Yikes! Mercury was retrograde when I was born! Am I doomed? Will the check be lost in the mail for the rest of my life? Will my luggage never arrive at the same city I do?
Retrograde natal planets often scare people, as if something were wrong with being born with planets moving in that “backwards” condition. Yet most of us have at least one of them, and often more. They are far from rare, in other words. And they aren’t some kind of high jinx in your chart either. They are just different from planets moving in direct motion. It’s sort of like being left-handed.
The overriding principle is that, first and foremost, there is nothing “wrong with” anyone’s chart, ever. The basic laws of the universe preclude that possibility. Your chart is perfect. It fits the needs and conditions of your soul like the proverbial glove. Retrograde planets, squares, oppositions, Mars, Saturn, and Pluto – all the “bad guys” – we need every one of them, and they can be “good for you.” That’s a philosophical point obviously, but understanding it is mission-critical, at least in the context of evolutionary astrology. (If you would prefer an astrologer who would describe you as doomed by some configuration in your chart, I can make some referrals.)
Hold your arm out in front of you and point your index finger straight up. Now look at your fingertip through your left eye, then through your right eye. Your finger naturally seems to jump back and forth against the background scenery. Look at Pluto against the starry background in March, then look at it again in September. It’s the same thing. Like your finger, it too has jumped backwards. That’s because in March, earth was on one side of its orbit, while in September it was halfway around, on the other side. That’s as if the distance between your left eye and your right eye were about 186 million miles – and that’s far enough to make Pluto seem to jump.
In reality, Pluto has of course continued to plod forward in its orbit. It is only our changing perspective that has made it appear to go backwards. That’s how retrogradation works. That is why all the planets are subject to it – we’re watching them all from the moving earth, as if we were on a merry-go-round. Only the Sun and the Moon are immune to this effect.
Again, there is nothing wrong with a planet “going backwards.” But when you are born with a planet in that condition, it does have some distinguishing characteristics. Like everything else in astrology, it is possible to get it right and it is possible to get it wrong. Let’s focus first on how to get it right, then we will take a peek at the possible dark side of the equation. Let’s begin by understanding a core point: planets act upon the world. They are the active ingredients in astrology, not to mention in life. They do things. Their spirit is generally, “Forward – March!”
All of that hits a simple bull’s eye, so long as a planet is in direct motion. It is boldly going where it has not gone before – at least not in this particular cycle. It is entering new degrees, which is to say, fresh territory. But when a planet is retrograde, it is moving in the opposite direction: inward rather than outward, toward the past rather than toward the future. It is not that it stops “acting on the world,” but rather that some of its energy is siphoned off, re-purposed to pay attention to inner worlds and to yesterday rather than tomorrow..
- Instead of action, it is inclined toward reflection.
- Instead of objectivity, it favors subjectivity.
- Instead of looking toward the future, it contemplates the past.
- Instead of going outward, it is going inward.
- Instead of being extroverted, it tends toward introversion.
- Instead of participating in consensus reality , it thinks for itself – and keeps its thoughts to itself..
Among astrologers who are inclined toward dark thoughts about retrograde planets, the view is often held that they “have a harder time expressing themselves.” There is a kernel of truth in that observation, but beware of the implication that this hesitancy must be understood as some kind of flaw. Who do you like better, someone who shoots from the hip verbally without forethought or someone who reflects before he or she speaks? Easy question, right? Retrograde planets are more like that second person. It’s not so much that they always have a harder time expressing themselves as the fact that they are not so eager to.
Go back in your imagination to the sixth grade. There’s a quiet girl in your class, sitting near the back of the room, kind of hiding behind her thick glasses. When the teacher calls on her, she always knows the answer, but she never volunteers much. Kids like her all right, but they don’t really know her very well. If they thought about her, they’d decide that she was a little mysterious . . . but they actually don’t think much about her at all. In her chart, seven planets are retrograde, and she is acting way.
Years later, there’s a big class reunion. The “quiet girl” is now a well-known novelist. Curious, you buy her bestseller. Turns out, it’s a tale set in a strangely-familiar grammar school. As you read, you recognize the characters. There is a devastatingly insightful portrait of someone you quickly recognize as your pompous history teacher. As you read about him and his improper relationship with a rubber duck, tears of laughter are running down your cheeks. A few pages further on, you pick out the snootiest “pretty girl” in the class, along with the most arrogant “muscle boy.” She’s nailed everyone in a brilliant, trenchant way. You are soon praying there’s no character who resembles you in the next chapter.
Back in her school days, our novelist didn’t have much to say – but she didn’t miss a thing. Better late than never, you are now looking at her retrograde planets in action. Like daffodil bulbs planted deeply, they took longer to come up and bloom, but when they did, they were “floriferous.” She actually had those funny, piercing insights when she was eleven years old – but she was forty before she was ready to share them.
Retrograde planets tend to withdraw more from the world than active, direct ones. That means they tend to have a certain freedom from the gravitational field of consensual reality. For example, many of us have heard of “laughing yoga.” In a group, someone starts laughing for no apparent reason. Pretty soon everyone else is laughing too. Or in a theater, someone coughs – and you guessed it, soon someone else coughs too. Humans are herd creatures. I suspect that people with a strong retrograde influence are less likely than most of us to laugh or cough under those circumstances. With retrograde planets, there is a certain immunity to being herded around by the group.
I am not sure where this idea originated, but I have always heard that retrograde planets frequently appear in the charts of geniuses. I find that notion very plausible, so long as we don’t get too one-dimensional about it – obviously, not everyone with retrograde planets is a genius. And there are other astrological correlates of genius that have nothing to do with retrograde planets – strong Uranian or Aquarian influences, for example, or planets Out of Bounds by declination. Still, the primary characteristic of all geniuses is that they “think outside the box.” They have a relative immunity to “group think.” I suspect they are less likely to laugh just because others are laughing or cough just because others are coughing. And those “genius qualities” are retrograde qualities.
As evolutionary astrologers, we always ask a question that other astrologers tend not to even think about. That is why you have the chart you have. Since you’ve had your chart since the day you were born, anything that caused you to have it needed to have happened before you were born. We use the language of reincarnation to understand all that. So why might you have retrograde planets? This quickly gets into deep waters, but basically those planets equip you to get to the karmic roots of any issues you have retained from previous lifetimes. For example, with Venus retrograde in your natal chart, you will be meeting a lot of people who seem “strangely familiar” in this life. Together, you are aiming to untangle some kind of karmic knot with them – something rooted in the “retrograde” past, the time before you were born.
What about the dark side of retrograde planets? As with everything else in astrology, there are ways to make a mess of them. We might, for example, plant those “daffodil bulbs” so deep that they never come up at all. It is in fact fair to say that they “have a harder time expressing themselves” so long as we balance that criticism with a second perspective: planets in direct motion have a harder time thinking for themselves.
- Picture the poet who dies with reams of luminous, but unpublished, poetry in a box under her bed. No one ever reads a word of it. Maybe that’s the effect of a weak response to Mercury (the voice) or Venus (the arts) retrograde in her natal chart.
- Picture the “armchair adventurer” who never dared to cross an ocean or climb a mountain. Could that be a retrograde Mars?
- Picture the “astrology fan” who reads avidly for forty years and is never bold enough to sit with a friend in need and talk about his transit-tortured chart. Uranus retrograde?
- Picture the “tragic romantic” who spends her life longing for love, but never takes the risk of actually loving anyone. Are we looking at a retrograde Saturn in the 7th house?
- Picture someone working for minimum wage, but with a dozen “million dollar ideas” for businesses or products, none of which she or he is bold enough to try. Is that a natal 10th house Jupiter in retrograde motion?
Again, our aim here is to recognize that retrograde planets have their dangers – something that evolutionary astrological theory holds in common with every other possible configuration. Their particular danger lies in being “planted so deeply” that they settle for being flowers that never open.
But if we do strive to open those flowers, patiently but relentlessly, their perfume can fill a city, a country, or a century. Think of Ludvig von Beethoven, for example. He had four retrograde planets – Mars, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. There are many other examples, of course, but I will leave it at that.