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The Third House
by Dana Gerhardt

When my son was three, we'd often walk to the small park fronting the neighborhood swimming pool, so Branden could ride the “wee!” (his toddler word for "slide"). I remember the time we were joined by an elderly woman. She was chauffeuring her grandson in a little red wagon, or as Branden called it then, a "ride."

The boy was some months older than Branden, and as the boy crawled out of his wagon, my son studied him carefully. Briefly the boy eyed him back, then scrambled over to the bushes, where he picked up pieces of redwood bark and started throwing them at the plants. All the while his grandmother was running a polite monologue about how he should say hi to the nice little boy, how he shouldn't hurt the nice plants, how none of the people would like it if he kept throwing the bark--none of which the boy appeared to hear.

After a few minutes, my son walked over to the boy. Without acknowledging him, Branden also gathered a handful of bark and threw it at the bushes. It wasn't anything he'd done before. For some minutes the two just stood there, throwing bark side-by-side, silently engaged in a rite of communication only they understood. After Grandma broke up the game, the two played separately, with no further acknowledgement of each other's presence--for this wasn't a budding friendship. It was a 3rd house thing.

The 3rd house rules siblings, neighbors, short trips, grammar school, the acquisition and use of language. But underneath these keywords lies a profound mystery: our fundamentally human dance of development--of curiosity, imitation and communication, of adapting to and connecting with our immediate world. It is not so much a house of "things" as it is a zone of activity. The way a plant reaches for light, in our 3rd house, we reach for the world with our minds. The essence of all 3rd house nouns might be collected in a single verb: in this house we learn.

We learn from our siblings and neighbors; from short trips around town; from the words that shape our world; from the social and informational structures we meet at school. The mystery, of course, is that we do this before anyone tells us to be doing it. It's as instinctive as a baby's urge to crawl across the carpet. It's as fundamental as a toddler's delight in made-up words or discoveries like bark-throwing. We take the cues from our surroundings and grow. A child follows her siblings, feeling so accomplished when she mimics their language and behaviors. A child with no brothers or sisters will find facsimiles. Many times I used to spy from behind the fence, watching Branden and his daycare pals sputter around the yard. On the surface they were a flock without pattern, ducklings with no guiding duck -- yet behind their moves lay a complex 3rd house dance of curiosity, competition and imitation, of learning about, and gaining connection to their world.

The 3rd is what's known as a “cadent” house. "Cadent" derives from the Latin "cadere," meaning to fall away. The cadent houses are where we fall away from the game plans we initiated in the cardinal houses and stabilized in the succedents. We must adapt to outer forces. Our success there depends on flexibility and versatility. It's wise in these houses to regard all that we meet as a teacher. In the cadents above the horizon, we're brought to worlds beyond our familiar narrow streets. In the 9th we encounter foreign concepts, stretch into new perspectives, discern the bigger meanings behind events. In the 12th we go beyond the limits of ordinary logic and touch what's unconscious, incomprehensible, and divine.

By comparison, the cadents below the horizon may seem less interesting or exotic. Their terrain is certainly more confined. In the 6th we must adapt to the limits of our bodies (in traditional astrology, this is the house of sickness); or we must adapt to the workplace (in modern astrology, this is the house of co-workers and routine tasks). In the 3rd we must concern ourselves with familiar drudgeries: phone calls, emails, our daily drives through town. The keyword list that signaled new adventures for a child evokes for an adult the boredom of already conquered territory. Grammar school is over. Siblings and neighbors cease to expand us. We've already mastered many thousands of words.

This may be why John Frawley writes of the 3rd house: “Of all the houses of the astrological chart, it is probably the third that arouses the least interest. In most birth-chart readings it will be quietly skated over, as the astrologer can usually find nothing there that warrants closer examination.”1 If an astrologer does talk about planetary transits through the 3rd or a strong 3rd house in a solar return, the usual suggestion is that we take a workshop, improve our communication skills, learn something that might update our resumes. Or an astrologer might say it's a period when we'll be busier than usual, in which case, meditation or stress-relieving practices might be necessary.

The problem with such advice is that it misses the underlying delight and ongoing purpose of this house. Just as the 6th provides intricate feedback on the changing requirements of our bodies or our workplace, through the 3rd we collect a stream of information about the changing contours of our environment. Nothing-not even our familiar world-stands still. Lose interest in these changes and your mind will lose its potency. When you cease to wonder about what's strange in your day-to-day world, when you lose your willingness to taste new words and imitate without self-consciousness, when you forego the thrill of acquiring new masteries, however small, you will lose the vast richness of this house. The issue here is not what we learn so much as that we learn. In the 3rd house we're performing the good work of keeping our minds alive and, in Bob Dylan's words, “forever young.”

Last Christmas I got a Harry Potter wand. I had fun waving it around, pushing its buttons and generally pretending to be magical. Then one day my son announced he had beaten the game. “What game?” “Your Harry Potter wand.” It was a game? I checked the wand's package and read every line. There was no mention of a game, no manual of instructions. And yet, Branden had discovered how to push its buttons in such a way that accumulated points and defeated imaginary companions. Though I was a stellar grammar school student and got A's throughout high school, I got my come-uppance with that wand. At almost 50 years old, I was suddenly in a classroom where I was the dunce!

The 3rd house brings opportunities to keep updating ourselves. Recalling grammar school, on whose model the 3rd house stands, its education was largely mandatory. We didn't get to pick and choose our course of study until the 9th house of higher education. Third house learning, therefore, is more about what our environment dictates as important. You don't use the Internet yet? You haven't learned how to greet your new Slovakian neighbors in their native tongue? Answer “yes” and you may be shutting the door on continued 3rd house adaptability and effectiveness.

Perhaps the best approach to 3rd house transits is to take an honest look and see where you've fallen behind. Although new technologies like digital cameras and palm pilots may be ruled by the 11th house, their appearance in your environment becomes a 3rd house matter, especially as these transfer information. You may not need all the options on your cell phone, but mastering them may expand your awareness of the world in ways you cannot predict. Learn how to navigate its menu and your brain may start thinking in new updated paths.

Though Branden and I share the same house, we live in different neighborhoods. In his neighborhood, electronic toys are commonplace. Technological Aquarius is on his 3rd house cusp. My son doesn't need a book of instructions. For him this knowledge is in the air, as though all he had to do was soak it up. Our 3rd house mind is often sponge-like, absorbing without concern for the particulars of content. This may be why traditional astrology says the changeable receptive Moon “joys” in this house. In the busy 3rd, there is much to reflect and receive. Last week Branden came home quite pleased with a rap he'd made up with his friends: “I'm down at the street drinking liz bliz with the chiz niz at the biz ness.” When I asked him what it meant, he had no idea, a fact which diminished none of his pleasure.

Branden doesn't watch MTV yet, but on the wings of Hermes, Snoop Doggy Dog's language still travels through Branden's neighborhood where it's absorbed. This is a fact parents can never fully reverse. It's suggested by the very layout of the horoscope: the 3rd house precedes the 4th of home and family. The neighborhood is an influence that strolls into the home, rather than as parents and educators might prefer out from the home and onto the schoolyard.
Planets and signs in the 3rd house act as a filter on our immediate environment, predisposing us to meet what they symbolize. When Branden and I drive through the neighborhood, his streets are filled with an eclectic Aquarian community: “Mom, I know so many kids on this block. I think I know someone on every street in our town.” Scorpio--cooler, more secretive and withdrawn--is on my 3rd house cusp. My streets are filled with strangers whose doors are always closed. And this is fine by me: I value my privacy and presume my neighbors do the same.
Years ago, when I bought my first home in a condominium complex, I wondered if I could shift my 3rd house experience. After all, along with taciturn Saturn in Scorpio, I have curious Mercury and charming Venus in the 3rd. I resolved to become more "neighborly." As the movers unloaded our belongings from the van, I smiled and waved to everyone I saw. I was ready to learn their names, welcome them into my new digs, share cups of sugar, or whatever it is that neighbors do.

Two weeks later I was avoiding eye contact with my new neighbors-though I swear I only did this because they avoided eye contact first. Perhaps I was in a feedback loop, seeing only my own projections. Had my chart forever doomed me to live in Scorpio neighborhoods? Briefly, during the week after the earthquake (a Scorpio crisis!) my neighbors and I learned each other's names and exchanged phone numbers in case of emergencies. Then we snapped back to mutual invisibility. Over the five years I lived in that complex, I'd only occasionally give or get a “hello,” usually from some new face unloading belongings from a van.

It's the belief of some astrologers that we're doomed to keep reliving our charts and childhood patterns. Yet more interesting, I believe, is how we can transform them (my 3rd house Scorpio talking). In this case, I think it's the very concept of neighborhood that could use updating. Neighborhood is fundamentally the locus of our daily gossip and personal news. For children (or those ancients whose worlds were collected in a single village) the streets around home were indeed the center of such information. But for someone in the 21st century with money and a driver's license, this locality is vast. And in that larger one, I've got plenty of friendly neighbors with open doors.

Last year one of my neighbors moved from Ashland Oregon to San Marcos Island in Florida. Thanks to free weekend time on my cell phone, we haven't missed a minute of personal news. Through emails I still know what's going on with my California cohorts. And when those web-based political action groups invite me to sign electronic petitions, aren't they much like the guy who used to sit at a card table outside my neighborhood grocery store? When morning TV shows like Regis and Kelly or The View broadcast from sets that look like living rooms, with hosts drinking coffee and discussing the latest gossip, doesn't my 3rd house neighborhood expand to include these celebrities too? I spy on the romantic exploits of The Bachelor, the back-biting of Survivor tribes, and aren't The Osbournes just another wacky family on my block?

The sign on the 3rd describes not only the streets around our home. Perhaps more importantly, it describes the type of mental stimulation we seek in our day-to-day environment. I have 3rd house neighbors around the world who satisfy my Scorpio needs for depth and intimate exchange; regularly I invite Oprah and Dr. Phil into my living room too. The 3rd house tells what types of communication we'll find interesting--which suggests another means for keeping our 3rd house experience fresh. When your daily round grows routine or too overwhelming, examine the neighborhood you've been frequenting. Where do you get your news? Whose influence are you absorbing? Does this neighborhood serve the archetypal hunger of your 3rd house planets and signs?

For years I resisted allowing video and computer games into Branden's world, hoping he would prefer more benign childhood pastimes like book-reading, playing Legos, or inventing imaginary games. He didn't (“Mom, I'm sooooo bored.”). He was also scared of being left alone. Given the Aquarius on his 3rd, I finally relented and bought him a Play Station 2. Now he claimed I could go to my five-hour class at the Buddhist temple and he'd be fine. He spent that afternoon wandering the streets of (shudder) Vice City's video game. When I got home, he announced he was the happiest boy in the world.

If you feel others don't understand you,” writes Donna Cunningham, “look to the third house to see how well you make yourself understood.”2 With Sagittarius on the 3rd house cusp, she suggests, an open, easy-going approach might invite communication from others; with Scorpio, reserved or biting and sarcastic speech might discourage easy back-and-forth exchange (not with me of course… but don't ask my loved ones!). Whatever the style, the 3rd house's affinity with Mercury, the planet ruling communication, is clear, which is why modern astrologers claim Mercury is the natural ruler of this house. Mercury rules all types of messages-letters, rumours, reports, speeches, and debates-all of which belong in 3rd house territory.

Carolyn Myss writes that the 3rd house “reveals how you direct your energy into the world.”3 The sign on its cusp may describe how you put your ideas into motion and, ultimately, how you wield your personal power. According to Myss, the challenge of the 3rd house is to become conscious of your motivations, as one's every thought, word, action, and deed invoke the laws of magnetic attraction. What you put out in the 3rd is what you'll receive. Action and movement are certainly features of this house. But it might surprise modern astrologers to learn that in traditional astrology, action-oriented, desire-inspired, power-wielding Mars, not Mercury, is assigned rulership of the 3rd.

So which ruler should we use? I confess I'm not scholarly enough to settle this debate. I only care how astrology can help us live a richer life, in which case, it seems that monitoring both our thoughts and deeds can improve our experience of the 3rd.

An actress friend once told me about an improv game called “mantras.” All the actors in a scene would pick a guiding sentence (or mantra) and silently chant it as the action unfolded. Someone chanting "I'm angry" sat down to share a bowl of popcorn with someone else repeating "I'm special," and the spontaneous results, my friend told me, were near Pulitzer prize-winning scenes. It quickly became clear that the mantras determined all the actions in the scene. I wasn't surprised-for the same is true in life. We act according to how we think, and what we think about our world, depends a lot on what we've been doing. Thought and deed, or Mercury and Mars, are deeply intertwined. The next time you feel others don't understand you, or worry that your power to achieve your desires has dimmed, study the field of your 3rd. How are you thinking and acting in your day-to-day world?

Of course, sometimes it's just nice to get away from it all-to abandon the noise and distraction of the 3rd for the more spacious skies of the 9th. Whenever you've got trouble with a particular house, it helps to stand in its opposite for awhile. Opposite the 3rd is the 9th, ruling faraway places, philosophy and religion. Most religions encourage us to love our 3rd house neighbors, but they also advise we avoid some of them too. The 9th can act as a kind of quality control on negative 3rd house influences, both inner and outer. Go to a faraway place that's quiet and your mind clears. Abandon the distractions of your town and you'll achieve a new perspective.

Some say the 9th house rules higher mind and the 3rd house rules the lower. This is an accurate enough distinction, but it has an uncomfortably snooty sound. To my mind, the 3rd and the 9th are equal in importance. One without the other is incomplete. This is especially clear in charts where the Moon's Nodes fall across these houses. The familiar comforts of the South Node house consumes energy and diverts us from our path; the North Node house offers an antidote to this enchantment, but actualizing it isn't easy.

Anna's South Node is in the 3rd house. She's had a busy life, having achieved success in a variety of careers. She's competent in the ways of business-computers, accounting, engineering-yet is utterly mystified about her true life direction. She doesn't know why, but her busy life has often felt empty, like it was going nowhere. She's forever on the road, marking its twists and turns, but has never seen the full perspective from a map. Like many with the South Node here, she's missing the 9th house visionary gene.

Eric, on the other hand, feels quite sure of his life direction. But he's utterly mystified about how to make it happen. His North Node is in the 3rd. He visualizes his destination clearly; he just can't find the road that will take him there. He gets overwhelmed by the kind of 3rd house details that most people take in stride-phone calls, errands, letter writing, organizing his papers. He's quick to give his 9th house opinion on all sorts of things. For years his ambition has been to publish editorials in The New York Times (why start at the bottom?), but he's never gotten around to actually writing one, let alone sending one in.

Clearly Eric needs a little more 3rd house savvy and Anna needs more soaring in the 9th. For all of us, it's balancing the higher and lower minds that's key. You can do this by designating your 3rd house mind as a 9th house sacred space. Nourish it carefully, cleanse it religiously. Stop the chatter. Discard useless information. Select your neighborhood carefully. Find one where you can breathe in plenty of fresh invigorating air. You'll know you've succeeded when your daily mind is eager for the simple pleasures of reaching for the world, for learning and listening without judgement. These are the priceless 3rd house joys.

  1. John Frawley, The Real Astrology Applied (Apprentice Books, 2002), p. 161
  2. Donna Cunningham, An Astrological Guide to Self Awareness (CRCS Publications, 1978), p. 144.
  3. Carolyn Myss, Sacred Contracts (Harmony Books, 2001), p. 213.


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