I've learned to be both reverent and suspicious of Mercury. As the planet of language, Mercury is both a Magician and a Trickster. There's magic in Mercury's words. Through prayer and sacred mantras, words link us to the gods; through the power of naming, words encourage our mastery over chaos; through language, we communicate with others; we invent, build, change minds, and reshape our world. Through the power of words we may sometimes forget who we are, and think of ourselves as gods. Of course we're not. And that's why Mercury is a Trickster, blithely placing banana peels under our feet when we're not looking. Mercury sneaks words into our mouths that derail and humble us, reminding us that at one time or another, everyone will play the fool. This is why we adore celebrity scandals-they take the spotlight off our own clown suit.When a celebrity falls, astrology usually points to a transit from some heavy planet like Pluto. But often as not Mercury is a co-conspirator, giggling in the wings. Pluto transits can unmask a celebrity's shadow, but words typically detonate the scandal. When Mel Gibson's reputation tumbled after his anti-Semitic tirade during a drunk driving arrest, by transit, Pluto was squaring his Pisces Midheaven-a fitting transit for one's public image self-destructing.  Yet given the nature of the crime, we should also look at Mercury.
Gibson's Mercury is in ambitious, shrewd and generally conservative Capricorn; it's opposed by an iconoclastic, eccentric, even arrogant Uranus; it's squared by an artistic, spiritually inclined, if not alcoholic Neptune. Two years earlier, this Mercury combo was the Magician behind the enormously successful "The Passion of Christ." Written and directed by Gibson, the film was inspired by his deep Catholic faith and devotion to God (Neptune). It was strict and fundamentalist in its view (Capricorn), also controversial and ingeniously attuned to the collective (Uranus), resulting in a huge box office success. Thanks to his Mercury magic, Forbes named Gibson the most powerful celebrity in the world. But two years later, on a dark Malibu road, the Trickster Mercury stumbled out of Mel's car. Drunk (Neptune), arrogant (Uranus), and dogmatic (Capricorn), the genius became a clown.
James Frey must have felt touched by Zeus when Oprah Winfrey selected his memoir, A Million Little Pieces, for her book club; she introduced him as "the man who kept me up all night." The book was so riveting she couldn't put it down, and so ruthlessly honest, Oprah knew it would help many people. And why not? Frey may have been a drug addict, alcoholic, and convicted criminal, but his Mercury conjunction to Jupiter implies he might indeed gain respect and recognition, and have a powerful influence with his words.  The two planets being in Libra suggest literary flair and artistic accomplishment, as well as the desire to be popular and accepted. Frey also has a Mars/Pluto square in his chart, indicating a dark side which Frey acknowledged on Oprah's show. "I was a bad guy," he told her. "If I was gonna write a book that was true, and I was gonna write a book that was honest, then I was gonna have to write about myself in very, very negative ways."
A Million Little Pieces soared to the top of the NY Times Bestseller list. But months later, when Pluto transited Frey's natal Mars/Pluto square, it was reported that a number of Frey's "true" stories were sheer fabrications. Oprah called Frey back on her show for an uncomfortable public punishing. We could say his Pluto transit was to blame. But who was the scribe, with beautiful pen in hand, egging on Frey's Mars/Pluto aspect, inflating and exaggerating its darkness? Mercury/Jupiter likes to make things bigger, although it's not by nature a liar. In fact, as Frey noted, Jupiter charged his Mercury, morally and ethically, to say what's true. It's just that with Jupiter, what's true isn't necessarily the same as what literally happened.
In myth, Mercury (or Hermes as he was known to the Greeks) had the power to appease the gods and make them laugh; he could transport souls to and from the underworld; he also lied, stole, and gossiped. Mercury's counterparts in various cultures-the Nordic Loki, the Native American Coyote, the Eskimo Raven-share his magician/trickster duality, suggesting that around the world and throughout the ages, it was understood that our thoughts are slippery. They can deliver genius or take us down.
Rep. Cynthia McKinney was Georgia's first African-American congresswoman, an accomplishment no doubt aided by her Aquarius Mercury opposite Pluto. This placement blesses her with a quick, progressive mind, and a willingness to fight against prevailing power structures. A Mercury/Pluto combination is often spoiling for a fight. When Pluto transited her Pisces Sun, McKinny gained national attention for scuffling with a congressional security guard. Indignant, she claimed he stopped her because of racial stereotyping, although news reports confirmed she simply wasn't wearing the required security badge. McKinney became a media joke and lost her next election. It wasn't the first time her Mercury had gotten her into trouble. Mercury/Pluto types may be drawn to secret, conspiratorial, even dangerous information. In one campaign, McKinney asserted that President Bush had prior knowledge of the 9/11 attacks and did nothing to stop them. That lost her another election. Even so, Mercury/Pluto is not a quitter. McKinney came back and won a subsequent race. Perhaps she'll do so again.
The year I started giving astrology readings, one of my teachers suggested a clever technique for establishing rapport: "If you want your clients to really hear you, look at the placement of their Mercury, then talk to them in that style." From what I could tell, my teacher always spoke the same way. Although her idea sounded good, and quite worthy of mimetic Mercury, I was clueless about how to apply it. How should I adjust my sentences to reach a Mercury in Taurus in the 7th house square Mars? Or a Sagittarius Mercury in the 2nd inconjunct Saturn? It boggled my mind. In that nervous blur of early readings, my fantasies of a Mercury shortcut to success quickly swirled into the background.
Mercury is the planet of communication, and more broadly, it rules connections of all kinds. It governs the social commerce of buying and selling, and in a horary chart can indicate merchants, contracts, bills of sale, and correspondence. Too, it rules the body's internal communication system, its network of nerves; if afflicted or unduly emphasized, it can indicate a hyper-active nervous system. Hands are also Mercury-ruled; a strong Mercury might imply manual dexterity, an aptitude for craftsmanship, or skill in handling machinery. But primarily Mercury's position suggests one's approach to connecting, in particular, how the mind likes to receive and give information. It's said that Mercury's sign shows how one thinks and its house what one thinks about. Yet over the years I've become less comfortable with such generalizations. Often enough, winged Mercury unravels the simple formulas."
It's been about sixteen years since I became an astrologer. I can now look at a person's chart and hazard a healthy guess about how well we'll communicate, whether we'll chat like friends, have more to talk about than one session can cover, or whether there will be resistance and long silences. But usually it's not the Mercury placement that tells me this. In fact, as I prepare for readings, rarely does Mercury stand up and say (as other planets often do), "Look at me, I'm going to be important in this reading." Of course without Mercury there would be no reading, but in the moment, in the midst of the action, its features often disappear. Now you see it, now you don't-which is much like the astronomical Mercury. Because of its proximity to the Sun, the planet is only visible at dawn or dusk, appearing for shorter intervals than other planets. The same is true of the astrological Mercury. Its sign, house, and aspects, while significant to one's make-up, are not consistently visible.
In The Inner Planets, Howard Sasportas tells a delightful story of a Mercury seminar, during which he gave an exercise to the audience, after first dividing them into groups according to their Mercury sign. Predictably, the Mercury in Aries group finished first, while the Taurus group needed more time. The Geminis came up with four times the information of any group. After completing the exercise, the Cancer group gave each other massages. There was just one Mercury in Leo, who joined the Aquarius group, and not surprisingly, given the opposing signs, there was some tension. An argument broke out in the Mercury in Virgo group; one woman was brought to tears when the others criticized her views. The Mercury in Libras debated cordially and completed their list with beautiful penmanship. Sasportas claims he can't remember what the Scorpios did, perhaps repressing it. The Sagittarius Mercuries sped through the exercise, then got sidetracked into a philosophical discussion. The Capricorn Mercuries frequently called Sasportas over to make sure they were doing things correctly, while the Pisces group had difficulty crystallizing the attributes of their sign.
If only the Mercury sign were always so apparent! I used to work for a man with Mercury in Pisces in the 2nd house. We might expect a poetic, spiritually "out there," intuitive or artistic style with Pisces, an empathetic point of view, maybe some vagueness or confusion, and possibly a tendency to lie or whine. But Jim was never like that. Competitive, he was a consummate strategist and excellent business thinker. When all around him were losing their heads, he had a remarkable capacity for slowing the panic down and leading everyone, logically and methodically, out of the crisis. It wasn't until I'd known him for about a year that I learned of his "secret" life: he and his wife had a great interest in meditation, chakras, remote viewing and astral travel, consistent with his Pisces Mercury. The 2nd house is the money house, so you might expect his mind to be on finances, and actually, he was the company accountant. But numbers weren't what he talked about with any great interest or passion. What he really loved, and what he was known for, was telling long stories-about history, military history in particular, and about people he'd met and things he'd learned, anywhere from childhood up to last weekend. My co-workers used to duck into their offices when they saw him coming, knowing they might be caught for hours.
So given Jim's 2nd house Pisces Mercury, how do we explain his reputation as a sharp thinker, with a good mind for business, and a mouth that loved to talk? That's easy. His Ascendant was in strategic, business-oriented Capricorn and his Sun was in me-me-me Aries in the chatty 3rd house. It's hard, of course, to isolate any placement in the chart, the Moon as emotions, Venus as love, the Sun as ego. Where does one planet stop and the others begin? But Mercury's features may be the most difficult to isolate, because mind and speech necessarily travel all over the chart. If we couldn't think about or give voice to all our placements, how limited their expressions would be!
The astrological Mercury is much like the mythical Mercury; it's a messenger, carrying information back and forth between all the gods on Mt. Olympus. Jungian astrologer Alice O. Howell describes Mercury's role another way: "If you contemplate one of your sneakers, the eyelet holes would be the planets, and Mercury would be the shoelace criss-crossing and binding the shoe together."  Mercury carries the other planets' thoughts, dreams, and fears, which is why its own features often disappear.
Mercury's house position can indicate a special aptitude for matters in its house, but it's ridiculous to say this house is what most occupies our thoughts (as some astrology books claim). I used to work with a group of women who talked about nothing but relationships-getting them, keeping them, improving them or losing them. Yet none had a Mercury anywhere near the 5th house of romance or the 7th of relationships. I often have coffee with a friend whose Mercury is in the 4th house of family. She does occasionally mention her family, about as much as I do mine. But when her eyes light up and she leans forward with a really juicy story, or troubled, wants to process a current dilemma, her fleet-footed Mercury can be anywhere in her chart.
People often call astrologers because they're feeling confused or insecure; they'd like to know what's going to happen. Hopefully they'll leave their readings feeling inspired and reassured. Maybe they'll get a great prediction. More often, they'll get a unique opportunity to examine their own thoughts, to understand what shaped their thinking, and to acquire new thoughts that will open more possibilities. I tend to talk a lot about thoughts in my readings, because nothing has a greater power to create good or crappy futures. A fabulous transit could be on the horizon, but if the individual has a habit of thinking, "I'll never amount to anything," any happy prediction will likely fail. That's why Tarot decks make Mercury's card (The Magician) the first card in the deck after the receptive Fool: All action tends to flow from our thoughts.
Mythical Mercury is pictured with two sets of wings-one pair on his feet and another on his crown. This suggests mental flight that goes both up and down, toward the earth and to the sky. In other words, our thoughts can be practical and realistic-also divinely imaginative and creative. This duality is further emphasized by the two signs Mercury rules. Earth-sign Virgo gives us the capacity to analyze, discriminate, classify and digest our experiences so we might gain practical mastery over our world. Air-sign Gemini is curious, flexible, adaptable, and can dive around a subject until it finds the most advantageous perspective. An astrologer needs both modes. With Virgo, like an etymologist over a butterfly collection, we pin each symbol down, study its patterns and infer its action in people's lives. With Gemini, we chase live butterflies as they dart in and out of view, adjusting and discovering in the moment. Too much Virgo and we'll actually obscure reality-for real life is far more dynamic and complex than our attempts to classify it. Too much Gemini and anything might be true depending on the day we think it. A good astrologer will keep both Mercury styles in balance, which also means keeping a sense of humor and humility about one's work. When a reading succeeds, maybe we can credit the precision of our analysis, or perhaps it's simply that our own ideas got out of the way, and like magic, Mercury flew in with just the right message.
I never figured out how to speak to people in the style of their Mercury, but I did once come close. I had recently taken an NLP seminar and learned about "mirroring," a technique for matching gestures and sentence patterns to establish rapport. One day I had a job interview. Going in, I felt ridiculously under-qualified. Then I saw the waiting room. It was filled with applicants who appeared far more skilled and confident. I abandoned my attempt to get the job, and decided to practice mirroring instead. This was a good idea, since the interviewer, a colorful and flamboyant man, spoke for a full fifty-five minutes of my hour-long interview. There was no opportunity to sell myself even if I'd wanted to. So I mirrored. I leaned forward when he leaned forward, folded my hands when he did, synchronized my breathing, and for the five minutes I did get to speak, I made sure to do so with the same intonation, pace and dramatic flair that he did. To my surprise, I was called back for a second interview. This was with an altogether different woman. I sat with my knees together as she did, spoke slowly and softly, and used corny business phrases like "climb on board." I was offered the job, but for other reasons, declined; a year and a half later, they called out of the blue and offered me the job again.
At the time, I took this as validation of mirroring's power. But the more I've wondered about the mystery of communication, I keep returning to this experience. Though a consummate child of Mercury, this was actually my first introduction to Mercury's powerful twin, the silent one. It occurs to me now that it's the silent one who actually makes the connection, the one who listens, not the one who talks. I wasn't merely mimicking, I was listening intently. I was fully receiving these two individuals, with a minimum of internal chatter and judgment, which is why, so many years later, I not only remember them well, I have good feelings about them too.
To increase its capacity to listen, busy Mercury must be willing to slow down from time to time. And that to me is the primary benefit of Mercury's notorious retrograde period, the three times a year when Mercury slows and appears to be moving backward in the sky.  Even people who know nothing about astrology have heard about this time. Communications falter, machines break down, contracts are suspect, and schedules go awry. Mercury-ruled activities seem to fail because, during the retrograde, Mercury loses its usual efficiency. The consummate connector disconnects, which is as healthy for the mind as dream, though tricky if you're trying to keep a tight schedule or handle heavy machinery. If you pay attention a week or two before the retrograde, you can start to feel it when your mind begins drifting away. There's an invitation here, to release your Mercury burdens and allow your mind to relax and unwind, like letting the air out of a balloon. Or to use Howell's metaphor, the retrograde means your shoeslace will be untied for three weeks. If you insist on running, you just might stumble and fall.
I'm less afraid of Mercury retrogrades than some of my fellow astrologers. I spent years at a communications-oriented company, a perfect laboratory for studying Mercury retrogrades. We conducted research studies, writing questionnaires and presenting reports; this required coordinating thousands of people in hundreds of projects across the country. What I discovered was that things got screwed up during the retrograde-and they got screwed up when Mercury was direct. The flip side was also true: the majority of our projects went smoothly during the retrograde, as they did the rest of the year (or we would have gone out of business) Perhaps the only difference was that during the retrograde we had the planet to blame for our errors and stress. As much as I wanted to find a clear pattern, I kept observing that Mercury snafus could occur at any time of the year. That brings us back to Mercury's two faces-the Magician and the Trickster-and to what years of Buddhist training have taught me: Just when you think you know what you're doing, chances are that you don't! Thank goodness Mercury is there when we fall, helping us to laugh and learn from our mistakes.
"Your Venus Unleashed",