Mercury Retrograde: Philosophy and Application


Of all the astrological phenomena that affect our lives, very few possess the frequency and power of a mercury retrograde period. Occurring three to four times a year, a mercury retrograde will definitively alter your life and circumstances, bringing in new lessons and situations for you to learn from and address. Having a sense of what a mercury retrograde period signifies will prepare you and give you all the tools you need to make the retrograde period work for you, instead of being subject to it. 

At the bottom line, we cannot understand a mercury retrograde period about without going in to some of the philosophy and traditional understanding behind a mercury retrograde. In fact, there are deeper layers of understanding that you can access by taking a little extra time to learn the background. With this extra knowledge, you will know more about mercury retrograde than even most modern astrologers, and have ample preparation and resources for dealing with the upcoming mercury retrograde period. After the philosophy, I will give you some practical magical exercises to use during the retrograde period to alleviate its effects. 

The Same and The Other

Let’s begin with someone that you have all heard of before: Plato. We’re all used to hearing about Plato aas a stuffy old dead white philosopher, but most people don’t realize that he was actually a practicing occultist. His worldview and teachings have influenced western esotericism including the whole hermetic stream, western astrology, all the way down to the Golden Dawn. Not only that, some other more contemporary heavyweight thinkers such as Carl Jung openly acknowledge the Platonic basis for their theories. To top it all off, Plato may or may not have had contact with Hermes Trismegistus himself - I like to think he did. 

In a famous dialogue called the Timaeus (which also happens to contain our first source for the story of Atlantis), Plato divides the world into two cosmic principles: the SAME and the OTHER. If you’ve hung around witchy, new-age people for awhile, it will help to understand these two principles in terms of things like unity and duality, oneness and separation, or spirit and matter, yin and yang.

We’re all pretty used to seeing these these cosmic principles unfold around us. In fact, once you’re acquainted with them, you start seeing them everywhere. Plato believed you could see these two principles reflected in two different motions in the sky, which he called the motion of the same and the motion of the other.

The motion of the same is the clockwise motion that all the planets make around the earth, rising in the east, culminating in the top of the sky at noon, and then setting in the west. Each day all the planets, the stars, the sun, and the moon rotate 360 degrees in this direction, granting us our day-night cycle. The medieval philosophers and astrologers believed that a clear sphere surrounding the edges of the universe rotated in this way, causing all the celestial bodies from the sun to the stars to move a long with it.

The motion of the other is the motion that the seven planets make opposed to the motion of the same, in a counterclockwise direction in the order of the signs. While the sun, stars, and all the planets rise in the east and sets in the west every day, the direction of the signs proceeds opposite this. 

I have placed Abraham Lincoln’s natal chart below to illustrate this. The sun currently occupies the first house the first house, meaning that he was born right at sunrise. But as the day progressed, the sun moved clockwise up to the 10th house at noon, and then in the evening it into the 7th house. This clockwise motion is the primary motion. However, the order of the signs proceeds opposite that – in the chart below, the sun occupies Aquarius, and then later it will be counterclockwise into Pisces, and then into Aries, etc. This counterclockwise motion through which all the planets move is the secondary motion. 

Lincoln’s natal chart. The planets and signs move in a full clockwise rotation in 24 hours (primary motion), and the planets slowly move against that motion counterclockwise in the order of the signs (secondary motion)

Lincoln’s natal chart. The planets and signs move in a full clockwise rotation in 24 hours (primary motion), and the planets slowly move against that motion counterclockwise in the order of the signs (secondary motion)

Back to Plato: In the Timaeus, he associated the motion of the same with those parts of reality that are fixed and unchanging: truth, absolutes, his world of the forms, and everything that transcends the material world. This makes sense, considering that the motion of the same itself is fixed, static, and unchanging. Likewise, the motion of the other corresponds with the material world which fluctuates constantly and rapidly. After doing astrology for awhile you’ll notice that the planets themselves don’t move through the secondary motion in a uniform manner – they each have their own speeds, most clearly exemplified through the lunar cycle. Since the secondary motion of the planets operates to erratically, Plato correlated them with the motion of the other.

To put it briefly: in the Spirit/Matter dichotomy that many of us know, the motion of the same represents spirit, and the motion of the other represents matter.

This distinction lies at the foundation of astrological practice. In fact, the very word “planet” comes from the Ancient Greek word planētēs, meaning a wanderer or a vagabond, since they travel against the motion that all the other stars make through the sky. Plato took a deep metaphysical truth from this: through the wandering of these planets the material world itself arises. Without the “rebellious” motion of the planets opposed to the motion of the same, there would only be same: nothing outside of consistent unity. But since the planets fight against that primary motion, we have a material world of duality as well. We can find a nice corollary to this in Vedic astrology in which the planets are called the lords of Karma who hold a similar position of creating this material world by overseeing the laws of cause and effect.

Mercury Retrograde Explained

So that was a lot of theory, but now that we know it, we can understand the philosophy behind these two motions of the sky, and that will give us a deeper, fuller understanding of retrogrades than you can get otherwise.

Whenever a planet goes retrograde, it ceases to move in the motion of the other and proceeds according to the motion of the same.  Thus, it moves backwards in the order of the signs, as if the motion of the same overpowers it and forces it to obey. Unable to fight against the motion of unity any longer, the planet surrenders its own will for a time.

When this happens, the planet ceases to have power over its regular domain - as if it has lost control of its steering wheel, or has simply let it go for the time being. For this reason, the practical, mundane significations of the planet begin to suffer. The planet no longer presides and manages its kingdom. And when a planet cannot manage its own kingdom, that kingdom suffers. As a result, the enterprises, goals, and objects associated with the retrograde planet fall apart without their leader.

Personally, I like to think of retrogrades as akin to the planet taking an entheogen – the planet enters into the realm of spirit and the motion of the same and as a result he cannot run his realm as well. Someone who has taken a large dose of mushrooms or ayahuasca may experience deep spiritual truths, and they may be doing a substantial amount of inner work, but you don’t want them to drive a car, go grocery shopping, or pay bills. They’re in a different headspace.

But there are some clearly advantages to this time as well. Retrogrades are fantastic times to stop doing outer work associated with that planet and begin focusing on more inner work associated with it. Given that the planet has started to do its own inner work, we may as well hop on board and join them. 

This kind of introspective work makes up a central part of the work all beings engage in during their time here. Retrogrades are a symtpom of that fact and permit us time to set aside our discursive, problem-solving mind and explore other ways of being. But our capitalistic, workaholic culture does not permit any breaks from material labor and output, and this compounds the difficulties of any retrograde period. If there were no pressure to drive cars and make deals during a mercury retrograde, then we would be less frustrated by its retrograde period. But since we live in a world which primarily values material output, tangible results, and labor, we force ourselves to fight against nature and keep our production levels at maximum while the universe tells us to settle down and be still.

So let’s take it back to Mercury now. Whenever Mercury retrogrades, he again has less influence over his regular domain. Cars start to break down, miscommunications occur more frequently between people, and the discursive mind slows down. Any contracts made in this time have a greater chance to fail or work out poorly, since Mercury wasn’t “there” in order to make sure everything was fine. MThis period does not support actions like making big deals, buying a car, having important conversations that could affect one’s career (like asking for a raise or a promotion), or going on any long trips. 

Instead, we can start to turn our mercurial facets inward. Any mercury retrograde period strongly supports reflective work on themes related to that planet. We can dive in and analyze how we communicate with other people, or we can take up a journaling practice and use words and language to process our inner life. I always make sure to take longer, contemplative walks (very mercurial) during any mercury retrograde period.

And because of Mercury’s association with thought and the discursive mind, mercury retrogrades strongly support meditation in general, (i.e. turning the mind inward). In particular, this will be a good time for such practices like Zen and Vipassana which are directly aimed at quieting the mind. If you are interested in going on a meditation retreat or doing a meditation intensive, then now would be the time to investigate it.

Thus the key words of advice for any Mercury retrograde period are being stillcontemplation, and reflection. As much as our busy lifestyles can afford, we should be open to resting, slowing down, and beginning to take stock of ourselves and where we are, so that we are ready and able to move forward again when Mercury goes direct at the end of March.