The table of dignities and debilities is a technique which allows astrologers to assess the strength or performance of planets in signs. It has been around for a very long time. Its origins even predate Claudius Ptolemy (90 AD – 168 AD) but the version of the table he proposed in his landmark text Tetrabiblos has been adopted by most modern astrologers.
The language of the table of dignities and debilities is archaic too. Words like dignity, exaltation, detriment and fall evoke judgement and assessments of better and worse. But is it really like that?
Ptolemy said that the planets have familiarity with the different parts of the zodiac. There is probably maximum familiarity between planets and the signs they rule. The nature of Mars for example is very much in tune with the demonstrative, dynamic and dramatic energy of Aries, and the sly, sustaining and subtle energy of Scorpio. The nature of Venus is very much in tune with the placid, persistent and practical energy of Taurus, and the candid, compelling and civilized energy of Libra, and so on.
A planet is said to be in detriment when it is in the sign opposite the sign it rules. A planet in the sign of its exaltation is often compared to a favoured guest in that sign. A planet in its fall is in the sign opposite the sign of its exaltation. So we might conclude that the placements of planets in detriment or in their fall are bad placements. I have not found this to be the case very much at all.
Opposite signs are much more synergetic than antagonistic. All opposite signs share the same polarity and mode, and whilst their elements are different, they are also compatible. In the scheme of the zodiac a fire sign is always opposed by an air sign and an earth sign is always opposed by a water sign. So the expression of the same planet but in opposite signs is more similar than not.
Mars in Aries is brilliant for a soldier or a fighter in a kill-or-be killed situation where survival might very well depend on acute impulsivity and an unbridled fighting spirit. But consider Mars in Libra where the expression of courage and competitive instincts is far more balanced and prudent. The debility of Mars in Libra is rooted in its reputation for indecisive vacillation which is well deserved sometimes, yet there are so many situations in the world today where a charm offensive would solve more problems than it creates.
Mars is exalted in Capricorn probably because the expression of machismo tends to be tempered and harnessed toward productive goals. Mars is in the sign of its fall in Cancer presumably because the militancy of Mars is blunted by dependency and self-protective sensitivity in the same way the path of an arrow is blunted passing through water. Yet the dynamism of Mars in a cardinal sign is still there as it is in all the other cardinal signs where Mars has a special place, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with a sensitive and retentive expression of initiative and power. Many high ranking soldiers have Mars in Cancer or in the 4th house which suggests patriotic fervour or the defence of one’s homeland. The debility of the sign placement is entirely contextual.
Venus is exalted in Pisces where the expression of love and affection tends to be inclusive and universal. Yet we can assign indiscriminate tastes to Venus in Pisces too. It’s not a flattering interpretation but well within the realm of possibility. Cheeseparing displays of love aren’t so nice either. Love ideally should be beautiful and devotional but the healthy and sensible values of Venus in Virgo, the sign of its fall, can still provide an excellent foundation for getting along with others.
It makes sense that Jupiter vision and spirit of adventure should be expansive and even limitless like it is in Sagittarius and Pisces, the signs it rules. But let’s consider Jupiter in the sign of its fall in Capricorn. It’s often interpreted to mean rigid or narrow beliefs and that would be fair comment, yet it could equally mean a conservative yet earnest and constructive expression of faith that can be a touchstone in an era of moral relativism. It would be a mistake to assume that Jupiter in its fall is somehow inferior based solely on the table of dignities and debilities.
If Jupiter in Capricorn is easy to knock, then Jupiter in Cancer, the sign of its exaltation, is enigmatic and harder to explain. Perhaps charity or generosity truly does begin at home. There’s an axiomatic link between growth and proper nutrition. Maybe ancient astrologers felt that no philosophy or prophecy should be too abstract or grandiose but rather contained and familial. Still the observational differences between Jupiter in Capricorn and Jupiter in Cancer are subtle. The search for truth and meaning in both tends to be cautious and measured.
Hopefully these few examples demonstrate the value of delineating the meaning of a planet in terms of the polarity, element and mode of its sign. It brings out the nuanced differences and similarities between the signs and removes the temptation to begin an interpretation from a place of judgment based on the table of dignities and debilities. Th
ere are strengths and weaknesses associated with each planet in any sign so whilst the table of dignities and debilities can help us assess the relative strength of a planet in a natal chart it does not convey a sense of worth, and that’s well worth remembering.
Martin Lipson is a Faculty distance learning tutor and has an astrological consultancy based near Kingston Ontario Canada.