Dear NightFall Astrology readers,
Astrology, the time-honoured practice of deriving meaning from celestial phenomena, has woven a tapestry of diverse interpretations and methods over centuries. Each epoch has brought its own distinctive flavour to the discipline, creating a rich, multifaceted body of knowledge. A fascinating thread in this complex weave is the interpretation of retrograde planets, a cosmic dance where, from our perspective on Earth, planets appear to change their usual course and backtrack along the ecliptic.
In terms of astronomy, retrograde motion is an apparent reversal in the movement of a planet due to an optical illusion that occurs because of the differing orbits and speeds of Earth and other planets. As the Earth ‘overtakes’ another planet in its orbit around the Sun, that planet appears to pause, move backwards, and then resume its forward motion. This dance, both rhythmical and predictable, captivates not just astronomers but also astrologers who seek to decipher its symbolic implications.
Traditional astrology, spanning Hellenistic, Medieval, Renaissance, and Late Traditional/Early Modern periods, often viewed retrogrades as omens of hardship, depending on the planet’s nature, zodiacal sign, and house placement.
Modern astrology, emerging in the late 19th and 20th centuries, builds upon these factors, but places a greater emphasis on psychological and spiritual elements. Retrogrades are seen as periods of introspection and potential growth, like Mercury retrograde, infamous for its association with communication mishaps, being seen as a time for introspection on communication.
In this article, we journey through astrology’s historical epochs, exploring the interpretations of retrograde planets across the ages. From the deterministic view of traditional astrology to the psychologically-focused perspective of modern astrology, we reveal the evolving complexity of astrological thought and its reflection of human understanding.
I. Unraveling Retrograde Planets in Hellenistic Astrology:
Journeying back to the Hellenistic period, from the late 2nd century BC to the 7th century AD, we witness a golden era in the development of astrological principles. As a structured practice, the discipline was firmly rooted in this epoch, with the retrograde motion of planets becoming a profound astrological symbol. However, references to retrograde and stationary planets in surviving Hellenistic texts are less frequent, and their interpretations are shrouded in some ambiguity.
Nonetheless, an interpretive distinction is prevalent in historical texts, defining how the speed of a planet—faster or slower than its customary pace—impacts its significance in a native’s life. This pace, known as a planet’s average daily motion, tracks the mean distance a planet navigates along the zodiac in a 24-hour period, measured in ecliptic longitude degrees.
A planet moving swifter than its mean rate is deemed “additive” (prosthetikos), symbolically precipitating what it signifies sooner or faster in a person’s life. Conversely, a slower-moving planet, considered “subtractive” (aphairetikos), signifies outcomes with a sense of delay or sluggishness.
Complicating matters, the terminology of additive and subtractive has also been used to distinguish planets in direct motion from those in retrograde—moving backwards along the ecliptic. Some ambiguity pervades the texts, making it challenging to discern the author’s intended meaning. The term commonly used for a retrograde planet is anapodismos, literally translating to “walking backwards,” or sometimes hupopodizontes, meaning “retracing their steps.”
Retrograde and stationary planets, intriguingly, are not frequently mentioned in the surviving astrological documents, and their interpretation seems somewhat equivocal. In certain cases, the stations—points where a planet appears to pause before altering direction—are perceived to transiently amplify the planet’s significance. However, many instances imply retrograde planets as harbingers of delays in the manifestation of the planet’s implications. Paulus, an influential Hellenistic astrologer, categorises retrograde planets with those under the beams or declining, denoting them as more “impotent” (adranes), “ineffectual” (apraktos), and “insignificant” (anepiphantos).
Vettius Valens, another luminary in astrology, discusses stationary and retrograde planets in the context of the timing technique known as annual profections. He states that stationing retrograde planets “delay expectations, actions, profits, and enterprises,” implying a weakened (asthenes) and hindered (empodistikos) state that offers merely illusory “appearances” (fantasias) and “hopes” (elpidas). Once a planet stations direct, it “removes the hindrances and restores and leads to the stability and rectification of life.”
Although these observations from Valens were made within a specific timing discussion, they provide an insightful lens into how these early astrologers would have symbolically interpreted this particular astronomical cycle.
II. The Significance of Retrograde Planets in Medieval Astrology:
As we delve into the rich tapestry of traditional astrology, the Medieval era stands as a fascinating chapter in the history of this ancient discipline. Astrology, during this period, was an integral part of the philosophical and theological landscape, deeply intertwined with prevailing Christian beliefs.
Two key figures dominated the astrological discourse during this period: the Italian astrologer Guido Bonatti and the Jewish-Spanish scholar Abraham Ibn Ezra. Both Bonatti’s “Liber Astronomiae,” widely regarded as one of the most complete treatises of Medieval astrology, and Ibn Ezra’s “The Beginning of Wisdom” and “The Book of Reasons” provide valuable insights into understanding the symbolism of retrograde planets in the Medieval era.
Bonatti viewed retrograde planets as indicative of challenges or divine correction. For instance, if the ruler of the 10th house (signifying profession) were retrograde, it might suggest setbacks in one’s career or ambitions. In their apparent backward motion, the celestial bodies seemed to defy the natural order, hinting at potential disruption or misfortune on Earth.
In stark contrast, Ibn Ezra took a more nuanced approach. He saw retrogradation as a period of unpredictability, disruption, but also profound transformation. Retrograde planets, in Ibn Ezra’s view, didn’t merely signify obstacles but also opportunities for change and growth. This interpretation bore resonance with the human journey’s nature, reflecting the ups and downs inherent in our life’s path.
The interpretations of retrograde planets during the Medieval era were significantly influenced by the interplay between astrology and Christian theology. Retrograde planets, as seen by Bonatti, were symbols of divine intervention, often seen as tests of faith or calls to repentance. On the other hand, Ibn Ezra, while also acknowledging the challenges retrogrades might bring, highlighted their transformative potential. They were celestial signals encouraging individuals to adapt and evolve amidst trials and tribulations.
In essence, the Medieval understanding of retrograde planets painted a picture of dynamic celestial influences, shaping human destiny through divine correction, unpredictable shifts, and transformative experiences.
III. Retrograde Planets in Renaissance & Early Modern Astrology:
The Renaissance, serving as a bridge between the Middle Ages and the Modern period, witnessed profound intellectual and cultural transformations. This era fostered a rebirth in various fields of knowledge, including astrology, leading to fundamental shifts in understanding celestial phenomena. Key figures such as Marsilio Ficino, Gerolamo Cardano, William Lilly, and John Dee significantly contributed to these transformations.
Ficino and Cardano emerged as influential voices in the Renaissance’s astrological discourse. Ficino, central to the Florentine Academy and a prolific translator of Plato and Plotinus, integrated astrology into his philosophical and medical treatises. He viewed planets, including those in retrograde motion, as channels for divine influences shaping human destiny, leading to periods of intense introspection and spiritual growth. Conversely, Cardano, an acclaimed mathematician and physician, perceived retrograde planets as symbols of resistance or personal challenges, sparking an internal struggle for self-understanding.
Delving deeper into the annals of astrology, we encounter the early modern period or the late traditional era. This period, extending from the late 16th to the late 17th centuries, saw astrology evolve towards a more empirical and humanistic approach. Here, we meet pivotal figures like Lilly and Dee.
William Lilly, often considered the last significant astrologer of the traditional era, saw retrograde motion as an indicator of delay or reconsideration. For instance, in horary astrology (a technique used to answer specific questions), a retrograde significator could suggest that the matter in question needed to be reviewed or that there might be some obstacles to its resolution.
Meanwhile, John Dee, an advisor to Queen Elizabeth I and a respected scholar, interpreted retrograde planets within his expansive cosmological framework, which bridged the celestial and terrestrial realms. He viewed retrograde planets as signifiers of reflection and reassessment. This mirrored the broader philosophical shift of the time, emphasising the individual’s role in shaping their destiny.
Despite their different approaches, these scholars saw the theme of transformation echo in their interpretations of retrograde planets. For Ficino and Dee, retrogrades represented a shift in spiritual focus and a call for personal reflection, while Cardano and Lilly viewed them as heralds of personal challenge and potential growth, or signals of delays and reviews.
This shift from external, event-oriented interpretations towards introspection aligns with the Renaissance’s spirit and the early modern period. These eras emphasised human potential and inner transformation, reflecting a broader cultural shift towards humanism and the emergence of empirical science. Retrograde planets came to represent periods of challenge, self-reflection, and profound personal growth, enhancing our understanding of these transitional periods in astrological history.
IV. Retrograde planets in Modern Astrology:
The advent of modern astrology in the late 19th and 20th centuries marked a significant shift in the interpretation of celestial phenomena, including the retrograde motion of planets. Unlike the traditional approach, modern astrology places greater emphasis on psychological and spiritual dimensions (which had already started emerging in the Renaissance period), reimagining retrograde planets not as omens of difficulty but as prompts for introspection and growth.
Modern astrologers like Dane Rudhyar and Stephen Arroyo have been instrumental in developing this more psychologically focused interpretation of retrogrades. According to their writings, retrograde planets invite us to explore certain aspects of our psyche more deeply, potentially disrupting the status quo, but ultimately paving the way for personal growth.
Take, for instance, Mercury retrograde – a phenomenon that, in popular culture, has become synonymous with misunderstandings, delays, and technical glitches. But Rudhyar and Arroyo invite us to view this period as an opportunity for introspection and review, particularly around communication and thought processes.
Similarly, Venus retrograde, which occurs only every 18 months, is seen as a time to reflect upon relationships and personal values. Mars retrograde could invite reassessment of one’s actions and motivations, and the slower, outer planets (Jupiter through Pluto) being retrograde might signify a deeper, generational shift in collective consciousness.
A pivotal distinction of modern astrology’s approach is that it sees these retrograde periods not as problems to be feared but as necessary pauses, like cosmic “deep breaths” enabling growth and transformation. While they may present challenges, the ultimate aim is the evolution of individual and collective consciousness.
In fact, a significant portion of the population is born during a planet’s retrograde period. Astrologer Erin Sullivan’s seminal work, “Retrograde Planets: Traversing the Inner Landscape,” provides a comprehensive exploration of natal retrogrades, suggesting that these placements may imbue a person with a unique, introspective perspective on the themes represented by the retrograde planet.
In essence, modern astrology views retrograde planets as powerful catalysts for inward exploration and growth, transforming the apparent backward movement into a journey of self-discovery. By offering a psychospiritual perspective, it bridges the gap between the cosmos and the individual, underlining the retrograde’s transformative potential.
In summarising our exploration of retrograde planets in astrology, we find a fascinating evolution of thought and interpretation. Beginning with the ambiguous yet often ominous views in the Hellenistic period, through the transformative lenses of the Medieval and Renaissance periods, to the introspective and psychologically focused interpretations of Modern astrology, we see a remarkable journey. This path reflects our growth as a civilisation, transitioning from a fear-based perspective of the cosmos to a more nuanced understanding, one that offers introspection, personal growth, and self-discovery.
As a traditional astrologer, I value our ancient wisdom, acknowledging it as the foundation of our practice. Yet, the insights from modern astrology, with its focus on inner transformation, are also invaluable. They serve as reminders that astrology is not static but a living, evolving practice, a mirror reflecting our ever-changing understanding of the human experience.
Astrology’s beauty lies in its adaptability, mirroring the ever-changing celestial dance of the planets, particularly during retrogrades. To truly appreciate its essence, we must embrace the change and growth it embodies, much like the celestial bodies we observe. So here’s to the continued dance of the planets, and our ongoing journey of understanding, growth, and evolution.
Thank you for reading.
Your Astrologer – Theodora NightFall ~
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