If you’ve been following astrology for any amount of time, you’ve likely heard this shorthand: The big 3. It refers to your sun, moon, and rising placements — and their prominence, astrologically speaking. But with so many moving elements, it can be confusing to track what it all means. While your sun is your leading astrological sign, the one determined by the date of your birth, the lesser-known rising and moon signs are just as helpful in unpacking your chart. ✨

“I like to use the analogy of a movie to describe the [big] three working together: The rising being the genre, the moon as the background or back story of a protagonist, and the sun representing the ambitions of the protagonist,” says Imani Harmon, a Northern Virginia based astrologer and tarot reader. Harmon offers this example: Moonlight and American Pie are both coming-of-age films, but with radically different backstories, motivations, and desires of their characters. This is representative of the unique dynamics we see in people stemming from their combination of rising, moon, and sun signs.

What is a rising sign?

Per Harmon, the rising sign (also referred to as the “ascendant”) is the sign that was on the horizon at the time of your birth and is foundational for establishing the 12 houses of your birth chart. It is the sign on the cusp of the first house. Your appearance and personality are all characterized by your rising sign. We can look at the rising sign and planets in it as defining things that can shape how people know you and your career aspirations. 

For example, a Libra rising can be invested in beauty and justice; but a Libra rising with Venus and Mars in the first house might be an activist (Mars) on the frontlines who uses art (Venus) to spread political messages.

“I like to think of the rising sign as a book cover.”

-Imani Harmon, astrologer and tarot reader

“People often refer to your rising sign as your ‘mask’ you show to the world,” says Harmon, who adds that this isn’t entirely true. “As I mentioned before, it is how we appear, but equally defining of our personality and how we experience the world. In fact, the rising sign and by proxy the first house is the only part of your chart that is entirely about you. The idea that it is a mask and thus a misleading or disguised version of yourself is incorrect. I like to think of the rising as a book cover. Obviously, the cover is not the entirety of a book; but after reading a book we can likely see how the cover informs or captures an essence of the work in its entirety.”

Harmon also adds that not all rising signs are created equal (sorry!). There are rising signs that are more common — often referred to as signs of a long ascension — such as Cancer, Leo Virgo, Scorpio, and Sagittarius. On the other hand, Capricorn, Aquarius, Pisces, Aries, Taurus, and Gemini spend less time on the horizon and therefore are less likely to be rising placements, with Aries and Pisces being the rarest of them all. Just a fun fact!

What is a moon sign?

“The moon represents many things, but a word I like to use describing the moon in your birth chart is inheritance,” says Harmon. According to her, your moon placement is reflective of your mother, body, familial, and cultural lineage, as well as how you were raised or even the environment you were raised in. It serves as your baseline of emoting, caring for yourself and others. Your moon placement tasks you with knowing what shapes you and understanding the role it will take in shaping who you can be.

A notable moon sign, for example, is Scorpio, which is known for its passion. Naturally, Scorpio moons tend to have a larger-than-life energy and will undoubtedly leave an impression. If you need further proof: Beyoncé, J.Lo, Lady Gaga, and Kate Moss are all cited as having Scorpio moons.

“Your moon placement is reflective of your mother, body, familial, and cultural lineage.”

“The sun and moon are the meeting of where we are trying to lead your life and where you have come from, respectively,” says Harmon.” The sun is representative of your aspirations; the relationship between the sun and moon reflects anything from a supportive, indifferent, or even challenging impact your ‘inherited’ life has on making your aspirations possible.” If your interest is piqued, more information about the relationship between your sun and moon can be explored by identifying what moon phase you were born under and if they (your sun and moon) aspect each other. 

How to work with your rising and moon signs

Knowing your rising and moon sign is just half of the equation. The real practice is how to utilize that knowledge for when you’re getting readings or preparing for an astrological event, like a full moon or Mercury retrograde.

“Your rising sign is incredibly important when looking at horoscopes,” says Harmon. “Your rising sign determines your 12 astrological houses. Many horoscopes are written from the perspective of what is happening in particular areas of life, which are based on houses. A Capricorn rising, for example, would have a full moon in Virgo in their 9th house, which rules long-distance travel, higher education, and beliefs. So the Capricorn horoscope will likely write about these themes.” Because of this, Harmon suggests that it is actually most helpful to read the horoscope for your rising sign.

“Harmon suggests that it is actually most helpful to read the horoscope for your rising sign.”

Astrological transits can be tricky to navigate, but knowing your rising and moon will help you get a more accurate reading of how these planetary movements will affect you. If you’re consulting an astrologer, says Harmon, sharing your rising sign can enable the use of different techniques that help to determine the impact a particular transit may have on you.

“If you don’t have your birth time so you can’t determine your rising sign, the next best option would be looking at the horoscope associated with your sun sign. I am personally not the biggest fan of looking at your moon sign horoscope, but it’s okay to look through all three signs and see what resonates,” says Harmon. At the end of the day, it’s just all a matter of how you read the messages that astrology offers you.

If you want to engage in astrology with more depth, knowing your rising and moon signs is essential. Not only do they play an important role in your chart, but they offer new jumping-off points for the creative act of reading astrology which allows us to better understand ourselves and intentionally create our lives. With your rising and moon signs in tow, you’re ready to take on the world.

Sara Jin Li is an essayist, playwright, and filmmaker based in Los Angeles, California. She is also the founder of Heretics Club, a literary salon for creative writers. You can find her on Instagram at @sarajinli.