Retrograde Motion in Astronomy

Astronomically, retrogrades happen as Earth is passing or being passed by other planets. Like the apparent movement of the sun through the zodiac, a planet seemingly moving backward is an illusion, as planets always revolve around the sun in the same direction. The appearance of retrograde motion occurs because of the relative difference in speed. It's something like when you're sitting at a stop light and the car next to you takes off unexpectedly—you may find yourself stomping down on the brakes because of a temporary feeling of moving backward. Similarly, it's when planets are at their closest approach to Earth that apparent retrograde motion occurs. In short, retrograde motion is an illusory side-effect of planetary proximity.

And retrograde motion is not simply a matter of moving backward. Before and after the retrograde proper, planets actually perform wide looping forays from the ecliptic where their motion varies as much in the vertical dimension as the horizontal. There are eight basic shapes these loops assume, depending on the relationship between the location of the particular retrograde and the location of the planet's nodes (the places where the planet's orbit intersects Earth's orbit, or the ecliptic plane).

Retrograde Meaning in Astrology

Astrologically, when we try to understand the meaning of a planet moving backward, the first thing to note is that it's a fairly rare occurrence. The vast majority of planetary motion is direct, so direct becomes "normal." Most of the time, planets move in forward motion on, or relatively parallel to, the ecliptic, which we can think of as the main highway.

Simply by being contrary to the normal flow, retrograde motion represents an exception, or perhaps even a challenge, to this sense of normalcy. But since retrograde planets depart from the main highway altogether, perhaps it's more appropriate to think of them as seekers or explorers who travel the celestial byways in search of something not available on the main highway.

Retrograde Types

Because of the different looping shapes, there are at least eight different types of retrogrades for each of the planets. These loops vary in shape much more with the planets that are closest to Earth.

During their respective retrogrades, Venus, Mercury, and Mars all come closer to Earth than the sun, penetrating the interior heart space of our system. These retrogrades are more extreme in the distance the planet moves away from the ecliptic, which makes their loop shapes more exaggerated. So, we can interpret the retrogrades of Venus, Mercury, and Mars as being the most personal, the most challenging, and requiring the biggest adjustments.

Jupiter and Saturn go retrograde more frequently, about a third of the time, and their loops shapes are more flattened and less extreme. So, we can interpret these retrogrades as being somewhat less personal, less challenging overall, and requiring smaller adjustments. The outer planets are retrograde about 40% of the time, so most people have at least one of them retrograde.

Retrograde Effects

Since retrograde motion is so radically different than the norm, it's not a surprise that many people often experience it as disruptive. The question, then, is whether disruption is in and of itself a bad thing. It seems that getting off the beaten track could be experienced as less disruptive when we know it's coming and plan for it by building in some wiggle room. It also seems that relaxing our expectations, taking less for granted, and being more observant are all beneficial practices.

As we know that retrograde motion is a side-effect of proximity, perhaps any problems we perceive during retrogrades are at least somewhat due to being too close to someone or something to see it objectively. So, what to do? Taking our time, getting a little distance, and changing perspectives may be very helpful. In the end, a change in perspective might just give us access to an opportunity we would have missed otherwise. Viewed through this lens, perhaps retrograde misadventures can become worth it—even transformative.

Retrograde Planets in the Birth Chart

Retrogrades in the birth chart signify a person who needs to deviate from the norm from time to time. Most people have two or three planets retrograde in their chart. With Mercury, Venus, or Mars retrograde, there may be a focus or accent on the inner life, or a person may have a tendency to perceive things very subjectively regarding the affairs of that planet. With Jupiter and Saturn retrograde, a person may feel out of step with the dominant culture or an intense desire to effect change in society. The outer planets retrograde may signify generational or cross-cultural forces in one's life which cause them to feel somewhat out of touch with current trends. More than three planets retrograde is relatively rare and signifies a person who may be largely out of step with the world around them—and strongly devoted to finding their own unique path in life.