How can we benefit from the mythical exploits and
much-maligned retrograde motion of Mercury?
“Words are of course the most powerful drug used
by mankind.” - Rudyard
Mercury lives at the Sun’s front door and as a result
has the smallest orbit of the planets, only eighty-eight days, two
to three times faster than Venus or Earth. But in contrast to Mercury’s
speedy orbit the planet rotates very slowly on its axis, making
only one rotation in fifty-nine Earth days, leaving one side of
the planet in darkness for weeks at a time. Mercury’s orbit is also
quite eccentric causing changes in speed. If we could watch the
Sun’s apparent motion from the surface of Mercury the erratic motion
would appear very strange.
Mercury spends most of the time invisible to us except
for periods when it shows itself before dawn or after sunset. Because
of its small size, and the overwhelming brilliance of the Sun, Mercury
is difficult to see unless the viewer knows what to look for. Mercury
is so close to the Sun that the planet never rises or sets very
far from the solar orb and appears in the skies in all its positions
about three times a year.
Mercury is the Roman name of the Greek god Hermes,
who in turn came from the earlier Egyptian Thoth. The same archetype
of wisdom, measure and language hearkens back to the Babylonian
god, Nabu, who with his wife Tashmetum, was credited in their epoch
with the invention of writing.
Mercury has dominion over communication and was depicted
with wings on his feet and a zany winged helmet, symbolizing speed
of thought and ceaseless mental activity. The root of the word Mercury
survives in “commerce” and “merchant,” both of which involve exchange
of goods and information. As such he is an appropriate mercurial
icon for FTD floral delivery.
The root of the word Hermes in Greek comes from “herm”
which means stone, indicating a linguistic connection to the magical
Philosopher's Stone of Medieval alchemy. In their quest for immortality
Chinese alchemists consumed Mercury and knew that it was the only
substance which could dissolve gold. Hermes was guardian of boundaries
and thresholds and in ancient times stone sentinels were placed
at doorways and portals. Stone piles called “hermations” were erected
at crossroads and borders to invoke his protection. Traveling merchants,
heralds and pilgrims added to the piles to invoke protection from
the god of highways during their journeys and as tokens of gratitude
on their return.
In keeping with his role of protector of passages
Mercury was the only Olympian who could make the journey between
the heights of the fabled abode of the gods and the depths of Hades.
Mercury made this dangerous journey between paradigms by virtue
of his Caduceus, a gift from his brother Apollo, the sun god. In
Mercury’s role as psychopomp, or guide of souls in the nether realms,
he also conducted souls to Hades.
The Caduceus wand is depicted as two entwined serpents
around a central staff or pillar. The top of the Caduceus has a
sphere with wings and this portion of the Caduceus can still be
seen over doorways, or portals to other realms, in Egyptian temples.
Like the later idea of a hermation the winged sphere was both a
symbol of protection and a warning of transition into a different
state. One aspect of the path of Mercury is grasping the meaning
of the spiritual template the Caduceus represents.
Every culture has an image of a World Tree as part
of their cosmology. Indigenous cultures have shamans who travel
up and down the World Tree or Tree of Life by virtue of magical
knowledge and skill, navigating the portal between ordinary reality
and the confusing and potentially dangerous realm of non-ordinary
reality. The Norse god Odin also went up and down the Tree of Life.
Indigenous cultures believe ability to navigate in both worlds with
grace and skill is a sign of mastery and also often believe that
their greatest teachers and healers come from the ranks of those
who have sunk to the depths and emerged. These are the individuals
who can relate to the struggles of others with compassion and insight.
The planet Mercury represents the mind and functions
as a conduit between spirit and matter, heaven and earth, soul and
personality in the same way the mythical messenger traveled between
Mount Olympus and Hades. In human beings it is intellect which has
the potential to mediate between the pairs of opposites. There is
no intrinsic label of good or evil placed on the extremes of these
polarities. How thought and choice shape the raw material of consciousness
determines the outcome. A toddler playing with clay produces a different
result than a mature Michelangelo.
In this vein Mercury has two distinct natures. One
aspect is the mischievous trickster archetype, the shape shifter,
an androgynous and precocious youth without experience or a sense
of responsibility. Mercury is patron of games of chance and synchronous
events. He is the god of thieves, clever, cunning and devious. Mercury’s
quicksilver energy, the metal assigned to the planet in alchemy,
has a “now you see it, now you don’t” affect. If you blink you miss
it and the proverbial pick pocket has time to snatch your wallet.
Here we see the curious exploration of the child without regard
for labels of good and evil. Acting on its own this energy is without
conscience or morality as we think of it. Mind is devoid of heart;
producing a cold intellect without compassion.
In an astrological horoscope the placement of Mercury
reveals the particular channel or vehicle through which the faculty
of will can express itself. In the physical body Mercury is the
nervous system and shows how the individual is engaged and affected
by external stimuli which act on the sensory apparatus of the nervous
system. If Mercury is weak and challenged by aspect it’s akin to
a having a broken leg. It is more difficult to move and make the
body do the will’s bidding. It’s not impossible though and life
lessons will include shaping ingenious ways to adapt to the challenges.
Astronomically changes in the relative positions of
Earth and the other planets are called planetary phenomena which
affects when other planets are visible to us. The angle between
the Sun and a planet as viewed from Earth is called the planet’s
elongation. When a planet is east of the Sun that is its eastern
elongation and the planet will be visible in the evening sky after
sunset. We call those “evening stars.” Conversely, when a planet
has a western elongation it will rise during the night before the
Sun and will appear as a “morning star” at dawn. We are accustomed
to think of Venus in these terms because she is the most brilliant
object in the sky next to the Moon.
As we monitor the motion of a planet in the sky over
time it usually seems to move easterly against the background of
stars. In fact the word planet comes from a Greek word which meant
wanderer. Periodically when one of the inner planets passes Earth,
or when Earth passes one of the outer planets, that planet (Mercury
in this case), will seem to stop its eastward motion and appear
to move west or backward. This apparent change of direction is called
retrograde motion and although it is only an illusion the affect
feels real; like sitting in a parked car when the one next to you
moves. Your body thinks you’re moving in reverse and automatic physiological
responses kick in.
Mercury is the emissary of the Sun, sometimes going
before as herald and other times following respectfully behind.
Mercury has three periods of retrograde each year, occasionally
four, lasting on average twenty days each. Most people say it feels
longer. All sorts of symptoms have been linked to Mercury’s retrograde
motion. Mercury retrograde seems to engage the vexing quality of
the trickster aspect of the archetype, opening the door to what
can feel like Poltergeist influences.
When Mercury is retrograde everything to do with
communication and travel can be compromised. Travel by trains, planes,
boats and cars can have schedule delays and quirky things like flight
numbers being changed at the last minute, gates reassigned, and
traffic snarls while you drive to the airport crop up. Cell phones
may malfunction or major telephone trunk lines could be accidentally
sliced by well meaning construction crews.
In the case of the written word correspondence and
mail can go awry. Stamps fall off envelopes or packages blow out
of the UPS truck. The registered letter is mysteriously languishing
behind a cabinet at the Post Office. Messages may get misplaced
or not be received. You wonder if you really spoke aloud or only
thought you did. Where contracts are concerned it becomes vital
to read and reread the fine print. With verbal communication great
care must be taken with choice of words. Crystal clarity is paramount.
When in doubt, put it in writing and don’t take a chance with a
verbal agreement. Follow up and don’t leave any detail to chance.
In short, Mercury retrograde has the potential to cause prematurely
Having painted this dark picture of Mercury’s retrograde
motion, is there an upside to this influence? Naturally. When the
Messenger of the gods travels backward it’s as if the tape is rewound
and things that were dropped along the way can be recovered. Because
retrograde motion seems to put things in reverse, things that were
lost or fell victim to the shenanigans of an earlier retrograde
period may suddenly reverse themselves and move forward. The lost
letter may arrive months later. The article that disappeared may
suddenly reappear in the back of the closet or behind the washing
machine. The contract you thought fell through is revived and signed.
As if by magic now turns out to be the right time to put the house
on the market.
As a subset of Mercury’s role as guardian of portals
retrograde motion seems to melt the veil to the dream world. Many
of my clients have reported deeper and more significant dreams during
this influence. Mental blocks clear and innovative ideas emerge.
Likewise unspoken feelings and long-held silences can be addressed
while Mercury seems to move backward. It’s a good time to clear
up communications that need to be aired, releasing painful past
emotions. It can be a powerful time to speak the truth, addressing
old wounds or troublesome secrets.
Mercury’s astrological and alchemical symbol is a
combination of the circle, cross and crescent. The half circle,
or partial reflection, is above the circle of spirit, showing limitation
of eternal expression, but both are above the cross of materiality.
Contained within this symbol is the path of learning the right use
of will and the creative, or destructive, power of the word. Mercury
is thought by some astrologers to find its greatest potential for
expression in the fixed air sign of Aquarius, domain of the higher
mind, where the intellect is set free to connect with the higher
faculty of intuition.
Mature right action and compassion ultimately come
through the positive synergy of all the planets. Whether Mercury
moves forward or backward it is our challenge and opportunity to
use our minds in the most constructive way to bring about this positive