When is Mercury retrograde?
Mercury is retrograde three times a year for approximately three weeks at a time. Janet’s Plan-its On a Page has free downloadable PDFs showing a table of a year’s retrogrades of all the planets, including the time frames and associated zodiac positions.
What is Mercury retrograde?
You hear this expression a lot in astrological circles. It’s even made its way into the mainstream public, perhaps more than any other technical term from the field of astrology. When things seem crazy, I get lots of phone calls asking me if Mercury is retrograde – and often, it is! Paying attention to Mercury retrograde can save you from headaches and costly mistakes.
Mercury retrograde can literally be translated as “think back.” It presents us with the opportunity to reflect and review, to re-visit issues about which we thought we had made up our minds. It’s an ideal time to finish unfinished business (like paperwork that’s been sitting around a while or photos that need to go into albums or onto a disk). We often end up re-doing something that wasn’t done right the first time. Unfortunately, it’s also a time when we’re more likely to make mistakes, necessitating re-doing things later – maybe during the next Mercury retrograde!
Retrograde comes from Latin for “backward step.” In astrology, it’s when a planet looks like it’s doing a slow zigzag in the sky. It’s an optical illusion as a faster planet passes us or as we pass a slower planet. To understand this, picture you’re passing a slower car in a lane next to you. You’re both traveling forward, but because you’re quicker, the other car seems to you like it’s slipping backwards relative to you.
We experience this optical illusion’s influence as quite real. Matters associated with the planet can seem to be at a standstill for a few days at the beginning and ending points of the retrograde period (called the “stations”) when the planet seems to screech to a halt. In between, progress is difficult in these concerns and we may have to re-learn lessons about the affected affairs or about behaviors related to the planet. Activities connected to the planet begun during its retrograde often require adjustments or “going back to the drawing board” later. The retrograde phase of a planet’s motion seems to predispose us toward the more trying or negative expressions of whatever the planet represents, unless we’re actively trying to find the highest and best use of the planet’s energies.
Mercury wears a couple hats that strongly impact our daily lives. As “messenger of the gods” (from Roman mythology), communication is an obvious one. The other is easy to see, too: transportation (the local variety) – think of his winged feet. Mercury got around a lot and had a lot to say. When Mercury is retrograde, we tend to have more problems with all forms of communication (verbal, written, electronic, postal, mental), and with local transportation matters. Those include anything and everything from commuting to skateboarding, affecting drivers, passengers and pedestrians. Mercury is also associated with lower education (through grade school or junior high), where we learn the basics of communication and language(s). Mercury retrograde affects lots of people in that arena, too.
As the planet closest to the Sun, Mercury’s orbit is the quickest. It circles the Sun (and the zodiac, from our viewpoint) about three times in one earth year, passing us about three times each year. Each time it passes us, it appears to move backward for about three weeks. For 2-3 weeks before and after this backward step, it moves forward through the section of the zodiac where the backtracking occurs. Thus, it traverses this area three times: forward, backward, forward.
An easy way to understand this is to imagine that you leave home on an errand and five blocks from home, you realize you forgot something. You have to backtrack to pick it up and head out again. In the process, you traveled those five blocks away from home, backtracked those same five blocks, and traversed them forward again after retrieving your item and heading out again. You pass over that five-block range three times, twice forward and once backward. This phenomenon of three passes may be related to the idea that things happen in threes!
The range of degrees (like those five blocks in the example above) are known as the retrograde’s “shadow,” a term coined by astrologer Roxana Muise. (See her comments at the bottom of this article.) When I asked her to review this article, she added this twist to the example above that states nicely how we can learn from our experiences during Mercury retrograde: as you left home, you noticed a large mud puddle along your way; while returning, you see that someone stepped in it and muddied the path; before you head out again, you change into a pair of boots.
Mercury retrogrades can sneak up on us quickly. Just as we’re catching our breath from one retrograde period, Mercury is getting ready to enter another one. That’s why it’s a good idea to keep an eye on when the shadow period will begin for the next one!
What do we experience when Mercury is retrograde?
There’s more “telephone tag” when Mercury’s retrograde. More items get lost in the mail. It’s a good idea to double-check instructions you’re giving or receiving to make sure everyone is on the same page. Proofread documents before you release them, at least one time if not more. Watch out for transpositions in writing or in calculations, such as your check book. You might be more likely to forget to record debit or ATM transactions, too. And it’s important to actually read the fine print before signing a contract. (Many people try to avoid signing contracts altogether during Mercury retrograde.)
Decisions we make during Mercury retrograde can lead us to later ask ourselves, “What was I thinking?” Many people experience the problem of “open mouth, insert foot.” Often we have the “I should have said” regrets after a conversation, particularly a heated one. Just in case things don’t go as expected, it’s smart to have a Plan B ready. Be on the lookout for transpositions and malapropisms.
On the transportation side, Mercury retrograde increases the likelihood of traffic problems. Allow extra time to get where you’re going. Always keep an eye on your auto’s condition. If you suspect a problem, try to get it taken care of before Mercury nears the shadow date range. Schedule regular maintenance away from the retrograde time frames, when Mercury is moving forward – that’s the time for “smooth sailing.” But if you do spot trouble, don’t delay getting it fixed just because Mercury is retrograde – that could mean more trouble, like a break-down.
Concerning health, Mercury is affiliated with breathing, the nose, mouth and lungs, and thus airborne illness. Fresh air is a must during Mercury retrograde, and controlled breathing helps under the pressure of stress. Mercury governs all the senses, and some people experience temporary difficulties with one or another of them during Mercury retrograde periods. Mercury also rules the hands; wash them frequently when in contact with the public.
Some infamous examples of things that occurred during Mercury retrograde are:
- Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown
- 1970 Kent State protestor massacre
- first attack on the Branch Davidian cult in Waco, TX (stand-off begins)
- JFK, Jr.’s plane crash
- 2000 Presidential election
- USS Greeneville submarine accident
- UN Resolution allowing Saddam Hussein to stay in power (Mercury turned retrograde the next day)
- Feb. 2001 US attack on Iraq (not the beginning of the longer operation in 2003)
What if you’re born with Mercury retrograde?
To see if you were born when Mercury was retrograde, look at your chart for the Mercury symbol (a cross with a circle above it and a curved “thinking cap” above that) and see if it has the “Rx” symbol (looks like the symbol for prescriptions) next to it. If you don’t have your chart, find out your time of birth and calculate your chart for free at: alabe.com. (If you don’t know your birth time, enter noon and usually that’s close enough for this purpose.)
Since Mercury goes retrograde frequently, many people are born with this in their natal chart. Often they’re in their own mental worlds and have difficulty communicating clearly with others. For instance, they have a conversation in their head which the other person doesn’t know about, of course. They believe they said aloud what they were thinking, but they actually did not verbalize it. Or they mishear what someone says because they project their own thoughts onto the person’s words or they didn’t listen well since they were focused on their inner dialogue.
Some famous people born when Mercury was retrograde are:
- Monica Lewinsky (what was she thinking keeping that blue dress?)
- Robert Downey, Jr. (quit substance abuse more than once)
- Prince, the artist formerly known as the Artist formerly known as Prince (changed his name, changed it back again)
- Anita Bryant (got in a lot of hot water for expressing her opinions)
- John Belushi (accidental overdose – what a mistake that was!)
- Dale Ernhardt (lived by the car race, died by the car race)
- Buckminster Fuller (born cross-eyed, he viewed the world differently than most people and later “invented” the geodesic dome)
Often times, people born with Mercury retrograde are shy in their youth or keep to themselves. But sometime in their first 22 years, a year arrives when they come out of their shell. Often it is at the age that corresponds to how many days after their birth that Mercury finished its retrograde period. In astrology, we look for this in the person’s “progressions,” a symbolic system equating influences present in the days and weeks after our birth with conditions years later in our life. (Each day after birth represents a year of life.) It can also happen that a person born when Mercury is direct (moving forward) has Mercury turn retrograde by progression, lasting approximately 21-22 years. During this period, they experience life similarly to those who are born with Mercury retrograde.
An interesting example is Ludwig von Beethoven. He began to lose his hearing around age 28 as his progressed Mercury entered the shadow of its upcoming retrograde. He experienced his lowest point of productivity in the years between 1812 and 1816, just as Mercury was making no progress as it slowed down to turn retrograde in 1815. His compositional style took a turn at approximately that time, too. Wikipedia.com tells us works from his Late period [circa 1816 until he died in 1827] “are greatly admired for and characterized by their intellectual depth, intense and highly personal expression, and experimentation with forms.” I bolded points that illustrate the nature of Mercury retrograde, when a person is absorbed in his own thoughts and does things differently than before. With Beethoven, we also see a change in a sense (losing his hearing) with the impending retrograde. Of course, not everyone whose Mercury turns retrograde by progression will lose one of his or her senses, but anyone can begin to use senses or mental capacities differently during a Mercury retrograde, whether that’s by progression or in the “transits” (those are the transitory movements of the planets through the signs across time).
How to handle Mercury retrograde
How can you handle a Mercury retrograde period?
- Pay attention to when the next Mercury retrograde is approaching. Schedule any important communications matters well before or after that date range.
- If possible, avoid beginning any new projects during Mercury retrograde. You can complete unfinished business, however – in fact, that’s one of the best uses of Mercury retrograde. If you must start something around the time of a retrograde, try to postpone it at least until after forward motion has resumed. The shadow that follows the retrograde is not as fraught with minefields as the approaching shadow or back-up period are.
- If in the ordinary course of its development a project needs to go through a couple rounds of revisions anyway, it may not be so bad to do it during Mercury retrograde. You might do the first round during the shadow date range leading up to the retrograde back-up, with a second round during the retrograde, and a final revision during the shadow following the back-up.
- Back up your computer data and files before the retrograde begins (if you’re not already the conscientious type who does it daily).
- Think twice. Be circumspect.
- Don’t try to squeeze something in just before the deadline of when the retrograde begins – it will only need adjustments, and probably sooner rather than later. Those couple of days before the backward motion starts are when Mercury (usually speedy) slows to a crawl, the most dangerous time for action.
- Check your mode of transportation before the retrograde begins. Does your car or bike need some attention? If you use public transportation, check ahead in case there’s some change in the offing along your usual route.
- When walking or running, watch your step. Check the condition of your shoes.
- When driving or biking, at intersections or before changing lanes, look twice.
- Whatever way you’re getting around, be especially cautious when going in reverse – it’s too easy to back into something.
- If something happens that strikes you as negative, be happy that it wasn’t any worse than it was. Maybe you couldn’t totally avoid something bad happening, but at least it wasn’t horrible.
One of my calendar fans offers CDs with gong attunements for the various planets. (His site, gongmaster.org, is listed in my Links). He uses these for his students and himself as retrograde periods begin and end. You might want to try listening to the Mercury gong as a meditation.
The symbol for retrograde looks like an ”R” with an “X” going through it, the same as the symbol for a prescription. Think of a retrograde period as a prescription to review or re-do. If you’re looking for Mercury in your chart, its symbol is the bottom half of a circle sitting on top of a circle, which in turn is on top of a cross.
Mercury Retrograde in the Signs
The sign through which Mercury is traveling describes the ways in which we communicate at that time, which of course become more difficult when Mercury is retrograde. There are certain associations for each sign which can also be problematic during Mercury retrograde in that sign.
ARIES Haste makes waste – slow down. Think before speaking, watch your temper and look before you leap. Be especially careful around fire (or flammables), heat, sharp objects, weapons, and machinery.
TAURUS Stubbornness can do you in; try to be more flexible. Learning takes longer but retention is good (in fact, it may be hard to forget, even if you can forgive). Watch out for jealousy and be careful with money.
GEMINI (This is the most difficult sign for Mercury to be retrograde in.) You get too easily distracted, especially when multi-tasking. Take a deep breath or do aerobics to clear your head. Be cautious in your interactions with neighbors, siblings, students or teachers.
CANCER Emotions intrude into the realm of thought. Too bad your gut instincts aren’t working any better. Keep your head above water and avoid withdrawing into a shell. Your mind’s on security, home and family.
LEO Pride, willfulness or over-dramatization can cause problems. Pecking order, power and leadership are issues. Work is too easy to shirk, and fun beckons. Find outlets for your creativity, be with children or coax out your inner child.
VIRGO (This is the second toughest sign for retrograde Mercury.) Picky, picky, picky – if nothing pleases you, you might end up with nothing. “Analysis leads to paralysis.” Forgive yourself. “We’re only human; we’re supposed to make mistakes,” as Billy Joel says, or rather sings, it best. Details can bedevil you and good help is hard to find.
LIBRA You’re frustrated when things aren’t fair – and they can’t always be, can they? Expect someone to play the Devil’s Advocate (maybe it will be you). Indecisiveness is a problem. Relationships are a tricky path to maneuver. Examine contracts and agreements carefully.
SCORPIO Try not to be manipulative even if you think it’s for someone else’s own good. You’re more likely to brood, be obsessive or to take things too seriously. Secrets can come back to bite you. Be wary of errors in finances or bad decisions about private (even sexual) matters.
SAGITTARIUS You tend to be mentally scattered or wanderlust distracts you. You laugh off problems that you probably need to take more seriously. This is not a good time for long distance travel or communicating in a foreign language; it’s too easy to lose things in translation.
CAPRICORN It’s hard to stay organized and easy to lose track of time. You want control but feel it slipping through your fingers. Irresponsible people may foil your careful plans. Difficulties arise in dealing with governmental affairs or people in positions of authority.
AQUARIUS Be careful of being too opinionated; try to listen to the other guy’s views. You want to follow the beat of your own drummer – so what if other people think that’s too weird. Rebelliousness can be problematic. Dealing with groups or friends is more troublesome than usual.
PISCES Confusion and deception are pitfalls. You may need extra downtime or sleep. Answers come in dreams or after meditation. Music soothes you and logic escapes you. Water calls you, though it can present danger, as can feelings. Watch out for those who profess to know The Truth.
Look at your birth chart to check the degree range of Mercury retrograde in relation to the way the signs line up with your houses (sectors of a chart). The houses indicate life circumstances. There will be one or two houses in your chart where Mercury is retrograde, showing the areas where you’re most likely to have challenges. (See my “Astrologer’s Apprentice Cheat Sheet” for keywords for the houses.) If you have a natal planet in the degree range of Mercury retrograde, you’ll experience the retrograde intensely in ways related to the affected planet (again, see my keywords). You could also feel Mercury retrograde strongly in the area associated with any natal planets directly opposite the retrograde range (count six signs in either direction).
Who is affected most by Mercury retrograde?
People born with the Sun, Moon, Mercury or the Ascendant (“rising sign”) in either Gemini or Virgo (the two signs said to be “ruled” by Mercury) are always strongly influenced by Mercury, whether it’s forward or backward. Of course, they feel Mercury retrograde more than the rest of the population.
If your birthday occurs when Mercury’s retrograde, you’ll feel like it’s retrograde for the entire time that your birthday chart (called your “solar return” chart) is in effect, from 3 months before your birthday until 9 months after your birthday! And I’m sorry to tell you that it’s not uncommon to have Mercury retrograde at your birthday two years in a row. I’ve had that happen twice.
As with any factor in astrology, we should be careful not to draw too many conclusions from just one piece of the complex puzzle that makes us who we are or that makes our life what it is. It can be helpful to know about Mercury retrograde (or any other challenging astrological factor), but if you obsess over it or become afraid to leave the house because of it, that’s a bad sign.
Good luck dealing with the challenges of Mercury retrograde. It’s not a curse, just a time to go in reverse.
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Here in her own words is Roxana Muise’s excellent explanation:
The Retrograde Shadow
In the retrograde cycle, a planet journeys through a portion of the zodiac three times – first in direct motion, then in retrograde motion, and finally in direct motion. I call that area of the zodiac the Retrograde Shadow. From the time the planet enters this degree, it seems to cast a shadow of its character on the area. When astrologers observe the retrograde cycle in its entirety, it seems as if the planet is walking back and forth through a symbolic process, looking at that process from different perspectives. Of course, at a different level, we understand that the planet is not really changing its direction, but it is just a perceptive illusion on our part from our perspective on the Earth.
As a planet enters the Shadow, it passes the zodiacal degree where it will eventually turn direct. I call that degree the BSB Beginning Shadow Boundary (aka BSP, the Beginning Shadow Point). That degree seems to be sensitized from that point in the cycle, and an observant person may pick up clues to the nature of the planet’s process throughout the cycle. There is a foretaste of the impact of the planet’s activity while it is retrograde. That which manifests (symbolic of the planet in the sign and its aspects) as the planet moves toward its retrograde station can be seen from a different viewpoint after it turns retrograde. Perhaps the retrograde cycle is giving us clues to the very nature of time.
After the planet turns direct, there seems to be a remedial period in which the two different perspectives may be understood and integrated.
As the planet leaves the Shadow, it passes by the degree at which it previously turned retrograde. This releases the tension created during the Shadow, and I call that degree the ESB, Ending Shadow Boundary (a.k.a. ESP, Ending Shadow Point). As those degrees are also the station points, the Shadow boundaries remain sensitized for some time afterwards, much the same as eclipse degrees.
“The Retrograde Shadow,” a forthcoming publication on CD, will offer examples plus an ephemeris of station and shadow points for over a century for each planet, and the book, “Taking the Fear out of Retrogrades.”