As Mercury in retrograde begins on 23 August, be prepared for astrologers to blame the planets and stars for a myriad of communication issues over the next few weeks.
For 400 years, astronomers have long believed it’s a basic fact of the universe that Mercury “goes into an apparent retrograde motion,” according to Vox. But in astrology, Mercury in retrograde is a borderline religious holiday that’s typically forecasted to bring about dysfunction for everyone under the sun.
While the astrological phenomenon has become a popular topic on the internet in recent years, The Atlantic says that “the idea that the planets can influence people’s lives” has been around for more than a millennium. This belief system has had numerous interpretations throughout the centuries, its most recent incarnation being new-age astrology - which usually comes in the form of relatable memes and listicles.
Social media astrology accounts have amassed hundreds and thousands of followers in recent years, attracting users with retrograde jokes and categorisation memes that include anything from cats to Stranger Things characters. Meanwhile, horoscopes and astrology-centric listicles have also gained popularity online.
Astrologer Chani Nicolas told The Atlantic in 2018: “There’s something that’s happened in the last five years that’s given it an edginess, a relevance for this time and place, that it hasn’t had for a good 35 years.”
Since 2018, astrology has become more popular among millennials and Gen-Z, and the idea of Mercury retrograde has become more pervasive in pop culture. Some astrologers reportedly credit Taylor Swift with the phenomenon’s “sudden leap into the mainstream”. In a 2014 MTV News clip, Swift explained to viewers: “Everything is going to be completely wrong and messed up and miscommunicated. Your phone will break, or you’ll send a text message and it won’t get to the person it’s supposed to go to.”
The idea that Mercury in retrograde can wreak havoc is a fairly recent idea that independent researcher Joanna Martin has traced back to the late 20th century as early as the 1970s. Martin - who studied under astrology and cultural astronomy historian Nicholas Campion - said she discovered some of the earliest mentions of Mercury retrograde while conducting research for her 2018 master’s dissertation on Mercury retrograde’s cultural history. Harper’s Bazaar wrote that Martin had noticed “a spike in mentions of Mercury retrograde coinciding with the development of computers in the 1980s”.
Martin also found that astrologer Edith Custer had printed a newsletter back in 1974, which functioned as a modern-day online forum in which astrologers “wrote in their problems” and complained about the effects of Mercury retrograde.
While the idea that communication issues as a result of planetary movements may be recent, astrologers aren’t wrong that something is happening in the sky. Really, what’s happening in the sky is primarily because of the way Mercury appears to humans. In short, Mercury retrograde is an optical illusion.
Because Mercury orbits closer to the Sun than Earth does, the planet ultimately travels faster - making its trip around the Sun in 88 days, compared to Earth’s 365 days. A planetary scientist named David Rothery explained to The Atlantic that the planet was essentially “overtaking us on the inside track”. When that occurs, it appears on Earth that Mercury is going backwards. Eventually, Earth catches up and Mercury appears to go “prograde”. The astrological phenomenon usually occurs for around three weeks, three to four times a year.
When asked whether Mercury retrograde affected humans, Rothery said: “So far as I’m concerned, the only bearing this has on events on Earth is that for most of the time when Mercury is ‘in retrograde,’ it is so close to the sun in the sky that radio communication with a spacecraft at Mercury is compromised by interference with the signal.”