(Originally appeared in the Nov/Dec issue of Astrology Toronto’s publication Midheaven)
By Franco October 2007
Some of you may ask, “What’s so big about Mercury retrograde?” It always amuses me when Mercury goes retrograde because I usually end up getting an email or two from friends asking, “Is Mercury retrograde now?” and during this last one, a friend instant messaged me asking, “What is up with the stars? Is something going on?” What is it about this particular planet going retrograde that is a bit different than when other planets pull that same routine?
Before I continue to discuss Mercury’s retrograde motion, I need to clarify for those who are not familiar with astrology-astronomy what this retrograde motion is. All planets orbit the Sun, and they move in the same direction in their orbits, but they have different speeds and radii. However, when viewed from the Earth, all planets and the luminaries (Sun and Moon) move across the sky along an arc called The Ecliptic, and they travel from east to west. The planets, however, sometimes appear to switch direction and go from west to east. This concept may be difficult to notice because the sky is always moving anyway, which is due to the Earth spinning around its axis.
To illustrate this, most people will know the constellation of Orion because of the three stars that form his belt. The belt is below the ecliptic, but I wanted to use an easily recognisable constellation. At one point during the correct season, Orion rises in the night sky in the east and later sets in the western sky. Let us assume that the planet Mars is rising and set with the constellation of Orion and that he is closer to the eastern star of Orion’s belt. If we were to observe Mars and Orion each day, Mars would make his way closer to the western star of Orion’s belt over a few weeks. This movement would be Mars following its normal path or direct motion.
Now, let us pretend Mars goes retrograde when it gets to the western star. As each day passes, you will notice that Mars will become closer to the eastern star of the belt. This movement is an example of retrograde motion because he now seems to be travelling from west to east. Retrogrades occur not because Mars changes the direction of his orbit, but rather his apparent motion relative to the Earth makes it seem as if Mars is going backwards. Mars will eventually change direction and continue with his regular or direct motion. The retrograde motion is an optical illusion. This is a result of the planets having different orbital radii and speeds of rotation, so when the planets reach a certain configuration relative to the Earth and the Sun, this apparent directional switch occurs.
The following example is the best way to describe what appears to happen in the sky. Have you ever been stopped at a red light and a large truck comes up beside you, and it starts to inch forward? You quickly slam your foot on the brake harder because you think you are rolling backwards. Then you realise you are not rolling back but it sure seems that way because the big truck next to you fills the whole passenger window and you think that it is a solid, immovable object so that relative to you, being stationary, makes it seem as though you are the one moving. Retrograde motion is similar to this optical illusion.
The Sun and Moon never go retrograde because the Earth moves around the Sun in the same direction, and the Moon revolves around the Earth in the same direction. Only the planets have this apparent retrograde motion.
So what does it astrologically mean when planets go retrograde? When the planets Uranus, Neptune and Pluto go retrograde, there is not a big commotion as there is when Mercury goes retrograde. The impact of Saturn and Jupiter retrogrades are not felt like that of the inner planets. Firstly, the former three are trans-personal (generational or collective) planets that move slowly and watching them (albeit with a telescope) cross the sky is akin to watching oil paint dry. Although the latter two, the social planets, Jupiter and Saturn, move at a faster clip they still are like watching, say, latex paint dry. It is the inner or personal planets that we tend to feel the impact of the switches from direct motion to retrograde motion and vice versa. Mercury is probably the easiest to feel the switch because it is the fastest moving of all the planets.
To understand Mercury’s impact on us when he goes retrograde, imagine you are in the passenger seat of the car and not wearing your seat belt. Your friend who is driving is bombing it down the highway and all of a sudden slows down to a stop and shifts it into reverse for a kilometre building up speed, coming to another stop and shifting it in forward and getting back up to regular speed. Now that you have hit your forehead on the windshield and smacked the back of your head on the headrest and never mind the cup of Timmies you just spilt on your pants, you are left wondering what is going on.
I believe the Mercury retrograde is very much like this. We are used to this planet zipping across the zodiac quicksilver-like, and we are in sync with his influence and energy. Then three times a year, when he stops and starts to go backwards, it changes our relationship to his energy. Then, just as we start getting used to him going in the new direction, he switches on us again to go direct. I think that the Mercury retrograde period is worse when we are at the stations. This would be when we would have smacked our heads on the windshield in the car example. We get used to the new way and then boom…he switches again!
The way to navigate the Mercury retrogrades is to prepare yourself for the transition points. This is done by being prudent or cautious but not by stopping everything you are doing, which some people feel is necessary. You need to look where Mercury is retrogressing in your chart and what houses it rules. You also need to be flexible and go with the flow, not to hide and cower in the closet. Some snafus will arise, but go about your day. This period is also a good time to review and rethink things and not to make snap decisions.
For a heartbreaking case of Mercury retrograde, see my blog post on Mercury and American sprinter Noah Lyles.