[This is an extensively revised version of an article I wrote in 2003.]
(I give deep thanks for Hart de Fouw for his incredible tutelage in Vedic Astrology.)
In truth, only by letting each chart "speak to us" and reveal it's messages can we truly synthesize and understand the chart. That's because each chart has its own internal order, its own structure, interrelationships, and dynamics.
By paying attention to important elements of each chart, we can begin to start down the road of "receiving the chart" before attempting to speak the chart.
The First House
A. The first key to synthesis is the First House.
Both the Ascendant and the Lord of the Ascendant are the Gatekeepers, and the residents of the First House those sitting in front of the Gate. As such, everything that influences these three factors affects the person very strongly.
1. Self Expression
The gate controls the person's self expression, including which planets get to freely express themselves, and which planets do not.
For example, if a person has an Earth sign rising, they often control themselves or hold things in, and as a result, may not express their Fire sign planets as freely or easily. Similarly, a Water sign rising person may feel quite sensitive, and their Fire sign planets may feel disruptive, even to themselves, but since Water is not as self-controlling as Earth is, their Fire sign planets do come out, albeit a bit softer.
An Air sign rising person may, on the other hand, feel uncomfortable with intimacy (Water) or aggression (Fire) depending upon all of the planetary placements. And a Fire sign rising person is likely to express and interact, even to the fear (Water) or frustration (Earth) of their more conservative parts.
[Note: The primary exceptions to this principle are planets in the First House, the Ascendant Lord, and planets tightly aspecting the Ascendant will all express themselves.]
A gate that is closed keeps a person separate from life, while a gate that is too open creates merging and loss of self. Some gates are receptive, others more expressive. (Note: planets square to the gate can have a strong effect upon the gate, even if the effect is inner conflict.)
A person with Neptune or Pisces rising, for example, has a very open and boundary-less gate, while a person with Taurus or Capricorn rising or Saturn rising has a gate that has strong boundaries and may be closed. A person with Aquarius or Uranus rising may have a gate that keeps them separate from others some of the time, feeling different or not belonging.
In general, the Moon, Mercury, Venus, Jupiter, and Neptune when aspecting the Ascendant create openness, as long as the sign placement doesn't counterbalance the planet's nature, e.g. in an Earth sign.
Who a person believes they are is very compelling, even if not accurate. The factors influencing the First House determine what a person believes about themselves. As such, they may over-identify with some planets and signs at the expense of others, literally splitting off from or silencing parts of themselves.
A person with a Fire sign rising may believe that they are extroverted, or should be, even if their primary planets are not. This may give rise to torment, confusion, and lack of realism or self acceptance.
Similarly, a person with Saturn in the First House may believe that caution is the way to be, at the expense of their more creative, adventurous, and expressive planets.
Many years ago a client came to me with Sagittarius rising but all of his planets in Water and Earth signs. I understood immediately that "what you see is not what you get" with him. He approaches the world, and people, with a Fiery warmth, but -- as women who dated him found out -- is quite a homebody and not at all extroverted in his everyday life. When he heard this from me, it cleared things up for him a lot, and gave him permission to be who he really was.
Focal Planets and Signatures
The second key to synthesis are focal planets and signatures.
When a planet becomes very strong in a person's chart, or very influential (e.g. aspecting many other planets, especially the Lights and the Ascendant), its themes predominate in the person's life.
What makes a planet strong
1. At a focal angle to the Ascendant within 5 degrees . This is one of the strongest factors of all.
2. Alone in half of the sky, i.e. two houses empty on either side from a planet.
3. Alone in a hemisphere.
4. Aspecting the Sun or Moon within three degrees. (Note: a tight conjunction with the Sun can be also problematic for the houses ruled by the combust planet.)
5. In its sign of exaltation or rulership (but for the outer three planets, I would give different rules: Uranus is strongest in Fire signs, Neptune is strongest in Water signs, and Pluto is strongest in Fire signs).
[After decades of evaluating planetary strength by sign, I only use the Sidereal Zodiac to assess this strength. And for exalted planets, it's important to see if its sign ruler is strong too. ]
6. The Moon is strong in a night chart, especially when bright and/or in Water/Earth signs. The Sun is strong in a day chart, especially in Fire signs.
7. Retrogradation and the Bright Moon. When planets are retrograde, and when the Moon is within one sign of being Full, it's stronger. The energy may also be exaggerated and unsteady.
Strong aspects indicate the strongest dynamics in a chart, and the places of greatest integration and awareness. Planets with the most aspects to other planets can be central in a person's life.
In order for an aspect to be really strong, it should be between exact and 2 degrees orb. (Significantly less strong but still active are aspects from 2+ to 5 degrees orb, getting weaker as the orb gets wider.)
If a planet has no major aspect (conjunct/opposed within 8 degrees, trine/square within 7 degrees, sextile within 4 degrees), then the person often acts as if that part of them doesn't exist, or just loses contact with that part of themselves. That's why an unaspected Sun is so important an issue, because the person can lose track of themselves.
On the other hand, if a person has many strong aspects, they are likely to have a lot of energy coursing through them, whether it be emotional (Water trines), energetic (Fire trines or squared to Earth), productive (Earth and/or Fire aspects), or cerebral or social (Air or some Mutable aspects).
Other Predominant Themes in a Chart, and their synergy
If a person has many planets in a specific house or sign or aspect or mode (cardinal, fixed, mutable), or trinal house (e.g. Water house), or hemisphere, etc. and there are not strong influences to the contrary, then the themes represented by that predominance are major in the person's life.
More importantly, if different chart themes reinforce each other, the pattern becomes clearer and more certain. E.g. if house themes such as Sun in the Tenth, reinforce sign themes such as many planet in Earth signs, and Saturn is in the First house, then the person is likely to overvalue work at the expense of everything else.
The Four Aims of Life
In Vedic astrology, and in an analogous way in Western astrology, house are grouped in threes -- representing the areas of life where a person invests themselves.
The four groupings are Fire houses 1-5-9, Earth houses 2-6-10, Air houses 3-7-11, and Water houses 4-8-12.
The protocol is to examine any triad containing three or more planets, especially if the planets in the triad also rule any of the triad houses.
E.g. If the Moon and Mars are in house 5 in the sign of Pisces, then the Moon rules house 9 and Mars rules house 1, and the pattern is reinforced.
Fire Houses -- 1, 5, 9 -- Called the Dharma Houses in Jyotish. The themes are a sense of life purpose, focus on ones identity and self-expression, and creating.
Earth Houses -- 2, 6, 10 -- Called the Artha Houses in Jyotish. The themes are a focus on security -- especially financial, work and career, and productivity in general.
Air Houses -- 3, 7, 11 -- Called the Kama Houses in Jyotish. The themes are interactivity and relationships, pursuing fulfillment, and dialogue.
Water Houses -- 4, 8, 12 -- Called the Moksha Houses in Jyotish. The themes are the internal and personal life, psychology, and transcendence.
Planetary Signatures, then, are formed by a confluence of the strong chart factors upon many important places in the chart.
In thinking about planetary signatures, I immediately thought that Ralph Nader, the original consumer watchdog, must have a powerful Saturn signature because he was vigilant, committed, and evaluated products and companies with strictness and authority.
By both Western and Vedic standards in turns out that his Saturn signature is very easy to see.
In his Western chart, using Traditional rulerships (where Saturn rules both Capricorn and Aquarius), Saturn is in its own sign in the First House, along with the North Node and Venus, and is the Lord of the Chart (i.e. it rules the Rising Sign). In addition, Saturn aspects the Moon within Orb, as well as the MC, and Uranus and Pluto.
In his Vedic chart the Saturn signature is even more obvious: Saturn is is in its own sign and therefore strong, and again is the Lord of the Ascendant, and Venus, Rahu, Mercury, Mars, and the Sun are all in Saturn's signs, and Saturn aspects the Moon. So all of the planets are influenced by Saturn except Jupiter.
The simple approach to finding signatures is to see if many chart factors point to the same planet, and that planet has strength (and usually has influence on the Sun, the Moon, or the Ascendant or its ruler).
It is vital to remember that socialization, economics, education, religion, culture, age, gender, political orientation, health, genetics, and early environmental influences have tremendous effects on the expression of each person's chart.
Opportunities are not equally available to all people, neither are life challenges equally distributed. A person with a learning disability and little education must be approached differently than a person with two Ph Ds.
Astrology is in its infancy with regard to exploring gender differences in the expression of chart elements, but I've found worlds of difference in how factors manifest in a male vs a female chart.
For example, Earth sign men more often veer towards emotional containment or repression, while Earth sign women towards selfless service. Or, an Air sign Moon may be disruptive in a man's chart towards making a commitment to a relationship, but not in a woman's chart.
And cycles, like transits, can only operate within the context of a person's chart and within the context of their life. A strong Jupiter transit may give Bill Gates several more million dollars, but not the average person.
Perhaps the biggest consideration in understanding a chart's expression is a person's maturity. With age and life experience, many of the issues presented in the chart have been navigated through often enough to mitigate them. Most people do grow during their lives and learn how to manage themselves. So a reading to a 60 year old will need to be much more refined than to a 20 year old.
Finally, the chart is the starting point. What a person does with it depends a great deal on both how they are treated by life, and what they are made of, deep down.