Even if you’re not well-versed into the world of astrology, you’ve still probably heard of the term ‘Mercury retrograde’ and wondered what the hubbub is all about. Why do us star lovers get sent into a frenzy when we hear those words? In fact, you’ve already survived two retrograde periods this year, with a third yet to come. The first in Aquarius began 30 January and ended 20 February, the second in Gemini lasted from 29 May to 22 June and the final retrograde of the year is set to be in Libra from 27 September to 18 October.
All three retrogrades of the year have been in each air sign—you’re welcome for the extra chaos (if you know, you know). I’m definitely not an expert astrologer by any means, but I am going to try to break down what this has meant and will mean for the rest of the year. But first, my starry pupils—what the hell is Mercury retrograde?
The term ‘Mercury retrograde’ is often misinterpreted. The word retrograde implies that the planet (all planets go through some retrograde periods)—in this case Mercury—is reversing its orbit, voyaging back to the previous sign it was in. However, that is not actually the case. What is really happening is (a few times a year) the planet slows its orbit of the sun causing an optical illusion of moving backwards—they always continue to orbit the sun in their original direction. The planet experiencing the retrograde only looks like it’s reversing from our perspective on Earth.
So, for example in the case of Mercury, which is the fastest sun-orbiting planet, taking only 88 days for a full orbit compared to Earth’s 365, it seems to slow down and thus appears like it’s moving ‘backwards’. Still confused? Farmer’s Almanac gives a brilliant metaphorical image that spells out what’s happening:
“Picture two cars on the highway going in the same direction in different lanes. If one car is driving faster than the other, the slower car will appear to go backward from the perspective of a person in the faster car, even though the slower car is still going pretty fast in the [same] direction.”
Simple enough, right? Well, actually there’s six stages to a retrograde but let’s leave that for another day. This usually happens for a few weeks at a time. It is during this observed reversal that the retrograding planet’s typical meanings, symbols and representations are in disarray.
So what does this mean when Mercury is in retrograde? Named after the Roman messenger of the gods—equivalent of the Greek Hermes—simply put, the planet has come to symbolise its namesake: communication. Mercury governs the less emotional aspects of your birth chart, it represents your day-to-day expressions, rationality, curiosity, and logic. Often described as ‘the mind’s planet’, Mercury (and the zodiac sign it’s in on your birth chart) thus determines your thought processes and communication skills. So, why does this planet retrograding make people panic in the way they do? How and why is it so impactful considering that it’s the smallest planet in our solar system?
So now that we know what retrograde is and what Mercury represents, let’s dive into what happens astrologically when this particular planet is retrograding. Simply put, when a planet is retrograding the things it governs are often disrupted. For Mercury’s case, this means that communication in your life could be in disarray—which could in turn create some tricky events for you in those three weeks.
Some astrologers believe that this retrograde motion of Mercury can manifest as a multitude of communicative, logical and even technological catastrophes (in our modern-day modes of conversation). These could include: communication misunderstandings, friendships being negatively affected, disruption of travel (plane cancellations, delays, etc.), losing emails and other adversities. I wonder if I should use this at work? ‘Yeah, sorry I didn’t actually get that email, Mercury was in retrograde’. Maybe not, but don’t panic, it’s not all doom and gloom.
Some astrologers suggest that it’s not as simple as just being a time of catastrophe and advise to use the time of Mercury retrograde as a moment of self-reflection in the way you communicate—analyse and evaluate that logical, decision-making and communicative part of yourself and see any potential changes you may need to make.
There’s one final Mercury retrograde of the year in Libra from 27 September to 18 October. Since all the retrogrades have been in air signs this year, it’s been even more turbulent—again you’re welcome. Not only is this because of the sometimes chaotic energy that comes from an air sign but also the things that drive them. Air signs are typically ruled by the mental, the intellectual, the communication of information and thought-provoking ideas. And you’ll never guess their night-ruling planet….Yep it’s the mind’s planet, Mercury. So what’s in store for our Libra Mercury retrograde?
The sign of Libra, known for its balanced and diplomatic approach to life as well as its large focus on relationships, will mean that these are the areas likely to be affected by the upcoming Mercury retrograde. This period could manifest as drama and communication issues in the relationships closest to you. In other words, prepare yourself for some heavy disagreements or even some intense fights.
But don’t act rashly. Like the balanced sign of Libra, try to see other people’s perspectives in these conflicts—this will aid you in resolving the potential chaos Mercury retrograde may pose to your relationships.
At some point in the nineteen-eighties, my mum had an astrology phase. She spent a few months studying stars, planets and the sky, but all that is left thirty years later are some books and an amazing set of moon shaped earrings. So, growing up my house had bookshelves filled with books titled things like ‘Planets in Composite’ and ‘Star Signs for Lovers’ and when my brother and I fought it was thought to be because of our matching fire signs. These books had pages that I poured over as I highlighted all the Leo traits I possessed before at around age ten, I found my birth chart that a family friend had bound in gold starred pages, which detailed how the stars would shape my life. Lots of things even then felt true, the complexities of personality and layers of what I love were written out in a way that I felt like I had dictated them myself.
Astrology, star signs and asking ‘when’s your birthday’ on first dates have come to define parts of who I am. I have my mum’s old star charts hanging in my living room and over lingering dinners friends and I discuss our sun, moon and rising signs. It was only just a few years ago that I felt weird knowing what my ‘moon sign’ was and how it affected aspects of my life. But these days with everyone’s Instagram feeds full of ‘star sign bingos’ and iconic @notallgeminis memes, it seems that astrology isn’t only on the rise, but at the core of our internet identities.
Originating way back in 3000 BC somewhere in Mesopotamia, astrology’s appeal has never stopped enduring in places like India where they have their own form of astrology that rules over everything from marriages to moving home. But how and why did it shift from that to its modern millennial appeal where every star sign has its own meme page? Did it start with fashion? Sometimes I think so. In a world where we love to personalise everything from our bags to our phones, owning things emblazoned with our horoscope seems like just another facet of it. Vetements horoscope t-shirts have sold out in every sign, Charlotte Olympia made Aries adorned slippers and it now feels like every online jewellery brand has a charm or pendant in the shapes of all twelve zodiac signs.
So, what is it that artists and designers are drawn to in astrology? I asked illustrator Agustina Basile why she is inspired by it in her lush drawings. “I love that each sign tells a specific story and has its own personality, and stories are what I want to reflect in all my illustrations. The planets, houses and degrees all influence the unique behaviour of the signs within an astral chart, and I like that the study of my own chart makes me identify more with certain signs than others when I’m drawing.” And obviously, that’s the irony of it all. That in our bid to personalise everything in our lives through highly individualised algorithms, we’ve overlooked the possibility that we might just be categorising ourselves into one of twelve vague and general star signs. I see that and I can acknowledge the paradox, but it doesn’t change that I just like reading my horoscope because of how it makes me feel.
It seems that every website, magazine and newspaper have horoscopes sections that for years have been educating us about Saturn returns and moon cycles as a little page of respite amongst news and gossip. If I look back at the times in my life when I’ve read horoscopes religiously or pulled out my gold gilded birth chart book, they have been times when I have felt lost and when any guidance or advice would have been needed. I spoke to my favourite horoscope writer Madame Clairevoyant whose horoscopes for NY Mag’s The Cut are some of the most beautiful pieces of prose published on the internet. I asked her what she thinks people get out of reading her weekly horoscopes. “Many of us can feel ourselves being constantly acted upon by forces bigger than ourselves—whether that’s economic forces like low wages and student debt, or whether it’s the vast structures of misogyny in the world. Astrology allows us to look to something that’s bigger than ourselves, but that doesn’t have the same kind of heaviness or history of oppression. Feeling connected to an astrological sign can be just for you, without a ‘purpose’ other than to understand yourself and how to live in the world. For me, horoscopes are most meaningful as a way to create space for holding and experiencing our emotions. And ultimately, it’s okay to take what resonates with you, and leave behind what doesn’t.”
I’m not surprised that I like Madame Clairevoyant’s sentiment about this, I thank her for her thoughts and choose not to tell her that I have screenshots of all her Leo readings saved in my phone for when I need them most. It leaves me wondering that what if in our modern absence of religion we are all just trying to find comfort amongst the chaos of the world by identifying with a star sign and in the hope that planets will shift in our favour. I don’t dwell on it for too long though, (maybe that’s my dreamy Aquarius moon) so I follow @astromemequeen and continue to save meditative minutes every week to read my horoscope.