The 2011 Mercury retrograde cycle is about to begin on Wednesday, March 30, 2011 when the Winged Messenger slows down and appears to change course and focus. From our vantage point on Earth, Mercury, which is only visible just before sunrise or just after sunset, travels in a forward direction most of the time. But three or four times a year, it appears to stop and reverse making a small loop across the skies. Of course Mercury really isn't going backwards. It's an optical illusion based on the relative speeds and orbits of the Earth and Mercury around the Sun.
Astrologers love to analyze and discuss Mercury retrograde cycles. Perhaps because Mercury rules astrology, its effects are a popular topic in astrological blogs, magazines, and columns. The public's fascination with it may be due to its rulership over some of the most important aspects of modern life: communication, writing, education, technology, markets, commerce, movement, and travel. When Mercury goes retrograde, communication, travel, and computers seem to go awry. Binding agreements such as contracts and online transactions are subject to delays and overlooked details arise that will require time-consuming edits, corrections, and rewrites. Astrologers advise us to avoid beginning new projects or dealing with any form of technology when Mercury, the winged Messenger, Teacher, and Trickster, begins his retrograde dance. But is it really that bad?
As I discussed in a previous post, Mercury retrograde seems to trigger right brain activity that brings us back to the present moment, and sets aside the plotting and planning for the future that occurs in left brain activity.
During a Mercury retrograde period our experience of the external world temporarily shifts as we encounter obstacles in communication, travel, and expression. These snags are meant to slow us down and make us look at things from a different perspective. Many astrologers suggest this is a great time to complete old tasks, to pay attention to dreams and messages bubbling up from our subconscious, to turn our focus inward, and one might say to turn on the right brain. Our culture tends to be very left brain with its schedules and deadlines, and it doesn’t easily accommodate a cycle of introspective reflection and re-evaluation. But it is through our right brain that we distinguish the transient from the eternal, the truth from illusions. The left brain discriminates names and forms and can easily get caught in the illusion of the external, sensory world. Under the influence of Mercury retrograde it is easier to access the wisdom of the right brain which allows us to review our left brain attachments, identify mistakes, and eventually move forward with the truth. Mercury retrograde is a gift of balance, an opportunity to correct our course in alignment with the divine.
Mercury retrograde is part of a bigger Mercury cycle that takes 116 days to complete. As the innermost and smallest planet of our solar system, Mercury orbits the Sun at a swift pace of 88 days. From our perspective on Earth it does not make the 360 degree aspects like the outer planets. Instead it forms a single conjunction and single opposition with the Sun during each 116 day cycle. It does this three times over the course of a year forming what some mystics describe as a six-pointed star. Just as the Venus carves out a pentagram around the Earth during its 5 retrograde periods in 8 years, Mercury also inscribes a hexagram during its 3 retrograde periods in 1 year. Although its geometry is not as defined as the Venus pentagram, the Mercury hexagram is also a hidden symbol in alchemical traditions. The interlocking triangles symbolize the union of the two principles or forces, the active and passive, male and female, pervading the universe. (Might it also also be interpreted as the balance of right and left brain?)
Notice the six-pointed star on this Renaissance portrait of Mercury.
UPDATE: from Tracy R. Twyman: Of note here is an electrochemical effect called even by modern chemists the “Beating Heart of Mercury,” which is produced when an iron nail touches a glob of liquid mercury. This causes the glob to pulse, and at times form the shape of a hexagram, the “Seal of Hermes.” This effect would have been known to the alchemists of old.
During a retrograde period Mercury slows down and appears to pause, reverse direction, and disappear behind the Sun in combustion. Like the mythological Phoenix, it rises from the ashes and reappears in the morning sky as a transformed figure. Ancient Greeks had two names for Mercury: Apollo in the morning sky, and Hermes in the evening, sky -- just as they had two names for Venus: the morningstar was called Lucifer (the light bearer) and the evening star Hesperus (setting in the West). Retrograde cycles of the inner planets (Mercury and Venus) were viewed by ancient sky watchers as part of a vast shamanic process, and their meaning was captured in the sacred geometry of their orbits -- the Pentagram of Venus and the Hexagram of Mercury.
Mercury retrograde always begins with Mercury in the evening position. During the middle of its 20-24 day retrograde it makes an inferior conjunction with the Sun during where it undergoes a purification or alchemical process initiated by the great luminary. As it separates from the Sun, Mercury returns, or is reborn, to the morning sky. Anywhere between 9-15 days after this inferior conjunction it turns direct. About a week later it reaches its greatest distance from the Sun and begins to pick up speed as it heads for its superior conjunction when its speed matches the Sun as it returns to its evening position ready to start the process over and over again.
It is the quality of quickening that has given Mercury its speedy reputation, and has made it a namesake for the element of Mercury, i.e quicksilver, the key ingredient in alchemy. As the only metal that is a liquid state at room temperature, Mercury was readily used by alchemist because it easily fused with other metals. Similarly the planet Mercury is said to take on the quality and influence of other planets associated with it. The element Mercury was believed to transcend the liquid and solid states just as the planet Mercury was thought to transcend life/death and heaven/earth in its retrograde process.
In the alchemical tradition Mercury was considered a key ingredient of the philosopher's stone, the magical element that changed lead into gold. The transmutation of metals was a metaphor for an inner potential of the spirit and reason to evolve from a lower state of imperfection (lead) to a higher state of enlightenment and perfection (gold). In this view, spiritual elevation, the transmutation of metals, and the purification and rejuvenation of the body were seen to be manifestations of the same concept. Thus Mercury is the catalyst that can transmute the lead of ignorance into the gold of enlightenment.
Mercury is called Budha in Sanskrit, meaning intelligence or cognition that as westerners we might correlate with brain activity of the sensory and cognitive mind. Buddhi is the ability to discern the real from the unreal, and I would say includes the brain and heart, the body's seat of consciousness. The sacred geometry of the anahata, the heart chakra, which radiates the color green associated with Mercury, has hexagram at its center. In astrological traditions, the Sun rules the heart which is seen as the seat of the soul; whereas Mercury rules the brain, which is the primary organ of the senses and the cognitive mind. When the polarity of the brain finds balance, as symbolized by the hexagram, then the soul radiates a beautiful green light from the heart chakra and can travel up the Sushumna to connect with higher realms outside of sensory dimensions. Mercury's dance around the Sun reflects periods when its ability to discern the truth from sensory impressions is heightened, and symbolically aligns the cognitive mind, the buddhi, with the atma in the heart. Astrologically when Mercury makes its inferior and superior conjunctions with the Sun, it is considered combust, or burned up. It is rendered powerless to think and discern; but Mercury is mutable and can use the heat to surrender and transform its heavy materialistic thinking to understanding the higher reality of the Sun. Periods of retrograde and direct motion integrate right and left brain activity at these conjunction points.
2011 Mercury Retrograde Cycles
March 30, 2011 - April 23, 2011
August 2 - 26, 2011
November 24, 2011 - December 13, 2011
In 2011 two of the three retrograde periods will commence in gandanta degrees of fire signs and retrograde back into water signs, the third will occur solely in a water sign. Last year's Mercury retrograde cycle began and ended in the element of fire. In a previous post, it was unsettling to see how many cataclysmic events involving fires were ignited during each retrograde period in 2010. Only the last one fell in critical gandanta degrees of fire and water.
Gandanta is traditionally described as an inauspicious position causing misery to the area of influence of the planet. In this case Mercury, the ruler of communication, commerce, movement, and travel will be the pivotal player in an unfolding karmic drama. In Sanskrit gand means knot, or node, and anta means end. It refers to the juncture between water and fire, in particular last 3 degrees of a water sign, and first three degrees of a fire sign -- at the three distinct junctions: Pisces (Revati)- Aries (Aswini), Cancer (Ashlesha)- Leo (Magha), and Scorpio (Jyeshta)- Sagittarius (Mula).
When planets travel through gandanta positions, they take on a special power to unravel knots of karma and move on to the next level. If a planets falls in the last three degrees of water sign, it is completing an old cycle; if it falls in the first three degree of a fire sign is beginning a new cycle. When planets undergo retrograde patterns through gandanta degrees the opportunity to address these karmic knots is amplified as the planet grinds over these critical degrees three times. Moreover, as Mercury rules the nakshatras of the last three degrees of each water sign, it may have more significant power, or an ability to speed up the process of releasing the binds of the past than other planets passing through gandanta degrees. Ketu rules the nakshatras of the first degrees of each fire sign and its own strange illumination dissolves any illusion surrounding these knots. Bepin Behari writes that Ketu "brings the dawn of intuitive understanding of the essential nature of things." As the harbinger of this primordial creative force, Ketu's energy may trigger unexpected shifts that appear chaotic at the early gandantic degrees of fire signs, but are necessary steps to the next level.
Next week Mercury will station at 0 degrees Aries on March 30, 2011 and will retrograde to 18 degrees Pisces, before returning to the 0 degrees Aries mark on May 11, 2011 along with Venus and Jupiter also at 0 degrees Aries. As most of this retrograde will occur in a water sign, it seems likely that Mercury will have an opportunity to reassess and disentangle some old karmic knots in its area of astrological dominion before it can truly begin anew in Aries.
For the past three weeks Mercury has been transiting its sign of debilitation, Pisces. When Mercury transits a sign ruled by Jupiter, it becomes more connected to these higher realms, while its lower mundane functions suffer and lose focus. During Mercury's passage through Pisces the world has witnessed one of the worst catastrophe's of human history -- a destructive act of nature (water) that was exacerbated by our own hubris around nuclear energy (fire).
In this age of global communication, news of the earthquake and tsunami spread rapidly and was covered by the news media as well as by social media sites. However, accurate assessments of the resultant nuclear catastrophe were not as forthcoming, and in some cases held back by the corporations running the nuclear power plants. In spite of initial reports that minimized the radiation leaks, alarmists warnings were posted all over the internet. The uncertainty about the truth and seriousness of the situation heightened concern that was expressed as both reality-based fear and fear-mongering. It became crystal clear that nuclear power is not as safe as we were lead to believe and that no one seemed to know what to do about it. Mercury in Pisces allows us to see the big picture of our addiction to toxic energy, but the details of how we fix it are far from certain.
Last year the BP oil spill occurred during a Mercury retrograde period, and like this year's catastrophe, original assessments were minimized. It also sparked discussion of the need for clean energy and environmentally sound production. Deep sea oil drilling was briefly suspended, but to date nothing has really changed. The karmic residue of the BP oil spill has not been completely resolved. Mercury in Pisces has revealed that new leaks are being reported in the Gulf of Mexico, while deep sea drilling contracts are still being awarded -- to BP under the guise of Noble Energy. Did I mention Mercury rules thieves and liars. Under this upcoming retrograde we may see more headlines exposing lies and misinformation conjured up by big corporations and government officials.
Mercury will station and briefly pause 0 degrees Aries spending a day in the first fire gandanta and sign of the zodiac. The fiery quality of Aries imbues Mercury with quick wit, inventive and pioneering ideas, and fast mind. But fire can also burn out a sensitive nervous system making one nervous, hyper, and difficult to calm down. The next day it returns to the water gandantic degrees of Pisces in a nakshatra ruled by Mercury, Revati. As you can imagine rolling back and forth over the water-fire junction may bring things to a boil and release some built up steam. I would not be surprised if another water-fire event is triggered.
And as Mercury stations and reverses direction back into Pisces, its debilitation will be cancelled by its retrograde motion. In truth the debilitation is not fully cancelled, but rather the mutable water sign does not produce as many negative effects on Mercury. In Vedic astrology a retrograde planet is interpreted at being more powerful, especially on the days that it stations, so Mercury retrograde can also be viewed as a time of sharpened insight. How we experience a retrograde period is different depending on whether our natal charts have retrograde planets (if we are left-brain or right-brain oriented), or where the retrograde planet transits our natal charts. By knowing when the planets start to go retrograde, it is possible to be prepared to utilize the shifting energy effectively.
Perhaps the most fruitful use of Mercury retrograde is to make time for reflection. Slow down and review the past few months' mercurial activity. For example, it is an excellent time to complete unfinished projects, or correct things that were not done right the first time. If you are involved in the business world, it is wise to back up files and make copies as Mercury retrograde can interrupt the smooth flow of information. A retrograding Mercury also influences thinking, and allows us to focus inward. Dream work and meditation may be more profound, and bring up things we have forgotten, or unfinished business on a psycho-spiritual level. Vedic astrology uses remedial measures, called upayas, like mantra, gemstones and yantras to balance these energies and the karma they bring. Retrograde planets may also function to fulfill a karmic debt or promise, or to clear up things from the past. One must take a step backward in order to go forward later. It is a great time to clear away karmic clutter. And most of all it's a wonderful time to meditate, to bring the left and right brain into balance, and to leave the sensory world of the mind for the truth held in the sacred space of the heart.