Each and every planet works with each and every other planet, interweaving energy to create time and the possibilities inherent in it. The planets do this by moving through a cycle of relationship with each other – one fast and one slow – the stages of these cycles being called aspects. Aspects are recognised angles between planets, forming sequences in a cyclical order.
Here we are looking at cycles, so-called synodic cycles, and some groundwork on aspects, before going into a full outline of the shape of a cycle in chapter 8. This and the next chapter are a bit dense and complex: return to them again after some time has elapsed, and allow yourself on first reading simply to get a picture of the whole issue of aspects.
When we were looking at the zodiac in chapter 4, we were looking at a zodiacal cycle, in which a planet moves in relation to a fixed frame of reference, the zodiac. The zodiac filters planetary energy to bring to us underlying themes, viewpoints, atmospheres, possible scenarios and feeling-tones, distinguishing chapters in the story of each planet's journey round the zodiac. But planetary motions through signs do not necessarily create the energy changes which have the power to set in motion events and distinct breakthroughs: aspects do this.
Aspects are part of a synodic cycle, in which, like the hour and minute hand of a clock, two planets move in a cycle of dynamic relationship with each other. This cycle begins when the planets conjunct () – they are located in the same place in the zodiac (as when clock hands are at 12.00, 1.05, 2.10, 3.15 etc). It comes to a climax when the planets are in opposition () to one another (as when clock hands are at 6.00, 7.05, 3.10, 9.15 etc). Other stages mark different points along the way.
Successive conjunctions take place in different signs. While the faster of any two planets might fulfil its zodiacal cycle in a certain time (for example, Mars in one year and ten months), it might take some time for it to catch up again with the slower planet, which by this time has moved along at its own rate (for example conjunctions between Mars and Jupiter take place roughly every two years and two months. In the 1980s and 90s, for example, successive conjunctions of Mars and Jupiter took place at 15 (Pisces, Dec 86), 0 (Gemini, March 89), 11 (Leo, June 91), 15 (Libra, Sept 93), 18 (Sagittarius, Nov 95) and 24 (Aquarius, Jan 98), about six times in a zodiacal Jupiter cycle of 12 years. In the case of the Moon, the zodiacal lunar cycle is 27 days 7 hours long, while her synodic cycle is 29 days 12 hours, on average – there is a time-difference between a zodiacal and a synodic cycle.
The Mars-Jupiter cycle relates to tides of assertiveness, sexuality, initiative, outbreak and power-assertion in society and the group psyche, which is a very different business to that of the lunation cycle. The synodic cycle of Mars to Pluto takes place a little quicker, even though it is a Mars cycle, because Pluto moves slower than Jupiter, and thus successive Mars-Pluto conjunctions will take place in only just a little more than a zodiacal cycle. In the above time-period, 1986-98, Pluto will have covered but one sign, while Jupiter will have moved through the whole zodiac. The Mars-Pluto cycle relates to a deeper source of assertiveness which brings the death and transformation of the old and the forcing forward of the inevitably-new. The Jupiter-Pluto synodic cycle, in turn, lasts around 13 years – this relates to longer-term bursts of progress, breakthrough, inevitability and force, evolving in 3, 6-7 and 13 year jumps.
In astrology we have a wide range of cycles to play with, ranging from 29 days (Moon-Sun) to around 490 years (Neptune to Pluto). Lots of scope! More within our own personal reach, Sun/Mercury/Venus to Mars cycles last around 2.4 years, Mars cycles to slower planets last just over 2 years, Jupiter-Saturn cycles last 20 years, Jupiter-Uranus cycles 14 years, Jupiter-Pluto cycles 13 years, Saturn-Uranus cycles 45 years, Saturn-Pluto cycles 35 years, and so on.
Transits involving Chiron and Pluto can be extremely variable over time, since each of these orbits so eccentrically that it is difficult to generalise on lengths of cycles. We're thus playing around with a whole range of interlocking and quirky cycles, which give a lot of scope for ongoing wading-sessions in your ephemeris!
It can be mind-boggling to our thinking mind (left brain) and illuminating to our visionary mind (right brain) to visualise all this interrelated movement going on. There's a beauty to it which at least equals that of watching ocean waves! Give some time to developing this vision, for it is vital.
You can do this several ways on a practical level:
keep a constant eye on your ephemeris for a year, and form regular pictures of the distribution of the planets round the zodiac, and what they are doing to one another;
the more technically inclined can draw or follow graphs of planetary motions (of which there are examples in the book) by sketching in the motions of the planets for a few months or a year on some graph paper;
or you can draw yourself a big circle (or paint a zodiac mandala) to stick up on the wall, then, using mapping pins, you can move the pins round daily or periodically for, say, a year, reading positions from your ephemeris – you could even go mad and build a mandala on the ground, using log stumps or stones for the planets; do whatever stimulates you most!
following transits, which we look at later in the book, is another way of moving into relationship with planetary motions.
A hemicycle is a half-cycle. We can look at a complete cycle in terms of two different kinds of hemicycle.
The waxing-waning hemicycle is interesting because it illustrates the developmental, evolutionary and integrative side of cycles. The waxing hemicycle starts at the conjunction and ends at the opposition. During this time the faster planet is moving away from the slower one: this is a process in time where new potentials are explored, where dreams and intentions emerge from in-here to out-there, in an evolutionary motion. The waning hemicycle starts at the opposition and ends at the conjunction. Here, the faster planet is now catching up with the slower: this is a process in which the externalised identity consolidated at the opposition seeks and fulfils a context in the overall scheme of things, in an integrative motion. Consider the growth of an annual plant: it first grows and takes shape, rising to flowering, to declare its own selfhood, then it gives forth its pollen or seeds, and eventually its very leaves or even its stalk wither, dry and drop, to feed future cycles of growth.
The subjective-objective hemicycle illustrates the various facets of two contrasting states of being or awareness-reality. Subjectivity is a me-in-here standpoint, in which personal aims, plans, ways of interpreting life and defining self prevail. The subjective hemicycle has its focus at the conjunction, but spreads out either side to two points halfway toward the opposition, called the square () aspects. Objectivity is a me-in-relation-to-all-that, or me-as-a-part-of-that, standpoint. The objective hemicycle peaks at the opposition and itself spreads out to the squares. Thus, between the waning square and the conjunction, we find out who we are through filling our created role in the world, while between the conjunction and the waxing square we explore our own terms of reference: and both processes reveal different aspects of selfhood. While between the waxing square and the opposition, we meet the world and its specifications, and between the opposition and the waning square we explore our membership in the world and society.
Combining these two hemicycles, we can define four quarters to a cycle. From conjunction we are 'doing our own thing', from waxing square we are encountering the world and entering into rapport with it, from the opposition we become a part of everything, and from the waning square we rediscover ourselves through fulfilling and finding personal meaning from our involvement and roles.
Aspects are recognised angles of relationship between any two planets where we can identify certain describable kinds of energy-interchange between them. They are stages on the journey of relationship around a whole cycle.
A cycle starts with a conjunction () and then moves through various stages:
semisextile at 30°,
semisquare at 45°,
sextile at 60°,
square at 90°,
trine at 120°,
sesquiquadrate at 135° (90°+45°),
quincunx at 150° (called inconjunct in America) and
opposition at 180°.
The general principle behind the aspects is a subdivision of the cycle of 360° by a number such as 2, 3, 4, 6, 8 or 12. In advanced astrology, all sorts of numbers can be used, yielding sometimes quite weird angles (such as 51°25', 1/7 of the circle), but we'll leave these out here. Here we shall look at the above-named aspects, the most important ones.
A cycle has within it four main stages: childhood/beginning, youth/development, maturity/application and old age/completion. Gestation of the new takes place within the completion stage, for, as the Chinese were wont to point out, an end is only the prelude to a new beginning. This is another way of looking at the fourfold subdivision of the cycle mentioned above. The transition-points between these four stages (conjunction, two squares and the opposition) are vital humps to cross, and when they involve slower cycles, they are points of initiation: an initiation takes place when, if willing or if pushed, we face up to truths about our life and situation and we go through a squeeze or a crunch, fundamentally changing our way of being and our way of working with life, becoming a new person.
These initiations can be very major ones when slow-moving planets are involved, for the test can be drawn out over a longer time, such as a year or up to three, and it can involve major, core life-questions. Lesser initiations punctuate our lives too, such as when Moon periodically brings up a crunchy situation lasting one evening, which, while brief, can still give us a goodly shake and wobble. These small and punchy crunches and scrapes can often serve as critical points in larger initiations, for often the greatest of changes can focus and go critical on something on one evening or in one night-time dream, even though the whole process might be going on over years.
Challenges and developments
Aspects are spread out throughout a cycle in a regular fashion – at least, the major ones which we shall look at here are so – at intervals of either 30° or 45°. A glance at the diagram will illustrate this. Each of the aspects has a symbol in astrological shorthand, and when we mention two planets in aspect to one another, we say, for example, 'Moon sextile Jupiter' (). The faster planet, doing the aspecting, comes first, then the aspect, then the slower planet which is being aspected. Note these examples: Sun trine Saturn (), Mars quincunx Uranus (), but then... Moon trine Sun (), Sun opposition Mars (), Saturn semisquare Uranus (). The whole sequence of aspects follows in the next chapter.
The fundamental aspects ( and ) mark the beginnings and climaxes of cycles, and have major implications relating to the overall meaning of each and every cycle; the challenging aspects (, and ) represent something which must be climbed over, worked at, broken through, confronted, decided upon or released; the flowing aspects ( and ) represent an opening and widening out, a relaxing, an evolution and a development; the incidental aspects [my term] ( and ) introduce new elements into the game, incursions from the unknown, which change our experience of things. Each of these kinds of aspect plays its part in the pattern of a cycle, and their sequence is significant.
The Sextile family
It all very much depends on how we deal with things. Challenging aspects are very positive if we are willing and ready to work at things, for they encourage us to do just that, while flowing aspects can imply a feeling of stuckness and inability to motivate a change if we are inactive or lazy. Our experience of each cycle is greatly influenced by the way we are using our lives: sometimes it can be very beneficial to be ill, and other times it can be very difficult winning a million!
Where it stops, nobody knows
Cycles do not exist separately from one another: they lead on to and from each other, and serve as each other's past and future. Often it is the case that issues dealt with in one cycle go under and reappear in a much later cycle, which then thematically feeds back not only to the immediately preceding cycle, but also to earlier cycles. Also, cycles exist within larger cycles. This becomes an adventure in perspective! At the times when we are able to stand back from life, digest and look at things, we come into contact with the larger cycles at work in our lives. The life process moves ever onward, and these pauses in its somewhat relentless movement act as timeless breaks in a never-ending process of historic unfoldment.
As you come to understand the pattern in a cycle of aspects, you'll notice that there is a distinctly coherent undulation to it which makes a lot of sense. The Grand Design has it that we go through digestible variations in experience, including sufficient challenges to keep us on our spiritual toes and sufficient relaxations to allow us to be at ease with life. Some aspects are fundamental, some challenging, some flowing and others incidental; thus life presents us with a series of time-processes which are very well designed!
Astrology is a relatively sane way of grasping the ungraspable, reaching into the unknowable. Whilst we can give a description and impression of the form of a cycle, as we are about to do, it is, to be truthful, not as easy as this to limit things to a nice but rigid definition. When using astrology, we are bordering into the realm of the Unknown, of riddle and paradox! Thus, if you watch what happens during a succession of fullmoons, you will notice that they are both similar to each other and extremely different. That is, the underlying pattern is there, since all fullmoons are soli-lunar oppositions, and they have a definite undertow to them which can be recognisable even if you don't have your ephemeris around. But the precise flavour of each fullmoon can be quite variable. In other words, use this book, and any other, as a catalyst to help you attune to what we're talking about, but form your own conclusions, from your own experience! For this is the only way to a truer knowing.
While each aspect is a specific angle (like 30°, 60°, 90°), it represents a stage, a milepost in the unfoldment of a cycle. But like mileposts along a road, they represent but markers along the cycle to show us where we are: in fact, a cycle is a continuum. Each aspect has a field of influence around it, where it can be said to be having an effect – this is called an orb. Just as any event has a buildup, a specific time of occurrence, then an aftermath, so it is with aspects.
Orbs vary in wideness, according to the nature of the aspect. There is debate amongst astrologers as to how wide we should have orbs. One discrepancy in this debate is that many astrologers seek a definite orb, a degree where the aspect markedly starts or finishes. This is not lifelike, for energy unfolds gradually, just as the colours of the rainbow phase into one another gradually, and they cannot have clear lines of demarcation. So in this book, the values given for orbs are twofold: the smaller orb denotes the area where a definite effect from an aspect can be detected, while the larger one denotes the area where rumblings are felt which might not at the time be noticeable, although in retrospect or under subtler scrutiny, they can be recognised. An example is the pre-fullmoon period, which can be felt for two days (up to one sign, 30°) before the exact fullmoon.
To complicate matters, orbs are widened or narrowed according to the planets involved. Generally, orbs are widened when Sun and Moon are involved in any aspect, and narrowed for slower planets. Suggested orbs for both aspects and planets are summarised on the symbol page at the beginning of the book. When assessing an aspect, therefore, use your judgement or preference as to the width of the orb, and if in doubt, consult your own experience and make your own decisions as you progress!
Application and separation
These are astrologese for aspects which are forming (the faster planet is moving into aspect with the slower) or moving apart (the faster is leaving its aspect with the slower).
As an aspect is applying, the two planetary energies are juddering against one another, seeking to form a relationship, to come into gear: this can mean some friction, jarring, jangle and difficulty until the aspect is formed. In addition, we tend to throw into the bargain our own resistances and anticipations, which heighten this grating. A lot of the spadework is done during the buildup to aspects: people who resist growth and change exert much energy stop it happening, and people who accept it go through some resistances but yield to change as the aspect nears exaction, while people who seek to induce change often go through hell some time before it, only to land up thriving on it all when the aspect is close to exactness. Resistance tends to give way to acceptance around 1-2° before the planets have formed an exact aspect. For some an aspect can be very fear-inducing, stimulating resistance-at-all-costs, since change is seen as a threat to security; at best, such people might loosen up after the pressure dies down when the aspect is separating, and at worst (not uncommon) no movement is made at all, heels are dug further in, and misfortune, illnesses and unhappiness set in sooner or later.
Aspect energies come into their own around exaction, and an alchemical reaction takes place, bringing about change, transition or movement. Once this is done the aspect starts separating, and a process of digestion and assimilation follows, in which the dust settles, and the new state is integrated, normalised and utilised. As the aspect separates, what was once future and potential becomes past and established. At times the integration process can take some time, especially if concrete life-forms need changing (like a move of house or a marital separation), or if there has been considerable shock, confusion or disarray around the time of the aspect. Usually things become clear and established when the aspect is around 2-3° separating.
Three passes of a Jupiter conjunct Uranus in Sagittarius in 1983. Note also the Jupiter opposition Chiron – Jupiter got caught up in a gradually-applying Chiron opposition Uranus which became exact in 1986.
Particularly when the slower planets are aspecting one another, two of them can move into aspect, then one or both can turn retrograde, move out of aspect, then back in again. This makes for a three-step process in which changes are strung out over a period, made into a lengthy process. The first formation of the aspect then becomes a news-bringer, in which we move into an awareness that a change is needed or pending or desirable: it ends the old situation, but inaugurates a limbo or transitional period. At the retrograde, second aspect, there can be a feeling that things are literally going backwards, and a struggle or energy-droop can ensue wherein, semiconsciously, the resolve to make the change is really generated. The change, the beginning of the future state, takes place when the third, direct pass of the transit takes place.
Occasionally, with Neptune and Pluto, this can take place more than three times: Neptune and Pluto have been in an ongoing sextile aspect to one another, passing into and out of aspect many times over the last few decades, since Pluto, at its fastest speed in the late 20th Century, keeps pace with Neptune, even though its overall cycle is much longer. This has been an important historical aspect, bringing about an ongoing emergence of new ideas, developments and innovations over a long term, with through the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s. Pluto is pulling away from the sextile in the early 21st Century.
Shorter-term cycles are not too difficult to follow – lunations and annual cycles don't involve too much waiting. It is worth observing them as they are happening, and in advance and in retrospect also. This means keeping your ephemeris with you (Raphael's is best for this) and keeping a regular watch on the motions of the planets, checking what you see in the ephemeris with what you experience in your life and around you in the lives of other people, nature, the weather, the cat or whatever interests you. It's a matter of learning to tune in to the collective psyche, and the underlying tendencies in nature and the world.
Longer-term cycles are different. It starts getting really interesting if you have been studying planetary movements for a decade or more, but it isn't very encouraging to be admonished to wait so long! There are escape routes: if you come across a slower aspect (for example, Jupiter square Saturn in 1986, Saturn conjunct Uranus in 1988, Jupiter square Chiron/Uranus plus Chiron opposition Uranus in 1986-7) it is possible to look back through your ephemeris (the American Ephemeris is best for this one) at previous dates when earlier aspects in the cycle in question took place. In this way, the significance of the current aspect can be seen more clearly in comparison with pastcases. Look back over the past (at some time when you are feeling recollective) at its longer term cycles, and see what you can make of them by comparing their timing with things that happened. Later in the book we shall look at ways in which you can look back over your whole life, at its own cycles, breakthroughs, turning-points and flowerings, using transits. If looking at historical cycles excites you, visit the Historical Ephemeris website.
Cogs in the cosmic machinery
Different interplanetary cycles bear different levels of significance and effect. The general rule is: the slower a cycle or the planets making it, the more fundamental and deep it is in effect. Even though a fullmoon can, at the time, feel as if it is the end of the world or a major soulquake, fullmoons come and go. They can play a part in a larger energy-process, if they connect aspectwise with any slower planets involved, and they can sometimes make for significant cruxpoints and crunches which bring longer-term, deeper issues to the surface – for example, the Chemobyl nuclear reactor blew its top on a fullmoon close to conjunction with Pluto, playing a dramatically specific part in a longer-term Pluto-in-Scorpio unfoldment lasting from 1984-96.
The Uranus-Pluto aspect cycle is a very different thing from, say, the Venus-Mars cycle. It's necessary to sort out therefore what the different levels of cycles are, so that you can form an idea of the significance of a specific aspect or cycle you might be observing:
cycles between outer planets have historical significance affecting centuries and generations, involving the surfacing of new thought-forms, realities and possibilities in the collective psyche, in history and the lives of nations and the world;
cycles between Jupiter or Saturn and the outer planets have historical significance in terms of decades, particularly affecting the way deeper thought-forms are materialised, and institutional and social changes are wrought – these two interlace the deepest issues with more year-by-year world issues;
Jupiter-Saturn cycles involve practicalities, organisational realities and concrete social issues, with turning-points every 5-6 years, and new cycles starting every 20 years (often featured by assassination attempts on US Presidents!);
Sun-Mercury-Venus-Mars cycles to outer planets repeat once every 1-3 years, featuring the surfacing of deeper issues (outer planets) in more fleeting yet discernible terms in interpersonal issues and atmospheres – aspects last 1-3 weeks in their effects;
Sun-Mercury-Venus-Mars aspects to Jupiter and Saturn act similarly, focused on personality-level issues – these cycles are somewhat longer than those just above, because Jupiter and Saturn move faster than the outer planets, requiring more chasing by Mercury, Venus or Mars;
mutual cycles between Sun, Mercury, Venus and Mars last only months or up to 3 years, evoking feeling-tones, motions of energy, shorter-term changes and conditions which feel significant at the time, but which melt into lost detail in a longer-term perspective;
cycles between Moon and any other planet last but a month, yet major aspects between them can bring about occasionally powerful yet brief (1-2 days) atmospheres, situations and occasions, and can be well worth noting.
This diagram shows the way that aspects between the Sun and any planet outside Earth's orbit actually look from an astronomical viewpoint. Earth itself moves, at its own speed, as well as the outer planet – this simplified diagram doesn't show Earth's own movement.
It's a matter of choice as to how to focus your interest; some people look into immediate, shorter-term cycles (especially because they are experientially quite definite and concise), while others are interested in longer-term flows and the broader issues arising in connection with them. Of course, isolating individual cycles is not possible, for everything takes place in the context of everything else, but an awareness of the different levels of cycles at work helps sort out what energy is what when you're in the middle of a life-situation and trying to make sense of it. Periodically, all sorts of multiple interactions or sequences of astrological events take place, forming interestingly different patterns, atmospheres and trains of experience. Keep your astrological eyes peeled, your nose to the wind and your ephemeris within easy reach!
Imaging up a picture of the whole living, breathing motion of the solar system can be a boggling experiment. But it is possible. If you first get a sense of the periodicities of the planets and their order from the Sun, you can then image the whole system in its parts. Take the Sun first, and develop a good picture/experience of it as a star and a being; then image Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Chiron swinging eccentrically, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto individually, taking your attention off the previous planet yet maintaining a sense of a presence of it still there, moving on its course.
The planets orbit anti-clockwise when seen from 'above' the solar system. When you have reached Pluto, widen your perspective, and re-image planets, moving back in toward the Sun, including them one by one into the whole scenario. If you lose the image, you can reclaim it by persevering with re-imaging planets, taking them in one by one, until a whole sense of the solar system takes shape. It is possible to allow the planets to dissolve into light, and note their colours/feelings, then to take this light into yourself, such that it fills your body. Stay with the state you have developed, and rest in it, before surfacing.
The solar system is a living, breathing being, with an incredible beauty to its manner of moving. This imaging is easier to do than what is necessary in order to be able to see how the planets look from Earth! In days of old, an astrologer would serve a training of many years in order, amongst other things, to develop a living, moving picture of the motions of all cycles and movements we look at in astrology. S/he would spend many nights for years and years observing the stars, planets and Moon, and the rising and setting of the Sun. Gaining a full inner grasp of the movement of the solar system stimulates a genuine spiritual experience. Try it!