It's easy to overlook the inner planets (the pair that orbit between Earth and the Sun), yet Venus and Mercury – along with the Moon – have so much to teach us about our inner selves. After all, the Moon governs moods and memories, Venus desires and expectations and Mercury our mental processes and how we view the world. The 29.5 day lunation cycle is well known and widely used in astrology. Less well known is that Venus and Mercury have similar cycles and working with theirs can be just as rewarding. They're similar to the Moon's cycle in some ways but there are important differences too. The Moon is never retrograde, for example.
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Cycles of the inner planets have turning points, like the Moon does, but they're not quite the same. In place of the squares that mark the first and last quarters of the Moon you have points called maximum elongations, and instead of an opposition between Sun and inner planet at Full Moon phase there's a second conjunction, because at this point in the cycle the inner planets are invisible to us, being on the far side of the Sun. To us they appear to draw closer and closer to the Sun, then disappear into its rays before reaching what's known as superior conjunction. You can tell which conjunction is which in a horoscope because Venus or Mercury is retrograde at inferior conjunction (and closest to Earth), and direct at superior. Most astrologers take the inferior conjunction as the start of the cycle and the equivalent of a New Moon.
Six astronomical points form the framework of this cycle. The two conjunctions and the two stations, which mark the beginning and end of the retrograde cycle, are familiar to astrologers. The two remaining points are less well known and not as obvious in the horoscope. They're the two maximum elongations, points that are unique to the inner planets which, positioned as they are between Earth and the Sun, act as if they're tethered to the Sun. From our perspective, Venus never strays more than 46o from the Sun and Mercury no more than 28o.
There's one important difference between the cycles of Venus and Mercury. In Venus' case, the cycle is regular and symmetrical, as befits the planet associated with harmony. Indeed, its orbit is almost circular, with an eccentricity of 0.01 (where 0.00 is a perfect circle). It takes around 584 days for Venus to complete the journey from one inferior conjunction to the next. Mercury's cycle, on the other hand, is somewhat erratic. Its average length of 116 days is usually quoted but in practice it can be anywhere between 105 and 130 days. This is because Mercury has the most eccentric orbit among the planets apart from Pluto's (0.21 eccentricity, compared to Pluto's 0.24). It means that the interval between the phases in Mercury's cycle can vary wildly from one cycle to the next. You might not quite have a situation where every cycle of Mercury is unique, but it does have that kind of feel to it. I've heard it said that the unpredictable nature of Mercury's cycle mirrors the vagaries of the human mind.
So if you're working with Mercury in terms of its cycle, rather than as a static position in a horoscope, where do you start? The first thing to note is that there's a distinct difference between a waxing and a waning Mercury. The waxing Mercury starts at inferior conjunction, ends at superior conjunction and is solar in nature. It's a young, fresh, raw energy that's finding its feet in the world and is sparky, feisty and enthusiastic. The waning Mercury starts at superior conjunction, ends at inferior conjunction and is lunar in nature. This is a mature, sober and rather serious energy that's concerned with its position in the world and is more cautious and reflective. Whereas a solar Mercury will act before they think, a lunar Mercury will think before they act.
The conjunctions and elongations are also opposites in nature. At conjunction, Mercury's energy fuses with the Sun and its proximity to the powerhouse of the solar system gives it a depth and an intensity that the elongation lacks. With Mercury at its farthest from the Sun, it feels out on a limb and cut off from its source. However, this gives it a freedom that conjunctions don't have. They can feel overwhelmed by the Sun's energy, whereas the elongations feel free to experiment. Elongations are like hummingbirds that flit from flower to flower, taking a little bit here and a little bit there, gathering a variety of substances. That can lead to shallowness, but it can also result in a much broader sweep and greater diversity than a conjunction can manage. The conjunction is like a plant that's deeply rooted and comfortable in its little patch. The advantage is that it knows its place in the world and can bring forth riches from the deep; the down side is that if you try to move it from where it's comfortable you might end up destroying it. Conjunctions would rather die than change their minds, whereas elongations don't have the same scruples.
The two stations mark the start and end of the retrograde cycle, which begins near the end of the waning cycle and ends shortly after the beginning of the waxing one. That alone is enough to suggest that the retrograde part of Mercury's cycle is about swimming against the tide, or the prevailing mindset. What's happening here (at the retrograde station) is that Mercury's being reeled in, like a fish that's been caught on a hook – probably kicking and screaming at first but eventually surrendering to the inevitable, which is the death of the old cycle as Mercury's energy is consumed by the Sun at inferior conjunction. Then, reborn and re-energised by its merging with the Sun, Mercury again makes a bid for freedom. This time it manages to slip the hook at the direct station and resumes its forward motion.
The work I've done so far suggests that the 'movers and shakers' of recent times are generally born around the elongations – which makes sense, as they're the ones with maximum mental flexibility. The retrograde part of the cycle is still work in progress for me, so I'm going to concentrate on people born around the conjunctions and elongations. I'll do this in two stages in subsequent posts: first, by looking at their natal Mercury and then by looking at their progressed Mercury cycle, because the latter can show how your mind changes and develops over the course of your lifetime.