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Burn Rate: The Retrograde Phenomeno Date Published: 9/17/2001 by Michael Erlewine
Bio: Michael Erlewine

Author Michael Erlewine Besides being the author/astrologer behind our top-selling Astro*Talk, TimeLine, and Friends and Lovers report programs, Michael is the man who founded Matrix back in the late '70s. Michael and his brother Stephen Erlewine (Stephen is still head of all astrological programming for Matrix) built Matrix into the leading producer of astrology software.

For many years Michael lived in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he was much in demand as a counseling astrologer specializing in relationship and vocational advice. He also taught astrology at local schools and colleges, working with groups of as many as 1,200 people.

Michael is also known for his entrepreneurial drive which, in addition to Matrix, led him to create the All Music Guide - the largest music database in the world - and the All Movie Guide, as well as several award-winning websites, including

Michael also founded the Heart Center Library, the largest astrological library in North America that is open to the public. He remains curator of the works contained in this library, tapping this resource for one of his pet projects - a complete astrological encyclopedia.

Today Michael lives in the northern Michigan community of Big Rapids with his wife of 33 years and his family. He still does occasional private astrological counseling as people from around the world continue to seek his advice.

Those interested in a personal reading by Michael may contact him at:



Astrologers are not unlike their more psychic cousins, the psychometrists, who use objects to get in touch with various types of information. Instead on handling some object belonging to the person in question, we use the available astronomical facts as a touchstone or pointer to whatever meaning we are searching for. Much of modern astrology is concerned with our paying close attention to the observed facts as determined by the science of astronomy and astrophysics. Perhaps early in this century astrologers were a little fuzzy as regards science, but nowadays most astrologers are interested in learning all they can about the hard facts of deep space, the planets, and what not. My point here is that it seems that the more we understand the actual facts, the better directed we are to any inner meanings they may indicate or point to. The real facts of any situation are the ultimate talisman, the key to the meaning or any directionality that may be involved. With this in mind, let us take a look at the very important phenomenon of planetary motion, in particular the fact that the planets appear to go forward and backward through the zodiac — the retrograde phenomenon.

First, a brief review: The planets orbit the Sun in large almost circular orbits. Considered from a heliocentric or Sun centered standpoint, there is no retrograde or backward motion. There is only the steady forward travel through the zodiac — cycle after cycle, round after round. Retrograde (backward) motion only exists from the Earth-centered or geocentric perspective. As the earth moves through its orbit around the Sun, the other planets at times appear to move backward (retrograde) in the zodiac much like a slower train seems to move backward when seen from within a faster moving train. Thus the position of a planet like Jupiter (as seen from Earth) appears to slow down in the sky, come to a complete halt (reaches its station), and then begins to move backward or retrograde through the zodiac. After a time of retrograde motion, it once again comes to a halt and starts again in a direct or forward motion.

Each major planet appears to move through the zodiac with one major zig-zag per year...

Each major planet appears to move through the zodiac with one major zig-zag per year as the earth completes its annual cycle (the inner planets, Mercury and Venus, have a more complicated schedule from the earth perspective). Astrologers note where this loop or zig-zag occurs in the zodiac each year. In particular, it is considered significant if the retrograde loop occurs at a sensitive point in one's horoscope, such as the position of a natal planet. In such a case, the retrograding planet may pass over this sensitive point up to three separate times — forward, backward, and forward again. I would like to introduce you to a fascinating technique that is built around the retrograde phenomenon, called 'burn rate'.

This technique requires some understanding of the heliocentric workings of the planets. After all, the entire retrograde phenomenon is little more than a reflection of the Earth's motion around the Sun in relation to the planet in question — "through a glass darkly," so to speak. In all of the following, the steady advance of the planet from the heliocentric perspective should be understood and kept in mind.

Background: Except at the two moments when the Earth is conjunct or in opposition to a particular planet, the geocentric position always differs from the heliocentric position. The helio position is a kind of midpoint about which the geocentric position ebbs and flows, at least for those planets beyond the orbit of the Earth. The same backward and forward movement is indicated for the inner planets (Mercury & Venus) by their points of greatest elongation (geocentrically).

This difference between the helio and geo planet positions is based upon what we can call here the maximum phase angle possible between the Earth and the planet in question. Here is a list of the maximum phase angles for the outer planets using circular orbits (average distance from Sun). The fact of a non-circular orbit produces values that may, at times, be greater than those listed below.

Planet Phase Angle


Mercury and Venus are based on the point of maximum elongation of the planet as measured from the Sun. Most astrologers who have investigated the difference between a birth or event as seen from geocentric and heliocentric perspectives find that the geo chart refers more to our personality (and the circumstances in which we find ourselves) while the helio chart points to our inner self (the part of us that is living in these personal circumstances).

The position of Mars in the standard geocentric natal chart and the actual position of Mars in the zodiac in its circle around the Sun (heliocentric) can differ by some 41 degrees or more. For example, my geocentric Mars is at 9 degrees of Aries, but my heliocentric Mars is in 24 degrees of the sign Aquarius — a big difference. How might we interpret this?

We could say that although my Mars appears to be in Aries (geo), that it, in essence, has an Aquarian tone. Perhaps my rash Aries Mars always manages to accomplish some group or Aquarian goal. It is worth thinking about. With this approach in mind, some interesting thoughts can be forthcoming when we examine our geo and helio charts side by side. More interesting to me is the fact that if we consider the helio position of a planet as where that planet in fact is (in its journey through the zodiac), then the geo position can be seen to range either ahead of this position or behind. And what thoughts does this suggest?

Here are some obvious ones: The simple fact that there can exist a considerable difference between the geo and helio positions is noteworthy. In some individuals there may be little or no difference between the geo and helio positions for a given planet. Perhaps this might indicate something along the lines of "what you see is what you get." The outer (geo) is identical to the inner (helio). Someone with little or no difference may be a natural when it comes to that planet. They are born with it in clear focus. On the other hand, and this is where the name 'burn rate' comes from, individuals with a great difference between the geo and helio positions for a planet may have to struggle to bring these two together, to make them one. Perhaps this is an indication that they will undergo many experiences and much change as regards the particular planet during the course of the life. Perhaps each of us undergoes an initiation for each planet based upon the amount of difference between the geo and helio positions. We have different rates of change in life. Out burn rates differ — what it takes to pull any given area of our life (planet) together.

We can even create a little index by dividing the difference between the geo and helio position for each planet by the maximum indicated in the table above. The result is an index from 0 to .999 (or higher). The higher the index, the more difference between the geo and helio positions and the higher the burn rate. For example, the maximum difference for Mars is 41° 01' (from the table) and the difference between my helio Mars at 24 ° Aquarius and my geo Mars at 9° Aries is some 45 degrees. 41 ° 01' divided by 45 equals .9114816. In this case, the total is rather large, indicating an extreme amount of change or difference between the geo and helio positions — a high burn rate. Therefore I can expect a lot initiation as regards the Mars principle. In fact, I have had a lot of emotional experience including being a performing musician for a good number of years. This should give you some idea as to how to use this technique.

If we do this for all the planets (excepting the Sun and Moon, of course), we get a total index for the chart in question. A high total index might point to a lot of change within a single lifetime. The individual may have to go through a lot of changes to bring these two positions into alignment.

There is another measurement relating to the retrograde phenomenon that can be made that is perhaps even more interesting. This has to do with the fact that the geo position (at any given moment) may be either ahead or behind of the helio position for a given planet. If we grant that the helio position (somehow) represents the zodiac position of the planet in our solar system (the inner, or essential position), then the geo position may either lead or trail this position by a lesser or greater amount.

Perhaps at times, the external world of appearances or circumstances (geo) runs before or ahead of the real essence (helio) of the planet. At other times, events may trail behind the essence and bring up the rear. All of this is quite speculative, but I still find it interesting. Perhaps at some points in a year we are more far seeing or future-oriented (geo position ranging ahead of the helio) while at other times we are concerned with what has happened or the past (geo position falling behind the helio). Or for a time each year the events in our personal life may lead or foreshadow the collective experience (the lives of the many). At other times, we may find our personal events reflecting or following the lead of the collective, the majority.

At times our mind may run before what is possible, while at others it seems to be doing detective work, figuring out what has already happened.

At times our mind may run before what is possible, while at others it seems to be doing detective work, figuring out what has already happened. Below is a detailed presentation of what happens during the retrograde phase of the outer planets. Give it a look. I don't know how many diagrams I have seen over the years presenting the retrograde phenomenon, but they all fail to point out the relationship between the geocentric and the heliocentric positions as described below.

The tendency may be to dismiss what follows on the pretext that helio positions are not what modern astrology is all about. Yet I would caution that anyone who examines the problem of retrogradation in detail cannot understand this process without reference to both helio and geo positions. The fact is that the helio moves ever forward in its cycle through the zodiac, while our perspective (the geocentric view) ebbs and flows, now ranging ahead of the helio and now behind. Here are some of the details. (Please refer to the diagram.)

Sun Conjunct Planet — This marks the beginning of a period (extending from the conjunction until the planet reaches its station and goes retrograde) during which the geocentric position of the planet in the zodiac ranges ahead of the heliocentric position into new ground for this part of the yearly cycle.

Planet Station Retrograde — This marks a period where the geocentric position stops moving forward in the zodiac (ahead of the helio position) and begins to move back over the new area it has just traversed. This always takes place during the waning "square" of the Earth to the outer planet in question.

Sun Opposition Planet — This marks a period when the geocentric position (identical to the helio position at oppositin) begins to moves behind the heliocentric position. The helio position continues forward to cover zodiac area just recently covered by the geocentric traval.

Stationary Planet Goes Direct in Motion — This marks a period when the geocentric position stops going farther behind the helio position and begins to move from behind to catch up to the helio position at the next conjunction. Also, the helio position has now reached the limit reached by the geo position during its previous sweep forward and is now forging ahead into new ground not scanned by the geo. This always takes place during the waxing "square" of the Earth to the outer planet in question.

Sun Conjunct Planet (again) — This marks the point where the geocentric position of the planet has caught up with the helio and proceeds to forge ahead.

Event Geo Helio Date
Sun Conjunct Jupiter 07Ta27 07Ta27 Apr. 27, 1976
Jupiter Retrogrades 01Ge12 21Ta42 Sep. 19, 1976
Sun Opposition Jupiter 26Ta10 26Ta10 Nov. 18, 1976
Jupiter Direct Motion 21Ta10 01Ge24 Jan. 15, 1977
Sun Conjunct Jupiter 13Ge33 13Ge33 Jun. 04, 1977

The geocentric position in the zodiac where the planet went retrograde is about where the heliocentric position will be when that planet goes direct. In a similar vein, the heliocentric position of the planet at retrograde becomes the geocentric position upon that planet going direct.

Thus both geocentric and heliocentric positions have a time (within the yearly cycle) during which they lead or are sampling new degrees of the zodiac. In a sense, the helio position is sort of the midpoint, or focus about which the geo position loops.

The stations or points in the zodiac where the planet goes retrograde or direct are the two points where this maximum phase angle takes place. This may amount to an alternate form of the square aspect where, instead of 90-degrees being the limit, the limit becomes the maximum phase angle, in effect, the stations. In other words, this technique measures the point of maximum phase angle between the Earth and any other planet — perhaps another approach to the concept of the "square" aspect. Only here we have a measure of the amount of change required for the two planets to become one — an index of change.

The technique is one of a number of techniques that I have developed over the years for charts where there is no exact birth time. For each planet we can determine the percentage of difference between the geo and helio position. In addition, we can calculate a total for the entire chart using all the planets but leaving aside the Sun and Moon. And then, for each planet, we can determine where in the retrograde cycle it is. Is the geo position ahead of the helio? Is it ahead and direct in motion or ahead and retrograde in motion? Or is the geo position behind the helio position? Again, is it behind and direct or behind and retrograde in motion?

Burn rate is available in several Matrix programs. It is fascinating to examine not only the burn rate for individual planets but also the combined total. Times with a very low burn rate are times of greater clarity and insight, where the planets function without much obscuration. High burn rates point to much activity and change. The author would appreciate some feedback on this interesting new technique. Perhaps some of you would like to experiment with this technique. You would need your geocentric and heliocentric charts which are available from many chart services or as part of most computer-astrology programs. Using the table given earlier in this article, you can try it out for yourself.


© Copyright: Michael Erlewine





Other articles by Michael Erlewine

Erlewine, MichaelSaturn: the Sequencer

Erlewine, MichaelThe Value of the Heliocentric/Geocentric Comparison

Erlewine, MichaelThe Astrology of Local Space

Erlewine, MichaelThe Counselor: Midwife of the Psyche

Erlewine, MichaelTidal Vector Forces: Lunar Phenoma

Erlewine, MichaelThe Uranian Signs

Erlewine, MichaelTibetan Astrology

Erlewine, MichaelOutline of Major Tibetan Techniques

Erlewine, MichaelThe Tibetan Calendar: The 12 Months of the Year

Erlewine, MichaelTibetan Astrology: Appendix A

Erlewine, MichaelAstrological Signs

Erlewine, MichaelThe Planets, Signs, & Houses

Erlewine, MichaelZodiac Cycles and Signs

Erlewine, MichaelAstro*Map Hi-Res 1988

Erlewine, MichaelLocal Space Astrology – Relocation

Erlewine, MichaelLunar Gaps: Taking Advantage of the Lunar Cycle

Erlewine, MichaelThe Lunation Cycle: East and West

Erlewine, MichaelScience and the Lunation Cycle

Erlewine, MichaelInterface: Planetary Nodes - Part I

Erlewine, MichaelInterface: Planetary Nodes - Part II

Erlewine, MichaelGalaxy: Circles, Cycles, Circulation

Erlewine, MichaelGalaxy: Higher Order Structuring

Erlewine, MichaelThe Galactic Nucleus

Erlewine, MichaelHeliocentrics

Erlewine, MichaelOur Roots in the Sun



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