Queer Stories of the Zodiac: Of Mercury, Mutability and Monsters
Updated: Apr 25, 2019
[F]or many gay people [the closet] is still the fundamental feature of social life; and there can be few gay people, however courageous and forthright by habit, however fortunate in the support of their immediate communities, in whose lives the closet is still not a shaping presence
— Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet (1990), p. 68.
Although Sedgwick wrote this passage about gay people, ‘the closet’ nonetheless shapes all LGBTQ+ lives for there is never one definitive moment of ‘coming out’. We must constantly negotiate the boundaries of visibility and invisibility, of when to show ourselves and when to stay hidden. Different contexts and spaces demand different responses so that our selves and our lives are always on the threshold between being known and remaining unknown.
I have recently been reflecting a great deal on this concept in relation to astrological symbolism. While there are obvious instances where cisheterosexual points of view are normalized and promoted in astrological practice (for example, in aphorisms related to marriage or in how ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ signs are understood — a post for another time), for now I am much more interested in how queer lives can be represented in and by the zodiacal mythos and in turn how the same mythos can be reconceptualized and used in interpretation.
As a queer teenager into astrology (and in a rocky relationship with Christianity at the time) and one who also struggled with their sexuality and gender, I found myself drawn in by the figure of Mercury. I felt ‘seen’ by hir and the liminal space that xe occupies as one of no fixed gender. I related to the concept of communicating one’s self across various boundaries and when I learnt more about queer history and activism, hir role in myth as psychopomp, of one who shepherds the souls of the dead into the underworld, took on a real emotional presence.
When I started reading other people’s charts, these prior thoughts and feelings manifested as questions about the vocabulary and imagery available to (queer) astrologers and/or to the queer people consulting them, especially since a consultation can be a very intimate experience. Chris Brennan recently said that the purpose of astrology is to ‘understand the past, correctly perceive the present, and predict the future’. As perception is tied to past experiences, in that the present is understood through it, I wanted to know whether the zodiac and its wandering residents could be conceptualized through queer experiences and histories to provide language for such consultations and astrologers.
To that end, and hopefully to offer starting points for such work, I reflected a little on the fluid and protean nature of Mercury and the concept of mutability, the first part of which I share in this post.
Hermes: Traveller and Trickster
Ὁδιος (hodios) and δόλιος (dolios) are among the epithets used of the god Hermes, identified by the Romans with the deity Mercury. The former refers to Hermes’ position as the guardian of pathways, one who is ‘constantly underway [and] in motion’ (Kerényi 1992: 15), while the latter is associated with the deity’s position as god of thieves and a trickster, one inclined to deception.
As a god constantly on the move, Hermes is the messenger of the divine pantheon, a liminal figure able to traverse the boundaries between heaven, earth and the underworld. This liminality is further exemplified in Ptolemy (Tetr. I:4) who writes that Mercury’s swiftness and position between the sun’s heat and the moon’s coolness allows hir to change quickly from one nature to the other (in this instance, from drying to humidifying and vice versa).
Mercury’s nearness to both the sun and the lunar sphere also evokes the imagery of day and night, of clarity and obscurity, of visibility and invisibility. Yet Mercury belongs to neither the day sect or the night sect, but rather straddles both.
In this way, hir condition reflects queer experience insofar as one can never be always known and seen in a world structured by cisheterosexualism. One may, as a strategy for survival, have to ‘change nature’ quickly depending on environment or circumstance, to be ‘out’ one moment and ‘in’ the next. It is in this light that I reimagine the astrological aphorism that with male planets, Mercury is masculinised while with female planets, xe is feminised.
For me, or rather, in my experience, this adaptation to surroundings is often a mechanism of protection and perhaps a way to feel accepted and valued, to make one’s life a liveable one. Nevertheless, not able to recognise this need, the cisheterosexual world glosses ‘coming out’ with ideas of lying and deception, whether to others or to one’s self. For transgender people, the situation is often more pronounced, with accusations that through the mere act of existence, they are ‘deceiving’ others.
And here arrives Hermes Dolios, the Trickster. Yet in a queer reconceptualisation or interpretation, this is not a title donned by Mercury hirself, but one imposed upon hir from without. Against queer people, and transgender persons in particular, this accusation can be so forceful as to result in (fatal) violence. There is however no trickery in who Mercury is; rather, to reappropriate Judith Butler’s comments in Undoing Gender (2004), hir presence makes the world ‘question what is real, and what “must” be [but also] how the norms that govern contemporary notions of reality can be questioned and how new modes of reality can be instituted’ (p. 29).
In the queer imagination, then, Mercury still connotes communication, but more as a site of revelation both to one’s self and others. Moreover, since how one communicates one’s sexuality or gender can have severe consequences to to one’s life which do not affect (or most of the time even enter into the consideration of) cisheterosexual people, Mercury is not just communication, but the very negotiations one has to make with one’s own identify before it can even take place.
Although there’s a lot more to be said about Mercury, or indeed any of the planets (something I intend to explore in future posts), the point I wanted to underscore with this short meditation is that symbols are many-faceted things and that those who approach particular symbols bring with them vastly different chains of associations, rooted in their identities, backgrounds and experiences. In this instance, I felt Mercury to be a figure ripe with potential meanings for queer people, meanings which, by and large, rarely form part of astrological analysis.
When I started writing this post, I imagined that one of the questions I might receive would concern its practical applications, especially in chart interpretation. My response would be that it gives the astrologer more potential avenues to travel down when working with queer clients; somewhere to look if such a client has certain questions about themselves, certain areas of their lives they wish to reflect on and so on.
It also challenges cisgender and heterosexual astrologers to give serious thought to how they write and speak about LGBTQ issues or relationships from an astrological perspective. As previously said, Mercury also invites them to build better practices, question what they believe they already know (especially about marginalised peoples) and what ‘new modes’ of thinking they can employ.
More than that, it allows queer stories to be reflected in the divine realm. After all, if we are all created imago Dei (‘in the image of God’), a belief to which I believe the theology of astrology testifies and in some sense rests upon, then it is necessary that astrologers have the tools, language and resources available to them to reveal and communicate these stories to those who often do not get the chance to have their stories told or heard in this sublunary sphere.