In the context of the Three Philosophical Principles of alchemy, Mercury holds a unique role as the spiritual bridge between the soul of Sulfur and the body of Salt. If Sulfur is the most volatile part of the self, and Salt the most fixed, Mercury stands in the middle, uniting the above and below. As Salt is considered feminine and yin, and Sulfur masculine and yang, Mercury represents the androgynous, non-binary function. This is represented in the Greek pantheon with Hermes, the representation of the planet Mercury (which is in essence a similar archetypal pattern as philosophical Mercury), who was androgynous—neither male nor female—and was the only God that could navigate between the upper, middle and lower worlds.
Chemical mercury is an interesting metal, for it exists as a liquid when in its pure form, yet is highly volatile and vaporizes into the air with ease. Anyone that’s touched it knows it’s hard to pin down, as it is constantly moving. This is symbolic of this principles capacity to “move between the worlds,” being a metal, yet liquid and able to move up and out into the airs. In this way its function is as the bridge between the above and below. Elementally speaking, philosophical Mercury is said to be an amalgam of Water and Air, which is clearly seen in the reasons stated above: a highly volatile liquid metal.
Alchemical philosophy is unique in that it recognizes a difference between the spirit and the soul. Whereas the soul is our unique individual character, the distinct quality of our consciousness, the spirit is considered the universal life force that animates our being, the bridge between the soul and body. While Sulfur is individual, Mercury is universal—the one spirit that moves through all things. It is the principle of Mercury that carries the perspective that we are all ultimately one, united by a universal life force, yet Sulfur shows us that while we are all one, we are also separate, distinct, individual, and unique.
The Mercury of People
The Mercury Principle within people manifests as our spirit, or what in traditional Western medicine would be referred to as the vital force. This is the factor that animates the body and instills each organ system, tissue, and cell with intelligence. It is also the psychological and emotional qualities of our being, which are ultimately the vessels through which our essence, or soul (Sulfur), are known to us and experienced in our daily lives.
I always like to think of how we refer to someone that is in a positive psychological and emotional state, we way they are in high spirits. The spirit is not necessarily some whispy ghostly part of ourselves, but rather it is indicative of the quality of thought and feeling. Indeed this can be immediately notes in the elemental foundation of the Mercury Principle, which is Air and Water. In most systems, Air is commonly equated to the intellect and rational mind, which constantly moves and changes like the wind. And Water is understood to relate to our emotional nature, which as a fixed element is much closer to the physical body of the Earth element.
This is why when we’re in highly charged emotional states we feel it in our body, yet Air, being more volatile, separates our thoughts from our bodies more than our emotions and feelings are. Yet they are united by Mercury, thus the state of our mind influences our emotions, which can then lead to physical sensation, and in turn certain emotional states trigger thoughts processes. The combination of the two determine the state of our internal reality and the quality and character of our spirit.
When we consider healing on the level of Mercury, we are attending to the specific patterns of thinking and feeling that dominate our lives. These patterns can be influenced from multiple angles. On the one hand, we have our core psychological/emotional temperament, which is infused into us when we are born. This can be determined by assessing using various constitutional systems, such as the 5 Elements of Chinese Medicine or the 3 doshas of Ayurveda, but in the alchemical lineage, this is typically done through the use of the astrological birth chart.
These patterns show why some people tend to default to anger and frustration, whereas someone else might be nervous and anxious, and yet another gets stubborn. Generally looking at this layer of Mercury, it comes down to understanding the core patterns of our psychological temperament and adjusting our lifestyle to maintain balance of the excesses and deficiencies present in the mind and heart, doing our best to take those characteristics and express their most virtuous qualities.
On the other hand, our mental and emotional states are also strongly influenced by our experiences and the outer world. We are conditioned by our parents, culture, media, teachers, and variety of external forces. Indeed a critical part of the spiritual path (which in this orientation ultimately involves healing) involves taking a step back and observing the mind and heart and discarding those things that have been imprinted upon us that are not true to our essential nature. The truth of our being need not be sought and discovered, for it is already present, simply covered up by layers upon layers of conditioning. Remove that which is false and the truth is thus revealed. As the Mercury level of our being is purified, we are able to come into contact with Sulfur, which then gradually repatterns the emotional and mental being in accordance with our essence.
As far as experiences and conditioning goes, none penetrates as deeply as trauma, which has a powerful influence physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Deeply set traumas are ultimately wounds of the soul, which then strongly influences our mental and emotional patterning and thus reactions to life experiences. Thus to an extend, in order to heal our minds and hearts, we have to address our “soul wounds,” or whatever traumas we have experienced that deeply impacted us, along with addressing our general conditioning, and ultimately balancing our psychological temperament through our daily decisions and actions.
The Mercury of Plants
In the plant kingdom, Mercury manifests as the spirit of the plant, which like in people, is not necessarily an entity existing in some other dimension or something like that, rather it is the life force of the plant. It is also the intelligence of the plant that enables it to be aware of its environment, communicate with its fellow plant, animal, and insect neighbors, and maintain its dynamic equilibrium to thrive in changing circumstances. The Mercury of the plant is also its sensory mechanisms, such as sensitivity to light (opening and closing of stomata as an example), ability to adjust absorption of water and distribution of nutrients, sensitivity of the root tips in the soil to seek our nutrients, and a host of other intelligent behaviors.
The term “plant spirit” is used a lot these days, particularly when someone is engaging in meditation with a plant by sitting with it and wanting to communicate with it. I think it’s helpful to understand the difference between the spirit of the plant and the soul of the plant, and the best way to do this is to see the difference between communication and communion.
These represent different stages of engagement with a plant through non-linear modes of perception, in particular through the heart as a highly sensitized electromagnetic generator and receiver. In the earlier stages of connecting with a plant in this way, we are engaged in communication, you and the plant are separate, you send your intent to the plant, make offerings, introduce yourself, etc. and during your time sitting with it might receive a variety of non-linear communications through feelings, sensations, or visions. These experiences are with the Mercury of the plant, as the spirit of the plant communicates with your spirit through feeling, emotion, and intuitive thinking.
But when you enter very deep states of meditation with a plant, you move beyond communication and enter into communion. A unio mystica occurs, where the boundaries between you and the plant dissolve. You transcend the duality of yourself and the plant, moving beyond the Mercurial level of communication and into a communion, where your consciousness and the consciousness of the plant become one. It is a merging of your essences and ultimately a mystical experience with a plant. This is of Sulfur.
On the physical level, the Mercury of the botanical kingdom manifests itself as the alcohol within the plant, which is separated from the plant through fermentation into wine and further purified through distillation (rectification). This alcohol from the plant is considered its purified Mercury, or the spirit of the plant. Indeed, this is where we get the term “spirits” for distilled alcohols—it originates in the alchemical tradition, because the old alchemists noted that when any plant or plant part is fermented it generates ethyl alcohol.
Thus they concluded that alcohol is the universal spirit (or life force) of the plant kingdom, in the same way there is one spirit that moves through all things. This is one of the most unique attributes of the higher spagyric remedies, that the alcohol present in the preparation is actually made from the plant itself, rather than being extracted with the spirit of another plant (like vodka, brandy, or everclear).
This purified Mercury is the physical vehicle through which the intelligence of the plant operates. Thus another way of looking at Mercury in plants is that it is the chemical constituents that are soluble in water as well as alcohol. This is why when a standard tincture is prepared, it is considered to carry the Sulfur (essential oils) and Mercury (alcohol) of the plant. Naturally, plant chemistry is the physical vehicle through which they operate upon the body and provides their healing benefits. We see this again in the elemental configuration of Mercury: the Air element is the alcohol-soluble chemistry and the Water element is the water-soluble chemistry.
These are some of the ways in which the principle of Mercury manifests in people and plants on a larger macrocosmic scale as well as a more detailed microcosmic level. To learn more about the next philosophical principle, read Salt and the Body of People and Plants.