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Cycles: Part 8 of 12
by Mary Plumb

Astrology is the study of the movements of the planets around the zodiacal belt. It is the observation of resonance between the planet's pathway (and changing interrelationships) and the particular quality of manifested energy available at a certain time and place that is the astrologer's focus.

When looking at a chart, we are looking at a particular moment in time to understand and deepen our knowledge of a person or event born in that moment; to observe human nature from a heavenly perspective, through a wider lens, is to see our most direct connections with our origins. The celestial sphere is in constant motion, however, and, as astrologers, we look not only at the inherent pattern of the birth chart, which shows our entry into physical life, but also at the movements of the planets in the life of an individual to see how the areas of emphasis and growth change over the passage of time, and how we can most fully be ourselves right now!

Although astrology is really the observation of many different and overlapping cycles in the tapestry of a human life, let us begin by understanding the different lengths of time that the planets take to travel around the wheel of the zodiac. The Moon travels the quickest, taking only 27-1/2 days to go through all 12 signs. Pluto, at the other extreme, takes 248 years to travel around the circle of animals. The speed of the Moon's journey tells us a lot; we know that the Moon has to do with emotional responses and habits – our emotional states can be very changeable and fluid. We resonate personally and intimately with the energy of the Moon, – we can observe the changing nature of our feeling life, and the ephemeral quality of our emotional responses, as well as the deeply sustaining nature of meeting our fundamental needs.

The monthly cycle of the Moon, from New to First Quarter to Full and Last Quarter to New again, is an easy cycle to watch and begin to study on a daily basis because she moves so quickly – things happen that we can easily observe, just as obviously and easily as we can look up into the sky and see the changing phases of the Moon. We can work with the energy of the lunar cycle to be more aware of our habits and instinctive, conditioned responses-the Moon, as the reflected light of the Sun, heightens our response.

Mercury, Venus, and the Sun all traverse the wheel in approximately one year. (The Sun's apparent motion around the zodiac is what defines our year – the annual passage is 365 days; therefore, the Sun moves about one degree per day.) The Sun brings us life and changing seasons. The solstice and equinox points of the year bring in a new season and are determined by the Sun's cyclic passage. Our birthday each year is a time when the Sun returns to the position held at birth, infusing us with renewed vitality and a sense of mission for our coming year. Mercury, of course, has to do with the mind, the quality of thought, and the intellect. Venus, which also has an approximately year-long cycle, teaches about values and what is dear to us. These two planets are close to the Sun – Mercury is never more than 28° from the Sun, and Venus never more than 48° .

Mars has a longer cycle, taking about 22 months to travel the wheel. The quality of our drives, motivations, and actions have about a two-year structure of time through which we can work. When Mars returns to its natal position, for example, we are strongly beginning a new impulse that will be challenged and refined at predictable periods in the course of his journey through the signs.

Jupiter spends one year in each sign, taking 12 years to travel around the zodiac. Therefore, every 12 years in life we experience a Jupiter return, or the return of the planet in the sky now to the position it held at birth. The Jupiter cycle lasts 12 years, so we all experience the returns at approximately 12, 24, 36, 48, 60, 72, and 84 years of age. The infamous Saturn return occurs for all of us for the first time at approximately 28 years of age, showing us that Saturn travels around the zodiac every 28 to 30 years. Since Saturn is related to the passage of time, gradual development, and the structures of reality, at key points in the Saturn cycle we may be helped, perhaps to bring something tangible into manifestation, or to face our fears deeply and realize them as allies on our journey.

Once beyond Saturn we are in the realm of the so-called higher-octave planets that are moving more slowly; their cycles are therefore longer. The influences of these three (Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto) affect and define our relationship to a generation.

Uranus, the planetary wild-card, has an orbit of 84 years around the zodiac, or about seven years in each sign. At key points in the cycle (i.e., around 21, 42, and 63), deep questions about our individuality may arise to be refreshed and, perhaps shockingly, enlivened.

Neptune's orbit is about 165 years, or about 14 years in a sign. Neptune connects us not only to our spiritual yearning, but also to the collective unconscious and to the community of souls that share our aspirations.

Pluto has an erratic orbit, traveling for different times in each sign but taking 248 years to move all the way through the zodiac. Pluto is also associated with the collective, or with that deep and penetrating domain where we learn to constantly let go of all that we think we are.

Having this picture of the differing lengths of the orbits of the planets, we can begin to see how their cycles interpenetrate one another and create a complex tapestry. For example, as the Moon, the Sun, and all the other planets move around the horoscope (and the zodiac), they will make aspects to one another and to their positions on the birth chart. Since the Moon travels so quickly (about 13° a day), she will touch every point in the chart every 27-1/2 days. Saturn will have very important aspects to the birth chart every seven years, which tend to mark some (often visible) redefinition in our relationship to form. (The individual cycles of the planets are related to the length of their respective orbits.)

Another clue to understanding the continuous movement and interpenetration of the planetary cycles is the concept of applying and separating aspects. In looking at the interaction of any two planets, as the faster-moving of the two approaches, or moves toward, the exact aspect with the second planet, it is said to be applying. The aspect is then exact by degree. As the faster-moving planet moves away from being in aspect to the second planet, it is then a separating aspect, i.e., moving past the degree of exactitude, or separating in its influence. Therefore, if Saturn is at 15° Pisces and the Sun is at 10° Cancer, the Sun is in an applying trine (or applying to a trine) to Saturn. If, at the same time, the Moon is at 12° Libra, she is in a separating square (or separating from a square) to the Sun. Although this may sound complicated at first, it is a good way to help remember that all the heavenly bodies are in constant motion (although, of course, at greatly different speeds, as we have seen) and in constantly shifting relationship to each other.

The question of orb of influence must be considered as well. The orb of a planet or aspect is basically the distance in longitude within which an influence operates. In other words, a conjunction involving the Sun in a natal chart may have an orb of 8° so that the conjunction of the Sun to Pluto, for example, would be in effect if Pluto is at 13° Scorpio and the Sun is anywhere from 5° to 21° of Scorpio. We would say that the Sun is applying to Pluto from 5° to 13° (where it forms an exact conjunction), and then separates from 13° to 21° . (Please check your astrology books and read further explanations on both orbs and applying and separating aspects to broaden your picture of these terms.)

At this point in our series, I recommend that you go back over the earlier articles. Look back at the articles on the signs, planets, and aspects, and practice drawing their symbols until you are quite familiar with them. Astrology is a beautiful and deep language of the soul. Take a break from striving to learn and experience the beauty of the symbols again! Draw them, use colors, ask them to reveal their secrets to you, go out one starry night and look up at the great fabric of the night sky and know that you are intimately a part of this perfection.


Betty Lundsted, Planetary Cycles: Astrological Indicators of Crises and Change; Samuel Weiser, Inc., 1984.

Dane Rudhyar, The Lunation Cycle; Shambhala, 1971.

Alexander Ruperti, Cycles of Becoming: The Planetary Pattern of Growth; CRCS Pub., 1978.



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