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What is mercury retrograde? And is there anything to it?

Everything you ever wanted to know about the number one scapegoat for when everything goes terribly wrong.

by Vivian Manning-Schaffel /
According to astrology, Mercury retrograde happens when Mercury zips around the Sun at a faster speed than the Earth.NASA / Johns Hopkins via EPA

Ever hear talk about Mercury retrograde? That astrological phenomenon that seems to wreak havoc on all things involving communication and movement, such as travel, electronics and he-said, she-said mumbo jumbo? It turns out another Mercury retrograde is upon us, beginning December 3rd and lasting until December 22nd.

As for me, I’ve noticed this phenomenon somehow seems to defy science. Without fail, during a Mercury retrograde, I will be forced to sit at the Genius bar for hours, my flight will be delayed, someone will misunderstand something I did or said and so on, making the planet a really easy scapegoat when things go awry.

So, what is Mercury retrograde, exactly?

Tali Edut, one half (along with her twin Ophira) of the AstroTwins — popular astrologers with a website that counts approximately 10 million page views per month — explains that Mercury retrograde happens when Mercury zips around the Sun at a faster speed than the Earth, passing us in orbit 3-4 times per year, making it seem like its moving backward from Earth’s vantage point.

“According to astrological lore, all areas of life that are associated with Mercury go ‘backwards’ during a retrograde,” says Edut. “Mercury is the messenger planet, so it rules communication, mobile devices, transportation, email, snail mail, and all things data. Networks go down mysteriously and messages get stuck in the either. Minor grievances can escalate into major blowups if we don't choose our words wisely,” Edut says, adding it’s also prime time for old friends (and exes!) to suddenly appear out of the blue.

A Mercury retrograde during holiday season is inopportune, so double-and-triple check your travel plans, and be prepared to go with the flow. Explains Edut, “Flights get delayed and there are long lines at the airport. Packages get lost in the mail and information can get into the wrong hands.” Also, the potential for misunderstandings are rife.

What science says about Mercury retrograde

Science does not endorse astrology in the least, let alone Mercury retrograde. “There is absolutely no evidence, or reason to expect from science, that Mercury or any other planet has any effect whatsoever on life on Earth,” says Michael Shera, Curator and Director of Astrophysics at the American Museum of Natural History. “Astrology has no more scientific basis than alchemy or belief in the existence of unicorns. Any theory that claims to be scientific must explain a set of observations, and must make predictions that can be tested, and shown to be true or false. There is no published study in existence which shows that (for example) Leos are more likely to be brave or strong (or any human quality,) than, say, Capricorns. Whether or not Mercury was in conjunction with the Moon, or in Gemini, or in retrograde motion, or whatever, has zero effect on your fate, health and personality. No study ever been published in any peer-reviewed journal showing otherwise, or that any other aspect of astrology is correct.”

Astrology has no more scientific basis than alchemy or belief in the existence of unicorns.

Astrology has no more scientific basis than alchemy or belief in the existence of unicorns.

Believing it exists may give us some sense of control

So what’s the appeal? “People need to feel some level of control over their lives,” explains Kim Nuttall, Licensed Mental Health Counselor in Framingham, MA. “Astrology and it’s like offer some feeling of knowing the future, of being able to feel ‘prepared’ for it. We know that we cannot control the future in our logical minds, but it can be emotionally comforting to feel like there can be something to guide us. It’s not unlike religion in a lot of ways. It’s a way to make sense of the chaos of life. Life is just chaotic and it’s difficult to accept that there is no reason.” With respect to Mercury retrograde in particular, Nuttall says it makes for an “easy scapegoat for a bad day.” “There is a confirmation bias,” she says, ”My commute was awful! Oh, Mercury is in retrograde, that must be it.”

All this said, Edut remains unfazed. “We understand the skeptics. We are skeptics ourselves! But how does one develop a scientific theory? But observing data and drawing conclusions based on what is seen. Astrology has been around since the time of the ancient Babylonians and was developed by the Greeks,” she says.

To prepare for this coming retrograde, she advises backing-up your electronic devices and to choose words wisely. She also encourages anyone who has to deal with contracts to comb through the fine print and hire a lawyer, if possible. Most importantly, think in terms of “re-." “It’s a good time for researching, reviewing and reuniting. Ping an old pal who you find on Facebook, pull an old project out of the bins and revive a retro style or tradition. Some of the slowdowns can be blessings in disguise, as they give people a chance to reconsider their actions before making any binding decisions,” she says.

As for me, I’ll likely take some of Edut’s advice. Because I’m also superstitious enough to realize if I prepare for the worst, it probably won’t happen.

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