The Twelfth House
by Dana Gerhardt
Over the years, I’ve received more inquiries about the 12th than any other house. The ones who write are usually in distress. Sometimes they’re new to astrology and are panicked to learn they’ve got planets here: “I’ve heard the 12th is a terrible house. Am I doomed?” Other times, it’s people who know all about the 12th. In fact, they’ve got a long tale of 12th house woe and are hoping I can predict the precise moment its trials will end. Classical astrologers have called this house “the valley of miseries,” “the dark den of sorrow and horror,” the “portal of toil,” and the house of “Bad Spirit.”
There is karma here. That means bad things will happen to bad people. Even good people will suffer misfortune if they’re carrying some mysterious past-life debt. This house can bring frustration, anxiety, confinement, and loss; also slavery, sickness, and imprisonment. It rules hospitals, prisons, mental institutions, and monasteries (the kind you were sent to when the family wanted to keep you from public view). The 12th also rules hidden enemies. These are the evil doers you don’t even know about, like the smiling beautician who Moonlights as a sorcerer, and is even now sticking pins into a voodoo doll tied with a strand of your hair.
Thank goodness Dane Rudhyar, the father of modern astrology, declared, “There are no bad houses.”  And so modern astrologers, like a happy Extreme Makeover crew, took their axes to this structure of doom. They hollowed out its dingy cells and remade the 12th into a vast womb of invisible potencies. It is now the matrix of divine unity, holding the Oneness from which we all emerge and to which we all return. Draped in the gauzy veils of Neptune and Pisces, the 12th has become an inner dream factory, residence of the collective unconscious, wellspring of symbols and archetypes, favorite haunt of the imagination. It is a house of intuition, compassion and spiritual transcendence. You’re advised to serve here, so that you don’t have to suffer. For even modern astrologers couldn’t erase all the difficulties in this house. They warn that in such a potent unbounded space, you can easily lose your bearings. Functions and gifts of planets here may be hard to access. You might lack a clear life direction or be confused about who you are. You may feel shy, insignificant, or anonymous—or you could suffer from delusions of grandeur. Saviors and martyrs live here. Your psychic boundaries might be so porous, you could be an easy mark for predators, or become a slick predator yourself. All of this could drive you to deception and drink.
“Things you cannot see” would be the game show category for this house. Whether you favor the traditional or modern view, analyzing this house poses a similar problem: How do you accurately see its territory? All of its dangers are invisible, whether caused by karma, hidden enemies, or the perverted logic of your own subconscious. According to Ptolemy, the 12th corresponded to that part of the sky, just above the horizon, where stars were obscured by the “thick, misty exhalations from the moistures of earth.” According to the Egyptians, stars here were lost in, and debilitated by, the sun’s light at sunrise.  For both traditionalists and moderns, the 12th represents a colossal blind spot. Therefore with the problem of perception is where we should begin. Consider the cautionary tale of the Emperor of Chin.
The First Emperor of Chin was a tyrant. Ambitious and powerful, he conquered a vast territory and was the first to unite the Chinese into a single empire. Obsessed with immortality, he aimed to conquer death too. He secured a spiritual text that promised to deliver the secret of everlasting life. But the book was written in esoteric language. All he could understand was a single sentence: "The one who shall destroy Chin is Hu." Thinking "Hu" referred to a tribe from Northern China, he mobilized his entire country to build a great defensive wall. It stretched for thousands of miles to keep the presaged invaders at bay. The wall is still standing, but Chin’s empire crumbled a scant few years after his death. What destroyed it? Not the northern tribe of Hu, but Chin’s irresponsible and idiotic son, who was also named Hu. Talk about blind spots! Chin literally planted the seed that took his own empire down.
Most of us make a similar mistake with our 12th house, for it too is an esoteric spiritual text. And its cryptic sentences, coming as intuitions, irritations, and fears, may misdirect us into battle against some “Hu” in the outer world. Like the emperor, we may exert great effort walling out phantom enemies while missing the real situation. “Self-undoing” is the most relevant of the traditional keywords to survive in the modern 12th house, and it’s potent enough to make us just as sick, imprisoned or enslaved as all the others. When you approach the veiled gates of this house, come armed with a healthy suspicion of your own blind spots. Pay attention to what irritates or frightens you “out there,” because it’s quite likely this enemy lurks in the shadows of your own nature, described by your 12th house planets or signs.
Katie has a 12th house Moon. On Ingrid’s 12th house cusp is Cancer, ruled by the Moon. Both women have a similar "enemy" in the outer world. Katie's nemesis is an actress in her community theater group. I've listened to Katie complain about her countless times. "She drives me nuts! She's always feeling sorry for herself. She's just a high school teacher but all you hear about is how hard she works, how stressful her job is. She’s forever bringing homework to rehearsals and cast parties, so she can fall asleep on a pile of papers. Does she think we’ll give her an Oscar for martyr of the year?"
Ingrid's nemesis is Katie, whom she talks about constantly. Her complaint is surprisingly similar. "I just can't stand Katie. Listening to her is like fingernails on chalk to me. She drives me crazy, always playing the victim. Will she ever stop whining and feeling sorry for herself?" I once asked Ingrid why she thought Katie had such an effect on her. "I guess it's because I've always had it so hard. My mother was an alcoholic, you know, and I had to take care of myself. I never got to whine like that... No one ever cared if I cried."
Er, excuse me while I get my violin. I don't mean to sound unsympathetic, but I've got a 12th house Moon too. That’s why I'm writing about Katie and Ingrid. Their whining about whiners bugs me! Because of her mother's alcoholism, Ingrid was robbed of much of the emotional comforts of her Moon. But Katie and I didn’t have it much better. Twelfth house Moons often have mothers who are sick, narcissistic, or otherwise un-nurturing, reversing the mother-child dynamic so the child has to mother the mother. Twelfth house Moons learn to disguise their own vulnerability and pretend it isn’t there. They become masters of self-sufficiency. Often they’re particularly gifted at taking care of others. But repressing their neediness doesn’t make it disappear; it goes to their 12th house blind spot, where it lives as an emotionally hungry child. Trailing the competent nurturer, the little orphan cries out with an unconscious “Poor me!”—which everyone but the 12th house Moon person can hear.
Chin had two sons. He gave all his attention to his first-born, Fu, the promised heir to the throne. Overlooked, the second-born Hu remained ignorant, silly and petulant, in effect never quite growing up. But when Chin died, wicked insiders prevented Fu from taking power and Hu was installed as a puppet leader. An empire that should have lasted a few hundred years died virtually overnight. If planets in the 12th were children, they’d be reared much like the neglected son Hu. Without our conscious attention, they’re neither tested nor trained. They don’t get the same opportunities to grow and mature. Yet in moments of unconsciousness, they will take over, and can cause plenty of damage.
Consider the case of a 12th house Mars. Mars is the archetypal warrior, representing the ability to set boundaries, be self-assertive, get angry when necessary. People with a 12th house Mars often have difficulty going after what they want. They’re outwardly gentle and agreeable, for the most part lacking Mars’ sharp attacks. You can cross them several times and get no reaction, but one day, someone, possibly you, will receive a full-blown Mars explosion. The 35-year-old computer programmer will disappear and a 2-year-old in tantrum will take his place. But the person acting out won't know what hit you. He may have sent you vicious emails, vilified your name in the public square, but when it’s time for an apology, he’ll brush it off. To truly regret his actions, his 12th house Mars would have to reach consciousness first.
Our 12th house planets and signs are like children with special needs. They’ve suffered a critical deprivation. In some way our early environment didn’t encourage or support their expression. They may be usurped, denied or shamed by our caretakers. Somehow we got the message they're unsafe to express. With Mars or Aries in the 12th, I may fear the expression of my competitive drive or deny my selfishness. With Pluto or Scorpio, I may be too embarrassed to reveal my passion, my sexuality, my power. With Mercury or Gemini in the 12th, I may decide to keep my mouth shut. With Uranus or Aquarius in the 12th, I'll cover up what makes me different, and keep my creative genius under wraps. With Venus there, or Taurus or Libra, I won’t know how beautiful, how sensuous, how artistic or loving I can be.
Whatever the rejected planet or sign, the subconscious awareness of its loss leads to a kind of victim consciousness, a conviction, in fact, that it's morally right to feel sorry for ourselves. Weren't we robbed after all? A businessman I know with a 12th house Mars was keenly aware of his inability to be self-assertive: "My mom co-opted all the anger in our house. I didn’t dare cross her. But then I never got to be me." When he learned he had a reputation among his co-workers for being ruthless and cruel—his shadow Mars—he was actually thrilled. "Doesn't it bother you that you might really be hurting people?" I asked. There was a momentary confusion in his eyes before they glazed over. Lost in the memories of his past, and unable to fit them with a different picture of his present, he spaced out and forgot my question.
I like the modern view of the 12th simply because I’ve found it more useful and true. From the modern perspective, to redeem 12th house planets, you must first become aware that you have them. The next step is to choose—metaphorically—among the more traditional options: Are you going to put yourself in prison, a mental institution, the hospital, or a monastery? You can pace a prison cell of past mistakes. You can go crazy with frustration or anger. You can lie on a sick bed of wounds. Or you can get on your knees and appeal to a higher power. In this vast inner world, time and space have no meaning. In restructuring your 12th house psyche, you have infinite choices. In imagination, you can, like a young Dalai Lama, roam an inner residence a quarter mile long with a thousand rooms, enjoying this precious incarnation, and taking advantage of centuries of history and learning from vast inner libraries. Whatever your past, shining a light in your 12th can open a field of new possibilities.
The invisible world doesn’t operate like the world of matter, so we shouldn't act like it does. In the visible world if I am harmed, I can go about crying and blaming. If I am just a material being, and my early environment didn't support my Venus or Mercury, I can say I’m just a piece of genetic material with the bad fortune to be born in a dismal circumstance. Not so in the world of spirit. If I accept my spiritual nature, then I must somehow account for my existence before and after the womb. I may come to believe that my choices influence the course of my soul, that past actions have determined my situation this lifetime, bringing me to the right place for the next stage of my development, and that what I do now will affect what happens after I die. If we shift our perspective beyond this lifetime, the 12th takes on a whole new look. We acquire new responsibilities. Planets and signs here are no longer victimized or deprived. What looks like loss on the material plane becomes a sacred initiation or ritual sacrifice in the spiritual realm.
Eric has a 12th house Aries Sun—opposed by Saturn and Neptune. He lost his father when he was five. His alcoholic gambler dad walked out the door and never returned. The Sun describes our will, our purpose, also our experience of father (just as the Moon describes our experience of mother). Not everyone with a 12th house Sun loses a father so literally, but in some way, the fathering influence will be dampened or sacrificed. Dad’s support or encouragement of the child’s special gifts will be lacking. Eric tried on a variety of identities growing up, becoming a troublemaker, then a varsity athlete, then a rebel journalist, finally a poet. In college he had the good fortune to find a strong poetry mentor, and under the influence of this surrogate father, he found his way in the world. Astrology cookbooks often say that 12th house Suns are shy and tend to work behind the scenes. But you can’t always believe the cookbooks. Eric is a strong and opinionated Aries, who like a true individualist, refused to fit into any corporate mold. He founded his own publishing company and continued to write prize-winning poems. In spite of his 12th house history—or perhaps because of it—he became a devoted father of three and served as a father figure to many younger writers, supporting, encouraging, and publishing their work. His early 12th house sacrifice was the initiation leading to his later success.
When the progressed Moon entered Eric’s 12th house, his publishing company started to fail. The 12th is uniquely positioned on the horoscope wheel, coming as the last house, before the first begins again. Likewise, transits and progressions through this house mark an end that precedes another beginning. When the progressed Moon or Saturn goes through this house, this transition can last approximately two years. Life structures that have served their usefulness may dissolve. Relationships can go, losses may be suffered. We may be tested on how well we’ve developed this house, what we’ve learned from our initial sacrifice, how clearly we’ve seen into and mapped our blind spot. During the Moon’s progression, Eric struggled with his father’s legacy; he started drinking, fighting with his wife, and losing money just as his father had done. A whole lifetime of saying “I’ll never do what my father did to me” brought him face-to-face with that same potential in himself. Twelfth house transits and progressions will take us deep. They’ll show us parts of ourselves we’ve never seen before. This isn’t always bad. New beauty, strength, and talent can hide in our blind spot too. By the time the progressed Moon crossed out of the 12th, Eric was a new man. He had cleaned up his life, found an entirely new path, and on renewed terms, was a strong and inspiring Aries Sun once again.
Paul is a writer and photographer with Neptune in his 12th. I described Neptune to him once, how it speaks through music, art, and poetry. Astrologers associate the 12th house with conception. I suggested that Neptune’s imprint may have been knowledge Paul gained in the womb. His eyes lit up. His mother had played the piano throughout her pregnancy, he said, and he always felt this had made a deep impression on him; his thoughts tend to move in musical patterns. An intensely private man, Paul has a Scorpio Sun squared by a controlling Pluto/Saturn conjunction and, not surprisingly, he is known for bouts of intolerance and rigidity. As one might surmise from his chart, his father was strict. As a child Paul wasn’t allowed to drift and dream or float in Neptune’s sea; that was the early deprivation of this planet. As a young man Paul served in the military and later went to school for a business career. But in the past ten years I've watched him steadily withdraw from worldly concerns to submerge in the Neptunian world of his art. For the past two years he has been so deep in Neptune that he disappears for months at a time. Yet whenever I see him, he is intensely alive. More than anyone I know, Paul lives an artist's life, completely on artist's time. He will spend hours catching just the right light for a photograph. He will go days without sleep, living with the characters in his novel as though they were roommates. His 12th house Neptune has become the center of his life. It is the sunken treasure he has been working his whole life to retrieve. It is something truly divine.
When I look at an individual’s chart and see planets in the 12th, “doom” and “misery” aren’t the first words that come to my mind. I rather think that here lies a great gift, in fact, the true wealth of the chart. But it’s like a trust fund. The 12th house individual must come of age first, spiritual age. Ego might greedily appropriate the rest of the chart for its desires, but this house refuses to give up its goods so easily. There will be sacrifice; there will be immaturity, weakness, and whining; there will be a long journey requiring self-awareness, humility, and spiritual responsibility. However long it takes, the 12th house treasure will not disappear. Won perhaps over many lifetimes, it is deep and instinctive. The potential for a wide appreciation of its gifts is also huge.
I’m not alone in thinking this way. Michel Gauquelin, a psychologist who used statistical models to investigate astrology’s accuracy, discovered that while many astrology factors have no relevance, planets in the 12th house  did have a strong correlation with an individual’s career success. Mars in the 12th house was often found in the charts of sports figures. Actors, politicians, and journalists showed Jupiter in the 12th; scientists and doctors, Saturn or Mars; painters and musicians, Venus; and writers, the Moon. This finding surprised even astrologers, who typically locate career indicators in the 10th. Contemporary astrologer Maurice Fernandez makes even stronger claims for 12th house planets.  According to Fernandez, people who have positions of influence or fame will more often have an emphasized 12th house than a strong 10th. Since the 12th house rules both the collective unconscious and the masses, planets here indicate the potential to tune in to what’s popular and have an effect on a wide audience. They may also bear the burden of mass projection, sacrificing the personal life to become a product or symbol. Think of the different measures of fame the following 12th house Suns have achieved: Ghandi, Madonna, George Bush, and Rodney King.
As with any astrology factor, what really counts is what the individual does with it. I know behind every worried email I get about the 12th, lies someone with great potential for success. Since I’ve come to appreciate the special quality of 12th house planets, the rest of the chart seems to pale. Without question, this house of self-undoing, confinement, and loss is my favorite house in the chart.
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