What is Mercury Retrograde?
Every so often, there’s a phrase frequently muttered with a heavy sigh and a roll of the eyes. That phrase is "Mercury retrograde," and with it often comes a lot of anxiety.
For centuries, astrologers have believed that when Mercury appears to be moving in a backward, or “retrograde” direction from our limited, Earthly perspective, unusual events happen. From communication breakdowns to technological disasters, astrologers attribute the misfortunes of Mercury retrograde to the celestial planet.
But what is Mercury retrograde really? Does it have to be a dreaded period of time? Or is there more nuance to the phenomenon than a period of mishaps and frustration? Let’s explore the truth behind the buzzwords.
What is Mercury Retrograde?
In essence, Mercury retrograde is an apparent optical illusion. We know that all planets in our solar system orbit the Sun in the same direction: counterclockwise. The oddity comes in when Mercury’s orbit appears to make it come closer to Earth and then does what we call “retrograde motion” for about 3-4 weeks out of the year. It’s an optical illusion because the planet is in fact still orbiting the Sun in the same direction, but from our perspective on Earth, it looks like the planet is going backwards.
During this period, astrologers believe that many misfortunes occur, from travel delays to miscommunications and misunderstandings. In addition, this period is said to be tricky for making long-term decisions and for taking on big projects that require new commitments.
To be clear, astrologers don’t think that Mercury actually stops its orbit during this time. The planet simply appears to be moving in the opposite direction.
Exploring the Origins
For thousands of years, the phenomenon of Mercury retrograde has been recognized and “explained” by astrologers and astronomers alike. The Babylonians in their clay tablets from around 1600 BC wrote about Mercury’s ability to turn back on its own path, ascribing it great importance in their celestial observations.
In the 2nd century BC, Hipparchus of Nicaea described Mercury’s occasional retrograde motion, which he attributed to the gravitational effect of the other planets in the solar system that would alter the path of the planet around the sun.
Thus, it is accepted that Mercury goes through retrograde motions due to the effects of its orbit around the sun. The actual cause of the phenomenon is a bit more complicated than this, however. It’s a combination of the differences in speed between Mercury and Earth, the speed of light, and the angle of the planets in their orbits around the sun.
The Key Takeaways
Ultimately, the truth behind Mercury retrograde is rooted in science, not superstition. It’s an effect of the angle of the solar system and the speed of the planets that make it appear as if Mercury is going backwards.
It’s also important to remember that mercury retrograde is only an optical illusion. The planet continues to orbit the sun in the same direction, and there are no mysterious cosmic forces at play.
That being said, it doesn’t mean that misfortunes can’t and won’t happen during this period. Some believe that when Mercury is in retrograde, it’s a good time to reassess, reflect, refocus and review what’s already been started.
So instead of letting the disruption of Mercury retrograde discourage you, why not use this time of introspection and re-evaluation to your advantage? Work on projects that are already underway, re-evaluate your relationships, and gain insight into yourself.
Ertel, Suitbert. The history of Mercury's retrograde motion and its's astrological interpretations. Archive, 2000.
McKinnon, Andrew. “Retrograde Motion Made Easy.” Sky & Telescope, 11 Nov. 2017.
Mesher, Suzy. “What is Mercury Retrograde?” Astrology Library, 15 Jan. 2021.