No, Mercury Being ‘In Retrograde' Doesn’t Mean Much Of Anything

A quick & hostile explanation.


Right now you can hear people bellowing on how awful their lives are now that Mercury is in retrograde. For those of you who don’t know what that means, that’s awesome! You’ve lived a happier life not knowing about Mercury retrograde, and you should potentially stop reading if you don’t want to fill your head with knowledge about irrational garbage. If you’re curious to know more, however, keep reading (and keep the path from your palm to your forehead clear — you’ll know why shortly).

When a planet is in retrograde, it appears to be moving an opposite direction compared to other planets. Planets, as we observe them from Earth, move west-to-east. But every now and then, it sorta looks like they’re moving east-to-west. That’s retrograde motion, and it’s been observed since way back to when people started building civilizations and conducting scientific inquiry. Early astronomers — and it’s important to remember that almost all of them believed the Earth was the center of the universe — would notice that certain planets at certain times seem to be moving backward.

Obviously, that’s false. The Earth is not the center of the universe, and the other planets we observe in the sky are never, at any point, reversing in orbit. What you’re actually seeing is other planets moving faster in their orbit and passing a slower moving planet. It’s basically the same experience you might have on the highway if your car is moving considerably faster than all other cars on the road — except on the scale of the solar system.

An early critic: The medieval theologianIsidore of Seville criticized the predictive part of astrology.

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo

Astronomy was established during antiquity, and grew up alongside its dumber cousin astrology. So when people observed retrograde motion, they naturally had to attach some kind of superstitious quality to the phenomenon. Thus was borne the idea that a planet in retrograde was bad news bears.

Why has Mercury in particular garnered so much attention? Why do people lose their shit when Mercury is in retrograde?

While the Earth sees all other planets in the solar system move in retrograde at one point or another, Mercury’s movement is more pronounced. Its elliptical orbit means from our point of view, it speeds up and slows down more frequently and with greater emphasis. Mercury will look like it’s zooming past when really, it’s moving down the shallow stretches of its orbit, while the sharp curves seem to take an eternity. During the latter phase, other objects in the sky, like Venus and Mars, start lapping poor Mercury so fast that it looks as if the first planet from the Sun has just up and decided to start going backward.

Meanwhile, astrologers have taken advantage of the fact that human beings are irrational beasts who will buy into anything that explains why good or bad things are happening to them (as opposed to accepting the fact that universe is an ambivalent, chaotic mess of randomness). Mercury retrograde is basically promoted as a time of bad luck brought about the cosmos.

There’s no outright scientific way to debunk this, because it’s not a scientific belief at all — it’s superstition. Even more aggravating is the fact that it’s dumb superstition. One can sort of understand why someone might conduct a set of personal rituals before heading to play in an important sports match — it’s a way to get yourself psyched. Or why one might think Friday the 13th is a day of evil (full disclosure: I was born on Friday the 13th, and I’m pure evil, so I consider myself to be Exhibit A).

But the motion of the planets causing you to have a rotten few weeks? No. Just stop. It’s no fault of the planets — it’s your fault. Be better at life.

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