I blew my first Saturn return. It was only years later, through astrology’s exquisite backward lens that I understood the full measure of my bad choices. During the time I should have been striding into early adulthood with hard work and gumption, I regressed into a floundering child.
Saturn squares my natal Moon. Planets in square are archetypes in tension—the power can shift between them throughout a life. Saturn grabbed the wheel in my childhood. Fearing his harsh judgments, I garnered awards from kindergarten through college, performing like a little adult.
But in my late twenties, when being a grown up finally counted, the Moon took over and my Saturn unspooled. If I’d known how to read a chart, I could have found him hiding in the underworld, crumpled in his Scorpio robes, under the weight of a few unexpressed childhood shadows.
Saturn more typically likes to work above ground in full view, setting a fine example for the others. He’s the guy with great goals telling everyone else what to do. Call on him whenever you want to get ahead, get things in order or under control. The ultimate realist, he’s cautious, strategic, thorough, and stoical. He’s the energy inside bones, mountains, skyscrapers, governments, corporate boardrooms, museums, and sturdy shoes.
Saturn wants us to be perfect—model citizens—in line with the highest standards of our day. He dangles status and success in front of us, but maneuvers behind the scenes with guilt and fear. Indeed—astrology traditionally describes him as “malefic,” as his effects are largely negative, bringing delays, constriction, limits, and loss. His trademark moods are terror, melancholy, and depression. You can find his creepy countenance in the hunched and gaping gargoyles of medieval castles.
Saturn can sound in us as warnings, recriminations, worries, and resistance. Through his calculating eyes the world looks cold and cruel. Positivity is more in vogue these days. The research from contemporary social scientists keeps proving the virtues of happiness. But the truth is, our brains lean more in Saturn’s direction. Two-thirds of the neurons in our amygdala, for example, are wired to look for trouble.
That’s an evolutionary advantage, says neuropsychologist Rick Hanson.[i] Our brains react more quickly and intensely to negative stimuli and we remember it longer; that’s because our ancestors’ lives depended on this. Keeping an eye out for wild beasts, marauding tribes, sexual rivals and poison berries was more important than enjoying sunsets. That’s why our brains dump pleasure quickly; we learn more from pain.
Negativity is a smart survival strategy and suggests a different spin on Saturn’s motives. He makes life hard, not to punish us, but to increase our hardiness. Next to the Moon, no other planet is as concerned with our material wellbeing. Together they serve as the Old Wise Ones of our horoscopes. Circling our charts once every 29 years, the Moon by progression and Saturn by transit, they keep their eyes on us, bringing exactly what we need at every stage of our development.
Last year I had an encounter with Saturn, inside a 12th century English chapel at the edge of a small village in the Cotswolds. The church was fronted by an abandoned cemetery, headstones toppled and broken, the inscriptions erased by years. Tall gloomy trees allowed little light. Although the chapel ceilings were high, the doors were low; you had to stoop to enter. The wooden benches were stiff and serious. The air was cool, dense, and silent. It was like being in a tomb or standing inside the Earth. It wasn’t merry, but it wasn’t sad either. There was a sense of calm immensity—of power and endurance that was humbling and awe-inspiring. I understood how centuries of worshippers could have entered this structure feeling weak and left it with new strength, no matter what the actual dogma of the day.
Saturn is the planet of death. There are limits: that’s reality. But while we’re alive, he’s the energy that holds our spines erect. He runs through us as the “apana vayu,” the downward flowing wind that governs elimination and outflow in the body. With practice and sensitivity, you can find this as an energetic current centered in the pelvis; from the hips, it runs down the inner legs, through the feet, and into the earth.
This current helps us to feel grounded. Disconnected from it, we may be fearful, insecure, unfocused and/or vulnerable to illness or attack. These same symptoms indicate a Saturn weakness. The yogis teach that we should move apana vayu and repurpose it—which is also a great prescription for working more masterfully and magically with Saturn.
“It’s like bouncing a basketball against the earth; there’s a bounce back.” That’s how my yoga teacher describes the upward return of earth’s energy. When we follow the flow of apana vayu downward and root into the earth, we experience an answering surge of vitality bouncing back up through us. It’s taken me months to find and feel this energetically—but as a Saturn strategy, I’ve done something like it for years.
“Do your planets or they’ll do you,” is what I usually say to clients. To earn any planet’s favor, you need to move in its direction. With Saturn, you must lean into his downward-flowing virtues. Let him ground you. Be willing to become more focused, responsible, and committed. Acknowledge where you’re planted and stop complaining. Get to work!
Refuse this task and Saturn “does” you by weighing you down: with sorrow, hard luck, loneliness, scarcity, or depression. Yet make the proper offering, “do” him, he’ll respond with an upsurge of energy—the way a body leaps after bending its knees. Trees draw this vitality up their trunks. The same energy builds skyscrapers and motivates people to climb the ladders of the world. It drives the mountain goat up the peak. It’s what helps us to stand tall.
Here’s how you know when you’ve properly repurposed this archetype: you find yourself so energized by a goal that you keep working at it until it’s achieved. This is the art of manifestation as Saturn preaches it. It’s the meaning of the Tarot image of the dancer holding two wands, while pivoting effortlessly in the sky, framed by a great laurel wreath of success. This is “The World,” the final card of the Major Arcana. Appropriately, it’s Saturn’s card and represents the culmination of the Tarot’s metaphysical journey: through Saturn we make the invisible real. We perform the magic that builds the world.
Amy wanted to know if she had any money-making transits coming up. “All of a sudden I have this heaviness or fixation about generating more money. Like, I really need to start making something of myself. My lifestyle has always mattered more than my bank account, but for some reason now I feel this pressure to financially perform.”
Words like “heaviness,” “pressure” and “fixation” let us know that Saturn is here. Over the past year, many of my conversations with Amy had been focused on her on-again-off-again engagement. Saturn was transiting through her 7th house of marriage. When the planet reached the final degrees of this house, she learned a secret about her fiancé that made her shudder. He shared the same vice as her ex-husband. “This time,” she said, “I finally got the lesson.”
Saturn spends two and a half years in each house of our horoscope, bringing tests and trouble—all on his agenda for getting us to improve each area of life. Through his lessons we can give ourselves better futures. The job suffered through, the degree earned, the disappointments met—this is manifestation the slow way. It can feel hard—like the stone walls of Saturn’s cathedrals—but under this planet’s influence, we can build smarter and sturdier structures.
Amy’s obsession with making money began the week Saturn stepped into her 8th house. This is one of the money houses, ruling shared finances, taxes, debts, insurance, investments and loans. Saturn here can dry up funds that might come from outside sources. If our books aren’t in order, we may be audited. Loans can be denied. Amy wasn’t heading towards financial disaster, but it’s true that her chart was more interested in learning and creativity than dollars. Taking advantage of Saturn’s pressure now—leaning into it—is an opportunity for a chart like hers that could bring benefits for years to come.
We don’t need to wonder where our Saturn lessons lie. The grim lord isn’t foggy like Neptune, or as underhanded as Pluto. He isn’t excitable like Uranus. He’s always parked somewhere in our world, never too far away.
Tracy has a Taurus Saturn conjunct a Taurus Moon in her 4th house of real estate. Although she had a great salary and a prequalified loan, buying her first home took years. She looked, debated, made offers, second-guessed herself, stopped looking, started again, saw two sales fall through—it was as though Saturn kept denying the security and happiness her Moon so craved.
The 4th house holds the default wiring of our childhood, which for Tracy meant feeling insecure and unsupported (this is typical of a Moon/Saturn aspect). The conjunction in her chart was perfectly symbolized by the kitchen window in the home she was renting. When she stood at the sink (Moon), she stared into a concrete wall (Saturn).
With the boost of a Jupiter transit, Tracy eventually purchased a foreclosure for a great price in an upscale neighborhood. The property needed work—and she rolled up her sleeves in earnest. But the construction was beset with delays. For months at a time she had to live without some essential service like water, phone, internet, or heat. She was worried she was running out of money. The final straw was when her contractor said he was going out of business, which left her with a gaping hole over her kitchen sink, where the new window was supposed to go.
“I don’t blow up at people,” the Taurus in her told me. “I’m very patient and calm, but that day I lost it. I shouted at him: I’ve treated you with respect but you disrespect me. I’ve earned every penny you’ve seen, which may not mean anything to you, but it means something to me! I felt awful immediately,” she said. “But you know what? The most amazing thing happened. Thirty minutes later the contractor apologized and said he would finish my kitchen.”
Saturn was transiting opposite her natal Saturn/Moon. You can hear him in words like “respect” and “earned every penny.” Contractors are ruled by Saturn too; the transiting opposition definitely pit one Saturn against another. Tracy had always believed in “emotional restraint”—a perfect phrase for the polite self-denial of her Saturn complex. That day she learned the value of letting her emotions flow. By giving the Moon equal footing with Saturn, she claimed the authority she needed to get the job done. Harmonizing these planets repurposed them, which raised the frequency of her Saturn—from timidity to authority.
It’s an odd fact, but Saturn often denies us whatever his sign wants. Saturn in Aries resists independence and leadership, in Taurus, security and comfort, in Gemini, intelligence; in Cancer, feelings. Initially Saturn acts as an unconscious “no” symbol over his sign. We aren’t given authority here—we have to earn it. Often there’s a karmic inheritance to contend with. Saturn’s sign can represent the unworked through ancestral material—the clogged pipe in the patrilineage—the door with the “don’t enter” sign. It’s the last door we ever want to open.
I have Saturn in Scorpio, sign of the underworld—of magic, transformation, sexuality, intimacy, and psychology. I knew nothing of these topics during my first Saturn return. I was living with my young husband in the chauffer’s quarters of an architectural masterpiece my divorced parents had recently bought for a song; each lived in separate wings. Back then, I had no idea how deeply their lack of intimacy—and my father’s inappropriate fondling of me and my sister—had affected my own capacity to be intimate.
But there was a Saturn gesture, an unconscious placeholder for the truth. Although the mansion had 16 rooms, as fate would have it, my father’s bedroom was right next door to the bedroom in the chauffer’s quarters. As my husband and I fumbled through our first awkward sex, the shadow of my father was literally on the other side of the wall.
My second Saturn Return arrived last year. Not wanting another failure, I prepared. I leaned into the archetype for the two and a half years Saturn was in Libra. I investigated the deeper layers of his 3rd house Scorpio placement in my chart. I confronted guilts and fears. I retrained my inner voice of doubt to speak with new elder confidence. This was the most endearing gift: my relationship with Saturn changed. The sour judge, worry wart, and grim bane of my existence finally relaxed and became my cheerleader.
About a year before the return, I saw an ad for The Faculty of Astrology Studies summer school in Oxford. “Teaching there,” I thought, “now that would be a professional milestone!” Three weeks later, out of the blue, I received the invitation to speak there. This wasn’t artful manifesting. It was Saturn throwing down the gauntlet. Accepting meant overcoming the fear of flying that had grounded me for thirty years.
At the airport, just a few weeks before my Saturn Return, I was calm and exhilarated, without a trace of panic. As my friend and I stood in line to board, a dour ticket agent—Saturn’s agent, no doubt—pulled us over and quietly handed us a free upgrade to Business class. A few hours later, over Iceland, eating filet mignon in style, I felt like the World dancer, pivoting in the sky and framed by a great laurel wreath. Oxford was wonderful too.