By the late Tony Jackson (composed for a Homeopathy course exam)
Mercury is the smallest planet in the solar system and the planet nearest the Sun. A scorching world inescapably close to the burning heat and shining brightness of the star that gives life to our solar system. So close to the Sun that it gives ear to the music of the Sun's awesome, nuclear, celestial process, the Music of the Spheres. Hence its role as messenger of the gods.
Throughout the history of astrology, Mercury's prime allegiance has always been to the Sun, as their physical proximity confirms. Myth also accords a solar influence, but by virtue of familial relationship. Hermes' kinship with the Sun was through brotherhood, the sun as Apollo. The Greeks endowed Mercury (Hermes) with an intellectual brilliance and a savage cunning unbecoming to moral virtue. As such, Mercury represents mankind more than any other planet in the astrological chart.
Mercury is so close to the Sun that it can barely be seen with the naked eye. What’s more it only ever shows the Earth one face.1 Thus, as a metaphor, both astronomically and astrologically, if Mercury is taken at face value, it is neither seen nor understood - and, in essence, one must step outside the ordinary means of observing it in order to know of its full value.
Hard to grasp is a theme that runs through all of Mercury’s manifestations. Not only astronomically and astrologically but also as the metal itself. The heavy, silver-white metal otherwise called quicksilver is commonly obtained from cinnabar, its most important metallic ore. Its chemical symbol is Hg (Hydrargyrum, ‘liquid silver’). It is probably most commonly known for its use in thermometers as the column of mercury rises and falls with temperature changes and for its controversial use in dentistry. Absorbing other metals, it forms amalgams and is used for filling dental cavities - often with catastrophic results.
Mercury has a quite varied chemistry, whose applications range from photography to pesticides. Fluid at room temperature, it maintains its quality of being physically hard to grasp, as any child who has broken the thermometer has found out to his delight when playing with this funny, shiny, elusive, runny stuff that keeps trying to escape from under the fingers.
Mercurius was also the true object of the alchemical procedure. Quicksilver, because of its fluidity and volatility, was also defined as dry water or Aqua sicca. It is the very Spirit of Alchemy, the alchemical fire, the universal and scintillating fire in the light of nature which carries the heavenly spirit within it.2 In mythology Mercury was the Roman name given to Greek Hermes, son of Zeus and brother to the Sun-god Apollo. Hermes has his counterpart in Egypt as Thoth, son of Ra the Sun-god. Thoth was scribe to the Sun-god, but also advocate for the dead; this dual role was handed through to Hermes as messenger of the gods and psychopomp to the souls of the dead. In other ways they are quite distinctive characters: Hermes’ relationship with Apollo is characterized by sibling rivalry, whereas Thoth's interaction with Ra shows a respect for authority. Hermes appears as a punk provocateur while Thoth behaves more as the humble servant. Hermes' playful ambivalence is indicative of his astrological rulership of Gemini; Thoth's discriminating and honourable nature is more Virgoan, in keeping with Mercury’s other zodiac sign.
Mercury, in astrological terms, is about connection: making links; communication; wit, cunning and intellect (quicksilver = quick mind) connecting things and ideas, revelation, the imagination, language and understanding. Mercurius plays with ideas and finds links between them. Above all, Mercury is about process, and that implies movement, conscious and unconscious, physical and non-physical - turning on the light, metaphorically speaking (Mercury has an industrial use in electric switches). Mercury rules connections, from roads and transport to telephone and radio, from information systems to the world-wide web and satellite communications (There is a telephone company called Mercury). Hermes rules roads and travel, protecting the crossroads, highways and byways. We can imagine a man travelling along the obscure roads of life, either guided or led astray by Hermes, and in need of an instinctual omen (Hermes) to mark his movement along the way.
Making connection is also about appropriate response, and needs efficiency and quickness of comprehension and mental agility. Someone who is well-connected to their Mercury has all these qualities, but when the ray (as Misha Norland describes it3) is broken and pathologised, Mercury turns into its opposite: mentally inefficient and slow to comprehend what is being asked of them, hurried, restless, impulsive and unable to focus, 1so he can lose his way in well-known streets and will answer questions incorrectly - the darker face of Hermes.4 It is as if in Mercury-pathology one is completely deserted by the god, the archetype and all the benefits and gifts of Mercury are lost. Mercury is the messenger of the Gods: the link between mankind and the gods, a bringer of light, Luciferian. In pathology we see the opposite - a profound darkness, morose and repulsive moods, suicidal disposition, paranoia and stupefaction. The loss of connection with the divine then leads Mercurius to suffer the torments of hell, without being able to explain. Eg, he has delusions that he is a decaying corpse, or desires to kill a loved one! The separation from source, from the ground of one’s being - how fearful a position this is and one in which the weakening is so great that Mercurius cannot stand up for himself, so cowardice and shaking overcome what was once fearless5.
In physiological terms, the Mercury-function appears as a smooth operating and co-operation between all systems, eg digestion and absorption of food, homeostatic balance, the waste excretion systems of lung, skin, kidney and large intestine, hormonal and nervous systems working correctly, so that the organism works as a whole in harmony with itself and its environment. Mercury-poisoning causes a breakdown of these functions. To quote Boericke: "Every organ and tissue of the body is more or less affected by this powerful drug. It transforms healthy cells into decrepit, inflamed and necrotic wrecks, decomposes blood, producing a profound anemia ... The lymphatic system is especially affected with all the membranes and glands, and internal organs, bones etc."6 The digestive tract is affected especially the mouth, where the tongue swells and swallowing is painful. The glands become red and inflamed. Harmony has fled from the human economy. Mental clarity goes and the dysfunction runs through all mental, emotional and physical levels.
Let's return now to the mythology of Hermes/Mercury and see how we can interweave the myth and the alchemy with the pathology of Mercurius. In the Homeric Hymn to Hermes, we learn for the first time of Hermes the trickster; how he stole his brother’s cattle when still only a babe in arms. How he: “then cut off from the herd the fifty loud-lowing kyne, and drove them straggling-wise across a sandy place, turning the hoof prints aside. Also, he bethought him of a crafty ruse and reverse the marks of their hooves, making the front behind and hind before, while he himself walked the other way."7 In driving the cattle, Hermes simulates a backwards movement, skilfully done by reversing the sandals and the hoof prints of the cattle, a movement in one direction which appears as a movement in the opposite direction8. For me this represents and is a metaphor for man in the world. Man in nature. Man having to use his wiles to survive, to trick the gods, to buck his fate. To be able to make connections to his own advantage. Sibling rivalry is the world’s oldest theme, many examples of which are found in the Old Testament, with Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau and Joseph and his brothers.
Rafael Lopez-Pedraz in his Book Hermes and his Children, explains it thus: “The secret of this kind of cheating is that it is Hermetic. Hermes would never fall into the trap of talking with his elder brother and father from the viewpoint of the ruling consciousness they represent. Many analysts have seen a paralysed psyche or a life destroyed because a son has been unable to respond to the parental demand that he live in their orderly 'truth' and who, at the same time, is unable to cheat them. By cheating, I mean Hermetic cheating that would protect his psyche.”9 Revelation is on-going for human beings in a sea of constant change, especially in these contemporary times, and we constantly need to be able to respond to the moment in appropriate fashion: to be fluid, like Mercury; find new ways; free ourselves from outdated dogmas.
Mercury rules Virgo, and this sign is concerned with detail, craftsmanship and care. Again we see the ability to make physical connections, to invent: manual dexterity and the co-ordination of mind and hand. The Homeric Hymn continues: "Then he wove sandals with wicker-work by the sand of the sea, wonderful things, unthought of, unimagined; for he mixed together tamarisk and myrtle twigs, fastening together an armful of their fresh, young wood, and tied them, leaves and all, securely under his feet as light sandals". The sandals of Mercury represent the natural activities of man - what man does by nature. His inventiveness and dexterity. His ability to survive in a dangerous and tricky environment, to think on his feet.
The pathological state of Mercurius loses this ability, becoming brittle and unable to bear psychological pressure. The organism’s homeostatic mechanisms have become unstable and now they cannot easily readjust to find the balance. All stresses become absorbed into the organism, leading to a pathology whose onset is slow and gradual. The patient appears as elusive and difficult to understand, unstable. In interview, everything has to be drawn from him with great loving-care for him to open up. Mercury, the great communicator needs to be really heard and listened-to, or if not he will close up. Presence on the part of the homeopath is here all-important. Mercurius is reserved and sensitive and wants to communicate, but if such cases feel they are not being met they just withdraw into themselves. The tendency is for the mind to give out and memory grow weak, with slow speech concealing inner panic.
Pan is one of Hermes' offspring through the latter’s relationship with Dryops' daughter in Arcadia, known as the 'nymph of Dryops'10. It is suggested that Hermes' real love was for Dryops and that this love was expressed through or rather subliminated in the nymph. The outcome of this indirect relationship was the birth of the great god Pan. Pan was god of nightmare and epilepsy, and the discovery of masturbations was attributed to him. As such, Pan gives a frame of reference for a whole gamut of masturbatory fantasies, from the most obsessive-compulsive to those that bring a bodily connection.
If we explore the myths of Hermes we find further reference to sexuality through his relationship with the nymphs. Not only to sexuality but also to madness. Kerenyi writes: "In our language Nympholeptus, 'one who was seized by the nymphs', was the word for what the Latins called lymphaticus--a term in which lympha is a rendering of 'nymph', but in the sense of 'water'--or lunaticus, “moon-sick”, which was a later word for a person who became crazy from time to time (perhaps only slightly) and was regarded as a victim of the nymphs"11.
Hermes is a god of lustful sexuality, including cheap sex and love by chance. His mythology gives some background to the sexual hang-ups and deviations of Mercurius. How appropriate, that mercury should have been used for centuries in the cure and treatment of venereal diseases.
Another son of Hermes was bathing in a pool of crystal clear-water, naked, and was seen by the naiad Salmacis. She falls in love with his beautiful form and cried out 'He is mine', and casting off all her garments dives into the waters. She holds him fast against all his struggles, stealing reluctant kisses, fondling him and touching his unwilling breast, and wraps him in her embrace as a coiled serpent. She cries out to the gods that they should never become separated and in hearing her prayer the gods grant her wish and the two bodies become knitted together as a Hermaphrodite. “After bathing in that uncanny pool with the nymph Salmacis, the beautiful boy, resembling Eros, realises his new condition and feels himself weakened, his limbs enfeebled”12. The hermaphrodite raises imagery of sexual ambiguity, so dominant a symptom in Mercurius.13
Salmacis and Hermaphroditus
To return to Pan: among his nymph-fantasies, Echo was his most beloved and this association of Pan and Echo lead into another myth, that of Narcissus, who, while fleeing from Echo’s amorous attentions, fell in love with his own reflection. It is said about Mercurius-types that they are narcissistic and will move friendships into sexual relationships in order to satisfy their urge to merge.
The section on Mercurius, in Jung’s Alchemical Studies, has a mine of information14. It opens with the tale of a spirit confined to a bottle,15 buried amongst the roots of an old oak tree. The son of a poor wood-cutter is passing by, and he hears a voice calling to him from the oak, ‘Let me out, let me out!’ So he digs down, and finds a well-sealed glass bottle. A spirit is trapped inside it, and the young man holds a dialogue with this spirit; this involves, not surprisingly, a tricky promise and a spot of deception. After all, the spirit is called by the name of the pagan God, Mercurius. Eventually, he releases it from captivity, and he in return is made wealthy as his iron sword becomes turned into silver.
Both the oak and the forest represent the unconscious. Someone had confined the spirit ‘hermetically’ in the bottle and hidden it, deep down amongst the roots of the tree, which themselves extend right down into the mineral kingdom. “Presumably a magician, that is, an alchemist, caught and imprisoned it”16 This becomes an allegory for our true selves buried deep in the unconscious core of our personality, which must be discovered, refined and liberated.
The Mercurial essence--the spirit confined to the bottle--is tricky, unruly, fiery and artful. The alchemists isolated the spirit from its surrounding medium by hermetically sealing it in the 'Vas Hermeticum,' a round bottle made of glass which represents the cosmos in which the earth was created. We could interpreted the story thus: the pagan god has become an ‘evil’ spirit, ‘forced under the influence of Christianity to descend into the dark underworld and be morally disqualified. Hermes becomes the demon of the mysteries … the demon of forest and storm; Mercurius becomes the soul of the metals, the metallic man, the dragon, the roaring fiery lion, the night raven, and the black eagle--the last four being synonymous with the devil’17.
Mercurius was confined to the bottle by the alchemists in order to transform him. They believed that he was so bedevilled and shameless that all who wished to investigate him would fall into madness. Mercurius was the prima materia of the alchemical process, representing and stemming from the collective unconscious. Mercurius was understood as quicksilver (Hg) and as such was called vulgaris and crudus. Mercurius philisophicus was specifically distinguished from this but was conceived to sometimes be present in Mercurius crudus. It was the true object of the alchemical procedure. Quicksilver was also defined as "the water that doesn't make the hands wet".
Many treatises associate Mercurius with the secret Fire: the universal and scintillating fire of nature which carries the heavenly spirit within it. This related Mercurius to the Lumen Naturae, the source of mystical knowledge second only to the holy revelation of the scriptures. Once more we catch a glimpse of Hermes as the god of revelation.
The mercurial fire is also found in the belly of the earth. Mercurius, the revelatory light of nature is also hellfire, which in some miraculous way is none other than a re-arrangement of the heavenly, spiritual powers in the lower, chthonic world of matter.18 Hermes' role as messenger of the Gods allowed him to visit Hades, the king of the underworld. Hermes is the only appointed messenger to Hades and as such provides guidance into the psychology of the underworld with its difficult, frightening and pathological components of our psyche. This sheds light on the role of Hermes as psychopomp,19 the bridge between the worlds, the conductor of departed souls and to a possible understanding of the ‘Mercurius’ symptoms of: fear of insanity, particularly at night; paranoia, suffering the torments of hell, without being able to explain; raving delirium with hallucinations; seeing frightful images and phantoms at night; fear of evil, especially at night; seeing ghosts, spectres and spirits, etc.
Mercurius, following the tradition of Hermes, is many-sided, changeable and deceitful. He is said to be dual-natured, enjoying the company equally of the good and the wicked20. He is the twin, made of two natures, the giant twofold substance, the two dragons. There is common Mercurius and philosophical Mercurius. He is both good and evil; fallen and exalted. The Aurelia Occulta gives a graphic but dire description of him:
“I am the poisonous dragon, who is everywhere & can be cheaply had. That upon which I rest, and that which rests upon me, will be found within me by those who pursue their investigations in accordance with the rules of the art (Alchemy). My water & fire dissolve & compound; from my body the green & red lion may be extracted. But if you do not have exact knowledge of me, my fire will destroy your five senses. A most pernicious poison issues from my nostrils, which has wrought destruction upon many.”21
From accounts of poisoning eg from mercury amalgam in teeth-fillings, we may gain a sense of "a most pernicious poison … which has wrought destruction upon many." The Aurelius Occulta continues:
“By the philosophers I am named Mercurius; my spouse is the philosophic gold; I am the old dragon, found everywhere on the face of the earth, father and mother, youthful and ancient, weak and yet very strong, life and death, visible and invisible; I descend into the earth and ascend to the heavens, I am highest and lowest … I am the carbuncle of the Sun, a most noble, purified earth, by which you may turn copper, iron, tin and lead into purest gold.”
Thus we see the dual nature of Mercurius and in so doing can see how representative he is of man on earth who also is dual-natured, capable of the highest revelation and most honourable deed as well as the foulest, most hellish acts. When connected to the Mercurial ray, man is 'quickened' and when not, he is dull. Mercurial man has his roots in the deepest depths and his branches reach up to the heights.
Pictures by kind permission of Laurel Price, http://homepage.mac.com/alchimia1/Menu14.html; also the Wellcome Library, London. That of Mercury is of source unknown. The three-headed dragon might be Cerberus and its three colours represent the Great Work: from Salomon Trismosin's 'Splendor solis' of 1532; a version dated 1582, from which this watercolours is copied, is held at the British Library.
Note by N. Kollerstrom: In this essay, Tony Jackson has compared the traditional, archetypal meaning of Mercurius with the modern, homeopathic use of this term. Homeopathy uses the traditional seven metals without alluding to their ‘planetary’ natures, except for gold. Thus by ‘Aurum’ homeopathists will paint a rather negative portrait of symptoms, supposedly curable by homeopathic gold. A deficiency of solar (gold/heart) qualities are perceived as the ‘Aurum’ type. Likewise, symptoms supposedly curable by homeopathic mercury are described as ‘Mercurius.’
I have slightly tidied up this essay from the manuscript he gave me (and added pictures) but copies of the original are available on request: nk [at]astro3.demon.co.uk.
1 This is mostly true, and was enough to ‘trick’ the astronomers for quite a while (NK): www.celestial-sphere.com/astronomy/mercury.html
4 Frans Vermeulen, Prisma, the Arcana of Materia Medica Illustrated, Holland 202., p.912; Synoptic Materia Medica, Holland 1994.
5 Use of mercury: www.herbs2000.com/homeopathy/merc.htm
6 William Boericke, Homeopathic Materia Medica, Comparing the characteristic and guiding symptoms for all remedies 9th Edition NY 1927, 432
7 Homer, Hymn to Hermes http://ancienthistory.about.com/library/bl/bl_text_homerhymn_hermes.htm
8 Rafael Lopez-Pedraza, Hermes and His Children,1989, 2003, 59.
9 Lopez (ref 7), 61
10 Hermes, while tending some sheep in Arcadia, fell for the ‘country nymph’ Penelope, the ‘rich-tressed daughter of Dryopos.’ This led to a ‘merry marriage,’ and they produced the ‘noisy, merry-laughing child’ Pan, with goat's feet and horns. Homeric Hymn to Pan: