Mars retrograde is supposed to bring the men back. The planet of ambition, sex and war – at least as per astrologers and storytellers – had backtracked not even three days when my text messages started showing signs of an accurate forecast. A retrograde is when a planet appears to be moving backwards in the sky, and its astrological effects are said to be a little askew. Seeing these effects in my inbox, I did not reply. Call it the thwarted drive of a weakened Mars or the long-term strategy of a sensible warrior. It may not be wise to pay heed to astrology, but that returning men rarely warrant replies is a permanently valid prophecy.
It so happens that Mars is also astronomically important this month, and its proximity to Earth at the end of July means its visibility increases for sky-watchers. It also has a perihelic opposition, when it’s at its closest to the sun while also directly opposite to Earth. And at the end of the month, Mars will come closer to us than it has in a decade and a half, and this will almost coincide with the longest lunar eclipse of the century.
Our planet experiences lunar eclipses a few times a year, but Mars has them almost every night, and in totality. Its two moons – Phobos and Deimos – are relatively small and frequently covered by the sun. There cannot be any total solar eclipses on that planet. Mars is the Roman name for the Greek deity Ares, god of war. His sons were Phobos and Deimos. Phobos – named for fear, from which we get the word “phobia”. Deimos – named for dread, especially before battle. The young twins accompanied their father into war. Fearsome to behold, Deimos was lion-headed, and his brother had a fiery gaze.
I looked at images of Phobos and Deimos and felt a strange and loyal smugness. They are not as pretty as our moon, who despite all her craters and caprices is complete in herself. They are misshapen, and strike me as being untrustworthy. Phobos is believed to actually be a pile of rubble with a thin crust, and is known to be collapsing internally, torn up over its tidal interactions with Mars.
The mother of the twins was Aphrodite or Venus, the goddess of love, and because of this they were also the gods of the fear of loss. Not loss itself but the fear of it. Perhaps Dread and Fear include the anxiety of sitting by an ailing loved one, or the disquiet of realising someone does not intend to call you back.
Our moon has no scientific name. She is The Moon. And surely among her many prestiges she is also the governess of loss – not the one who controls or creates it, but the one who looks over those who experience it. We are mostly made of water, more receptive to the lunar pull than to the retrogression of a distant planet.
So Mars is in retrograde and maybe the men will try to come back, but even with the occlusion of an eclipse, they should know they’re treading in a selene-centric galaxy.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on July 5th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.