Lesson Six: Introduction to the Aspects
Now we have studied the planets, signs and houses, or the what, the how and the where, we are now going to look at the aspects. The reason I have left the aspects until now is that people often assume that they are difficult and complex, whereas in fact they simply follow on logically from what we already know.
Aspects are about relationships. They are dynamic. They bring various chart factors - planets, Nodes, signs, angles and houses - into an active relationship with each other. But aspects are more than that - they are also beautiful, because they remind us that the birth chart is yet another expression of the sacred geometry that has always been a central feature in the mystery traditions. There is something inherently magical and fascinating and deeply satisfying about the shapes and patterns formed by mathematical division and proportion, and they can be found everywhere in nature, art, architecture, music and, of course, in the human psyche.
We are already familiar with the symbolism of the circle and the square, the fundamental components of a horoscope. The circle is considered to be the most perfect shape of all, and is the symbol for pure spirit, eternal and unchanging. The square is the symbol for the earth, for all physical manifestation, and for our orientation on earth via the four directions, four seasons and four elements. The symbol for the earth and the structure of the horoscope show us that the earth is at the centre, surrounded by the circle of spirit, within which all of life is contained. One of the questions which has fascinated philosophers, theologians and mathematicians throughout history is how to 'square the circle'. In other words, how do we find a relationship between spirit and matter, between the gods and ordinary mortals, between the eternal and the temporal? An image which includes both symbols is proof of our dual nature. And in fact this is, of course, exactly what a horoscope is - in essence it is a wonderfully simple symbolic map that does in fact square the circle.
Leonardo da Vinci, 'Vitruvian Man' (1490)
Leonardo da Vinci's 'Vitruvian Man' is one of the most famous images of all times, and is still reproduced everywhere in the world today. The drawing symbolises the essential symmetry of the human body and, by extension, of the universe as a whole. Drawn by Leonardo around 1490, this beautiful figure first appeared in the second of three books entitled Divina proportione, or 'Divine Proportion', published by Leonardo's close friend, the mathematician Pacioli. It is a wonderful example of the integration of art and science during the Renaissance.
Audience: Do you know why this drawing is called the Vitruvian Man?
Clare: Vitruvius was an ancient Roman architect who wrote a series of ten books on architecture that, fortunately, survived into the Renaissance. In the third volume, he writes that the proportions of temples should be based on the proportions of the human body, because the human body is the model of perfection. He justifies this by stating that the human body with arms and legs extended fits into the perfect geometric forms, the circle and the square. This takes us back again to the Pythagorean number symbolism that is so fundamental to astrology, since it describes the inherently identical structure of all systems. Last term we looked at the tetractys, the symmetrical and well balanced model of the universe, which is reflected in the structure of the zodiac and which describes the generation of symbolic numbers out of the original unity.
Audience: Can you say more about this, Clare, since I am new to the class this term?
Clare: Simply expressed, the Pythagoreans believed that the nature of all things could be understood according to the powers of the one, the two, the three and the four as an unfolding sequence of creation. These numbers are not just quantities; they are also archetypes in their own right, so that 'oneness', 'twoness', 'threeness' and 'fourness' each have their own qualitative meaning. The astrological chart is an exact representation of the tetractys, being itself a one (the whole chart), a two (with each of the twelve signs of the zodiac being polar - active or passive), a three (the cardinal, fixed and mutable signs), and a four (the elements of fire, earth, air, water). The number twelve is a remarkably complete number in which the polarity is repeated six times, the three modes are repeated four times, and the four elements are repeated three times.
Number as an Archetype of Cosmic Order
We are going to look at the aspects in exactly the same way as we looked at the structure of the horoscope last term - as an expression of the sequential division of the chart by One (conjunction), Two (opposition), Three (trine) and Four (square), in which One equals unity, Two equals division and separation, Three equals reconciliation and mediation, and Four equals manifestation. Every birth chart has its own particular shape, its own geometrical structure, its own unique physical and psychic patterning. And the most significant point about aspects and aspect patterns is that they bring the birth chart to life as a series of stories that help us transform our two-dimensional horoscope into a living, breathing reality. Have a look at this table, which lists the aspects that are most commonly used in modern astrology. You will see that these aspects are formed by dividing the 360° circle by two, three, four, and by the product of these first three numbers: six (which is 2x3), eight (which is 4x2) and twelve (3x4).
The Astrological Aspects
|Division of the circle||Angle||Aspect formed||Orb||Symbol|
All numbers have symbolic meanings, and it is perfectly possible, of course, to go on dividing the circle by five, seven, nine, eleven, and so on into infinitely greater divisions.
You will see from the table above that each of the aspects has an 'orb', which means that each aspect holds for a certain number of degrees either side of exactitude. The closer the orb, the stronger the aspect. For example, an opposition between two planets 172° apart (8° orb) will not be as powerful or as intensely felt as an opposition between two planets 181° apart (1° orb). You will see that the orbs become smaller as the circle is increasingly divided. So we are much more likely to have major aspects in our chart (those with an orb of 8° or 4°) than we are to have minor aspects in our chart (those with a 2° orb), but when they do occur, they will be of equal importance.
Audience: Does this apply to all the planets? Sometimes you come across people who use a larger orb when the Sun or the Moon is involved.
Clare: The whole question of orbs is, like everything
else in astrology, open for debate and subject to personal preference. Basically,
because we need to start somewhere, it is useful to begin with some nice
clear rules. Later on, we are of course free to experiment with the orbs
for ourselves and to develop our own ideas.
In practice, we know that although the planets are caught in a 'freeze frame' at the moment of birth, they are actually moving all the time in relation to each other. So if, for example, the Sun is 9° behind Pluto in a birth chart, then it is an applying aspect because the Sun will make an exact conjunction to Pluto nine days after birth. Using the technique of progressions, the Sun will make an exact conjunction to Pluto nine years after birth. Naturally, this could be of immense significance, and we will be looking at the moving chart - transits, progressions and directions - in much more depth next term. So I think it is perfectly acceptable to stretch the orbs a bit when an aspect is applying. If the Sun was 9° ahead of Pluto in a birth chart, then it is already separating from the exact conjunction, which will have taken place nine days before birth, and I would be much less inclined to build it in as a factor in interpretation.
Audience: But presumably what occurred before our birth is also significant?
Clare: Absolutely right. This gets very interesting when we start looking at the planetary cycles, but all this will have to wait till next term, I'm afraid. The point to remember about aspects is that, if two or more planets or points in the birth chart are connected in any of these mathematical relationships, they can no longer work by themselves. They are unable to function without each other - their destiny is shared. It is helpful to study the aspects as two evolving sequences unfolding, respectively, out of the first odd and the first even number. In the Pythagorean system, the number two has the nature of yin, the first female number, and the number three has the nature of yang, the first male number. This system was developed by Aristotle in his famous Table of Opposites.
As you will see from this table, it is fortunate for Aristotle that he lived well before the age of political correctness.
Audience: But surely the number one is the first odd number?
Clare: That is a good point, and of course you are factually correct. But when this is seen symbolically, unity - or the One - is primordial. It is the original creative force of the universe, which pre-exists any kind of differentiation. The One is the seat of the original wholeness out of which all numbers emerge. All the principles in the table of opposites are included in the One, merged with their primal source. This explains why the conjunction is not, strictly speaking, an aspect at all. We can learn some interesting things from this Table of Opposites, particularly in view of the fact that it was the ancient Greeks who first constructed the system of the astrological aspects. Using the analogies and associations contained in this table, it is not so difficult to understand why hard aspects - those which unfold from the original even, female number two - have traditionally been interpreted as difficult, tense, effortful, challenging (moving), devious (curved), unfortunate, malefic, and just plain bad, whereas soft aspects - which unfold from the original odd, male number three - have been traditionally interpreted as easy (resting), pleasurable, straight, light, fortunate, benefic, harmonious and good.
G. Riesch, 'Margarita philosophica', Freiburg (1503) 
If we extend this analogy to equate matter with the feminine principle and spirit with the masculine principle, we can also see how the aspects emerging from the number two are 'doing' aspects, engaged with actual manifestation and embodiment, providing the resistance, the reflection and the container for the inspiration, clarity and light of the male spirit. The aspects emerging from the number three are 'being' aspects. As I mentioned last term, it is important to remember that the masculine-feminine, spirit-matter, active-passive, yang-yin polarities in astrology and in mathematical symbolism do not refer to our biology but to our psyches. So we may have a prevalence of 'doing' or of 'being' aspects, regardless of our gender.
For the Pythagoreans, the first union of the masculine and feminine principles does not occur until we get to the number five, which is two plus three. The quintile, which is the aspect of 72° created when the horoscope is divided by five, describes creativity, joy and consciousness. The five-pointed star and the pentagram are sacred symbols in many cultures, and it is from this figure that the golden section is derived, a proportion which has been used in many sacred buildings, from ancient Greek temples to the Gothic cathedrals, and which creates a particularly pleasing sense of harmony and balance.
There is a point I want to make before we start looking at the actual aspects themselves. Although the symbolic numerical meaning of an aspect tells us something about the general nature of the relationship between two or more planets, at the end of the day the meaning of every aspect and every aspect pattern is unique to a particular individual and a particular chart. Whether we are interpreting aspects which belong to the two series or the three series of numbers, and whether or not we are thinking in terms of being or doing aspects, every single aspect and aspect pattern needs to be analysed entirely in its own terms, which will include the intrinsic meaning of the planets involved as well as the houses and signs in which they fall. What we are really looking for is the story, and if we pay good attention to all the factors involved, then the meaning of the aspect and the themes of the story will gradually come to life.
Audience: So does this mean that we shouldn't pay too much attention to the meaning of the aspect itself?
Clare: Well, I think it is important in the first instance, because it is the mathematical relationship that tells us that two or more planets are linked together in a certain way. But once we have identified that, then I think our focus should be to extract the unique story revealed by the planets involved, according to the signs and houses they are in. What I am really trying to say is that squares are not necessarily difficult and trines are not necessarily easy - it all depends on the context. Hopefully, as we go through some examples, this will become clearer.