Over the past week or so, you might have heard someone blame anything annoying, inconvenient or just plain awful on Mercury being in retrograde. It’s a phrase especially common among those who enjoy astrology. If you don’t believe in horoscopes, however, you might be wondering: “What in the f**k kind of Harry Potter spell just came out of that person’s mouth?”
March 23 officially marked Mercury retrograde for the first time of 2018; the planet will remain in retrograde until April 15. I know, that still tells you nothing about what in the f**k it means. Fear not. You’re about to learn the history of the phrase and how it acquired the meaning that the modern world knows.
Let’s start with the basics. The term “retrograde” is defined as directed or moving backwards. Therefore, technically speaking, Mercury retrograde means that the planet Mercury appears to be traveling from east to west, contrary to its standard west-to-east orbit through the stars.
Retrograde happens to all visible planets. Depending on the planet, the spaces between retrograde periods can range from a few months to a few years. This phenomenon mystified ancient astronomers as they studied the night sky.
In fact, retrograde is one of the ways planets got their name; ancient astronomers named them after a Greek word meaning “wanderer” because the large celestial bodies seemed to wander through the sky among the fixed stars.
However, retrograde motion isn’t a real phenomenon, just an optical illusion. Since Mercury’s orbit is faster and smaller than Earth’s is, the planet frequently catches up to and then passes Earth. When this happens, the smaller planet appears to be backtracking through the sky.
Although, most ancient stargazers didn’t know that. In his geocentric model of the Solar System in the third century BCE, Apollonius explained retrograde motion by predicting that the planets traveled in deferents and epicycles, or cycles of prograde and retrograde motion. It wasn’t until 240 BCE that it was understood to be an illusion.
You’re probably still wondering about how this all ties into your laptop crashing. Sit tight; I’ll get to that.
Attributing certain events to different planets has been part of astrology for centuries. However, since explaining the complete history of astrology would take all week, let’s fast forward to the part when the blaming everything on poor Mercury became commonplace.
In the 1930s, a magazine called American Astrology began publishing horoscopes that tied birth dates to signs of the zodiac. This was the beginning of the daily horoscopes we all know and love (or scoff at) today.
The public became infatuated with the idea of personalized, readily available fortune-telling. As a way to drive sales, many magazines and newspapers capitalized on this craze. Soon most popular magazines began to include these horoscopes in each of their issues.
Then in the 1980s, newspapers set up phone lines that people could call into to receive personal horoscopes. Subsequently, astrology enjoyed another spike in popularity. Here’s where Mercury and all its “tricks” come into play.
When a person calling into the newspaper’s horoscope line would pose a question, an astrologer would reference an ancient branch of astrology known as horary astrology. Practitioners of horary astrology use the time of birth of the question, rather than the birth of the questioner, to find answers.
A horary reading used traditional astrology and the current placement of the planets at the time the question was posed to provide an answer — similar to how a natal chart would provide details about a person based on when they were born.
According to The Astrology Dictionary, each planet is associated with various aspects of life, and a retrograde period means there will be trouble involving the things associated with the planet in retrograde. Mercury is the planet associated with communication, media, travel and technology.
So, when Mercury in retrograde, people supposedly face difficulties in those areas of life. Travel plans are thwarted by weather or faulty directions; friends argue; relationships fall apart; your laptop breaks down.
Of course, these things could just as easily happen at any other time of year. Still, coincidences can create powerful superstitions. Let’s say somebody called the hotline while Mercury retrograde and asked if his ex would come back to him. Unfortunately for the caller, it turns out that she had already moved on with another guy.
It’s probably a product of bad timing or bad luck; from the girl’s perspective, it could just as easily be a product of good luck. Nevertheless, since Mercury is in retrograde at the time, it’s all too easy to blame the planet.
As horary astrology grew more popular, Mercury retrograde began to take on a negative connotation as people started attributing just about anything bad that happened during that time on the strange behavior of the planet. In reality, of course, your computer could crash on any day of the year.
Now, decades later, the internet has made it possible for people to easily access more intricate astronomical data and theories. It doesn’t seem coincidental that the latest resurgence of astrology corresponds to the birth of social media as Facebook and Twitter became key sources for news.
It was only a matter of time until articles about Mercury retrograde began to circulate; thus, the internet had a new justification for anything that went wrong. As history has proven, when the media changes, astrology does too.
However, according to The Astrology Dictionary, there are some strange popular events that have gone down during Mercury retrograde. To name just a few:
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. Roberts’s mistake led Obama to recite it incorrectly. Because of this, both men had to re-do the oath of office a second time in a private ceremony the following day, on January 21, 2009.
Kanye West’s famous interruption of Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech during the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards on September 13, 2009 occurred during a Mercury retrograde in Libra.
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. 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. That press conference happened on the day that Mercury actually stationed retrograde.
Of course, these are probably just coincidences. Either way, you have from now until April 15, from July 26 to August 19, and from November 17 to December 6 to blame everything on Mercury.