The Big Three:
Sun, Moon and Ascendant


This discussion focuses on the primary triad in your birth chart: the Sun, Moon, and Ascendant. Interpretation of the birth chart begins with these three. Like a skeleton of human character, they support everything else.  Mercury, Mars, Venus, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto help to "fill in" the  specific details of character.  The essence of our character is provided by synthesizing the archetypes represented by the Sun, Moon and Ascendant..  When synthesized, these three will supply the framework for the interpretation of the rest of the chart.

The language of astrology is made up of signs, houses, and planets.  Each of these three factors describe a specific dimension of experience.  The planets in the birth chart describe the WHAT of our character--describing the different facets of our psyche. They are like the performers in a stage production. The zodiac signs describe the HOW -- that is, how we attempt to achieve the goals defined by the nature of each of the planets. You can think of them as our style and "costuming."  The houses describe the WHERE or the stage in life in which the planets develop and express themselves.
The Sun, Moon and Ascendant

The Sun and Moon and ascendant provide us with details concerning the question of WHAT. When we examine the placements of the Sun and Moon, we are looking for clues to the functions and aspects of character implied by the sign and house placement of the sun and moon.  We do similarly with the ascendant, which is not a planet but the most important angle of the birth chart.  The ascendant is the degree and sign rising at the time and location of birth.

The ascendant's WHAT is our expressed personality.  It is the mask we wear as we present ourselves to the social world.  A personality is a role we play and therefore, something that is less then what we are in our wholeness.  It is via the ascendant that we are able to find a comfortable expression of our sun, moon and other planets in our chart. 

The WHAT, or the function of character we are working with when we examine the sun, is our fundamental identity or integrity.  The sun in our charts is the gravitational center of our human personality.  It is our innate desire to be and to realize our human self and our creative principle..  The expression of our innate identity (described by our sun sign) is fundamental to our health, well-being and vitality.

When it is the moon we are considering, the WHAT is our soul.  It is our emotional nature and unconsciously acquired habits and instinctive reaction patterns.  The moon is the fastest moving body in our solar system, ever changing. It's function is to feel and respond.

Each of us has the sun, moon, and ascendant in one of the twelve zodiac signs and the sun and moon in one of the twelve zodiac houses.  When we think of ourselves and others only in terms of sun signs,  we limit ourselves to a mere 12 categorizations of character!  If we add the moon sign, we extend the range of categories to include the 12 possible sun signs in combination with the 12 possible moon signs, and increase the possibilities to 144. The possibilities begin to rise exponentially when we include the twelve potentials for the ascendant (or rising sign) and combine them with the sun and moon combinations.  Throw in the house placements of the sun and moon and the number jumps to 248,832 possibilities!   And that is achieved by a mere scratching of the surface of the symbolism of the birth chart, using only the prime triad of character!  (Next time you hear someone accuse astrology of "boxing" folks into twelve neat little categories, you can point out to them how truly unique each and every one of us really is!)

Sign Placements
The twelve signs are a combination of expressed energy that can be classified via their relationship to the  four elements and three modes.  You are likely familiar with the elements: fire, earth, air, and water.  I will discuss the elements more thoroughly in a moment, but I will begin with the classification of the signs via their modes.

The modes relate to the three phases or cycles of any life form: 1) birth, 2) continuity of existence and 3) transformation/death.  In the language of astrology, the birth phase or initiating phase is referred to as the cardinal mode, the continuity of existence or maintenance phase is referred to as the fixed mode and the transformative phase or changeable phase is referred to as the mutable mode.  Each sign of the zodiac is expressed through one of these three modal phases as well as one of the four elemental forces. 

The elements are fire, earth, air and water. The zodiac's fire signs, Aries, Leo, and Sagittarius then, are all representative of an energetic, passionate, self-directing and assertive character because they are all fire signs.  The earth signs, Taurus, Virgo and Capricorn, all demonstrate reliable, practical and sensual characteristics.  The air signs, Gemini, Libra and Aquarius endow one with a mental, communicative, and social character and the water signs, Cancer, Scorpio, and Pisces represent emotional, sensitive, and  receptive traits.

This is, of course, a very simplified accounting of the modes and elements.  An entire book could be written on the subject (and has been)!  The important point is, your understanding of these elements as you've experienced them in everyday reality, will assist you in understanding their symbolical association with the twelve signs of the zodiac.

Following is a table listing the signs via their elemental and modal character.

                            Sign        Mode     Element        Description

Aries Cardinal Fire Initiating; enthusiastic, energetic, and assertive
Taurus  Fixed Earth Maintaining;  reliable, practical and sensual
Gemini Mutable Air Changeable ; mental, communicative and social
Cancer Cardinal Water Initiating; emotional, sensitive, and receptive
Leo Fixed Fire Maintaining; enthusiastic, energetic, and assertive
Virgo Mutable Earth Changeable, reliable, practical and sensual
Libra Cardinal Air Initiating; mental, communicative, and social
Scorpio Fixed Water Maintaining; emotional, sensitive and receptive
Sagittarius Mutable Fire Changeable, enthusiastic, energetic and assertive
Capricorn Cardinal Earth Initiating; reliable, practical and sensual
Aquarius Fixed Air Maintaining; mental, communicative and social 
Pisces Mutable Water Changeable, emotional, sensitive and receptive

In addition to the traits engendered by placement in a particular mode and element, each  sign also demonstrates its own set of unique  character traits.  To keep things from getting too complex, astrologer Steven Forrest suggests we think of the signs in terms of archetypes of character.  Following is a table of the Archetypes associated with each of the twelve signs, many borrowed from Steven Forrest as he outlines them in his book, The Inner Sky (which I highly recommend).

                                       Sign                Archetype

Aries Warrior, Pioneer, Daredevil, and/or Survivor
Taurus Builder, Earth Spirit, Musician, and/or Conservationist
Gemini Teacher, Storyteller, Writer, and/or Jack/Jill-of-all-trades
Cancer Mother, Nurturer, Psychic, and/or Empress
Leo Performer, King/Queen, Comedian, and/or Child
Virgo Analyst, Perfectionist, Servant, and/or Efficiency Expert
Libra Diplomat, Peacemaker, Lover, and/or Artist
Scorpio Detective, Sorcerer, Alchemist, and/or Avenger.
Sagittarius Student, Philosopher, Gypsy, and/or Visionary
Capricorn Hermit, Emperor, Strategist and/or Achiever
Aquarius Revolutionary, Nonconformist, Truth Sayer and/or Genius
Pisces High-Priest/Priestess, Mystic, Poet and/or Martyr
Now we have some archetypes for each of the signs in addition to having a sense of the modal and elemental classification of each sign.  What we are going to do now is use the modal and elemental classifications, along with the archetypes, to assist us in synthesizing the sun, moon and ascendant placements.

For example, I am a Capricorn sun, Pisces moon, and Virgo ascendant.  Sun and ascendant are both in earth signs, moon and ascendant are both mutable signs.  There is an emphasis then on the mutable mode (changeable or transforming), and the earth element.  In addition, there is representation of the water element by the moon's placement in Pisces and the cardinal mode by the sun's placement in Capricorn.  Let's put together a few sentences using the modes, elements and archetypes to describe my character.

My identity (sun) is the initiating (cardinal mode), reliable, practical and sensual (element of earth) Hermit or Emperor (Capricorn).  I have the soul (moon) of the changeable (mutable mode), receptive, feeling and intuitive (water element) Mystic or Poet (Pisces) wearing the mask (ascendant) of the changeable (mutable mode) reliable, practical, and sensual (earth element)  Analyst or Servant (Virgo).

Do the archetypes give you a vivid "sense" of the signs involved?  What about the elements and modes?  Let's take the analysis a step further.   How similar are the three signs?  What do they have in common?  In what ways are they different?  What potential challenges and skills do these placements suggest?   The Cardinal sun (identity) is initiating and the soul (moon) and mask (ascendant) are changeable/transforming.  The fixed mode is lacking in the prime triad.  However, the sun and ascendant are in reliable and practical earth signs -- traits associated with the focus on "maintaining" that is associated with the fixed mode.  So we see that the element of earth shares some similarities with the fixed mode; and therefore, can be seen as a potential substitute for the "maintaining" energy that the fixed mode engenders.

Another way to approach the synthesis of the sun, moon and ascendant is to  turn our consideration to that of elemental compatibility.  My prime triad is made up of two earth signs and one water sign.  Water and earth are generally considered to be compatible elements.  Water nurtures the earth and earth absorbs water.  However, one challenge of this combination can be that more water is needed to nurture the earth.

Further, the foundation represented by the prime triad lacks the air and fire element.  This would be something you would want to mentally note, so that as you examined the rest of the chart, you would be looking for these elements to be emphasized in other ways..  This is how chart interpretation begins -- you work with this prime triad and build on their foundation.

Let's consider another example.  Let's assume someone with the identity (sun) of the initiating (cardinal mode) enthusiastic, energetic, and assertive (fire sign) Daredevil or Warrior (Aries), with the soul of the changeable (mutable element) communicative, social and mental (air element) Teacher or Writer (Gemini) is wearing the mask of the initiating (Cardinal),  receptive, feeling and intuitive (water sign),  Nurturer or Psychic (Cancer).  This person's identity (fire sign)  and soul  (air sign) are in compatible elements.  Air "fuels" fire and fire "heats" air.

However, this person's fiery identity and communicative soul are being expressed through a water sign mask (ascendant).  What happens when fire or air is mixed with water?  Water puts out fire and air evaporates water.  Hmmm.  But don't stop there.  What else comes to mind?  Play with the images.  Look for all the possibilities.  Consider both the strengths that can be derived from such a combination as well as the potential challenges.  Play around with the symbolism.  Think of the people who are close to you. What archetype are they expressing through their Sun sign?  Maybe one friends is the Warrior (Sun) wearing the mask of the Nurturer (Cancer).  Or do you know someone with the soul of the Communicator wearing the mask of the Psychic? Allow your intuition play around with the endless possibilities!

Each astrological symbol represents a spectrum of possibilities;
each birth chart contains the roots of ten thousand personalities.
An individual can respond to a birth chart in an unimaginative way,
or vibrantly and creatively.
His or her response can never be known in advance.
There is no such thing as a good birth chart or a bad one.
There are no evolved charts or unevolved ones,
no sane ones, no schizophrenic ones.
There is a universe of potential within us all.
Steven Forrest
I believe that the job of the astrologer when interpreting any chart is to respond to the symbolism in an imaginative, creative and open manner; viewing the symbols as neutral traits while simultaneously keeping in mind both the challenges as well the the most positive  expression implied by the symbolism. 

House Placements
The next step is to include the WHERE into our interpretation.  We have the WHAT, the Performer, (the sun, moon, and ascendant) and the HOW and costume, (the sign placement).  The next step is to consider WHERE -- the stage or arena of life -- that the sun and moon invest much of their energy.  (The Ascendant's WHERE is always the first house, which symbolizes not only the  personality but also the physical body.)

Following is a table of the WHERE described by each of the twelve houses.

First House -  Associated with Aries  (Cardinal, Fire) Arena of the Personality:  The self's projection; other's first impression of that self, the physical body.
Second House - Associated with Taurus (Fixed, earth) Arena of Substance:  One's personal values, resources, and tangible possessions. One's sense of security.
Third House - Associated with Gemini (Mutable, Air) Arena of neighboring environment and communication:  Information dissemination and gathering; relatives, neighbors, and siblings. 
Fourth House - Associated with Cancer  (Cardinal, Water) Arena of Home:  One's roots and heritage, the domestic environment, one's sense of "home" -- both inner and outer. The parents.
Fifth House - Associated with Leo (Fixed, Fire) Arena of Ego Expression, Games & Tangible Creations:  Children, loverships, gambling, recreation, and play
Sixth House - Associated with Virgo  (Mutable, earth) Arena of Health, Duty, and Service:  One's job or work, hobbies, domestic animals, nutrition, hygiene
Seventh House - Associated with Libra (Cardinal, Air) Arena of Committed Partnerships:  Marriage and business partners, intimate relationships, Equal relationships
Eight House - Associated with Scorpio (Fixed, Water) Arena of Regeneration, Transformation and the Resources of Others:  Intense experiences including sexual activities, death, rebirth, occult, and near-death.   Also investments, legacies, insurance, inheritance
Ninth House - Associated with Sagittarius (Mutable, Fire) Arena of Long Journeys:  Foreign countries, long distance travel, higher education, philosophy, religion, experiences that are expansive
Tenth House - Associated with Capricorn (Cardinal, Earth) Arena of Profession and Purpose/Destiny:  Career, vocation, social reputation and status; public life, accomplishments, the parents, sense of purpose and destiny.
Eleventh House - Associated with Aquarius (Fixed, Air) Arena of Friends, Hopes and Dreams, Group Associations and Social Reform:  Collective endeavors, clubs and organizations one is affiliated with, friends, ideals, global awareness, altruistic activities
Twelfth House - Associated with Pisces (Mutable, Water) Arena of Ego Transcendence & Spiritual Experiences:  Hospitals, prisons, escapist activities, imagination, that which is hidden or secret.

Returning to the example of my own chart, let's add the information that can be derived from the WHERE into what we've already learned about the WHAT and HOW.  My identity (sun) is the initiating (cardinal mode), reliable, practical and sensual (element of earth) Hermit or Emperor (Capricorn).  The sun is placed in the 5th house of my natal chart; the house corresponding to Leo, the fixed mode and the fire element.  My identity is invested in the arena of ego expression, games, and tangible creations.

The moon, representing my emotional nature and soul, is the changeable (mutable mode), receptive, feeling and intuitive (water element) Mystic or Poet (Pisces).  It is located in the 7th house invested in the arena of committed partnerships -- the 7th house corresponding to Libra, the air element and the cardinal mode.  Now we can see that the fire and air elements, as well as the fixed mode, noted to be lacking in sign analysis, have been included in the house analysis.

Following this level of synthesis of the prime triad, we would move on to examine the aspects made to the sun, moon and ascendant.  The aspects indicate the quality and quantity of communicative links between the primary triad and the rest of the indicators in the birth chart.  However, that discussion I will save for another time....

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