Greetings, and welcome back to Journeys! This month I offer you a dive into the doctrine of essential dignity focusing on how to interpret it in a natal chart.
This doctrine is an important one for the practice of both astrology and magic, in fact it may well lay at the roots where the two first intertwined in a formal way. Simply put, the idea is that planets and the Lights are stronger in some signs and weaker in others, but there is more than one level at which this can occur. The highest and most endowed level is rulership, with each zodiac sign being given a particular ruler, but beneath this there are further levels at which a planets strength must be evaluated in order to determine a full picture. These levels are exaltation, decans or faces, triplicity, and bounds or terms, in roughly that order of magnitude. There are also two forms of ‘bad’ dignity, or debility, signs where planets are not well placed, and these are called detriment and fall, but there is little consensus on which one is worse and they are often treated fairly equally in judgment as providing problems for that planet or Light. In this message you will learn about rulership, exaltation, detriment and fall, the four main levels of dignity. A future post (likely next month, depending on other requests I will receive) will dive into decans, bounds and triplicity and provide some examples of the doctrine in use.
The importance of this doctrine in astrology is in evaluating the overall effectiveness of a planet according to its place in the zodiac and translating this to life issues, while in magic the primary use has been in the creation of talismans, rituals and evocation magic. I have written about these latter topics in this journal before, most notably in the September 2016 and May 2017 articles on Magical Timing and Magical Operations. I also referred to part of the doctrine in my January 2015 post on Natural Balance. Here I’ll be diving deeper into the doctrine that underlies my thinking in all of those earlier posts and provide a much more detailed discussion of it than I have done before.
I will be looking at each of the forms that essential dignity takes (the levels at which it occurs) with the aim of showing their distinctiveness – what differentiates them – on a practical and experiential level. First, though, we need to talk about the history of the doctrine and the correct way to handle it.
The truth is that the use of essential dignity is so old that we don’t know when it began or even where it began. We see pieces of it turning up in the earliest forms of writing in Egypt and in Mesopotamia and parts of it, like exaltation, are even in use before the tropical zodiac. So we are talking about a doctrine that has survived at least 3-4000 years of human history. We have lost so many texts that we cannot know what we have lost, but what we do know is that some much later Hellenistic writers certainly developed the doctrine substantially, and some of those writers make reference to ‘many volumes’ of texts that they had read which were written by these ancient astrologer-magicians, but which are now lost. It is therefore certain that the doctrine was written down in ancient times, probably extensively, and that these teachings survived into at least the 3rd and 4th century, but that all those writings are now dust in the Sahara or have somehow survived but disappeared into private collections. The Vatican, for example, may be sitting on some of these documents. Since they are purportedly written by legendary figures like Hermes and cover the topic of astrology, they would have obvious theological reasons for sitting on them.
The history of essential dignity also entangles western esoteric thinking with eastern esoteric thinking, and so we cannot clearly map whether it emerges from India or the Mediterranean area. It seems likely that some ideas were imported from one culture to another in various exchanges or that thinking developed mutually, but who swapped what or how all this happened is a mystery. We do not even know for certain whether the doctrine of essential dignity developed alongside other doctrines like the doctrine of aspects or the concept of 12 zodiac signs of equal division, or if it emerged later as a development of those concepts, or whether some parts evolved before others. We also do not know why the assignments were made, not even why the planets have been given rulership over particular signs, although many good theories exist (I highly recommend you research this topic) and there is the distinct possibility that all of them are true, since the ancient world was (apparently) more intellectually chaotic and wild and concepts often emerged without clear lineages or attributions.
So all we really know is that it has been this way for many thousands of years and that it may be one of the oldest surviving ideas in astrology. On the basis of history, like so much in astrology we just have to accept the long pedigree of the doctrine without much other evidence of the original thinking on why it is the way it is, and come to our own conclusions about why these associations exist. The best teachers are your own direct experience and the study of many charts.
It is almost painful for me to write this but there is actually an incorrect way to use this doctrine, and one that does a lot of damage because it is so widespread. Simply put, no planet is bad, evil, cursed, doomed to failure or ‘crappy’ – at least in western natal astrology. It’s these kinds of attitudes and questions that are crappy, not anything in the natal chart. In horary astrology such judgments are valid because there is much less room for maneuver and transformation than there is in a human being, so this doctrine is not meant to be used that way in natal astrology. In natal astrology essential dignity is not a judgment of quantity, it is a only judgment of quality, and that quality is malleable. If you have a debilitated Moon for example it does not mean there is less Moon within you, it means the quality of connection to the Moon is troubled, often because it is perceived by the consensus as unconventional, and so you have some work to do on being comfortable with it before it can gain recognition. This process results in these people developing much more intimate and personal bonds with the Moon than those who were born with a conventional connection, like Moon in Cancer – it is one that ultimately stands out and is entirely their own creation. Moon in Cancer, then, being strongly dignified, will be given immediate and easily earned recognition because it is an archetypal Moon that the consensus recognises, one representing the mothering instinct, while Moon in Capricorn is given no such recognition and must work unexpectedly hard for its recognition and reputation, as must Moon in Scorpio. Part of that struggle may involve starting from or moving through dark places, but not necessarily, and nothing in astrology is holding the person there.
So the point is that assigning a numerical score to planets by totaling up their dignity as a score is a useful teaching device in natal astrology, one that helps a student to evaluate planetary strengths and weakness, but that is as far as it goes, in the end you have to make a qualitative description about the planet and also the overall chart and not a quantitative one. The intent of natal astrology is ‘to guide a life’. In other applications of essential dignity (like horary or magical operations) this does not apply because the intent of the practice (in horary, ‘to answer a question’) is totally different. The key insight here is that astrological interpretation is contextual. Simply put, the chart of a lost ring is not analyzed and interpreted the same way as the chart for a person that will live for an expected 80 years. It is possible the ring has moved beyond your ability to recover it (it is in the sewers, or already in the junkyard piles, or has been stolen and resold) and so the chart must be able to show this as an unavoidable negative outcome with no wriggle room. But this is a disastrous and cynical philosophy to apply to human beings.
A lesser, more subtle point to make about the use of this doctrine is that it is both inseparably related to and designed to be complemented by the use of reception, which is the idea that a planet in a sign that is not its own is like a visitor to that place being received by the host, the planet that does rule the sign. For example, the Sun, which is the ruler of Leo, is therefore the object that receives any other planet in Leo, so if you have Mars in Leo then that Mars is in reception with the Sun – it is in the realm of the solar beings, and so is compelled to behave accordingly.
Reception can and does occur at all levels of essential dignity, not just through rulerships. The dignity, aspects and overall condition of the host (called a dispositor) has a direct effect on all the planets it hosts (or disposits), through essential dignity. If Mars in Leo is being hosted by a strong Sun with lots of respect and recognition then he receives those benefits too, just as if the Sun is not in a commanding place it will not be able to help Mars very much.
Reception not only occurs within every level of essential dignity but also across them – it is possible for example that your Sun is in Scorpio, which is a sign of Mars, while Mars is in the exaltation of the Sun, which is Aries (and which also happens to be a sign of Mars). Mars would be getting a lot of essential dignity in this case, both from his position in a sign of his rulership and via a rulership/exaltation reception with the Sun, and he would throw a lot of his weight behind that Sun in Scorpio. This would fit a Scorpio person with an unquenchable thirst to act in daring ways, and people would cheer it on.
An extension of reception is when two planets are mutually posited in the same category of each other’s essential dignities, e.g. when Mars is in Leo (the sign of the Sun) and also the Sun is in Aries or Scorpio (one of the signs of Mars). This is called mutual reception. This concept is important to understand in relation to essential dignity because a mutual reception between two planets through essential dignity means that they are hosting one another, like two people living in one another houses while on vacation. They are more or less free to act as they wish but are also obliged to follow their hosts rules. If there is then an aspect such as a trine or a square between the two then they are also able to behold one another and communicate, leading to far more powerful exchanges. When working with essential dignity we should always look for reception and mutual reception and include these connections in our interpretation as they throw valuable light on the whole doctrine as well as the chart, and really you should not ever separate the ideas of reception and dignity as doing so distorts the picture you gain considerably.
With just a little reflection you will soon realise that these relationships can grow very intricate, even confusing. A planet can be in a tough position via its essential dignity but in a mutual reception with one that is not, for example. In the planetary economy, however, the “trickle-down economy” actually works and the planet in the stronger position will help the planet that is in the weaker position. However this simple judgment should not be taken for granted as there is a very meaningful and educational process to engage in when it comes to figuring out what everything signifies and where all the chips fall.
One last advisory: you should stick with traditional rulers and forget about modern planets while working with essential dignity. The modern planets have no agreed upon terms or bounds, no faces/decans, no agreed exaltation, detriment or fall. They only have highly contentious associations as the ‘modern rulers’ of Scorpio, Aquarius and Pisces. Worse than this, their introduction disrupts a delicately balanced system. This alone is reason to regard them as belonging to a different order of influence.
Okay, all this said let’s dive into the topic at the top level, the level of rulerships, and look at each of the four major forms of essential dignity in turn.
RULERSHIP: PLANETARY DOMAINS
The traditional rulerships are:
Sun: Leo (Fire)
Moon: Cancer (Water)
Mercury: Gemini and Virgo (Air and Earth)
Venus: Taurus and Libra (Earth and Air)
Mars: Aries and Scorpio (Fire and Water)
Jupiter: Sagittarius and Pisces (Fire and Water)
Saturn: Capricorn and Aquarius (Earth and Air)
Notice the pattern that groups Mercury with Venus and Mars with Jupiter, and that on an Elemental level Saturn balances out the inclusion of the Lights in the rulership scheme.
A rulership is where that planet has absolute authority and power, but also huge responsibility, like a monarch on a throne. This last point is important and brings us back to the concept of reception – the planet ruling a sign becomes responsible for any planets in that sign. Like a monarch seated upon a throne a planet in its own sign has absolute command over its environment and is at ease in the sense that they are positioned “at home”, and are able to hold court. However the boons of rulership also come with ties and obligations since the existence of this bonded relationship to a particular sign means that other planets in that sign always look to the ruler for support. They will do this whether the ruler is in that sign or not, and additionally a planet that is in its own sign will be looked towards for leadership even if there are no other planets with it in that sign (this will mostly come through its aspects but also happens without them).
This is especially important in charts which contain stelliums of planets in one particular sign (four or more planets or Lights in one sign counts as a stellium). The ruler of that sign will have to support the entire stellium, and so the evaluation of its position becomes incredibly important. If it itself is in a difficult position, it will not be able to lend much support to its court, and it will have to be selective and careful about how it distributes its resources and attention. It will lack powers of command over its court, and the planets looking to it for support will act more independently and with less overall cohesion and focus. They will lack strong leadership.
It is also important when one planet acts as the dispositor for two other planets who are in aspect. For example, if you have the Sun in Sagittarius in a square with the Moon in Pisces, then both of those are in signs ruled by Jupiter and the overall quality of the square will be strongly affected by the overall quality of Jupiter in the chart, wherever it is. A strong Jupiter, say in Cancer, the sign of its exaltation, will be able to overcome the trouble of the square with greater ease, while a debilitated Jupiter, say in Capricorn, the sign of its fall, will have the opposite effect.
Further nuance in these cases comes if the dispositor makes an aspect to one of the planets it disposits, for example in this case if Jupiter in Cancer makes a trine to the Moon in Pisces. In these cases the dispositor favours one of the two sides of the Sun/Moon square aspect, lending the Moon more support because it is able to clearly perceive it and communicate with it. However the nature of the dipositors aspect and the aspect between the planets it disposits will also be important. In the example here the trine from Jupiter will make the support flow easily and readily to the Moon and it will be very generous (thus potentially rubbing up the Sun in Sagittarius the wrong way or leaving it starved of support), but if instead the aspect from the dispositor was a square or opposition then its support will come with certain strings attached. The sign the ruling planet is in will call shots that the other planet will have to follow, and it will have trouble with those commands. The king tells the sworn knight to do something that conflicts with one of his oaths to another or with his own inner core.
In reception through rulership this situation happens more commonly with Mercury and Jupiter as the dispositors because those planets rule signs which are in square aspect to one another but it can also happen with other planets through the conjunction aspect (and in levels of dignity other than rulership, such as exaltation). For example, the Sun and Moon could be in conjunction in Taurus, which is ruled by Venus, and Venus could be in Pisces, the sign of her exhaltation and a position where she can sextile both the Sun and Moon, giving them both a huge wedding blessing. However, remember that at the same time she will have (Taurus shaped) obligations and responsibilities towards them, and so transits, progressions, natal aspects and other conditions which affect her will also affect the Sun and Moon, and this will be true even if there is no sextile between her and them. When a ruler sickens, her entire nation does too. Conversely, a healthy ruler makes for a healthy land. In the old ways we knew this as the notion that “the king and the land are One”.
Examples: Neil Armstrong (Sun), William Blake (Moon), M.C. Escher (Mercury), Salvador Dali (Venus), Jimi Hendrix (Mars), Leonardo de Vinci (Jupiter), Winston Churchill (Saturn).
DETRIMENT: PLANETARY BADLANDS
If rulership is where a planet is most at home, has the most control and the most authority, then detriment is where it is farthest from that place. It is the President of the United States not seated behind a desk in the White House but instead giving an address to the Chinese government while in Beijing, probably without his secret service. It is Madonna without makeup on an unforgiving factory floor rather than on a stage with all the glamour and lighting.
This turns out to be a severe test of the planets character and its principles, an experience akin to exile or being ostracized from its native land. Without the support of familiar surroundings, farthest from our comfort zones, the potential for growth and meaningful change is enormous. A planet in detriment is faced with significant adversity, but it is not weak. It is struggling with something that will ultimately make it very strong. Progress will be hard won, but any respect that is given will be more significant because it is based on merit alone.
A planet in detriment is also feeling somewhat careless of its usual responsibilities to its sign, its usual duties and obligations, and so any planets in its sign/s cannot expect the usual level of support from it. This dis-empowers them but in turn may make them able to act without its leading them to do so, in other words to behave more in keeping with their own nature rather than that of the sign they are in. For example, Sun in Aquarius will make any other planet in Leo act more independently not just because of the Aquarius Sun sign traits, but also because the Sun (in its detriment) is taking a holiday from monitoring behaviour in Leo, and any planets in Leo will therefore be more unruly and potentially dis-organised. This will apply to transits and progressions through Leo as well as natal placements.
The detriments for planets are placed opposite the rulerships, as follows:
Sun: Aquarius (Air)
Moon: Capricorn (Earth)
Mercury: Sagittarius and Pisces (Fire and Water)
Venus: Aries and Scorpio (Fire and Water)
Mars: Taurus and Libra (Earth and Air)
Jupiter: Gemini and Virgo (Air and Earth)
Saturn: Cancer and Leo (Water and Fire)
Notice again the pattern with the Lights, Mars and Jupiter being Air and Earth while everything else is Fire and Water. It is a mirror of the rulership scheme.
The most significant pattern here is that
– The Lights are detrimental to Saturn and vice versa
– Mercury is detrimental to Jupiter and vice versa, and
– Venus is detrimental to Mars and vice versa
This pattern helps us to cut through the bad attitudes we have developed around poor dignity as we can clearly see that detriment is not actually a bad thing. To say that Mars is detrimental to Venus and vice versa is a nonsense when you think about their influence over sexual attraction, like saying masculinity and femininity are detrimental to one another. They are the urge to desire and the urge to be desired, different but not inimical. Likewise the crystallizing, dark, aging nature of Saturn is not detrimental to the radiant, illuminating, life giving properties of the Sun and Moon, nor is the factual, rational, specific nature of Mercury detrimental to the broad, faithful, spiritual properties of Jupiter. Detriment is a definite challenge and a struggle but not a curse. It is about finding ways to express the planets essence in ways which bring it into a more complete state of balance, and in doing so attain a new level of excellence.
Examples: Benny Hill (Sun), Ernest Hemingway (Moon), Paramahansa Yogananda (Mercury), Michelangelo (Venus), Mars (Mohammed Ali), Ursula Le Guin (Jupiter), Nostradamus (Saturn).
EXALTATION: PLANETARY EMINENCE
Each of the 7 traditional planets has one sign in which it is said to be exalted.
Aries: Sun (Fire, ruler is Mars)
Taurus: Moon (Earth, ruler is Venus)
Cancer: Jupiter (Water, ruler is the Moon)
Virgo: Mercury (Earth, ruler is also Mercury)
Libra: Saturn (Air, ruler is Venus)
Capricorn: Mars (Earth, ruler is Saturn)
Pisces: Venus (Water, ruler is Jupiter)
Note that only 1 Air sign (Libra) and 1 Fire sign (Aries) have exaltations, and that these are the first sign and the middle sign of the zodiac. There are exaltations in all 3 Earth signs, 2 in the Water signs, and just 1 each in the Fire and Air signs. All of the Cardinal/Active signs are represented, and there are two Mutable/Reactive signs and only one Fixed/Stable sign (Taurus). There are 5 signs without exaltations (Gemini, Leo, Scorpio, Sagittarius and Aquarius).
According to the doctrine, certain degrees within these signs represent the greatest point of exaltation for the planet concerned:
Sun: 19th degree of Aries (i.e., 18°00′ – 18°59′)
Moon: 3rd degree of Taurus
Mercury: 15th degree of Virgo
Venus: 27th degree of Pisces
Mars: 28th degree of Capricorn
Jupiter: 15th degree of Cancer
Saturn: 21st degree of Libra
An interesting point here is that going back even before the existence of the 12 signs, astrologers in Mesopotamia and Egypt were using these exaltation degrees and so the earliest known use of exhaltation actually predates the earliest use of the tropical zodiac signs (they were plotting the same positions given above but using the constellations).
So what does exhaltation signify? The simple answer is that it’s like rulership, but with none of the responsibility. If rulership is akin to a monarch then exhaltation is the young princess or prince who is third in line to the throne and is not expected to wear the heavy crown. They are instead adored by a loyal public who shower honours upon them without them having to do much to earn any of it. In these signs, that planet fluorishes, its nature is fecund and prolific. They are uplifted, set free to live the life they want, but it is not without some expectations – they have to uphold all the royal appearances, and so cannot be seen bumming around town drunk. Pretty much ever. They have to maintain a certain standard of decorum, a certain nobility, to continue to enjoy the benefits.
So it is with an exalted planet – its essence is lifted up, its spirit is set free and in this place it has no difficulty receiving many honours and a high degree of respect, but it has to aspire to its higher nature at all times, it must maintain the state of dignity that comes from reaching for virtue and the purest expression of the planets and signs principles. Perfectionism can plague the satisfaction that these planets provide, even though many honours are easily given to it. Additionally an exalted planet does not take its sign responsibilities very seriously, providing ample resources and support but little guidance to those planets. What is perhaps harder to live with, though, is the awareness that the only way to go is down and that the respect and honours means being committed to a continuously testing path of scintillating brilliance and having an unwavering commitment to giving ones absolute best.
Mercury plays the cool trick of being both the ruler of and exalted in Virgo, and thus is especially strong in that sign. In Virgo, Mercury is dedicated to thinking of ways it can help others, and so an altruistic, humble nature (its exhaltation) is combined with the intellectual power of a dry, keen mind (its rulership of Virgo) to make Virgo the primary sign of intellectual recognition, respect and honours as well as the best sign for solving problems with practical solutions and conducting impartial and well thought out experiments.
Arrogance and a sense of innate superiority and entitlement can be a major problem with exaltation, as the person senses that there is something special about them and this is confirmed externally by the way others usually treat them. At the very least this brings problems with resentment when met with a lack of respect from others. These planets expect themselves to be champions and are expected to be that by others, too. The lofty heights which an exalted planet leads us to can also be giddying in other ways, causing us to be wasteful of the opportunities that come our way and somewhat lawless in actions and behaviour. As I have said, the recognition and raising up that exaltation confers will not last if we do not act with the noblest of intentions at all times, and so it can be very hard indeed to keep that up. The great generals who had Mars in Capricorn always knew that one slip-up, one bad tactical decision in battle, would cost countless lives and quickly strip them of their medals. It is truly the unending pressure for true excellence and brilliance that can burden an exalted planet. There is always a new challenge. Just ask any Aries.
Examples: Maya Angelou (Sun), Frida Khalo (Moon), H.G. Wells (Mercury),Vincent van Gogh (Venus), Aleister Crowley (Mars), Bertrand Russell (Jupiter), Oliver Cromwell (Saturn).
FALL: PLANETARY RESTRAINT
The literal opposite of exaltation is called the fall of a planet:
Aries: Saturn (Fire, ruler is Mars)
Cancer: Mars (Water, ruler is the Moon)
Virgo: Venus (Earth, ruler is Mercury)
Libra: Sun (Air, ruler is Venus)
Scorpio: Moon (Water, ruler is Mars)
Capricorn: Jupiter (Earth, ruler is Saturn)
Pisces: Mercury (Water, ruler is Jupiter)
This leaves five signs without a fall for any planet – Taurus, Gemini, Leo, Sagittarius and Aquarius. Both signs of Mars have a fall and everything else gets one of its signs as the sign of a planets fall, except for the Sun. All of the Water signs are involved and all 4 of the Active/Cardinal signs are again represented. It is not clear whether the fall of a planet in a particular sign reaches a nadir at the corresponding degree given for the exaltations. Some astrologers use the degrees, I do not.
Again, as with detriment, we have to abandon the idea that a planet in its fall is bad. If we do not then we are saying that the Libra and Aquarius Sun signs are bad too. This is nonsense. There is good and bad in everything, and exaltations, rulerships, detriment and fall are no exceptions. There is instead ease and difficulty, but with ease there is ultimately less payoff, less satisfaction for what we attain.
The sign of a planets fall is a sign where its qualities are restrained, placed in cuffs, strapped down, masked or gagged by the qualities of the sign and the signs ruler. This restraining is similar to the limiting influence that aspects of Saturn can bring, a kind of pinning down or imprisonment, but it has more to do with environmental factors than karmic necessity. Where an exalted planet is easily given honours and recognition from its environment a planet in fall is aware that it starts from no such privileged position and will never be given such easily won support. It will therefore tend to be more independent as it will have to rely more upon itself and less upon the support of society and culture.
The expression of a planet in its fall is challenged by the consensus and often deeply misunderstood and falsely judged by it. For example a Moon in Scorpio is often deeply private and introspective and sticks to the shadows. This behaviour is judged as being antisocial and suspicious. This condition will not change and is not changeable by the person, it is an environmental effect that they will have to live with. However it can have many benefits – that Moon in Scorpio becomes something attractive when others have a personal secret that they need to talk about, and so the Moon in Scorpio often becomes the person others confide their deeper feelings to rather than engaging them in social chit-chat.
The key concept to grasp here is that the planet in its fall is not listened to because it is naturally inclined to take an unconventional path that is problematic for its expression except in specific niche cases, where it becomes exceptionally useful. This is also true for detriment but with detriment there is less excellence in a niche area and also an emphasis on getting away from responsibility. The Moon in Capricorn (detriment) does not take on board anyone else’s astral baggage as its responsibility, the Moon in Scorpio (fall) does, yet both are faced with the task of making an unconventional expression of the Moon work.
Arguably it can be said that with exaltation the only way is down while with a planet in fall the only way is up. A planet in exaltation may receive a larger quantity of honours, but a planet in fall understands that it is the quality that counts and sets its aspirations accordingly, with discernment (or skepticism) about the honours that are worth having. However its upward ascent will require significant effort, without which the planet will just languish in a kind of pit or prison. The key for someone with a planet in its fall is to accept the situation and then to figure out what that niche capacity is and to lean into it. This unlocks the confinement and transforms an initially depressing situation into a strength.
Examples: Oscar Wilde (Sun), Uri Geller (Moon), Lady Gaga (Mercury), Antonin Artaud (Venus), Pablo Picasso (Mars), Walt Disney (Jupiter), Tina Turner (Saturn).
What planets are in rulership, detriment, exaltation or fall in your chart? Which planets are in reception or mutual reception, and how does all this express itself in your unique case? Have fun contemplating the answers, and hit subscribe for the next part!