Mercury through the Minor Arcana

And on to Mercury, the second fastest planet in the Chaldean order. In Roman mythology, Mercury was the god of commerce, communication, travelers, and thieves. He also guided souls to the underworld. In a natal chart, Mercury represents the conscious mind, communication, and perception. It doesn’t show how intelligent someone is in the sense of an IQ test, but it’s the main indicator of how someone thinks (concretely, in intuitive leaps, focusing on the details, etc.).

Eight of Wands (Mercury in Sagittarius)

Mercury in Sagittarius is energetic as all get-out. All three fire signs are associated with creativity, passion, and enthusiasm, but in addition to that, Sagittarius is mutable. The mutable signs are adaptable and flexible, but also restless and scattered. As a result, Mercury in Sagittarius has more energy than focus and may end up trying to do a gazillion things at once.

Eight of WandsMost Minor Arcana cards depict a situation, such as the aftermath of a battle (Five of Swords), walking in a garden (Nine of Pentacles), or a family celebrating together (Ten of Cups). In the Waite-Smith deck, the Eight of Wands is one of the only Minor Arcanum without people in it.* To me, because there are no people acting in this card, the emphasis is on movement and speed rather than any specific action. The Golden Dawn name for this card is Lord of Swiftness, and most standard meanings for this card don’t stray far from that concept. While some decks show the eight wands shooting towards the sky, Smith’s illustration shows them descending. They’re finishing their journey, and that’s also in keeping with Mercury in Sagittarius. Like the arrows of Sagittarius, it’s time to retrieve them and prepare them for their next launch. They’re like the arrows of Sagittarius.

Three of Cups (Mercury in Cancer)

When Mercury is in Cancer, thoughts and perceptions are shaped by feelings and instincts. Cancer is a water sign, and the water signs are emotional, intuitive, and subjective. Cancer is associated with nurturance and protection. It’s a sensitive sign, and Mercury in Cancer is attuned not only to the literal meaning of what’s being said, but to the tone in which it’s being said.

Three of CupsFriendship and celebration are obvious meanings of the Three of Cups. Three women dance together, in a clear patch ringed with fruits and vegetables, appropriate for the Golden Dawn title for this card, Lord of Abundance. The joy and celebration in this card are clear, but it’s a private party. Note that the women are facing inwards, almost entwined in each other’s arms. If anyone else were in the area, they would find it difficult to join in unless the women chose to let them in. Cancer’s sensitivity and protectiveness can lead it to take care only of those it recognizes as family, as part of its tribe. In the Three of Cups, the women support each other, but they may only support each other.

Six of Swords (Mercury in Aquarius)

Mercury is comfortable in Aquarius, an air sign that supports its natural inclination to be detached and approach life rationally and intellectually. But Mercury’s natural home in the air signs is flexible, mutable Gemini. In fixed Aquarius, Mercury becomes more committed to seeing ideas through to the end instead of flitting away to the next interesting thought. That can mean it’s open to hearing new ideas, but won’t necessarily change its mind until it’s rationally convinced that it should.

6SThe Six of Swords is another one of those cards that differ noticeably between the Waite-Smith and Thoth decks. Smith’s image shows two people being ferried away by a third. Their destination may be a better place than where they came from, as there is calm water between the boat and the far shore and turbulent water between the boat and the viewer. There’s a feeling of sadness in the card, though. The adult passenger sits hunched over, shrouded in a cloak, the sky is gray, and that far shore is gray, not green with life and vitality.** One possible inspiration for this scene is dead souls being ferried across the Styx in Greek mythology. While that was Charon’s role, not Hermes’ (Mercury’s), this card does reflect Mercury as the god of travelers at the very least, and possibly in his role as psychopomp. The Golden Dawn called this card Lord of Earned Success, but I admit that’s not what comes to mind when I see this card. Common meanings for the Waite-Smith Six of Swords include  travel (especially by water), sadness, and moving on.

Six of SwordsIn the Thoth deck, the Six of Swords is called Science. Science goes well with Mercury in Aquarius’ intellectual focus, and the general meanings for the Thoth Six of Swords reflect this: intelligence, curiosity, insight, progress, perception, and rational thought. Honestly, these sound like the general meanings for Mercury in Aquarius. This is pretty much as positive as the Swords get, and Crowley describes it as “the full establishment and balance of intelligence with humanity.”

What the two versions of the Six of Swords have in common is the idea of progress and improvement. Mercury in Aquarius symbolizes innovative thinking, which is often associated with science. Less obviously, to make a complete break with your past and set off to an unknown future, as the passengers in the Waite-Smith Six of Swords are doing, also requires innovative thinking.

Five of Pentacles (Mercury in Taurus)

Mercury is even more stabilized in Taurus than in Aquarius. Earth, after all, is solidity and permanence, and fixed earth, symbolically, is as immovable as you get. All this immovability is counter to Mercury’s mobile nature, and in the tarot version of this combination, it’s mired.

Five of PentaclesAs Mercury is “trapped” in the material world, so are the people in the Five of Pentacles trapped in poverty and illness. In Smith’s picture, they trudge through snow, one barefoot, the other on crutches. They’re moving, but like Mercury bogged down in Taurus, they can’t outrun their problems. The Golden Dawn called this card the Lord of Material Trouble, and it’s Worry in the Thoth deck, both names doing a fine job of capturing the essence of this card. Are the two people even communicating (Mercury) with each other? They’re looking in different directions, lost in their own thoughts. They’re also cut off from anyone who might be inside the building and who might be able to help them; here, Mercury’s perception fails.

Ten of Pentacles (Mercury in Virgo)

Given a little wiggle room, Mercury’s outlook improves noticeably. Like Taurus, Virgo is an earth sign, but it’s mutable earth, with the flexibility that suggests. Mercury does quite well there: grounded, yet mobile.

Ten of PentaclesHere we have the opposite of the Five of Pentacles: the Golden Dawn name for the Ten of Pentacles is Lord of Wealth. Given the Golden Dawn’s distrust of materialism, however, this card isn’t necessarily entirely positive. Ever since I read Rachel Pollack’s explanation of the Ten of Pentacles in Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom, I’ve been wary of the apparent abundance of this card. I tend to read it as “money can’t buy happiness.” Certainly everyone here is better off than the people in the Five of Pentacles, and yet in Smith’s illustration, they’re just as disconnected, not looking at each other. The only exception is between the old man and the dogs. Still, they’re all close enough to touch each other; they’re not nearly as isolated as the people in the Five of Pentacles. Plus, the pentacles aren’t “in” the scene as they are in most of the other cards of this suit. They float between the viewer and the scene in the form of the Tree of Life, suggesting a spiritual meaning in the most material of the Pentacles cards.

*The others are the Aces, the Three of Swords, and the Four of Swords. Although the Four of Swords does have a human figure in it.

**Well, it’s gray in the Universal Waite Tarot, anyway!

For other posts in this series, see Astrology of the Minor Arcana.

R is for retrogrades

Coming into the Pagan Blog Project, I thought there would be a few letters that would be a challenge to write for. The obvious ones were Q, X, and Z. (Indeed, any letter with a high value in Scrabble is a candidate for being challenging.) As it has turned out though, I thought of something right away for Q, and I have something lined up for Z, although X is still a vacuum as I write this. Meanwhile, it was letters like F and N that have thrown me. For this week, my mind got stuck on R (a letter with a value of 1 in Scrabble—it should have been easy!). I could think of nothing to add beyond what others had posted on the Rede or ritual, nor did I have anything to say on the topic of reincarnation. I was wrestling with a potential post on rulerships which just wasn’t working, when I realized that retrograde starts with R also. And so here we are.

A planet is retrograde when it appears to be moving backward in the sky. While this happens to all the planets, I pay the most attention to the retrograde periods of Mercury, Venus, and Mars. The other planets from Jupiter on out stay retrograde for longer periods of time. I think we get used to that, and it’s harder to see differences between their direct and retrograde periods. With these three faster planets, there’s more contrast.

As with many other topics in astrology, there are different opinions about what it means when a planet is retrograde. In traditional astrology, being retrograde is one of the debilities, a condition that makes a malefic planet nastier or a benefic planet less helpful. A retrograde planet may be considered weaker in Western astrology, but I’ve heard that in Vedic astrology, retrograde planets are said to be stronger because this is when they’re closest to Earth. Modern psychological astrology tries to avoid dualistic “good/bad” language: the energy of a retrograde planet is seen as turning inward and being less noticeable as a result. Personally, I’ve found that the psychological interpretation works best when describing natal planets that are retrograde. When we’re talking about the effects of a transiting retrograde planet, often the conversation turns to what’s been happening in our lives, and lots of the time, what we’re talking about is what has gone wrong—the traditional descriptions still seem to work for events. (And often I’ve noticed that the problem started well before the retrograde period, sometimes months or years earlier, but it comes to light when the planet goes retrograde.)

Mercury rules communication and perception, so when it goes retrograde, we tend to notice right away. Its retrograde cycle is fairly even, lasting about three weeks every three months, each period falling a few days earlier than it did the year before. Entire books (plural) have been written about Mercury retrograde, the best known of the retrograde planets. In terms of events, this is a period famous for delayed travel, glitching computers, misunderstandings, and having to redo and revise a lot.

Venus’ retrograde periods last about 40 days; Venus goes retrograde about every 18 months. The most dramatic case of Venus retrograde I’ve encountered involved two of Venus’ traditional rulerships: relationships and beautiful things. A person had surgery and their coworkers started their customary collection to buy flowers for them. As it turned out, this person had alienated so many of their colleagues that not enough money was collected to buy even the smallest flower arrangement. After more money was secured, the coworkers ordered an arrangement to be sent to the person’s home. It was misdelivered to a neighbor who wasn’t on good terms with this person and refused to hand over the flowers. (The florist accepted responsibility for the delivery error and replaced the flowers.)

Like Venus, Mars doesn’t go retrograde every year. Its retrograde periods are about 2 to 2½ months. When I first decided to watch Mars retrograde, I wasn’t sure what to look for. Would wars go badly? Wars tend to go badly for someone even when they’re going well—that wasn’t going to work. In a list of traditional astrological factors to take into consideration when timing elective surgery, avoiding Mars retrograde periods was one suggestion. That made sense: Mars traditionally rules iron and steel, as well as weapons. Surgeons, who use steel scalpels and knives to inflict controlled wounds (which is what surgery is) are Mars’ by association—and you wouldn’t want anything glitching during surgery if at all possible. And its Mars’ rulership of iron and steel that I’ve noticed the most when Mars is retrograde. I had a computer die abruptly when Mars was retrograde: the hard drive fried. Along the same lines, a friend had severe car problems stemming from rust during Mars retrograde.

And if you want to do some observing of your own:

2013-2014 Retrograde Periods

Planet Goes Retrograde Goes Direct
Mercury October 21, 2013 November 10, 2013
February 6, 2014 February 28, 2014
June 7, 2014 July 1, 2014
October 4, 2014 October 25, 2014
Venus December 21, 2013 January 31, 2014
Mars March 1, 2014 May 20, 2014


One of the first things you learn about Mercury retrograde periods is that they’re associated with times of re-: redoing, revising, rereading, reworking, etc. I am hard-pressed to remember a Mercury retrograde period that has involved more re- verbs than the current one (July 14 – August 8, 2012).

  • Reknitting: I wish to enter the sweater I’m currently knitting in the state fair, which means I need to finish it by mid-August. The pattern is a self-contained exercise in Mercury retrograde, as it’s filled with errors and unclear explanations. Up until now, though, I’ve managed to find corrections and clarifications for each of the problems I’ve encountered. Well, now we’re in the retrograde period, and while the problems continue to pop up, the solutions have evaporated. Thus, I’ve had to rip out and reknit. Let’s see, so far that’s part of one sleeve reknitted and the entire lower panel of the sweater (twice!). Reknitting is common, retrograde or no retrograde, but when there’s a deadline involved, it’s stressful as all get-out.
  • Redoing: We have a fiscal year at work that runs from July 1 through June 30. Sure, that means our current fiscal year got going before Mercury went retrograde on July 14, but no, we didn’t have the budget set up on July 1. Doing that during the retrograde has proven that Mercury retrograde and accounting are a poor combination. Between budgeting far too little money for our basic expenditures and learning that our finance department has misunderstood for years what we’ve been spending money on, actually getting bills paid has become a monumental task. We spend our energies on reviewing past financial reports and revamping current budgets.
  • Rereading: I rarely reread books, simply because there are so many books out there that I haven’t read and want to. However, I’m rereading one right now, and even more appropriately, I started it on July 14, when I was still unaware that a Mercury retrograde period was starting. Okay, this one isn’t a rant, but if something unfrustrating is happening during Mercury retrograde, I figure I ought to highlight it!

Mind you, it’s all supposed to be better in the end. The reknitted sweater shouldn’t have the problems that would cause it to lose points at the fair. The reworked budget should lead to our having better grasp of our finances. Every time I reread the book, I should retain more information from it. But it’s intensely frustrating, and I am anxiously awaiting August 8.