The modern approach to birth charts involves describing an individual’s personality and psychology based on what planets in signs, planets in houses, and planets in aspect are said to mean. This is known as the 'cookbook' approach. Scores of books and computer programs have been written with the purpose of delineating all possible planet, sign, house, and aspect combinations. Thus the seeker of self-knowledge who orders a computerized birth chart report will receive some thirty pages of material claiming to describe him in detail.
There is a major flaw in this approach. To illustrate it, let's take an example. Suppose an individual was born with Venus retrograde in Virgo in the tenth house. A modern report would describe what Venus in Virgo is said to mean, what Venus in the tenth house is said to mean, and what any aspects with Venus are said to mean. However, at least one key point would be ignored entirely: How well does Venus function in this sign? She is in fall. Being also retrograde, she is in bad shape indeed. The consequences for the individual of Venus being in this condition would not be addressed at all.
Dignity and reception: As I learned from my teacher, no chart can be truly understood without a careful analysis of both.
There are two kinds of dignity. Essential dignity tells us what condition the planet is in: good or bad? This determines how that planet will ‘behave’ in any of its roles in the chart, which include its natural significations (e.g., Venus = romantic relationships) and the matters signified by the houses it rules. Accidental dignity involves the planet’s placement within the chart: strong or weak place from which to act? This tells us the scope of the planet’s potential for good or ill in the life areas which it signifies.
Reception is how we understand the planets’ relationships to each other. Which planets like or dislike each other, and who has the power in the relationship? Imagining them as characters, we then come to understand what motivates them and how they will interact with and affect each other.
Traditional natal interpretation begins with an assessment of the individual's temperament. In the classical typology there are four temperaments, each corresponding to one of the elements: choleric (fire), sanguine (air), melancholic (earth), and phlegmatic (water). Each of us is a mixture of all four; the assessment determines which is dominant. This is the backdrop against which everything else in the chart is examined and understood.
Along with the analysis of dignity, reception, and temperament, traditional natal work also involves careful examination of any fixed stars that fall in prominent places in the chart, and of the important relationship between Moon and Mercury, which together signify how the mind functions.
To learn more about traditional astrology, read John Frawley’s books: The Real Astrology, The Real Astrology Applied, Sports Astrology, and The Horary Textbook. The latter provides an excellent summary of astrology basics in Part 1.
Reading these books is a great place to start, yet if you truly wish to study there is no substitute for one-to-one instruction with an expert. For this, I am at your service. Information about the course I teach is on my website, www.kathrynsilvestre.com, which I invite you to visit.
Originally posted on April 25, 2010; rewritten on March 3, 2013 by the author.