Mercury’s Favor to Astrologers: The Chart as Play Space and Ritual Space

Written by Jason Holley

Uranus is known as the modern ruler of astrology, but Rob Hand and others point out that in earlier times our art was considered Mercury’s domain. Mercury as the ruler of astrology is very suggestive, for Hermes/Mercury has a dual nature – at once the playful trickster and the Guide of Souls. Both these qualities of Mercury are needed by the psychotherapist or astrologer who seeks to invite a patient or a querent to engage what is beyond current awareness.

For many years as a therapist I wondered at the tendency of individuals to seek astrological insight or to begin long-term therapy under a strong aspect to Mercury, or with strong Mercury contacts between their chart and my own. Certainly this didn’t seem to make sense given the common astrological imagery – Mercury as ‘communication’, the linear thinking process, intellection. Although these are a part of what therapy is, and a part of what astrology is, they do not capture the profundity and transformational qualities of depth-oriented approaches to psyche.

So to understand Mercury’s role in our work as astrologers or therapists, we need a deeper and richer perspective on this god, and the deep well of mythology has much to offer.

MERCURY IN MYTH

Like all the Roman gods for whom the planets are named, Mercury had a Greek antecedent, Hermes. Hermes is often referred to as the “messenger of the gods”, the one with the fleet feet who could travel quickly to relay to any given hero what the gods or goddesses expected from them next. In his own words, through Ovid’s Metamorphoses, “I am he who bears his father’s mandates through the sky. My father’s Jupiter Himself.”

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. He also showed up when heroes and other humans were dealing with seemingly impossible situations, or needing to successfully deal with supernatural beings of one kind or another.

One of his most famous appearances was in the Odyssey, the story of the long journey home of Odysseus after the Trojan War. After many other adventures and woes, he and his crew land on the island of the powerful sorceress Circe, who turns the crew into pigs while Odysseus is not present. When Odysseus is about to go to Circe himself, Hermes intervenes. He gives Odysseus a secret plant, “moly”, which will make him immune to her enchantments. He also tells Odysseus how to engage her in conversation and when to expect her to strike. All of this information allows Odysseus to engage the sorceress and even to win her bed, as well as to free his men from her spell. So Mercury gives Odysseus a means of encountering this supernatural force safely and creatively.

In an earlier story, in the midst of the Trojan War, the Trojan King Priam is overwhelmed with grief at the death of his son Hector. But he is not able to properly mourn his son because Achilles, the half-god hero who killed him, has kept the body and refuses to give it back. Overwhelmed by grief, Priam sets out to try to meet with Achilles personally and retrieve the body. Hermes looking on at this, decides to help. He helps Priam slip past the defenses of the Greek army at night, so that no one will see him and stop him from reaching Achilles. Then when he Priam reaches Achilles, Hermes tells him exactly how to approach, what to say, and what to propose. He helps Priam to speak to the larger-than-life Achilles in the way that will loosen his heart and the plan works. (1)

The Hermes/Mercury who appears through these stories and many more is, as we are often told, a god of communication and movement. But the communication he is doing is not, as a rule, between human and human; and the movement he is doing is not as a rule from one human place to another. Rather his communication is between the humans and the gods and godlike; and his movement is between the middle world and the worlds above and below. Mercury bridged the worlds, crossing the thresholds and linking the realm of human beings with the realms of the gods.

In this way, Mercury is what we could call a transformer – he moves across the thresholds and makes larger realities conceivable and digestible to those on earth. Mercury “steps down” the energies of the gods or of intense situations to levels at which they can be understood, recognized, and creatively engaged by human beings. In this way he excellently describes our roles as psychologically-oriented astrologers – translators who assist individuals in better understanding, connecting with, and realizing and embodying, the fullness of the human experience.

MERCURY AND TRANSITIONAL SPACE

Mercury’s constant closeness to the Sun speaks to this integrative behavior of Mercury. The Sun, which coheres the solar system, can also be seen as the principle of intrapsychic coherence, as the principle of integration which finds a place for everything. Mercury’s role, as it continuously makes small ventures away from the Sun, and then ventures back, is that of seeking out and engaging with the world beyond the self as it is currently experienced – but not going too far away – and bringing back small, assimilable bits of material from elsewhere, which the Sun can integrate and bring into coherence within the psyche.

Seen in this way, Mercury in the natal chart will describe how an individual interacts with and integrates the many injunctions of the gods – the larger-than-life events, emotions, and affects that we all experience, more and less consciously, throughout our lives. Natal Mercury shows how a person can mediate the intensity of the archetypal world to levels at which this can be engaged creatively and playfully, reverently and also irreverently. Mercury “translates” the gods into terms that can be understood by the individual, simultaneously bringing more of the numinous into the individual, and more of the individual into the numinous. The gods, the archetypes, can be safely embodied, realized more completely (though never completely) and thus can evolve and change, not be doomed to repetition; and the individual is expanded, able to hold more and more of his or her own experience. In times of intense transits and life experiences, Mercury will suggest how an individual can skillfully, and creatively respond.

In this way, it makes great sense that Mercury was both the Playful Trickster and the Guide of Souls. For both of these roles involve engagement with what psychoanalytic writers have called “transitional space” (2) – or what is often called in shamanic paradigms “the space of death” (3). This space is one in which signifiers and signifieds are detached from one another – things are up for grabs, within certain parameters. And in this space it becomes possible to make connections, links, that would otherwise be difficult to manage in ordinary consciousness. It is also possible to engage with, and to creatively process, material that in its raw form would simply be too much.

Children’s play is the easiest place to see this kind of space. I think of a child whose therapy I once supervised, whose parents had divorced. He was brought to therapy due to acting out in school with aggression – a common response to feelings of powerlessness at home. In one of his sessions, he created a game in which he would give the therapist figurines and then order them to be placed into the lava of a volcano. Only two figures were spared this fate: a man in a suit and a woman in a white dress. They remained on an island in the volcano, untouched by the lava as everything else – everything else – was destroyed. This seemed a clear communication of his present dilemma: enormous rage over the destruction of an idealized family, which he could not afford to visit upon the parents, whom he protected from his rage through enacting it everywhere else. Of course it was entirely beyond his capacity to engage this material directly or cognitively. The play, however, opened up a space where it could be engaged. The transitional space of play became a place where this child could work out his relationship to events and emotions that were simply too overwhelming to work with in a direct and non-mediated way.

In the domain of play, it is possible to be “making believe”, or playing a role, pretending, and yet also not quite pretending – we get into role, and it is entirely real to us, even though at some level we also know it is not real in the sense of everyday life being real. (4) It is a different kind of reality – more real than real, in many ways – and a place where tremendous creativity can be unleashed, which can serve to keep things moving, the only agenda Hermes ever brought to the table. In play, as in ceremony and ritual, we are in the space of the gods, yet not; in the space of everyday life, yet not – and this transitional space, this threshold space, is Mercury’s domain.

MERCURY IN THE READING

Let’s now consider how astrology opens up transitional space. This understanding of Mercury may make his relationship to astrology clearer, and particularly his relationship to the astrological reading – a very Mercury word.

Astrology, like therapy, is both a kind of play and a kind of ceremony. The demarcation of the chart is very precise, and like any good ritual or playroom, there are richly defined symbols within it, full of secret signs that only the players know. All these symbols have their own meanings, glyphs, relationships, origin stories. It is a world-within-the-world. In an astrological consultation of the kind I mean, it is clear that we are engaging something apart from everyday life, we are entering into a sacred space together. Like a children’s playroom, or a Jungian sandtray, or a tribal rite, the space is marked off and bounded, yet at the same time within these bounds truly anything can happen.

There are times in readings with individuals where we are stumbling around together, making sense with each other, “making it up” together. To me this is the deep play-space of a reading – we read together, engage the symbols together, and the play takes on forms that could not have been predicted at the outset. The model of querent/oracle that still predominates in astrology can be represented through the Gemini/Sagittarius axis – client with the questions (Gemini) and astrologer with the answers (Sagittarius). Yet if the querent is to access their own answers, then the astrologer must also be willing to access their own uncertainty and unknowing. In other words, the querent/oracle archetype, rather than being distributed across the dyad with one person asking and one person answering, can be engaged in its fullness by both individuals: both asking, both answering. If we want the client to know, we ourselves must be willing to not know, to wonder. (5) This is shown in mythology by the archetype of the blind prophet: anyone who sees for others must also be in some way blind himself.

What this looks like in session is a continuous checking-in with the individual about how what is offered about the chart is experienced by him or her. There is a continuous search for associations and linkages – often the primary work is in fact linkage, linking and drawing things together. Jung spoke of this in dream analysis as peripeteia, “walking about”, circumambulation of the dream. So just as Mercury sends children running in circles in their games and play; and has worshippers walk circles around their temples and icons, he also gets us on our feet with our clients walking around their chart and the issues of their lives. As associations and linkages multiply, deeper and more holistic perception of the issues become possible. This is the power of Mercury. A deeper felt coherence is frequently the outcome of such engagement between astrologer and client, which may be far more the ‘point’ of astrological consultation than specific answers to specific questions.

In the process of the reading, we may find that a client has accessed a new language of the soul, has been able to make sense of something using the mediating field, the play-space, of the chart. This is deep Mercury – allowing a synthesis of the worlds, increasing the ability of the individual to walk in both worlds, to be aware of this world, but also of the many other worlds that underlay and overlap and enmesh it.

The reading then becomes an exercise of deepening psychic coherence and interrelatedness rather than simply an information-seeking and information-providing process. In this we access the shamanic level of Mercury that goes beyond his role as simple communicator and into his roles as player and trickster, and psychopompos, guide of souls. Under the patronage of this friendliest of the gods, we offer our clients a means of making sense of overwhelming experiences, of embodying and realizing more of the range of human experience, and of connecting with the numinous realms, the very well-springs of life itself. Inside the bounds of the chart, as in the sandbox or the ceremony space, Mercury allows us to safely experience a true encounter with the gods.

Jason Holley December 20, 2015

(1) The quote is from Ovid, Metamorphoses 2. The story of Mercury protecting Odysseus from Circe is told in Book 10 of the Odyssey. The story of Mercury helping Priam reach Achilles is told in Book 14 of the Iliad.

(2) Though he does not mention Hermes, Johan Huizinga has written extensively about the relationship of ritual and play in his book Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture.

(3) The notion of transitional space has been elaborated by many, however the central reference I would make is to the work of D. W. Winnicott, a Bristish psychoanalyst.

(4) Michael Taussig identifies the “space of death” in the practices of the Putumayo Indians in his book Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man: A Study in Terror and Healing.

(5) I owe this analysis of the oracle-querent archetype to a similar analysis of the healer-patient archetype by Adolf Guggenbuhl-Craig in his book Power and the Helping Professions.


Jason Holley, MA LPCC, is a depth psychotherapist and evolutionary and archetypal astrologer in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He has practiced astrology for over 25 years and has taught nationally on psychotherapy, astrology, and myth. Jason runs a continuing education program in Santa Fe for therapists who wish to draw on the astrological tradition in their work, as well as several psychologically-oriented astrology classes. He is also core faculty at Southwestern College (swc.edu), a consciousness-oriented graduate school for counseling and art therapy. His work has appeared in The Mountain Astrologer and several online and radio venues. jason@jasonholley.net or jasonholley.net on the web.

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