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On Debility: a series

This is the first of an ongoing series writing through essential debility— what it means for a planet to be debilitated, and how that shows up in the world.

One of the most jarring transitions from modern astrology to more traditional forms of the tradition is this concept of essential dignity, that planets can be good or bad based on their position by sign. For me, the concept of debilitated planets holds space for the nuance of a person’s life, the reality that not everything is wonderful, and the reality of hardship, of marginalization. This series is aimed at exploring debility through process, through taking seriously both the received tradition and the reality of how debilitated planets show up. I am not too interested in looking at dignity as good versus bad— there are many wonderful astrologers doing that work, and there is a lot to be gained from that approach. However, there is a lot more interesting things that dignity speaks to, and in this series, I want to look at what debilitated planets actually feel like. Why are they debilitated? What does it look like, in terms of quality, how does it actually function in the context of the real world? I want to do some deep thinking on the astrology of it, as well as engaging with the work and legacy of notable people with those placements.

This is also my love letter to debilitated planets. Personally, many important planets in my chart are debilitated by sign, and without a doubt, those placements have shown some significant struggles in my life. But I like to approach astrology as an oracular practice, a space of possibility, trickery, a space where we seek not to limit our options but expand them. In ancient Mesopotamia, there was an understanding that an eclipse in a certain part of the sky meant that the king would die. So, when the time came around once again for that eclipse to happen, the king was hidden away, and someone else was placed on the throne, thus protecting the real king. That story shows many things, not all of them good, but something it makes clear is that with divinatory practices, in a lot of ways we are co-creators of our own fates. And there is a way of looking at astrology that seeks to lay out possibilities, to choose the thread of fate we want to follow.

What does it mean when a planet is debilitated? Debility is one piece of what is called essential dignity, a foundational concept of astrology that shows the architecture of a chart. It is a way of mapping the responsibilities and relationships that the planets have to one another, and the way those relationships affects how that planet manifests. Like all of astrology it is symbolic, and it uses conceptions of hierarchy to translate the quality of time that the planets represent into a language. And like all languages, it contains within it the prejudices, assumptions, and limitations of the context in which it first emerged. It is worth looking at the structure of that language, to see what it can say, as well as what it can’t, or what it obscures.

There are several different kinds of essential dignity, the primary ones (the ones I will mostly focus on in this series) are domicile and exaltation. Domicile is the sign that a planet rules, or has a responsibility over. These are the most familiar— the Moon rules Cancer, the Sun rules Leo, Mercury rules Virgo and Gemini, Venus rules Libra and Taurus, Mars rules Aries and Scorpio, Jupiter rules Sagittarius and Pisces, and Saturn rules Capricorn and Aquarius. Exaltation is a little less straightforward— the metaphor is often used of the planets being raised up or elevated. The Moon is exalted in Taurus, the Sun in Aries, Mercury in Virgo, Venus in Pisces, Mars in Capricorn, Jupiter in Cancer, Saturn in Libra.

(A note about traditional rulership. The system is elegant, the luminaries— the sun and moon— each rule over a single sign, and each of the seven visible planets rules over two. It ties together many different concepts— aspects, seasons, sect, visibility, the astronomy of the planets themselves. If you’ve only ever used modern rulership, it’s worth looking into, and it will deepen and expand your understanding of the planets and signs.)

So, what is debility? Simply put, it is when a planet finds itself in the sign opposite the sign it rules (for example, the Moon rules Cancer, and therefore the moon is debilitated in Capricorn). There are two kinds: detriment, sometimes called antithesis, where a planet is opposite the sign it rules, and fall, sometimes called depression, where a planet is opposite the sign it exalts in.

The metaphor that is often used for debility is this idea that the planet doesn’t have access to its preferred tools in order to accomplish its task. While I think this metaphor is useful, it’s worth noting that the relationship of debility is often one of familiarity. It’s interesting to note that in terms of the quality of the sign— things like the modality (whether it is cardinal, fixed, or mutable), or triplicity (the element of a sign), the sign of a planet’s domicile has a lot of similarities to the sign of its detriment. For example, taurus and scorpio are opposite signs, and venus, the ruler of taurus, is in detriment in scorpio. However, both of these signs are nocturnal fixed signs, and share significant similarities. In fact, of the classical aspects (sextile, square, trine, and opposition), the opposition is the configuration where the signs share the most similarity.

In the next posts throughout this series, I want to actually go through the planets in their signs of debility, looking to the structure for what it can tell us. What does it mean about Mercury, and Mercurial things, that it is debilitated in Jupiter’s signs? How does this play out qualitatively, and in the lives of those who have these placements. What kinds of strengths and adaptations are brought out when these planets are debilitated? These are some of the questions I want to sit with throughout this series.

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