A Beginner's Guide to Understanding Astrology
A Beginner's Guide to Understanding Astrology
Set of traditional western zodiac signs Vector illustration

A Beginner's Guide to Understanding Astrology

From zodiac signs to terms like ascendant and mercury retrograde, this guide serves as an intro into understanding astrology.

Once maligned in the popular imagination to single paragraph horoscopes in newspapers and tabloids, astrology has experienced something of a renaissance in the last ten years. With apps like Co-Star, the Pattern, and Chani becoming mainstream, the latest wave of astrology’s popularity has spawned legions of new practitioners eager to make sense of their lives. The thought of punching in a few of your birth date details and instantly having matters of your destiny and fate spelled out can be super attractive. But one quick glance into the stars reveals the deeply nuanced complexity of this ancient art. 

To truly understand astrology, you have to know that it’s a science, a scholarly study, an art form, a language, and a divination tool all at once. Its earliest roots are found in Babylon, somewhere around 2400 BC. After this, different schools of thought of astrology formed as it made its way to Greece in 331 BC and the Middle East in the 5th century AD. 

The meat and potatoes in the celestial soup we call astrology are the planets in our solar system, the moon, plus a few notable asteroids and other significant points in space. A birth chart, or more simply a chart – say for an event – is the central artifact in astrology. It’s a snapshot of the position of all of the planets at the time of your birth, or the time of whatever event you happen to be studying. As the earth orbits the sun, the sun, moon, and planets appear to visit the constellations of the zodiac, which is where the signs come from. Your "sign" is the constellation that the Sun was observed in at the time of your birth. Because all of the planets also have unique locations at the time of your birth, this is where your chart’s “snapshot” comes from. All of the signs in the zodiac can be observed (or could be in ancient times) along this line, called the ecliptic. Read on to get a beginner’s guide to astrology. 

A Beginner's Guide to Understanding Astrology Wheel with twelve signs of the zodiac in night sky, astrology, esotericism, prediction of the future.

The Signs 

Each of the signs is associated with an archetype within Greco-Roman mythology, which does a great job at endowing each sign with certain qualities and traits. The signs are also identifiable by element (water, earth, fire, or air) and modality (cardinal, fixed, and mutable). These categories also give each sign its own specific behavior and orientation. 

The modalities pertain to the seasons. Cardinal signs initiate the season, fixed signs represent the middle of the season, and mutable signs mark the time of transition between the seasons. Cardinal signs (Aries, Cancer, Libra, and Capricorn) are the self starters, not afraid to initiate projects on their own and forge new paths. Fixed signs (Leo, Scorpio, Aquarius, and Taurus)  are more comfortable keeping things how they are, loathe to even small changes at times. Mutable signs (Sagittarius, Pisces, Gemini, and Virgo) are more flexible, ready to ebb and flow wherever the river of change takes them. 

Water Signs - Pisces, Cancer, and Scorpio. These signs are known for their sensitivity and perceptiveness, often having empathic qualities about them. These are the friends sure to lend a listening ear when you dish about the latest thing vexing your life — the more melodramatic the better. 

Earth Signs - Taurus, Virgo, and Capricorn. Master manifestors in the material realm, earth signs are known by their natural ability to navigate earthly matters. They are often experienced as no-nonsense and adept at getting things done. 

Fire Signs - Aries, Leo, and Sagittarius. Often the life of the party, fire signs take after their fiery element in show-stopping fashion, easily garnering the attention of friends and even strangers with their more flashy sensibility. 

Air Signs - Gemini, Libra, and Aquarius. Iconoclasts in their own right, air signs aren’t afraid to walk to the beat of their own drum. As such visionaries, they often are easily misunderstood by others. 

A Beginner's Guide to Understanding Astrology Photo Credit: Vector retro graphic illustrations of horoscope signs.

By Zodiac Sign

Aries - The first sign in the zodiac is represented by the ram. Per traditional astrology, Aries is said to be ruled by mars, which in roman mythology is the God of War. Due to this, many Aries folks take on these warring qualities of impulsivity and tenaciousness. At their most evolved, Aries folks are creative power houses, not afraid to go there, wherever “there” is.  Notable aries include Mariah Carey, Bryan Tyree Henry, and Lil Nas X. 

Taurus - The second sign in the zodiac is represented by the bull. Ruled by Venus, Taureans tend to be aesthetes of the zodiac, liking their surroundings (and themselves) to appear harmonious and beautiful. Taureans move at their own pace, which can sometimes translate to stubbornness. Their best qualities are their loyalty, reliability, and determination. 

Gemini - Represented by twins, and often given a bad rap, Geminis are one of the most creative signs of the zodiac. This is because their quickness to pick up new skills, hobbies, and personalities can often come across as two-faced. Ruled by mercury, also known as the messenger God in mythology, Geminis tend to be social butterflies with visionary artistic talents. Notable Geminis include Prince, Kanye West, and Tupac. 

Cancer - Represented by the crab, Cancer is ruled by the moon. Since the moon is said to represent the mother, many Cancerians have nurturing and protective mothering qualities towards those they love. As a water sign, Cancers can also be deeply perceptive and sensitive, translating to almost psychic levels of claircognizance. Famous Cancers include Solange, George Clinton, and Jaden Smith.

Leo - Represented by the king of the jungle, the lion and ruled by the greater luminary, the Sun, Leos are very used to being the center of attention. As natural performers, they often wouldn’t have it any other way. Leos are creative, confident, and natural born leaders. Well known Leos include Barack Obama, Maya Rudolph, and Terry Crews. 

Virgo - Displayed as a glyph of a maiden holding a shaft of wheat, Virgo is the sign of the proverbial virgin ruled by mercury. But don’t think all Virgos are prudes! At their best, most virgos are practical, productive, and analytical — sometimes to a fault. Even they can’t escape their own well-meaning (yet unsolicited) critiques. Notable Virgos include Beyonce, Michael Jackson, and Jada Pinkett-Smith.

Libra - Depicted as the scales, the glyph for Libra is fitting for a sign that’s always trying to find the balance. Among friends and frenemies, of which Libra has a lot, they can be known as the diplomat. This diplomacy can be attributed to Libra’s ruler, Venus, which is the planet that rules love and relationships. Highly intelligent and witty, keeping the peace comes easily to these natural people pleasers, but for the same reason they also love a juicy nugget of gossip.  Famous Libras include Will Smith, Cardi B, and Ashanti.  

Scorpio - Depicted by an image of a scorpion, Scorpios are known to be intense. Ruled by Pluto in modern astrology (a planet of death and rebirth), Scorpios are no stranger to transformation. Often, people with Scorpio placements experience death in their early lives more than others. They may come off as standoffish but this is just a cover for their deeply complex inner lives. Natural detectives, Scorpios are constantly sussing out the intentions and inner workings of others, astutely noting who they can and can’t trust. Don’t cross them though — Scorpios are the one sign that can hold a grudge like no other. Notable Scorpios are Frank Ocean, Gabrielle Union, and Drake.

Sagittarius - Represented by a glyph of a raised arrow, the sign of Sagittarius is represented by a centaur archer. Like the arrow pointed toward the skies, the ideals and beliefs of Sagittarians can be lofty. However, this doesn’t mean they’re stuffy — most Sagittarians are the life of the party once they step off their soapbox. This sign manages to be both fun-loving while still being studious about the things they care about. Notable Sagittarians include Raven Symone, Jamie Foxx, and Samuel L. Jackson.

Capricorn - Represented by a legendary combination of goat and fish, the sign of Capricorn is known as the sea goat.  Much like the mythical journey of the sea goat from the depths of the ocean to the top of a mountain, Capricorns are no strangers to putting in work and reaping the rewards of their efforts. Most Capricorns are organized self-starters, but they aren’t all business. Capricorns have a devilish fun side, and often a dry dark sense of humor to boot. Famous Capricorns include Michelle Obama, Denzel Washington, and Lebron James. 

Aquarius - Represented by lines that look like wave, Aquarians are known as the water bearers. Aquarius is ruled by Uranus in modern astrology, the planet of lightning insights and technological advancements. Naturally, Aquarians are deeply intelligent but also charmingly unconventional. Aquarians concern themselves with matters of the world, often preferring to speculate on lofty matters rather than day-to-day gossip. Aquarians you may know are Michael Jordan, Oprah Winfrey, and Kelly Rowland. 

Pisces - Shown as two fish swimming in opposite directions, the last sign of the zodiac is said to incorporate qualities of all of the signs, making them the mystics of the zodiac. Neptune, the planet that deals with escapism, rules Pisces. So, for many Pisces, their preferred environment is their own daydreams. This rich imagination can translate for Pisceans as an artistic gift or proclivity.  At their most present, Pisces can be deeply empathetic and caring. Notable Pisces are Rihanna, Jordan Peele, and Rashida Jones. 

A Beginner's Guide to Understanding Astrology Photo Credit: Photo taken in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Your Big Three: Sun, Moon, and Rising 

Once you know and understand your sun sign, the next logical step is to learn your Big Three, or the signs that the Sun, Moon, and your ascendant are in.

Ascendant - Your ascendant, also called your rising sign, is the zodiac sign that was on the eastern horizon when you were born. While other planetary positions can be determined with just the day and location where you were born, in order to learn the ascendant you must have an exact time of birth. The sign of the ascendant can tell you all about the first impression you make on others, and also the way you physically present to others. Are you a head turner when you walk into the room, or more of a wallflower? This could spell the difference between a Leo rising or a Virgo rising. 

Sun - The sign that the Sun is in at the time of your birth is your sun sign. This shows your core personality traits, and ultimately the higher self you are evolving into. When people get to know you, your sun sign is what they see. The sign and position of the Sun can also represent your father or father figure growing up. 

Moon - Your moon sign represents the emotional self and our general orientation towards matters of feeling. Do you hold your secrets close to the chest, or are you an open book with your personal matters? When stressed, are you prone to blow up like an Aries moon? Or are you more likely to retreat into the self for soothing like a Scorpio moon?  The moon sign deals in the intimate details of our internal worlds, and often can reveal our true emotional nature — not just the facade we put up for the outer world. The Moon can also represent your mother or mother figure in your life. 

A Beginner's Guide to Understanding Astrology This is a 3d render of mercury in what It would look like in colour.

Mercury retrograde (and other planetary retrogrades) 

If you’re into astrology even a little — and even if you aren’t — you’re bound to have heard the term mercury retrograde. Maybe you’ve even seen it blamed for various mishaps in someone’s daily life. But what does it mean? 

For starters, all of the planets have retrograde periods. A retrograde is when a planet's movement appears to be moving backward when observed from earth. The key word here is “appears” because none of the planets actually go backwards in orbit. From an astrological standpoint however, these retrograding planets can signify a time where the matters that planet rules can go haywire. 

For instance, perhaps the most commonly known retrograde is mercury retrograde. Because mercury is said to rule communications, electronics, and travel, when it retrogrades these are all areas where we can expect to have delays, breakdowns, and general mayhem. With its fast moving revolutions around the Sun thankfully, mercury only retrogrades for about three weeks. 

Retrogrades aren’t all bad. When a planet is retrograde, it is often a good time to review, revisit, or reconsider the matters pertaining to that planet. Often, retrograde periods can lend themselves to flashes of insight around these matters that wouldn’t be quite so apparent otherwise. Just make sure you get your dates right for when the planet is direct or appearing to move in forward motion again.

Ash Reed is a writer, occult enthusiast, and anime fan from Texas.