Today Mercury goes direct again, leaving its first retrograde of 2016 (though the effects of the retrograde will still be felt as late as mid-February). This year, Mercury spends all or part of each retrograde in an earth sign–the first retrograde in Capricorn-Aquarius, the second in Taurus, and the third in Virgo and Libra–and this seemed like a good opportunity to delve into the chthonic aspects of the Messenger god.
Mercury is a big player in my horoscope, generally forming a team with Jupiter, so I think a lot about its astrological shenanigans, and sometimes feel them quite acutely. (It was classic Mercury Rx when my credit card company decided I was dead, for example.) Although the planets are not the same as the deities, my approach to astrology entails diving deep into myths. This often reveals nuances to the planets and houses that I wouldn’t see otherwise.
Hermes has always struck me as quite unusual among the Greek gods because he has a finger in every pie–there’s hardly an aspect of life that doesn’t seem to fall under his purview. As much as I rail against narrowly constraining what a deity is supposed to be a “god of“, in this case I admit it was hard to connect the dots in a way that would help me better understand the astrology of Mercury. Here is a list, not comprehensive mind you, of things governed by Hermes (also check out the three-part summary of a Hermes-themed conference on the Digital Ambler and see also this list of Hermes epithets):
- livestock and shepherds
- divination by sortilege
- comic theater, particularly in iambic pentameter and the more low-brow the better
And there are what seem to me weird contradictions as well. For example, Hermes is associated with seduction, animal fertility, and was often represented simply as an erect phallus (or a head and a phallus), yet unlike other Greek deities he’s not depicted as shagging (or raping) every passing nymph or prince/ss. Furthermore, despite being so intimately connected with things humans love–and being beloved himself as a deity who was particularly friendly to humans and our interests–Hermes didn’t have any big temples or an organized cultus. I always thought it was weird that as a psychopomp, a speedy traveler, and a protector of livestock, Hermes is not associated with horses.
At first I thought maybe we were looking at the vestiges of a syncretic merging of multiple deities way back in prehistory, but I now think it’s more likely that Hermes’ mythos preserves his evolution**, perhaps better than with any other Classical deity. It’s said that Hermes was a late addition to the Olympic pantheon, but he seems to me one of the most “primitive” of the Olympians, or at least to preserve more archaic qualities.
I’m not the first to reach that conclusion. In his essay “Hermes and the Creation of Space”, Murray Stein quotes the Oxford Classical Dictionary, which states that Hermes
“…is probably one of the oldest [of the gods] and most nearly primitive in origin….and signifies the daemon who haunts or occupies a heap of stones, or perhaps a stone, set up by the roadside for some magical purpose.”
This image is vividly animist and reminds me of the stones that serve as god-bodies at Shinto shrines. In what I suspect are the earlier conceptions of Hermes, he is present in liminal places, interstices between the known and unknown, such as crossroads, the mountain slopes where shepherds grazed their flocks (shepherds are always liminal types, being of civilization but rarely in it), and most importantly the boundary between worlds. Through experience people came to know Hermes as a friend in need, and he thus became a guardian of travelers and outsiders; then, by extension, a granter of luck, and in turn a patron of risky pastimes like business and gambling. In modern times, digital communications, electronics, and the postal service were added to his bag of tricks.
While Hermes as we most often see him represented–a beautiful, lithe youth with winged sandals–seems airy and even whimsical, a look at his signature tool and symbol, the kerykeion or caduceus, reveals another side.
The kerykeion is a winged staff entwined by two serpents. It unites a symbol of the sky or heavens–wings–with a symbol of the earth and rebirth–snakes. It is thus a kind of axis mundi. With the kerykeion Hermes could put anyone to sleep or wake them (the space/time between sleep and wakefulness also being his territory of course). With the axis mundi for a staff, an antinomian patronage of all kinds of outsiders and boundary-crossers, the ability to instigate dreaming and to travel between worlds upper, middle, and lower, Hermes starts to look very shamanic* indeed. (And a lot like David Bowie, actually.) One can’t help but notice certain parallels with another antinomian deity represented by a phallus, and associated with the axis mundi: Shiva.
Returning to the vagaries of the planet Mercury, its astrological associations are traditionally more in line with what I think of as the elaborated, evolved form of Hermes the Messenger. The planet governs travel, study and teaching, information, and communications. When Mercury goes retrograde, all these areas can be turned topsy-turvy as Mercury shows his trickster persona. It is often recommended that during Mercury retrograde one should do some introspection, since outrospection (is that a word? It is now! Thanks, Mercury!) is likely to go awry anyway.
Now when it comes to the kinds of experiences we conventionally term “shamanic,” Pluto, Saturn, and Neptune have much greater claim to rule them. Moreover such experiences are more often associated with the 8th house and its associated sign, Scorpio, which belongs to the water element, not earth. However, since 2016’s Mercury Retrogrades will be in earth signs, it seems only appropriate to be inspired by chthonic Hermes***–his psychopomp role/epithet–and dig deep.
Taurus, which Mercury will be reversing through in late April-May, seems an appropriate sign for the god of livestock. Cattle were one of the principal forms of wealth in the ancient (and indeed not so ancient) world, and Taurus is very much concerned with value: determining what is of value and then stockpiling as much of it as possible. The accrual of wealth, in other words. Taurus likes to get (at least metaphorically) fat and sleek in lush green pastures, with everything it needs close to hand and in ample quantities. We can expect this Mercury Rx to call our values into question and perhaps force us to face the death–in Hermetic terms–of our Precious, whatever form it may take. Instead of being lucky for gamblers and businesspeople, this chthonic Mercury might take them on a journey to some shadowy places where they have to confront fears and experiences of scarcity. The more stubborn and bullheaded we are, the harder the lesson will be.
Mercury will enter Virgo in its third retrograde during September. Virgo is traditionally ruled by Mercury. Virgo is the sign of service and helpfulness, and Mercury/Hermes is the only Olympian in service to other deities–he serves his father Zeus as messenger. Even more than service, though, Virgo represents the separation of pure from impure, sacred from profane. That is, Virgo is concerned both with determining what is pure and sacred, and with taking the necessary actions to keep it that way. Contrary to popular astrological claims, I have yet to meet a Virgo who was tidy, and I have known, and lived with, many Virgos. Virgo is not about being neat, it’s about tending the eternal sacred flame of the inner temple–that is the service they give. A keen mind and even keener sight is needed to sort the wheat from the chaff, and Virgo is ever on the lookout for stray chaff that may have sneaked in or been missed by some lackadaisical sign like that awful Sagittarius****. Virgo likes nothing better than to draw boundaries and then police them; Hermes likes nothing better than to cross boundaries and play with them. Chthonic Hermes’ power is in his ability to move between worlds. If you try to contain him within one, he is nowhere. That kind of thing makes Virgo crazy. So when Mercury Rx goes into Virgo we can predict a dissolution of boundaries that causes confusion and unease, as if we suddenly fell through the looking glass or down the rabbit hole. Categories that have always seemed set in stone will suddenly be seen to be arbitrary and fragile. The only way to deal with it is to lean in, let go, and get right with neither-nor. If you’re not willing to meet what’s on the other side, why go to the crossroads in the first place?
*I know the term is problematic, but I don’t have time to go into it here, so let’s just use shaman in the conventionally-understood, generalized way.
**There is no implicit value judgment here. Evolved simply means changed over time.
***Hermes Khthonios, “Hermes of the Earth”–by extension, the underworld.
****Said the Sagittarius, speaking from experience.