Mercury, Animism, and the Axis Mundi
GARY P. CATON.
“We must invent, or re-invent, a sustainable human
culture by a descent into our pre-rational, our
instinctive resources […] What is needed is
not tran-scendence but in-scendance,
not the brain but the gene”.
Thomas Berry, The Dream of the Earth 
Animism, Magic, and Myth
ANTHROPOLOGISTS suggest it was a “creative explosion” of primal art, such as cave paintings and figurines, which formally marks the transition to what we consider to be modern humans during the upper Paleolithic period. So, it is first our image- and later our symbol-making capacities which stand out as distinctively modern human adaptations and characteristics. Similarly, we have recently seen a tsunami of images in the digital age. The amount of images we now make is so unprecedented that it can scarcely be appreciated. As of publication of this book, more than 350 million photos are uploaded per day to the most popular photo sharing website and that number continues to grow. And that’s just one website. Clearly image making is a timeless and fundamental human urge, and yet it is possible that the recent proliferation has in turn somewhat obscured the enormous magical and transformational power contained in an image.
In the 2010 documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a researcher is interviewed confessing that the lions painted on the walls of Chauvet cave had invaded their dreams with such a powerful and profound presence that they had to stop going inside the caves in order to process the profound emotions stirred by the experience. This encounter truly exemplifies the raw primal psychic potentials capable of evocation through images.
The zodiac itself is a circular image, the word in Greek meaning “circle of animals.” While the zodiac as a formal coordinate system originated with the Babylonians around the seventh-century BCE, it has been hypothesized that the 17,000 year old paintings of animals in the Lascaux caves represent the constellations in what could be described as a kind of proto-zodiac. This proto-zodiac hypothesis is difficult to prove, however it is generally accepted that at the very least the cave paintings represent a form of “sympathetic magic,” wherein painting the animal becomes a kind of spiritual communion between the souls of the animal and the painter.
Evidence suggests that early modern humans existed in an undifferentiated state of consciousness and lived by a worldview which anthropologists call animism. For these people, there was no separation between the spiritual and material worlds, and so animals were naturally seen to have souls too. In fact, in an animistic consciousness, everything has a soul—including rivers, mountains, valleys and plants, minerals, etc. So, the ritual act of creating the image of an animal is practiced to enable the artist to invoke the sympathy of the animal’s soul—either to gain its sacrifice in the hunt or to take on some of its attributes and power. Perhaps this sympathetic magic is also partly what was intended in the creation of the zodiac, and helps explain its continued popularity. After all, who has not occasionally wanted to roar like a lion in the face of life’s trials?
It is one thing to wistfully wish for the presence of one’s inner lion, or even to accidentally stumble upon and arouse it, but it is quite another thing altogether for someone to consciously and deliberately summon such a presence. Outside of a children’s story, many modern people might find the concept laughable. And yet, ironically, we can regularly see humans engaging in behaviors that make those of a wild lion seem almost tame. Is it possible that suppression or repression of our more primordial urges has only fated us to become possessed by them, forcing them to reveal themselves to us in a more perverted form? Perhaps the hypnotic allure of modern motion pictures, television, and now “selfies” can be explained as a natural psychic hunger to balance today’s scientific/rational emphasis with a return to the more primordial image.
Philosopher Jean Gebser theorized that humanity has transitioned through several modes or structures of consciousness. The problem with what he calls the mental structure that humanity is transitioning away from is that it seeks to deny the other structures with its claim that humans should be exclusively rational. However the structure that we are transitioning toward is integral, and carries the need to “make present” all the various structures of awareness. When all structures are recognized and accepted this enables a person to see and live through the various structures simultaneously, rather than be subjected to, possessed or “lived by” one of them. Perhaps this tells us that an openness to and understanding of an animistic perspective or worldview may help (or at least begin) to provide or reconnect us with conscious access to the ancient instinctive resources shared by all human beings, and might also help prevent these same instincts from taking over our lives through unconscious animalistic behaviors.
Mercury on the World Axis
Although it is quite common for people today to think of god in terms of a trinity, it seems seldom that modern people dare to think of themselves, their lives or their world in these same terms. Yet, some familiar with more ancient forms of awareness know that animistic cultures have long considered there to be three worlds. In many ancient religious systems, there were three cosmic levels: not only heaven and earth, but an underworld as well. Rather than simply the nightmarish vision of hell imagined by Christianity, the underworld was seen by many cultures as a place of natural riches and ancestral wisdom. In this worldview, the axis mundi, the vertical feature of the cosmos, was seen to be at the center of the world and served to link together all three cosmic levels. This axis could be represented by various symbols such as a mountain, tree or ladder. From an animistic perspective, all three of these worlds are not only connected, but also accessible to, and indeed part of every human being.
From an animistic perspective, because there is no separation between the material and spiritual world, we can also conceive of three “selves” with which to navigate these three worlds. For the animist, what most people think of as their entire identity, the every- day awareness of the conscious ego, or what Kahuna shamans call the “talking self,” is actually far from the totality of being. Our “higher” spiritual self has access to transcendent spiritual wisdom, and our basic self accesses our “lower” animal/visceral intelligence, the instincts and inherited tribal wisdom that have kept us alive as a species for many millennia. From this perspective, the admonition to “know thyself” takes on new complexity. There is a need to comprehend, understand, and harmonize all three essential aspects of being human and to bring our three “selves” into alignment and integrated partnership.
In this way, the triple-alignments of Mercury, occurring in the same degrees and also linking the above and below, can become a kind of axis mundi—a sacred linkage, connecting the three worlds and three selves. Remember, from a visual standpoint, the image of Mercury’s retrograde journey is that of a disappearing act: from above to below, and back to above. Images often tell a story. The visual transformation process that Mercury performs every four months, of disappearing in the west and later re-appearing in the east, also happens to the other planets at various intervals and was mythologized by the Babylonians and Egyptians as the journeys of various gods through the underworld.
Of all the Greek gods, only Hermes was able to fully traverse the axis mundi and visit the heights of Mount Olympus as well as the depths of Hades. Sky astrologers can use these visual and mythical perspectives to better understand Mercury retrograde. After Mercury passes evening elongation, his highest appearance above the horizon in the west at dusk, he is in the process of slowing down and descending. Later he turns retrograde and becomes invisible, disappearing in the west. After making the invisible inferior (below) conjunction with the sun, Mercury re-appears in the east and then makes his highest appearance above the eastern horizon at morning elongation. Visually, Mercury is “switching skies,” appearing in the same degrees three times: first as evening star, then becoming invisible and making the inferior conjunction, and finally crossing for the third time as morning star.
If we process this visual image of Mercury’s transformative journey as a story, and we follow along, it can be seen as a signal for us to “switch selves.” Human beings are hard-wired with an instinctive response to the 24-hour cycle of light/dark known as the circadian rhythm. When the sun disappears in the west it is a signal that we need to take shelter and prepare for sleep and dreamtime. Similarly, when a planet dips below the threshold of visibility, it is signaling for us to take part in a concurrent descent into our basic selves, in order to reinvigorate our awareness with its special gifts. During what I call his “backward trickster medicine dance,” Mercury takes on his most complex mythic role: the psychopomp, the guide of souls through the underworld, that is, the lower world of the basic self, animal powers, and instinctive wisdom.
Between the worlds, thresholds exist. For the Greeks, Hermes was the god of these liminal places. This is why Hermes frequently shows up in myths to give aid to heroes (for example, Priam and Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey) who journey into the unknown, as well as to escort departed souls along their journey into the final unknown of the afterlife (for example, the “suitors” in Homer’s Odyssey). This is also why travelers would place a stone onto a herma, a heap of stones found at transitional places like crossroads and graves: to honor and seek the protection of Hermes, the god of the doors to the unknown. Thus, it is only natural that the Mercury retrograde experience may sometimes include messages or messengers of transition.
If we are not conscious of the deeper purpose of these transitions, then we can seemingly become their “victims.” The underworld journey is not rational, and so any expectations of a strictly “normal” experience from our rational consciousness are likely to meet with disappointment. However, this does not mean we should simply superstitiously avoid certain activities during Mercury’s retrograde. Rather, we need to try to learn or remember a different kind of dance altogether! First we must honor Mercury’s trickster medicine by adjusting our own expectations and awareness. Only then we can begin to enter into correspondence, learn and remember how to dance with it.
While perhaps sometimes unwelcome to a strictly rational consciousness, properly understood these messages or messengers of transition can be seen as an invitation to “switch worlds” because mythically they serve the role of threshold guardian: the sentry at the door to other worlds. These sentries serve to bar entry to those who are not ready to accept the magic of transformation in their lives. Those who play the “blame game” by making Mercury into a scapegoat and themselves into victims are refusing the magic of transformation because it does not fit into their limited rational understanding. The I Ching tells us that when faced with an obstruction, the common person looks to blame others and fate, but the noble person looks within. Like the common person who cannot imagine that there may be some deeper, unknown and mysterious meaning and purpose behind an obstruction, Gebser’s mental structure of consciousness does not want us to entertain the viewpoints of the other structures. The mental structure wants rationality to be seen as the complete reality, in and of itself. But it is only when we can break free of the stranglehold of rationality that we can hope to see reality more as it truly is—infinite. Or, to further invoke William Blake, only when the “doors of perception” are cleansed of an oppressive uni-polar viewpoint of a singular truth, can we begin to see reality as multi-dimensional and multivalent. We must periodically traverse the passages between the rational and non-rational worlds if these passages are not to become the closed doors of a prison.
Somewhat paradoxically, it is only through a descent—“lowering” our awareness to include the non-rational levels of the mythical and magical—that we can ascend and “raise” awareness to the integral level, and learn to see across or through all the structures of consciousness simultaneously. There are good reasons why Mercury should be considered the appropriate god to teach us about this descent into the primordial. First, there is evidence that “the god of stone-heaps existed in Greece before the coming of the Greeks.” Second, Mercury was often seen as a tutelary or protective divinity, and was not only connected to domestic animals as god of herdsmen but also connected to the wilder beasts which still beset the traveler or wayfarer in those days. Therefore, as Mercury descends from evening elongation in preparation for his invisible journey we can learn to practice our own descent into the unseen mysteries of sympathetic magic and myth, thus creating and maintaining a conscious identity for our basic self through exploring our own personal animistic mythology.
To someone with an animistic worldview, animal helpers are a tremendous source of personal power and protection. Often the shaman will initiate healing by re-establishing the bond between a person and their power animal. Everyone has an animal protector or totem, if they are unaware of it. Whether you refer to the western tropical zodiac, the Chinese zodiac, the Mayan day signs, or simply your life experiences, there will certainly be an animal or two that you feel connected to, and perhaps a certain pride in because you exhibit similar character traits. It may even be an animal that lives in the same element in which Mercury was retrograde during the year you were born.
The Mercury Elemental Year
For instance, I was born in 1968 when Mercury retrogrades were happening in air signs, and so my personal Mercury elemental year is air. In 1989, I unexpectedly received a spiritual awakening through a series of powerful encounters with several air animal totems (flying creatures)—first in my dreams, then through immersion in nature and further investigation of spiritual topics, and finally while on vision quest. It was this initial awakening that put me on the path to becoming an astrologer. After being initiated into astrology by a dream in 1993, I found my way into the astrology community
in 1995 through Project Hindsight—a project to translate and publish ancient, Hellenistic-era astrology manuscripts. By 1989 the Mercury retrogrades had returned to air signs for the first time since I became an adult (the third return after my birth), and in 1995 when I found my way into the astrology community the Mercury retrogrades had again returned to air signs for the fourth time since I was born. In fact, this is a regular cycle which you can observe: given that Mercury only retrogrades in the signs of a particular element about every six to seven years, it follows that approximately every six to seven years, the mercury elemental year will return to your birth element. In 1995, by descending into a primordial experience of the air element, I was able to find deep within myself a connection to a more integrated intellectual tradition that honors the magical and mythical as well as the rational. I was then able to ascend and return to my intellectual life in a more authentic fashion. It took me seven years to complete this journey, largely because I did not have any idea what I was looking for, except a connection to something more magical than academia seemed to offer me at the time.
This six to seven year cycle is what we might call the “long form” of Mercury’s transformative dance, and we will explore it much further in chapter five. The “short form” of this transformative dance is contained in the approximately forty days between evening elongation and morning elongation. Mercury’s inferior conjunction happens right in the middle of this roughly forty-day period. Forty days is a very sacred number in many myths, and so we can use this smaller period for more targeted searches and as a sacred and safe container for a journey with a more clearly defined start and end date.
To keep the passages between worlds open, and our basic self and non-rational worlds integrated, we should dedicate at least one of these three periods each year to taking a conscious descent into the worlds of magic and myth. This may be as simple as taking time to immerse ourselves in nature without timetables, connecting physically with the elements, and feeling the heartbeat of nature in a personal Walden. Or perhaps your “road less traveled” might be found by exploring myths or even inventing a new personal mythology. It can even become as wonderfully complex as your own Red Book, perhaps by keeping a personal journal or sketchbook which chronicles your experience of connecting with various animal or plant energies. Anything that introduces an element of the sacred, magical or mythical regularly into your life during these forty days has the potential to become transformative.
GARY P. CATON is a multidisciplinary astrologer who embraces an organic, process-oriented approach to spiritual growth and transformation via engagement with the living sky. Initiated into astrology via a dream of the Sun-Venus conjunction, he has since devoted his entire life to refining his vision. An accomplished stargazer and astro-photographer, Gary possesses the unique ability to combine the experiential power and dynamic images of the living sky with classic horoscopy and metaphysics—an alchemical blend of bleeding edge modern research and pioneering technique. You can catch Gary online via the popular Hermetic Astrology Podcast, or live on one of his frequent lecture tours across the US and abroad.
This article is drawn from chapter three of Gary P. Caton’s new book, Hermetica Triptycha: The Mercury Elemental Year, now available through Rubedo Press (2017).
Ervin Laszlo and Allan Combs, Thomas Berry: Dreamer of The Earth: The Spiritual Ecology of the Father of Environmentalism (Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2011), 43.
Werner Herzog, The Cave of Forgotten Dreams [film] (IFC Films, 2010).
More than one researcher has come to this hypothesis. The paintings in Lascaux appear to contain elements of Taurus the Bull such as the Hyades and Pleiades star clusters, and possibly other constellations. See for instance the work of Dr. Michael Rappenglück, Chantal Jegues-Wolkiewiez and Jean-Michel Geneste.
Gebser distinguished the following structures: the archaic structure, the magic structure, the mythical structure, the mental structure and the integral structure. Jean Gebser, The Ever-Present Origin, trans. Noel Barstad with Algis Mickunas (1985; repr. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1991).
Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and The Profane: The Nature of Religion (New York: Mariner Books, 1968).
Moke Kupihea, Kahuna of Light: The World of Hawaiian Spirituality (Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2001).
“Sky astrologers” refers to a modern movement within the astrological community to renew the deepest, most ancient visual and cyclic traditions of astrology (which pre-date horoscopy), in order to help find and create meaning in our lives.
Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers (Studio City, CA : Michael Wiese Productions, 1998).
W. K. C. Guthrie, The Greeks and their Gods (Boston: Beacon Press, 1950), 92–94.
My personal favorite resource for animal medicine is: Jamie Sams and David Carson, Medicine Cards: The Discovery of Power Through the Ways of Animals (New York: St. Martins Press, 1988).
You can look up your personal Mercury elemental year in the appendix.
In chapter six we will explore in depth all twelve of the returns of the mercury elemental year to the birth element which happen over the course of 79 years.
The ephemerides in the appendix clearly lay out the beginning, middle, and end dates for each of these three periods each year.
See Henry David Thoreau’s 1854 book Walden.
See the facsimile edition of C. G. Jung’s The Red Book: Liber Novus, ed. S. Shamdasani, trans. M. Kyburz, J. Peck, and S. Shamdasani, (New York: W. W. Norton, 2009).