Mercury retrograde is a phrase used in astrology to refer to a phenomenon that occurs periodically when the planet Mercury temporarily appears to reverse its normal course and move backward through the zodiac.
This phenomenon occurs three times each year, and it lasts for approximately three weeks each time. It is typically referred to as a “Mercury retrograde period,” since what is being referenced is a period of time when the specific astronomical phenomenon involving Mercury occurs.
The period begins when Mercury slows down and stations retrograde, which is the beginning of the retrograde period. Eventually it ends when Mercury slows down again and stations direct, which is the end of the retrograde period.
In this context moving “forward” or “direct” involves moving in the same direction along that zodiac that the other planets normally follow.
Mercury is not the only planet that turns retrograde each year; all of the other planets have retrograde periods as well. Mercury retrograde periods tend to be more well-known though, partially because they occur more frequently.
Mercury Retrograde as an Apparent Phenomenon
From an astronomical standpoint the retrograde period is an apparent phenomenon that only occurs from our vantage point on Earth, as a side-effect of the different relative speeds of the planets as they orbit around the Sun. That is to say, Mercury only appears to slow down and start moving backwards in the zodiac from our perspective here on Earth, but in fact both Mercury and the Earth are still moving forward in their orbits around the Sun.
A common analogy that is used is to conceptualize this is to imagine what happens when you are in a car that is driving down a road, and then you pass another car that is going in the same direction but at a slower speed. From your perspective inside the faster moving car it may appear that the slower moving car has started moving backward as you pass it, but in fact it is still moving forward. Mercury retrograde periods function in a similar way.
Nonetheless, despite Mercury retrograde only being an apparent phenomenon, it is still seen by astrologers as having symbolic importance in signifying an important period for the planet Mercury, precisely because of the anomalous movement of Mercury at that time from our perspective. In astrology the perspective of the observer is not just relevant but is actually crucial in interpreting the significance of the phenomenon, since it functions similar to divination in interpreting appearances as having symbolic importance.
In western astrology, retrograde periods are usually regarded as signifying unusual or problematic times for the significations of a retrograde planet. Mercury is typically associated with communication, media, travel, and technology. Since the retrograde period is viewed as a deviation or anomaly in Mercury’s typical movement, these periods are viewed as coinciding with times in which there are deviations or anomalies in relation to things associated with Mercury. Thus this period has come to be associated with things like miscommunication, travel delays, or technological snafus.
More broadly Mercury retrograde periods are notorious for coinciding with disturbances in the regular flow of communication, resulting in misstatements, unwelcome disclosures, miscalculations, do-overs, delays, problems with technology, schedules, traffic, etc.
Alternative interpretations include the retrograde period as being a time of withdrawal, reflection, and introspection, due to the association of Mercury with the intellect, as well as the significations of the planet being simply more pronounced, rather than being seen as good or bad either way.
Along these lines, since the Mercury retrograde period involves Mercury moving backwards and revisiting a part of the zodiac that it has recently been through previously, these periods are also sometimes thought to involve revisiting, revising, and rethinking things from the past.
Famous Examples of Mercury Retrograde
Some famous incidents that occurred during Mercury retrograde periods include:
- Head of the United States Supreme Court John Roberts misspeaking while administering the oath of office at Barack Obama’s inauguration for his first term as President on January 20, 2009, leading Obama to not recite it correctly. This led them to both to have to re-do the oath of office a second time in a private ceremony the following day, on January 21, 2009. More information: Obama Retakes Oath of Office, Astrologers Freak Out.
- Kanye West interrupting Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech during the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards on September 13, 2009 occurred during a Mercury retrograde in Libra. Kanye’s statement when interrupting the speech became a meme: “Yo, Taylor, I’m really happy for you, Imma let you finish, but Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time! One of the best videos of all time!”
- The launch of the national health insurance exchange website in the United States in October of 2013 occurred around the time of a Mercury retrograde in Scorpio, and it was marred by serious technological problems. The website launch itself occurred right as Mercury entered its pre-retrograde shadow period on October 1, and the technical problems became bad enough that President Obama was forced to address them directly in a press conference on October 20, which was the day that Mercury actually stationed retrograde. The issues with the website were only resolved after Mercury had stationed direct a few weeks later and then eventually completed its post-retrograde shadow period.