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Rulerships: Part 6 of 12
by Mary Plumb

Although the earliest esoteric roots of the system of rulerships and dignities may be lost forever, we do know that they were recorded in the 2nd century C.E. by the Greek astrologer Ptolemy, who organized and codified much of earlier astrological writings, including knowledge from the Chaldean, Egyptian, and earlier Greek schools. Rulerships were described by Ptolemy, and the elegance and orderliness of the system (that is, until the discovery of the planets beyond Saturn) apparently appealed to his logical and rational mind. In ascribing rulership, Ptolemy began with the two summer signs, Cancer and Leo, when the Sun is farthest north and there is the most heat. The Moon's femininity related her to Cancer and the masculine Sun was given to Leo. The opposite signs, Capricorn and Aquarius, were assigned to Saturn, as these are the winter signs and Saturn was known to be cold. The rest of the signs were assigned rulership in relation to their planet's orbits distance from the Sun. Although some contemporary astrologers (Robert Hand, J. Lee Lehman) are rethinking the meanings, and altering their use of the system of rulerships and dignities for modern man, there is a commonly agreed-upon system that this article will introduce. (Rulerships for Chiron and the asteroids are not settled in any way yet among astrologers and will not be discussed here.)

A person with the Sun in Aries, for instance, may act in ways that you can recognize as being quite Mars-like, while your Piscean friends may appear to be listening to the invisible yearning of Neptune, their planetary ruler. As mentioned above, when a planet in the natal chart is placed in the sign that it rules, there is often a strong impression of that planet's function in the person's energy field and life. It could be (depending on other factors such as house placement and aspects) that the archetypal energy of the planet (or the planet's tone) has a sounding board that allows clear resonance of its presence. Look at your own chart as well as those of friends and family to find planets placed in the signs that they rule. Can you observe or feel the qualities of that symmetry in their presence or behavior? Is there a cool, clear intellect at work in those with Mercury in Gemini? How serious, earnest, and hard-working are those with Saturn in Capricorn? Is there really a strong maternal presence in the Cancer Moon, or sense of expansion or exuberance with Jupiter in Sagittarius? These traits may not be obvious at first glance, but chances are you will see some area of life where the characteristics of the planet are revealed quite strongly. Take that as an opportunity to watch closely and to absorb the energy being expressed to learn more about its function or to strengthen your own resonance with that planet!

The study of planetary dignities can take us further into observing planets' relationships to the signs. To some contemporary astrologers the concept of dignities seems hopelessly outdated, but to those who are inclined to look to earlier traditions for clues (maybe those of us with a strong Saturn!), they are a rich field of study. We don't need to grasp the rules and squeeze the life out of them by being overly literal in our usage, but rather to hold them as a possible undercurrent or thread in our interpretive work with a chart. We do know that although the seeming orderliness of the system was described by Ptolemy, the origins of the system are very ancient, and perhaps there is an opening into our past, deep wisdom that is indeed still wise today.

Let us start with rulerships, which are very widely used. Each of the 12 zodiacal signs is said to be ruled by a planet. We say that a sign is strongly influenced by its planetary ruler; there is a natural affinity or correspondence between that planet and the sign it rules. The planets are a dynamic force, while the signs are more a field of experience or stage of development. Planets are traditionally considered to be well placed when in the sign that they rule because of this affinity (which may lead to ease of expression of that particular dynamic function). Once you have a feel for each of the planets and a sense of the natures of the 12 signs, you can begin to look at their respective rulerships to study and observe similarities between the sign and its ruling planet.

There are four commonly used categories: rulership (described above), detriment, exaltation, and fall. A planet is considered to be in its sign of detriment when placed in the sign opposite the one that it rules; for example, the Sun rules Leo and is in detriment in Aquarius. A planet in exaltation is said to be in that sign where its highest or most powerful influence is available. The planet is in its fall in the sign opposite its exaltation. As an example, Venus is exalted in Pisces and in its fall in Virgo; Saturn is exalted in Libra and in its fall in Aries. A planet in detriment is traditionally considered to be poorly placed; a planet in its fall is traditionally thought to be imprisoned, or to have great difficulty in expression.

I do feel that these traditional interpretations incline toward an outmoded good/bad analysis that is limiting and not particularly helpful to our contemporary use of astrology nor is it cognizant of the Divine Perfection inherent in every birth. I feel that the words used could be limiting to our understanding of what the energy means, and I suggest that we go deeper into reflection and observation in our efforts to learn. I have observed, for example, that a planet in detriment or fall may be a particularly sensitive spot in the individual, requiring inner work or much experience to harness in a complete way. I think it wise to become familiar with dignities, and when you find them in charts, do not automatically assume rulership/exaltation=good; detriment/fall=bad. To learn, let the dignities catch your eye, but observe for yourself what their message may be to the individual or to yourself in our time. Keep an open mind! If a system has been in place since antiquity, is there encoded knowledge that is relevant today?


Fred Gettings, The Arkana Dictionary of Astrology; Penguin Group, 1990.

Robert Hand, Horoscope Symbols; Para Research, 1981.

J. Lee Lehman, Essential Dignities; Whitford Press, 1989.

Jim Tester, A History of Western Astrology



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