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Moon Watching series (4) by Dana Gerhardt

The First Quarter Moon

sirenAt the Quarter Moons, I'm not surprised when the plaintive wail of a siren breaks the silence of my otherwise sleepy town. Or when the nightly news features a sudden eruption of bomb threats, shootings, deadly traffic accidents, domestic quarrels exploding into murderous rage. Full Moons may have the greater reputation for inspiring wild or erratic behavior, but at the quarter Moons, there may be even greater tension in the air. Dane Rudhyar called the first and Last Quarter Moons "crisis" times.

Crisis isn't a particularly happy word. It suggests a heart-pounding moment when change is inevitable, and likely perilous.  At such times, it's nice to recall how the Chinese language carries crisis and opportunity in the same ideogram. This dualism also holds at the quarter Moons: outcomes can go either way. Tragedies simply draw more reporters and crisis management teams, even sell more astrology books. But a wise astrologer keeps her perspective. She knows that on the quarter Moon, when one man is trampled by a wild horse, another digs a new well; another may break his mother's heart and finally leave home, striking out for a brave new adventure.

"We decide our futures at the quarter Moons. 'Caught,' as Rudhyar said, 'in the wheel of change,' we turn ourselves towards fulfillment or failure, as an incoming tide of possibilities slams against the momentum of what we've already known."

When a crisis subsides, we can more clearly see how it brought a turning point in our fortunes. This hints at the quarter Moon's significance, and it brings us closer to the origins of the word crisis in our own language. Deriving from the Greek krinenin, "to decide or determin," crisis is what Hippocrates called that stage when a patient's bodily humours, ebbing and flowing like the tides of the sea, shifted their direction. It was then a physician could determine whether the disease was taking a good or bad turn.[1]

We decide our futures at the quarter Moons. "Caught," as Rudhyar said, "in the wheel of change,"[2] we turn ourselves towards fulfillment or failure, as an incoming tide of possibilities slams against the momentum of what we've already known. This collision is imaged astrologically as a square, the relationship between Sun and Moon that defines the quarters. A square is the felt tension, whether in the birth chart, by transit, or the lunation cycle, of two bodies ninety degrees apart on the zodiacal wheel.

Squares bring two forces into conflict. Each planet works to block the expression of the other, a tension that promotes action. Remarkable growth can happen with squares, though it's not guaranteed. During the Sun/Moon square at the First Quarter, for example, we can bolster ourselves for forward movement, drawn by the promise of new revelations at the Full Moon. Or we can drown under the weight of our cluttered pasts, finding ourselves at the Full Moon not too far from the cycle's beginning.

Planets in square function much like the archetype of the disappointed king and his "stupid" son. The expectations, capabilities and desires of these two are so different, that resistance between them is inevitable. Typically one planet bullies the other. It's often the slower moving planet who initially sets the agenda, like the king who demands his slow-witted son shape up. He sends the boy on quests-to gain wisdom, slay a dragon, retrieve a magic pear-none of which the boy cares about or feels at all capable of doing. "Idiot!" growls the irritated king. "Yes... I must be an idiot!" mutters the rejected son.

Feeling so trapped, inhibited, and resentful, the boy (or faster-moving planet) struggles against his lot. His frustration mounts. The square's momentum for change is building. The faster-moving planet needs to somehow reorient itself. It doesn't know it yet, but it will find its success only on discovering a brand new castle (or paradigm).  But first the pressure of the square must release: in a highly charged confrontation, the king disowns his son. This is the square's crisis or turning point.

Bodiam CastleThe boy wanders in the forest (the realm of new possibilities) and magic helpers (intuitive voices) gather round. Free now (the slower moving planet has given up), the faster moving planet follows its fresh instincts, even though it doesn't yet completely understand them. Of course soon it arrives at a kingdom where a princess needs marrying (a new developmental situation); of course there's a test to pass. Where countless other suitors have failed (recalling the square's previous unsuccessful attempts and its mounting frustrations), the boy's instincts have been refined and are now uniquely suited. He succeeds. He makes the princess laugh, captures the magic bird, discovers the sorcerer's secret. The faster moving planet has come into its power. The "stupid" son can now marry the princess (integration) and the kingdom (the whole birth chart perhaps!) is regenerated.

As for the happily ever after, squares have a very long life. Whether they live as natal aspects, or surface by transit, or at the bi-monthly quarter Moons, their struggle and snap will enact again and again. That's good news really, for squares are phenomenal teachers. Their conflicts can build our stamina, develop our powers of discrimination, and increase our confidence. Again and again they take us to significant turning points. Squares give us the directional push to keep growing throughout our lives.

In practice, however, most astrologers discuss transiting squares as events, speculating on the particular crisis they may bring. When transiting Saturn squares natal Mars, for example, there might be accidents or injuries or confrontations with authority figures. Transiting Neptune square the Moon can bring gullibility, depression or disillusionment; it can reveal breast cancer, your mother might become hospitalized, swindlers could enter your home. Squares in the birth chart are likewise often discussed as their forms, as psychological constructs and personality features. Natal Saturn squaring Mars might mean your father was dictatorial or somehow failed to encourage your efforts; the result is you may inhibit your desires, have difficulty handling anger, your timing is off, or you feel defeated before you begin. A natal Moon/Neptune square might mean problems with addictions, a dreamy personality, or an inclination towards poetry or spirituality.

"Squares (and all aspects for that matter) are more properly understood as moments in the dynamic flow of time, as forces rather than forms, as a dance within the whole rather than a collection of parts.  When we freeze aspects into 'static space-events,' said Rudhyar, we're no different than the scientist with his dissections and sterile lab experiments: we analyze death and let life escape."

When transiting squares loom in our future, we're eager to know what will happen.  With squares in our birth chart, we want to know what personality traits they imply.  This is an astrological shorthand that Rudhyar abhorred. Squares (and all aspects for that matter) are more properly understood as moments in the dynamic flow of time, as forces rather than forms, as a dance within the whole rather than a collection of parts.  When we freeze aspects into "static space-events,"[3] said Rudhyar, we're no different than the scientist with his dissections and sterile lab experiments: we analyze death and let life escape.

One of the best astrological cures for this syndrome is Moon watching. Attuning ourselves to Moon phases returns us to a living experience of the sky. It brings a greater appreciation for aspects as temporal forces. We become more aware of their special roles in the full cyclic motion between two celestial bodies, any two bodies, not just Sun and Moon. We understand that the proper interpretation of any astrological aspect - whether sextile, square, trine or inconjunct, whether in the birth chart or transiting sky - requires that we also reckon what has come before, and, what can come after.

This leads to an obvious but rarely mentioned truth: some Moon phases (and transits) seem to bring nothing at all. If what has been seeded is timid, if no back and forth struggle has occurred, if little pressure has built, then the First Quarter's opportunity for crisis can come and go. We err if we think, for example, that all new or Full Moons should be meaningful to us, as though we ride on the gears of a cuckoo clock that sings without fail every quarter hour. Most of us travel currents of time far more mysterious. What's significant may take many Moon cycles to ripen.

Endeavoring to predict such moments, some astrologers will analyze upcoming Moon phase degrees against placements in the natal chart. This technique can bring startling results. And it can yield nothing. This sporadic proof for astrology doesn't deter me, as I've learned not to expect scientific certainty from this intuitive art. That life wants to guard at least some secrets is less troublesome to intuition. With an alert and receptive patience, intuition looks only for what it needs to know at the time. It joins chart symbols to "something in the air," an odd sequence of events, a dream, a fleeting thought, or an off-hand remark that brings a convergence of messages.

Working from intuition in cycle after Moon cycle, our sensitivity grows, even as our expectation for certainty declines. Our own rhythm comes into greater harmony with the Moon's. We sense the temporal difference between an aspect that waxes or wanes. We recognize, for example, that there's a different kind of tension at the First Quarter Moon than at the Last Quarter. Like a beachcomber who stands eyes shut in the waves, we can feel whether the tide is coming in or going away. We intuit when Quarter Moonit's time to build our sandcastle... or pack a message in a bottle and fling it seaward.

We start making sandcastles at the First Quarter Moon. This is the midpoint of the Moon's waxing hemi-cycle, a building time. Its crisis brings both the excitement and threat of taking new action. To succeed, we need to prod ourselves forward, yet be nurturing too. Our project is yet young. It's not the time for completing; rather, we now lay a foundation, establishing a base of operations that can support our future efforts. Without this work, our revelation at the Full Moon will be disappointing; many Full Moon misfires can be traced to inaction back here.

The First Quarter can inspire in us the vitality of a child. And it can ignite a child's immaturity. Our insecurities might flare, as can our defenses. Bil Tierney describes a common First Quarter blunder: "Our typical manner of confronting stress patterns here is through the building of protective blockages, barriers, shells, and shields (all involving introspective focus) which in themselves, only further jeopardize our attempts to establish lasting inner security."[4]

We talk ourselves out of taking action. We blame someone or something out there.  We barricade ourselves against the future, preferring the illusory safety of familiar cubbies. Opponents may appear in the outer world, but the greater enemy is often our own timidity. Because it draws from so deeply within our psyches, our First Quarter anxiety is elusive and tough to confront.

I have a policy at the First Quarter Moon: I try to take at least one consciously courageous act. I do something that scares me. As I summon the courage to go forward, I imagine the lady in the Moon applauding my positive attitude, my instincts for timing, my First Quarter skill. I am cooking the alchemical intention to step out of my cocoon. Give it a try at the next quarter Moon and see how it feels. Don't stop calling the personnel department until you hear an honest review of your resume. Be openly vulnerable... confess your love to someone. Write the first sentence of the novel you've been musing about.

Of course this is more of a ritual, a practice; it's like doing finger exercises instead of actually playing Carnegie Hall. In truth, few of us choose the First Quarter action that's genuinely required for our development. No matter how much we dare ourselves, what we consciously select is often more self-protective than what the fates serve up. A good rule of thumb: If it feels easy or comfortable, it's probably not much of a forward step.

"At the New Moon and Crescent phases, we might be overwhelmed by the ghosts (habits, thought patterns, family expectations) of our past. At the First Quarter we're challenged to actively overthrow them and stand on our own two feet."

More likely our challenge will be a surprise. If it's a subtle invitation, or even one more exciting, we may choose not to move, surrendering to the inertia of habit. We can be luckier sometimes if it arrives as a fight. I remember at one First Quarter Moon watching an interview with tv personality, Joan Lunden. That week she was in a major battle with the tabloids. She took a quintessentially First Quarter Moon stance: She was furious: "I'm not by nature a fighter," she said. "But there are times in your life when you have to come out swinging!"

If you find your back against the wall at the First Quarter Moon, bless the wall and whatever put you there. Resistance is critical to the creative process. It's like a cake pan; without it, our batter runs all over the oven and we don't get much of a cake. Resistance helps to shape our desire, that gooey stuff we've been gathering from New Moon to Crescent. The more we stir our desire in the prior two phases, the more we seem to magnetize the necessary crisis at the quarter. And if it lands us in a fight, then our passion for forward movement may finally cook us toward breakthrough.

At the New Moon and Crescent phases, we might be overwhelmed by the ghosts (habits, thought patterns, family expectations) of our past. At the First Quarter we're challenged to actively overthrow them and stand on our own two feet. This is not a single event that repeats each quarter Moon; it's a process through time. All First Quarters might draw our past and future needs into conflict, but over time, this meeting will wear many faces. Resistance, controlling our creative agenda, can be one of them.

In the Grimms' story "The Three Languages," a Swiss count plays the important "cake pan" to his son's developing gifts. Fearing his son is a simpleton, the count sends the boy to a famous master for a year. At the end of the year, the count asks the boy what he learned. "I know what dogs mean when they bark." The count is furious!  He tries a second renowned teacher in another city, but after another year, the boy has only learned what the birds say.

OdinThe language of birds and dogs is more significant to the boy's future than anything his father wants him to learn. Yet if his father didn't arrange for the schooling, the boy might have never developed his strange and seemingly useless skills. When resistance has its say, when we try to satisfy whatever seems to oppose our growth, this too is a legitimate First Quarter experience. The unbearability of it can strengthen our powers of discrimination. We become more focused about what we don't want, as some new competence quietly grows within. Down the road it can repudiate what we're still unhappily trying to please, but not yet.

As the faster moving planet, the Moon at the First Quarter, through its sign and house position in our charts, may signal what new change wants to emerge. The sign and house position of the Sun may indicate where the weight of the past, our creative resistance, is operating. But if we're reading intuitively, we will always put the messages emerging from our lives ahead of astrological concepts; it's only when life confuses that it's wise (and great fun!) to consult the chart.

After a third year with a third master teacher, the count's son returns. He's now learned what frogs say when they croak. His desire to develop his gifts and his father's resistance have strengthened side by side: it is time for the square's release. The furious count orders his son put to death.

At the more powerful First Quarter crises, it may seem our very lives are at stake. The moment comes when it comes: we are challenged to grow or die. We don't always feel strong or heroic enough to meet it; frequently, we have to surprise ourselves. In the story, the count's servants take pity on the boy and abandon him in the forest. The boy is unprepared, lost, and confused. These are often the feelings that precede our reorientation.

Of course, as in any good fairy tale, the boy next arrives at a kingdom under the spell of a wicked sorcerer; only someone knowing the language of dogs, birds and frogs can release it. This is the fruition of all the hard work of the square. Astrologically, this is represented by the second major aspect of the First Quarter: the waxing trine, when the Moon is 120 degrees ahead of the Sun on the zodiacal wheel. It's the moment when all our skill comes together. Our cake is baked, so to speak. What might be difficult for others now flows easily for us. The trine is astrology's reward for all our suffering and struggling. It's the triumph of our development: a fully cooked creative expression.

"At the more powerful First Quarter crises, it may seem our very lives are at stake. The moment comes when it comes: we are challenged to grow or die. We don't always feel strong or heroic enough to meet it; frequently, we have to surprise ourselves."

If we keep to our discipline of reading aspects as temporal forces, we might conclude that waxing trines in the birth chart have been earned from struggles in a previous life.  Given the difficulties suggested by the aspect following the trine (the waxing sesquiquadrate of the Gibbous Moon phase), we might also conclude that this gift has its drawbacks. Lovely as it is, a trine has none of the motivation or urgency of the square. Once the struggle to achieve the trine recedes, we're less inclined to express it in the outer world. We might know exactly what it means when frogs croak, in ten different dialects, but (yawn) who wants to go to the pond today.

Trines are comfort-loving and prefer the path of least resistance. In the course of a monthly quarter phase, this time brings a wonderful ease and encouragement.  We won't necessarily redeem it every cycle. The First Quarter trine is a temporal window.  Whether the curtain is drawn and the window is raised, has everything to do with the work we've done before.

WidderPassion and action are critical to one's success at the First Quarter. These are Mars words. And if we're consistently having trouble with the First Quarter, we might look to an afflicted Mars as a possible source. Especially in the charts of those born at the First Quarter Moon, Mars is important. Doers, builders and fighters, First Quarter Moons need the energy of Mars to help them cleave with whatever conspires to hold them back. This is a lifetime to develop greater discrimination and strength of will. From their failures they learn more and more about the power of the subconscious and how to defeat it.

Many of the First Quarters in my files have launched their own companies, and of that group, many have started more than one company. It's as though they keep seeking the experience of beginning, because that's where their real fight takes place. It's the challenge of getting something off the ground. Once an enterprise is successful and running smoothly, they seem to get bored, and are on the lookout for new territories in which to find their old demons.

If a First Quarter's Mars is poorly placed, however, the struggle to get things off the ground may be a particularly difficult and central theme. A friend of mine, born at the First Quarter Moon, has such an afflicted Mars: in Scorpio, it's retrograde (turned inward rather than outward), in the twelfth house (difficult to access), and in an inconjunct aspect with his Sun (implying constant adjustments in fulfilling his will).  His dream life is overwhelmed with angry, violent scenes, but in his daily life, he is gentle and acquiescent, finding it hard to ask for or go after what he wants. He started his own software company and has developed two unique products, but has had a frustrating time getting these products into users' hands.  True to the condition of his Mars, he's felt powerless and victimized many times.

Years ago on a First Quarter Moon, he called me breathless with excitement. The monthly return of one's natal lunation phase, what Rhudyar calls the lunation birthday, often provokes one's Moon phase issues. "I just took aggressive political action!" he told me. Under the cover of night (twelfth house Mars in Scorpio), he had torn down a political sign opposing a slow growth measure in a local election. Angry at the overweening power of the developers in his area, he was buoyed by his bold (albeit illegal) action; he even went out a second time that night to take down more signs. 
The next day all of the signs he'd torn down had been replaced (the frustration of a retrograde Mars). He confessed a nearly uncontrollable anger, as though he'd been erased by the return of the signs. He went out again that night. The irony is that he really was powerless, because he had neglected to register to vote, and so had no real voice in the election.

The slow growth measure lost, but I am happy to report that at the next First Quarter Moon, he took a positive step. He registered to vote. And in the years since, his expression of political power has been progressively strengthened and refined. He has published many passionate editorials in the papers. He has joined a political action group that is making a difference in the world. As I listen to him discuss his new accomplishments, he appears the happiest he's ever been. His First Quarter square has found its new kingdom.

  1. Robert Hendrickson, The Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins," (New York:  Checkmark Books, 2000), pp. 178.

  2. Dane Rudhyar, The Lunation Cycle, (Santa Fe:  Aurora Press, 1967),
    p. 28.

  3. ibid, p. 35.

  4. Bil Tierney, Dynamics of Aspect Analysis, (Reno: CRCS Publications, 1983), p. 24.


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