So, while we are on the topic of misrepresenting astrology, let us look at my favourite (let us read that as least favourite) astrological myths. What seems especially odd is the way these ideas gain traction. But my feeling is that they seem like they should work, so people somehow like to propagate them. I am not criticising, but it does lead people to make some strange narratives about what is going on. Today’s exhibit:
Retrograde Planets change their Behaviour.
This is the idea that when a planet turns retrograde it is a time of reflection, review or of internalising that planet’s energy in some way. I guess this has come about because of the apparent backwards motion that a retrograde implies, but this rather misses the fact that the planet is still actually moving forward, no planet actually moves backwards, and even more pertinently, where has this idea come from? It certainly did not exist in ancient times and it really seems to me to be a phenomenon that has gained traction on social media in the last four or five years.
Let us be clear, there is no pedigree for this concept.
Well, there is a tiny bit. If we have a culprit for the idea it is this from Liz Greene who wrote in 1983:
“I think that any retrograde planet tends to interiorise the expression of that planet.” (The Outer Planets and their Cycles)
This certainly sounds like an upvote for the concept, BUT even if this is true, it is clear that this applies to your natal planets, and not the nature of transiting planets. She went on to say that “the meaning of the planet does not change.”
Now that’s one lone voice that nonetheless does not advance the case that the transiting planets in some way are changed in their effects when apparently retrograde.
The more aristocratic sources, at least those with the pedigree of two thousand years of provenance mention none of these new properties of retrogrades. Indeed, there is little qualitative difference in a planet’s behaviour and effect when retrograde. There is however a quantitative difference! I cannot underline this enough. A planet’s strength waxes and wanes with the movements of the Sun and the movement of the earth especially. Indeed, this is the basis for our discussion of the Great Year, because it is the plane of the ecliptic which determines much, and especially the angles of the chart. This makes these ideas around retrogradation weirdly simplistic. Retrograde motion robs a planet of strength, and a low-powered placement struggles to express itself easily and healthily. But here is the thing, a fast retrograde Saturn on the midheaven in Libra with Capricorn rising will far, far, far outshine a fast direct Saturn in Cancer in the third with late Aries rising. Yes, the retrograde robs Saturn of power, but it does not internalise it. Saturn’s expression becomes more of a struggle to express if this debilitating factor is concurrent with others, it does not change the style of Saturn.
Of course, we hear much about Mercury retrograde and all the attendant annoyances and so forth, but this is based upon the idea that because Mercury is retrograde, then his power is curtailed. The effects of Mercurial actions might therefore be harder to express easily and naturally. But this would vary through the day depending on various factors. What sign is rising, which house and sign are Mercury in, are there any accidental dignities and debilities? So, once again, the difficulty of expressing Mercury retrograde if Mercury is in Gemini and Virgo is rising will be rather negligible.
In fact, people usually seem to turn this principle on its head as I saw several assertions that the recent Mars retrograde would be especially difficult because Mars was in his own sign of Aries. No, it’s actually the opposite. The placement of Mars in a sympathetic sign protects him from losing so much power. One ought to be considerably more concerned with Mars in Cancer or Libra being retrograde in a succedent house.
And actually, should we be concerned? With Mars as a malefic, we perhaps ought to be glad that he is losing strength in the heavens above. And this is key. With the movements of the heavens there is a resultant style of earthly expression. But that has little to do with you in the personal sense. Yes, you may see some compulsively react to overcharged expressions of various energies, but it does not change your experience. If you have a super-Mars, then no amount of Mars retrogrades are going to change your Mars experience. You are not going to have to withdraw and reflect, as the supposed rule dictates.
There is one sense, and as far as I can follow the logic, only one sense in which a retrograde might be significant. This is if a transiting planet is retrograde and is also by other means debilitated, and it falls in aspect to a placement in your chart. There is always a trade off between transiting planetary strength and placements in your chart. But (insofar as I can judge it just off the top of my head) it is probably better to have weaker malefic transiting planets in hard aspect, they disturb the ease of the natal placement less that way. By the same token, if Jupiter trines your Venus then you will subjectively enjoy it better if tr. Jupiter is fast, direct, in a good sign, angular and with a sympathetic sign rising. Okay, other people might find you annoyingly positive, but I hope you follow the argument. In fact, Sepharail echoed this principle back in 1921:
“In astrology the retrograde is considered as a debility.” Exactly right! A debility is a loss of power. He went on to say:
“It is my personal experience that aspects, whether radical [meaning in the natal chart] or directional [transiting] that are thrown to a retrograde planet, rob that promittor of its efficacy.”
And that’s the whole point, the idea that retrogrades mean an internalising is so simplistic as to be nonsense. Retrogradation is a quantitative issue, not a qualitative one. It may, alongside myriad other debilities add up – or rather subtract down – to a difficulty of proper expression, but this has absolutely nothing to do with the planets in the sky on any given day, unless you happen to be born on that day!
There is perhaps one scenario that we ought to take note of, and this is supported by the ancient texts, and that is the situation of stationing planets. Here there is most definitely a gathering of energies that are often complicated and uncomfortable. Peter Filbey summarised this a few years back when he said:
“The phenomenon of retrograde motion is a perfectly natural occurrence, and it has no real meaning astrologically, except when a planet becomes stationary, slows down and ‘hovers’ on a critical point in the chart. Then it does have significance and should be considered.” (Astronomy for Astrologers 1984)
And really, this is the final word, from Prtolemy.
“The influence of each planet is strengthened chiefly when it may be oriental, swift and direct in its proper course and motion – for then it has its greatest power. But on the other hand it loses strength when occidental and slow in motion or retrograde as it then acts with smaller effect.”
Next time, I’ll be talking about the Void of Course Moon. Among other things.