Three to four times a year, the planet Mercury appears to go backward in the sky, from the vantage point of Earth. This optical illusion occurs when Mercury, on the "inside track" around the sun, catches up to Earth in its own orbit. Mercury appears to be moving backwards for about three weeks, before "pulling ahead" of Earth in this cosmic race through the solar system. The remaining Mercury Retrograde periods for 2007 are June 15 to July 9 and October 12 to November 1.
In the ancient world, the gods and goddesses embodied a particular essence or represented an important area of life. Each of these deities then became associated with a planet. Thus astrology, based on the movements of the planets, is a kind of theater of living mythology in action. Mars, for example, exemplifies courage and represents any kind of risk taking or martial venture. Saturn represents the principles of discipline, structure, and limitation. Mercury, on the other hand, was frequently depicted as the winged "messenger god" who shuttled between heaven and earth, delivering messages from the gods to the humans. For this reason, astrologers saw the planet Mercury as symbolic of the transmission of knowledge and ideas.
Because we live in an information age, it could be said that, of all the planets, Mercury and its symbols, cycles, and myths has increased significance for the times we live in. Many astrologers have noted growing influence of the planet Mercury over modern-day life, depicting it as the "ruling god" of our culture. In his July 2000 article for stariq.com, "Spicing Up Your Mercury Retrograde," astrologer Eric Francis calls Mercury the "cosmic modem." Indeed, the present-day world, writes astrologer Elisas Lonsdale in his book Inside Planets, "is enraptured with Mercury. This planetary energy shows up everywhere-humor, movement, variety, and restless currents give Mercury access. This is the god of a consumer culture, the way of life of those who are drawn to the surface to find gratification."
If Mercury is the ruling god of our consumer-driven, communications society, however, it is sometimes a god run amok-a distorted, frenetic Mercury that is symptomatic of how our natural rhythms have been thrown dramatically off-kilter and out of balance. While there are benefits to the increased openness and exchange the world enjoys as a result of global communications, few could doubt that the atmosphere we live in has become so mentally overstimulated by "information overload" that many of us cannot sleep well at night. Anxiety disorders abound, deep relaxation is a rare experience, and lack of time is considered a leading source of stress.
One of the purposes of astrology is to mark the natural variations in the rhythms of time. In this sense, the retrograde periods of Mercury offer a built-in opportunity for a treat or a sabbatical from the usual nonstop way of living, and to develop the more thoughtful, contemplative side embodied in the myths of Mercury. One reason for the current fascination with Mercury retrograde, in fact, may be the potential healing message this cycle could bring to our time-bound, media driven society. If we paid attention to its message, Mercury retrograde might satisfy an important lack in the modern soul-the need for more slow, unstructured, thinking time.
There is great foresight, for instance, in the cautionary advice many astrologers issue around the retrograde cycles. To deliberate over our actions or step back from our affairs helps return us to a saner, more measured pace of life. For while it may seem outwardly as if things are going wrong and life is falling apart, these retrograde cycles appear differently when viewed from an interior perspective. If we slow down with Mercury's regressive motion, retracing our steps as it retraces its path along the zodiac, for instance, we might discover treasures that we had overlooked in our previous haste-such as stillness, patience, quietude, insight, and reflection.
Like buried archaeological ruins, an ancient template lies beneath the monotheistic traditions of today's religions-an invisible structure that once organized the world into sacred and profane time. This template spread across the Old World cultures like a calendrical cosmic grid; solstices and equinoxes, the phases of the Moon, and the rising and setting of the stars and planets determined religious festivals and ceremonies rhythmically synchronizing with nature the lives of various tribes and cities across the planet. Though long-forgotten, this archaic memory lives within each of us, stirred awake by the sight of the stars above.
Taking three-week "time outs" several times a year to realign our souls with something more time-sacred and transcendent than our ordinary concerns may be one way to plug back into this ancient mythic template. By honoring Mercury retrograde, we can begin to mine this extraterrestrial terrain that lies buried beneath the tangled jungle of modern-day life. The psychologist Carl Jung, for instance, often spoke of the "two-million-year-old man" within each of our psyches. And neuroscientists have documented the force of the instincts that lie coiled in the stem of our brains like a sleeping serpent. Thus while Mercury direct favors the logical, rational, left-brained mind, Mercury retrograde awakens our wiser, more intuitive, imagistic right-brained way of thinking and perceiving. Not permanently-the astrological worldview is always fluid and changing-but for a period of time.
Most of the major religious traditions, for example, have encouraged students and initiates to undergo periodic retreats for the purpose of spiritual renewal. While not everyone can go off on retreat three times a year during Mercury retrograde, they can, however, consciously work with their attitudes to live life differently-scheduling more downtime, going away for the weekend, decreasing workloads, sleeping more, experiencing the arts, meditating, journaling, and doing dream work. Whether it's something we've said that has unintentionally misfired, or a storm that causes a power failure, the purpose of Mercury retrograde is to throw us back on ourselves-to redirect our attention inward.
Just as important, Mercury retrograde is a time to lighten up and not take the duties of life so seriously. Over the many years of observing Mercury retrograde, one of the things I have noticed is that it is a perfect opportunity to give ourselves a break from trying so hard to achieve our goals and get ahead. For whether or not we do this on our own, Mercury is likely to come along and, in his usual trickster fashion, find a way to upend our neatly arranged lives for us. Why does the impish god do this? To prompt us off our well-beaten paths, I believe, onto life's unexplored byways.
Indeed, in classical mythology Mercury is often referred to as the patron of travelers. As depicted by his winged cap and traveling staff, this ancient pagan god delivers the valuable message that life is a journey-a never-ending adventure of unexpected twists, unpredictable turns, and delightful surprises.As we leave youth and assume the responsibilities of adulthood, however, memory dims and we forget what it was like to experience life as freshly minted and open-ended. Bogged down in our routine, we miss the trip that we are on. Oppressed by meeting all the expectations demanded of us, we leave unopened the divinely inspired gift that life really is. With Mercury retrograde as our guide, however, we can learn to slow down enough to savor the miracles that lie in wait for us along the long highway of life. "When you set out on your journey to Ithaca, / pray that the road is long, / full of adventure, full of knowledge," wrote the poet Constantine P. Cavafy in 1911, ".do not hurry the voyage at all. / It is better to let it last for many years; / and to anchor at the island when you are old, / rich with all you have gained on the way."