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Retrograde motion isn't about going backwards, really, it's about proximity, Earth pulling alongside another planet...

By John Townley, August 2015

“Oh, you can’t do that when Mercury is in retrograde!” is a phrase that should make you cringe, not only from its improper English (it’s just “retrograde”, not “in retrograde”), but from its misunderstanding of what retrograde is physically and what it means astrologically. It has become a catchall pronouncement that generally implies messed-up, backwards, confused, entangling, and generally to be avoided. In fact, it means no such thing, either in natal horoscope or as a sky transit, yet it does describe something meaningful and useful in both, so it might be good to stand back and take another look at the retrograde phenomenon. Especially since at least one planet is retrograde in the sky nearly all the time, on average two or three.

We’ve described the orbital mechanics of retrogradation in our Retro Rhythms, and touched on its tidal qualities in Retro Tides and The Breathing Tide, but we could talk a bit more about what’s been traditionally missed and why, once you’ve got a good grip on the phenomenon itself, especially regarding the space in the sky a retrograde planet traces (the “shadow”, among other terms applied). And, it’s important to differentiate retrogrades of planets outside the Earth’s orbit (Mars through Pluto) and those interior to it (Mercury and Venus).

The most important illusion to disperse is that a retrograde planet is somehow lost and distant from us. Quite the opposite is true. The retrograde period occurs when we are the closest in our orbit to a planet, when we are speeding past them (or for Mercury and Venus, they are speeding past us) so fast that they look like they’re going backwards (and from their point of view, we look the same way). So, if anything, it’s a period of more active engagement, gravitationally and by sheer proximity. A retrograde planet is literally in our face, as much as it can get, with all that implies. It demands our attention, and it only becomes a problem if we ignore it or avoid it (which has been our first inclination, traditionally).

As we pass by another planet, we're just adjusting mutual speed and proximity, like ships alongside, ideal for interchange.

It’s similar to the difference between rushing past oncoming traffic and being overtaken by a vehicle in the adjacent lane. Any driver knows the greatest and longest risk comes from an encounter with the latter. Similarly, in the air or at sea, one is like ships passing in the night with barely a chance for a glance, the other an extended opportunity for refueling, exchange of cargo, and mutual communication with another vessel, a moving rendezvous before pulling away after the close engagement.

Of course, whether it’s of much difference or any use it depends on how relatively close you’re getting, compared with how far away you’ve been, and how fast you’re both going. We get an average 93,000,000 miles (our orbit’s diameter) closer than our farthest point from any given planet outside our orbit, starting with Mars. On the inside, for Mercury it’s about 35,000,000, for Venus 67,000,000. When the planet is relatively nearby (like Mars or Venus), that’s a big chunk of the average distance between the two of us, so it matters, and it takes us only a few weeks to overtake (or be overtaken by) our neighbor, then pull away…and then it’s back to business as normal. In the case of Venus, it takes six weeks, faster Mercury only three weeks, and slower Mars a whole two months, and all three appear to go backwards against the sky background for about fifteen degrees during the retro period.

Mercury and Venus cut a 15-degree swath, and if you've a planet in the midst (as Sun, r.), it pulls you in more.

But if the planet in question is really far away, with a much wider orbit, then our 93,000,000 miles back-and-forth difference is a relative drop in the bucket, and our orbit doesn’t really bring us all that closer (or farther away), and the resulting retro period is much, much longer, from four months for Jupiter to almost half the year for Pluto, and the retrograde distance traversed is much smaller (ten degrees for Jupiter, only about one or two for Pluto. That’s a big difference, and a reason we tend to notice and talk about the retro Mercury, Venus, and Mars, and not the middle and outers so much. With the outers, it’s more like a shallow tide going in and out, as they inch along – although closer Jupiter and Saturn retro vs. direct periods have palpable socio-political effects – whereas with those right next door, it’s a much bigger deal individually and personally.

Mars (l.) and Jupiter have longer retro periods, but fewer degress are covered in the process.

And that’s just the physical end. Astrologically, when our neighbors go retro, they trace, retrace, and retrace again a swath of degrees that are thus getting triple attention. In Mercury’s case, it reverses for three weeks over just fifteen degrees, eventually hitting each degree three times (in about five weeks overall), so that’s a lot of personal attention to a select few. In Mars and Venus’s cases, it’s about the same number of degrees, but they take longer to do it (Mars two and a half months retro, total four and a half months in all, Venus six weeks retro, two and a half months in all) though it happens less often. And it’s not just hits to your natal horoscope, should some of your degrees be there – it’s also initiating a whole set of interrelated of events (births, launches, decisions) that are long-term directly connected to each other in an extended-family sort of way, and to you if your natal degrees are in the mix, well down the line. So, it’s sort of a group-intensive involving considering, reconsidering, and then finalizing of subjects and life areas covered by the planet involved, with rolling repercussions.

    Pluto (2016-17), and the other distant outer planets, can retro over the same degree for more than a year, more like hovering.

What’s happening here is, in sound and film-editing terms, a scrub, where you roll back and forth over an edit/splice point to get it precisely right, especially in the case of the inner and middle planets. [NB: because the three outermost planets move so slowly, their retrograde courses overlap some spots two years in a row, giving some degrees six hits instead of the usual three, so they appear more to hover than scrub.]. And that’s pretty much what you should be doing during a retro – paying close attention to needed fixes and readjustments and not just taking time off until it’s over. Those who spend the time with their eyes and minds open profit from the effort, those who don’t miss the boat, if not right away then down the line when that period’s inevitable developments begin to unfold.

 Scraping  back and forth over the same degrees, planets do what tape editors call "scrubbing", fine-tuning a specific spot.

So what to do, when something’s retrograde? Basically, it’s time to take another look. Well, yet another look, as it happens regularly. It’s the opportunity to get intimate with it again, a renewal of vows if you will, since you’re married to it regardless. With Mercury, it’s simple restructuring of your intellectual efforts, and with Venus, a longer re-estimation of what you want and what you really don’t. And Mars? That tends to be the most frustrating, as it’s a time when you generally move ahead, yet just keep meeting with snafus. Reorder your energies, don’t push against stubborn obstacles, take another road that is less crowded and fractious, requires less confrontation, where you can get some speed on.

But all in all, the main action message of retro periods should be paying attention and digging into the changes, not waiting until the variable period passes. Get it right while that’s happening and you’ll be ahead of the game, ignore it and those who have been attentive will begin to outdistance you as soon as the retro period passes.


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