Whole Sign Houses
Whole sign houses is the oldest form of house division, originating sometime around the 1st century BCE as a part of the Greco-Roman tradition of astrology known as Hellenistic astrology.
Despite the fact that whole sign houses is the oldest form of house division, knowledge of this approach was lost during the middle ages, and it was only recently rediscovered by western astrologers in the late 20th century.
The purpose of this article is to introduce this form of house division to western astrologers who are unfamiliar with its usage.
Historical Origins of the Houses
The notion of the 12 “houses” appears to have first been developed in the early Hellenistic tradition of astrology, probably somewhere around the 1st century BCE.
Some scholars such as Jim Tester have pointed out that the development of the houses in the Hellenistic period may have been partially motivated by an earlier Egyptian tradition of decanic astrology, which appears to have assigned certain topics such as livelihood, illness, marriage, children, etc., to specific portions of the diurnal rotation. This Egyptian tradition was then synthesized with the Mesopotamian system of the 12 sign zodiac, which produced the more complex tradition western astrology that we are familiar with today.
What Are Whole Sign Houses?
The Greek term for the ascendant in Hellenistic astrology was horoskopos, which literally means “hour-marker.” The original function and purpose of the ascendant was that it was used to “mark” or designate the zodiacal sign that was rising over the eastern horizon. Once the rising sign was marked by the ascendant, it became the first whole sign house.
Whatever sign is rising, no matter how early or late in the sign the degree of the ascendant may be, that entire sign from 0 to 30 degrees becomes the first house. Then the next sign in zodiacal order becomes the 2nd house, and the sign after that becomes the 3rd house, and so on. Thus the name “whole sign houses.”
There are 12 signs and 12 houses, and this is actually the reason that we have 12 houses instead of some other number such as 8 or 36 or what have you.
Here is an example. Suppose someone has their ascendant in Cancer. Cancer then becomes their 1st house, the sign Leo becomes the second house, Virgo is the third house, etc.
As you can see, the ‘cusps’ of the houses in this system are actually the cusps of the signs. So any time a planet transits into a new sign in a person’s chart it is also moving into a new house.
There are no interceptions, and no complex mathematical procedures for determining the cusps of the houses. Just a very simple, yet elegant system where the signs and the houses coincide with one another, even though each retain their distinct function and purpose.
What about the Midheaven?
You may note that the degree of the MC and the IC can actually fall in other whole sign houses besides just the 10th and the 4th, because in the whole sign house system these points move around in a way that is similar to the vertex or the Lot of Fortune.
Both the MC and the IC retain their commonly agreed upon significations and importance, they just do not designate the cusps or starting points of the 10th and 4th houses. Instead they act more like important points of focus in the chart.
The MC still retains it significations related to the career and social standing of the individual, but it blends these significations together in the whole sign house that it falls in.
For example, if someone has a chart where their MC is in the 9th whole sign house then we would see career significations being mixed in with the 9th house significations, thus possibly leading to a work in a foreign country, or work as an astrologer, a philosopher, a religious figure, etc.
If the MC fell in the 11th house we would see the career being more closely aligned with friends, social movements, etc. The same is true of the IC when it falls in other whole sign houses, except that its significations pertain to the parents and the family.
For example, here is the nativity of a well known astrologer, and a proponent of the whole sign house system, I might add, whose MC falls in the 9th whole sign house:
Quadrant Style House Division
It does appear that there was a notion of house division that is similar to the more modern understanding of the concept, where each quadrant is trisected between the degree of the ascendant and the MC, the MC and the degree of the descendant, etc.
These divisions do not appear to have been assigned topical significations though, but instead they were used to determine planetary strength, or how active or “busy” a planet is in the chart. The closer to an angle a planet is, the more active or ‘busy’ it becomes. This usage of the quadrant style house division to determine planetary activity has been termed a ‘dynamic division’ by Robert Schmidt of Project Hindsight.
It is notable that these ‘dynamic divisions’ were almost always brought up within the context of the length of life treatment in Hellenistic astrology, essentially restricting their application to that specific technique.
When did astrologers stop using whole sign houses?
It appears that just about every astrologer from the 2nd century BCE until about the mid-9th century CE used whole sign houses almost exclusively in order to delineate topics in a chart. Even the early Arabic era astrologers working in Baghdad in the 8th and early 9th centuries such as Masha’allah and Abu ‘Ali al-Khayat used whole sign houses in their chart delineations.
Then, at some point in the middle of the 9th century something changed and all of a sudden the quadrant style systems of house division started to be used topically, and this usage completely displaced the use of whole sign houses. Rob Hand points out in his monograph Whole Sign Houses, The Oldest House System that this shift
…began with the commentators on [the 2nd century astrologer Claudius] Ptolemy…
There is this particularly tricky passage in Ptolemy which many people over the past 1,000 years or so have interpreted it to mean that Ptolemy was using quadrant style houses for topics. However, due to recent translations from Project Hindsight we know now that Ptolemy was consistently using whole sign houses to delineate topics throughout the entirety of his work known as the Tetrabiblos. In the introduction to his translation of Book 3 of the Tetrabiblos Robert Schmidt points out that, outside of his use of the so called ‘dynamic division’ for gaging planetary activity within the context of the length of life treatment
…there is no reason to believe that Ptolemy regards the Horoskopos, Midheaven, etc., as anything other than whole-sign houses.
Nonetheless, the astrologers of the mid-9th century appear to have interpreted Ptolemy’s text otherwise. Rob Hand recently expressed to me privately that he strongly suspects that the main culprit for this interpretation of Ptolemy and subsequent shift in emphasis to the quadrant systems of house division was the renown 9th century astrologer Abu Ma’shar. Abu Ma’shar, who is sometimes known as the ‘Prince of Astrologers’, was such a towering and prolific figure in the Medieval tradition of astrology that his use of the of the quadrant style divisions of houses may have completely set the standard for the next 1,000 years.
The question of house division in the modern period
After the 9th century the quadrant style divisions of the houses became the standard, but out of this sprouted one of the longest held debates in the history of astrology: which is the correct house system to use? After the 9th century dozens of different forms of house division began to appear and be developed and debated upon by astrologers who were trying to cope with the question of house division.
Even today the problem of house division is a common issue, and perhaps one of the biggest inconsistencies with the practice of astrology in the modern period. There are many different astrologers using various forms of house division and there is little agreement upon a common standard or even a consistent rationale for why each person uses the specific system that they use.
Placidus is the most widespread system of house division at the moment, but as James Holden points out in his work A History of Horoscopic Astrology this is largely only a result of the fact that it was grandfathered in because it was the only system of houses for which there were widely available tables that were needed for the calculations in the early 20th century
It has become a cliche in the 20th century that the Placidus system later became the 19th and 20th century standard because it was the only one for which affordable tables were readily available. This is partly true, but the same thing could be said for the initial success of the Regiomantanus system. Had the first published book of house and auxiliary tables have been according to the Campanus system, there is little doubt that it would have become the standard of the time. (Holden, pg. 150)
Astrologers have a tendency to stick to the method of house division that they learned when they first began their studies of astrology. Still, this issue of house division is a big problem at the present point in time, and it seems like there should be a reasonable solution to it.
My friend Bill Johnston is fond of pointing out that astrologers were able to figure out and pretty much come to a consensus on the nature of the outer planets Uranus, Neptune and Pluto in a relatively short time span, yet the solution to the problem of house division is still elusive.
In 1982 the astrologer, linguist and historian of astrology James Holden published a paper in the American Federation of Astrologers Journal of Research titled ‘Ancient House Division’. In this paper Holden was actually the first astrologer and historian of astrology in modern times to point out that the original method of house division wasn’t equal houses where each house cusp is exactly 30 degrees apart starting from the ascendant, but it was actually whole sign houses, or the “sign-house” system as he called it.
In the mid 90′s the translation effort carried out by Project Hindsight confirmed that whole sign houses were the original and primary system of house division for the first 1,000 years of the practice of horoscopic astrology, and perhaps more importantly, that the system actually works in practice.
The noted astrologer Rob Hand became an outspoken advocate of the whole sign house system, and pointed out that this system is actually the main system of house division that has been used in India for nearly 2,000 years now.
The reason for this is that Hellenistic astrology was actually transmitted to India sometime around the 2nd century CE, and this was the foundation of all subsequent traditions of horoscopic astrology in India. I’ll save that story for another article though.
One conclusion that some people who practice whole sign houses have come to is that there was a fundamental mistake that was made at some point around the 9th century that led to the shift away from whole sign houses towards the quadrant style house divisions, and that the subsequent 1,000 years of arguments amongst astrologers about house division and the dozens of new systems that were created were merely the byproduct of a mistake, or a mistranslation. The argument follows that that the remedy to this mistake is simply the drop the quadrant style house divisions and employ whole sign houses exclusively for topical purposes.
Others see the development of the quadrant style houses and their application to topics as a logical extension of the original notion of whole sign houses or perhaps a creative mistake, and choose to employ them in tandem with or as an additional overlay to the whole sign houses.
At this point I’m not really sure if I fully agree or disagree with either of the two aforementioned conclusions that others have come to. Personally, I made the switch to whole sign houses several years ago after working with the modern forms of house division for about five years.
I think that it is a very useful and elegant way to delineate charts, and I have found that many charts which had previously given me problems or just didn’t seem to make sense were actually clarified quite dramatically when cast in this new light.
Not only the simple placement of planets in the houses of a natal chart become clearer, but there are also other applications to areas such as synastry, composite charts, transits, annual profections, secondary progressions, the rulerships, and birth chart rectification, that are incredibly useful as well.
Ultimately, I would encourage everyone to give it a try just to see what happens, and then you can draw your own conclusions. Perhaps you will end up joining the growing number of astrologers around the world that have started applying this ancient approach to house division in their chart work on a daily basis.
I think that in approaching the issue of house division in a thoughtful manner like this through research and case studies we can at least develop a better understanding of what lies at the very core of the concept, and perhaps eventually we can end a longstanding dispute that has been going on amongst astrologers for over a thousand years now.