|Exegesis Volume 07 Issue #053
In This Issue:
From: "JG or DF"
Exegesis Digest Fri, 12 Apr 2002
From: "JG or DF"
Subject: [e] deeper dimensions of Mercury
Date: Fri, 12 Apr 2002 19:22:43 +1200
We know Mercury as a Roman god, and the classical Romans equated him with the Greek god Hermes. That the two had the same characteristics imply each represented the same archetype. We have all proceeded upon the assumption that the archetype was distinguished separately in each culture, but the evolution of these two gods as cultural forms could simply have been the product of cross-fertilisation between the two cultures. The similarity between each matching pair in the Olympic and Roman pantheons could be explained by either hypothesis, and we have no evidence to enable us to choose which is true.
I choose to side with the popular choice: that each god represents the same archetype. This archetype is best identified by the characteristic most commonly attached: Mercury is the messenger. Thus in modern astropsychology, in which the planets became psychological drives, Mercury is the communication drive. Accepting this, I also go along with most astrologers and interpret it as the source of ideas.
It is often said by astrologers that Mercury is the planet of the mind. But if we view the horoscope as map or model of the psyche, and follow convention by equating psyche with mind, this cannot be correct. Rather, then, Mercury as font of ideas motivates our thinking and articulates our opinions. This more precise description distinguishes mind from its typical functions that result in communication.
I have used this more precise interpretation of Mercury satisfactorily for a nodal cycle (19 years), but when I came across an in-depth academic examination of the history of Hermes over the past two millennia I wondered if a deeper comprehension of the archetype might be accessible via the tradition. This idle thought failed to motivate the purchase but several weeks later when I was back in that shop it was still there I got the feeling the cosmos may have intended it for me so I acquired it. Select books these days get minuscule global print runs - sometimes you only ever see one copy.
So I have gone through a second time, after the initial reading to establish if the task was worth the effort, and will reproduce quotes in an attempt to provide a deeper view of the Mercury archetype. Source is "The Eternal Hermes: from Greek God to Alchemical Magus", A Faivre, 1995.
The author comments on two traits that stand out of "characteristics that have been constantly repeated and emphasised from antiquity to modern times": "first, his guiding function, linked to his extreme mobility; second, his mastery of speech and interpretation, warrant of a certain type of knowledge."
I suggest the reader ignore the sex identification, obviously merely a collective projection required by the social conventions of the originating cultures. To clarify the archetype, we need to cut away all irrelevant dross from the kernels of meaning is these descriptions. Astrological archetypes emerge in nature at a more fundamental level than sex, therefore they are identical in their essence in persons of different sexes, regardless that males and females actualise and use them differently.
He is "more of a `journeyer' than a `traveller'. Just as the geographical goal of a honeymoon is of little importance, so Mercury wanders about and communicates for the sheer pleasure of it. His route is not the shortest distance between two points: it is a world in itself, made of serpentine paths where chance and the unforeseen may happen. Hermaion means `fallen fruit' or `windfall'. To profit from windfalls does not exclude the possibility of giving destiny a slight nudge, through tricks and subterfuges. Thus one sometimes finds Hermes unearthing hidden treasures". "Hermes [Hermaion] in common!" said the Greeks on making a lucky find, just as one says in English "Equal shares all around!" Really? I've never encountered such an English saying. "And is not hermeneutics all about bringing hidden treasures to light?" The common thread seems to be the connecting role chance plays in getting someone onto a better path.
Then there is the role he performs in "encompassing the `circulation' of souls. This function is dual, for Hermes is not content merely to lead souls to the kingdom of the dead: he also goes there to find them and bring them back to the land of the living (cf. Aeneid IV, 242, and many examples from the Middle Ages up to modern times)." We see here an allocative transport function that mediates between two realms that are otherwise separate. Another implication is that Mercury has some special role as the catalyst in reincarnation, connecting one incarnation to the next.
"Through all his varied representations in folklore, art, and literature, the Western imagination has always stressed this relational aspect of Hermes, which is the common denominator of attributes that range from the transition of souls to thievery, also touching on commerce, magic, poetry, and learning." The suggestion here is that Mercury relates things to other things.
Stealing seems too inappropriate to be a manifestation of the archetype. The sceptical approach to social descriptions of archetypes is to recognise that projection colours the object according to the fantasies of the projector. Anyone in historical cultures who was motivated to tell a good story was likely to embellish it with their own creative flourishes, and myths are as much an accumulation of the projections of such literary entrepreneurs as they are the vehicle for underlying archetypes. Stealing therefore may have become an attribute due to embellished misinterpretation of some archaic story in which robbery was incidental or carried out for an unusual reason. On the other hand, it may be a valid attribute in consequence of the action of the collective unconscious. For karmic reasons, the social collective may mysteriously select someone and synchronously prompt him/her to carry out the deed at the time appropriate to ensure success. One can see that ill-gotten gains subsequently stolen is appropriate karma, and maybe Mercury is connecting karmic pathways to bring about the result.
"Athaneus and others ascribe to Hermes the glory of discovering the arts and sciences, while the Homeric Hymn (verses 25ff.) makes him the inventor of the seven-string lyre. He is the master of knowledge, or rather the means of attaining to a knowledge that may be gnostic, eclectic, or transdisciplinary - or all of these at once." This suggests a function as the channel, or method, of discovery of specialised knowledge.
"Plato's *Cratylus* derives his name from the Greek word for an interpreter: "I should imagine that the name Hermes has to do with speech, and signifies that he is the interpreter, or messenger, or thief, or liar, or bargainer; all that sort of thing has a great deal to do with language" [Cratylus 408A, Jowett translation]." I wonder why Plato thinks the function of a thief is linguistic. That aside, language skill is clearly the common factor. "This is the only aspect retained by the New Testament, in Acts 14, where the inhabitants of Lystra take Paul for Hermes because they find a master of words. Thus poets and philosophers also revere him. Virgil's contemporary Horace places himself under the special protection of Mercury. Lucian, in *Fugitivi* (XXII), shows Hermes accompanying Heracles and Philosophy in their pursuit of the Cynics, because Apollo says it is Hermes who can best distinguish the true philosophers from the false ones. His is the role of the sage - even a facetious and playful one".
"Hermes-Mercury's plasticity allowed him to take on a special form at the beginning of our era, bringing out his most serious and least playful aspect. This was his manifestation as Hermes Trismegistus, which remains alive to this day. Two factors seem to have been involved in it. On the one had, there was the allegorical interpretation of mythology that began with Homeric exegesis in the fourth century BCE, and tended increasingly towards euhemerism. (Euhemerus, third century BCE, saw the gods as actual human beings who were divinized after death.) This led to a belief in Hermes as a historic person who had been divinized: a tendency by Christian thought, which was resolutely euhemerist from the second century onwards."
When Alexander the Great conquered Egypt, the ensuing centuries of Greek colonisation and cultural assimilation conflated Hermes with Thoth. "Around the beginning of our era, the Greeks justifiably saw in Thoth the first figuration of Hermes, or even the same personage under a different name. Aided by the euhemerist tendency, Thoth-Mercury was credited with a great number of books - quite real ones - under the general title of *Hermetica*. Almost all of them were written in Greek, in the Nile Delta region, from just before the Christian Era until the third century; they treat astrology, alchemy, and theosophy. The most famous ones, from the second and third centuries CE, are grouped under the general title of the *Corpus Hermeticum*, in which the *Asclepius* and the Fragments collected by Stobaeus have been included." I first encountered this puzzle nigh on 20 years ago - Thoth was the Moon god in ancient Egypt, not the name of the planet Mercury - and have yet to encounter any explanation of this illogical conflation.
"The twenty-third Fragment of Stobaeus describes the court of the Lord, the builder of the universe, as it existed before the presence of mortals. Hermes appears there as "soul" (*psyche*), possessing a bond of sympathy with the mysteries of Heaven; he is sent by God into our lower world in order to teach true knowledge. The Lord commands Hermes to participate in the creation of mankind as steward and administrator. Thus one can see him as the principal actor, after the supreme deity, in the anthropogonic drama. He is a soul that has descended here as the first divine emanation". Here we see a divine guidance function that operates within. It is interesting that the psyche originally referred to the soul, not the mind.
"Hermes/ Mercury, in dual form, thus takes his place among the tutelary gods of civilization. Strabo says that he gave the Egyptians their laws and taught philosophy and astronomy to the priests of Thebes; Marcus Manilius goes so far as to see in him the founder of the Egyptian religion." Jacopo of Bergamo made "Chiron the inventor of medicine; Hermes Trismegistus was the first astronomer, and Mercury the first musician, while Atlas taught astrology to the Greeks. There are similar attributions in Polydore Virgil: from Hermes, we learned the divisions of time, while Mercury taught the Egyptians the alphabet and knowledge of the stars." In the *Chronicle of the Six Ages of the World*, Adon of Vienne wrote that Prometheus "fashioned men out of mud. At the same time, his brother Atlas was considered a great astrologer. Atlas' grandson Mercury was a wise man, skilled in many arts, for which reason, after his death, the aberrations of his contemporaries placed him among the gods".
"The name of Hermes, whether or not qualified as Trismegistus, henceforth served as guarantee or signature for a host of esoteric books on magic, astrology, medicine, etc., throughout the Middle Ages, and this despite the fact that, with the exception of the *Asclepius*, the *Corpus Hermeticum* was unknown." "This literature, especially the Arabic part, is full of scenarios presenting a personage who discovers in a tomb of Hermes, beneath a stele, revelations of theosophy, astrology, and alchemy. Most of the texts employ the same topos: the First Hermes, who lived before the Deluge, foresaw the coming disaster; before the world was destroyed, he built the pyramids to enshrine the secrets of the sciences. This is the story as told in the Book of Crates*, an Arabic text dating at the earliest from the sixth century." "The short but very famous text of the *Emerald Tablet* ascribed to Hermes Trismegistus belongs to this literature".
"Hermes is called "Thrice Wise", because he was threefold. The first of the name, comparable to Thoth, was a `civilizing hero', an initiator into the mysteries of the divine science and wisdom that animate the world: he carved the principles of this sacred science in hieroglyphics.. The second Hermes, who lived in Babylon after the Deluge, was the initiator of Pythagoras. The third one was the first teacher of alchemy. Thus the figure of Hermes links Muslim consciousness with the pagan past; but it is no more graspable than that of our Western Trismegistus. "A faceless prophet", writes the Islamicist Pierre Lory, from whom I have borrowed the elements of this synthesis, Hermes possesses no concrete or salient characteristics.. It is no different in the *corpus Hermeticum*, which presents Hermes sometimes as a god, sometimes as a sage, and at other times as a disciple of the *Nous* or Divine Intellect. According to the Arab tradition, his life is simultaneously physical and transtemporal.. even in his body he manifests a state of eternity."
[Pierre Lory writes that Hermes rises "above sectarian divisions, transcends religious mysteries and chronological time" and speaks "the languages of heaven, of earth, and of man in the integral state, namely Arabic." The *Emerald Tablet* is known to have been transmitted in that language.]
"The wealth of archetypes which make up the figure of Hermes prevented him from being limited to the Trismegistus type alone." Since the author sees a variety of archetypes associated with the tradition, one suspects he is not an astrologer. Recognition of an archetype is contingent upon the meaning of the term one is using. One suspects Jung's social archetypes are what he has in mind, not the underlying principle of nature. But "we can see certain consistent traits emerging from the Medieval imagery. First, there is the allegorical meaning of Mercury as *sermo* (speech) or *ratio* (reason), frequently alluded to by the compilers and lexicographers up to the Renaissance. This allowed Mercury to enter Christendom through the back door, as the god of eloquence." Here Mercury seems to be reasoning in the communication process.
In the 5th century work *The Marriage of Philology and Mercury" by Martianus Capella "which enjoyed a great reputation as late as the 17th century", Jupiter says of Mercury "he is our lyre, our speech, our kindness and true genius, our trusty returning and interpreter of our mind, O kinsman Nous." So, interpreter of the collective mind of the gods? But Capella may have meant our human mind, and if he was acquainted with the astrological view his meaning must have been that Mercury is the capacity to interpret whatever our mind produces. My dictionary defines *nous* as intellect, common sense, talent. Therefore the implication is that Mercury is skill of analysing things and then interpreting and conveying meaning so as to be commonly understood. Also, musical talent is not just comprehension and mastery of technique, but also the ability to move people with the performance. This skill therefore requires emotional resonance to be felt, in common between musician and listeners. This is auditory rapport is another kind of common sense(ing).
The author comments on Hermes as seen in illustrations in "the treatise on astronomy and astrology of Michael Scot, written in Sicily between 1243 and 1250 under Emperor Frederick II. His attribute here is not a caduceus, but a book. In this context, Fritz Saxl has shown that there was a Babylonian influence, by way of Islam: the pious and learned Mercury of Michael Scot corresponds to Nebo, the writer-god associated with the planet Mercury. Equipped with a book, and sometimes even a halo, the `Mercury' of the Babylonian images was a cleric of dervish, who on coming to the West was naturally made a bishop. In the same way Jupiter was represented as a judge, on a basis of his ancestry in the god Marduk, who decrees fate."
This reminds us of errors made by many astrologers who published in the '80s on the presumption of cross-cultural similarities of the planets, as exhibited in the characteristics of the corresponding planetary gods. In other places and times Saturn was deemed the planet of fate, not Jupiter, nor has Jupiter anything to do with the function of a judge. Mercury has no Christian meaning or function. Such historical correlations between cultures are suspect, since it appears they are as likely to be arbitrary and spurious as based on commonality of an underlying archetype.
It's worth looking up the meaning of the caduceus in a dictionary of symbols. It turns out to be very ancient, long pre-dating Hermes. Cirlot has an illustration of an early Sumerian version! Modern writers often comment on how the twin serpents visually resemble the double-helix of the DNA molecule. Their symmetric opposing coils entwined about a central wand would indeed look like a segment of DNA if the common central axis of the helices was visible. Interestingly Cirlot (English translation 1962) writes "Today the caduceus is the insignia of the Catholic bishop in the Ukraine." "For the Romans, the caduceus served as a symbol of moral equilibrium and of good conduct. The wand represents power; the two snakes wisdom".
to be continued...
End of exegesis Digest V7 #53
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