Jargon Watch: The Language Of Astrology

Conjunction schmunction, what’s your planetary function?
ancient zodiac mosaic

Astrology is so mainstream and accessible these days, it’s now pretty common for the average layperson to know their sun, moon and rising signs — and have, at the very least, a vague sense of what a Saturn Return is. But if all the astrology mumbo jumbo you see crossing your timeline sometimes sounds like a foreign language — well, that’s because it kind of is. The word “astrology” itself literally means “language of the stars” in Greek. Sometimes you see this in the form of ancient, esoteric-looking symbols strung together like a series of hieroglyphs, and sometimes you see it written in what appears to be plain English — but is often peppered with obscure-sounding astrology terms.

If all that talk of sextiles and houses has you scratching your head, we’re coming in handy with the assist. At least now, you can walk away a little more informed than you were when you only knew your sun sign.

An Incomplete Guide To The Vast Universe Of Astrology Terms

Ascendant — this is one of the astrology terms that explains why people keep asking for your birth time. It’s a significant degree in the birth chart that is more or less synonymous with “rising sign.” The Ascendant symbolically represents what was “rising” along the Eastern horizon at the exact moment of one’s birth (so, for example, if you were born at sunrise, the sun would have been on your Ascendant. And if Libra was the sign that was “rising,” you would have your Ascendant in Libra). The Ascendant represents one’s most obvious, emergent qualities — their appearance, sense of style, personal image, and personality. It’s kind of like your avatar in the Sims game of life.

Aspect — a mathematical relationship between two planets, or when two planets form a specific type of angle to each other.

Benefic — in traditional astrology, Venus and Jupiter were the two “benefic” planets, which meant that they were, in very reductionist terms, the “good guys” of the cosmos.

Cazimi — a Latin term that translates to “in the heart.” In Medieval astrology, a planet was cazimi when it was within a very close, prescribed range of the sun (17 minutes of a degree or closer). Cazimi planets become supercharged with the radioactive powers of the sun, which once represented “the King.” So these planets are effectively borrowing the King’s executive powers.

Combust — planets that are not close enough to be cazimi but are still within a few degrees of the sun are combust, or overpowered by its rays. If you were watching this happen with your naked eye (and let’s just pretend you could actually see a planet in the daytime sky), faraway planets would get blocked out by the sun’s light once they got close enough, because the sun takes up more space in the sky. Astrologically, these planets are weakened and rendered less effective.

Conjunct — the aspect that forms when two planets are at the same degree of the zodiac, or almost at the same degree. This is the most powerful type of aspect because the two planets are effectively blending their functions.

Cusp — in theory, this would be a transitional zone between two signs where both are relevant, but guess what? You’re not a cusp sign! Planets can only be in one sign at a time. Some astrologers would agree, however, that houses have cusps (read about houses below) — or that a planet that’s 5 degrees away from the next house cusp theoretically belongs to that house.

Domicile — every planet has a sign (or two signs) that it “rules.” When planets are “domicile,” they are in the sign of their rulership, which means they’re at their most effective. The boss is home, baby.

Exaltation — planets have a sign that they’re “exalted” in, or where they can rejoice and do lots of amazing things as the interim king or queen who’s essentially visiting on a guest visa.

Fall — the sign that’s opposite of a planet’s exaltation is the sign of its fall, which is basically exactly what it sounds like — a place where it performs like a fish out of water. That doesn’t mean it can’t be useful or productive there, but the struggle is real.

House — each chart has 12 houses, which are those pie-slice-looking things you see when you look at a circular chart. These are not the same as the 12 signs; those are 12 equal divisions of the zodiac, which you can think of as an imaginary “band” that coincides with the ecliptic, or the sun’s apparent path around the Earth (in other words, the path the sun appears to be tracing around us from our perspective). The houses are a visual representation of what it would look like if you stood from your vantage point on Earth and created a sphere around you, with the top half representing what’s visible or above you in the sky, and the bottom half representing what’s “below the Earth.” Houses represent various fields of experience — like our love life, career and finances — where astrological activity takes place.

Malefic — there were benefic planets (see above) in traditional astrology, and there were malefic planets — or the bringers of strife. These were Mars and Saturn.

Midheaven — like the Ascendant (see above), the Midheaven is a critical degree in the birth chart, except instead of falling on the Eastern horizon, it represented the highest point in the sky (kind of like “high noon”). Your Midheaven represents your career, reputation and legacy because it’s conceptually the most “public-facing” or “visible” part of the chart.

Opposition — an opposition is an aspect between two planets that are opposite each other, or roughly 180 degrees apart. This is one of the more challenging dynamics because the planets are engaged in a standoff or power struggle, which can describe situations that feel tense, conflicted and difficult to avoid.

Orb — aspects don’t have to be exact by degree, but there is a range of closeness that is close enough to count. That range is called an “orb.” So if Saturn has an orb of 5 degrees, for example, that would mean other planets are in aspect to Saturn if they’re within 5 degrees of an exact conjunction, square, sextile, etc.

Retrograde — because of differences in orbital speeds, planets regularly appear to stop, go backwards for a while, and then resume forward motion again from our perspective here on Earth. Every planet (besides the sun and moon) goes retrograde from time to time. Not all retrogrades are as chaotic as Mercury Retrograde, but in general, these periods represent a time when the outward manifestation of that planet’s function is inverted, reversed or slowed down, inviting us to reflect and reassess.

Saturn Return — a planetary return is when a given planet (doesn’t have to just be Saturn) returns to the same degree in the zodiac it was in at the time of your birth. Things come full circle, you’re confronted with the relevant issues, and you begin a new cycle. The Saturn Return is the most notorious because it’s a rite of passage that marks the onset of true adulthood. Saturn takes 29.5 years to complete a full cycle, and people often experience some sort of hardship, trial, or call to responsibility around the ages of 28, 29 or 30. The nature and severity of this hardship depends a lot on how Saturn is configured in your natal chart, but the purpose of this experience is often to a) force you to get your act together and b) turn an area of deficiency into an area of mastery.

Sextile — an aspect between two planets formed when they are roughly 60 degrees apart, or two signs away from each other. A sextile is a harmonious aspect that represents an opening, opportunity or some sort of helpful communication or assistance taking place.

Square — a hard 90-degree aspect between two planets that represents provocation, conflict and a sense of “crisis” that lights a fire under your butt to change things.

Synastry — a branch of astrology that deals with relationships and compatibility. When you compare your chart to another person’s and draw inferences about how well you mesh together, this would be an assessment of your synastry with that person.

Transit — a transit is basically an aspect with a timeline attached to it. While you might have a static, unchanging aspect in your birth chart, you might experience a transit for the month of July. So if Venus is currently conjunct Saturn, that is a transit the world is currently experiencing. If IRL Venus is conjunct your natal Saturn, or the degree where Saturn was at the time of your birth, then you are personally experiencing a Venus transit to your Saturn.

Trine — the easiest, laziest, most flowing of the aspects. A trine is a 120-degree aspect that takes place between planets that are in signs of the same element, symbolizing natural harmony and things “just happening” of their own accord. Trines are gentle and often constructive if put to good use, but they can easily be squandered because of their complacent energy.

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