Enter the trickster: Mercury returns to retrograde

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NEW YORK, NEW YORK –In astrology, the planet Mercury begins moving retrograde again on January 21, meaning that the planet will appear to be moving in the opposite direction of other heavenly bodies. This optical illusion occurs three times annually, and usually inspires a plethora of social media posts blaming communication and other blunders on the condition. This time around, Mercury’s reversal has caught the attention of writer Kristin Dombek, who in an essay in the New York Times magazine writes:

On Jan. 21, at 10:54 a.m. Eastern Time, Mercury will begin its first pass by Earth of the new year. For about three weeks, it will appear to move backward across our sky and will, according to astrologers, disrupt technology, communication and human concord. Facebook and Twitter will clog with reports of appointments missed, important email sent to the spam folder, wars between nations, cars crashed and iPhones dropped in toilets, all followed by some version of the hashtag “#mercuryretrograde.” Advice from astrology blogs will arrive in unison: Back up your computer, expect miscommunications, don’t make agreements or important decisions and don’t sign contracts — and hide.

Teri Parsley Starnes

Teri Parsley Starnes

“I thought the article was kinda great,” said Teri Parsley Starnes, an astrologer who writes on the topic for PNC’s Minnesota bureau. She braced herself for a slew of misconceptions, saying, “I figured, ‘here we go,’ someone’s going to make fun of us, but I learned some stuff, like the fact that the craters are named after artists. That’s brilliant.”

While Starnes feels that Dombek’s treatment wasn’t as terrible as it could have been, she does think people with only a passing familiarity with astrology may not quite grasp the concept. “Saturn return and Mercury retrograde are the two things most people know,” she said, and as a result, “It’s easy to blame Mercury” for any mishap that occurs during the retrograde period. As a Pagan, though — she’s a member of the Reclaiming tradition — Starnes looks at the skies through a spiritual lens, and considers what is known about the gods associated with the heavenly bodies.

Mercury and Hermes (Starnes used the names interchangeably during the interview) are gods of communication, but they are also tricksters. “I’m very inspired by the trickster aspect,” she said. “Whatever we expect to do, during retrograde the result is often something we didn’t expect. I think of it as a mirror: what’s my intention? Now, we must do it another way.”

She went on to explain that this is a period where being mindful and present is important. “I think his mission during retrograde is to integrate all of our minds, we often use just our ‘left brain’ or our ‘right brain;’ he encourages both.”That kind of integration is the opposite of how many people move through the day. We often space out, we’re not present,” she said. “I don’t caution to not do things, it’s a really good opportunity to enhance our focus be more present.”

One of Starnes’ clients has exploratory surgery scheduled during this retrograde, and asked if rescheduling was the best option. “No, I would take a little extra care talking to the nurses and surgeons,” she counseled the client, and “express confidence to remind them to be thoughtful. We can actually invoke Mercury as an ally, getting deeper in the surgery,” she explained. “I work with Mercury that way.”

Blaming Mercury may be easy, but it misses the mark. Starnes said, “It’s easy to just blame him and not recognize that we are involved. It’s easy to send emails you regret later. Easy to incite arguments, or get in trouble. I don’t blame Mercury, he’s just showing me I need to be more careful. It bothers me when I hear people blaming Mercury.”

Instead, she sees retrograde as a “real chance to enter sacred time,” and looks to the myths about this messenger god for lessons. “[The] myth of the birth of Hermes [tells how] as a day old baby, he hatched plan to become a major god. He invented the first musical instrument, stole Apollo’s cattle, hid their tracks by walking backwards, [and] invented sacrifice,” she said. “It got the attention of Zeus, and he became one of the pantheon. Mercury is eternally crafty, and we’re also trying to get something we want.”

For those who feel they are getting a little more divine attention than they can handle, “You can appease him,” Starnes said. “Sometimes I will do that, leave offerings at the crossroads, tell him he’s a great god, ask him to be gentle with me as he helps to relink the parts of my mind that need to be linked again.”

Perhaps it’s not enough to simply acknowledge that Mercury is in retrograde when one’s plans run afoul. Perhaps a better approach is to ask, “What point is Mercury trying to make?” and take the lesson seriously. If nothing else, Starnes recommends cultivating a sense of humor for the duration.