Mercury Retrograde: Mystics and Statistics

Warren Zevon knew a thing or two about “mystics and statistics” (look it up). One of my favorite metaphysical whipping-boys is the almost universally-held opinion that the periodic transit of retrograde Mercury is unquestionably significant in our daily lives – all of us at the same time. As an astrologer of fifty years’ standing, I have always felt that assumption to be more mystical than statistically sound. I was taught that the planets in the evolving sky-pattern are only relevant at an individual level if they contact (usually by conjunction) one of the features of our natal horoscope, or that of a larger entity that has a direct impact on us. The mere fact of it happening somewhere in the heavens is too impersonal to make a difference. While it might be useful to do a mundane chart for the commencement of retrograde motion to see what that moment in time portends for the world at large, I think it’s an error to automatically take it to heart in our own private circumstances.

This phenomenon seems to be one of the darlings of modern popular astrologers, even those who delve more seriously into the art beyond the daily “Sun-sign” readings now offered online as the logical descendants of the newspaper horoscopes. I have no problem with the stated psychological effects of the change in Mercury’s apparent motion (although I think they may be a bit overstated for such a fleeting influence), I just don’t think they can be uniformly and concurrently applied to each and every person without an observable link to the nativity. Predictive astrology doesn’t work that way, and it never has; even “Sun-sign” astrology assumes that the individual’s solar position (only by sign, that is, not specific to zodiacal degree) is moved to the Ascendant to give the house cusps some kind of dubious legitimacy. This isn’t science, it’s mystical manipulation.

I see people getting all a-dither over the prospect of Mercury going retrograde, wondering what kind of misfortune might be coming their way. I’ve watched it closely in my own life for many years, and have only seen evidence of any such difficulty when the event occurs in connection with one of my natal planets or sensitive points (e.g. Ascendant, Midheaven, lunar nodes), making it an infrequent harbinger of such things. Even so, the consequences are usually negligible: I might be more absent-minded than usual, have trouble getting my points across, suffer delays in notifications or deliveries, misplace or lose something, forget a birthday or anniversary (although my wife might dispute “negligible” there), and similar annoyances (e.g. “Don’t take Mercury retrograde before driving or operating heavy equipment”). Mental distraction or confusion, careless choices (maybe “bad driving?”) and communication miscues form the bulk of its import when linked to our birth chart. Sensationalism seems to account for the rest. As Warren Zevon sang, “the gypsy wasn’t lyin’,” but she might be accused of embellishment.

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