What is Mercury in Retrograde, and Why Do We Blame Things On It?

NASA
NASA

Crashed computers, missed flights, tensions in your workplace—a person who subscribes to astrology would tell you to expect all this chaos and more when Mercury starts retrograding. In 2019, that means March 5-28, July 7-August 2, and October 31-November 20. But according to an astronomer, this common celestial phenomenon is no reason to stay cooped up at home for weeks at a time.

"We don't know of any physical mechanism that would cause things like power outages or personality changes in people," Dr. Mark Hammergren, an astronomer at Chicago's Adler Planetarium, tells Mental Floss. So if Mercury doesn’t throw business dealings and relationships out of whack when it appears to change direction in the sky, why are so many people convinced that it does?

The History of "Mercury in Retrograde"

Mercury retrograde—as it's technically called—was being written about in astrology circles as far back as the mid-18th century. The event was noted in British agricultural almanacs of the time, which farmers would read to sync their planting schedules to the patterns of the stars. During the spiritualism craze of the Victorian era, interest in astrology boomed, with many believing that the stars affected the Earth in a variety of (often inconvenient) ways. Late 19th-century publications like The Astrologer’s Magazine and The Science of the Stars connected Mercury retrograde with heavy rainfall. Characterizations of the happening as an "ill omen" also appeared in a handful of articles during that period, but its association with outright disaster wasn’t as prevalent then as it is today.

While other spiritualist hobbies like séances and crystal gazing gradually faded, astrology grew even more popular. By the 1970s, horoscopes were a newspaper mainstay and Mercury retrograde was a recurring player. Because the Roman god Mercury was said to govern travel, commerce, financial wealth, and communication, in astrological circles, Mercury the planet became linked to those matters as well.

"Don’t start anything when Mercury is retrograde," an April 1979 issue of The Baltimore Sun instructed its readers. "A large communications organization notes that magnetic storms, disrupting messages, are prolonged when Mercury appears to be going backwards. Mercury, of course, is the planet associated with communication." The power attributed to the event has become so overblown that today it's blamed for everything from digestive problems to broken washing machines.

What is Mercury Retrograde?

Though hysteria around Mercury retrograde is stronger than ever, there's still zero evidence that it's something we should worry about. Even the flimsiest explanations, like the idea that the gravitational pull from Mercury influences the water in our bodies in the same way that the moon controls the tides, are easily deflated by science. "A car 20 feet away from you will exert a stronger pull of gravity than the planet Mercury does," Dr. Hammergren says.

To understand how little Mercury retrograde impacts life on Earth, it helps to learn the physical process behind the phenomenon. When the planet nearest to the Sun is retrograde, it appears to move "backwards" (east to west rather than west to east) across the sky. This apparent reversal in Mercury's orbit is actually just an illusion to the people viewing it from Earth. Picture Mercury and Earth circling the Sun like cars on a racetrack. A year on Mercury is shorter than a year on Earth (88 Earth days compared to 365), which means Mercury experiences four years in the time it takes us to finish one solar loop.

When the planets are next to one another on the same side of the Sun, Mercury looks like it's moving east to those of us on Earth. But when Mercury overtakes Earth and continues its orbit, its straight trajectory seems to change course. According to Dr. Hammergren, it's just a trick of perspective. "Same thing if you were passing a car on a highway, maybe going a little bit faster than they are," he says. "They're not really going backwards, they just appear to be going backwards relative to your motion."

Embedded from GIFY

Earth's orbit isn't identical to that of any other planet in the solar system, which means that all the planets appear to move backwards at varying points in time. Planets farther from the Sun than Earth have even more noticeable retrograde patterns because they're visible at night. But thanks to astrology, it's Mercury's retrograde motion that incites dread every few months.

Dr. Hammergren blames the superstition attached to Mercury, and astrology as a whole, on confirmation bias: "[Believers] will say, 'Aha! See, there's a shake-up in my workplace because Mercury's retrograde.'" He urges people to review the past year and see if the periods of their lives when Mercury was retrograde were especially catastrophic. They'll likely find that misinterpreted messages and technical problems are fairly common throughout the year. But as Dr. Hammergren says, when things go wrong and Mercury isn't retrograde, "we don't get that hashtag. It's called Monday."

This piece originally ran in 2018.

What’s the Difference Between a Pirate and a Buccaneer?

geniebird/iStock via Getty Images
geniebird/iStock via Getty Images

Talk Like a Pirate Day is returning to port on September 19th and you can bet your boots that a few celebrants will be using the terms pirate and buccaneer interchangeably. Most people do. Nevertheless, these two words aren’t actually synonymous.  

Four hundred years ago, if you were a seafaring thief, the label that you received said a great deal—mainly about whoever it was doing the labeling. Anyone who called you a "pirate" probably hated your guts. But those who cited you as a “buccaneer” might have had a very different attitude. Within certain contexts, the latter group may have even embraced you as a national hero.

Time for a swashbuckling semantics lesson. In article 101 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), piracy is defined as "any illegal acts of violence or detention ... committed for private ends by the crew or the passengers of a private ship." UNCLOS also states that, to be considered piracy, a crime must occur within international waters. If the event in question takes place within a particular country’s territorial waters, the aggressors will be deemed armed robbers rather than pirates.

Historical definitions tended to be a lot broader. During the 17th and 18th centuries, England regarded piracy as any criminal act committed on the high seas or below the low tide mark around shores, rivers, and estuaries. Hundreds of years earlier, in the year 100 CE, Plutarch—a noteworthy Greek scholar— talked about pirates as anybody who attacked a ship or maritime city without legal authority.

Just what did he mean by “legal authority?” Plutarch was probably alluding to warships. Nowadays, these are generally owned by national governments, but this wasn’t always the case. From medieval times through the early 20th century, it was common practice for a nation at war to recruit private vessels to assault its enemy’s ships, steal their goods, and plunder their ports. Mariners who engaged in such state-approved mischief were called “privateers.”

Usually, a privateer vessel was allowed to operate under a license that was granted by the country it served. Dubbed the Letter of Marque, this document laid out a code of conduct and payment policy for the crew. (Privateers almost always got to keep a percentage of whatever they took.)

Essentially, privateers were independent contractors, acting as hostile, government-commissioned, seafaring mercenaries. Therefore, they technically weren’t pirates because real pirates didn’t behave in accordance with any national laws or regulations. But the dividing line here was pretty blurry. Many privateers eventually became pirates and vice versa. Also, a captured privateer would sometimes be tried as a pirate by the country he or she was victimizing.

This brings us back to buccaneers: Throughout the 16th through 18th centuries, Spain more or less controlled the Caribbean. However, in the 1600s, she started to get some not-so-friendly competition. By the middle of that century, settlers from various other European countries—including England, France, and the Netherlands—had colonized parts of the Leeward Islands and Hispaniola. Among these newcomers, transplanted Frenchmen were especially common. The Gallic colonists would frequently smoke their meat over a wooden platform that they called a boucan. Thanks to this cooking technique, the frontiersmen were given the nickname “buccaneers.”

Before long, many turned to piracy. Because of Spain’s huge colonial presence in the Caribbean, buccaneers more or less exclusively targeted Spanish ports and ships. This turned plenty of heads across the Atlantic. In an attempt to cripple Spain’s empire, the English, French, and Dutch began issuing Letters of Marque to buccaneer vessels.

Eventually, the word buccaneer came to possess its current—and very specific—definition, which is: “any of the piratical adventurers who raided Spanish colonies and ships along the American coast in the second half of the 17th century.” (Told you it was specific.)

The most famous buccaneer of them all was undoubtedly Sir Henry Morgan. Little is known about his early life, although most historians believe that he was born in Wales at some point in 1635. Nearly 20 years later, he set sail for Barbados as a member of an expedition that saw England seize Jamaica from the Spanish.

Morgan quickly emerged as a leading buccaneer, and as England’s most ruthlessly effective privateer. In 1668, he seized the heavily guarded city of Porto Bello, Panama, holding it for ransom until the Spanish coughed up an amazing 250,000 pesos. Three years later, Morgan raided and sacked Panama City, which promptly burned to the ground. Such exploits did not endear him to the Spanish, but in England, Morgan was a widely beloved figure. Knighted by King Charles II, he was made Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica in 1674. Following his death on August 25, 1688, Morgan received a grandiose state funeral, complete with a 22-gun salute.

And, yes, that rum was named after him. Clearly, buccaneering had its perks. 

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Why is Friday the 13th Considered Unlucky?

iStock
iStock

Today, people around the globe will feel uneasy about getting out of bed, leaving their homes, or going about their normal daily routines, all because of a superstition. These unfortunate folks suffer from paraskavedekatriaphobia, a common neurosis familiar to us all: the fear of Friday the 13th. But just where did this superstitious association come from, and how did it catch on?

The truth is that no one is absolutely sure where the idea that Friday the 13th is unlucky originated. Donald Dossey, the founder of the Stress Management Center and Phobia Institute in Asheville, North Carolina, suspects the fear can be traced back to a Norse myth about 12 gods who had a dinner at Valhalla—the fabled hall where legendary Norse heroes feasted for eternity after they died—that was interrupted by a 13th guest, the evil and mischievous god Loki.

According to legend, Loki tricked Höðr (the blind god of winter and son of Odin, the supreme god in Norse mythology) into shooting his brother Baldr (the benevolent god of summer who was also a son of Odin) with a magical spear tipped with mistletoe—the only substance that could defeat him. Thus the number 13 was branded as unlucky because of the ominous period of mourning following the loss of such powerful gods by this unwanted 13th guest.

For whatever reason, among many cultures, the number 12 emerged throughout history as a "complete" number: There are 12 months in a year, 12 signs of the zodiac, 12 Gods of Olympus, 12 sons of Odin, 12 labors of Hercules, 12 Jyotirlingas or Hindu shrines where Shiva is worshipped, 12 successors of Muhammad in Shia Islam, and 12 tribes of Israel. In Christianity, Jesus was betrayed by one of his 12 Apostles—Judas—who was the 13th guest to arrive for the Last Supper. Surpassing the number 12 ostensibly unbalances the ideal nature of things; because it is seen as irregular and disrespectful of a sense of perfection, the number 13 bears the stigma of misfortune and bad luck we know today.

WHY FRIDAY?

Friday joins in the mix mostly because all of the early accounts of Jesus’s crucifixion agree that it took place on Friday—the standard day for crucifixions in Rome. As Chaucer noted in The Canterbury Tales, "And on a Friday fell all this mischance." Yet perpetuating Friday as an unlucky day in America came from the late 19th-century American tradition of holding all executions on Fridays; Friday the 13th became the unluckiest of days simply because it combined two distinct superstitions into one. According to the Oxford University Press Dictionary of Superstitions, the first reference to Friday the 13th itself wasn’t until 1913. (So despite actually occurring on Friday, October 13, 1307, the popular notion that the Friday the 13th stigma comes from the date on which the famed order of the Knights Templar were wiped out by King Philip of France is just a coincidence.)

The repercussions of these phobias reverberated through American culture, particularly in the 20th century. Most skyscrapers and hotels lack a 13th floor, which specifically comes from the tendency in the early 1900s for buildings in New York City to omit the unlucky number (though the Empire State Building has a 13th floor). Some street addresses also skip from 12 to 14, while airports may skip the 13th gate. Allegedly, the popular Friday the 13th films were so-named just to cash in on this menacing date recognition, not because the filmmakers actually believed the date to be unlucky.

So, is Friday the 13th actually unlucky? Despite centuries of superstitious behavior, it largely seems like psychological mumbo jumbo. One 1993 study seemed to reveal that, statistically speaking, Friday the 13th is unlucky, but the study's authors told LiveScience that though the data was accurate, "the paper was just a bit of fun and not to be taken seriously." Other studies have shown no correlation between things like increased accidents or injuries and Friday the 13th.

And Friday the 13th isn't a big deal in other cultures, which have their own unlucky days: Greeks and Spanish-speaking countries consider Tuesday the 13th to be the unluckiest day, while Italians steer clear of Friday the 17th. So today, try to rest a little easy—Friday the 13th may not be so unlucky after all.

Additional Source: 13: The Story of the World’s Most Popular Superstition.

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