Mercury is the gods’ messenger, the mediation principle that makes the pure solar presence intelligible through mental functions

Italian version

Mercury carries out the mediation activity between the self – symbolised by the Sun – and mental functions’ reciprocal link with the environment. It represents the pure solar essence in a knowable, communicable system, capable of expressing itself in a set of references that offers an interpretation of the self’s manifestation in the world.

Myth and exegesis

The planet matches with the Roman god Mercury, the Greek Hermes from whom Mercury draws most of its features in its mythological guise. Hermes was born from the union of Zeus with Maia, one of the seven Pleiades. As soon as he was born, with the shell of a killed turtle, he invented the lyre; and immediately afterwards, he stole a herd of cattle, taking it away from his brother Apollo. Accused by his brother, Hermes tamed him with the sound of the lyre by convincing him to trade the stolen herd with it. Later, he still received the shepherd’s staff from Apollo and the teaching on divination with the bird flight in exchange for a pan flute and a mouth accordion. Since then, Hermes became the protector of musicians and herdsmen. Among his multiple roles we still remember that of ψυχοπομπóς (psychopomp), the conductor of souls who indicated the way to Hades to the dead; of πολύτροπος (politropos), the cunning traveller from many resources, thief, robber, bringer of dreams; of ἄγγελος (angel), the gods’ messenger and interpreter.

We see the principle of transfer, exchange, transit, movement, and change in all these characterisations. There is a continuous playing on multiple roles, which, even if they appear to have no common trait and at times seem amoral, reveal the native freedom of association of the mind. The myth expresses the instrument of knowledge of reality through dualistic perception in a symbolic representation – the embezzlement of his brother Apollo’s herd of divine thoughts. But in its most profound sense, this theft is the passage from the unity to the manifold, to plunder Apollo, holder of the numinous conscience – and initiate the fall of divine thought in the plurality. The punishment for this theft is then balanced, thanks to the intermediation of Zeus, with the gift of a seven-stringed lyre, whose sound enthrals Apollo. Here we see a return compensation at work: the harmony generated by the sound is an open call to an agreement with the celestial spheres (the seven classical planets) as a seal of the hierogamy between heaven and earth.

As an angel and psychopomp, Mercury exercises his intermediary function between the divine and the human. He oversees the intellectual relationship within the elements of objective perception (the word, the letters). Mercury also maintains his relationship with the source, with the primordial meaning behind the world of multiple appearances. One could also think that the thief Mercury is such only for us because, in truth, he does not steal anything, as nothing is divided. The god limits himself to unveiling an unfractionated truth and re-veiling it to make it appear again kept apart from its source. It is only at this point, having entered the world of judgment, that he becomes the king of thieves, as the thief is the image of the one who separates individuals from their possessions, just as Mercury steals the knowledge of divine thought.

The mind philosophies

Western philosophies

How was the mind explained according to the philosophical interpretations that followed one another over the centuries? The intellect, an instrument in the opinion of the Greek philosophy of intending or intelligere, comes to establish itself with Plato and Aristotle in a double role: νόησις (noesis) and διάνοιά (dianoia), the perception of reality through self-awareness (of spiritual origin) and the discursive knowledge, which draws its basis from the former. Subsequently, from Aristotle to Arab commentators and scholasticism, the distinction between the potential intellect and the active intellect is outlined. The first receives the intelligibles and is variously understood as a separate intelligence or identified with God; the second makes the forms or ideas present in the images that manifest themselves to the senses understandable.

The modern philosophy of the 17th and 18th centuries compares the extremes of Cartesian rationalism, which sees the intellect as a reservoir of inborn ideas (res cogitans) from which to move to explain external things (res extensa), and Locke’s empiricism according to which one is born as “tabula rasa” (a fresh start) and knowledge is reached only using the degrees of sensible experience. In this framework, Leibniz places himself, with some distinctions, more on the side of Cartesian thought, proposing the pre-existence of a potential or aptitude for knowledge which, stimulated by sensitive perception, is at the origin of ideas. To Kant, the intellect is the “legislator of nature”, a spontaneous and active faculty imposed as a priori experience. At the same time, reason assumes the role of Platonic noesis as a producer of ideas that lead the intellect to the cognitive moment. Kant distinguishes the phenomenon that is the object of our experience and the “thing in itself”, independent of it.

Idealist thought draws its foundations precisely from Kant in the concept of transcendental logic, the way of investigating not the object but our way of knowing it, while the matter of knowing remains objective. At the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the post-Kantians Fichte, Schelling and Hegel looked to the ideal sphere of thought. They aim to reach absolute idealism, or the reality brought back to pure thought: the objects considered as ‘outer’ do not exist except as a representation of our consciousness. All these forms of idealism assert a unitary vision of reality instead of the empiricist tendency to consider data supremacy. The maximum elevation of idealistic thought is perhaps reached with Gentile’s actualism. He identifies the real with the self-awareness of the thought thinking, where between the thought entities and the thinking activity runs a single thread, the Spirit-Thought. This perpetual activity puts an end to any distinction between subject and object (monism). The difference between Hegel’s absolute idealism and actualism lies in the conceptualisation of “what has been thought”: for Hegel, it’s a definitive event located at the peak of spiritual development as other than the Spirit, rather than being a concurrent cause of an eternal becoming of the thinking act.

Steiner, the founder of anthroposophy, outlines a monism as expressed in his work Die Philosophie der Freiheit [1]. He explains the unitary conception of the world through the relationship between concept and perception, that is, as a union between thinking observation and the perceived. Perception is the objective part of reality; the concept is the personal development of this reality; thinking represents the conceptual link that restores coherence to the fragmentation of perceptions. Without it, it would remain in a state of separation. To Steiner, thinking is identified with intuition, the potential to know the world of experience not as a dual process but as a unitary reality, in the merging of concept and perception. The world of perception represents half of reality, which is completed through concept – the revelation of the natural and ideal connections between things according to the perceptual organisation of individualities. In this way, the subject and the object of perception come together in the same reality.

Eastern philosophies

In the first Indian philosophical-religious systems, to the Atman or Brahman of the Upaniṣads (the Absolute Reality) follows the assertion, in the Sāṁhkya school, of the dyad Puruṣa – Prākṛti, the Supreme Subject and its reflection in the world of material objects. From this reflection that has become aware of itself, the ‘producer of the ego’ (ahaṃkāra) appears, creating the mind, sense organs, and the essences of perceived and manipulated things. Ultimately, prākṛti equates to non-Self; when the fluctuations of the mind (buddhi in the Sāṁhkya school) cease, the erroneous identification of the puruṣa with the prākṛti is missing, and the independence of the puruṣa is understood. The tool for suppressing modifications of the mind is yoga or self-discipline; with it, practitioners become grounded in their essential and fundamental nature.

Nyāya and Vaiśeshika doctrines deal with the nature of our knowledge of reality and the enumeration of the objects of knowledge itself. The mind is given by inference as it represents that which directs the senses and coordinates their contacts with experience. It is the basis through which sensory connections find themselves internally experienced as a quality. As a subject, the self is the substance that participates in all the different attributes of inner experiences. It is distinct from all other substances and qualities, including consciousness, in that it serves as the basis for objects, which need a subject to be experienced. For the Nyāya, liberation is also freedom from consciousness because it is seen as consciousness of something, which implies a duality between subject and object. Since consciousness is a feature of the self, the self remains intact when consciousness vanishes. All we can say about the self in the state of liberation is that it simply exists as self.

In early Buddhism, the concept referring to the mind must be interpreted in the broader context of existence as an ever-evolving process rather than as a causal series of independent or semi-dependent realities. The symbol of the wheel of becoming (bhavacakra) represents the most significant aspects of the ongoing processes of what we commonly call a person. In it, the mind and body (nama-rūpa) depend on consciousness for their functioning. Still, they are part of the process on which the sense organs rely, generating sensory impressions, perception, and desire or dislike towards the perceived, etc. More schematically, the analysis of the personality, that is, of the processes that compose it, can be represented by the so-called five skandhas: form (rūpa), sensation (vedana), perception (sanna), volition (sankhāra) and conscience (vijñāna), the last ones four of which are mental processes (nama). The Buddhist doctrine of the anatta (or anatman in Sanskrit) provides evidence that the conception of a self as existing independently of the processes themselves is affirmed on these five skandhas. Such processes generate the illusion of a false ego-self, which struggling to establish its vicarious existence causes attachment and suffering.

In the Yogācāra doctrine, an expression of Buddhist idealism, all reality is considered only mental, or only consciousness, a manifestation of seminal consciousness (ālayavijñāna). We cannot explain this seminal consciousness, but its relative manifestations appear as sense perceptions, mental activities, and self-consciousness, making heresy of a self possible. The ālayavijñāna does not imply the denial of the principle of origin from causes or dependent origination as expressed by the Buddha (paticcasamuppada) because it is perfectly valid on the level of relative reality.

The Mādhyamika doctrine, or Middle Way, does not propose its definition of reality but aims to demonstrate the complete relativity of all mental constructs through a close analysis of their contradictions, thanks to the understanding of śūnyatā, emptiness or absence of inherent existence.

In summary, the Vaibhāṣikas and Sautrāntikās teach that reality has the nature of an ever-changing process, in which only the atomic elements are primary and exist by themselves, not caused and immutable (svabhāva). The Yogācāras hold the existence of the mind alone, while the external reality is unreal, devoid of svabhāva. For the Mādhyamika, both realists and idealists make the same mistake; they do not take the median path between being and non-being, which does not allow them to escape the mistakes of eternalism and nihilism, respectively. The Mādhyamika believes in absolute reality; yet, it cannot be grasped conceptually but only through direct experience. In other words, most people move in a world built by the mind. Undoubtedly, one comes into contact with a reality that exists and provides the basis for forming determined entities and relationships. But this reality is not seen for what it is and is confused with the collection of names and forms characterising a mind constructed world.

Understanding the assumptions on which the examination of the mind is based in Tibetan Buddhism requires clarification of the concept’s meaning. The concept is a term to which we assign a meaning either because we associate it with a specific set of data or because we provide it with a definition at the theoretical level through deductively formulated postulates. The first procedure leads to “concepts given by intuition“, the second to “concepts given by postulation“. In traditional Western philosophy and theoretical psychology, the mind was a postulate or, more precisely, a universal. However, it was conceived (1) as the self or the subject that perceives, remembers, imagines, feels, performs acts of volition, etc. As such, it is functionally connected to an individual bodily organism. Or (2) as a metaphysical substance that permeates all individual minds and has its counterpart in material substance (mind understood as epiphenomenon [2]).

In the doctrinal systems of Tibetan Buddhism, the various schools adopt different terminologies and approaches – even if complementary – in the exposition of mental factors. However, they generally agree that the mind is not merely a repository of information or just the brain mechanism. It is the individual moments of knowing and their continuum that forms our sense of knowing. In Tibetan Buddhist psychology, “mind” and “mental events” are concepts given by intuition whose complete meaning is provided by something that we can understand immediately. Being aware of the fact and data of an object is what we define as the mind [sems]. Based on this reference, becoming involved in the object through other specific functions is attributed to the action of mental events [sems-byung].

In the “mind”, one could see a kind of pure ego connected to all the “mental events”, of which we can say that they are states of a particular mind. Or, since “mind” is itself an event, we could consider it of the exact nature of the events it holds together. Buddhist psychology has generally rejected the idea of ​​a centre. In any case, if we recognise a certain amount of terms [sems, sems-byung] to be interrelated, it follows that there is something to which they all stand in an asymmetrical relationship, even if there is no centre. The reason is that each term is related to the other in a certain way. It is this fact which is in the same asymmetrical relationship with all the other ones.

This implication has led Buddhist philosophy to distinguish between “mind” [sems] and “mind as such”, or “nature of mind” [sems-nyid]. It is the difference between the pure fact, of which, strictly speaking, we can say nothing, even if we can use words to denote it, and the fact described, which by its nature is such that we have formed the concept of something and now attribute the characteristics of what we have the idea of to the mere fact. But by conceptualising it, we have already falsified it. The “pure fact”, according to the Buddhist diction, is “pure awareness or cognition” [rig-pa], as opposed to the “fact described” or “lack of pure awareness or ignorance” [ma-rig-pa]. Therefore “mind” [sems], as distinct from “mind as such” [sems-nyid], is equated with the lack of pure awareness [ma-rig-pa]. As a result, the pure awareness [rig-pa] is quickly obliterated by negative emotions and mental states. But even with this malfunction, the individual’s original energy or inner nature is still present as “evaluative discrimination” [shes-rab], i.e. the precise discernment of all things and events. That is in contrast to the “postulates” [yid-la-byed-pa] that the ego (itself a postulate or a fiction) constantly imposes on what is.

The gap between “evaluative discrimination” and “ego-centred postulates” thus clarifies the conflict between the two main opposing forces within each of us. By imposing postulates, we try to interfere with everything. We do not see ourselves as unique and whole human beings. Consequently, we limit ourselves to proceeding under the sign of adequacy for an end, of making everything nothing more than a means to our selfish ends. On the contrary, through “evaluative discrimination”, we would be able to discover the potential for growth and health within us and develop it so that the “true” human being – who is the one in whom all abilities are developed and functioning – prevails.

Astronomical symbolism

The gap that parts pure undivided reality (the Sun) from its intellectual expression (Mercury) takes shape in astronomical symbolism through the phenomenon of elongation (the angular separation of a planet from the Sun as seen from the Earth). The maximum elongation of Mercury is about 28°. We can then consider the mind as an instrument of expression of reality, as indissolubly linked to its origin, but with a degree of freedom such as to provide a variable expressive mode. Mercury can only form a conjunction aspect with the Sun. Furthermore, we can consider the arc of longitude ranging from 3° to 8° 30 ‘, that is, the space in which a planet near the Sun becomes combust. The planet at a max longitudinal distance from the celestial body of 17° – excluding the combustion degrees – is said to be under the rays of the Sun. The conjunction, when it is very narrow (from 17′ to 30′), is called cazimi, the heart of the Sun, and according to the Arab authors, it is a position of strength for the planet.

Mercury’s proximity to the Sun integrates the mental organising system with its source. In the exact conjunction or cazimi, we have a complete union between the pure solar presence and its cognitive modes of expression. Individuals are aware of their destiny, and the need to develop analytic tools independently is lesser. In combustion, in the absence of full integration, the relationship is disturbed by the powerful solar radiance of proximity: the planet is almost dazzled if not “burned”. Some authors understand it as a negative aspect: a lack of insight and solid judgment offset by successful business expertise. Based on other considerations, the combust Mercury is “attracted” to the Sun and the sovereign principle it represents. Still, it has difficulty “letting go” and, therefore, swings between relying on intuitive knowledge and resorting to mental analysis tools. If the aspect is negative, we can assume a tendency towards subjectivity. If the separation between star and planet reaches the maximum levels, beyond 17° of longitude, the mind tries to find meaning more by postulation than intuition. The analysis of relationships and bonds is based almost exclusively on the internal or external objects of perception: it is a more practical or rational intellect than speculative and philosophical. We can say that it is more likely to develop escape mechanisms or mental disorders in this case.

A further distinction is made between the type of conjunction of Mercury – inferior or superior – with respect to the Sun: the inferior conjunction occurs when the planet is between the Earth and the Sun; the superior conjunction when the Sun is between the Earth and Mercury. From the interpretative point of view, not many explanations are given, except that the effects are more pronounced in the case of superior conjunction (when the planet rises after the Sun).

Regarding the retrogradation, Rudhyar makes an interesting statement on the fact that the planets in direct motion follow the bipolar vital movement of the Sun and the Moon (counterclockwise). In contrast, in the retrogradation, the planet moves “against” it, in a certain sense acting as a counterpoint. In the case of Mercury, retrogradation would not indicate a dull or weak mind but the need to contrast pure solar vitalism to access a conscious development of intellectual potentials; however, in some cases, conflicts can still arise.