The Astrological Cycle and the Four Gates of Initiation

by Philip Levine, M.A.

Originally – it is believed – astrology derived from the human experience of the cyclic and repetitive movements of nature. The seasons of the year, the alternations of day and night, and the lunation cycles are inescapable and fundamental influences of human experience. We humans are highly sensitive to intuiting the presence of cycles in our lives, because they offer the possibility of predictable patterns, which in turn enable us to feel more secure about surviving in our sometimes hostile environment.

Why then is the concept of the cycle so absent from modern astrology? Since the cycle was emphasized by the work of Rudhyar (note 1) and others we have become more aware that the zodiac and the houses are not a simple collection of 12 entities. Rather they describe a process of 12 stages or phases. Many also realize that the astrological aspects are not isolated and separate, but derive their meanings from the places they occupy in the cycle as a whole.

Yet still – at the end of the 20th century – the cycle is found very little in the practice of astrology. How is it that something so fundamental, something at the very heart of astrology is so lacking?

We can bring this central idea into our work in helpful, insightful and down-to-earth ways. The purpose of this article is to present one approach and to encourage more experimentation and research in this area.

The Four Gates of Initiation

A cycle is here considered to be a process containing a repeating sequence of observable events that allows a structure to be articulated. Though the actual contents of a given cycle may greatly vary, its structure does not. We have, for example, many kinds of summers or winters, but summer always comes in summer, and winter in winter.

The cycle is a key to a deeper understanding of the workings of astrology. It can be seen as a skeletal framework for planetary motion (see "The Lunation Cycle" below) and the reader is referred to Rudhyar’s lunation cycle concept (note 2) for a deeper treatment of this idea. Here, we are suggesting a model developed from his profound work, that of the cycle and the four gates of initiation.

The Lunation Cycle

The monthly cycle of the Moon’s orbit around the Earth and its relation to the Sun produces the rhythmic changes we see on the face of the Moon. The four key points of this cycle can be seen in the New, Full, and First and Last Quarter phases of the Moon. As the Moon moves away from the Sun during the first half of the cycle, we see the light waxing on its face, and after the Full Moon the light wanes until the next New Moon. Rudhyar believed that these observable changes which are part of our everyday experience reflect the meaning of each particular phase of this – and every – cycle, and that the meaning of each phase had to be understood in the context of the cycle as a whole.

By "initiation" we do not have to imagine any esoteric tradition involving rituals and secret organizations. An initiation is a critical moment of change from one state to another. Examples of initiation for humans are physical birth, adolescence, graduation, marriage, mid-life, or retirement. The term "gate" is used as an image of this passage from one realm to a different one, a leaving and an entering. And these gates are "critical", meaning a crisis, climax or turning point is involved.

There are deep archetypal issues and feelings when we are at the "gate". There is a leaving – a letting go which may involve fear of separation, grief, death, facing the Void – and an entering – an embracing or joining which can be accompanied by fear of being swallowed up or annihilated, an insecure ignorance, and a trial of our faith. After all, what do we believe holds us in its meaningful and caring purpose as we travel through the void between what we’ve known and what we have yet to discover?

There is an irreversibility in the passage through the gate. We cannot go back. We cannot reverse our births, our puberty, or our deaths. So one could imagine that having knowledge of the presence of one of these gates in our lives, and of the underlying cyclic pattern which gives any particular gate its meaning, could be quite an asset in our passage.

Two of the implications of the ideas being discussed here are: (1) the extreme importance of the difference between waxing and waning squares, aspects of 90° and 270°, which is rarely even acknowledged, and (2) the psychological significance of these four fundamental initiations or gates at the four cardinal points of any cycle – the conjunction, waxing and waning squares, and the opposition.

The Four Gates of Initiation Described

This is only a brief survey of the four gates as archetypal stages in the development of any cyclic process involving the dynamic interplay of two complementary elements, like dark and light, hot and cold, or even two planetary functions.

Less abstractly, we witness this dynamic interplay in the beating of our hearts (systole/diastole), the movement of the tides (in/out), our breath, or the light on the face of the moon each month. In the following description, try to bring these concepts more concretely into focus by relating them to your breathing, the tides, or the lunar cycle.

To put it very simply, as item A and its counterpart item B interact cyclically – that is, over time with each one rising in influence as the other decreases, alternating regularly – there are four critical moments (here associated with the classic four lunation points). Don’t let these lists and abstractions obscure the point that we are discussing basic obvious patterns of movement.

The Four Gates of Initiation

In this diagram we find the four numbered points (the gates):

  1. The peak of A’s influence, a kind of max A and min of B, which at the same moment signals the rebirth of B as an ascending power, and the descent of A’s power (i.e., New Moon).
  2. The moment when A’s power has waned and B’s power has risen to reach a temporary equality or balance between them (i.e., First Quarter).
  3. The peak of B’s influence, a kind of max B and min of A, which at the same moment signals the rebirth of A as an ascending power, and the descent of B’s power (i.e., Full Moon).
  4. The moment when B’s power has waned and A’s power has risen to reach a temporary equality or balance between them (i.e., Last Quarter).

We can visualize this abstract concept in the phases of the Moon, as Rudhyar has done, bringing in the imagery of two moving astronomical bodies. Imagining A’s half to symbolize the last and first quarters, when darkness rules over light, and B’s half symbolizing the second and third quarters, when light rules:

1. A’s max is the New Moon, when the Moon has vanished from sight, its power dominated and absorbed by the influence of the Sun, its angular distance from the Sun is zero (0°), and all light has disappeared from the Moon’s visible surface. This is when B is secretly reborn and its power begins to increase while A’s declines.

2. The moment when ascending B reaches and surpasses A’s waning power is represented by the First Quarter (waxing square 90°).

3. B’s max is the Full Moon, when the Moon has reached its greatest distance from the Sun (180°) and its greatest light. This is when A is reborn and its power begins to increase while B’s declines.

4. The moment when ascending A reaches and surpasses B’s waning power is represented by the Last Quarter (waning square 270°).

To make this more specific and practical, imagine applying these to a human life of roughly 70-80 years. This is what we have:

  1. The joining or fusing of the two bodies as one at the conjunction, in which the future separation is contained in potential. But the future embodiment is currently without identity and at-one with the "parent" of the cycle, totally under its dominance and dependent on its "care" or influence. This is human conception leading up to birth.
  2. Here there is no conscious intent, no plan, just instinctive being. This "gate", this initiation, is a total and complete loss of separate self-identity in an all-absorbing matrix or container.

  3. At a quarter of the way into the cycle, the "younger" (faster planet) has gained enough substance, moved far enough away from its birth matrix (90°), to establish itself in the world and gain its independence. It is ready to step out from the shadow of the slower planet. But the price of this separation is also the anxiety of separating from the birth matrix (mother, family). There is loss of one aspect of identity which has offered protection and (ideally) nurturance and support.
  4. This is a death, a loss, mixed with the excitement of breaking free, asserting one’s independent identity and the finally realized potential to actualize who or what one is. The key is that one must break free at this stage in order to pass through the gate. We do this by emphasizing that which is truly our own. Of course, most of what we are at this early point in life is not really our own. It derives from the family and culture into which we were born. But we must make the effort and believe in our power. This quarter-point would be at around 18-21 years of age for our typical human.

  5. The next extremely important turning point in our cycle is the halfway point or opposition (180°). The faster moving body has reached the peak of its power and its freedom or independence from its originating "mother". But mysteriously, as the Tao-Te-Ching often notes, at the very moment of its peak, there is a reversal and the downfall begins.
  6. And this downfall is huge, because it announces the final limit, the death which occurs at the coming conjunction which closes this cycle and initiates the next one. This is not an easy truth to face, the truth of one’s own mortality.

    How appropriate that this key moment corresponds with our typical human’s mid-life crisis. And this crisis is partly the realization that we have somehow reached the apex of our striving for independence, gotten as far as we can and now must begin to adjust to the reality of our coming return to the oblivion from which we arose. We cross a key threshold at this midpoint of the cycle. Up till now, the entire movement has been directed away from the source (mother, family, roots) in order to establish an identity of our own, though it still contains influences from the beginning.

    Here we must face the beginnings of recognition of our loss of power, which we have always instinctively and necessarily avoided, because such a loss forces us to face our powerlessness in the face of death. Many of the difficulties of mid-life derive from the futile struggle to deny this reality, rather than to embrace it. At the Full Moon, the Moon senses the onset of the darkening which will eventually result in its complete loss at the next New Moon.

  7. At the last quarter or 3/4 of the way into the cycle, the original impulse of the cycle is well on its way back toward its annihilation, back to the very state it spent the first half of its existence moving away from. We don’t know what this mysterious destination is, other than to call it "death". Our western culture certainly has forgotten that this destination originally was one that offered protection and (ideally) nurturance and support. It is totally and officially feared, repressed or denied.

While passage through the gate at the First Quarter was "a death, a loss, mixed with the excitement of breaking free, asserting one’s independent identity and the finally realized potential to actualize who or what one is", this later initiation is the opposite. The movement is in the opposite direction, back to the source instead of away. In our Moon symbolism, the light is waning, not waxing. Certainly the onset of retirement or whatever term we can find to discuss this scary passage (at age 55-60), is nothing like the reaching of one’s legal status as an individual at 18-21.

This is why all traditional and modern astrology that refuses to distinguish between a waxing and waning square in either a birth chart or a progression or transit is not only wrong, but misguided. And usually it offers the absolute opposite interpretation from what is needed, when examining a 270° last quarter square. Any technique that ignores this distinction cannot claim to be based on a "cycles" approach to astrology.

While one must break free at the earlier stage (First Quarter or 18-21) in order to pass through the gate, here one is required to surrender. While a "masculine" heroic effort is symbolized by the break from childhood at the First Quarter, here an equally heroic "feminine" yielding is called for. To accept one’s life – the results of one’s past and the inevitable loss of identity and human freedom – is the task at this particular initiation.

As another example of this confusion, at the First Quarter we mentioned the fear of separation in the movement "out of the darkness" and "into the light", symbolized by the Moon reaching the point where the growing light begins to now dominate darkness on its face.

But at the Last Quarter it is the darkness that reaches ascendancy over the light. And the fear is now not of separation from the original source, but of being absorbed or swallowed up by it. That which we first had to win through ego effort now must be given up. Instead of acting as if we had unlimited power, we must act (or not act) in recognition of our relative unimportance and insignificance. We must surrender. This is a surrender to the inward movement at this stage of the cycle, rather than the outward movement of the First Quarter.

When an astrologer interprets a natal or transiting waning square with the keywords associated with the waxing square, calling for action, breaking free, moving outward, the client is receiving worse than bad advice; they are being directed in the opposite direction from that which is signified. One is counseled to try harder, when what is called for is to give up and yield.

    • Finally, at the conjunction which symbolizes the end of the cycle and the birth of the future (still unknown) we reach the human stage of death, the end of a particular life and identity. Without a spiritual attitude or system of beliefs that portrays this end with some kind of reassurance, it simply suggests oblivion, being eaten by worms, losing all power.

Here again, what is usually missed is the great distinction between a waxing or waning conjunction. These are most definitely not the same. The moment leading up to one’s death is certainly not the same as the moment following one’s birth.

To summarize:

  1. First gate (Birth) there is a fusion, a merging, a conjoining of two elements or players, a unity of identity and an arousing of potential purpose, no distance between them, sharing the same field.
  2. Second gate (Breaking free) can be imagined as the faster planet reaching the edge of the slower planet’s (and the conjunction’s) gravitational field. As it passes beyond 90°, moving away from its origins, it finds itself under the influence of something else, something now pulling it forward, rather than a force it was trying to break away from. This mysterious "something" is 180° from the conjunction, an objective facing back toward the subjective.
  3. Third gate (Culmination and reversal) is both a climax of all that has preceded it and an enantiodromia or metanoia, a mysterious shift in direction (no longer away from its source, but now toward) which also reverses everything. The faster planet has reached its maximum freedom and separation from its beginnings.
  4. Fourth gate (Surrendering and returning) mirrors the second gate, and in its reflection at 270° the faster planet symbolically re-enters the slower planet’s gravitational field, returning to its influence, now heading toward the mysterium of the conjunction.

We can imagine a four-fold rhythm in this movement from gate to gate, moving away from birth (first gate) until the second gate (breaking free), then toward an outer objective separating goal in life until the third gate (culmination and reversal), then away from this climax, ideally to share the fruits of the journey, and finally back toward the original source after the fourth gate.

So proceeding from the rather abstract earlier description of the cycle in terms of A and B, through the corresponding symbolism of the lunation cycle and its phases, to a more practical and human understanding of these four critical gates of initiation we are now able to begin exploring real-world implications of these ideas for our understanding of the work of astrology.

First Half

(Waxing – A grows/B shrinks)

Second Half

(Waning – B grows/A shrinks)

Movement: outward, away from source

Movement: inward, return to source

Goal: independence and freedom

Goal: (re-)integration, return and surrender

Fear: separation

Fear: engulfment

Resistance: Moving out; leaving source/security

Resistance: Stopping outer activity

Inertial regressive pull: to stay embedded or submerged

Inertial regressive pull: to stay active and outer-directed

Table 1 - Psychology of the Cycle

Practical Application of Cycles

In an astrological chart, we find 10 traditional "planets". We have been taught largely to notice certain particular angular relationships and to identify these as aspects. We’re not necessarily sure why we choose to emphasize certain angular distances (90°, 120°, 180°) and to ignore others (72°, 45°, 135°). Nor is there good reason to pay attention only to these few specific values (within orbs) and to ignore all the space in between.

Every planet has a phase relationship with every other planet. Some astrologers are able to identify a distance of 168° between two bodies as being in the "gibbous"1 phase, but what does that really mean?

At the moment of birth we freeze the constant and ongoing motions of the planets into a chart. But a planet that is 168° from another implies a wealth of information, free to be interpreted and understood. This distance has been arrived at after the previous conjunction which may have occurred hours, days, or years ago. It carries the power and purpose of that conjunction throughout the cycle.

If we wish we can examine the degree of the prior conjunction as if it contains the direction or purpose of this cycle. The sign, degree, and house of that conjunction suggest meaningful information about the cycle as a whole. And at this hypothetical moment of birth when the two planets are 168° apart, their whole history, including the two previous "gates of initiation" in the cycle, is carried forward in the life of the individual.

In my own approach, which is largely psychological, I imagine each of the two planets as representing parts of the personality or subpersonalities (note 3) and I try to understand the possibilities of their relationship at this particular moment in the whole cycle. A great deal depends upon whether the client has found it necessary to live largely identified with one or the other of the two planets. This can only be determined by listening to the client and gaining a sense of their perspective, not ours. We are probably quite skilled at hearing a particular planet or combination of planets speaking through the client.

We can also benefit our understanding and our clients by gaining the sense of whether they might be particularly estranged from or resistant toward one of the particular planets. Do they have a steady job? A committed relationship? Is there Saturn in their life, or does it sound like (and look in the chart like) they are avoiding Saturnine responsibilities and limits? Or perhaps have they so fully loaded themselves down with Saturn’s burdens in order to avoid the chaos and randomness of an unstructured life that they only hear with Saturn’s ears and see with Saturn’s eyes.

Our assessment will help us to interpret imaginatively the particular planetary pairings we are cyclically exploring. We know that at this stage of the cycle, when the faster moving planet is 168° ahead of the slower one, that the qualities of the faster planet, particularly as they embody elements of the slower one, should be well-established and mature.

The stages of birth (conjunction) and breaking free (First Quarter square) are in the past of this cycle; the stage of reversal (opposition) is approaching. Imagine a human at the stage preceding mid-life, maybe in their mid to late 30’s. That is the level of maturation we should expect in the dynamic interplay between these two particular planets.

As an actual example, let’s observe that Muhammad Ali’s Mars-Pluto square is a waning square (note 4). Mars at 3 Taurus 03 squares Pluto at 4 Leo 48. Thus their angular distance is about 269°. It is almost an exact 3/4 through the zodiac. The "almost" is significant. It means he was born when Mars had reached the very threshold of the third gate of initiation but still had not crossed over into the 4th and last quarter of the cycle.

From our preceding discussion, we would assume that this means that Ali (or anyone else with this chart) is trying to embody this particular crisis. Let’s try using some of the ideas previously discussed:

This particular pair was chosen first because it exemplifies the waxing vs. waning meaning of the square, and because these two planets are a large part of what this famous person is known for. The use of his muscles and his athletic ability to literally overpower and attempt to destroy his opponents would seem to be an apt Mars-Pluto activity (note 5).

Apologies to those not familiar with the story of this incredible human being (note 6). Ali was perhaps the greatest boxer of this century and particularly known for his dramatic stance as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, resulting in the stripping of his heavyweight title and his imprisonment. His conviction was overturned in 1970, and he returned to the ring upon his release and a somewhat miraculous winning back of his title as heavyweight champion of the world in 1974.

We can delve as deeply here as we like. For example, the conjunction of Mars and Pluto which began this particular cycle in which Ali was born occurred on July 6, 1940 at 1 Leo 56. For those who use the Sabian Symbols: "An epidemic of mumps....Now we deal with a process that affects the entire society...the whole of mankind is potentially affected by...and cannot help being involved in the critical situations faced by any individual or special group of people."

This Mars-Pluto square, by the way, also occupies Ali’s Sun/Moon midpoint and forms a T-square with his Capricorn Sun. To focus only on the Mars-Pluto square, the Last Quarter phase suggests that Mars must now offer itself – as the channel of Ali’s strength, force, and athletic abilities – as a vehicle for Pluto’s death-rebirth transforming energies, the power of the collective human drive for survival. If he were born at the First Quarter square then it would be appropriate for all this energy to be used to build himself up as a separate individual. It would be mostly personal.

But he found himself in a position where his personal individual views were in conflict with those of his collective. And he surrendered to his own internal conscience. Out of this crisis in his life, he found greater meaning and purpose for his career as a vehicle for Allah through his religious faith, and also as a symbol for millions around the world. He became a transpersonal symbol by using his muscles. His life took on meaning as part of a collective movement, and he personally gave up his personal power and self-interest by becoming a channel, a vessel or a vehicle for a higher purpose. Something else became "the Greatest".

He had to face his limits, death itself, to fulfill his chart. He even allowed himself to absorb a terrific beating in his championship bout with George Foreman in Africa in order to eventually triumph over an exhausted opponent. And he pays to this day by suffering the effects of boxing on his body.

Many examples could be cited to encourage the examination of Last Quarter squares in birth charts. Exploring your own, if there are any, and asking if they symbolize a crisis in actively asserting your identity or in giving it up can be a fruitful exercise. Ask yourself, "if I identify with this particular planet (the faster one that is 270° ahead of the slower one) and see through its eyes, how does this square appear to me?"

Transits and Progressions

In the course of our lives, as we track our transits and progressions and those of our clients, we would do well to keep the four gates of initiation in mind. One of the easiest and most useful methods is to use the cycle history of a key transit or progression. This works best with transits due to the slow movement of progressions.

When a transiting planet (outer is of course more significant) is making an aspect to something in the chart, calling for greater attention to the issues involved, we can simply create a list of the key periods that have already occurred in the transit cycle (note 7).

For example, if you see that Uranus is about to form an opposition to a natal Saturn, try using the dates of their conjunction, sextile, square, trine, and even semi- and sesquisquares and quincunxes, whatever you prefer. This allows you to see the structure of this particular cycle history.

Imagine a dynamic and purposeful process that has been underway since the previous conjunction, probably in this case about 42 years ago. If the person involved is older than 42, explore what actually occurred in their life at the time of the conjunction and of the other aspects. All can be looked at through the specific lens of these two planets.

We can choose a theme for Uranus-Saturn, such as the overthrowing of crystallized structures and authority and the arising of new and possibly surprising forms. Then we look at these previous dates for what was happening in the person’s life at those times with regard to this particular theme, and we can begin to imagine an unfolding process in which these dates are all connected.

This brings a greater sense of meaningful purpose, particularly when under the pressure of a stressful time. The transit is no longer only a Uranus opposing natal Saturn. It is a specific stage in a larger process. And using the four gates and their individual meanings, we can dig deeper into the purpose of this particular transit in the whole cycle, much of which we will be able to see we have already been living, whether we realized it or not.

Again, imagining one’s relationship with Saturn and Uranus, their natal phase relationship in the chart, and especially imagining being Saturn or Uranus, can help clarify what’s going on.

I can imagine being Saturn in the chart. This is where I hold on, where I seek the greatest safety and stability. It is where I defend myself and look for security. In what house? In what sign? With what natal aspects?

Then I can imagine being the moving Uranus in the sky. In my chart, natal Uranus is where I upset the status quo, tell the truth, experiment, and do not fit in. Now as Uranus reaches the opposition, or the third gate of initiation, there is a crisis, a threshold to cross over. What does it represent? In general terms, we know it is time for the cycle to reverse itself. The movement of Uranus away from natal Saturn over the past 42 years or so has been trying to move Uranus out of the shadow of natal Saturn and all that it represents. What happened at the last gate, the First Quarter square? Was there a crisis? Who won? Did we change or entrench? It was a First Quarter, so actively breaking free was the theme.

Now at the opposition, we experience the fruits or failures of that earlier crisis, with regard to our specific theme of "overthrowing of crystallized structures and authority and the arising of new and possibly surprising forms" (Uranus-Saturn). In this moment of the opposition, perhaps we need to begin finding authentic Saturnian forms in which to embody our Uranian discoveries and truths. In other words the eventual surrender back to the Saturnian principle is beginning at the opposition, leading to the Last Quarter square and finally the last conjunction which ends the cycle.

The reversal may mean it’s time to stop fighting. It also may mean our window of opportunity for breaking through to greater freedom is coming to a close, and now the cycle will begin asking for a movement inward, back to source, more and more as the waning half of the cycle unfolds.


Remember: to make it simple just think of the first half of any cycle as waxing, as moving out and away from origin and source to greater independence and freedom in the process of actualizing the cycle’s potentials, and the last half as waning, moving inward, returning to origin while seeking to integrate and incorporate the results of the first half. And during the first half, the fear at the threshold is that of separating, leaving the known and familiar; while in the last half, the fear is of being engulfed, losing control and identity. This is important, because the fear of the particular gate will generate the resistance to crossing the threshold.

The most significant thing about cycles is that they are based on basic observation and reasoning. This is where the real "roots" of astrology are to be found, right where they have always been – in the simple and the obvious. Astrology was born when people observed the obvious.

This is not meant to be the definitive method incorporating cycles into astrological work. But if it raises more questions, leads to experimentation and discussion, and – most importantly – begins to restore the concept of the cycle and its repeating structure to the daily grounded work of astrology, then it has served its purpose.

[Note: The graphics appended are not mentioned in this article, are not intended for publication, and are only provided for distribution with this article to provoke thought.]

References and Notes

  1. See for example Rudhyar, The Lunation Cycle, Shambala, 1971; Rael & Rudhyar, Astrological Aspects, ASI, 1980; Ruperti, Cycles of Becoming, CRCS, 1978; Meyer, Handbook for the Humanistic Astrologer; Anchor, 1974; Busteed, Tiffany, & Wergin, Phases of the Moon, Shambhala, 1974. (return to text)
  2. Rudhyar, op. cit.; Rael, Leyla, "The Lunation Process in Astrological Guidance" (out of print), Michaels, Nicki, "A Brief Overview of Dane Rudhyar’s Approach to Cycles", The Mountain Astrologer, Feb/Mar 1998, pp. 24-28. (return to text)
  3. Sasportas, "Subpersonalities and Psychological Conflicts" in Greene and Sasportas, The Development of the Personality, York, ME: Weiser, 1987, pp. 163-222. (return to text)
  4. Jan 18, 1942, 6:35 PM CST in Louisville, Lois Rodden reports B.C., AA. (return to text)
  5. Ebertin: "MA/PL=superhuman power (force, brutality); the ability to demonstrate extraordinary force and vigour, great self-confidence, the obsession to work without any break, great ambition. The attainment of one’s objectives by means of ruthlessness to others, brutality, cruelty." Certainly boxing qualifies, and Ali was perhaps the most self-confident figure of our century (i.e., "I am the greatest.") (return to text)
  6. See for example the movie "When We Were Kings" " (Academy Award, 1997, Best Documentary). (return to text)
  7. The Yearly Cycles Workbook; from Sirius Astrological Services, P. O. Box 18207, Portland, ME 04112-8207, (800) 426-6881 provides such historical cycles information based on the individual chart. (return to text)


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1998 Philip Levine