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.
Most 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.
Friendship 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.
The 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.
In 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.
As 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.
Here 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.