From Puer to Senex:
The Evolutionary Journey of Mercury
As astrologers, when we talk about Mercury, most often we refer to “how we think and how we communicate”, referencing cognitive skills and intellect, the quality and tone of the voice, and so on. Mercury is often reduced in status in the hierarchy of planetary “weight” because of his speed and size. In actuality there is tremendous density and latitude in this celestial traveler. There is much hidden in the core expression of this primary personal archetype. In fact, his cleverness is already trying to convince us that this is all there is. An examination of the mythology, astronomy, and astrology of this quixotic character reveals a much deeper personal story. His proximity to the Sun, the source of all life force in our solar system is neither accidental nor coincidental. He was the messenger, traveler, guide, trader, orator, magician and mystic. He was also known to be the trickster, thief, liar, and rapist. However, he was not just a messenger, he was the Messenger of the Gods. He was also the psychopomp, the guide souls between worlds. He was a sibling, a family member, and somebody’s brother just like many of us. Most significantly, he performs a critical evolutionary role for each of us as he guides us across the boundary between our own light and shadow, the conscious and the unconscious, so that we can perform the alchemical synthesis of self that we call personal evolution. When we explore Mercury from mythological, astrological, astronomical perspectives, meaning emerges that reveals the diversity of ways that Mercury expresses through the natal chart.
Dosso Dossi: "Fupite Mercury and Virtus or Virgo" c.1540
There is no single mythological thread that connects the various faces and personalities of Mercury, or Hermes as he was known to the Greeks. In one form or another, the mythology of Mercury extends back to earliest oral and written traditions, and spans multiple cultures. We know him primarily from the mythos of Greece and Rome, who were influenced by the earlier Sumerian, Babylonian, and Egyptian cultures. To the Egyptians he was Thoth, to the Romans he was Mercury, the Celts he was Lugh, and to the Norse he was Loki. The mythos surrounding Hermes spans eight centuries. In the Hellenistic periods, which extended through last 3 centuries before the Common Era, Hermes the Magician osmoses with Thoth, becoming Hermes Trismegistus the Alchemist.
Hermes was the god of animal husbandry, including cattle-herding, shepherding, goat-herding and even the breeding of horses and mules. In the earliest accounts he is Hermes of Arcadia, a shepherd who tended his flock and lived peacefully on the side of Mount Kyllene. In this role he is portrayed as more feminine than masculine, nurturing, living close to the land.
But the story of Hermes evolution also takes a different storyline. His exploits in the Iliad and Odyssey reveal his more masculine persona as the patriarchy of the Greeks and Romans conditioned his mythology becoming a murderer, and also the rapist of a two different princesses, having no remorse for her death of one of them as a result of his behavior—a reflection of the fragmented and patriarchal perspective of the diminishing role of women in Greek and Roman society.
The Greek poets Hesiod and Homer c. 800BCE who tell the stories of Hermes cleverness as a child, his knowledge of music, astronomy, astrology, healing, and magic. The best known tells the story of Hermes’s theft of the cattle that belonged to his half-brother Apollo. The story is told that only one day after his birth, Hermes was bored with being in his crib so he turned himself into a puff of vapor and slipped through a keyhole to find his adventure. Once outside he turned himself back into his normal baby form. As he went on his journey, he soon came upon his brother’s cattle and decided that he needed to have some of them for his own. He had the herd walk backwards to obscure the direction they had gone, and fashioned magical sandals for himself that erased his own tracks. Continuing on his way, he came upon a tortoise; the tortoise’s lustrous shell caught his attention. He cleverly persuaded the tortoise to let him have a closer look upon which he just cracked open the shell, ate the tortoise meat, and using some sinews from the cows he had stolen from his brother, fashioned the shell into a lyre. He then returned home and into his cradle. Apollo divined what had happened and confronted his newborn brother with the theft. Hermes argued that he was just a baby in swaddling clothes and how could he have conceived such a devious act. Unsatisfied, Apollo decided to take the case to their father Zeus for resolution. Hermes again pleaded his case of being just a baby and incapable of such a duplicitous act. Zeus was
Edward John POYNTER
"Mercury Stealing the Cattle of the Gods"
completely taken with the hubris and cleverness of his young son, so he commanded the two siblings to work it out between themselves. Sensing that he must obey his father, as recompense, Hermes offered his lyre to Apollo who had heard him playing the instrument and was captivated by the sound. Apollo accepted the gift graciously, returned the stolen cattle and the two brothers reconciled their differences.
From this famous story of Hermes as the stealer of Apollo’s cattle emerges the expression of the puer aeternus, the eternal child. This phrase was originated by the Greek poet Ovid in his description of the child gods of the Greek pantheon. Carl Jung adopted this as an archetype that psychologically describes an older man whose emotional life has remained at an adolescent level. This was further popularized by psychologist Dan Kiley in his 1983 book The Peter Pan Syndrome: Men Who Have Never Grown Up. Along with the refusal to grow up, an individual will be often express glibness, glossing over, and even lying to obfuscate the truth, with a total disregard of the consequences of one’s actions.
“Quite often, people with an underdeveloped Mercury can be concerned with dissemination superficial factual knowledge and
with compartmentalizing ideas, holding unopposable opinions and refusing to be influenced by human values and emotions because these are too subjective to be tested against external reality.”
--Freda Edis The God Between: A Study of Astrological Mercury
As the expression of the puer aeternus, Mercury reveals where we feel young, and describes how we like to play and our sense of humor. There is a natural curiosity. In it’s shadow, the puer is prone to glibness of response and expression. Thinking and opinion is often reductionist. There is dishonesty and an obfuscation of the truth in order to retain one’s own established self-identification. There no evidence of conscience displayed as little regard for the consequences of action or speech.
Aspects and phase relationship between Mercury and the Moon correlate to the individual’s relationship and the quality of the communication between mother and child. Aspects to Sun and Saturn indicate the child’s experiences with the father. These astrological conditions reflect the way an individual will mature and develop their own emotional, and intellectual security, determining how they will handle new situations and/or crises and the nature and direction of their personal growth.
In the exchange of his lyre as recompense for stealing his cattle, Apollo gifts Hermes with divination, which leads him to discover astronomy, astrology and mathematics. Hermes uses these abilities to order and enumerate the phenomena of the natural world with the alphabet and numbers. Hermes also receives through divination the art of magic, which grants him invisibility and other powers.
The story goes that Zeus was so impressed and taken with pride at the clever craftiness and ingenuity of his newborn son that he appoints him to be the messenger of the gods and bestows upon him a magical golden rod to facilitate his work. There is some historical controversy between the rod given by Zeus and what we now know as the caduceus. Some accounts suggest that the oldest known imagery of the caduceus have their roots in a Mesopotamian origin with a Sumerian god whose symbol, a staff with two snakes intertwined around it, dating back to 4000 B.C. to 3000 B.C. By some accounts the caduceus evolved from a rod with entwined with a single snake that was carried by Asclepius, the father of modern medicine.
Caduceus was the staff carried by Hermes Trismegistus in Greco-Egyptian mythology. Hermes Trismegistus may be a representation of the syncretic combination of the Greek god Hermes and the Egyptian god Thoth. Both Hermes and Thoth were gods of writing. Hermes, the Greek god of interpretive communication, was combined with Thoth, the Egyptian god of wisdom, to become the patron of astrology and alchemy. In addition, both gods were psychopomps, guiding souls to the afterlife. Hermes used the magic rod to help Heracles capture the Cerberus by putting them to sleep. He used his wand as Argeiphontes to aid Priam, to lull the guards to sleep so that he could retrieve the slain and defiled body of Hector from Achilles’ camp. Hermes put the giant Argos to sleep so that he could slay him. He saved Odysseus from by Circe by giving him the magical herb “moly” that made him immune to her enchantments. This theme of magic re-emerges later in the myths of the Hellenistic period as Hermes is synthesized with the Egyptian god Thoth as Hermes Trismegistus.
“As for honors,
I’m going to get in on the same ones
That are sacred to Apollo.
And if my father won’t stand for it,
I’ll still try.
I’m capable certainly,
To be thief number one.”
--Homeric Hymn to Hermes
The mythos of the stolen cattle also illuminates the archetypal sibling relationship between Hermes and Apollo. Both brothers—the older brother Apollo being jealous of the attention given to the newest member of the family, and the younger brother jealous of the position, power, privilege and possessions of his elder brother, exhibit jealousy. Challenging aspects from Chiron, Saturn, or Pluto to Mercury can often indicate sibling rivalries and family disconnects.
Brian Clark tell us “Part of the Hermes/Mercury archetype and the third house is to experience lying, cheating, gossiping and teasing amongst the siblings in our experience to be recognized and separate.”
Hermes mythology is most significant in the stories of his role as Psychopomp, guide of souls between worlds. As the messenger of the gods, Hermes was the only god who could enter and leave the underworld without harm. The best-known account is his rescue of Persephone, after her abduction by Hades. Hermes also aided Orpheus,
the legendary musician, poet, and prophet in ancient Greek religion and myth, in the retrieval of his wife Eurydice who had descended into the underworld. He also guided the slain warriors of the Trojan War into Hades.
Johfra Bosschart, Hermes Trismegistos
By the late 1st Century BCE, the center of Greek learning and knowledge had migrated to the city Alexander the Great built in his own name, Alexandria, at the fertile delta of the Nile River. Here under the tutelage of Claudius Ptolemy, writer, mathematician, astronomer, geographer, astrologer, and poet, the foundations of the metaphysics that would flow through the occult world for the next 2000 years became to emerge as alchemy, astrology, kabbalah, and tarot. Alchemy refers to the process of “the transmutation of "base metals" (e.g., lead) into ‘noble’ ones (particularly gold); the creation of an elixir of immortality; the creation of panaceas able to cure any disease; and the development of an alkahest, a universal solvent. The perfection of the human body and soul was thought to permit or result from the alchemical magnum opus and, in the Hellenistic and western tradition, the achievement of gnosis.” Gnosis is the Greek word for knowledge as the insight into man's real nature as Divine.
It was during this period that the Magician/Alchemist appears as the actual or mythic Hermes Trismegistus. One suggestion of the meaning of “thrice anointed” is derived from statements in the The Emerald Tablet of Hermes
Trismegistus, that he knows the three parts of the wisdom of the whole universe, the three parts being alchemy, astrology, and theurgy.” The puer aeternus, Latin for eternal child, revealed in the mythos of Hermes as liar and thief, has evolved into the senex, Latin for old person, the wise old man or sage. These are both archetypes as described by Carl Jung.
What is this astrological/alchemical function that Hermes/Mercury correlates to in the natal chart? The nature of Mercury and Gemini is connected in the natural zodiac to the mutable cross: 3rd House/Gemini, 6th House/Virgo, 9th House Sagittarius, 12th House/Pisces. There is a natural conflict between left-brain, (Mercury/Gemini) rational inductive reasoning, essentially our opinions and subjective ideas regarding reality, and right brain deductive reasoning, our broader understanding and beliefs regarding of the nature of reality (Jupiter/Sagittarius). There is also a conflict between our individual, practical considerations (Mercury/Virgo) and larger transpersonal universal truths (Neptune/Pisces).
We know that Hermes travels between the 3 worlds: the upper world of divinity, the middle world--our consensus time and space reality, and the lower world—the subconscious. It is important
to remember that Hermes can navigate these 3 realms without harm. This same facility is available to each of us through the understanding of the placement of Mercury by sign, house, and aspect in the natal chart. Mercury’s planetary nodes also reveal the pathway from past to future, anchored in the present by natal Mercury.
“The ability of mediating and moving freely between different contradictory realms (for example the heavens and the underworld) was one of the chief attributes of the Greek Hermes. In alchemy, it was in the hermetic vessel where the spiritual regeneration and rebirth took place as the intellect was blended with passions and emotions.”
Through the light cast on the shadows buried in the subconscious and the recognition and acknowledgment of those shadows, the conscious and unconscious can be synthesized into a more holistic self. This alchemical transformation facilitates the opening of the channels that receive life force.
Because Mercury is never more than 28° from the Sun. Mercury’s close proximity to the Sun correlates to his role as the messenger of the gods. As he shuttles back and forth he collects and disseminates solar energy. When conscious and subconscious are fully integrated the solar life force, called Prana by the Hindus, and Chi by the Chinese can be received and absorbed more readily and flow (Moon) more readily throughout the 4 bodies (spiritual, emotional, mental, and physical) without internal psychic or emotional obstruction.
The only aspect that is possible is the conjunction and the new and balsamic phases. There are two types of Sun-Mercury conjunctions, the inferior conjunction when Mercury is retrograde and closest to the Earth, and the superior conjunction when Mercury is direct opposing the Earth on the far side of the Sun. The Sun-Mercury cycle begins at the inferior conjunction. At the retrospective Mercury phase the seed thoughts for the cycle are gestating and released. At the superior conjunction, these seed thoughts take shape as ideas and mental connections that shape the unfolding of the waning cycle of this planetary pair.
“Those natives born with Sun conjunct Mercury are expressive as speakers and writers. There is a strong need to have a voice in the world in one form or another. The new phase relationship with the Sun correlates to Mercury as the morning star, moving ahead of the Sun. This is an individual with an active, initiative mind, always on the lookout for something new to consider, explore, and learn about. In this waxing portion of the cycle, Michael Meyer described this placement as Mercury Prometheus.” --After the god who stole fire from Zeus and took on an active agenda for the benefit, welfare, and advancement of Man. This Mercury is forward looking, anticipating the future, thinking ahead. Meyer writes, “Born anew from the cycle just closing, the Mercurial faculties of mind and communication have been impressed with a new quality of will, purpose and energy — symbolized by the zodiacal and house positions of the inferior conjunction which inaugurated the new cycle.” Jason Holley correlates this phase to the Gemini expression of the planet—Yang, male, and air.
“Mercury ‘steps down’ the energies of the gods of intense situations to levels at which they can be understood, recognized, and creatively engaged.” --Jason Holley
As Mercury meets with the Sun in superior conjunction, the Epimethean profile of Mercury emerges, correlating to Mercury’s affinity and rulership in Virgo, Yin, inward directed, and Earth-bound. There is more reflection in thought, looking backwards in retrospect during the retrograde portion. It has been said that if Mercury rises before the Sun you think first and then act. If the Sun rises before Mercury you speak first and then seek a justification for your actions.
“The role of Mercury is that it correlates in the human consciousness to the need to give order and linear structure
to the nature of the phenomenal reality. What we call the senses are an extension of consciousness into the physical body. It is through the senses that thought and perceptions are ignited in consciousness. That which is ignited through the senses induces thoughts.“ –Jeffrey Wolf Green
The Moon and superior planets, (Mars through Pluto) which reside outside the Earth’s orbit, connect with Mercury across the full spectrum of aspect and phase.
Mercury aspects to the Moon refer to how emotions are integrated with thoughts and vocal expression. trines, sextiles, and quintiles will facilitate being able to express how one is feeling emotionally. Conjunctions, squares, oppositions, sesquiquadrates, and quincunxes will refer to places where this natural expression is being blocked or distorted in some way. This can be a conflict between head and heart. Often this is an indication of a deeper karmic complex that is being exposed for healing.
Mercury and Venus also travel in a narrowly defined space, never more than 76° apart, only allowing for the conjunction, semisextile, semisquare, and sextile. A Mercury\Venus blend can bring a beautiful singing or speaking voice, or a beautiful manner of expression via the written word, either as prose of poetically. It is often an individual who is affable, and generally relates to and gets along with others because they are not prone to disagreements or conflicting opinions. In consort with Venus, our thoughts, ideas, and opinions are innately connected to our values; one necessarily follows the other. In essence we are “what we think” and the priorities that we set for ourselves are a direct result of our cognitive construction of the world around us. The facilitating aspects will “make our intentions clear”. Our values and priorities will define the context of our what and how we are communicating. There will be a tendency to speak to what has real meaning for us individually and our words will set our priorities clearly. The challenging aspects can potentially spin our words and thoughts in a negative direction, feeling jealous, or holding onto vain self-identification. We may even lash out verbally rather than be able to objectively disagree with someone else.
Even with challenging aspects though, Mars and Mercury will enliven any conversation, with a spark wit and intelligence. The mind is quick and very curious.
Mercury and Mars natives are prone to impulsive and sometimes hurtful speech. Harsh words can create conflict and this planetary combo is ready for any verbal rumble. In general there is self-centeredness about the native and they are often “in their head”.
Mercury Jupiter natives frequently possess largesse of jovial good nature and playfulness. They are generally broad-minded, within their own intellectual boundaries; they can be a “bottomless pit” of knowledge, always seeking out new thought and ideas. They can be as funny and as fun to be with as they are wordy and long winded, as they often have expansive vocabularies. In their shadow, evangelism lurks, and they often in the role of crusader.
Mercury and Saturn correlate to the elder teacher whose authoritative speech maintains the status quo. Speech and voice can have a minimalist quality, yet filled with importance. The mind is focused and goal oriented. In their shadow a Mercury Saturn native will often display self-expression that is repressed or suppressed. There can be a tendency to limit one’s imagination and fantasy, anything seeming to be too irrational in any way. There may be insecurity about how smart or skillful someone might feel, but they are still willing to work hard to learn or make it happen. These individuals take their time and think things through. Their thinking is most conventional though and there is resistance to anything unconventional, not “tried and true.”
Mercury and Uranus amplify the channel between lower mind and higher mind. Individuals can be prone to idealistic thinking as well as practical inspiration. Sleep patterns can be disturbed because of the almost incessant internal chatter. Its best expression is an insightful illuminated mind, futuristic inspired thinking, and originality. Depending on the aspects to the rest of the chart, and especially the placements of the Saturn, Neptune, and Pluto, there can be an information overload, thoughts and ideas come faster than they can be assimilated, sentences aren’t finished, a general state of TMI. To others the mental gymnastics might seem too “far out”, impractical, and unworkable.
Mercury Neptune natives can be blessed with the most imaginative minds filled with romantic, even surreal imagery. They can be highly intuitive and perceptive, even psychic. They can be extremely compassionate and empathetic. These are the poets, storytellers, songwriters, and visionaries. In its shadow are all of the complexes that display as mental imbalance, delusion, deception, and dyslexic.
Mercury Pluto brings the most penetrating and insightful ability to the mind. These native are able to relentless dive into a subject to its core or totally ignore that which is perceived as simply superficial. In its shadow these natives can be mentally controlling and intellectually overwhelming. They are great investigators and researchers. Its shadow holds obsessions and deep-seated phobia that distort their perception and color their ideas and opinions.
“Hermes tended to show up in stories at points where the action needed to take a turn, or where the will of the gods needed to be clearly expressed to humans.” --Jason Holley
The space in which Mercury operates is liminal space. His presence opens the threshold between was “is not any longer” and “what is not yet”. This vortex is saturated with potentiality, even as it seems to not contain anything that seems actual. Wherever Mercury is, wherever he resides in a chart, is a threshold. It is the space of mental construction and intention. In this role Mercury acts as the incubator of who we are becoming. When Gemini thoughts polarize as Sagittarian beliefs and are synthesized with the meaning and values correlating to Venus/Aphrodite, the resulting priorities being handed off to Mars for execution, thoughts become words, words become actions, and actions become deeds.
“Your beliefs become your thoughts,
Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny.”
-- Mahatma Gandhi
“Words have wings” –Rosicrucian proverb
Freda Edis, The God Between: A Study of Astrological Mercury
Gary Lachman, The Quest for Hermes Trismigestus
Brian Clark, The Sibling Constellation
Brian P. Copenhaver, Hermetica: the Greek Corpus Hermeticum and the Latin Asclepius in a new English translation
Jeffrey Green, "The Nature and Function of Mercury and Its Archetypal Role in Conscousness"
Dane Rudhyar, An Astrological Study of Psychological Complexes
Jason Holley, “Mercury’s Favor to Astrologers: The Chart as Play Space and Ritual Space.”
Howard Sasportas, The Inner Planets: The Building Blocks of Personal Reality