Burning Mars retrograde

Once upon a time, it was mainly astrologers who kept an eye on Mercury retrograde, alerting their friends, families, and clients to back up their computers, postpone signing contracts, think twice before sending a critical email, and verify what they think they heard. Nowadays, Mercury retrograde has gone mainstream. Non-astrology-minded friends mention it on social media as easily as they talk about the full moon and the weather (“So weird at work today! Is Mercury retrograde or something?”).

As people have become more familiar with Mercury retrograde, other planetary retrogrades are starting to get some recognition. I admit I don’t pay that much attention to the retrograde periods of the planets from Jupiter on out. They spend months in retrograde, from about 4 months a year for Jupiter to nearly 6 months for Pluto. I figure, when a planet is retrograde that much of the time, their retrogrades feel almost as normal as their direct motion. However, their stationary periods—when they appear to slow down and stop before changing direction—are more noticeable, but that’s another post for another day.

That leaves Venus and Mars, which like Mercury, go retrograde for comparatively brief periods. They’re not as well-documented as Mercury, so it’s harder to look them up and get examples what their retrogrades are like. But looking at what the planet is associated with is a starting point. As Mars is retrograde as I write this, I’m focusing on it for now.

PlanetHow often retrogradeHow long retrograde
Mercury3 times a yearAbout 3 weeks
VenusEvery 1½ yearsAbout 6 weeks
MarsEvery 2 yearsAbout 2-2½ months

The Lesser Malefic

At its core, Mars is about taking action. It shows how we go after what we want. It represents willpower, how we assert ourselves, and how we express our anger and aggress.1 Its qualities are traditionally masculine: courage, initiative, violence, independence, brutality, conflict; the symbols for Mars and for male are the same: ♂. Not surprisingly, the planet named for the Roman god of war rules warfare. War is conflict on an international scale, but Mars rules smaller competitions as well: sports, political races, contests—those events where there are winners and losers, victory and defeat. (If you’re interested in compromise and the possibility of win-win scenarios, you’ve moved into Venus’s territory.) Mars also rules the people who participate in these activities: soldiers, the police, athletes, first responders, surgeons. Mars is not an utterly malignant force, but there are elements of pain and danger in many of its rulerships, qualities that earned it the epithet of the “Lesser Malefic” in traditional astrology. In a war, those elements are obvious, but they’re in Mars’s other rulerships as well. Sports often carry a risk of injury, sometimes of death. Even in a democracy, people may live and die by who wins a political contest, even in another country. Surgery—deliberately injuring someone in order to help them—saves lives, but patients die both on the operating table and afterwards.

So if Mercury retrograde has a reputation for misunderstandings, mistakes, travel plans gone awry, and glitches, what happens when Mars is retrograde? We get used to how a planet behaves when it’s in direct motion. By contrast, during its retrograde period, what that planet rules often feel unbalanced, unpredictable, and “off.” When a planet is retrograde, it’s physically closest to Earth, suggesting that it’s stronger than usual. While there’s nothing inherently wrong or bad about a planet’s retrograde period—it’s different, not broken—often the things that we experience and do during a retrograde don’t go the way we’d planned. With Mars, sometimes that can hurt, but it can also feel as though it has stalled out and there isn’t enough drive and focus for your usual activities.

During this retrograde, Mars is in Aries, one of the signs that it rules. This is a comfortable position for Mars. Signs shape how a planet expresses itself, but since Aries shares many characteristics with Mars, Mars gets to act almost as purely “Martian” as possible. So we have the planet of action, assertion, and brutality, strengthened both by being in a sign that reinforces its essential nature and its proximity to Earth, at the point in its cycle that can be discombobulating because we’re not used to it.

The 2020 wildfires

This year, Mars is retrograde from September 9 to November 13, 2020. As of this writing, we’re about two-thirds through this retrograde period. Thinking about what’s been in the news lately that seems particularly Mars-like, the wildfires out west come to mind. Yes, there have always been wildfires and the 2020 wildfire season started before Mars went retrograde. But the fires have been unusually widespread this year, even by modern standards. In early September, just as Mars went retrograde, the media was focused on how there were wildfires not only in California but also Oregon and Washington, even possibly threatening Portland, Oregon. This is when Mars would’ve appeared to have been slowing down, stopping, and then starting up again in reverse: that stationary retrograde period that can make a planet more noticeable.

Just to take one of the better-known wildfires as an example, the El Dorado fire has Mars symbolism in its origins. This fire was accidentally started during a gender reveal party. The Ascendant is in Scorpio, also ruled by Mars, a sign associated with secrets (such as the baby’s gender), and ruling the Ascendant makes a planet more prominent. The baby was apparently revealed to be a boy—again, Mars and “male” share a symbol.2 The announcement involved setting off a pyrotechnic device of some kind, which ignited dry grass in the park where the party was held, starting the fire. Explosives are a Mars thing, even when they’re not meant to kill people. The party was on September 5. This was a few days before Mars turned retrograde, with it less than 1° away from its retrograde degree 28° ♈︎ 08′), in that crucial stationary retrograde period. The act of putting a fire out is called “firefighting,” and like explosives, fighting is a Mars thing. This particular fight, like many of the wildfires, has been challenging, but that’s in keeping with Mars retrograde.

El Dorado Fire event chart: September 5, 2020; Yucaipa, CA; 10:23 AM PDT.3

To the best of my knowledge, as of this writing, the El Dorado fire is still burning.

Comments, sources

  1. Yeah, that’s a verb. It’s obsolete, but I figured it would be fun to use. And it fits the sentence grammatically.
  2. After Gender Reveal Celebration Sparks Fire, Some Say The Parties Have Gotten Out Of Hand – WBUR (September 9, 2020)
  3. A pyrotechnic device at a gender reveal party sparked one of the California wildfires, burning over 8,600 acres – CNN (September 7, 2020)


Fire photo by Little Visuals on Pexels.com. Mars symbol and retrograde symbol are in the public domain from Wikimedia Commons. I threw them all together.

Mars through the Minor Arcana

The next planet in the Chaldean order is Mars. With Saturn and Jupiter, we were dealing with semi-abstract ideas like restriction, expansion, limitations, and generosity. But starting with Mars, we are dealing with the faster-moving planets that represent personal characteristics and traits. Mars symbolizes the way you assert yourself and how you get angry. It shows how you defend yourself and how you go after what you want. And yes, it’s associated with the sex drive (despite the Mars symbol also being the male symbol (♂), that’s anyone’s sex drive, not just men’s).

Two of Wands: Mars in Aries

Aries is the first sign of the zodiac, the cardinal fire sign. Cardinal signs initiate action; fire signs are energetic, enthusiastic, and lively. Together, they show that Aries represents the need to take action and assert yourself. Yes, that pretty much sounds like a description of Mars itself, and yes, Mars is comfortable in Aries. At its best, Aries initiates things and is courageous and confident, although it can also be rash, impulsive, and selfish. So Mars in Aries acts in a direct, assertive, and bold manner.

2wWith all of that energy behind it, you might expect the Two of Wands to show an action-filled scene like the Five of Wands does, but the Waite-Smith deck’s illustration is deceptively still. A man stands on a rampart, looking over the lands below him. In his right hand, he holds a globe; in his left, a wand. The other wand of the card is bolted to the wall behind him, which stabilizes the wand, but at the same time, restrains it. The man is dressed in shades of brown, suggesting pragmatism and groundedness; his red hat symbolizes thinking about action. The Golden Dawn title for this card is Lord of Dominion, and it seems as if the man is surveying his domains. “Dominion” itself is a neutral term, but the device of flowers on the wall suggests that this is a positive card. The red roses signify action and desire, which might be problematic on their own (as in a lust for power), but they’re paired with white lilies, signifying purity. With the drive of Mars in Aries, the man has achieved much in terms of wealth and power, but his energy seems constrained (his still pose, the wall that separates him from the rest of the world, the wand bolted to the wall, the white lilies crossing the red roses). He may be restless, planning his next project and preparing to take action.

Seven of Wands: Mars in Leo

Here, the drive and assertion of Mars is shaped by Leo’s need for self-expression and recognition. Leo is fixed fire. Aries’ cardinal fire is targeted towards one goal, and Sagittarius’ mutable fire wanders away in any and all directions, but fixed fire burns steadily where it is. Which is what we see in the Waite-Smith Seven of Wands, where the man defends himself against unseen opponents. Holding one’s ground in battle is a good illustration of Mars in Leo.

7wSomewhere along the line, I’d learned “self-defense” as a keyword for this card, and I still think it’s a fair summary of this scene. But in reading about this card, I happened upon Joan Bunning’s description of it as “going after what you want” and “asserting yourself.”* These are fine descriptions of Mars generally, but it wasn’t what I expected for the Seven of Wands. After all, isn’t the man backed up to the edge of a cliff? Why would you challenge someone from such a difficult position? But Bunning explains that taking a stand triggers resistance in others. To assert yourself, to express yourself, to do anything that makes you stand out from the masses—the essence of Mars in Leo—is to draw attention to yourself, and some of that attention will be hostile. The moment you take a stand, the cliff’s edge and the opposing wands will appear.The Golden Dawn’s title for the Seven of Wands, Lord of Valor, makes it clear that you will need courage and strength to defend yourself, but stand firm (fixed fire) and you could very well succeed.

Five of Cups: Mars in Scorpio

The similarities between Mars and Aries are clear. Yet Mars is also comfortable in Scorpio. While Aries brings out the direct and headstrong warrior side of Mars, Scorpio highlights the strategist: the aspect of Mars that pauses long enough to plan its approach, calculate the best way to get what it’s after—and prepare an alibi.

That’s a good starting point for considering Mars in Scorpio in someone’s birth chart, but it’s not all that relevant to the Five of Cups. I think we get further by taking the combination apart and seeing how Mars and Scorpio play off each other. Like Leo, Scorpio is a fixed sign. But it’s a water sign, so it stands firm emotionally, rather than in self-expression and action. Positively, this gives Scorpio its qualities of emotional depth, intensity, and complexity, although it can also produce obsession, possessiveness, and vindictiveness. Mars in Scorpio is the combination of a planet that triggers upheaval, change, and disruption in a sign that lacks flexibility. This can mean a refusal or inability to compromise, and this all-or-nothing approach can result in destruction, followed by grief and regret…and that is relevant to the Five of Cups.

5cIn the Waite-Smith Five of Cups, the person (man? woman?) is isolated in their grief and loss. The ground around them is brown and lifeless. They could walk over to the city on the far side of the river and be with other people, but for whatever reason, they have chosen not to. They are focused on the three cups that have spilled, not the two upright cups behind them. Most people have an opinion about those cups, perhaps that the person should stop dwelling on the spilled cups and remember that they still have upright ones, or that the person needs to grieve the loss right now and deal with what remains at a later time. I tend more towards the latter interpretation. With the upright cups so close to the mourner, I suspect they know perfectly well the cups are there, but the time isn’t right to pick them up and move on. The Golden Dawn called this card Lord of Loss in Pleasure, but Aleister Crowley called it Disappointment. Neither seems quite strong enough to me; maybe if the Golden Dawn had called it Lord of Loss and left it at that?

Ten of Cups: Mars in Pisces

At the other end of the emotional spectrum is the Ten of Cups. Ever since I learned the astrology of the Ten of Cups, I’ve wondered about assigning Mars in Pisces to this card. I mean, even in Pisces, Mars isn’t a planet you normally associate with emotional/spiritual happiness. After all, this is a planet named after a god of war.

10cPisces is a mutable water sign; emotional flexibility and pliancy to the max. Scorpio dealt with conflict by refusing to budge, even if it broke; Pisces flows away and avoids it, which can sometimes mean escaping into fantasy and illusion rather than coping with reality. The Ten of Cups in the Waite-Smith deck shows a happily-ever-after ending for the Cups suit. The adults admire a rainbow, while the children dance, all in a picturesque landscape. The Golden Dawn title, Lord of Perfected Success, fits this scene well. Perhaps we’re supposed to realize that this is an ideal, not reality—after all, rainbows are optical effects, and cups don’t appear in them any more than pots of gold sit at their ends. Also, this is one of the Waite-Smith deck’s “stage cards.” The happy family isn’t in the landscape they’re admiring, but on a plain floor in front of it. Perhaps the lush countryside is no more than a painted backdrop. This possible illusion may connect the Ten of Cups to Pisces, but I admit I just don’t see Mars in this card.

10cthothThe Thoth deck is noticeably less romantic about the Ten of Cups. The Cups suit peaked at the Nine; the Ten is overstaying its welcome. The card is called Satiety, a word that can simply mean full and satisfied, but also means having had too much and the resulting feeling of revulsion. At first glance, all seems well: the ten cups are streaming light and are symmetrically spaced in the card in the form of the sephiroth of the Tree of Life. Look more closely, though, and you’ll see that several of the cups are tilted slightly and the structure is somewhat unstable. The force of Mars is a bit too much for Pisces, it would seem.

Nine of Swords: Mars in Gemini

The Nine of Swords reveals Mars’ capacity for viciousness. Gemini is no more brutal than any other sign of the zodiac, but in the context of the tarot, Mars brings out its worst. Sure, Gemini can be inquisitive, clever, and communicative, but in the Nine of Swords, we’re seeing its potential to be detached, scattered, and overly intellectual in its approach. Mars’ aggression, shaped by Gemini’s whirlwind nature (Gemini is the mutable air sign: ever-changing thoughts and communication), becomes a mental death of a thousand cuts: anxiety.

9sIn the Waite-Smith Nine of Swords, the Lord of Despair and Cruelty, someone sits up in bed at night, suffering through anxiety-fueled insomnia. Nine swords hover near them, and there’s a scene of murder carved into the bed frame. Perhaps this person woke up from a nightmare, or perhaps they never fell asleep in the first place, kept awake by racing thoughts. But the nine swords are no more real than those ten cups floating in a rainbow. The worry and suffering is entirely in the person’s head: the whirling, sword-sharp thoughts of Mars in Gemini.

The card is not 100% dread and misery, however. The quilt on the bed is made of squares with planetary and zodiacal symbols as well as squares with red roses. The person is not truly alone, because the astrological symbols suggest the universe itself is with them. Like the red roses in the Two of Wands, the roses in this card symbolize desire and action, and here, nothing restrains them. This points to the positive use of Mars (in any sign): acting to defend yourself. Being able to act often reduces anxiety, although in the middle of the night, it can be difficult to do anything constructive.

Three of Pentacles: Mars in Capricorn

3pAs you might expect, putting Mars in an earth sign produces tangible results. Capricorn is cardinal earth, a sign that builds in the real world, with structure and ambition. Used constructively, Capricorn is productive, industrious, and accomplishing, although it can also be controlling, rigid, and miserly. Mars does well here, with its energies turned towards material achievement. Glancing at the numerology of this card, 3 is the number of manifestation, and in the Three of Pentacles, what’s being manifested are real things.

It’s pretty easy to see this in the Waite-Smith Three of Pentacles. A craftsman is putting the finishing touches on a church, while a monk and another person (an architect?) consult with him. In the Lord of Material Works, what we’re seeing here is material accomplishment: a building. The three pentacles, earth symbols in their own right, are joined by a crossed circle which is another symbol of earth. The craftsman’s tools are in his hands; we see that this was achieved by physical labor. And this isn’t the mass production of the Eight of Pentacles, but a work of art by a master, someone who’s being recognized for his work (he’s important enough for the others to deal with him directly).

*Learning the Tarot: A Tarot Book for Beginners, p.172-173; online at SEVEN OF WANDS.

For other posts in this series, see Astrology of the Minor Arcana.

R is for retrogrades

Coming into the Pagan Blog Project, I thought there would be a few letters that would be a challenge to write for. The obvious ones were Q, X, and Z. (Indeed, any letter with a high value in Scrabble is a candidate for being challenging.) As it has turned out though, I thought of something right away for Q, and I have something lined up for Z, although X is still a vacuum as I write this. Meanwhile, it was letters like F and N that have thrown me. For this week, my mind got stuck on R (a letter with a value of 1 in Scrabble—it should have been easy!). I could think of nothing to add beyond what others had posted on the Rede or ritual, nor did I have anything to say on the topic of reincarnation. I was wrestling with a potential post on rulerships which just wasn’t working, when I realized that retrograde starts with R also. And so here we are.

A planet is retrograde when it appears to be moving backward in the sky. While this happens to all the planets, I pay the most attention to the retrograde periods of Mercury, Venus, and Mars. The other planets from Jupiter on out stay retrograde for longer periods of time. I think we get used to that, and it’s harder to see differences between their direct and retrograde periods. With these three faster planets, there’s more contrast.

As with many other topics in astrology, there are different opinions about what it means when a planet is retrograde. In traditional astrology, being retrograde is one of the debilities, a condition that makes a malefic planet nastier or a benefic planet less helpful. A retrograde planet may be considered weaker in Western astrology, but I’ve heard that in Vedic astrology, retrograde planets are said to be stronger because this is when they’re closest to Earth. Modern psychological astrology tries to avoid dualistic “good/bad” language: the energy of a retrograde planet is seen as turning inward and being less noticeable as a result. Personally, I’ve found that the psychological interpretation works best when describing natal planets that are retrograde. When we’re talking about the effects of a transiting retrograde planet, often the conversation turns to what’s been happening in our lives, and lots of the time, what we’re talking about is what has gone wrong—the traditional descriptions still seem to work for events. (And often I’ve noticed that the problem started well before the retrograde period, sometimes months or years earlier, but it comes to light when the planet goes retrograde.)

Mercury rules communication and perception, so when it goes retrograde, we tend to notice right away. Its retrograde cycle is fairly even, lasting about three weeks every three months, each period falling a few days earlier than it did the year before. Entire books (plural) have been written about Mercury retrograde, the best known of the retrograde planets. In terms of events, this is a period famous for delayed travel, glitching computers, misunderstandings, and having to redo and revise a lot.

Venus’ retrograde periods last about 40 days; Venus goes retrograde about every 18 months. The most dramatic case of Venus retrograde I’ve encountered involved two of Venus’ traditional rulerships: relationships and beautiful things. A person had surgery and their coworkers started their customary collection to buy flowers for them. As it turned out, this person had alienated so many of their colleagues that not enough money was collected to buy even the smallest flower arrangement. After more money was secured, the coworkers ordered an arrangement to be sent to the person’s home. It was misdelivered to a neighbor who wasn’t on good terms with this person and refused to hand over the flowers. (The florist accepted responsibility for the delivery error and replaced the flowers.)

Like Venus, Mars doesn’t go retrograde every year. Its retrograde periods are about 2 to 2½ months. When I first decided to watch Mars retrograde, I wasn’t sure what to look for. Would wars go badly? Wars tend to go badly for someone even when they’re going well—that wasn’t going to work. In a list of traditional astrological factors to take into consideration when timing elective surgery, avoiding Mars retrograde periods was one suggestion. That made sense: Mars traditionally rules iron and steel, as well as weapons. Surgeons, who use steel scalpels and knives to inflict controlled wounds (which is what surgery is) are Mars’ by association—and you wouldn’t want anything glitching during surgery if at all possible. And its Mars’ rulership of iron and steel that I’ve noticed the most when Mars is retrograde. I had a computer die abruptly when Mars was retrograde: the hard drive fried. Along the same lines, a friend had severe car problems stemming from rust during Mars retrograde.

And if you want to do some observing of your own:

2013-2014 Retrograde Periods

Planet Goes Retrograde Goes Direct
Mercury October 21, 2013 November 10, 2013
February 6, 2014 February 28, 2014
June 7, 2014 July 1, 2014
October 4, 2014 October 25, 2014
Venus December 21, 2013 January 31, 2014
Mars March 1, 2014 May 20, 2014