Saturday, July 30, 2011
Mercury Retrograde August 2 - 26, 2011
This week the planet Mercury will slow to a halt and begin it's second retrograde period of the year beginning on Tuesday, August 2, 2011. From our vantage point on Earth, Mercury, which is only visible just before sunrise or just after sunset, travels in a forward direction most of the time. But three or four times a year, it appears to stop and reverse making a small loop across the heavens. Of course Mercury really isn't going backwards. It's an optical illusion based on the relative speeds and orbits of the Earth and Mercury around the Sun.
Tuesday night Mercury will station in the fiery sign of Leo and begin its three week retrograde motion back to the sign of Cancer. In the middle of the retrograde it makes its inferior conjunction with the Sun on the same day that Venus makes her superior conjunction -- August 16, 2011. And like Venus, Mercury will be sande (29 degrees) and gandanta (junction between fire and water). After delving into Venus cycles in my last post, I thought we might look more deeply at the related cycles of Mercury. Both of these inner planets share similar mythological themes of traveling to the underworld, but as we shall see each correspond to different psychological functions perhaps based on the geometric patterns they weave in the skies.
Mercury has a reputation for being fleet of foot. This attribute stems from its quick pace around the Sun -- just 88 earth days with a velocity that accelerates during perihelion. It is the quality of 'quickening' that has given Mercury its speedy reputation, and has made it a namesake for the element mercury, i.e quicksilver, the key ingredient in alchemy. As the only metal that is a liquid state at room temperature, quicksilver was used by alchemists because it easily fused with other metals. Similarly the planet Mercury is said to take on the quality and influence of other planets associated with it. The element mercury was believed to transcend the liquid and solid states, just as the planet Mercury is describe to transcend between heaven and earth in its retrograde process.
Mercury is the first planet from the Sun, and like Venus, its proximity to the bright luminary means it can be observed for only a brief period during either the morning or evening twilight. Although Venus can be found up to two signs apart from the Sun at its greatest elongation, Mercury is always within one sign (a sign is 30°). The value of the greatest elongation (west or east), for Mercury is between 18° and 28°; and between 45° and 47° for Venus. As Mercury is said to take on the quality of planets associated with it, its closeness to the Sun makes the Sun one of its primary astrological influences. Mercury receives 7 times as much light from the Sun as the Earth charging it with solar power and illumination, and imbuing the planet of communication with the Sun's consciousness. Astrological traditions propose that when the Sun and Mercury are in the same sign, an individual has no problem speaking their mind or communicating clearly. If Mercury falls in the sign before the Sun, an individual may be shy to speak and is more reflective. And when Mercury is located in the sign after the Sun, it gives the individual a more objective or practical view of things that can capitalize on the interests denoted by that sign.
Mercury reaches inferior conjunction every 116 days on average, but it can vary from 105 days to 129 days due to its eccentric orbit. And like Venus, Mercury has a very slow rotation. It completes three rotations around its axis for every two orbits creating a 3:2 ration. Despite its small size and slow 59-day-long rotation, Mercury has a significant, and apparently global, magnetic field. It is strong enough to deflect the solar wind around the planet creating a magnetosphere. Earth and Mercury are the only terrestrial planets with a magnetic field, and Mercury’s magnetic field is dipolar like Earth’s, but much weaker. Many modern researchers have proposed that consciousness can be understood as an electromagnetic phenomenon. So it is remarkable that astrologers use the planet Mercury to represent the aspect of our consciousness that is our thinking mind.
Our mind can lead us to states higher consciousness, or take us to lower dimensions of the ego that some might label the underworld, as depicted in the image above. Unlike Venus who must follow certain conditions during her descent to the underworld, Mercury has no boundaries and can easily travel between the worlds. As the divine intermediary,the magnetic forces of Mercury transmits messages between the poles of the soul and persona/ego at the speed of light. The conflicting aspects of this duality produces a constant pull between that which is perceived (mind, Mercury) and the consciousness who perceives it (soul, Sun). Thus Mercury's placement in relation to the Sun indicates how an individual manifests and deals with this duality.
The 116-day cycle of Mercury begins with an inferior conjunction with the Sun. During the inferior conjunction Mercury is located between the Sun and the earth in the middle of its 20-24 day retrograde cycle. As it leaves the evening skies of the west for the morning skies of the east, it becomes another morning star, whose magnitude is not nearly as bright as Venus and often lost in the sun's light. Dane Rudhyar termed this half of Mercury's cycle Promethean after the mythological titan who stole the fire of the gods and gave it as a gift to humanity. Within a fortnight Mercury reaches its greatest distance from the sun and quickens its pace through the sidereal zodiac often at more than one degree a day. The superior conjunction then occurs while Mercury is at the far side of the Sun and moving close to its maximum speed. After this point Mercury begins to set after the sun in its evening phase which Rudhyar named Epimethean, for the backward looking brother of the forward-looking Prometheus. About four to five days after the superior conjunction, Mercury’s daily motion matches the Sun’s and two weeks later it turns retrograde. In the middle of this new retrograde cycle, Mercury closes the cycle with another inferior conjunction.
The earliest known recorded observations of the planet Mercury are from the Babylonian compendium called the Mul.Apin tablets which were probably compiled around 1,000 BC. These cuneform tablets are formed in the tradition of earlier star catalogs, the Three Stars Each lists, but represents an expanded version based on more accurate observation. The Babylonians called the planet Mercury Nabu after the god of wisdom and writing.
They also referred to the planet as Shihtu meaning 'the leaper' probably referring to the planet's sudden and brief appearances. Unfortunately, few myths involving Nabu have survived. After the conquests of Alexander the Great, Hellenistic Greek settlers in the East worshiped Nabu as Apollo, the Sun god.
Ancient Greeks had two names for Mercury: Apollo in the morning sky, and Hermes in the evening sky -- just as they had two names for Venus: the morning star was called Phosphoros (the light bearer) and the evening star Hesperus (setting in the West). It might seem strange that the planet Mercury was named after the Sun god of the ancient Greeks. Apollo is the charioteer of the Sun, and was also recognized as a god of light, truth, prophecy, medicine, healing, plague, music, poetry and the arts. Thus his appearance in the morning driving the chariot of the Sun may explain his morning phase title.
But it is Hermes who is the great messenger of the gods and a guide to the underworld, and thus the archetypal figure most associated with the astrological Mercury of today. According to the Homeric tradition, Hermes was conceived in an secret adulterous affair between Zeus and Maia, daughter of the giant titan Atlas. Maia (in Sanskrit maya means illusion) gave birth to their love child in a cave, hidden from human eyes, and Zeus' jealous wife, Hera. According to Homeric Hymn 4 dating from 7-4th century B.C., Maia gave birth to this ingenious child, this clever deception planner, tracker and thief of cattle, a shepherd of dreams, this citizen of the night lurking in doorways. Seems appropriate for the son of illusion and the evening phase of Mercury when the winged messenger hangs out on the doorway of night. The infant Hermes was precocious and by the end of his first day he invented the lyre which he gave to Apollo to make amends for stealing the Sun god's immortal flock. Thus Hermes protected travelers, shepherds and cowherds, thieves and orators. He was also patron of humor and wit, of literature and poets, of athletics and sports, of weights and measures, of invention, and of commerce in general -- all areas that are under his current astrological influence. His symbols include the tortoise, the rooster, the winged sandals, the winged hat, and the caduceus.
In Greek mythology, Mercury, as Hermes, messenger of the gods, has one foot in the physical world and another in the realm of the unseen. He is just as likely to protect the thief who picks your pocket, the merchant who takes your money, and the writer who takes you to another world. His ability to travel between the worlds gives him his reputation of crossing boundaries of all kinds: physical, mental, and spiritual. As Mercury dissolves physical dimensions by crossing mental boundaries, it guides us into the mysteries of the imagination, the memories of the past, and the dreams of the future. Its wanderlust often keeps Mercury from being rooted in the present for too long.
As I described in my last post (click here), inferior conjunctions and superior conjunctions of the inner planets Mercury and Venus were viewed by ancient sky watchers as a time when the gods descended into the underworld. During this time the gods underwent a metamorphosis that released them from their posts in the twilight of western skies to reappear in the early morning eastern sky. It takes Venus 584 days to make a complete synodic cycle (from inferior conjunction to inferior conjunction with the Sun), where as swift Mercury completes this process in 116 days (more or less), nearly 5 times faster and three times during an earth year.
Just as the Venus carves out a pentagram around the Earth during its 5 inferior conjunctions in 8 years, Mercury also inscribes a triangle during its 3 inferior conjunctions in 1 year. Moreover, some mystics combine the three inferior conjunctions with the three superior conjunctions that also take place revealing a hidden geometry: the hexagram.
The interlocking triangles symbolize the union of the two principles or forces that pervade the dualistic universe: the active and passive, yin and yang, male and female. Mercury is the intermediary, androgenous balance between the two. Moreover, as Mercury also governs the nervous system of the human body, we begin to see how it connects us not only to the yin and yang aspects of the universe, but also to the microcosmic and macrocosmic levels. Mercury rules over the mutable signs of Gemini and Virgo. The two hemispheres of the brain may be compared to the twins, or lovers as they are viewed in the Vedic system; whereas the spinal cord corresponds to the sensitive maiden of Virgo, who holds a wheat sheath symbolizing the dural sheaths of the spine (see my previous post for more on this topic). Even Mercury's caduceus is a stylized representation of our nervous system. The staff represents the spinal cord, the snakes the channels of the ida and pingala, and the wings as both the right and left sides of the brain, as well as our mind's ability to access higher conscious states. Our Mercurial nervous system is literally the physical intermediary and energetic link that interacts with the world of the senses and the world of the mind and spirit. The alchemical principles of as above, so below and make the volatile fixed, and the fixed volatile, represent Mercury's ability to spiritualize matter and materialize spirit.
Alchemists have long understood the electromagnetic properties of liquid mercury. When an iron nail (earth) touches liquid mercury (the planet Mercury) it begins to dance and pulse, often in the shape of two polar triangles reflecting the alchemical Seal of Hermes.
Could the alchemical principle of as above, so below be at work here as well? Could Mercury and the Earth have an energetic resonance that stimulates a hexagonal vibration? If the caduceus of Mercury represents the rising path of the dualistic forces of the ida and pingala traveling up the sushumna, then could the element mercury represent the liquid light of kundalini triggered by the planet Mercury's relationship to the earth? Touching the base of the caduceus, or sushumna, to the earth and balancing the mercurial mind in meditation, allows this light to rise where perhaps it stimulates the hexagonal chakra of the heart, the anahata.
Mercury is called Budha in Sanskrit, meaning intelligence or cognition that as westerners we might correlate with brain activity of the sensory and cognitive mind. Buddhi is the ability to discern the real from the unreal, and I would say includes the brain and heart, the body's seat of consciousness. The sacred geometry of the anahata, the heart chakra, which radiates the color green associated with Mercury, has hexagram at its center. In astrological traditions, the Sun rules the heart which is seen as the seat of the soul; whereas Mercury rules the brain, which is the primary organ of the senses and the cognitive mind. When the polarity of the brain finds balance, as symbolized by the hexagram, then the soul radiates a beautiful green light from the heart chakra and can travel up the sushumna as the spiraling ida and pingala to unify at the crown and connect with higher realms outside of sensory dimensions.
Mercury's dance around the Sun reflects periods when its ability to discern the truth from sensory impressions is heightened, and symbolically aligns the cognitive mind, the buddhi, with the atma in the heart. Astrologically when Mercury makes its inferior and superior conjunctions with the Sun, it is considered combust, or burned up. It is rendered powerless to think and discern; but Mercury is mutable and can use the heat to surrender and transform its heavy materialistic thinking to understanding the higher reality of the Sun. Periods of retrograde and direct motion integrate right and left brain activity at these conjunction points.
In the alchemical tradition quicksilver, mercury, was considered a key ingredient of the philosopher's stone, the magical element that changed lead into gold. The transmutation of metals was a metaphor for an inner potential of the spirit and reason to evolve from a lower state of imperfection (lead) to a higher state of enlightenment and perfection (gold). In this view, spiritual elevation, the transmutation of metals, and the purification and rejuvenation of the body were seen to be manifestations of the same concept. Thus mercury is the catalyst that can transmute the lead of ignorance into the gold of enlightenment, just as the planet Mercury can bring the soul beyond the boundaries of the mind to find enlightenment. One of the goals of the alchemical process is the hiero gamos, or union of opposites, often played out as the sacred marriage of a king and queen (for more on hiero gamos see my previous post on the royal wedding of William and Kate). From their mystical union, the Mysterium Coniunctionis, a divine child, or alchemical Hermaphrodite is born. The hermaphrodite is a divine being who is the result of a reconciliation of opposites and the experience of union. Mercury, as Hermes, is merged with Venus as Aphrodite resulting in the morphological alchemical child, the Hermaphrodite. In addition to an alchemical process, could this divine child represent an astrological alignment that aligns the heart and mind with the divine light of the Sun?
In this illustrated manuscript from the 16th century Splendor Solis, the Hermaphrodite holds an egg in its left hand, indicating the potential of individual consciousness, and a mirror in its right, indicating a reflective awareness and clear perception. It reminds me of Plato's Symposium, in which the philosopher describes how humans descended from a primordial race whose essence is now extinct - a race of hermaphrodites. The ancient race was powerful, yet arrogant, and when they rebelled against the Gods, they were cursed and split in two eternally yearning to merge with their other half. As I have theorized in a previous post, I believe that Mercury retrograde stimulates our right brain enabling us to go in deeper to our psyche as the planet dips into the underworld. It seems to trigger right brain activity that brings us back to the present moment, and sets aside the plotting and planning for the future that occurs in left brain activity. And as I proposed in my last post, Venus inferior and superior conjunctions take us to the underworld to shed the false constructs of our ego, so we may have soulful connections and relationships with others. Thus, on August 16, 2011, when the current Mercury retrograde has activated our right brain and opened our consciousness at the same time that the Venus superior conjunction releases our ego constraints and frees the soul, we may have the opportunity to experience a truly transcendental moment with our fellow humans expressing our highest frequency: love. We have the opportunity to transform and develop our own inner hermaphrodite that is reflective and clear. But keep in mind that this conjunction occurs in Mercury's nakshatra Ashlesha, the serpent. Under the influence of the "clinging star," we may find that our minds are being challenged to release old ideas and patterns that are toxic to us. The gift of Ashlesha is visasleshana shakti, the power to inflict with poisonous venom, which under the power of Mercury's caduceus could be used to heal. Let your negative thoughts die and allow the beautiful light of Venus and Mercury to restore the balance of your inner and outer worlds. May you heal your split-apart.
Michael Garfield on Encountering the Shadow - some very wise advise from a young man with an old soul.