When I first learned astrology, I learned from the astrologer who first read my chart. She and her business partner taught some introductory courses, and I was fascinated. I started to read everything I could on the subject. I learned, for example, that Venus "rules" Taurus and Libra, and that she is "exalted" in Pisces. But nothing I read really explained much of what that meant, except to say that if Venus were in one of these signs, it was a good thing. The books go on to say that more recently discovered planets like Neptune, Uranus, and Pluto "rule" Pisces, Aquarius, and Scorpio, respectively. But few sources went on to explain the significance of this, beyond stating that if the planet was in that sign, it was a good thing.
I was lucky in my studies. Within a year of beginning, I fell into a class that was presented by one of the astrologers who had become part of the effort to translate (or re-translate into something that made sense) many of the older astrology texts (pre-Enlightenment) into English; usually this was from Latin, Greek, or Hebrew. The class was supposed to be an eight week affair, one night per week, essentially presenting a lot of what had been translated. However, the course went on for at least six weeks, and was essentially an intensive introduction to Classical/Medieval Astrology.
Probably the most fundamental piece of the class was my introduction to Essential Dignities. Until modern times, astrologers used not only "rulership" and "exaltation", but three other levels of rulership. And one of those was major. The five levels are Domicile/Rulership, Exaltation, Triplicity, Term/Bound, and Face/Decan. But even more importantly, we learned what to do with these. My own chart serves as a good example. I have Mars in Pisces; Mars neither "rules" Pisces, nor is he exalted there. So a modern astrologer would look at this and interpret a pretty weak Mars, all watered down, with low energy levels (in fact, I was told this very thing by astrologers). Anyone who knows me, however, would disagree. I am not a "low energy" person. I have deep energy reserves, but for me it operates more like a slow burn, rather than a flash. Now a classical analysis of the same placement would see that Mars in Pisces is in his own Triplicity, and (in the 22nd degree) his own Term and Face. So this is a very dignified Mars in Pisces, far from a wimpy little fish. Moreover, with Scorpio rising, Mars rules my Ascendant. So this will affect, in a very direct way, my first house issues (physical body, health, happiness).
Since the outer planets (Uranus, Neptune and Pluto) don't figure into this Essential Dignity schema, if one were to use Pluto as the ruler of Scorpio, one would have no way of evaluating the dignity of the ruler of my Ascendant, and therefore, how my health and happiness will work out. (By the way, in Europe many use Pluto as the ruler of Aries, and still associate Mars with Scorpio - how's that for clarity?) In addition, since it takes Pluto about two hundred fifty years to circle the zodiac, my Ascendant ruler will only make it through a fraction of the zodiac in my lifetime, which would allow me only a fraction of life's experiences.
All of a sudden, my chart started to "work," to make sense and accurately describe the circumstances of my life. Now, back to the idea that a placement is "good" or "bad". It's important to remember: What's good or bad for a planet is not necessarily what's good or bad for the person. I'll write more on this in a future post, but just for now, let's keep from being judgmental about people, even though we're judging planets.
The corollary of all of this is that planets can be in signs where they are "debilitated," that is, they don't function very "well" or smoothly.
I'll write more on this too in the future, but I hope that this whets your appetite a bit.