Back when I was first learning natal astrology (around “5 B.C.” or five years before the first Sinclair and Kaypro personal computers hit the street), students were encouraged to look at the main themes in a chart first before getting sucked into the details. Economical and effective chart synthesis was the “Holy Grail” of the reader’s art, a skill that permitted gaining the most insight from a horoscope with the least amount of effort. A number of good books on the subject for the modern astrologer began emerging (Roy Alexander published one, Chart Synthesis, An Introduction to Creative Interpretation in Natal Astrology, and Stephen Arroyo wrote an even better one, Chart Interpretation Handbook, Guidelines for Understanding the Essentials of the Birth Chart). I’ve read quite a few of them over the years.
Then powerful desktop computers and robust astrological calculation and interpretation software took the field by storm, and it immediately became possible – and expected – to wring out every last bit of minutiae from a chart with the push of a couple of buttons. The challenge became not to find all of the nuances in a chart, but to avoid being blinded by too much information of an incidental nature. I spent quite a few years crafting bloated natal reports that satisfied the completionist in me but that weren’t especially user-friendly for the non-specialist (including most average clients). Not to mention that the “canned” reports were basically cook-book style and had to be groomed for individual applicability, a task that often took hours if I wanted to offer a sharply-tailored product.
Computers came and went, and the elaborate (and relatively affordable) chart-interpretation programs gradually fell by the wayside, leaving me with bare-bones number-crunching routines, a word processor and a shelf-full of books. I eventually returned to the old ways of deconstructing a natal map the way one peels an onion, starting large, with broad analytical strokes, and then carving back the layers with increasingly focused observations. The architecture of the reading became the guiding principle and the details were hung on it with care to provide a lean summary of the native’s potential at birth. It became a kind of “Saturn-Jupiter tango,” with one providing the shell of a structure and the other filling it with only as much content as would fit comfortably within its walls.
This meant beginning with the big picture: the chart axes and the concept of “preponderances.” The Ascendant-Descendant polarity was viewed as the “self-awareness” axis, the “Self-Not-self” duality by which we define our place in the “pecking order” of early life, while the Medium Coeli-Imum Coeli (Midheaven-IC) opposites comprised the “power” or “self-development” axis, showing “where we’re coming from” (4th House) and “where we’re going” (10th House) in the world. The key feature of this analysis was “modality” or “zodiacal quadruplicity” – the Cardinal, Fixed or Mutable quality of the four signs on the angles, with “triplicity” – the nature of the four elements represented by those signs, Fire, Water, Air and Earth – a close second.
The next “broad-brush” technique was looking for relative distribution, or an abundance or absence of any particular emphasis in the chart, a concept known as “preponderance.” An interesting dichotomy here was whether a surplus of any one factor (for example, five or six planets in Fire signs) meant that the individual was “locked into” that mode of expression (which required dedicated effort to overcome) to the exclusion of a more subtle style of delivery, or that it was an area of life that flowed naturally and needed no active attention to make it “work,” allowing the native to develop in more well-rounded ways. This was also applied to hemisphere, quadrant and house emphasis. Obviously, the reverse was true for an absence of planets in any area.
The third primary objective was consideration of the three main “building-blocks” of the personality, the Ascendant, Sun and Moon and their placement by sign and – in the case of the “lights” – by house. The same factors of modality and triplicity, along with “accentuation” (or “mundane quadruplicity”) by house – Angular, Succedent or Cadent, – were brought to bear on the analysis. The “active ingredient” furnished by the operative principle of each of the three components completed the picture.
The next focus was on major aspect patterns between the planets. The important ones were multiple conjunctions – the “stellium” – and oppositions, the “T-square” or “Grand Square” of three or four planets at right angles to one another, the “Grand Trine” of three planets 120° apart, and the “Grand Sextile” of six planets 60° apart. The lesser “Keplerian” angles of separation – 30°, 45°, 135° and 150° – were only brought into the mix if they tied into these important complexes. The so-called “harmonic” aspects – 36°, 40°, 51½° and 72° – were not much recognized in the early days. At that time, the notion of the German astrologers that only the dynamic, motivational “hard” aspects of 90° and its derivatives were worth examining was much in vogue; everything else was deemed “soft” and of little consequence in the outward expression of the personality. This was a useful motif for predictive work but was not embraced by most American astrologers because it took too much off the table.
The final touch was to look at the interaction of “planetary pairs” with a natural affinity for one another – Sun and Moon, Venus and Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, and the triumvirate of modern planets – Uranus, Neptune and Pluto – to see what might be gleaned from their interplay by mode, triplicity, quadruplicity and aspect. (Mercury was – and still is- considered something of a “free agent.”)
All that remained was to blend this hierarchy of influences into a smooth narrative synthesis, and crank out the hand-typed report.