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What is Mercury Retrograde?

By Jane Harmon
Updated May 17, 2024
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When your plane reservations get mixed up, or your voicemail goes on the fritz, you may have begun to hear an unusual excuse. "Well, isn't Mercury retrograde? What can you expect?"

What is Mercury retrograde and why does it have such a bad reputation?

Back when it was believed that the stars were all equidistant from the earth, embedded in a hard shell that moved above us, the planets required some explanation. They didn't remain in the same positions with respect to the fixed stars, but wandered through a band of constellations that became the Zodiac.

If that wasn't confusing enough, periodically, they would reverse direction and go back the way they came for a while, before turning once again to move in the same direction with the rest of the star field. When they do this, they are in 'retrograde motion', moving against the tide of all the stars and other planets. Hence, Mercury retrograde refers to the appearance of the planet 'back-pedaling'.

Now that the relative positions of the earth, the planets and the stars is understood, it is easy to see that while the earth is in motion as well, often the planets will appear to reverse direction in the sky. But when astrology was the main science, all planetary retrogrades--including Mercury retrograde--took on more mystical meanings.

Since Mercury is the closest planet to the sun and its orbit is quite short, there are more instances of Mercury retrograde than any other planet, reversing its direction three or four times per earth year. And since Mercury the mythological figure was the messenger of the gods, Mercury retrograde is thought by the mystical-minded to wreak havoc with human communications.

Astrological associations with each planet link Mercury retrograde to foul-ups in connections, computers and other communication-related activities. This notion has moved into the mainstream as a nouveau Murphy's Law, a shoulder-shrug, a 'who knows?' So when your boss asks why you haven't replied to his email, or your document went astray, check your ephemeris and then (if appropriate) blame Mercury Retrograde. Sometimes it makes as much sense as anything else.

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Discussion Comments
By Phaedrus — On Feb 09, 2015

If I hear that Mercury is in retrograde, I get really nervous. I actually believe that some astrology is real and can have an effect on people. I don't believe in the weekly horoscopes, but I do believe that the alignment of planets and stars mean something. Think about the relationship between the Moon and tides, for example.

When Mercury is in retrograde, the effects can last for a few days. I try not to do anything major during that time, like take a long trip or plan an event. There's just too many chances of something going very wrong during that time.

By Reminiscence — On Feb 09, 2015

I'm not somebody who puts much stock into things like astrology or karma, but I have to admit I do read my weekly horoscope for entertainment. I've heard of planets being in retrograde, but I can't see how something like that can really have an effect on my daily routine. Stuff just happens.

But last month I had one of the worst days of my life, and I have to wonder why it happened. My alarm clock failed to go off, so I was already running a hour behind schedule. I forgot to brush my hair before I left the house, so I had to turn around and take care of that. I got stuck in traffic because of a wreck, and I had a horrible day at work. I know everybody has bad days once in a while, but this day was like other bad day crammed into 24 hours.

When I got home, my wife mentioned that she had a really frustrating day, too. All of her electronic devices were on the fritz, and she was dropping things all day. She said Mercury was in retrograde, which I guess is a bad thing. I've heard of people complaining about full moons causing craziness, but I guess a planet can do it, too.

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