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Jessica Murray: Mercury, Dispassionate Curiosity

by Jessica Murray

Each planet a treasure trove

There are myriad layers of meaning to each of the ten planets conventionally used in astrology. Happily, we don’t have to be well-versed in all these layers in order to derive value from a chart reading; astrology is so immensely elastic that it can oblige even a cursory reading with plenty of useful information. But it is humbling to realize that these other levels exist even if we don’t use them. It gives us a glimpse of astrology’s depth, which imbues our study with an appropriate awe and respect. And to realize that the planetary glyph we are looking at is in reality a mysterious pictogram may sharpen our intuition in surprising ways.(1)

Looking at a planet as a treasure trove of potential meanings—any one of which may be “up” at the current moment—presupposes that the birth chart is a living, breathing guide to living, with teachings planted in every nook and cranny, available to the native when she is ready for them. This is using astrology with a spiritual slant, and it is not for everybody. But those readers who can relate to the idea that each of the ingredients of the birth chart is a coded message to the conscious ego from some higher intelligence—whether we see this intelligence as coming from the gods, from the Akashic Records, or from an aspect of our own beings that we might term our Higher Self—are invited to join the writer in asking these familiar old glyphs to help us through these times we find ourselves in. Our goal is to try to discern what the planets have to say about this postmillennial reality, that we might respond to each planet’s prompting from the highest level of awareness possible.

Let us begin with Mercury.

Pop-Smart vs. Intelligent

Mercury GlyphWe may have read that Mercury governs reading, writing and walking; mundane rulerships that still apply. But we will usher these levels of Mercury’s function into the background for a moment, putting our focus instead upon the features of this planet for which our current world seems to be hungry. Mercury has long been associated with the concept of intelligence. As one of the ten planets that comprise our psyche, this is the one that makes us intelligent. How might we pinpoint it, get to know it, and use it to address the distress of our times?

First we need to venture beyond the colloquial meaning of the word intelligent—“smart” (whatever that means—getting A’s in school? Speaking multiple  languages? Understanding jokes quickly?). Mercury governs the intake, output and processing of data. This leads us back to the original meaning of intelligent: to be informed. The highest expression of Mercury is disinterested intellectual curiosity. Disinterested means non-partisan; unbiased.(2) When inspired by genuine curiosity we are attracted to information for its own sake. We are more interested in the data itself than we are in our relationship to the data. People in whose charts Mercury is consciously manifest tend to revel in information: they like word play, they respect clear communication, and they pursue ideas that have conceptual integrity.

At this moment in its history, our culture does not seem to cherish Mercury; a fact that should not surprise us if we look at the situation from the standpoint of four-element theory.(3) Associated with the Air element, Mercury deals with ideas; and in American society ideas are not given a whole lot of respect—unless, of course, they lead to the production of things. Marketable ideas slip over the threshold of the Air element and enter into the credibility range monopolized by Earth. But where does this leave thinking-for-thinking’s-sake? Unlike, say, France, which fetishizes its intellectuals, America does not bestow star status upon its philosophers or poets. A telling example of our priorities occurred in early August, when, in a city as culturally sophisticated as San Francisco is presumed to be, the front page of our morning paper was taken over by a story about the demise of a football coach, with the headline screaming “Genius”’. At the bottom of the page, discreetly tucked into the corner like an afterthought, were a few lines informing us that Ingmar Bergman, considered by many the greatest film artist of the century, had died that day as well.

If what we wish is to use our own Mercury at its highest level of expression, there is one thing we must do before anything else: we must distance ourselves from the stunted way the archetype is currently expressed in our popular culture. To get back to the planet’s fundamental wisdom, we must ackowledge the fact that in the USA today Mercury has become a slave of mercantilism. Literacy has been pretty much replaced by pop conversancy, of which advertising lingo is the bellwether. The American mindset is so merged with the ethos of Madison Avenue that shifts in language inevitably lead to the retail mall. Witness how a street phrase (“Makin’ it real”) or a television-character coinage (“D’oh”) will show up on a Gap teeshirt as soon as it reaches a certain critical mass.

Indeed, the very word “concept” has started to connote an idea that can be pitched, such as the “fabulous new concept” behind a Hollywood movie or wardrobe ensemble.

Use of Language

Mercury governs all languages, as well as the understanding of how language works. If we wish to use this planet to serve our life purpose (4) (which, by Natural Law, is the same thing as serving the world around us) we will want to analyze the linguistic skill set with which we were born, and build it up the way we would work a muscle at the gym.

But first we must concede the disparity that exists between Mercury’s exalted potentials, on the one hand, and the manifestations of Mercury we absorb from our environment, on the other. The English language itself is not enjoying its finest hour in post-millennial America. Our current pop vernacular is more redolent of the barks and grunts of consumer desire than it is a place for Mercury to flourish. (If “Fa-Shizzle” is not the name of a soft drink yet, it might as well be.)

Here is where a little bit of history comes in handy. A glance at how collective Mercury was expressed by our culture’s antecedents makes our current linguistic environment seem notthe rule but the exception. To cite a particularly poignant example, to reread any given passage of the U.S. Constitution (a document which, despite being frequently alluded to, and with extravagant shows of worshipful emotion, seems to be seldom actually read) is to marvel at its consummately cadenced prose. The writing is pure Mercurial mastery. And to consider linguistic precedents from a little further back, we find in Mother England that not just the poets but even the bureaucratsof the Elizabethan Court used language with such astounding care and artistry that it’s hard to believe these were politicians talking. It makes us realize, admiringly, almost incredulously, that in the government-speak of the day, eloquence was taken for granted as a value worth striving for.

But the bottom line is this: you and I are not living back then. We have been incarnated here and now. And to confront the reality of our presence in this America of this decade is to face the fact that Mercurial precedents such as these are neither emulated nor even familiar to most of the citizenry. To realize this is to begin to withdraw our attention, more and more, from the norms of language and thinking that fail to dignify Mercury, and to set our sights instead upon forms of expression that do.

I use the word  “dignify” not the colloquial sense, of trying to sound all fancy-pants; but more in the astrological sense of a planet “in its dignity,” in its fullness.  In this context I mean using a planetary energy—regardless of what sign it’s in—with maximal awareness, which, by Natural Law, will mean it matches the moment. When we allow a given part of our psyche to do what it is designed to do, it will coincide perfectly with the immediate context; and in the process it will have a healing effect on ourselves and on the collective. An example is the newly creative use of language that has evolved out of the street scene by the young slam poets who have found their way to the stage in the cities of the new century. They have pressed Mercury into service with a jarring style appropriate to our jarring environment and its issues. This is Mercury’s genius arising to meet the times, flinging words into shapes and combinations that make a brutal beauty out of the English language. It is not surprising that the content of this poetry is often defiant to the point of revolutionary.

Ideas in the collective

Mercury’s job is to introduce ideas into our minds, and then inspire us to spread those ideas around. How are ideas introduced in the minds of Americans?

Aside from school, the key cultural institution governed by Mercury is the mass media. The current state of television, radio and the print media must force us to conclude that pure intellectual inquiry does not count for much in the USA right now. As the average American rushes to work, an idea might find its way into the margins of his attention through a glance at the TV news while eating breakfast; a commuter might check the newspaper to see what happened with Nicole Richie’s latest DUI. This is Mercury operating at a thin, pale level. The anti-intellectuality for which our society is notorious worldwide is being evidenced to an almost absurd degree in the mass media right now. Given the market-driven forces behind the U.S. telecommunications industry (5), there is a perverse logic to the fact that Rupert Murdoch, the politically reactionary tabloid monopolist, is about to buy the Wall Street Journal.

This is not where we will find the Mercurial role modeling we seek. It is a sobering but inescapable fact that our corporate media is skewed towards non-thinking.

“A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth puts its pants on.”

~Winston Churchill

Astrology associates Mercury, governor of information dissemination, with journalism. But from what we have said of Mercury’s essential purpose, is this energy reflected in what we hear on the nightly news? If Mercury were the driving force behind the news, in theory the unfettered exchange of creative ideas would be the engine behind what gets aired. A pundit's credibility would depend upon his or her ability to research and dispatch accurate information. Reporters who uncritically reported the White House's disinformation about the war in Iraq would be out of a job. The newspapers they work for would go out of business. But as we know, this does not seem to be what is happening.

At this moment in American history the mainstream media has ceased to be about informing. It is pretty much common knowledge that what gets broadcast on radio and network television these days (6) is a function of which programming brings in the most profit through the delivery to advertisers of mass audiences. We must understand the implications of this fact if we are to employ our Mercurial intelligences in a way that meets the world challenges upon us.

Only puny secrets need protection. Great discoveries are protected by public incredulity.

~Marshall McCluhan

It is naturally disturbing to think that we are not hearing the truth from our official institutions. The inner child within us would much prefer that the anchorpersons up there on the screen, and the authority figures in charge of our tax dollars, were responsible beings whose words could be believed. It is understandable why the public is so deeply loath to admit what the evidence suggests: that the broadcast news gets its scripts straight from a deeply corrupt White House.

When we factor in the unconscious psychology behind our wish to believe, it helps make sense of an otherwise incongruous state of affairs: that regardless of the fact that an astounding number of our leaders’ statements are exposed as patently false a decade or a year or a month later (the time lag is decreasing), Americans on the whole continue to view government agencies as the last word on issues of global import. To the credulous public, it seems almost not to matter that the unraveling official accounts of the Pat Tillman killing (7), to choose only one recent example, have been exposed as—not to put too fine a point on it—outright lies. These lies were and are told by officials at the highest levels, all the while dutifully reported by the news. Despite the most compelling evidence to the contrary, these and other falsehoods too numerous to mention apparently continue to be seen by the average American as aberrant rather than systemic. Clearly there is a mass refusal to look at what our leaders are about, and a corresponding reluctance to see the role the multibillion-dollar media industry plays in their machinations.

But the psychology of denial is outside of the range of this essay. Our concern here is how we can reclaim our Mercuries from the indignities they sustain from the unconscious collective mind.

In next month's column, we will look further into the mechanisms of Mercury, with the goal of taking full advantage of the creative intelligence with which each of us is born. We will discuss the difference between being informed and faux-informed; between naivete and innocence; between fact, opinion and belief. We will look at how the act of becoming informed clarifies the mind. ________________________________________

1 Imagine an American tourist to an Egyptian pyramid who sees on the ancient wall a hieroglyph that looks like some kind of a bird. She asks the guide, “What does this mean? ‘Bird’, right?” The guide will be hard-pressed to provide a one-word answer for this symbol whose significances range from the exoteric to the esoteric, perhaps including, but not confined to, the literal concept “bird”. And whatever answer he does come up with must be translated not only into English for this tourist, but more dauntingly, into modern paradigms from those of an ancient world. How little we know about what went through the minds of the original readers of that symbol on the wall! Perhaps just by standing in front of the heiroglyph in a meditative state, the tourist in our example would find her question answered more profoundly than trying for a verbal translation. This can be a worthwhile exercise when applied to the symbols of astrology. At the same time that we learn about a given symbol intellectually, by reading about it and listening to what teachers say about it, we can permit the magic of the symbol to work upon us in a more personal, visceral way that stimulates our unconscious knowing.  This approach allows the more numinous significances of that planet to pour into our minds beneath the threshold of cognitive thought.

2 Note that in the American vernacular the word disinterestedis often misused to mean uninterested, but in fact the two words represent, in this context, almost opposite meanings.

3 Western culture in general is obsessed with the element Earth (material reality), exalting it over the other three elements. The consensual belief of the industrialized world is that physical things (Earth) are more “real” than spirit (Fire), ideas (Air) or emotion (Water).

4  The natal Sun placement represents our life purpose: a thumbnail sketch of our reasons for having incarnated into a particular time and place. The role of all the other planets is to serve the Sun.

5 Mercury is in thrall to Pluto in the second house (powerful business interests) in the chart of the USA; the two were in opposition on 7/4/1776. For a detailed account of America’s Mercury, see my book Soul-Sick Nation (AuthorHouse 2006).

6 The internet is the big exception. It remains, at the moment, too chaotic and immense for government/business interests to have figured out how to control it (though the campaign to end network neutrality is Big Media’s current attempt to do so, an attempt that must be carefully watched by those who care about freedom of speech). But as Noam Chomsky reminds us, one has to know where to look on the web, a qualification that is not as minor as it seems. Another surprising exception is cable television; which seems to have the potential to elude the straight-jacketing of content that afflicts broadcast programming.

7 The reason the Pat Tillman cover-up was able to endure as long as it did has to do with the group psychology of emotional pain. As tragic as the idea of Tillman’s death by “enemy fire” was, the truth (that he was killed by “friendly fire”, botched and covered up by top brass) was even more unbearable.  In the polarized state America finds herself in, for anyone to dare to point out the actual details behind such a death is tantamount to breaking a taboo: it would beg other questions too troubling to look at. Had an anti-war group spearheaded the fight for the facts instead of Tillman’s parents, they’d have probably been as furiously denounced by military families as they’d have been by pro-war politicians. For true-believer-patriots, especially other military families living in daily fear for their child’s life, buying into Washington’s lies is the most obvious way to avoid the intolerable idea that their children died in vain. Only Tillman’s parents could have gotten away with going public with their doubts (and even they were shamelessly chastised by Pentagon spokesmen and right-wing pundits). The elder Tillmans deserve all the more credit for the courage they showed in honoring Mercury over the false self-protection of denial.

Alex Miller-Mignone, photo
Jessica Murray trained as a fine artist before graduating in 1973 from Brown University, where she studied psychology and linguistics. After a stint in political theatre in the heady early '70s, Jessica moved to San Francisco and began studying metaphysics, where she has had a full-time private practice in astrology for more than 30 years.

Her new book, Soul-Sick Nation: An Astrologer's View of America, has recently been published by AuthorHouse. In addition to her column in Daykeeper Journal and the monthly Skywatch on her website,, Jessica's essays appear in The Mountain Astrologer, P.S. Magazine, Considerations and other publications. Jessica can be reached at

Jessica's writings appear every even-numbered month in Daykeeper. You'll find a complete list of them here.