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Retrograde Planets

Retrograde Planets

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by Erin Sullivan

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In this singular text, Erin Sullivan penetrates the veil of myths, mystery, and false assumptions which surrounds the phenomenon of retrogression as applied to both natal charts and transiting cycles.


In this singular text, Erin Sullivan penetrates the veil of myths, mystery, and false assumptions which surrounds the phenomenon of retrogression as applied to both natal charts and transiting cycles.

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Red Wheel Weiser & Conari Press
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Traversing the Inner Landscape


Samuel Weiser, Inc.

Copyright © 2000 Erin Sullivan
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-57863-180-3



Throughout the book we will be reminded constantly that retrograde motion is peculiar to our earth-based viewpoint. We look both inward to the Sun and the two 'inferior' planets, and outward at the 'superior' planets towards the boundary of the solar system. The inferior planets whose orbits lie inside the orbit of our Earth—Moon system are Mercury and Venus; those beyond our orbit Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto - are the superior planets. Of the superior planets, astrologers have come to know the first three as the 'social' planets and the outermost three as the 'transpersonal' or, more accurately, 'trans-Saturnian' planets.

Retrogression is the period of time during which a planet in our solar system appears to be moving backward as we see it against the fixed backdrop of the stars. The phenomenon is entirely due to our Earth-based perspective and was well known to the ancient astronomers.

The ancient sky-watchers were, however, in some confusion about the cycles of the inferior planets - retrogression in particular - because they thought that Mercury and Venus were both two different bodies. This was because they can be both morning and evening 'stars' at different times in their cycle of orbital revolution and retrogression. The confusion is quite understandable, because when we look towards Mercury and Venus it appears as if they are passing back and forth across - rather than orbiting around - the Sun. Because of their orbital proximity to the Sun they are clearly observable only when at their most distant from the Sun in zodiacal longitude. This visibility occurs for two short periods of time, as Mercury and Venus head 'towards' us in their orbits to form an inferior conjunction with the Sun, and as they head 'away from' us, continuing in their respective orbits around the Sun to the superior conjunction.

The social planets - Mars, Jupiter and Saturn - are most clearly visible when they are moving in the opposite part of the sky to the Sun - in the night sky and are retrograde for much of the time when in this zodiacal zone. This same Sun-planet opposition principle applies also to Uranus, Neptune and Pluto, but they are invisible to the unaided eye.

The primary difference, therefore, between inferior planets and superior planets retrograde is that:

1. Superior planets only appear to turn retrograde when they are about to oppose the Sun. Earth is then posited between the Sun and the planet in its orbit.

2. Inferior planets only appear to turn retrograde when they are about to conjoin the Sun. The planet is posited between Earth and the Sun.

The point in common between all planets is that they are closest to Earth when retrograde. With these facts in mind, let us examine the cycles of inferior and superior retrogression.


From a geocentric viewpoint Mercury and Venus can make two kinds of conjunction with the Sun:

1. Inferior: when the planet is between Earth and the Sun, and the planet is retrograde.

2. Superior: when the planet is on the other side (from Earth) of the Sun, and the planet is direct.

Both Mercury and Venus orbit the Sun in shorter periods than the Earth. Mercury goes around the Sun once every 88 days, and Venus about every 225 days (Earth's orbital period is 365 ¼ days). As the Earth and inferior planets orbit the Sun in their respective periods, occasionally they are all found on the same side of the Sun, occasionally on opposite sides of the Sun. Sometimes they are running alongside each other, sometimes not. When an inferior planet moves around the Sun and 'catches up' with and passes the Earth, the planet appears to move backwards against the zodiac. At that point it is in close proximity to the Sun in zodiacal longitude (in the ephemeris), and is then retrograde. From a heliocentric viewpoint, it is an Earth-Mercury or Earth-Venus conjunction.

For Mercury this retrograde motion occurs three times approximately every thirteen or so months; the planet catches up with Earth at the inferior conjunction with the Sun every 116 days. Venus - which orbits the Sun every 225 days - passes through the inferior conjunction with the Sun about every 584 days and is therefore seen retrograde only once approximately every eighteen months. Though the times of Mercury's and Venus' retrograde cycles are considerably different, the system operates in precisely the same way.

At superior conjunction (point 1 in fig. 1.1, p. 6) the Earth is looking beyond the Sun to the inferior planet, which is trotting along in direct motion round the Sun. At a certain point the inferior planet begins to head around in its orbit again towards the Earth and passes between the Sun and Earth. When the planet is between the superior conjunction (point 1) and Greatest Eastern Elongation (point 2), it is direct in motion. It begins to decelerate just before point 2 and stations, turning retrograde at point 3, after which time it appears to move backward against the zodiac for a period of time (an average of twenty-two days for Mercury and forty-two for Venus). At the midpoint of the retrograde period, the planet will have moved back to conjoin the Sun at inferior conjunction (point 4). Some days after the inferior conjunction (for Mercury this is about ten days and Venus about twenty-one days), the planet will appear to slow again, stop and then begin forward motion (point 5), heading towards the superior conjunction (point 1) on the other side of the Sun.

The points before the station-retrograde and after the station-direct (points 2 and 6) are when the inferior planet is clearly visible to us on Earth. These points are called Greatest Elongation: the inferior planet is then as distant from the Sun in zodiacal longitude as it can be. For Mercury, the maximum distance is 28° on either side of the Sun, and for Venus 48°. At the stationary-retrograde, point, the inferior planet has been at its greatest eastern elongation, sets just after the Sun and is called the evening star; when it is at its stationary-direct point, it will soon rise ahead of the Sun as the morning star and is then at its greatest western elongation.

Both Mercury and Venus perform this oscillation and both, at different times in each of their cycles, appear as morning and evening star. At certain rare periods, when Mercury and Venus are both together on the same side of the Sun they can present themselves as morning or evening star simultaneously, with Venus, the more distant of the two from the Sun, lingering longer in the horizon than Mercury at evening, or rising ahead of Mercury, heralding the dawn.


Direct [superior] conjunction [point 1 in fig. 1.1]: When Mercury or Venus is on the other side of the Sun from Earth, and reaches the same degree as the Sun in zodiacal longitude. This marks the time when the planet begins the advance towards greatest eastern elongation.

Greatest eastern elongation [point 2]: For Mercury this is around 28° ahead of the Sun and for Venus 48° ahead of the Sun in zodiacal longitude. This is when the planet appears on the horizon after sunset as the evening star, during which time the Sun appears to gain on it in longitude. Venus is called Hesperos when it is the evening star, literally meaning 'evening' or 'western' in Greek, whereas this phase of Mercury is called Epimethean, after the Greek god Epimetheus.

Station-retrograde [point 3]: The planet appears to stop and reverse its motion as seen against the zodiac. The Sun advances and Mercury or Venus will retrogress back in the zodiac to meet at:

Retrograde [inferior] conjunction [point 4]: Mercury or Venus now begins to fall behind the Sun in longitudinal degree. This is the midpoint of the retrograde cycle and marks a new phase in the evolution of the Sun-inferior planet.

Station-direct [point 5]: For both Mercury and Venus this occurs just prior to their becoming visible - and marks the return to forward motion of the inferior planet, as it heads towards:

Greatest western elongation [point 6]. This occurs during the time when Mercury or Venus is the morning star and they are, respectively, 28° or 48° behind the Sun in zodiacal longitude. In this period the planet will reach again, while in direct motion, the degree at which it was conjunct the Sun while in retrograde motion. At this point the inferior planet begins its longest direct cycle, as it heads back around the Sun, 'away' from Earth, towards the superior conjunction. When Venus is in this position, it is commonly called Lucifer, or 'lightbearer' in Latin, but it might well be Phosphoros, in keeping with the Greek Hesperos. In this phase Mercury is called Promethean, after the Greek god Prometheus, the fire-thief.


Heliocentric view

From the heliocentric viewpoint the Earth and the superior planets all orbit the Sun, but because the revolution period of the Earth is shorter and its proximity to the Sun closer, Earth gradually overtakes each superior planet in the course of its annual revolution.

Referring to fig. 1.2, point 1 is the conjunction of the superior planet and the Sun: as the Earth comes round to meet the superior planet in its orbit it begins to move between the planet and the Sun and passes the planet. As it does so, the planet appears to slow, stop and reverse its motion as we see it against the backdrop of the zodiac. Although each planet has its own period of direct and retrograde motion according to its position in the zodiac relative to the Sun, the principle is exactly the same for all of them. At point 5 the Earth is posited exactly between the Sun and the planet, appearing from our view as a Sun-planet opposition, but from the Sun as an Earth-planet conjunction. When the superior planet has moved along in its orbit to point 7, the planet will station and turn direct in apparent motion again. (This diagram also clearly shows quadrature and the 'retrograde trine' zone.)

Geocentric view

The cycles as depicted in the heliocentric diagram (fig. 1.2) correspond exactly to those in fig. 1.3. Fig. 1.3, however, is an astrological representation, illustrating how on an annual basis the Sun appears to transit the signs of the zodiac and its position as seen from the Earth and in relation to the superior planet.

When a superior planet is in zodiacal conjunction with the Sun, its apparent motion is at its quickest, although we cannot see it because it is obliterated by the brightness of the solar rays. However, after the conjunction the Sun continues to move at approximately 1° per day and appears to leave the planet behind. By the time the Sun has reached the first quarter square aspect to the superior planet (point 2 in fig. 1.3), the apparent motion of that planet begins to slow; by the time the Sun is in a trine to it (point 4), it has stationed and turned retrograde (point 3) some days beforehand, causing it to appear to move backward against the zodiac, and is visible in the night sky (with the sole exception of Mars which is trined by the Sun before it stations-retrograde).

This phenomenon has been best illustrated by the analogy of the fast-moving car passing the slow-moving car: even though both are moving, the speed of the faster car as seen against the background makes the slower car appear to be moving backward. With this in mind, let us look at the periods consistent with superior planetary retrogression.


Conjunction with the Sun [point 1 in fig. 1.3]: This point originates the cycle, with the planet's apparent motion at its quickest. The Earth is on the opposite side of the Sun to the superior planet, so we look towards both of them, 'seeing' them together against the backdrop of the zodiac. (In actual fact, we cannot of course see it because it is in the day sky.)

First quarter square [point 2]: This occurs when the Earth has moved to such a position that the Sun appears three signs ahead in the zodiac, and the superior planet has begun to slow down in apparent motion in preparation for station-retrogression. In fact, the Earth is now beginning to come between the Sun and the superior planet in its orbit, heralding the advent of the stationary-retrograde point.

Station-retrograde [point 3]: The superior planet appears to have stopped in the sky. This is caused by the Earth having moved to the point in its orbit where it will overtake the superior planet and pass it by, giving the appearance of the planet moving backward for a period of time (from two and a half to five and a half months, depending on the planet - see next section for the days between the Sun trine to the superior planet and either station).

Stationary-retrograde Sun trine to superior planet [point 4]: This configuration occurs some days after the stationary-retrograde point - the number of days also differs with each planet.

Accelerating quincunx [point 5]: The Sun forms a quincunx to the superior planet as it begins to quicken.

Opposition point of Sun to superior planet [point 6]: This is the midpoint in the synodic cycle of the planet and Sun, but is geocentrically the time when the Earth is exactly between the Sun and the superior planet, appearing as an opposition in the horoscope. The superior planet is in its quickest phase of retrograde motion, about two thirds as fast as when it is conjunct the Sun in direct motion.

Decelerating quincunx [point 7]: The Sun is now in a quincunx to the retrograde superior planet, which is 'slowing' in apparent motion.

Stationary-direct Sun trine to superior planet [point 8]: The trine after the opposition heralds the stationary-direct point, which follows some days after the Sun trine. The Earth has now moved to such a point in its orbit that it is heading around to the opposite side of the Sun from where it was when the first trine occurred (point 4), and the superior planet prepares for:

Stationary-direct [point 9]: The Earth has moved ahead in its orbit to complete its passage past the superior planet. The superior planet now appears to stop, then slowly begins to move forward again in the zodiac, completing the retrograde phase.

Last quarter square [point 10]: Now the superior planet 'picks up speed' as the Sun moves back towards the conjunction with it, and is three zodiacal signs behind it. The Earth has gone around in its orbit to begin travelling on the opposite side of the Sun to the superior planet; it will be exactly opposite at the solar conjunction back at point 1.

Timing of Sun trines to superior planets

Sun-Mars: The formation of the trine aspect is quite irregular in regard to number of days before and after the stations, but it is different from all the other superior planets in that it occurs anywhere from thirteen to twenty-two days before it stations and turns retrograde and anywhere from thirteen to twenty-two days after it stations and turns direct. This means that a Sun-Mars trine is too far out of orb for Mars to be retrograde and in trine at the same time (it is however at its slowest motion). Mars' pattern is unique among superior planets in that it is not retrograde when the Sun is trine to it.

Sun-Jupiter. The Sun is very close (within orb) to the exact trine to Jupiter for both its stations. The Sun trines Jupiter between four and seven days after the station-retrograde and trines it again between four and seven days before the station-direct.

Sun-Saturn: The Sun trines Saturn ten to twelve days after the station-retrograde and again ten to twelve days before it stations and turns direct.

Sun-Uranus: The Sun trines Uranus fifteen to twenty days after the station-retrograde and fifteen to twenty days before it stations-direct.

Sun-Neptune: The Sun trines Neptune twenty to twenty-two days after the station-retrograde and twenty to twenty-two days before it stations-direct.

Excerpted from RETROGRADE PLANETS by ERIN SULLIVAN. Copyright © 2000 Erin Sullivan. Excerpted by permission of Samuel Weiser, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Retrograde Planets 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The retrogression is a planetary phenomena. It is eternal. How to analize and assmilate into the astrology was not clear and vague in most books available in past. The influence of each planet is to be evaluated by its position whether it is Direct or Retrograde in motion. The Celestial motion of all planets are Astronomically explained in this single volume in an impressive way focussing the attentive illumination towards the hazy area. This single book explains about all retrograde planets in Natal chart , in Secondary Progressions as well in Transit.The inner planets with a HIGH LIGHT on MERCURY and the TRANS-SATURNIAN OUTER PLANETS are illustrated diving into its depths of all possible details. The author took all pains to pool all relavent material to make the reader to gain entire matter in one single book including Western Mythology of planets. The author ERIN SULLIVAN in her impressive style simply leaves the reader into a front view of retrograding planets. I personally appreciate her erudite work in bringing out such a useful and fine treatise on this most valuable but puzzling topic.The beginner needs it to start with a candid clarity in understanding and an experienced professional to make his analysis more impressive and benificial to his clintele.