On Retrogrades

By Sam Ogden

What is a retrograde?

A retrograde is an apparent phenomenon of celestial movement as seen from our point of view on Earth.  The planets have different rates of motion and from here it appears that Mercury (and all our other planets excluding Sun and Moon) have occasional periods where they move in the opposite direction of the Sun and Moon’s apparent motions along the ecliptic (path of the Sun).  The Sun never retrogrades because relative to Earth it is the unmoving center.  The Moon never retrogrades because it orbits the Earth, which is its “unmoving” center despite Earth having its own orbit about the Sun.  At certain points in Earth’s orbit, Mercury, for example, will appear from Earth to retrogress, or move backwards.  The planet does not actually move backwards in space. 

The commonly used terms “station retrograde” and “station direct” are important to note.  A retrograde station refers to the day when the given planet has appeared to completely stop in the sky just before it begins moving backwards.  A direct station refers to the day it stands still just before moving forward or direct. 

When a planet stations retrograde it is the beginning of the retrograde cycle. If we use Mercury as an example, at this point it has risen from the setting Sun and is thus identified as a “setting star” because it appears near the horizon shortly after sunset.  When the retrograde ends, Mercury has become the morning star, so called because it rises before the Sun at sunrise.  Mercury is never more than twenty-eight degrees from the Sun.  This means that the maximum space possible between the two can reach only as far as signs adjacent to one another on the zodiac wheel. 

Astrological Retrogradation And Its Implications In Different Zoidia
It has been said that a planet in direct (forward) motion directs its symbols outward, while a planet who is retrograde has turned itself inward.  Though simplified, this is a decent place to begin a more nuanced approach to the entire cycle between Mercury, the Sun, and Earth.  When interpreting any planetary retrograde it is important to remember that it is the relationship of three distinct bodies which give us the retrograde phenomenon. 

If you imagine walking forward then having to walk backward but without turning around, you can see how disorienting and possibly dangerous it could be.  While walking forward is easier because you can see what is ahead, stepping backwards (safely, at least) demands trust, caution, and a visual recall of your path and surroundings.  Walking forward is direct and carefree- we take for granted our surroundings and our own capacity to reflect.  Walking backwards is to embrace what has been forgotten, ignored, and taken for granted, which first becomes possible through deeper personal processes like retrospection.

Mercury receives some fundamental qualities by his relationship with the Sun.  When his retrograde begins he reaches his maximum elongation East of the setting Sun.  He has reached a degree of fullness in terms of a particular accumulation of particular information and experiences. He retires with ruminations on his small morsels of wisdom, a thing he has strained after.  He is now the setting star and it is more in his character to value time for retrospection, accounting, and considerations than when he is the morning star, eagerly racing ahead of his self (the Sun).  The middle of the retrograde is the apparent conjunction of Mercury and the Sun who burns him and who together begin the second half of the cycle as seen from Earth.  Mercury is then transformed as the morning star- occidental, or West, of the rising Sun.  As the morning star, he is unknowingly at the command of the deeper motives of his soul and nervous system, finding himself caught up in situations seemingly for surface-level reasons. He has light and quick feet when he sees signs of the momentum of the past and his own actions catching up to him.  He sends and receives messages freely and treats his contacts with a peculiar abandon, his feet never in one place for too long.  The first half of the cycle often deals with the beginning of a subcutaneous churn of the recent past.  The second half is about addressing the situation from an individually-oriented center and usually brings about an emergence of something relatively new (or renewed) whose personal meaning must take precedence due to its demand (even if subtle, denied, or ignored).  All of these phases often parallel closely the zodiac sign(s) in which Mercury retrogresses. The cycle nears its end when Mercury slows down as he reaches his maximum elongation East of the setting Sun, showing signs for the coming direct station.

As said before, when a planet is retrograde the motion of its symbols turns backward and inward.  For a person who is born under Mercury’s retrograde, the backward and inward direction can show up as reserve and careful calculation, a facile use of intuitive and feeling-based faculties, a lack of awareness around how open the verbal floodgates can be, a sensitivity to (and even repudiating of) one’s own feelings.  This last one can lead to fixating oneself about rationality because as one must come to grapple more consistently with the outside “rational” world with all its civil customs and laws, the indirect and circuitous nature of one’s retrograde Mercury must constantly exert energy to adjust. The ancients regard retrograde planets to be less operable, which can lead to the planet’s functions being stuffed away, silently protected or worse, imprisoned by one’s own will.  But that also means avoiding deeper issues, gifts, and rewarding relationship growth.  Because Mercury is a planet which deals with the foundational faculties and tools that help form one’s identity from such an early age (speech, word associations, use of hands, comprehending one’s sense of environments), much of the way Mercury expresses depends on other planetary and celestial factors. 

One of these factors is the zodiac sign in which Mercury is positioned at any given time. In ancient Hellenistic astrology Mercury belongs to both the day and the night sects and thus makes him versatile and adaptable.  Gemini and Virgo are the “places” or homes of Mercury, and their opposites (Sagittarius and Pisces, respectively) are where Mercury is in detriment or exile, the furthest place from home. In Gemini, Mercury makes rapid and lucid thinking often with a clever sense of humor.  In Virgo, he analyzes for the effective place and application of moving parts and pieces (even emotions!).  His nervousness to experience disorder imposes upon him to clarify what works and what doesn’t.  In Sagittarius, Mercury can be manic with visions that bring him to great mental heights, but is less grounded and intolerant to a fault.  Because of this he finds little interest in the mundane and from his heights aggressively meets eye-to-eye with common people.  In Pisces, Mercury makes great effort against the flow of emotions which battle his rational mind.  He is scattered by his feeling sense of a constant underlying duality and overlap of chaos-peace.  He can be xenophobic while simultaneously pressuring into inclusivity, and though he knows classification is useless he also knows it must somehow be used.

These are examples of only four of the twelve signs; each sign has a unique disposition so in them Mercury’s retrograde brings out different meanings.  The retrograde colors the period of time with that sign whose latent qualities are ripe to emerge.  Themes of both planet and sign appear in attempts to address specific issues.  These issues are really particular areas of life experience and are usually denoted by the natal house placement of the transiting retrograde.  The alignments Mercury makes with other planets in the sky throughout the retrograde give the entire cycle more detail and can act as guides that point to where in one’s inner world attention or interest should be placed.