Mercury is the closest planet to the Sun with an orbit of 88 days. It is a small planet only 3,000 miles in diameter. Because of its proximity to the Sun, Mercury can never be more than 27° away from the Sun in an astrological chart. Therefore Mercury can only be observed shortly before sunrise or shortly after sunset, and even then it is difficult to see.

The name Mercury is from the Latin term Mercurius. In the older Greek he is known as Hermes. In Mesopotamia he is known as Nabu, the divine scribe of destiny. In the Vedic culture he is known as "Budha," meaning "intellect," as opposed to Buddha, meaning "enlightened one." In ancient Europe Mercury is associated with Odin, the king of the gods.

Of all the planets, Mercury has the most versatile and varied iconography. Mercury is youthful, clever, and often represented as a trickster. He is called both the messenger of the gods and the king of thieves. He is a scribe for the fates, the god of communication, and the god of magic. Because he moves so quickly in the sky and appears to jump to either side of the Sun, he is sometimes a morning star, and sometimes an evening star. This visible trait makes Mercury a chameleon, a planet that is easily influenced by other planets. Mercury is technically neutral in gender although some cultures portray him as a hermaphrodite, half man and half woman.

In Greek mythology Mercury is known for the amazing feats he performed immediately after his birth to Zeus and Maia. One version of the story describes how the newborn discovers a tortoise. He invites the tortoise to join him for a meal followed by music. The tortoise hesitates but soon falls for Mercury's wiles. The child god then kills the tortoise, invents fire to cook the meat, and creates a lyre (harp) out of the animal's carapace. Later the same day he steals fifty of Apollo's cows and sacrifices two of them. When the theft and the thief are discovered, Mercury offers the lyre to Apollo in retribution. It is Apollo's turn to be enchanted by the child, and he gives him the title king of thieves.

From the word Mercury come the words merchant, mercenary, and commerce. It is not only Mercury's charm that won over the offended Apollo, but also his exchange of items: the lyre for two cows. Mercury is an opportunist and loves to wheel and deal. He rules quick transactions and the marketplace. He is the messenger of the gods, delivering Hera, Aphrodite, and Athena to the judgment of Paris, which led to the Trojan War. This demonstrates the mercenary aspect of Mercury. The gods knew that nothing good would come out of the contest, but Mercury performed the deed for the right price.

When Zeus (Jupiter) sojourns on Earth, his favorite companion is Mercury because he is clever, knows how to have a good time, and is skillful. It was Zeus who gave Mercury the winged sandals, and the claduceus that became the symbol of healing and medicine. Mercury is associated with the healing arts, but in Greece he was also associated with death. He could travel between all the worlds, and was responsible for guiding the dead safely and swiftly to the underworld. He was known as the psychopom-pos who assisted in the transition between different states of reality. In this sense, Hermes functions as a hospice worker.

There are similarities in Hinduism with Mercury's association with the god Visnu. In the Rig Veda, Visnu marks out the three worlds with three giant strides spanning the heavens, the earth, and the netherworld. Mercury, as a reincarnation of Visnu, quantifies or defines the different worlds. The Hindu Puranas, like the Greek myths, tell a wonderful story of the birth of Mercury. Jupiter was the guru (teacher) to the gods, and one of his students was the Moon. The beautiful Tara (Star) was married to Jupiter, but fell in love with the Moon. The tryst soon produced a child who was Mercury. Mercury was so delightful and charming that everyone loved him. Both Jupiter and the Moon claimed to be the father of the wonderful child. Mercury has two fathers, and rules the two mutable signs of Gemini and Virgo.

Mercury is also the son of Jupiter in Mesopotamian mythology. Here he is known as Nabu, the scribe of the gods. On the eighth day of the new year, all the gods come together to decide the fate for the coming year. It was Nabu who wrote down the destinies, and thus fixing the fates. Nabu was also a diplomat. One tablet reads, "Nabu who holds the god's Table of Destiny, and can reconcile conflicting things."

By the time of Hellenistic Egypt (300 b.c.e.) Mercury becomes associated with the god Thoth. This god was responsible for all areas of science including medicine,

A detail of Mercury shown holding two caduceus rods. From an engraving in Maiers' Atalanta Fugiens, 1618. Reproduced by permission of Fortean Picture Library.

astronomy and astrology, architecture, and magic. Thoth played an important role in Egyptian afterlife. At the time of death a person's soul was magically weighed to determine if he or she had lived a good or bad life. It was Thoth's assignment to document the outcome.

In Alexandria Egypt, around the second century b.c.e., a new form of mysticism was developing from a mixture of Egyptian, Near Eastern, and Greek philosophy. The primary text is known as the "Corpus Hermeticum" and is attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, or the Great-Great-Great Hermes. These Hermetic texts were crucial in the development of astrology and resulted in the development of today's natal astrology. The texts describe the development of the soul through reincarnations that are given qualities based on the planets. Later these writings would evolve into the philosophy of alchemy.

In Europe the god associated with the planet Mercury is the Celtic Lug, known as Odin, or Wotan to the Germanic peoples. He is the master of fine speech, magic, poetry and music, as well as wealth. He is known as the king of the gods, but is also the god of the underworld. His Valkyries transport dead warriors to Valhalla where they celebrate their bravery and conquests. In various myths Odin is shown as an old man wandering the Earth, or exchanging an eye for the wisdom of the world.

Mercury rules all forms of thought and communication. It also represents childhood, education, language, the intellectual mind (as compared to the emotional mind represented by the Moon), movement, business, healing, humor, music and dance, and the derivatives of these key words. For example the key word "language" includes vocabulary, speech, grammar, writing, foreign languages, prose and poetry, oration, understanding, and debate. "Business" includes the concepts of money, exchange or barter, mathematics, marketing, and legal issues pertaining to business.

Mercury rules the zodiac signs of Gemini and Virgo. The mutable nature of these signs is indicative of Mercury's changeable nature. Gemini is an air sign and expresses the mental or intellectual quality of Mercury. Virgo is an earth sign and represents the manual dexterity of Mercury as well as the practical application of knowledge, primarily through service. Mercury is exalted at 15° of Virgo, and in debilitation or fall in the sign of Pisces.

A well-aspected or -placed Mercury will give the native a keen intellect, excellent business skills, and a fine sense of humor. The native can enjoy great diplomatic skills, and excel in logic and debate. They may love to travel and find pleasure in new experiences of all kinds. A weakly placed or aspected Mercury will give a wavering mind that is unable to make decisions. Speech may be affected resulting in harsh or rash language, or excessive gossip.

Mercury in a positive sense is adaptable, but in a negative sense is easily influenced. Close conjunctions and aspects of Mercury with other planets will change the expression of Mercury to a great degree. The one exception is the Sun. Because Mercury spends so much time near the Sun, he can "defend" his self-identity more readily.

Wherever Mercury falls in an astrological chart indicates the area of life where communication is crucial. The house position indicates the field of life where such communication will occur or needs to be developed, while the sign position gives insight into the nature or manner of the communication. Mercury placed in the fifth house indicates communication that is creative, and may involve or be directed at children or lovers. Mercury in the tenth house directs communication to achieve career goals and ambitions, and dealings with people in authority. Mercury placed in the sign of Taurus provides communication that is fixed, focused, and materially practical. Mercury placed in the sign of Gemini is versatile, interested in anything, quick and abstract in communication.

The transits of Mercury are quite fast and thus are not considered very strong. However, the houses and signs of transiting Mercury can indicate areas that are speeded up and activated. These areas or topics of life may experience more communication or thought, and in general require more attention.

There is much discussion about the effects of retrograde planets. The planet Mercury retrogrades on average three times per year, more than any other planet. In the natal chart a retrograde Mercury indicates an introspective mind where there can be more interior dialog than exterior. The individual may experience very deep thoughts, yet have difficulty communicating the depth of their conceptualizations. According to Vedic astrology retrograde planets are considered stronger because they are closer to the Sun.

In mundane astrology retrograde Mercury is often thought of as a negative transit period when there is confusion in communication and decisions will be challenged or undone. Popular culture believes that when Mercury is retrograde, car keys are mislaid, computers crash, and letters are lost. It may be more accurate to say that during these periods people can be distracted due to mental exertion, and this can lead to various mishaps.


Campion, Nicholas, and Steve Eddy. The New Astrology: The Art and Science of the Stars. New

Pomfret, VT: Trafalgar Square Publishing, 1999. Hamillton, Edith. Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes. New York: Signet Classics,


Hinnells, John R., ed. The Penguin Dictionary of Religions. London: Penguin Books, 1984. Hornblower, Simon, and Antony Spawforth, eds. The Oxford Classical Dictionary. Oxford, Eng.:

Oxford University Press, 1996. Reprint, 1999. Mani, Vettam. Puranic Encyclopaedia. Delhi, India: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 1964. Miller, Susan. Planets and Possibilities: Explore the Worlds Beyond Your Sun Sign. New York: Warner Books, 2001.

Wolkstein, Diane, and Samuel Noah Kramer. Inanna: Queen of Heaven and Earth, Her Stories and Hymns from Sumer. New York: Harper and Row, 1983.

—Maire Masco

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