Posted by: Donna Cunningham | May 13, 2010

Readers Ask: Basic Questions about the 12 Houses

©2010 by Donna Cunningham, MSW

Ask questions of Donna Cunningham on SkywriterAs an experiment, I recently did a post that invited readers to use the comment section to ask me anything they wanted about the 2nd house, as part of a series about the astrology of money.  It turned out they had plenty of questions, and we had such a great time with the open forum that I vowed to do it again from time to time.  There’s another one coming up soon.

Readers also posed a number of general questions that are likely to show up no matter which house we discuss, so here they are, along with my answers. 

 Q:  What’s the difference between having Aries on the cusp of a house and having the planet Mars there?

A:  My rule is this: the planet is always stronger than the sign it rules, and Mars is the ruler of Aries. The sign is descriptive, the planet is active–you could say that the sign is like an adjective, whereas the planet is like a verb.

Mars, then, is more likely to take an active role, so for example a person with Mars in the 2nd is a real go-getter where making money is concerned, highly competitive, out to out-spend the Joneses, buying the newest, the best, and the biggest. If the career is sales, for instance, this is bound to be the sales leader for the district.

Aries would have some of the same qualities, but since Mars would probably be located in the another house of the chart, some of that competitive edge and drive is aimed at the issues and concerns of the house it is placed in. As you can imagine, then, it’s a diluted version of Mars in the 2nd. 

Q:  When a house is empty, where do you look for the missing pieces?    

 A: When there’s an empty house, look for the ruler of that house–its sign, house, and aspects. Thus, with an empty 2nd, then money making would be secondary in your life to the matters of the house the ruler is in. That would be the major thing you value more than money. 

 Q: How can we interpret an empty house if the house ruler is unaspected (no major aspects)?

 A: When a house is empty we can assume that the matters related to that house are not a strong drive for the person and that their energies are actively involved in other areas of life. If you add to that an unaspected ruler, it only reconfirms the supposition that the matters ruled by that house are not what the person is here on earth for this time around.

 An empty house can, however, become important focus of attention and effort during the time it is transited by any of the slower-moving planets from Saturn on out. In general, a transiting outer planet is in a house for anywhere from 7-14 years, so over time it begins to act a lot like having that planet in that house natally, with many of the same challenges and situations to master and many of the same pitfalls to avoid and lessons to learn. On the positive side, that is an era when we can also experience and enjoy the matters of an area of life that has been fairly lacking.

Q: What would be the meaning of an UNASPECTED house ruler?

A:  Good question. First, I’d want to know if it truly was unaspected or if it maybe aspected the Ascendant or Midheaven. Those aspects are called outlets, for they give us another route for expressing that planet.

Truly unaspected planets can be difficult because it is hard for them to find a natural expression. That would apply primarily to the drives and needs of that planet, but also to a certain–probably minor–extent to the matters of the house it rules.  (However, the house the unaspected planet rules MAY have planets placed in it, and that would strengthen the importance of that house.)

Q. If the cusp of a house is at 29° of a sign, should it be considered as that sign or the next? i.e.: 29° of Virgo, or 0° Libra?

 A: That depends on whether the birth time is accurate or not.  I’d be suspicious if it were a rounded off time, like 5:00 or 5:15, and somewhat more confident with a precise-sounding time like 5:13.

The sign would also change depending on the house system.  I’d say pay attention to the sign that occupies the majority of that house and especially to any planets in that sign and house. 

Q: What if two neighboring houses are in the same sign, due to an interception

A:  Interceptions (where a sign is completely enclosed in a house, with both house cusps in other signs) come in pairs, with the houses opposite each other affected.  For instance, if you have an interception in the 1st house, you’ll also have one directly opposite in the 7th house.

I had a browse through the Aries Press Table of houses, and this situation appears to be quite common with certain signs–Cancer, Leo, and Virgo among them–and are a function of the earth’s 22 degree tilt on its axis. That means that the width of one of the two houses is rather narrow, and thus any transits through it are short, while the transits through the house with the interception are much longer.

 I don’t make too much of intercepted houses, because the interceptions depend on which house system you use.  If you do the same chart in three different systems  (Placidus, Koch, Regiomantus, etc, etc, etc), you can get three different sets of interceptions. In my chart, depending on the house system, I might have an interception in the 10th, 11th, or 12th, and I could argue for any of the three.  When the same planet rules two successive houses, however, that planet does gain in importance.

Q: How about if a house contains an interception, and there are planets in the intercepted sign? Does a person like this have to wait for transits or progressions to deal with those issues?

A: I give both signs that fall into that house–the sign on the cusp and the intercepted sign–a place in the full expression of the house, but most importantly any planets in that house.

Yes, transits by planets in the intercepted sign should bring out the energies of that sign. Planets from Saturn on out to Pluto stir up–for individuals and the collective as a whole–the issues and concerns most associated with that sign. 

For instance, Pisces shares many of the concerns related to Neptune that we’ve been talking about (boundaries, codependency, rescuing, addiction, etc.) and so if you have Pisces intercepted and a slow-moving planet moves through that sign, the Piscean issues will come to the surface during that time. 

Q: I was wondering what your take is on planets approaching a cusp. Say if you have a planet in the 1st house, but it’s just a couple of degrees from the 2nd house cusp (assuming an accurate birth time), would you interpret that as a 1st house planet, a 2nd house planet or a 1st/2nd house planet?

A: The whole question about house systems and the different cusps depending on which system has never been resolved except by arbitrarily settling on a system.  My observation is that people tend to espouse the house system that places their own birth planets in the best light. Add to that how iffy birth times can be, and you’d be wise to be a bit flexible.

In client work, I consider any planet within 5 degrees of a house cusp as suspect. I quiz the client as to which of the two possible houses it really works for by describing what the two houses represent and how that planet would operate in each house. The odd thing is that such planets often seem to work for both houses–or even to combine them. A planet that straddles the cusp of the 2nd/3rd for instance might show up in a person who earns money in Mercury-related ways like telecommunications or free lance journalism.

ask questions of Donna Cunningham on Skywriter Despite 40 or 50 years of controversy and tedious debate among astrologers, we don’t still know what the “real” house cusps are. I tend to believe there are no sharp delineations between houses, and that may be why there is no satisfactory resolution of the question.

Q: Why do you use Placidus houses as opposed to any of the other house systems?

A: When I started out in astrology more than 40 years ago, almost everyone used Placidus. (We hand calculated charts back then, if you can imagine!) I did lots of lunar returns and solar returns and event charts. 

(A lunar return happens at the point in the month when the Moon comes back to the same degree and minute it was when you were born–a method for predicting what your month will be like. I think most chart programs have it as an option. I didn’t do lunar returns for very long.)

I noticed that the Placidus cusps of lunar returns and other such charts often featured the exact degree and sign of one of my natal planets–and was appropriate for the meanings of that house. It was uncanny.

For instance, I worked in medical clinics in NYC where the staff would play the numbers, and so I was having some good aspects and won several times. That month, the degree of my natal Jupiter was on the lunar return’s 2nd house. There were many such instances. So I concluded that Placidus worked even though it wasn’t totally scientific like some other house systems, and I’ve never felt the need to change.

Q: Does placement in the angular houses  (the 1st, 4th, 7th, and 10th) make a planet stronger?

A: The whole question of angular houses is a muddy one for me. They are SUPPOSED to be the major houses and the cadent (3rd, 6th, 9th, and 12th) and the succedent houses (2nd, 5th, 8th, and 11th) are SUPPOSED to be weaker and less favorable ones.

Myself, I tend to think this depends on one’s values and what one considers important in life. A deeply spiritual person (monkish, even) might consider the 12th the most powerful house of all. A person who is deeply fulfilled by work for its own sake as opposed to worldly success might deem the 6th house the most important. And so on.

It is only because Western Society places the highest value on external markings of success that the variuous houses are judged to be more or less valuable. Your career accomplishments (10th), what position your family held in society (4th), who you marry (7th) and what you look like (1st)–these are the things we are primarily judged on.

So, no, I’m not ready to say planets in those 4 houses are intrinsically stronger, just given a higher status in society’s terms. Donna

Q: What is the difference between the North vs. South Node in a particular house?

A:  I see the house and sign of the North Node as something we need to work at and develop in this lifetime, ONE of our major tasks to master. (Not THE task, mind you, just ONE of them. We have to clear up a lot of karma and accelerate our development in this lifetime, as who knows how lonng we will be able to keep coming back to this planet we are abusing so badly.)

The South Node, in my view, relates to a collection of lifetimes in which we’ve done and ultimately overdone the matters of that sign and house, to the extent that it’s too easy for us to fall into doing it–what they call the path of least resistance. It becomes a bit of a trap or easy way out, and when we fall back on that, we either sabotage ourselves or, at the very least, shirk the work of the North Node.

To give an example, if the North Node is in the 6th, South in the 12th, then we need to focus on being productive and grounded in the world of work, rather than hiding out in the 12th house pursuits. We also need to focus on keeping ourself well rather than falling into addictions and other abuses of our bodies in self-destructive behaviors.

If the South Node is in the 6th, North in the 12th, then we may be workaholic and/or so involved in the daily grind that we neglect our spiritual development and the need to give of ourselves to those who aren’t so fortunate as we are.

(For more detail about the nodes, see: House Positions of the Nodes—Insights from Our Q&A Series.)

 Q: Can you tell us what you’ve observed over the years about people with multiple retrograde planets in one house natally?

A: There are intervals in history when the slower moving planets are all clustered together within a few signs, like they have been for the past decade or longer.

When that is the case, there are certain times of the year when many of the slower moving planets are retrograde because the Sun and other personal planets are all 3-6 signs away from them. At those times of the year, every single person born on the planet has all the slower planets retrograde.

Thus, the question of having many retrograde planets can become not so much an individual one as a generational one. Perhaps it is an era in history when our individual destiny is closely allied with the destiny of our generation.

The houses the collection of retrograde planets falls into shows the areas of life impacted by the historical, social, and economic climate. Thus, approximately one person in 12 born within a month or two of you would have had that same collection of retrograde planets in that particular house. An abstruse answer to a complex question. It happens.

Readers, if you have any BASIC questions about houses, you can ask them in the comment section.  Be advised that if they are basic and general, they would by definition not be about your own chart or your significant other’s!  Also, this isn’t meant to answer questions about invidivual houses (“What about the 6th?”   ” What about the 11th?”) but rather to ask questions that apply to any and all houses.  You get the picture. 

Readers Ask Series:  (Readers’ questions and my Answers are in the Comment Sections)

See more articles on the 12 houses in the category Houses of the Horoscope. You might especially like these:

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  1. Hi there,

    Do you find that the distribution of planets in houses relates to compatibility for different types of relationships? (not necessarily romantic, but also friend, teammate, boss-worker, teacher-student, really any sort)

    In terms of compatibility and influence on patterns and ways of relating, I’ve seen more about signs and planetary placements than about houses.

    • Hmm. Well, when I work on compatability, I always print the two charts in a biwheel arrangement, with the client in the center and the other person on the outside wheel.

      Then I circle the conjunctions between the two charts. And I note which houses are emphasized that way. It shows what important areas of life are being highlighted for the client by the relationship.

      For instance, I frequently notice that an important person (lover, parent, boss, mentor) will have a planet near the client’s Midheaven. To me, that means that the person is either 1)supporting and encouraging the client in major life and career goals if it’s a positive connection, or 2)detracting or subverting the goals if it’s not positive.

      And, of course, to get a full picture, you’d probably also want to print out the opposite biwheel, putting the other person’s chart in the center and the client’s chart in the outside wheel, to see what houses the client is activating in the other person’s chart.

      This method tells you a lot about the substance of the relationship in terms of major areas of life. If the 4th house is emphasized, then there is a sense of being family to one another (for better or for worse!) Donna

      • Thank you! I’m going to try this a few times to see what comes up.

  2. I was an kid, so I use Placidus, too.

  3. My Sun is 29 Libra and since the time was taken from my birth certificate it is fairly accurate.

    Even though I have plenty of Scorpio in my chart, I have always felt more essentially Libra. I view life in terms of what is equitable, appropriate and have a deep, abiding love of beauty in all its infinite manifestations. Plus I have this air sign detachment thing that kicks in at the oddest times. 🙂


    So glad you are doing these educational posts, Donna. Astrology is such a vast subject it is easy to get caught in the details and miss the big picture.

  4. I have 3 planets in the 2nd House. Two of the three planets are conjunct. But one of those two planets falls into another sign because the sign of the 2nd House changes. In a nutshell, the two planets that are conjuct are split by two different signs. The last two planets are in the later degrees of the 2nd House. The 3rd House ruler intercepts part of my 2nd House. This splits the conjoined planets.

    How would you intrepret the influence of these planets? Does it make any difference on the 2nd House? (Moon conjunct Jupiter. Moon in Scorpio, Jupiter in Sag.)

    • Too complicated and too personal, Terri. I’d have to put up your chart and take it apart piece by piece, and I’m retired from doing individual charts. Some of the general information in this post –or the earlier Q&A about the 2nd house–comes close to answering it, though. Donna

  5. Thank you for mentioning my post again Donna.

    I think of intercepted signs as being like landlocked countries. They have to use the sign on the cusp as a port to connect with the rest of the chart.

    • A nice analogy, Michelle. I like that! Donna

    • Me too, Michelle. 🙂 Love clear, simple and easy to get the mind around.


  6. Hi Donna:

    I’m really enjoying your blog. Thanks so much for sharing your knowledge. The explanation of the difference between having a sign on a house cusp and having the planet in the house was something I didn’t even know I was unclear about. Thank you.

    Michelle: Yes, great analogy on the intercepted sign in a house. That makes it clear for me.

  7. Hi, Donna. I really enjoyed this article. You have such a way of making things very clear – I think it reflects all your years of research and consulting. I always learn something new from you or at least a new way to think about something.

    And I too loved the “landlocked” image.

  8. Hello Donna,

    Re: Planets approaching a cusp

    When we look at our (normal) horoscope wheels, it of course gives the IMPRESSION that each house is a separate “box”. It gives the illusion that the cusp is the entrance to that house. Though many dictionaries now MIMIC that definition, if we go back to the root of the word, ie. cuspis in Latin, we will see that the meaning is closer to the maximum, or power-point within the house.

    From using Primary Directions to rectify charts and from checking many thousands of aspects in hundreds and hundreds of events, there are OFTEN exact (to just a very few minutes – NOT DEGREES) aspects to the relevant house cusps. [ie. Mars conjunct 5th for Birth of Male Child, etc.] This (to me) corroborates the idea that the cusp is actually a HOT-SPOT *WITHIN* the House. (because the aspect could be from the other side of the cusp)

    If the cusp WERE a defined boundary for the actual House, then we could have someone with Uranus “completely” in the 5th House, and then someone born a minute later having Uranus “completely” in the 4th House.

    I believe that you are correct, Donna…that before the cusp, we have the beginnings of the next house (5° comes to us from Traditional sources, perhaps from practical considerations, perhaps not). This especially makes sense in light of the choice of Cusp as the word to define this particular point in the House.

    One other note… many software packages, in the set-ups or preferences sections have a field where you decide if you want cusps to operate with the 5° (or some other) offset, so that reports and listings are “correct” relating to which planet is where…

    Thanks again, Donna, for all the fun reading and inspiring perspectives.


    • Wonderful and clear information, James. Thanks for another illuminating comment. It’s helpful to know that about the cusp of a house being a power point. What about interceptions, then? Would you say that an intercepted sign lacks such a power point? Donna

  9. hi miss donna;
    its been said that the 7th house is the type of relationship/person you would attract for relationships. I have found this is how we ACT in our relationships. What’s yr take? Or is it both?

    • Both are true, Cindy. How we act determines the kind of people we attract. In fact, it is the combination of the 1st/7th house axis that shows the dynamic of who we attract and why they treat us the way we do. The 1st house/Ascendant shows the outer personality or facade that we show to new people or people we aren’t that familiar with. That governs the type of impression we give off. The sign on the Descendant/7th is the opposite sign from the Ascendant, and thus people are acting in response to the initial impression we give. The 1st/7th axis is a sort of balance. Donna

  10. Donna,

    Does Scorpio on the 12th house cusp indicate a psychic or spiritually-inclined individual? Or someone who has erotic dreams?

    • Yes to both, Patricia. And since the 12th is a watery house and Scorpio a watery sign, not doubt more psychic than most. The thing about Scorpio (and Pluto, it’s ruler) when it’s in the 12th or 8th is that there’s a good bit of mediumship involved–giving the gift of communicating with people who’ve passed on. Donna

      Update: there is now a Q&A post about the 12th, so go back to the list and click on that link if you want to know more about that house.

  11. Hi Donna;
    Speaking of the 12th house, can you offer your opinion on how they say it is the “house of secret enemies”?

    • Oh, that’s quite a saga, Cindy. Rest assured that in the long, long history of astrology, there are valid reasons why the old astrologers assigned such seemingly random and unrelated meanings to a particular house. Usually, if you look deeper, there is–or originally was–a connection between them. (I could and maybe should write an article on those connections.)

      How the 12th relates to both secret enemies and self-undoing is this: The secret is that you probably privately decided that so and so was trying to undermine something you wanted for yourself, and so YOU named them your enemy and started treating them as such, all covertly, and maybe even without conscious awareness.

      OR, maybe you didn’t even quite know the person existed, but you behaved in self-sabotaging ways that created a problem for them…or maybe triggered some of their own buried and unacknowleded desires. Or it could even be that you both were sensing a past life connection that carried over a residue of bad feelings into this life.

      Sometimes a person becomes an enemy because you’ve closed down the possibility of an open airing and resolution of conflict, either because you don’t admit to or are in denial of the things you do that create the conflict. And when people can’t talk to you about what’s upsetting them in your behavior, they tend to go behind your back…which is a bigger level of problem, yet still a self-created one. .

      I would bet that any time we have a secret enemy, it’s because in the course of self-defeating behavior, we’ve done something to deserve it. The trouble is, we’re generally not conscously aware of or are in denial of those behaviors and especially of their effects on others. That’s one reason the healing process of the various 12th step programs includes taking an inventory of people we have harmed through our addictions and then making amends to them. Donna

  12. Hi Donna,

    Do you use composite charts and if so, how do you interpret the 7th house in a composite chart?

    Would it reflect relationships that the couple have together with someone else and not the relationship that the two have together?

    Thanks for your insights!

    Oops, I just realized that I posted the question in the wrong section. I meant to post it under the 7th House page. I would be glad to re-post it in the right place, Donna. I just can’t delete this one here, that’s all

    • I’d say the 7th house in a composite shows what the the two people share in terms of a “contract” or agreement of how the relationship should be as well as what each of them hope and expect from the relationship. Donna

      PS. You can cut and paste this in the 7th house article if you like. And, no, I don’t use composites all that much, as the chart comparison gives me more of the information I need.

  13. Hi Donna

    Please clarify from your reply above
    “A: When there’s an empty house, look for the ruler of that house–its sign, house, and aspects. Thus, with an empty 2nd, then money making would be secondary in your life to the matters of the house the ruler is in. That would be the major thing you value more than money: A: When there’s an empty house, look for the ruler of that house–its sign, house, and aspects. Thus, with an empty 2nd, then money making would be secondary in your life to the matters of the house the ruler is in. That would be the major thing you value more than money. ”
    Q: Do you mean by this that for someone who doesn’t have Taurus on cusp of 2nd house, you’d be looking at Venus having influence on 2nd house matters when say Aries is on the cusp of the 2nd.

    • If Aries is on the 2nd house cusp, then Mars is the ruler, and thus you’d look at Mars’ hlouse placement and also it’s sign and aspects. The ruler of any house is the ruler of the sign on that cusp in the particular chart you’re looking at, not the ruler of the sign you’d associate with that house. For instance, if Pisces is on the 2nd, you’d be looking at Neptune; if Sagittarius is on the 2nd, you’d look at Jupiter, and so on. Donna

  14. I want to say that using the Placidus Table of Houses I have
    the moon in the 10th House 4 degrees from the 11th House cusp.
    And using the Campanus Table of Houses my Moon is IN the
    11th House. Both work for me: with a 10th house Moon I
    enjoyed most working for a couple Government jobs. And Moon
    in the 11th House, I do have alot of women friends.

    • Interesting. Have a lot of your friendships come about because of the jobs? Donna

  15. What is your take on having the planet in the sign it rules as well as in the house it naturally rules? For example, pluto in scorpio in the 8th? you did say something about mediumship…


    • Mediumship is certainly one expression of the 8th. Pluto in Scorpio in that house is like 3 layers of Plutonian energy, so quite intense. Recalling what was going on in our field at the time Pluto was in Scorpio, it was the heyday of psychological astrology. Donna

  16. Hi Donna! Thanks for the great information i have not found anyone who has a similar chart. Do you have any insight?
    I have sun in virrgo
    , Virgo rising
    Mercury in Virgo
    Mercury square or opposition Neptune Orb 7° 33′
    Mercury conjunct Ascendant Orb 3° 47′
    Sun in 12th House
    Sun in Sextile with Your Moon
    Mercury in 12th House

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