The 8th House
by Dana Gerhardt
Writing about the 8th house isn’t easy. “After all,” says my friend Geraldine, “who truly feels comfortable talking about their experiences of love, death, and sex outside the privacy of personal conversation?”
The 8th comes up in most of my astrology consultations. But usually I’ll enter through a side entrance, discovered in the course of conversation, without announcing I’m going in. I’ll step out just as gingerly. This is the house of secrets after all. It rules sex, other people’s money, taxes, debts, loss, and death. As a beginning astrologer, it’s easy to be intimidated by this house. Planets in a solar return 8th can make you quiver. Transits to the 8th might suggest years of calamity and doom. Over time, however, this knee-jerk fear gives way to deep respect. Survive an 8th house transit and you’ll be reborn. Valuable lessons will be learned. Eventually you’ll regard the 8th as a kind of spiritual master who only shatters you for your higher good. Your ego holds no dominion here. In this house greater forces run the show.
It’s difficult to talk about the 8th, but we all know 8th house territory. From childhood onward, we crawled through this archetypal jungle on our knees. There was that mysterious tension in the air whenever your Aunt came to visit. Or how, with a single word, your grandmother could turn your dad into a child. It was the odd feeling you got when your uncle invited you to sit on his lap. The 8th carries your psychological inheritance—the potent invisible currents that no one talked about. Here were the electric fences strung across the rooms when your parents argued about money or sex. Here too was the power of your mother’s purse, full of mysterious totems and the smell of money. Maybe you tried a few magic spells to make it come to you. But mostly you were under others’ spells here, shaped by rituals and defense mechanisms absorbed without your comprehension—your father’s deep self-loathing, your mother’s rage, handed from female to female down your family line. In later years, perhaps when a transit touched this house, such legacies might be painfully stripped away. Buried 8th house secrets might suddenly spring to light. This is the house that keeps the therapists in business.
Transformations here aren’t always bad. The 8th describes important sexual initiations. A financial inheritance or an insurance settlement could be indicated by the 8th. Also your first joint bank account, loan approval on your first house. If you practice divination, the 8th can help you answer questions like “Will I get Aunt Melanie’s millions?” But if you’re a counseling astrologer, you’ll likely be working with the part of this house that’s known by feelings more than words, the unspoken contracts, the irrational fears, the pull of the past, its compulsions and obsessions.
Like the 7th, this is a house of “others.” In the 8th we can be rocked by our relationships—into desire, anger, ecstasy, insecurity, or greed. If the 7th house describes relationships forged through equality, in the 8th house we suffer (or profit from) relationships based on inequality. When others enter the intimate waters of this house, they get some power over us. Whether it’s the bank, our parents, the IRS, our sexual partners, even a stranger who happens to push our buttons, and let’s not forget the scythe-master Death—through the 8th we become painfully aware of forces beyond our manipulation and control. In our struggles here, how should we proceed? Most journeys here require a guide. Along with unflinching, courageous “awareness,” “surrender” is the most useful 8th house word.
I remember a client who used to call me every couple of months, always with the same question. Her progressed Moon was in the 8th house. “Is it over yet?” she wanted to know. Rebecca was nervous about spending money; she told me she couldn’t afford a session. She just wanted to know which day the Moon would be out of the 8th and into the 9th. Because I’d told her this several times already, I knew she’d dialed me up for another reason. She needed to talk. There were no tangible crises going on in her life, but ever since the progressed Moon had entered her 8th, she’d been suffering from anxiety and depression. The 8th, writes John Frawley, can show “fear and anguish of mind.”1 Especially with the progressed Moon in this house, the mind can become one’s own worst enemy, particularly when it resists the call to either get help or let go of an attachment.
Rebecca lived alone. Her husband had died years before. Her daughter wanted her to sell her house and move to a seniors condominium complex. That meant she’d have to go through all her old possessions, including her dead husband’s things. She’d have to say good-bye to her garden and her trees. She’d have to deal with loan officers and real estate agents. She’d have to meet new people who might not welcome her. She didn’t have the heart to face any of this. She avoided the decision and tried to go on as usual, which meant she would call me every few months, in tremendous pain.
The 8th house can describe the monsters hiding in our closets. I’m thinking of Mercer Mayer’s children’s book by the same name (There’s a Monster in My Closet). A little boy hears a frightful noise, and night after night, quaking in fear, with a flashlight ready, his toy soldiers gathered around him, he barricades the closet door. His fear only grows bigger. Finally he decides there’s nothing left to do but face the beast. The monster is big and scary, but in a surprise turn, the demon goes jelly-kneed and begs to crawl into bed with the boy. The same can happen with our own 8th house monsters. Our fears want comforting so they can dissolve. But if we refuse to face them, their power only grows. To deal with 8th house feelings, we may need a “Charon” (the mythological guide who ferries souls across the river Styx). Our Charon could appear in the form of a therapist, an astrologer, or a friend who’s been there before. But if, like Rebecca, we stubbornly resist help or change, we will never claim the healing power that lies beneath our fears.
The progressed Moon finally entered Rebecca’s 9th house. Six months later I heard from her again: “Is it over yet?” she moaned. Nothing had changed. She was still debating whether to sell her house, worrying about all the work it would take, fearful that she wouldn’t be happy in new circumstances. Even though her progressed Moon had entered the more spacious territory of the 9th, Rebecca still wasn’t free. She had never opened the door and released the monster from her closet. For the two years of the Moon’s progression, she had steadfastly refused to surrender her old life. That meant a new one couldn’t be born.
The last time Rebecca phoned, she had finally put her house on the market. I never heard from her again. I like to think this means she finally sold her house, cleared her psychic closet, and began to enjoy a new adventure in the 9th. There’s a saying among astrologers, “It’s a transit; it will pass.” The suggestion is that when the planets move on, so will we. But if we resist the work required, especially in the 8th house, we might remain there long after the transit has moved on.
We can resist the 8th—but we can get mired there too. This heavy house can draw us down like quicksand. My friend, astrologer Lucy Pond, tells a story about one of her clients, Linda, who got stuck in the 8th when Jupiter transited there. It wasn’t until Saturn came along that she woke up. Traditional astrology says Saturn is the ruler of this house. Saturn in his home territory can act as a karmic cop. If we’ve been evading our responsibilities—material or metaphysical, he will bust us. Lucy describes it this way: “Saturn in the 8th house is the bill collector. What is hidden will be flushed to the surface—even if that is your own lost self.” The following story is in Lucy’s words. She wrote this for a previous TMA column of mine on the 8th house.2 It’s worth reprinting.
A couple years after Linda started working with me, she announced she had taken my advice and found a good therapist; they were dealing with her repressed memory syndrome. She was remembering having been raped by her father and her two brothers, a recollection that threw her into a tailspin. Transiting Jupiter had just entered her 8th house—a good time to delve into the secrets from the past, especially deeply buried secrets. Pisces was on Linda's 8th house cusp and repressed memories seemed to fit with her style of dealing with intense emotion. I shared my findings and encouraged her to stay with her therapist.
As the years moved on and Jupiter entered her 10th house, therapy became Linda's identity. She had recalled the exact details and circumstances of all her rapes. Though seemingly cut off from the real world, she formed friendships with others in the incest survivors group. She was devoting more and more time to counseling and almost completely stopped working to pursue what seemed a virtual addiction to therapy. She had passed beyond the door of the 8th house, but seemed to be stuck there emotionally.
As Linda's astrologer, I was often frustrated with her obsession with the past. Regardless of how I encouraged her to be in the present, she translated all astrological information as an opportunity to go deeper into the past. I reminded her that she was living through the rear view mirror—that she had no idea where she was, or was heading, only where she'd been. There was no "present time" in her life. And because I believe astrology is best used as a tool for living more fully in the present, I felt futile as a resource.
Several months ago, on the event of transiting Saturn conjuncting her 8th house cusp, Linda asked my astrological advice on falsifying some federal assistance papers. To remain on the public assistance program that allowed her to pursue therapy rather than working, she had to swear that she received no outside money. We both knew this was untrue; for the past four years her father-perpetrator had been quietly sending her money.
Among the many meanings of the 8th house is taxes. Frequently, when transiting Saturn is here, a person is audited by the IRS and financial secrets are brought to the surface. My advice to Linda was "No, don't do it. Don't risk being audited, as you could very possibly be caught."
The next time Linda walked into my office, she was a strikingly different person. She was finally and quite clearly in present time. Rather than her usual wounded and hidden presence, she seemed fully alive. I could hardly wait for her to sit down. "What's going on with you?" I asked. "You look better than you have in years."
Linda told me she was being audited by the federal agency that had been providing her benefits—that the agency did not believe she could exist solely on the monthly stipend they were sending her. The agency was contacting her neighbors, her landlord, even her parents to discover how she had made financial ends meet. She was possibly going to be charged with a felony—no joking matter.
Linda was frightened, and with good reason. Yet I was amazed at how whole she now seemed. No spaced-out lost soul here. Linda was scared, but fully awake. I asked about her various therapies. She said she had cast them all aside. "That's over. I don't need that anymore. I want to get a job, make some money, and start paying the government back." What a response! She was starting to reclaim her life and live in present time.
The 8th is the house of death. It might seem paradoxical that in this house we can renew our life; yet there is a connection. According to the Buddhists, nothing gets our spiritual priorities straighter than death. “Keep Death to the left,” the shaman Don Juan advised Carlos Castanada. Acknowledging death can be a powerful means for moving us into present time. Almost universally, those who’ve suffered near-death experiences report that it blessed them with a keener sense of life.
Modern and traditional astrologers disagree on death’s importance to this house. Dane Rudhyar suggests this meaning is overrated.3 As spokesman for the traditional view, John Frawley argues otherwise: “In any astrology that purports to say anything of concrete and verifiable accuracy, the eighth is the house of death. This is not death in any poetic or metaphorical sense, as some modern authorities claim. This is death in the very real sense of someone no longer being alive.”4
That a person will die is one prediction we can make with full accuracy. The trick is nailing when. Recently I heard the story of a woman who visited an astrologer and was told her death was imminent. She was thrown into turmoil. When the time passed and she didn’t die, she was relieved, then mighty angry with the astrologer. Last week a dear friend confessed that on her recent trip to Nepal a palm reader had told her she would die in five years. Choking back tears, my friend asked if I saw the same thing. I checked her chart. I saw nothing remarkable and she was relieved. Still I wondered, if the time came and I was wrong, would she go hurtling through the afterworld mighty mad at me?
Frawley suggests that modern astrologers are squeamish about giving their clients anything but happy news. Traditional astrologers were more practical: it was pointless to predict a client’s Wednesday if by Tuesday he’d be dead. To locate the time of death, Frawley suggests looking carefully at the 8th house cusp and ruler, also the condition of the 8th in the solar and lunar returns. It’s true that most modern astrologers haven’t developed this technique. Rarely does “Timing Death” appear on conference schedules. When I ask my astrology buddies their means for timing death, their responses are as vague as mine. The mother of one of my astrologer friends had terminal cancer. We looked at possible times for her inevitable death. We suspected it would happen the year Pluto squared my friend’s Moon, but her mother ignored the transit and continued living.
Perhaps as the Buddhists say it is enough to know that we will die, even though the time is uncertain. In the meantime, when my clients show an 8th house emphasis by transit, progression or solar return, I’ve found it useful to suspect that “something” in their life will die. However poetic and metaphorical my view, it’s also practical; the majority of my clients survive these transits and gain new meaning from them. You’ll have to decide for yourself whether we moderns are dumbing down the tradition or expanding the symbols to speak to a contemporary culture’s needs.
Planets in the 8th of a solar return can signal a year of crisis or instability. There may be a significant lifestyle change, difficult adjustments to a divorce, a move, a new job. An emphasized 8th in the solar or by transit or progression can indicate a death or emotional crisis for someone close to us. Often our own ego gets a traumatic hit, suggesting it’s time to let go of some notion it holds about itself. Recently my friend, astrologer April Elliott Kent, posted an article on her website about Saturn transiting through her 8th house. “Saturn,” she wrote, “is stomping through my eighth house like Godzilla humbling Tokyo, holding up a mirror to my trembling second-house natal Saturn with its many insecurities.”5 The 8th house rules our partner’s money; April’s husband was currently without an income. Together they owed the IRS a chunk of change and although their stock portfolio wasn’t dead, it was on life support. They also became victims of credit card fraud. “Really,” April wrote, “eighth house transits don’t get a whole lot worse than this. It’s enough to make you want to… take a nap. And drink heavily.”
April emailed me the day after posting her article. “I just received the most mind-blowing email I’ve ever received from a reader, accusing me of writing only about ‘(my) life, (my) house, (my) husband’ and ‘suggesting’ that I return to a more ‘generic’ approach (when did I ever have that?!). You can imagine my reaction, and my response... I'm considering writing an addendum to the article with this extra illustration of the Saturn opposition at work. Second house Saturn: ‘You think you're no good, unworthy, your ideas unacceptable?’ Eighth house transiting Saturn: ‘Well, you're RIGHT!’”
Here’s where it’s helpful to know astrology: April could lay down and die or recognize something else needed to die. “And that's exactly what's coming out of this,” April emailed the next day. “It's like a whole lifetime of people picking at my creative efforts with their ‘who do you think you are?’ attitude is bubbling up and I'm just standing there and saying, you know what? This is bullshit!” Not all 8th house deaths are bad. Because of her courageous awareness, April’s insecurities tumbled under the Grim Reaper’s axe.
“The idea of sex as an eighth-house activity is quite horrific,” writes John Frawley.6 Sex in the traditional system is located in the 5th house. I’m inclined to agree. But I have noticed that for the month the Sun passes through the 8th each year, my clients report having the most amazing sex dreams. Or they discover an unusual jump in phermones making them more attractive to the opposite sex.
Fifth house sex is joyful and full of pleasure. In the traditional view this is Venus’ realm. This is a house of play and sex is a great way for adults to play with each other. But 8th house sex is different. It’s more complicated and mysterious. It’s the kind of sex Pluto had with Persephone (Pluto rules the 8th in modern astrology). When the 8th is activated, we might identify with one or the other. We could feel possessive and on the prowl like Pluto. Or be innocently picking flowers like Persephone, heading for a big surprise. As either character, we’ll land in a bed from the underworld.
Eighth house sex is the kind husbands hide from their wives. Or it’s the kind couples argue about, “I want sex this way… I need it so many times a week.” This power struggle extends beyond sex and into everything: “I hate your mother… I don’t like the way you spend money.” Eighth house sexual struggles are the ones that appear on Oprah and Dr. Phil. But in the myth, we never get a picture of what Pluto does with Persephone. When myths draw the curtain on certain scenes, it’s a clue that experiences here are wildly varied, and that each one of us must navigate this passage on our own.
Yet we can’t leave the 8th without hearing at least one sex tale. This one comes from Bronwyn Elko, another astrologer who contributed to my previous 8th house column (when Saturn was in Pisces). One of the things I especially enjoy is how it proves that even grim Saturn can have a sense of humor. I leave you with her words.
After I lost my virginity I wrote in my journal, "Today Peter and I made love. Phosphorescene bloomed into visions. Now I know there is a God!" Sacred sex is my religion, a portal to mystical ecstasy. Never mind the mucky consequences of spiritual pride bound up with intimacy, "healing through sex," sacrifice as power, and other Pisces/8th house delusions. Some part of me stubbornly believes that the "universe of yoni" (Hindu for vagina) receives a divine spark from a man's lingham, or "wand of light." The stir of sticky fluids is nectar from the gods which acts like a drug.
All my life I've spontaneously hallucinated during lovemaking. It's as if other worlds breach the surface of our skins. It sounds crazy, but the universe once enfolded my lover's eyes and biological time flowed backwards into alien landscapes. With natal Neptune in the 3rd, these visions fuel my fantasy fiction, which is interesting in light of recent events.
Saturn entering my 8th unearthed subterranean Pisces when I became passionately involved with a man whose physical condition prohibited sexual intercourse! Devastated but determined, I vowed to stick it out. The more I "sacrificed and suffered" the worse things got. A power struggle ensued wherein we fought to change each other's values. Threatened by his nihilistic vision, I promptly donned savior robes in a hopeless attempt to "redeem" him, the hidden reflection of my own denied cynicism.
My Aquarius on the 7th was hopelessly "hooked": the guy is the brilliant writer my Saturn in the 3rd yearns to become. But Saturn transiting my 8th forced back the projection in the most painful way possible (via Neptune square natal Neptune in the 3rd). Can you guess what Piscean currency his Promethean spirit "stole" from me, the coin Charon demanded I pay in exchange for trying to import his brilliance? In short, the whole episode resulted in a crippling block which denied all access to imagination. I felt dead for months.
But that wasn't all.
Shortly after our breakup I overheard two women talking about him at a writer's party. "Oh," said the blonde, "his writing's so passionate." The other blew a smoke-ring and replied, "Yeah, he must be great in bed!"
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