Yes, Mercury’s in retrograde – but what does it really mean?

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Joanna Fuertes-Knight
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Mercury is in retrograde: but why do we care?

On 31 October, Mercury’s final retrograde of 2019 began – just in time for Halloween – and many of us turned to our horoscope apps, podcasts and personalised readings to get us through it. It seems there’s only one question our stars can’t answer: why do we actually care?

How many times have the words ‘Mercury in retrograde’ appeared in your various social media feeds this week, being blamed for blocked emails and hideous arguments?

With a shorter orbit around the sun than Earth, Mercury passes by our planet three or four times each year. And, on 31 October, Mercury Retrograde In Scorpio began, and it will remain in its eerie shadow phase until Saturday 7 December (although it goes ‘direct’ on Wednesday 20 November). 

If you’re into astrology – as so many are of us are these days – you’ll be holding this proximity responsible because Mercury in retrograde signals communication gone bad (as Mercury governs all things related to communication, commerce, and cognitive functioning).

For what it’s worth, I am a ‘typical’ Capricorn: disciplined and practical. I have a spreadsheet to keep track of formal complaints I’ve made and I once left a friend’s party to get a head start on my tax return. I do not believe in astrology but will defend my right to know your star sign.

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And we all sort of know about astrology: horoscopes in the back of magazines, New Age shops and Mystic Meg. But now it’s experiencing somewhat of a zeitgeist comeback. Apps like Co-Star and The Pattern – recommended by Channing Tatum – have taken off like rockets. Dating app Bumble now lets you filter your matches by star sign. Online astrologers such as Chani Nicholas, Jessica Adams and, queen of them all, Susan Miller attract click after click from devoted fans: Miller’s website and app have 17 million readers.

There are even live events; Jessica Adams held a conference in Cambridge earlier this year and the Soho House group has its own in-house astrologer, Carolyne Faulkner. All of this is backed up and amplified by a neverending stream of memes.

Jessica Adams is one of today’s most popular online astrologers

Memes have replaced tabloid horoscopes as digestible astrology for the online age. Hence why everyone who is social media-literate has some grasp of why it must be “Mercury in retrograde” that caused your hard drive to die. From the catwalk to the high street, fashion is awash with zodiac imagery and most of us would not bat an eyelid at our favourite celebrity laying out their sun, moon and ascendant signs.

But why now? And why is it overwhelmingly young, smart and savvy women who are leading astrology’s image overhaul? 

Roughly, astrology is a belief system that says the time we were born and the position of the stars and planets can affect our lives. Humans have been trying to divine meaning from the sky since 3 million BC. 

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And turning to systems of divination in times of uncertainty is not new territory: from Alexander the Great using oracles to predict the outcome of battles to, more recently, the political maelstrom that was the 1970s ushering in its ‘Age of Aquarius’ that saw everything from zodiac-themed underwear to stationery. 

Neither is women seeking forms of spiritual comfort, with research showing that we are far more likely to have an ‘external locus of control’. In other words, we’re more likely to believe we are not in control of our lives; instead, external forces such as luck or fate dictate our future. 

“Girls are socialised to show emotions, to be in touch with how they feel and be more interested in relationships in a way boys aren’t,” says psychologist Chris French. “Which may explain why astrology, because of its focus on emotions, relationships and how we interact with each other, is more popular with women.”

Chani Nicholas is another popular online astrologer

But the lurch away from traditional belief systems, particularly among young women, is new. More of us than ever before are identifying as “spiritual, not religious” and exploring existing belief systems which are perhaps more welcoming to those who already feel let down or like outsiders to major organised faiths, instead embracing the likes of folk religions such as Paganism, Santería or, you guessed it, astrology.

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Lissy, 29, a masters student from Brighton and a Capricorn, became interested in astrology through a family member. She explains: “I think it’s taken more seriously now than it’s ever been because of the sheer amount of people coming into contact with it in a sincere way, rather than just [reading their] horoscopes in a magazine in a dentist’s waiting room. I’ve definitely found myself researching and using astrology more, not just in my day-to-day life to help me make decisions or gauge how I’m feeling about things – I also enjoy looking into the intricacies of it as a hobby now.”

Elena, a 26-year-old writer, agrees that the new iteration of astrology has mass appeal. “I honestly believe that magazine horoscopes for the last 40 years were probably made up,” she says, “but now people do it so genuinely and the internet helps everyone find their niche. Lots of people are into star signs and can recognise the characteristics of each one because of memes. It’s become so fun. I know people think we’re all looking for a way to control and understand life and I think there’s probably some truth in that. “But mostly the way we consume astrology has changed,” she adds. “Plus, we’re all massive narcissists who love reading about ourselves.”

Sarah Shin is the co-founder of Ignota Books, an independent publisher putting out books “at the intersection of technology, myth-making and magic” who takes a more serious, therapeutic view. 

“For me, astrology holds up a cosmic mirror, it’s a tool for selfknowledge and sense-making,” she says. “I observe lunations, eclipses, retrogrades and key transits and aspects as a process of pattern recognition that helps me to live my life as a conscious practice, with a greater sense of intention and autonomy. What the ancients observed in the skies were really observations about human behaviour – as Coleridge said, ‘He looked at his own soul with a telescope.’ The closer you look, the more things reveal themselves.”

More people than ever identify as spiritual rather than religious

It’s not hard to see how we’ve arrived here. We’ve crashed into adulthood during the era of fake news and populist politics. Attacks on the autonomy of women’s bodies have risen exponentially in recent times and progress feels as if it is rolling back to the Dark Ages. This is all on top of being both the casualties of the gig economy and accused of frittering away our money on coffee and sheet masks. It makes sense that we’re looking for ways to find order in a world that feels as if it has none. Where faith once provided an anchor, astrology can offer an alternative without the conservatism of religion that feels so out of step with young women today. 

And yet. “There isn’t any good scientific evidence to support the validity of astrology,” caveats French, who specialises in the study of paranormal beliefs and experiences, cognition and emotion.

“However, there is so much misinformation around today, that it’s not that people believe everything they’re told, rather they just generally don’t know what to believe, so they choose whatever feels right for them. But in doing so, they can ignore solid evidence. “The artwork and framework around astrology, plus this emphasis on self-actualisation, already makes it that much more appealing a package,” he says. “It’s almost a rejection of what can be seen as the cold and impersonal scientific or technological approach, during times when what we want the most is reassurance.”

The fault is our stars

Astrology has been criticised alongside practices such as cold reading for its use of the Barnum effect, the psychological phenomenon where individuals believe generic personality descriptions apply to them specifically.

However, the dismissal of astrology, alongside adjacent practices such as tarot and crystal healing, as stupid and frivolous has always felt distinctly gendered. We don’t tend to see the same level of contempt for the magical thinking of young men with interests in the paranormal, UFOs and conspiracy theories. “I’ve followed astrology since my early teens [and] I have found that people, men in particular, will challenge it in a way that they wouldn’t challenge, say, me going to mass or reading the Bible,” Lissy agrees. 

Humans have been trying to divine meaning from the sky since 3 million BC

There’s also the issue that we can use it as an excuse for less-than-great behaviour. Did you rush into something without thinking? That’s just your Aries tendencies. Forgot to send a birthday card? Blame Mercury. “There’s always the good old possibility of self-fulfilling prophecy,” says French. “When we’re talking about astrology, there is the possibility that it could influence some people – that readings could affect how you behave.”

Ava Welsing-Kitcher, Stylist’s junior beauty writer, admits that she doesn’t always wield the power of knowing her signs’ typical traits for good. “I’m a Virgo, so I blame my perfectionism and nitpicking on that,” she says. “I also have Leo in my birth chart, which I use to justify my obsession with my hair and occasional need to show off. And when there’s a retrograde that affects one of my signs, I’ll allow myself to wallow in brat mode a bit until it passes.”

The human connection

Despite its scientific and behavioural challenges, astrology’s star is still rising, thanks, in part, to a flurry of tech that can bring even its more complex aspects to your home screen. Far and away the most popular being Co-Star, which is estimated to have been downloaded half a million times and has recently secured £4.1 million in funding for an Android version of their iOS app.

The “AI-powered” astrology app, which counts Ariana Grande among its fans, gives a detailed analysis of your birth chart – the position of all the planets and astral bodies at the time you were born – and cross-references friends’ charts to lay out a kind of astrological compatibility at the touch of a button. In many ways, it feels like the epitome of Astrology 2.0. 

All of this is complemented by daily push notifications such as, “Instead of looking for validation from romantic interests, try to give that to yourself”, which fall somewhere between self-care nuggets and a close friend telling you to get your shit together.

Banu Guler, one of the founders of Co-Star, is adamant that there’s no astrology fad, rather just a raised awareness thanks to social media exposing us to it on a huge scale. “To say that it’s a trend discredits [astrology’s] long history. I also think we’re seeing people using astrology, especially online and now that personal brands are becoming more produced than ever, to publicly connect in a more meaningful way.”

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Guler elaborates: “When you look at the psychology of human relationships, you need a way to both interact and be vulnerable with each other. I believe astrology can be a way to build intimacy like that with each other online. A friend looking at your birth chart, for example, can be this way of breaking open how we feel about one another even when we’re not physically in the same space.”

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This brings us back to why there seems to be a softening of attitudes towards astrology, despite the lack of scientific evidence. “When astrology is used to reflect on our lives or in a therapeutic manner, it is pretty harmless,” says French. “It’s when you can’t make a decision in your life without consulting astrology first that it becomes a problem. I wouldn’t say, ‘It’s all bad and they’re all charlatans’, because if you use astrology, it’s because you’re seeking advice. What’s paramount is the quality of it.”

To satisfy my curiosity, I decided to meet with a professional to give me a birth chart reading. As I half-expected, every flaw and virtue laid out to me felt uncannily on the nose. The reading appeared to tackle areas of my life I’d been hoping to politely ignore until they reached crisis point; be it my shaky start to a career-change or beginning to date again. Unexpected, though, was the feeling that I’d had a particularly productive therapy session. Everything keeping me up at night was put into perspective. Mountains were downgraded to molehills. And, ironically, I realised I did, in fact, have control over my future and wellbeing.

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So do I believe astronomical events are dictating my destiny? No. Can I explain Mercury in retrograde? Still no, and perhaps that’s the stubborn Capricorn in me speaking. But do I believe things that comfort us in times of chaos must not be written off as the pursuit of silly women? Absolutely. 


The online astrology world has thousands of memes poking fun at each sun sign. What assumptions are they making about yours?


“OK, let’s start!” says Aries (but won’t finish); there for friends but impulsive and impatient.


Will only stir from the chaise longue for someone they love: bougie as hell, but very loyal.


Gemini is everyone at once. Fast, fickle and open to anything. Smart but easily distracted.


Who hurt you, Cancer? OK, you’re emotionally intelligent, but also just really emotional.

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Yes, Leo, this section is all about YOU. Everyone’s looking at you, lit up like a crystal ball. Happy?


People make jokes about your obsessive and critical nature, but (as you see it) they’re inaccurate.


Are you a knowledge seeker or just a bit of a space cadet? Both, but we’ll leave you free to do you.


Hot. Passionate. They’re words that suggest one thing. Which is always on your mind.


You always speak the truth to others, so we will to you: you’re tactless, but pretty cool.


How many times have you been called a spreadsheet nerd? You’ll have that stat somewhere.


Deep-thinking, logical, but with a tendency to get locked in your ivory tower. Come down!


Of all the signs, you are most likely to do sad-girl acoustic guitar covers of pop songs. Sorry.

Images: Getty, Unsplash


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Joanna Fuertes-Knight

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