbols are from Dane Rudhyar, The Astrology of Personality: A Re-formulation of Astrological Concepts and Ideals, in Terms of Contemporary Psychology and Philosophy, Aurora Press, Sante Fe NM, 1991, p.275 onwards
12 John Wadsworth, The Imaginal Zodiac at www.the alchemicaljourney.co.uk/articles/the-imaginal-zodiac
Polly Wallace is a professional astrologer who lives in the beautiful Cotswold Hills of England. After gaining the diploma of the Faculty of Astrological Studies Polly worked for the Faculty as distance learning tutor, contributor to written course material and tutor at Summer School. Polly's articles have been published in the Astrological Quarterly, Journal of the Seasons (NZ) and the AA Journal. She initiated and wrote an astrology column for Inside Time, the national newspaper for people in prison. Polly holds an honours degree in English and American Literature from the University of Kent; she is now looking forward to finding ways to combine her life-long love of literature with her fascination for astrology. Polly is available for astrology readings and for tuition, in person, by phone or via Skype. She can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org or www.skylinesastrology.co.uk
First published in: The Astrological Journal, March/April 2014
© The Astrological Association of Great Britain 2014
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