Context is Everything: How Charts really work

by Hank Friedman

[Note: all of the charts in this article, unless otherwise noted, are calculated using the Tropical Zodiac and the Equal House System.]

When we first learn astrology, it's by bits and pieces. It takes us years to begin to see how different chart factors dance with each other. And even more years to be able to blend them together successfully.

Ascertaining the "tilt" of a chart – is the person introverted or extroverted? Successful or challenged? Etc. – is both a fine art and the result of a finely honed skill at pattern recognition.

Therefore it's not surprising that novices over-rely on astrological cookbooks and reports, and wonder why these are so often contradictory and inaccurate.

The Impact of House Placement

I've never seen a single book on Western astrology that focuses on how house placement modifies the expression of a planet in a sign or aspect. And yet the house occupied by a planet greatly effects the expression of all of its attributes and interactions.

How Placement Modifies Expression of Astrological Themes


Planet's Effect on House

House's Effect on Planet and Sign


affects vitality, physical appearance, longevity, success

identified with and strengthened, presented to the world, embodied


colors person's voice, facial appearance, eating & spending

expressed through one's voice (consciously or unconsciously), made insecure


impacts one's courage, initiative, manual self-expression, skill set

expressed through habitual behavior, emboldened or forcefully expressed


affects person's sense of well-being, colors one's defensive responses

often expressed reflexively & subjectively, expressed in private settings


affects fertility, clarity of thinking, nature of & freedom of self-expression

interwoven with one's core thinking & self-expression, presented easily to others


relationship with coworkers & clients, health & rhythms & routines

acute and intermittent disruptions, magnified expression of themes


kind of primary relationships, sex drive, nature of one's partners

dis-indentified with or disowned, projected on others, evoked in interactions


intensity of life's crises, coping strategies, intimacy patterns

obstructed, challenged, redirected towards inner concerns


relationship with gurus & teachers, level of good fortune, faith

integrated into world view and approach to life, nature of personal aspirations


patterns of achievement, relationship with authorities, degree of success

themes are augmented, expressed, motivated & empowered


ability to receive, relationship with older sibs, level of fulfillment

continual improvement of planet's and sign's themes


relationship with Spirit, patterns of expenditures, loss, denial, & surrender

muted, operates unconsciously, marginalized, ignored

[Note: If you want to apply the effects of the table and there is no planet in a house, look to the house's ruler.]

The Impact of Sign Placement

It is also important to take into account the huge impact the sign a planet occupies has on the aspects the planet makes and receives, and upon how the planet responds to transits. I remember reading a paragraph from Planets in Transit by Rob Hand, and noticed that its delineation was completely incorrect (more communication) if the natal planet, Mercury, was in a mute sign. Every astrology cookbook fails to take the sign occupied by the planet into account when delineating planets by house, transit, or other factors.

The Impact of Shared Themes

And we need to avoid focusing upon one meaning of a planet or a house, because each has many, many significations and only by keeping ones mind as open as possible to the myriad of meanings can the correct insights arise. [E.g. when trying to ascertain which theme(s) will manifest in a specific chart, understanding the themes shared by the planet, sign, and house becomes paramount.]

The Impact of the Natal Chart

Lip service is given to the principle, "only what is promised in the birth chart can manifest by transit" but how often is this paradigm adhered to? People purchase astrology software that claims to help them succeed at gambling but don't look at their charts to see if such results are possible! Or they move to a new locations, chosen using Astro*Carto*Graphy or a relocation chart, for love or career success – but ignore the issues blocking such themes in their birth chart (or transits).

The Impact of Good/Strong vs.  Bad/Weak Placements

When I was reading in one astrological cookbook, "a person with the lord of the first house in the ninth house will be optimistic, lucky, and have a wonderful relationship with his father" I was struck by how the complete opposite to that was true for a friend of mine with that configuration. It took me a moment to realize...

the complete opposite

exactly opposite

In other words, the same themes with a minus sign!

(I.e. bad relationship with father, unlucky, and pessimistic!)

Why? Because his first lord was both very weak and conjunct a strong malefic, turning the interpretation upside down!

This principle: that if a planet is very poorly placed, the significations it represents are profoundly challenged in their lives, was further reinforced during a lecture from my Vedic teacher. Hart taught a course on Nakshatras (Vedic lunar mansions). He made it perfectly clear that if a planet in a specific Nakshatra was well-placed, the positive significations would manifest, while if it was poorly placed, the negative significations would be most evident. [See Example 6 below.]

I cannot emphasize this principle enough: the placement of a planet completely governs the expression of its sign, aspects, significations, and every other attribute of it.

Context is Everything.

Vedic texts do realize this point, and emphasize that if a planet is weak, it will give very different results than if it is strong, etc. but even here one must take into account a very many factors in order to get a correct reading.

That's because it's not enough to take into account one planet, or even its interactions with other planets. The impact of the rising sign on the expression of every planet in the chart is huge, as are factors like the shape of the chart as a whole, the unfolding cycles, and planets in combination.

Lest a beginner throw up their hands and say "what's the use", we do learn piecemeal, and gradually do build up our understanding of how to sort out the contradictions and find ways of synthesizing all of the factors in the chart. And it helps that we have a living, breathing person in front of us, who is showing us how they embody and who they are, just with their presence.

In other words, I'm not trying to discourage anyone, but instead to shine a light on the goal: to see the whole person, as accurately and completely as possible, by taking into account the whole chart, and not just its parts.

When context is taken into account, profoundly accurate perceptions are possible. E.g. The first three Vedic astrologers who looked at my birth chart immediately said, as their first comment, "you have no children". That's how obvious it was, astrologically, that children would be denied to me. To be clear, I wanted children and did try to have them in my marriage, but my karma, as clearly shown in my chart, said "absolutely not".

Principles of Context

1. Focus on the Placement of each Planet.

A. Is the planet strong (own sign, exalted, directionally strong1, in mutual reception, retrograde, a bright Moon2, Vargottama3, focal, etc.) or weak (combust, weak by sign, in a planetary war4, etc.).

B. Is the planet with or receiving aspects by benefics (Jupiter, Venus, bright Moon) or malefics (Saturn, Mars, the Sun, and the Nodes)?

C. Does the planet occupy a good (1, 2, 4, 5, 7, 9, 10, 11) house or a bad (3, 6, 8, 12) house? Is it strengthened by being angular?

D. Does the planet rule good or bad houses? If both, which is the predominate influence? (I find the rulership of houses as ascertained using the Sidereal Zodiac and Whole Sign Houses most accurate.)

E. Does the planet have either good or bad planets in both adjacent houses (the previous house and the next house)?

F. Does the planet participate in a major positive (Grand Trine or Sextile, or positive yogas) or negative (T-square, Grand Cross, or negative yogas) combination with other planets?

2. Ascendant Effects.

A. Examine the effect of planetary placements upon the First House and ruler of the First House.

B. Is the planet easily expressed? The Ascendant is the gatekeeper controlling the expression of each planet. If the planet is in the same Tropical sign as the Ascendant, it can express itself easily, otherwise it's expression is to some degree obstructed. Similarly, if the planet is a friend of the ruler of the Sidereal Rising Sign, then it will express much more positively than otherwise.

3. Look at the overall placement of the planets in the chart.

A. Overall chart configurations (Bucket, Bowl, Splash, etc.) are major indicators of life patterns.

B. Hemispheric predominances (most planets in the top, bottom, left, or right halves of the chart have great impact).

C. Other predominances (e.g. by Mode, Element, the occupation of one planet's sign, stellia, etc.) color a chart greatly.


Examples of these principles

1. When the predominate element doesn't manifest.

Have you ever seen a chart where the person has either significant planets (like the Sun and Moon) or a majority of planets in a specific element, but they just don't seem to embody that element? That's because the Ascendant is muting the expression of it.

For example, Jackie Onassis had her Sun and Moon in Fire signs, but she didn't appear fiery, or spontaneous, or dominant because her Ascendant in Scorpio would not permit it (nor would her South Node rising).

Jackie Onassis

Similarly, Whoopie Goldberg doesn't seem all sensitive and watery despite her Sun and Moon in water signs, but instead the Saturnian Rising Sign (both Tropically and Sidereally) -- and Saturn conjunct the Sun -- gives her a much drier demeanor.

Whoopie Golderg

2. When a planet is strong.

Harrison Ford has embodied the Hero Archetype largely because his Jupiter is both exalted and focal (conjunct the top of the chart).

Harrison Ford

3. The importance of chart patterns.

Albert Einstein has Uranus in Virgo as the handle of a Bucket Chart. One might overlook that factor when examining his other chart placements, but that would be a major oversight. In fact, his unique (Uranus) approach to matter led to some of his greatest insights. He was also, especially in his later years, unable to cooperate with others, going down unproductive paths, as reflected by the independence (Uranus) and narrow focus (Virgo) that were so dominant in his makeup.

Albert Einstein

4. When a focal planet doesn't predominate.

No one would consider Bob Newhart -- a very mild-mannered actor -- to be Martian, yet his Mars is rising. But his Mars is in Libra and conjunct both the Moon and Mercury, all of which occupy the 12th house. All of these factors mute the expression of Mars in his chart.

Bob Newhart

That Clint Eastwood is Saturnine is pretty obvious, given Saturn's strength (in Capricorn Tropically and also retrograde) but its placement as the bucket handle makes it the overwhelmingly most important planet in his chart. (Much more important than his Sun in Gemini or Moon in Leo.)

Clint Eastwood

5. Mistaking one factor for another

If we look at Madonna's chart, we might conclude that I'm wrong about the 12th house obscuring major chart factors. After all, isn't her whole manner, and fame, about her being a Leo?

In fact, as has been repeatedly written about her, she's the consummate business woman with remarkable perseverance and common sense.

What many attribute to her Sun in Leo misses very important points. She's primarily serious and perfectionistic (Mercury and Moon in Virgo rising), but has also shown a pattern of rebellion (e.g marrying bad boy Sean Penn), intense drive and determination, and heterodoxy (e.g. her extreme rejection of her strict Catholic upbringing) that can only be attributed to Mars (in the house of religion!).

A closer look at her chart shows that her Mars in Taurus reigns supreme because it is the bucket handle planet. Suddenly her contrived sensuality and endless striving make tremendous sense.

[Note: because Mars has an incredibly unpredictable orbit around the time of its station, it was been as the planet that goes its own way centuries before the discovery of Uranus.]


6. The Power of Minus.

As I pointed out above, planets poorly placed manifest in very challenging life themes, and often as the opposite of what one would expect for a given planetary placement.

The ruler of the Ascendant in the Ninth House is usually a blessing, but when the planet's placement is poor, the situation is reversed.

The famous tennis player Maureen Connolly provides us with an excellent example of this principle. She was born with the ruler of her (Sidereal) Scorpio Ascendant, Mars, in the 9th house. But like my friend (mentioned above), her Mars is debilitated in Cancer, and impacted by two malefics: conjunct Ketu (the South Node) and opposite to a doubly-strong Saturn:

Maureen Connolly

[Note: the chart above is the only one in this article using Vedic coordinates: the Lahiri Sidereal Zodiac, Whole Sign Houses, and the Mean Node.]

Her Mars is in the lunar mansion of Ashlesha, whose dark sides include manipulation, coldness, conflict, and intense ambition, as well as potential medical problems.

Maureen was abandoned by her Father (9th house issue) as a toddler, while being told he was dead. At age 10, she started learning tennis, and quickly rose in the ranks. She was know for her hatred of her opponents, expressionless demeanor, and as an "assassin" on the court. She is quoted (in Wikipedia) as saying, “I have always believed greatness on a tennis court was my destiny, a dark destiny, at times, where the court became my secret jungle and I a lonely, fear-stricken hunter. I was a strange little girl armed with hate, fear, and a Golden Racket.”

Sadly, her tennis career was cut short when she was thrown from horseback and severely shattered her leg. She died of cancer at the age of 34 (the lord of the Ascendant governs longevity, and hers was compromised by the negative placement of Mars).

[Lest readers with a weak Ascendant ruler jump to conclusions about themselves, there are many factors that can reverse the impact on longevity of a weak Ascendant lord. They include participation in yogas, neecha bhanga (amelioration of weakness by sign), the influence of a strong benefic, and others.]



Each of us, while viewing a chart, needs to embrace as much of the chart as possible. To first examine its details, to the best of our abilities, and then to let our deeper mind create a story, or form an image, about the workings of the whole chart.

Then the chart comes alive, and magic happens.


[There are many articles that support this theme on my website, e.g. focusing on the effects of the rising sign on planetary expression, on focal planets, and much more. Please explore the rest of my Learn Astrology Free website for further understanding.]

terminology used in this website

1. Directional Strength, known as Dig Bala, means that a planet is strong when it a specific house. Mercury and Jupiter in the First House, the Sun and Mars in the Tenth House, Saturn in the Seventh House, and Venus and the Moon in the Fourth House gain directional strength.

2. Bright Moon: if the Moon is in the sign opposite to the Sun, or either of the two adjacent signs, it is considered bright (and therefore strong).

3. Vargottama: Vargottama means "best division". If a planet is in the same sign in the birth chart and the Navamsha (9th harmonic) chart, it is said to be Vargottama (and thereby gains strength).

4. Planetary War: If two True Planets (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn) are within one degree of each other, they are considered to be in a territorial battle, i.e. in planetary war. Both planets are "bloodied" -- unsettled -- by being at war, but the loser of the war is significantly weakened.


Thanks to Kathi Seasons for her help with this article.

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