There are many things that have been lost in Modern Astrology, and of them, I think the most useful is essential dignities and debilities. They add a richness and depth to a chart reading, like harmony and accompaniment do with music. In this article, I will talk about what essential dignities and debilities are and how they work.
What are Essential Dignities?
Essential dignities show how comfortable a planet is in an particular sign and degree, and they are used extensively in Traditional/Classical Astrology. A planet that has a lot of essential dignity will be comfortable and able to act as she should. A planet without essential dignity will struggle and have to find alternative ways to accomplish her function. There are five tiers of dignity: rulership, exaltation, triplicity, term, and face.
Rulership, or domicile, is the first and strongest level of dignity. This level of dignity has survived into Modern Astrology, but has been radically changed with the addition of the Trans-Saturnian planets. In the Traditional system of rulership, there is a symmetry as can be seen below:
- The Sun rules Leo, and the Moon rules Cancer
- Mercury rules Virgo and Gemini
- Venus rules Libra and Taurus
- Mars rules Scorpio and Aries
- Jupiter rules Sagittarius and Pisces
- Saturn rules Aquarius and Capricorn
Each of the luminaries rule one sign, and the non-luminary planets rule two. Even though the non-luminary planets rule two signs, they are not equally strong in both. Planets and signs belong to a classification known as sect, or day and night.
The sect of the planets are as follows:
- The Sun – day
- The Moon – night
- Mercury – both day & night
- Venus – night
- Mars – night
- Jupiter – day
- Saturn – day
Leo, the sign ruled by the Sun, is of course, a day sign. Likewise, Cancer, the sign ruled by the Moon is a night sign. Of the other planets, they each have one day sign and one night sign, and these are known respectively as their Day House and their Night House. The non-luminary planets and their Day and Night Houses are shown below:
Planets are considered stronger in the sign that matches their sect. For example, Venus is considered stronger in Taurus than in Libra even though she rules both. Mercury is both day and night, but she is considered a little stronger in Virgo than in Gemini. This is because Virgo tempers her and gives her time for careful consideration.
The next level of dignity is known as exaltation. A planet that is exalted in a sign does not rule the sign, but is instead the honored guest of the sign. She cannot give orders, but the sign will happily give her anything she asks for. The planets and their signs of exaltation are below:
- Sun – Aries
- Moon – Taurus
- Mercury – Virgo (yes, Mercury both rules and is exalted in Virgo)
- Venus – Pisces
- Mars – Capricorn
- Jupiter – Cancer
- Saturn – Libra
There are some historical astrologers, notably Ptolemy and William Lilly, who assigned only one specific degree of the sign as the exaltation of the planet. I find that hard to work with, and many astrologers, including myself, use the entire sign as the place of exaltation.
The third level of dignity are the triplicity rulers. The triplicity rulers can be likened to the Board of Directors or the Parliamentary body of each of the elements. They have some say in the workings of the sign, but they cannot act independently.
There are two main ways to determine triplicities: the set listed by Dorotheus of Sidon and the one listed by William Lilly.
Dorothean triplicity rulers
In the Dorothean system, each element has three triplicity rulers, one by day, one by night, and one participating ruler. Day and night are determined by when the chart is cast. If the Sun is above the horizon, the chart is a day chart, and if the Sun is below the horizon, it is a night chart. When using Dorothean triplicities, it is common to consider all three rulers, using the sect of the ruler to determine precedence when that is necessary or useful. The Dorothean triplicities are below:
Air – Gemini, Libra, Aquarius
Saturn (day); Mercury (night); Jupiter (participating)
Fire – Aries, Leo, Sagittarius
Sun (day); Jupiter (night); Saturn (participating)
Earth – Taurus, Virgo, Capricorn
Venus (day); Moon (night); Mars (participating)
Water – Cancer, Scorpio, Pisces
Venus (day); Mars (night); Moon (participating)
Triplicity rulers according to William Lilly
The famous Renaissince astrologer William Lilly also set forth a triplicity rulership scheme. In this scheme, each triplicity had one ruler by day and one by night. The triplicity rulers according to William Lilly are as follows:
- Air: Saturn by day; Mercury by night
- Fire: Sun by day; Jupiter by night
- Earth: Venus by day; Moon by night
- Water: Mars by day and night
The next level of dignity is known as terms or bounds. These are specific degrees of each sign that are ruled by the non-luminary planets. This level of rulership can be likened to a low level supervisor or head of an individual family. As with triplicities, there are two main delineations of terms, and both were recorded by Ptolemy. These are the Egyptian terms and the Chaldean terms.
The lowest level of dignity is known as face, or decante. There are decante rulers that are used in Modern Astrology, but the ones that are used in Traditional/Classical Astrology are a bit different. The face rulers each govern a third of the sign. They can be seen as a mentor or upperclassman. The face rulers are below.
What are Essential Debilities?
Now that we have looked at the essential dignities, let us turn our attention to essential debilities. Whereas essential dignities show how comfortable a planet is in a particular sign and degree, essential debilities show how uncomfortable a planet may be. A planet that is debilitated will have difficulty functioning as she ought to. In a Horary or Electional Chart, if a debilitated planet is a significator of something, it will tend to go badly. In a Nativity Chart, it indicates places where things will not work as they should for the native, and where she will have to compensate or find creative ways to manage.
It is possible for a planet to have both dignities and debilities in a particular degree of a sign. There are some sources that will treat this situation as if the dignities and debilities canceled each other out; however, I tend to take a more nuanced approach, especially when working with Nativity Charts. Those planets tend to be rather complicated in how they function.
So, with this in mind, let us look at the Essential Debilities.
There are five levels of essential dignity: rulership, exaltation, triplicity, term, and face. Even with all of these possibilities, sometimes a planet does not have even one of these dignities in a degree of a sign. When this happens, the planet is said to be peregrine, which is described as being “a stranger in a strange land.” When a planet is peregrine, she has no power or authority where she is. This means that if she wants to do something, she has to find a creative way to accomplish her goals.
A planet is in detriment when she is in the sign or signs opposite to her domicile(s), or the place(s) where she rules. This can be likened to being in enemy territory. There are some astrologers who argue that a planet can not be peregrine if she is in detriment, or when she is in fall (which I will discuss next). This makes no sense to me. It is very possible, and quite likely, for a planet to have no power in enemy territory.
A more complicated situation is when a planet does have one of the five essential dignities in the degree of the sign she is in. This can be likened to having a base or embassy in a country she is at war with. For this reason, I judge a planet in detriment with dignity to be in better shape than a planet that is in detriment and peregrine.
Just as the luminaries rule only one sign, they only have one sign of detriment, as listed below.
- Sun – Aquarius
- Moon – Capricorn
Each of the non-luminary planets rule two signs, and thus, they are in detriment in two signs. Just as with their domiciles, they are in detriment in one day sign and one night sign. As rulership is stronger in the sign that matches the planet’s sect, detriment is milder when a planet is still in sect and more severe when the planet is out of sect. The planetary detriments are listed below.
A planet is in fall when she is in the sign opposite of her exaltation. When a planet is in fall, she is disliked or has suffered shame in that sign. A literary metaphor would be that the planet must where a scarlet letter in that sign. Just as with detriment, a planet can be in fall with dignity, which is milder, or in fall and peregrine, which is more severe. Below are the planetary falls:
- Sun – Libra
- Moon – Scorpio
- Mercury – Pisces (Mercury is in both detriment and fall in Pisces)
- Venus – Virgo
- Mars – Cancer
- Jupiter – Capricorn
- Saturn – Aries
Essential Dignities & Debilities in Action
Now that we have discussed essential dignities and debilities at length, let us see how they work in a couple of Nativity Charts. In this analysis, I will be using Dorothean triplicities and Egyptian terms.
Queen Mary I of England
Queen Mary I of England was the first true reigning Queen in England. She was the daughter of King Henry VIII and Queen Catherine of Aragon. She survived all of her father’s vagaries and executions. She was said to be brilliant. She could read and write in Latin by the time she was nine, she knew at least two other languages, and she was a gifted musician. She survived her Protestant brother’s reign, while openly professing the Roman Catholic faith. She also prevailed over an attempted Protestant coup when her brother died.
Despite all of this, she did not make a very good queen. She has the reputation throughout history as “Bloody Mary” because of her harsh persecution of Protestants. She also lost England’s last province in France, Calais, and died without issue, knowing that her attempts to bring England back to Catholicism had failed.
For some clues as to what happened, let us look to the essential dignities and debilities of the planets in her chart.
- Sun – peregrine in Pisces
- Moon – in triplicity in Virgo
- Mercury – in triplicity in Aquarius, and in face at 19° 24′
- Venus – exalted and in triplicity in Pisces
- Mars – exalted and in triplicity in Capricorn; also in face at 14° 11′
- Jupiter – exalted in Cancer
- Saturn – in triplicity in Sagittarius
As you can see, Queen Mary had a lot of dignified planets. It is clear where her brillance came from, as well as why she was able to survive through those tumultous times. Yet, even with all of these dignified planets, she led a very hard life.
The most dignified planet in her chart was Mars in Capricorn. It is telling that she is remembered for her harshness and cruelty. Yet, Mars is opposed to Jupiter, who is also dignified. When there are two dignified planets in opposition, this tends to be a difficult internal conflict. This is because the planets in conflict are both strong. This opposition cuts across her 1st and 7th House, and the 7th House is the House of Marriage. One of the things that she is known for is that she was the child of the world’s most famous messy divorce.
It is interesting to note that she has one planet without any dignity at all, which is her Sun. If one were to pick one planet that had the strongest association with being a monarch, that would be the Sun. As it turned out, she was not able to really accomplish anything she wanted to as Queen, which is an almost literal manifestation of a peregrine Sun.
Empress Elizabeth of Austria
With Queen Mary I, we saw a chart in which almost every planet had dignity. Let us now look to a historical figure who did not have nearly as much essential dignity in her chart, Empress Elizabeth of Austria.
Empress Elizabeth was the wife of Franz Joseph I, who reigned over the Austro-Hungarian Empire between 1830 and 1916. Her husband had actually been engaged to her older sister, Helene, by his mother’s arrangement. At the party in which the Emperor and Helene met, however, he fell in love with Elizabeth instead over his mother’s objections.
Despite the fairy tale nature of this romance, it turned out to not be a very happy marriage for Empress Elizabeth. The Emperor’s mother was one of history’s worst mother-in-laws. She completely dominated her son and the court, and took all but one of Elizabeth’s children away from her. When the Emperor refused to protect her from his mother, Elizabeth became estranged from him. He was rumored to have had several affairs as well.
Empress Elizabeth was a complicated woman. She was obsessed with her appearance, and seemed to have what would be diagnosed today as an eating disorder. She also likely suffered from depression. On the other hand, she was fluent in at least seven languages, and often traveled without her husband. Elizabeth was a champion of the mentally ill, lobbying the Emperor to build asylums for their care. Her only son died in what was suspected to be a murder-suicide pact with his lover. She was assassinated on September 10, 1898.
Let us look at the essential dignities in her chart.
- Sun – peregrine in Capricorn
- Moon – in triplicity in Scorpio, but also in fall
- Mercury – peregrine in Capricorn
- Venus – peregrine in Aquarius
- Mars – exalted in Capricorn, and in face at 16° 56′
- Jupiter – in term at 18° 38′ of Virgo, but also in detriment
- Saturn – in term at 24° 38′ of Scorpio
Like Queen Mary, Mars is the planet in Elizabeth’s chart that has the most dignity. This is where the similarity ends, however. Elizabeth has 3 peregrine planets, and 2 planets with specific debilities. This explains her complicated life. People who do not have a lot of dignity in their chart have to be creative to get by, and they often tend to “march to the beat of a different drummer.” This is because things do not work for them as they are supposed to.
An interesting example of this was Empress Elizabeth’s marriage. Jupiter is the ruler of her 7th House and has both dignity and debility. Elizabeth’s husband was supposed to marry her sister, but fell in love with her instead. This significantly raised her in social status; however, it turned out to be a difficult and complicated marriage, and despite the fairy tale nature, did not have a happy ending.
The other planet with both dignity and debility is her Moon in Scorpio. The Moon, among other things, signifies motherhood, and this seems to explain the complicated nature of her relationship with her own children.
Mars, the most dignified planet in Elizabeth’s chart, rules her 3rd and 8th Houses. The 3rd House relates to languages, and it is interesting that she is famous for her study and facility with language. The 8th House relates to death. The 1992 musical about her life, Elisabeth, became the most successful German-language musical of all time, and it depicts her having a long standing affair with a personified Death.
In this article, we have looked at the five-tiered structure of essential dignities in Traditional/Classical Astrology: rulership, exaltation, triplicity, term, and face. We have also looked at the essential debilities: peregrine, detriment, and fall. Finally, we examined the charts of Queen Mary I of England and Empress Elizabeth of Austria to see how essential dignities and debilities work in Nativity Charts.