Reinventing the Lyre

Cinnabar on dolomite.

 The world’s full of children who grew up too fast

Gil Scott-Heron, “A Sign of the Ages”

WITHIN A FEW HOURS OF HIS BIRTH, Hermes had already become a cattle thief, invented the lyre, & innovated the art of divine worship. “The alphabet, numbers, astronomy, music, the art of fighting, gymnastics, the cultivation of the olive tree, measures, weights, and many other things” were among his inventions, according to Plutarch. Hermes was both the herald of the gods and their psychopomp, as friendly with the ruling powers on Mount Olympus as he was with the living and the dead of our kind. He managed all this while simultaneously presiding over all commerce, speech, and writing; the arts of social life and diplomacy; and likewise overseeing cunning, trickery, and theft—especially where charm was involved. Like Visa in the 1980s and ’90s, he was everywhere you wanted—but also everywhere you didn’t want—to be. Being the god of roads, he was propitiated by both travelers and bandits. He is likewise the friend of all rappers and poets, who are often, of course, also liars and thieves. When Robert Johnson went to the crossroads in Rosedale, Mississippi, to sell his soul to the devil, Hermes (or perhaps Legba, with whom he is cognate) was there. The high deeds of little men, from David to Odysseus to Bruce Lee to Tyrion Lannister, are hermetic. Sleep, too, was under Hermes’s control. Even though dreams came from the high command (Zeus), it was up to Hermes whether or not you’d get to go to sleep at all.

The Romans called him Mercury.

Bronze Herm, ca. 490 B.C.

Otherwise known as the hot little planet closest to our Sun, the metal that looks like a liquid mirror at room temperature, that which formerly could be found in thermometers, the neurotoxin that builds up in the bodies of fish, and the mystic substance crucial both to alchemical transformation and to metallurgy.

Mercury represents both brilliancy of mind and delusion. Both the faithful transmission of the message and its distortion. Mercury is the medium through which intellection moves, but also the infrastructure for the transportation of meaning. In Greece, there are trucking companies called METAPHOR: Trucking, a fundamentally mercurial art, is literally the transportation of meaning (in the form of matter) from one place to another. Language as transportation. The twitchy, subtle sensitivity, the agility (also anxiety) of the constant mirror—the faithful mirror, the funhouse mirror.

Our problem tends to be not so much that we kill the messenger, but that we ignore him. We ignore the delivery system and focus on “content,” on the thing delivered. And yet we are living in a moment when those who control the infrastructure, the networks themselves, are distorting profoundly and in many ways irrevocably the very substance of the world.

Likewise, Mercury stands for in-betweenness. He presides over the space between the human and the divine, between death and the afterlife, between the event and its reporting, between my brains and my mouth, between you and me. When we communicate, there is a neglected third party in on the game. A few years ago I would have joked it was the NSA. Now I might say it is Google, and any number of other corporate algorithms. But always, it is Mercury.

For writers, Mercury is always in retrograde. What I mean is, we understand that language has plasticity, and that it is as much an instrument of confusion and betrayal as it can be humankind’s crucial on-ramp to the truth. And here I need to acknowledge that Genesis begins with The Word, to wave at the whole Writing/Speech differential of Deconstructionism, to invoke everything you know & don’t know about the Linguistic Turn in philosophy, and to simply state that at this point on the planet, almost everybody writes. Everybody texts. And almost everybody writes emails. Mercury is always in retrograde. 

And yet, now that our lives are so exceptionally mediated, to the point that whole masses of people are somewhere on the spectrum between zombified and demon-possessed in the glow of their smartphone, Mercury in Retrograde is more of a gauntlet than ever.

The official dates this month are 3-22 December, and he’ll be dancing backward thru Sagittarius the whole time. Sagittarius represents philosophical synthesis and big-picture thinking; the vitality & sense of adventure required to discover the Meaning of Life; the search for overarching principles according to which the Good Life can be led. The main thing this particular retrograde means is our capacity to see the big picture is going to be seriously incapacitated. Moreover, Mercury is conjunct with Saturn during the first week of this phase, indicating both serious brain damage in authority figures and basically a total leadership breakdown.

You don’t need an astrologer to tell you that the chaos, viciousness, and mayhem that everything simple and good in our culture and on our planet is being subjected to is utterly insane. Likewise, the pressure this insanity is putting on the individual psyche is incalculable. There are probably people in your life who are losing their marbles right now. You may be feeling pressure on your own as well. If you are someone upon whom others depend—and really we all are, whether we’re single parents, freelancers, CEOs, or scenesters—consciously slowing down your decisionmaking, taking a few minutes to reflect before texting back, tabling your plans ands schemes for the future, and communicating with more care than ever will be crucial. I am not saying stop communicating for three weeks. On the contrary, the need to stand your ground and speak your truth is more urgent than ever. But every single syllable you utter must signify hospitality to the very highest good for all concerned. There are inflammatory glyphs in the sky this month. You must drop into the core of yourself and ask, with all your strength, what the best course of action for you is: use this retrograde period to apprentice yourself to this question, in all humility, in all sincerity. Practice alkalizing your nervous system by talking to yourself, even your organs and limbs, the way you’d pep talk your most cherished friend.

You’ve heard the normcore astrological warnings against buying technological devices, booking travel, or making career decisions during Mercury Retrograde. I’d like to add a simple recommendation, beyond telling you to try to keep your cool and breathe through your printer eating your resumé minutes before a job interview etc: propitiation. Remember the delivery system; remember that you, me, and everyone we know are being massaged hard by the medium. If crystals are a thing you do, try putting clear quartz, shungite, and cinnabar on or near your machines, both while they’re in use and sleeping.

I WONDER if it has ever occurred to you to thank the various networks for transmitting, at lightning speed, the substance of your thoughts, your lusts? Possibly not. Possibly because the ethers dump so much immiserating garbage into your devices it’s hard to appreciate them sometimes. One needn’t be a believer to propitiate a god. It can be done prophylactically. Like Odysseus pouring out libations before setting out on the road, you too can touch the perfect body of the cosmos with your mind. Name the names of your beloveds and your ideals before you enter the fray of the internet, your workday, a difficult conversation, a project. Keep the phone away from the bed. Give thanks before you put your hand on it in the morning. Touch yourself, and/or your lover(s) before you touch your machines.

The Moon will be full on December 3 at 10:46 AM EST, (calculate for your time zone here) at eleven degrees and forty minutes in Mercury-ruled Gemini.

At the same moment, the Sun & Moon in opposition form a T-Square to Neptune in Pisces, Jupiter in Scorpio is in a strong trine with Neptune, and Mars in Libra & Uranus in Aries are locked in hard opposition. In other words, this is a moment of reckoning about spiritual self-concept of Earthlings, and likewise about the future of leadership on this planet. What we dream is as much a reflection of the hells on earth as it reflects our longings and needs. But again, you don’t need me to tell you that tempers are running high and that there is explosive pressure on us as individuals and as societies right now. The sky says so, and so does the shithouse wall. 

As Above, So Below, as Hermes Trismegistus said.

Gemini as depicted in Urania's Mirror, from a set of constellation cards published in London, ca. 1825.

What I can offer is a few words about Gemini you might not have heard. The cosmic twins represent the duality that came into the world when the creator separated light from darkness. Gemini is the Zen Beginnerhood of the zodiac, and it is good to remember the frolicsome play of babies first discovering the world as the foundation for all adulthood. If astrology functions on the mirror principle, reflecting here what transpires in the heavens, the duality of Gemini also speaks to the magic of diagnosis and to sacred asymmetry.

Castor and Pollux are not equal, and as twins, they are cyphers for the riddle of equality. But one had an immortal parent and the other one didn’t. One came first, and the other one second. Resolving disharmony into balance, asymmetry into perfect proportion, is the secret algebra of the soul’s mathematics. Think back to the caduceus Hermes/Mercury holds: the serpent wound around the staff represents the judicious use of medicine, which can either cure or kill depending on the dosage. And here we’re in Plato’s Pharmacy (I’m citing Derrida): In Mercury’s allegorical pharmakon, the serpent (poison) is wound carefully around the staff (discernment), miming the double helix of our DNA, this symbol, like we ourselves, is a mysterious—and mysteriously exact concatenation of good and bad, poison and antidote, rigor and mercy.

This month’s full moon is full of medicine, but the side effects can be severe.

I recommend partying the night of the second, and on December 3, you should get up early, hangover or bedfellow be damned, and write your spiritual autobiography.

Where did you first hear the word god, when did you begin (or cease) to believe in a “higher power,” what experiences have you had, whether within or outside the structures of normalized/organized religion, that have led you toward or away from what—and forgive the sloppy term—has lately been called spirituality? 

Into what or whom do you put your faith? Who are you, and who and where do you come from? 

Astrology teaches that we have many parents, and most of them are in the sky.

Speaking of parents, Saturn, the patriarch of the zodiac, enters Capricorn, the sign he rules, on December 20, just in time for the Winter Solstice the following day, during a Mars-Pluto square that indicates sexual rage in the collective, at once a desire to dissolve all existing forms of authority and a cluelessness as to what to replace them with—and looming behind all the smoke and hot air stands the same old bad white father. Ruthless power grabs, reactionary posturing, and a yearning to return to archaic modes of statehood are in the air. Watch out for the “adults in the room.”

By December 22, when the Sun follows Saturn into Capricorn, Venus in Sagittarius trine Uranus in Aries suggests structural upheaval but also real progress when it comes to women holding power, while Mercury squaring Neptune indicates but not merely replacing the men in rotten structures—on the contrary, this is a first sign of a mass movement on the part of women already in authoritative positions and femininity more generally taking its rightful place in the structure of our self-concept as residents on Earth.

On Christmas, Neptune in Pisces’ beams to Mars and Jupiter in Scorpio indicate a powerful and not un-Christian idealism in the air, and some deep thinking about how to deepen empathy and de-incarcerate what we repress in ourselves and likewise the populations America lives to lock up. All the Pisces in the air at Christmas can also indicate major escapist yearnings, so watch your consumption of drugs and alcohol, already normally higher at this time of year, there are indications intoxication can have heavier-than-usual consequences this time around.

On New Year’s Eve, a T-Square forms between the Moon in Gemini, Mercury and Sagittarius, and Chiron in Pisces, restating the Mercurial & Spiritual demands I’ve discussed above. It’s as though the outlines of a door to the next year have been drawn in the sky, and in order to find out the magic words we need to say to gain entry to 2018, working out what our spiritual wounds are, and just where our concept of the divine (and/or lack thereof) has caused suffering and escapism in our self-concept. A Yod to the Moon, also known as “the finger of God,” reemphasizes this point. Beaming energy from Pluto in Capricorn and Jupiter in Scorpio, this Yod is calling for us to conjugate the collective need to transform the structures of power and our individual needs to release shame and repression: New Year’s Eve calls for major Zen Beginnerhood, so that we may be reborn with the turning of the year with all the curiosity, attention, and affection of children at play.

Ariana Reines’s video from “Pubic Space,” her exhibition with Oscar Tuazon at Stuart Shave Modern Art, 2016.

Ariana Reines is a poet & playwright. She astrologizes at To read her November Piece for click here; to read her October piece click here; and to read her September piece click here.