What Is Astrology? A Beginners' Guide to the Language of the Sky

Understanding key building blocks of astrology can improve your self-awareness and, at the very least, help you keep up at brunch and on dating apps.

Spend a few minutes on social media or any dating app and it's abundantly clear that astrology's popularity has skyrocketed and gone mainstream. But if you still feel out of the loop when you hear terms like Mercury retrograde or natal chart thrown around, then you've come to the right place. And hey, don't feel bad — it's a language that even veteran, professional astrologers continue to learn and practice throughout their lives.

Here, we break down the key building blocks of astrology to kickstart your understanding of the language of the sky — and help you keep up the next time your friend brings up their crush's zodiac sign at brunch.

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Astrology, Defined

So, what is astrology, and what do astrologers do? In her wonderful guide, The Essential Guide to Practical Astrology: Everything from zodiac signs to prediction, made easy and entertaining, one of my mentors, April Elliott Kent, explains it this way, "Astrology is the study of the connection between celestial activity phenomena and earthly events. Those who practice astrology are called astrologers."

Those earthly events might include career, relationship, and wellness insights in your weekly or monthly horoscope. The most reliable of these columns are written by professional astrologers who do their best to explain how the planets' current movements are affecting you based on where the planets were when you were born.

Pros also use the movement of the planets to explain or even predict current events, social trends, and financial markets. And we can also take an in-depth look at your personality or your compatibility with others based on your personal astrology — aka your birth chart. Charts are also used to investigate the characteristics and outcomes of events, like a marriage or election.

What the Planets Mean

Each celestial body in our solar system serves a purpose in astrology.

If you're looking at your own personal astrology (more on that in a moment), each planet or luminary (the sun and moon) offers insight into different pieces of your personality and life. For instance, your sun sign speaks to your sense of self and identity.

But if we're talking about what sign a planet or luminary is currently moving through, we could be characterizing a particular month. For example, you might hear how from July 22-23 to August 22-23 (the beginning and end dates for the sign vary from year to year), the sun is in Leo, a fire sign symbolized by the Lion, offering up more confidence and fueling bold action.

The basic symbolism for each of the main planets, luminaries, and points in the sky:

Sun: Confidence, self-image, self-esteem, sense of self, and identity.

Moon: The emotional compass of the zodiac, shaping a sense of safety, security, values, and intuition.

Mercury: The messenger planet, which oversees information-gathering, research, and communication.

Venus: The planet of love and beauty influences passions, relationships, pleasure, art, and money.

Mars: The go-getter planet involves how you take action, your energy, sexual expression, and courage.

Jupiter: The planet of luck and abundance.

Saturn: The planet of rules, limitations, boundaries, and discipline.

Uranus: The planet of change, rebellion, breakthroughs, and sudden events.

Pluto: The planet of transformation, death, rebirth, and power.

North & South Nodes: These mathematical points on a chart are always opposite one another. The north node acts as an astrological north star, or the karmic path you're meant to move toward in this life, while the south node is what you're already well-versed in, perhaps as a result of early or past life experience.

Rising sign/Ascendant: The sign that was ascending on the eastern horizon at the time of your birth is considered your rising or ascendant. It speaks to the image you project out into the world, and it offers insight into your skills, talents, and strategies you might adopt to make your way in life.

Some astrologers also use Chiron, a comet that orbits between Saturn and Uranus, the dwarf planet Ceres, and asteroids like Pallas, Vesta, and Juno.

What Your Natal (or Birth) Chart Means

If you're asked "what's your sign?" the most basic answer is one of the 12 zodiac signs the sun was in when you were born. But that's just one tiny detail in a much larger, heavily layered, complicated, individual picture that illustrates your very own astrological story. We, professional astrologers, look at a whole chart, which you can think of as a snapshot of the sky when you were born — based on not only the month and day but the year, time, and place of your birth.

This means even two people born on the same exact month, day, and year, but at different times and in different locations, will have their own unique chart. That's because all the celestial bodies move at different rates through the signs. For instance, the moon moves roughly every two and a half days. Mercury, depending on its retrograde phases, can spend anywhere from 15-60 days in a sign. Plus, it's possible that you were born on a day on which the sun — or any of the planets — moved from one sign to the next.

But if you know the precise time and location you came into the world, you can create an accurate snapshot of the sky at the time of your birth. (Yep, that's the reason why those of us in the know ask app matches or potential partners to ask their parents or check their birth certificate.) And from that info, you can cast — generally via software these days, but it can also be done by hand — what's referred to as a natal or birth chart that illustrates not only what signs the planets and luminaries (the sun and moon) were in when you were born, but other info that offers even more insight into your astrological wiring, like houses, degrees, and aspects. (There are a ton of free sites out there, like cafeastrology.com or astrology.com, where you can plug in your info and receive your birth chart in seconds.)

The 12 Zodiac Signs

The zodiac is a belt within about 8 degrees on either side of the ecliptic — a circle that defines the apparent path of the sun among the constellations over the period of a year — that is divided into 12 equal signs: Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo, Libra, Scorpio, Sagittarius, Capricorn, Aquarius, and Pisces. Planets and luminaries travel across this belt, spending time in each of the signs, which is why we'll say something like, "The moon is in Libra today" or "Mars was in Capricorn when I was born."

Each of the 12 signs has its own unique traits, desires, M.O. if you will. They're organized into four elements: fire, earth, air, and water. A few must-knows on each:

Fire Signs

Demonstrative, outgoing, dynamic, and ambitious, fire signs can get animated quickly but run the risk of burning out fast. They thrive when they find a way to channel their passion in a sustainable, practical way.

Aries (March 21 – April 19)

The cardinal fire sign's dynamism, impulsivity, and appetite for victory make them exciting, fun, courageous, and fearless. They're your rockstar lawyer, teammate, the politician you would drop everything to canvas for, and the best friend who will go to bat for you time and again.

More on Aries here

Leo (July 23 - August 22)

The fixed fire sign is full of life and positivity, commanding the spotlight in a way that's sure to entertain, engage, and inspire others. Independent-minded and mesmerizingly fun to be around, you can rely on Leos in your circle to help you see the bright side of any situation and feel fired up and ready to take on the world.

More on Leo here

Sagittarius (November 22 - December 21)

Philosophical, curious, fun-loving, and determined to take life, love, and the world by storm, soaking up knowledge at every turn, the mutable fire sign tends to embrace a YOLO-esque perspective. They are the multi-hyphenate entertainers of the zodiac, coming off as gregarious, lively, and dynamic. They adore soaking up all the knowledge they can, especially about other cultures, distant travel destinations, politics, and social justice.

More on Sagittarius here

Earth Signs

Known to be grounded, stable, hard-working, service-oriented, and highly organized, earth signs are the perfectionists of the zodiac. Although their eye for detail and planning can be so helpful, they benefit from a self-care practice or support network that aids them in seeing the big picture.

Taurus (April 20 - May 20)

The fixed earth sign's resolute character, pragmatism, patience, and love of luxury make them loyal, heartfelt, loving, and soothing to be around. They're your favorite chef, Netflix and chill companion, date to a concert, or friend you can rely on to plan the most memorable spa day (even if it just entails throwing on a luxe face mask and sipping rosé at home).

More on Taurus here

Virgo (August 23 - September 22)

Grounded empaths and lovers of language, knowledge, and being of service to those they love, the mutable earth sign is brimming with helpful information and action steps. They're also being one of the first people to offer a shoulder to lean or cry on. They are the brainy A-students of the zodiac, quick to share what they know to steer the ship in the right direction — and if they don't, they'll go on a merciless hunt for those "just-right" details.

More on Virgo here

Capricorn (December 22 - January 19)

Industrious, practical, reliable, organized, and stable, the cardinal earth sign is constantly inspiring thanks to their perpetual drive and determination to reach their lofty goals. And then they set the bar even higher for themselves, leaving you impressed — and perhaps a bit envious of their no-fail go-getter energy. Their need to put in relentless work in order to get to the top of the professional mountain extends to their personal lives as well, as they tend to be ambitious in looking after their health, families, and long-term friendships.

More on Capricorn here

Air Signs

Focused on intellectual and social pursuits, sometimes idiosyncratic and changeable air signs are the connectors of the zodiac. Driven to gather and share information, they fare best when they have a specific endgame to pour their mental energy into.

Gemini (May 21 - June 20)

Curious, enthusiastic, clever, and friendly, you can count on the mutable air sign to bring excitement, animated conversation, and fun-loving, lively energy to the table. Data, research, and the top trending news stories are like a go-to sugar fix for Geminis, and they have an appetite for discussing it all with anyone and everyone up for engaging.

More on Gemini here

Libra (September 22 - October 23)

Harmony-seeking social butterflies whose hearts are drawn to art, music, dance, and connecting with others, the cardinal air sign is on a perpetual mission to make life lighthearted, fun, and fairer. They are the designers of the zodiac, eager to take any messy space and infuse it with beauty, and in cases where the scales of justice are off-kilter, they'll pursue equity.

More on Libra here

Aquarius (January 20 - February 18)

Free-spirited, friendly, personable, independent-minded, and humanitarian, the fixed air sign is committed to questioning and perhaps outright rejecting the status quo. Their appetite for the community is also inspiring, as is their tendency to question, think, mull, explore, and experiment.

More on Aquarius here

Water Signs

Family-oriented dreamers and artists, water signs are the deeply-feeling, at least slightly psychic empaths of the zodiac. They tend to let their big hearts run the show and can stay afloat in that sea of emotion when they connect with their spirituality and pour it into their favorite creative outlets.

Cancer (June 21 - July 22)

The cardinal water sign is known for being nurturing, sensitive, compassionate, self-protective, security-seeking and offering, loving, and displaying a goofy, ingratiating sense of humor. They tend to prioritize — and occasionally twist themselves into knots — to make most people in their life feel even slightly more comfortable and secure, so you can rely on the Cancers in your life to offer a shoulder to cry on and freshly baked cookies.

More on Cancer here

Scorpio (October 23 - November 21)

The fixed water sign is extremely private, even secretive, about subjects they consider near and dear to their hearts and being intensely sexual (whether or not they're willing to open up about that side of them). They are fiercely magnetic, often managing to effortlessly command the spotlight. Spiritual, wise, and enchanting, you can guarantee that the Scorpios in your life will inspire and empower you to pinpoint and live your truth.

More on Scorpio here

Pisces (February 19 - March 20)

Compassionate, romantic, artistic, intensely empathic, and sensitive, the mutable water sign is the obvious creative of the zodiac. When they channel their emotions into their favorite art form, they feel more centered and enlightened. Empathic and probably the most in tune with the metaphysical of any sign, Pisces are some of the most magical people you'll ever come in contact with.

More on Pisces here

Other Key Details of Your Birth Chart

So you've figured out that your sun is in Cancer but your moon is in Aquarius, and if you're looking at an actual astrological chart, sliced into 12 slices, you'll see the house that each celestial body "resides" in as well. You might even notice numbers — sun at 13 degrees Cancer, the moon at 25 degrees Aquarius, Mercury at 4 degrees Virgo, and so forth and so on. All of these details will come into play when you're learning how various pieces of your personal astrological puzzle interact with one another and with the planets' current movements.

Houses: Just as there are 12 zodiac signs, there are 12 houses in your chart, each representing a different area of life. And when you have that exact birth time, you're able to determine the house in which planets, luminaries, and other features or points in the sky are located in your chart.

Degrees: This is like the exact address of each planet within each sign, which often comes into play when you're looking at transits, or how the astrology of the day, week, or month will affect your chart.

Aspects: How the planets interact with one another. For instance, your moon might be just a couple of degrees away from your rising sign or your Venus opposes your Jupiter. These relationships speak to your personality — as well as your strengths and challenges.

Given that there are 256 births per minute, you can see why your chart is bound to be far more unique than your sun sign alone.

How You Can Take Astrology Basics to the Next Level

Most astrology fans and astrologers start their educational journey by understanding the basics of the birth chart and identifying their big three (sun sign, moon sign, and rising). From there, you can better understand how planetary current events are "hitting" your chart, or influencing you on a regular basis. From full moons to longer-lasting transits — like a Saturn return — you can identify opportunities for growth and times when it might be best to take a step back.

Or by taking your chart and comparing it to a friend or lover's, you can better understand where you might clash and how you'll most organically connect, a practice called synastry.

Other predictive techniques, like secondary progressions and solar arc, allow you to learn more about how your path, personality, and life focus are evolving over time.

As if that wasn't enough, there are multiple traditions and systems you can choose to work with and branches to focus on (some astrologers enjoy using horary astrology to answer specific questions at the moment, while some practice electional astrology to help people pick a wedding date and others are focused on the financial industry).

Ultimately, just how much — and the form in which — you want to bring astrology into your life is up to you. Whether you see a professional astrologer for annual readings or invest in an online course, you'll note that it's a multifaceted, complex practice that can provide an endless wealth of information. As famous Indian astrologer, Onkarlal Sharma Prmad, put it, "Though astrology is like a deep ocean…anybody can get knowledge through going deeply in water and get some drops of nectar of this divine knowledge."

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