“The Cosmos … ever was, and is, and will be:
everliving fire, kindling in measures and being quenched in measures.”
— Heraclitus of Ephesus, circa 500 BCE (1)
In the Western philosophical tradition there is a group of pre-Socratic philosophers collectively known as “monists” (from the Greek monos, meaning “single” or “one”), whose common interest was determining which of the four elements was the primary source from whence all other things emanate. For Heraclitus, the primary substance of the universe was fire — the Sun and Moon were huge celestial bowls of fire. Though it turns out that a bowl of fire remains an apt description of the Sun, it is overly simplistic to think that Heraclitus only thought literally, that everything was physically made of fire. Fire, rather, was the best metaphor for the Heraclitean doctrine of eternal flux. The philosopher thought that the basic universal principle (i.e., kosmos or world-order) was constant change. To demonstrate this, he used the metaphor of the elements in a constant state of flow, and through what he called “turnings of fire,” changing from fire, to water, to air (i.e., a “fireburst,” a kind of fiery wind) and earth.
There is an astrological parallel to the Heraclitean cosmology. Over the course of 6 to 7 years, the Mercury retrogrades move through the four elements in reverse zodiacal order, from the fire signs, to water signs, to air signs, to earth signs. I first became aware of this phenomenon through Erin Sullivan’s seminal work, Retrograde Planets. (2) I have spent the last five years studying this topic, resulting in my own tome: Hermetica Triptycha Volume One: The Mercury Elemental Year. (3) In chapter five of my book, I note that this same reverse zodiacal sequence of elements is referenced in The Emerald Tablet, the mystical Hermetic document widely interpreted as a formula for creating the “philosopher’s stone” — a microcosm of the universal principle, encapsulating the primordial creative power of the monad or original substance. (4) When understood in these contexts, Mercury’s cycle of retrogrades through the four elements is recapitulating both a cosmic world-ordering principle and a magic formula for the re-creation, materialization, and containment of this primordial creative power!
If it seems bizarre that ordering the elements in reverse to the normal zodiacal order should be seen as primordial and creative, we must remember that across diverse cultures, from the Greek Hermes to the Native American Coyote, the Trickster archetype has often been seen as inherently creative. (5) Without the Trickster archetype to shake things up, our cultures become static and unable to change and grow. Similarly, to use Joseph Campbell’s metaphor, without the “forest adventure” of becoming the hero/ine discovering our own unique path, we are lulled into a sleepy kind of awareness by the rules and restrictions of the village. (6)
Going further, it is important to note that it is not only the back and forth, or east/west longitude that signifies the alchemy and magic of Mercury retrograde cycles. As I wrote in TMA earlier this year, retrograde motion is far more wonderfully complex than is usually portrayed. (7) It consists of not only the aforementioned east/west variation in direct/retrograde motion of celestial longitude, but also dramatic changes in the north/south dimension of celestial latitude that produce a kind of looping motion. Moreover, if we understand the phenomenon of Mercury retrograde visually, during a very short span of time Mercury makes appearances above the western horizon, then dips below the threshold of visibility and finally re-emerges above the eastern horizon. (8) Lastly, from a geocentric point of view, during retrograde motion Mercury is coming from a space behind (e.g., exterior) to the Sun and penetrating the very heart-space of our solar system — the space between the Sun and Earth, a space so central, basic, and fundamental to our system that it is commonly referred to as the Astronomical Unit (AU).
Therefore, we have at least four different kinds of “mixing” occurring during Mercury retrograde. The mixing of east/west direct/retrograde currents can be seen as an exchange between the currently accepted socio-cultural norms and the newer counter-cultural challenges to those norms. The mixing of north/south latitudinal currents can be seen as an exchange between the personal and social aspects of life. The mixing of above/below with respect to the horizon and Mercury’s cycle of visibility can be seen as an exchange between the conscious and unconscious dimensions. And finally, the mixing between the interior and exterior spaces of our solar system can be seen as an exchange between the microcosm and macrocosm. All this primordial mixing produces an alchemy that is quite literally capable of changing, or re-birthing, the world.
For the next year, after occurring in the earth signs, Mercury retrogrades are happening in the fire signs. The last time Mercury’s retrograde moved from earth signs to fire signs occurred in late 2010 when Mohamed Bouazizi lit the spark for the Tunisian Revolution, a conflagration that quickly spread into a regional uprising throughout Northern Africa and the Middle East in what became known as the Arab Spring. I think that part of the reason this particular transition seems to have so much power can be seen from the relative density of the elements. Any child knows that when you throw a stone into water, it sinks — therefore, earth is denser than water. And, of course, steam rises and water evaporates into air, demonstrating that the air element is less dense than water. Finally, smoke rises even into the thin air, showing that fire is the least dense of all elements. So, when Mercury’s retrogrades in the densest of elements (earth) give ways to retrogrades in the least dense of elements (fire), this represents an extremely dramatic transition, as the volatile fiery currents liberate all the fixed potential energy stored in the denser earth. Here is a pop culture example of this particular transition from my new book:
“The four founding members of the Eagles signed with David Geffen in September of 1971, during the last part of a Mercury elemental year of earth (and as the Mercury elemental year was transitioning from earth to fire) … By the time their first greatest hits album was released, the Mercury elemental year had moved through fire, water, and air, and was about to return to earth. This six-to-seven-year return to the Mercury elemental year of birth represents what I call the ‘long form’ of Mercury’s transformative dance, and usually indicates some kind of completion. Like all completions, it can signify a return to one’s roots, on the one hand, or the beginning of a brand new era, on the other. In the case of the Eagles, it was the latter. As their sound was moving from a mostly country (earth) influence to more rock and roll (fire), founding member Bernie Leadon left the group (December 1975). Leadon’s solid multi-instrumental talent (earth) was replaced by the volatility of Joe Walsh (fire), and the first album featuring Walsh in the line-up, Hotel California, became not only the band’s best-selling studio album, but also a rock and roll classic. Through capturing the transformative power of Mercury … the Eagles were able to transform themselves from country-rock pioneers into pure rock and roll legends.” (9)
You can read an extended excerpt from my book at my publisher’s website and listen my latest Hermetic Astrology Podcast where I speak at length about this particular retrograde cycle. It is my fervent hope that this new work will help to re-frame Mercury’s “backward trickster medicine dance” (retrogrades) from simply an occasional annoying experience, or an outright malefic influence to be studiously avoided, toward the profound transformational and magical opportunity which I feel it truly represents. May the Trickster be with you!
References and recommended reading:
(1) All references to Heraclitus from:
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
You may also enjoy: The History of Philosophy podcast.
(2) Sullivan, Erin. Retrograde Planets: Traversing the Inner Landscape. York Beach, ME: Samuel Weiser, 2000, pp. 67–76.
(4) See, for instance: Hauck, Dennis. The Emerald Tablet: Alchemy For Personal Transformation. New York: Penguin, 1999.
(5) See, for instance: Hyde, Lewis. Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth and Art. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1998.
(6) I am referring to Joseph Campbell’s work, nicely summarized near the end of his life in a series of interviews with Bill Moyers, called The Power of Myth.
(7) Caton, Gary, “An Astronomical View of Venus Retrograde,” TMA, April/May 2017.
Also: Caton, Gary, “Toward a Multi-Dimensional View of Retrograde Motion,” NCGR Geocosmic Journal, Winter 2017.
“An Updated Three-Dimensional Model of Planetary Motion,” a series of lectures for Sky Astrology Conference, available for download from my website.
(8) I outlined the Sky Astrology view of Mercury retrograde for the TMA blog in 2015.
(9) Caton, Gary. Hermetica Triptycha: The Mercury Elemental Year. Auckland, New Zealand: Rubedo Press, 2017, pp. 133–134.
Gary P. Caton is a trans-disciplinary 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 in 1993, 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 U.S. and abroad.