Backwards in High Heels

Just what does retrograde mean anyway? A retrograde planet appears to go backwards in the sky, but is it really doing that? And what does it mean astrologically? Is it good or bad? Actually, it's more like a dance...

The Retrograde Dance

Many consider Fred Astaire to be the greatest dancer of all time. However, it has often been pointed out that his dance partner, Ginger Rogers, did everything he did—only backwards and in high heels. For Ginger, this obviously took great concentration, attentiveness and flexibility. It must have required a whole reorientation of perception to mentally remap those dance steps into their mirror image and then perform them. When you think about it that way, it almost seems like Ginger was the more skilful dancer!

When a planet goes retrograde, it seems to go backwards in the sky for a time. Astrologically, going from direct to retrograde motion, it's kind of like switching from Fred Astaire to Ginger Rogers. That planet's overall expression goes from being extroverted, outwardly focused, and straightforward (when direct) to being introverted, introspective and subtle (when retrograde). Its energy seems to become upside-down and complicated.

As with Ginger, while a planet is retrograde we must dance the path of its territory with increased concentration, attentiveness and flexibility. For example: with Mercury, ruler of the mind and communication, we need to watch out for lapses in memory, miscommunications, and the need to think outside the box in order to navigate through the retrograde obstacle course. The retrograde planet's energy is turned inward and more difficult to express outwardly. Like the inhale and exhale of our breathing, direct and retrograde combine to form a natural rhythm in our experience of that planet.

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

All planets go retrograde except the Sun and Moon. The rest of the celestial bodies in our solar system (planets, asteroids, centaurs and miscellaneous space junk) all go retrograde some of the time. (Although the Sun and Moon are obviously not planets, as such, astrologers sometimes refer to them as planets for convenience.)

The Moon orbits the Earth, and the Earth orbits the Sun, so these pairs of bodies all have a direct relationship to each other from Earth's perspective. Not so with the other planets, however. Because the Earth and other planets are orbiting the same object (the Sun), the relationship between our orbits becomes rather complex. It is this complexity that produces the retrograde phenomenon.

Interestingly, we can only view a planet in the sky when it is near or during its retrograde period. Both the retrograde planet and the Earth must be on the same side of the Sun, so that when we look out toward that planet, the Sun is out of the way and the sky is dark. The Sun must also be well below the local horizon, so that the sky is dark enough for those tiny lights to be seen.

And when the Earth and another planet are on the same side of the Sun, that's when the retrograde phenomenon happens. We are able to view the "outer" planets—the planets whose orbits are farther from the Sun than the Earth's: Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto. The "inner" planets (Mercury and Venus) can be seen only some of the time (for a limited time after sunset or before sunrise), but always when they are approaching a change of direction (from direct to retrograde or vice versa).

The physical mechanics of how a planet goes retrograde are fascinating! Visually, retrograde means the planet appears to go backwards in the sky. It travels forward, then backwards, and then forwards again. This drove the Ancients crazy trying to figure out what caused this bizarre behaviour! Many elaborate and imaginative theories were put forward to explain it. In reality, the planet doesn't really come to a screeching halt, turn around and go back where it came from. What we're actually seeing is an optical illusion.

The Highway or the Carousel

For most of the retrograde-able planets (except for Mercury and Venus), the retrograde illusion happens because we are viewing that planet from the Earth, which is travelling faster than the other planet. It's a bit like passing a car on the highway—it looks like the car is going backwards against the backdrop of the scenery. In the same way, as the Earth moves faster than the planet, it overtakes it like passing a car on the road. Against the backdrop of the constellations, it looks to us like that planet is going backwards. We call this "retrograde motion." (For an excellent demonstration of this effect, check out this animation from the NASA Pic of the Day website, showing 3 years of Saturn's movements photographed across the sky. You can actually see it slowing down and then going backwards, then slowing down again and going forwards again.)

Retrograde diagram of outer planetsRetrograde Motion for Outer Planets (Mars thru Pluto)
It's like passing a car on the highway. It looks like the other car is going backwards, even though both are actually going forward.

For Mercury and Venus, the mechanics are a little different. This is because their orbits are closer to the Sun, inside Earth's orbit, so we see them appearing to go back and forth as they travel around the Sun. It's like watching someone on a carousel or merry-go-round. If you don't realize you're seeing a three-dimensional movement, it looks like the person on the carousel goes forward, then backward, then forward again. But from our carousel rider's point of view, they're always going forward. As with the outer planets, this only happens when Mercury or Venus is rounding the same side of the Sun as the Earth.

Retrograde diagram of inner planetsRetrograde Motion for Inner Planets (Mercury, Venus)
Like watching someone going around on a carousel or merry-go-round. They look as if they're going back and forth.

Although the retrograde phenomenon is physically just a trick of perspective, it is considered very significant astrologically. The retrograde planet's energy is very strong but much more internalized and sensitive, and therefore harder to express clearly and directly. When we're talking about the faster moving planets — Mercury, Venus and Mars, which are also called the Personal Planets — we tend to be affected on a very personal level.

Most planets spend 4-6 months of the year in retrograde motion. This is true for Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto, as well as other bodies in the solar system like the asteroids and Chiron. Quicksilver Mercury spins around the Sun so fast that we see it go retrograde a few times during year. Venus and Mars have the least frequent retrograde periods because their orbital paths are close to the Earth's and therefore more closely in sync.


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