Sun & Ascendant Differ

Our field has many fine articles, books, and talks about the myriad facets of the chart and endless techniques, but students who are saturated with details often struggle to put the pieces together. When synthesizing a chart, I begin by considering the relationships between the Sun, Moon, and Ascendant.

It is tempting to consider the three approximately equal (leaving out for the moment the planetary aspects and house positions) -- that a person with Virgo Sun, Libra Moon, and Sagittarius rising is an amalgam of one-third Virgo, one-third Libra, and one-third Sag. That temptation is reinforced by the fact that people with the Sun, Moon, or Ascendant in any given sign may behave similarly. However similar the outer BEHAVIOR may be, the inner MOTIVATION is quite different. Thus, the impact on one's life path, health, and relationships is also different.

For instance, a Virgo Sun, a Virgo Moon, and a Virgo Ascendant may each overwork and tend toward psychosomatic illnesses. But WHY they overwork, and why they get sick, is another matter. A Virgo Sun may overwork because self-esteem depends on productivity and doing it more perfectly than the other person. A Virgo Moon may overwork because a job well-done makes them feel secure in a world that they perceive as demanding perfection in order to remain safe. Plus, staying busy keeps unwelcome emotions at bay. Some Virgo Ascendants overwork because the family cast them as the serving wench, the Cinderella who was left at home while the lazy undeserving step-sisters went to the ball. (This description is oversimplified, but a full delineation, with all those particulars that Virgos love, would be an article in itself!)

A useful concept in understanding the Ascendant is that of "role." Our families tend to assign each member a role, and to train and continually pressure us to perform according to role expectations. This concept is well-known in the literature on dysfunctional families, with offspring filling such roles as the lost soul, the family hero, and the clown. Though less cast in concrete, the same is true of most families. One child may be designated the popular one; another gets labeled the troubled one; and another -- often the middle child -- may be the prodigal son or daughter. Could you characterize your role in your own family in a short phrase?

These family roles are not necessarily easy to fulfill. In fact, they are often performed at great personal cost. However, even when suffering is involved, such as the role of family scapegoat, the role itself creates a certain comfort zone. It is familiar, the script is basically written, and we don't have to keep recreating our social selves. Such roles grease the social wheels and help us know what to expect of each other, so they aren't inherently negative. They are white lies we tell to get along, though not all Ascendants are equally polite -- the Aquarian Ascendant is often downright rude!

We need the Ascendant. That disguise protects our easily bruised self-esteem against the assaults of a world that is too often judgmental and unkind. Otherwise, at a certain level, we'd all be nudists; and, frankly, the majority of us need our clothes except in intimate situations. We need the Ascendant's protective covering, especially before maturity, just as the pea needs the pod so it can ripen.

We practice the assigned role in our milieu growing up and learn it so well that we take it on the road, replicating it in our adult lives. The rising sign is a disguise -- a uniform we wear when we're out in the world -- that we hopefully get to take off in private. It is not the true self, for that is the Sun. But it is often what we lead people to expect of us. The difficulty arises when a person becomes what I call "stuck in the Ascendant," and the core self is buried in non-authentic posturing.

The contrast between the role and the real self is clearest in actors who take on the part of a character in a television or movie series. Successful ones assume the qualities associated with their character so consistently that it becomes second nature, and they are in danger of being typecast. Sometimes actors play their parts so convincingly that the public confuses them with the role -- Leonard Nimoy became so identified with Star Trek's Spock that he titled his autobiography I Am Not Spock.

We less famous folks can become overly identified with our roles, too, often to our detriment. We may become typecast, so people expect us to respond in ways that may or may not represent our true selves, needs, or feelings. This is especially true when the Sun and rising sign are at odds. They may be square, like outlaw Aquarius with conservative Taurus or modest Virgo with immodest Sag. Even more ill-fitting is the quincunx, a.ka. the inconjunct, which occurs five signs or 150? away from each other. This aspect of incongruity pairs "let it all hang out" Gemini with "it ain't none of your business" Scorpio, or "dot every i" Virgo with "just do it" Aries.

Under difficult aspects such as these, the role assigned to us (the Ascendant) doesn't fit the inner or true self (the Sun). The Sun is the heart, the core, and when we are referring to that core, we tell others, "At heart, I'm ...."

Given an Aries Ascendant, a sensitive Pisces man who is a poet at heart might feel hard-pressed to keep up the macho facade his family and peers thrust on him. To avoid disapproval or even ostracism, he may mask the Piscean core by even more stereotyped, macho, rough-and-ready acts -- maybe bolstering his confidence through an addiction or two. Discrepancy between the core self and the facade -- and sacrifice of the true self to the assigned role -- is the typical dilemma of a 12th-house Sun when the subsequent sign is rising. It is part of why a 12th-house Sun is characterized as difficult.

The rising sign also determines the Descendant -- the Descendant being opposite in sign and degree to the Ascendant. The Descendant shows whom we attract while we're playing the roles learned in childhood. As a consequence of our way of presenting ourselves (the Ascendant), we draw to ourselves others who fill complementary roles (the Descendant). Thus, the person who projects a Virgo Ascendant -- "Let me fix this mess you've gotten yourself into" -- is quite likely, time and again, to draw as a partner a "Where on Earth did I park the car?" Piscean or Neptunian type. We may even use the Ascendant to avoid intimacy. By engaging in stereotypical behavior of that rising sign, we may fend off others, so they don't see who we really are.

Any planets in the 1st house, especially those within 10? of the Ascendant, profoundly modify the qualities of the rising sign. The Baby Boomer with Leo rising, but with Pluto near the Ascendant, would project more Scorpio than Leo. Those born with Saturn near the Ascendant are more Saturnian than any Capricorn rising. Many with Venus rising are Venusian to a fault, extremely concerned with appearance and often quite attractive. Any planet near the Ascendant is powerfully projected, so the energies of that planet are what people see first. This is important to consider in chart interpretation.

The rising sign and any 1st-house planets have much to do with how others see us. On the other hand, the Sun is how we see ourselves. If you are a "double" born around sunrise, with the Sun and rising sign the same -- your projection of self is likely to be more true to form, and people see you more or less as you are. When the Sun and rising sign are at odds with each other, we tend to feel misunderstood or misinterpreted by the outside world.

An example of a clash between the Sun and the Ascendant is in the chart of the comedienne, Roseanne. Her birth data was given in Lois Rodden's Data News #29, from the birth certificate, as November 3, 1952; 1:21 p.m. MST; Salt Lake City, UT; 111?W53', 40?N45'. She has Sun in Scorpio, Aquarius rising, and Moon in Gemini. Not only are her Aquarius Ascendant and Scorpio Sun square by sign, but her Sun is four degrees from the square to her Ascendant as well. A square between the Sun and Ascendant often shows a person with a great need to be noticed, who then compulsively projects the self through an image that is at odds with the essential nature, tweaking society's sensibilities by shocking or outrageous behavior. Consider the time she and Tom Arnold mooned reporters, or when she grabbed her crotch and spat after singing the national anthem. That's all very entertaining for her Aquarius, but how does it sit with that self-protective Scorpio? How appalled is her private, even secretive, Scorpio when she calls still another press conference and tells the entire world the latest bombshell about her unconventional relationships?

Talk about mixed messages -- Scorpio has a need to control, while Aquarius rebels at the slightest hint of control and espouses freedom-loving principles. So, one week she's announcing that she and Tom Arnold are both marrying his sexy young assistant, and the next, she's firing the secretary and divorcing Tom because Tom and the assistant are having an affair. It all makes for fabulous press coverage, but personal happiness? I think not.

What accounts for Roseanne's enduring popularity? Why has she not been pilloried for daring to be an iconoclast? She gets away with it in part because of her humor, verbal skills, and intelligence -- the Aquarius Ascendant trines her Gemini Moon and sextiles Mercury. With trines to the Ascendant by the Sun or Moon, we get away with showing substantial parts of ourselves to the world at large -- we find acceptable and even likable ways to reveal our true selves (Sun) or our feelings and needs (Moon).

Another way of understanding the contrast between the Sun and Ascendant is to observe what happens when they are transited by the outer planets -- Saturn, Chiron, Uranus, Neptune, or Pluto. Transits to either position coincide with major changes, but what facet of the individual is altered depends on whether the Sun or Ascendant is involved.

When an outer planet transits the Ascendant, we tend to get sick of our roles and decide to break out of them. It is especially when a planet has been transiting the 12th house for some time and crosses the Ascendant that we see a major change in our ways of interacting with significant others. The outer change is the culmination of an underground inner process (12th house) that resulted in an unwillingness and even an inability to continue in that old role.

By contrast to these transits to the Ascendant, transits to the Sun coincide with identity crises where we reconsider who we are. Sometimes we are chastened -- as when we have to face up to the fact that we aren't living up to our standards and ideals. Sometimes, however, we are pleasantly surprised to find we've been downplaying our strengths and abilities and are capable of much, much more than we thought. Sometimes in the process of a two-year or longer outer-planet transit to the Sun, we discover both of the above.

As the transit proceeds, an outgrown and outmoded self-concept is discarded in favor of one that reflects who we have become in the course of our personal evolution -- or devolution. This is often the case with Saturn transits to the Sun, when we may face challenging situations and opportunities that stretch us and make us live up to our potentials.

I frequently observe people having Pluto transits to the Sun. I watch them shed the less desirable or evolved qualities of their Sun signs and transform to the sign's higher level of evolution. The ego may be assaulted, only to be seen as a false self-concept. The dross is purified through obsessive self-examination, and at the end of the process, there is an empowerment of the true or core self, with richer self-expression.

Much more could be said about the contrasts between the Sun and Ascendant and the ways they work together, happily or not. I'd love to be able to give more examples, sign by sign, and more charts, but that's a book, not an article. Hopefully, you will at least have gained a clearer picture of the principles involved.

©1996 Donna Cunningham, MSW - all rights reserved
This article reprinted from The Mountain Astrologer, Dec/Jan 96-97

Recommended book: 

How to Read Your Astrological Chart: Aspects of the Cosmic Puzzle
by Donna Cunningham.

How to Read Your Astrological Chart: Aspects of the Cosmic Puzzle by Donna Cunningham.Donna Cunningham lays out a workable system for reading charts in this latest of her twelve published volumes. It isn't a cookbook, but more of a driver's manual, as she offers her unique spin on the favorite question asked of conference speakers: - How do you interpret a chart? - The book offers fresh and often pungent insights into planetary types, missing or weak features, and other facets of the horoscope that shape our character and actions. Index. Bibliography. Charts.

Info/Order this book

About The Author

Donna CunninghamDonna Cunningham has a master's degree in social work and over 25 years of counseling experience. She is the author of numerous books. She has written eleven books on astrology and other metaphysical topics, including Healing Pluto Problems, The Moon in Your Life, and the classic basic text, An Astrological Guide to Self-Awareness. Her latest book, How to Read Your Astrological Chart, was released by Samuel Weiser in October 1999. Donna does private consultations by phone. She resides in Portland, Oregon and can be contacted for consultations at 503-291-7891 or by visiting her website at


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