One of the most common phrases known by those who know the concept of Sun Signs is “on the cusp.” Lots of people who were born close to the shift from one zodiac sign to another often proudly announce that they are on said cusp, and this sparks a budding interest in astrology as a more complex field of study. And, for good reason – what is called the “cusp” is a critical point, but it doesn’t mean what you think it means, and the astrological implications are not what you think they are. Webster’s 1828 dictionary defines “cusp” as
CUSP, noun [Latin , a point.] The point or horn of the moon or other luminary.
…but the word has come to have other meanings attributed to it, including the meaning we are discussing in this article.
So, if we look at Dictionary.com (not really the most academic of sources, but for contemporary colloquial use, one of the most ubiquitous), we see that cusp means
1. a point or pointed end.
2. Anatomy, Zoology, Botany. a point, projection, or elevation, as on the crown of a tooth.
3. Also called spinode. Geometry. a point where two branches of a curve meet, end, and are tangent.
4. Architecture. a decorative device, used especially in Gothic architecture to vary the outlines of intradoses or to form architectural foils, consisting of a pair of curves tangent to the real or imaginary line defining the area decorated and meeting at a point within the area.
5. Astronomy. a point of a crescent, especially of the moon.
6. Astrology. the zodiacal degree that marks the beginning of a house or a sign.
Informal. a person born on the first day of a sign.
7. a point that marks the beginning of a change: on the cusp of a new era.
However, in the common parlance, the phrase “on the cusp” doesn’t mean a “point,” or even the first zodiacal degree. Those who think they are on the cusp have given it a new, and astrologically innacurate meaning – that the “cusp” is basically a section of a few degrees at the end of one sign and the beginning of another that “bleed” one sign into another, thus creating an “in between signs” of sorts. The common assumption many people who read their Sun Sign horoscopes (and even many who may dive a little deeper) is that the few days flanking the sign transitions are a gradient, and that if you’re born close to the “one size fits all” transition dates usually given as the 21st or 22nd of a sign (which are often not accurate, and are actually one of the causes of a lot of this viral misperception) that they are therefore BOTH signs. This, simply put, is not the case, and this article will attempt to explain why. I can’t guarantee that it will be simple to understand. This a complex concept, and I am writing this to cater to people of many different levels of astrological understanding.
This misassumption that the “cusp” is a “mixing” and not a “point,” and thus that being in this ambiguous “cusp zone” may even make them of both sun signs, is so widespread, that even many people who profess a working understanding of astrology misunderstand, and misrepresent it. In fact, if you search Google for “on the cusp zodiac” or “on the cusp astrology,” you’ll find the first pages filled with articles, often from sites with astrology, psychic, or otherwise spiritually themed domain names, sometimes even with well-known company names, describing what this means, and how you can apply it.
Well, it’s total bollocks.
The signs are not “gradients.” They are strict demarcations.
“But wait!” You say. “I must be half Leo half Virgo (or whatever cusp you think you’re on!” “I’m both creative AND fastidious (or whatever qualities of the two signs)!”
I guarantee you, the fact that you are both of those things is NOT because of a perceived cusp placement. Every natal chart is filled with a myriad of conditions, dynamics, relationships, and aspects that could explain why your personality and life is complex.
Let’s go back to the original Latin root of cusp, which as you can see above in the Webster definition, and reflected in a few of the dictionary.com definitions, is “point.” The cusp is a point. More specifically, in astrology, it is a point marking the “beginning of a house or sign.”
The cusp is NOT:
1. An area blending two signs
2. An area blending two houses
…but it CAN be the first degree of a HOUSE.
(Note: for extremely technical folks, who want to know about what cusps are specifically in Whole Sign Houses, and the field-specific evolution of the meaning of the word “cusp,” please read this thread on astrologyweekly.com that cites a simple explanation by a poster named dr. Farr)
So, now that you know what a cusp really is, and what it isn’t, let’s back up a little, or a lot.
If you’re on what you thought was a cusp, how do you know what sign you’re in?
Well, for that, you need to learn a little bit about how a birth chart is read, and read one. Ready?
You’ll need to get a copy of your chart. Go to http://www.astro.com, go to “free horoscopes,” and get a copy of your natal chart. If you are interested in studying astrology in any depth at all, this is a site you want to remember and use regularly. The Swiss Ephemeris (elaborate and detailed scientific and mathematical tables of where the planetary bodies are located) is the same one used by pretty much all of the professional programs out there. The delineations on most of the free sections were originally written by one of the most well-known and respected living astrologers in the world, Robert Hand, and the site has an enormous wealth of articles and other resources. Easy to get lost, but easy to keep it simple, too. Get your image after putting in your exact birth info on the Free Horoscopes section. Select “Chart Drawing/Ascendent.”
If you don’t know your exact birth time and place, this will not work. If you know your birth time to within a few hours, and your margin of error does not put you in the other sign, you will be able to figure out your Sun sign, but the rest of your chart’s indications will not be accurate. Tread lightly with inaccurate birth info.
Or, if you want to take an easier route, just google “free natal chart” and you’ll get a bunch of sites. I can’t guarantee they’ll be easy to read, though, or have the text tables I reference.
Got it? OK.
Now, see on the left side, where it says “Sun”? Next to that, it tells you what the degree is of your Sun Sign, then the name of the Sign, then the minutes.
(a degree is divided into 60 minutes. However, a degree does not equal an hour, and the Sun does not move through 1 degree, or 60 minutes, every hour. Why these words don’t coincide is beyond the scope of this article. For now, just know that the formula is #degrees# Sign #minutes#).
This is a good time to become familiar with finding your Sun on the wheel chart, as well. If you look for the glyph (symbol) that looks like this:
You will see that the Sun is placed in a very specific point, with numbers next to it. The glyph on the outside of the wheel that the Sun is placed within is your sign. It will match what you see in the text table.
Now, a segue that we’ll come back to later: You may notice that the “pie pieces” (called “Houses”) do not line up with the segments of the outside of the wheel where the zodiac signs are demarcated. This is because the Zodiac and the Houses signify different things (Note: in Whole Sign houses, the house system of the Ancient Greeks/Hellenistic Astrologers, and many modern practitioners as well, the houses are aligned with the signs so that they ALWAYS line up).
Let’s put it this way: The Zodiac represents a band of stars around the Earth, and they do not change. The planets move around the Zodiac throughout the year. The houses, on the other hand, are divisions of the perspective from the earth. As the Earth rotates on its axis every day, the planets rotate around through the houses. If you were born two hours later, all of your planets would be in the next house, but they wouldn’t change signs.
SO: The houses represent the Earth. The Zodiac represents the sky. If you imagine the sun rotating on its axis, it turns a whole revolution every day. This is why you can watch the sun “move” across the sky – from the East in the morning to the West at night. It’s not really moving – the Earth is. The divisions that the Sun moves through across our sky, and under us at night, we call Houses.
The Signs and Houses can coincide, but they don’t have to. KEY POINT: There are many house systems that divide the houses differently. Some astrologers use a system called Whole House that keeps the signs and houses in permanent alignment to make chart reading easier. This is the house system that is referenced in the Astrology Weekly post I shared above. For now, know that Signs and Houses are NOT the same thing, but both of them are divided up into 12 pie pieces.
Anyway, going back to your chart: whatever it says there, is your sun sign. Even if it’s 0 degrees 1 minute, or 29 degrees 59 minutes. No more, no less. Well, if it cuts that close, you have to be so sure of your birth time that there is absolutely no question. If the nurse didn’t write it down at that exact moment of first breath, you may be off. In these cases, you would need a rectification service by an experienced and qualified astrologer to know your real Sun sign.
But, say if you think the nurse may have been 10 minutes off, or even 30. This will not affect your Sun Sign. It takes, roughly, an hour and a half for the Sun to move about 5 degree-minutes around the zodiac. If you’re a few minutes off, it won’t matter much for the purposes of this discovery process.
Take a break. Breathe. This is really complex stuff.
ok. Good. You know your real Sun Sign. Mourn the loss of your belief that you were that other sign, too. It wasn’t real. Now you know the truth. Your identity is much less compromised than it was before. You can learn all about your real Sun sign later. You don’t have to read two horoscopes every day now. Ok? Ready to move on and learn more, or to be more exact, WHY and HOW this works the way it does?
Here’s where we get into the real stuff of why “on the cusp” doesn’t mean what you thought it meant.
In classical astrology, the vast discipline passed down to us by the Greeks (and even before then, but let’s keep it simple), a huge amount of effort was put into calculating the exact zodiacal placement of the planets and luminaries (light-givers – in other words, Sun and Moon). This continues to this day, and we use very expensive instruments to do it now, but there are low-tech ways to do this as well. Each of the signs were, and are, associated with very specific characteristics. These characteristics are dissimilar to the signs adjacent to the right and left. A body being in one sign or another was the definitive characteristic. Thousands of years have gone into figuring out what makes the signs different from each other in terms of how things change and come to be here on Earth. The signs are like realms, or states of being, that the planetary bodies move through.
Think of it like this: each new sign is like a new room in a museum. One room may have a collection of brightly colored abstract paintings, and the next, vintage wood carvings. You may be able to see the inside of each room from inside the other one, but you can’t be in both rooms at the same time, unless you are passing over the threshold, but even then, you can still measure in a “freeze-frame” which of you is more in one room than the other.
If you’re presented with a cookie that is cut in an uneven half, you know which half has more, so that’s the one you take. Kindergarten metaphors.
So, not only is the idea of the sign cusp being an ambiguous place not accurate, but it actually fails to address some VERY important conditions that being in a cusp placement brings with it.
First of all, the ingress (in astrology, the transition of a planetary body from one sign to the next from one sign to another) is a pretty important event. For the Sun, it happens 12 times a year. For other planets, though, like Saturn or Pluto, it happens much less often, and if you dive into the discourse of the Astrology community you will discover that people get REALLY excited when a slow planet moves into another sign, and there is an extreme amount of talk on people’s experiences. There are also countless studies of past ingresses where astrologers point out worldly events that happen at ingress points.
Some folks prepare for months or years for the shift. People count it down, and take note of how things change. Some astrologers got into astrology after realizing that major life events happened to them at exact ingresses. Really weird stuff can happen. This is also beyond the scope of this article. But, it’s a big deal when a planet makes an ingress. It’s like walking through any doorway. You’re in a new realm when you do so. You leave the old behind, and begin new.
The ingresses are also important because each planet has a different relationship with each of the signs. We can’t get into this too much here, but the classical technique known as Dignities, and the related Elements, is where you can learn about this. You may have heard about “Planetary Rulers.” That’s what this is. Suffice to say that one cannot figure out dignities/rulerships of a planet unless a planet is FULLY in one sign or another. and is under the rulership of a different sign, with a different planetary ruler. Think of this like countries, states, or land territories: It may look like the same plot of land, but it’s actually ruled by two different people or governments, so you should be careful of the laws of exactly where you are. You can’t be in two countries at the same time. If you’re on the border, you are actually right on the front lines, and are going to be obviously perceived as being in that particular one.
SO – what we have learned here is that being on the “cusp” means that you are especially in one, or the other. This is not an ambiguous placement. In fact, in classical astrology, it puts you in what is called a “Critical Degree.” The degrees flanking the cusp, the 29th and 0th (often referred to as “first”) are critical degrees. Critical, like the first and last pages of a book – you seriously don’t want to miss these, and the book would not be the same without them. In fact, you could say that the first and last pages are the most important, and define the book for what it is.
(Note: if you were able to understand the segue way above on how the word “cusp” means something different in Whole Sign Houses, or even if you didn’t, please note that the Ascendent degree is also considered a “critical degree” in all of your signs.)
As for myself, I have my Moon in a critical degree: the 29th, or anaretic degree, of Aries. So, I have a very personal experiential understanding of what it means to be in a critical degree.
Imagine a roller coaster – the critical degrees are the moments right before, and right after, the peak. So, you’re either filled with tension and potential energy (29th), or you’ve just crossed over the threshold (the first, or 0th degree), and you’re so excited about your new trajectory!
It is said that those in the anaretic degree are meant to “master” that planet in that sign in this lifetime. In the same vein, those in the first degrees of a sign are venturing into new territory, having been there and done that with the previous sign, and now beginning a new challenge.
So, in other words, if you’re on the cusp, you most certainly have a special chart condition, it just may not be what you thought it was.
so, where did this belief that the signs are gradients, and not hard lines, come from?
It is my personal assessment that this may be a misconstruance of the “gradient” consideration of houses. As I mentioned before, there are many different house systems, and they all have different ways of calculating where the houses begin and end. So, you may have a planet in one house in one system, but in the next house in another system, and in another house in another system. All are valid, and even amongst long-time astrologers there seems to be no universal consensus as to which system is best. It’s whatever works for you, or whatever is aligned with your philosophies or beliefs. For most people, it usually isn’t that much variance, especially if you’re close to the equator. Anyway, if you check your chart on astro.com’s “extended chart selection” and choose different systems, you just may find that planets “near the cusp” would move from one house to the next. As such, having a planet “on the cusp” of a house may be notable as an indication of a planet applying to both places. In classical practice, a planet within 5° of the next house counts in both houses. World-renowned astrologer Rob Hand, who I referenced earlier, claimed in a public Facebook post that houses don’t really exist outside of signs anyway. So, in essence, houses are gradients, and signs are the real “houses” in that they have solid (imaginary) barriers.
I hope that this examination was helpful to you, dear reader. I will do my best to answer any questions, and any that I can’t answer I will do my best to refer you to someone who can. Thank you, and be well.
Avelar and Ribeiro. “On the Heavenly Spheres.” American Federation of Astrologers. 2010.
dr. farr. Web Forum Post. AstrologyWeekly. https://www.astrologyweekly.com/forum/showthread.php?t=68386
Hand, Robert. Facebook post. https://www.facebook.com/robert.hand.98284/posts/579190838870397.