By David McCann
In ancient Babylon, the planet Mercury was associated with the god Nabu, the divine scribe and god of wisdom. This demolishes the idea, so often repeated, that the planet was called Mercury because it is fast moving and so corresponds to the divine messenger, Hermes or Mercury. Nabu can hardly have been thought of as fast moving: scribes generally spent their day sitting still! The name Shihtu was appropriate in this respect, as it meant 'the leaper', no doubt referring to the planet's sudden, brief appearances. Unfortunately, no myths involving Nabu have survived. Since he must have pre-dated the invention of writing, his role as a god of wisdom must be older than that of scribe. Greek settlers in the East, after the conquests of Alexander, worshipped Nabu as Apollo, suggesting that he may also have been a god of poetry.
The Egyptian equivalent to Nabu was Tehuti, a name rendered by the Greeks as Thoth. He was one of the major gods of Egypt and personified the principle of reason. He was the scribe of the gods in heaven; the inventor of all the arts and sciences practised on earth; and the recorder of the deeds of men, whose evidence decided their fate in the underworld. The Egyptians summed up his powers by describing him as the "heart and tongue of Ra". In other words, Thoth represents divine reason and will, and the commands by which it is carried out: "The Lord by Wisdom hath founded the Earth", as Solomon put it. Thoth had no connection with the planet Mercury until the Greeks introduced astrology to Egypt: the Egyptians regarded the planet as belonging to the god Set, while Thoth presided over the Moon.
As a result of Thoth's position as a patron of knowledge, writers in Ptolemaic and Roman times attributed various books to 'Hermes Trismegistus', as they called him. These dealt with philosophy and religion (e.g., the Corpus Hermeticus and the Asclepius), astrology (e.g., the Liber Hermetis), and magic (numerous texts which have not been published, much less translated). The philosophical books were read and admired not only by pagans, but also by Church Fathers such as Lactantius. They were highly regarded in the Renascence, when they were considered to have preserved the wisdom of the ancient Egyptians and to predate both the Greek philosophers and the Bible; that is why Marsilio Ficino was asked to translate Hermes before Plato. Later scholars dismissed them, claiming that they were written at the end of the Roman Empire and contained no more than a mixture of Greek and Christian ideas. Modern scholars have largely abandoned this extreme view, and the discovery of the Asclepius in Coptic (the late form of the Egyptian language) has shown that they are indeed a legacy of Egyptian culture.
The astrological hermetica cover the full range of the subject, but are particularly notable for their use of the decans (the equivalent in Egyptian astronomy to the Babylonian zodiac), and they may also be the source of much of the traditional teaching concerning the planetary parts. Astrological medicine, an Egyptian speciality, was also generally presented under the name of Hermes. In the Middle Ages, the Arabs passed off other works as hermetic. Many of these dealt with the lunar mansions, which the Arabs had obtained from India; no doubt these were felt to belong with the decans, both being equally exotic and associated with magic.
The Greek may have translated Nabu and Tehuti as Hermes, but the original functions of Hermes seem to have heen rather different: fostering the fertility of cattle, aiding travellers, and guiding the soul after death. These roles also belonged to the Indian god Pusan, showing that the two are part of a common Indo-European heritage. Pusan means 'nourisher', so he was originally a fertility god. The connection with travelling may have come from an association with nomadic herdsmen, or from his patronage of the wedding procession; later he became associated with the last journey of all, into the next world. Certainly he had little in common with the astrological Mercury.
Outside the rustic backwater of Arcadia, the connection of Hermes with fertility was only maintained by the use of his name for a phallic symbol erected in fields and public places. Otherwise he resigned the care of cattle to his son Pan, who was really the same god: the name is related to Pusan. Hermes' role as the messenger of the gods came later (it is not found in the Iliad), as an extension of his connection with travelling. Having become a messenger, it was natural that he should then become an orator. It was at that stage that astrologers took him as an equivalent for Nabu, though the Greeks usually identified Nabu with Apollo. Greek mythology as we have it developed during the Greek Dark Ages, between the fall of the Minoan civilisation and the rise of classical Hellenism. As Toynbee observed, the Greek gods were thus made in the image of barbarian man - a primitive who has been drawn into an encounter with a decadent civilisation and adopted the worst customs of both worlds. In consequence, the Olympians are a superhuman but disreputable warband: no place for an intellectual!
The myths of Hermes seem to be of late origin. The most famous tells of his childhood. After his birth he astonished his mother by his precious and rapid growth - that phallic symbol again? His first achievement was to steal Apollo's cattle and lie about it. When his theft was finally exposed, he promptly invented the lyre and swapped it for the cattle, so creating both music and trade. To keep him on the straight and narrow for the future, he was appointed the messenger and herald of the gods. Apart from the interest in cattle, this is clearly the later image of Hermes. His antics are typical of trickster figures, like the American Coyote. This is not incompatible with his association with knowledge: the trickster is the other side of the sage; every shaman has to be something of a showman. At a deeper level, we may remember the stories of Adam and Faustus: the desire for knowledge can lead one to take a step too far.
One might reasonably say that the god Hermes grew closer to the planet Mercury as time passed by. This is only to be expected, since the educated and sceptical Greeks of the Hellenistic period - eager for every new idea, as St Paul observed - would have found the new science of astrology much more exciting than the old myths. Those who try to shed light on astrology by means of myths need to remember that it is astrology which is the clearer and the more reliable. This is particularly true when one deals with Greek myths, which have been transmitted by poets rather than priests.
The Latin name Mercury may be derived from the Latin word merx (goods, wares), but he was largely an imitation of Hermes and played a minor role in Roman religion. In fact, a better equivalent to the astrological Mercury would be Minerva, whose name comes from mens (mind). Mercury, as transplanted to Rome, preserved nothing of the old associations with fertility, so the Romans could equate him to the Germanic Woden (the Norse Odin), the god of poetry and magic: that is why Wednesday (Old English Wódnesdæg) corresponds to the French Mercredi (Latin Mercurii dies). Woden's attributes match those of the old Indian god Rudra, later known as Shiva: his association with magic, poetry, and warfare, even his wearing a hat and having an odd number of eyes - one for Woden, three for Rudra! Strangely enough, the Greek god who inherits most features of Rudra is Apollo, who was identified by his worshippers with Nabu: once again, the evolution of the pagan gods turns out to be complex and unexpected.
Philosopher or Postman?
If Hermes Trismegistus (or indeed Nabu) seems a more
profound figure than the Mercury found in some modern astrological texts, this reflects a recent change. In Jeff Mayo's The Planets and Human Behaviour, Mercury is primarily associated with communication and adaptation to the environment; study and knowledge are assigned to Jupiter. William Lilly's 17th century text Christian Astrology presented a very different picture, connecting Mercury with learning, mysteries, and occult knowledge. In antiquity, Manilius, Valens, Antiochus, and Firmicus all associated Mercury with astrologers, philosophers, and writers.
The change has largely come about as a result of the tendency of modern astrologers to blur the distinctions between planets, signs, and houses: Mercury tends to become no more than a reflection of Gemini, and of the third house (which does not even belong to him). The astronomers seem to have preserved a more balanced view of Mercury: the craters on its surface are named after writers, artists, and musicians.
But to some extent the Greeks may have over-emphasised this aspect of Mercury. Although they produced two of the profoundest philosophers who ever lived, Plato and Plotinus, the Greeks were often superficial in a very Geminian way, valuing knowledge and intelligence at the expense of understanding and wisdom; Mercury at the expense of Jupiter.
According to the Picatrix, the great Arabic compendium of the occult sciences, successful students of magic generally have either Mercury or Jupiter as the strongest planet in their nativities. I do not have many charts of magicians to hand, but I notice that Mercury is the almuten of the charts of W.B.Yeats, Aleister Crowley, and A.O.Spare, while Israel Regardie had Jupiter.
Another illustration of Mercury's connection with learning is the way in which the ideas of philosophers reflect its sign position in their nativities. For example, Mercury appears in Taurus in the charts of Hume, Husserl, Mill, Russell, and Wittgenstein, all noted for their interest in seeking the foundations of knowledge. Wittgenstein's last book was called On Certainty: just what a Taurean wants.
In the Jewish cabbala, Mercury is the eighth of the divine spheres: Glory, or Hôd in Hebrew. Its position at the base of the pillar of form indicates that in this sphere form is finally manifested as individual symbols, which makes Hôd the realm of the intellect.
Just as Binah (associated with Saturn) at the top of the pillar imposes form at a cosmic level, so Hôd imposes form on human experience through the activity of the mind. This connection is reflected by the fact that Mercury and Saturn share the rule of the airy triplicity.
Hôd also forms part of the lowest triad of spheres - the astral or personal - together with Netzach (Venus) and Yesôd (the Moon). Netzach, at the base of the pillar of action, manifests the creative power of that pillar in emotion and instinct, balancing the intellect of Hôd. Yesôd is the field in which they both operate. The astral triad, particularly Hôd, is the realm of magic, which, like the words of Thoth, transforms the outer world by operating on the inner world which it manifests. The magician uses the power of Netzach to impose the forms of Hôd onto the substance of Yesôd.
In the greater arcana of the tarot, Mercury is always associated with the first trump, the Magus or Juggler - names which sum up the extremes of the planet, sage and trickster.
In the lesser arcana, Mercury (as the eighth cabbalistic sphere) rules the eights. The domiciles Gemini and Virgo explain why the air and earth suits are favourable: the Eight of
Wands is called Swiftness, the Eight of Coins, Prudence. Because intellect opposes emotion - Venus is exalted in a detriment of Mercury - the Eight of Cups is unfavourable, and called Abandoned Success. As Mercury has no affinity with fire, the Eight of Swords is also unfavourable:
Shortened Force or Interference: reflection impeding action.
David McCann, who lives in London, is an expert on the history and philosophy of astrology. His articles have been published in many international journals of astrology and he was a regular contributor to the Traditional Astrologer magazine, where this article first appeared.
© David McCann, 1999
This article was first published in The Traditional Astrologer Magazine, issue 18, March 1999