Athena's Web Weekly Column

Week of Jun 10th - Jun 16th, 2005

The Trickster

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      As we begin our WEBWeek, Mercury is in the late degrees of the sign Gemini and will enter Cancer early Saturday morning, but will be moving through the constellation Gemini over the next few weeks. His motion is currently very fast, having just overtaken his buddy, the Sun, at considerable speed. But in mid-July, his progress will abruptly begin to slow as he starts to go retrograde, will reverse his motion, and the Sun will then once again overtake him.

      Mythologically, the Sun and Mercury (Apollo and Hermes) were great friends, and we can understand why. Astronomically, they are right next to each other. Mythologically, they were friends from the first day of Hermes birth. Sun and Mercury

Mercury to the left,       Apollo to the right

      While the Sun moves through the heavens at a relatively regular rate, returning to the same parts of the sky year after year, Mercury's motion cannot be geared in the same way. It were as though the Sun had a bungy cord attached from him to his friend, and while our Fleet Footed Messenger races out ahead to do reconnaissance on the upcoming terrain, the bungy cord begins to stretch and pull, it's power growing stronger until finally Mercury slows down and then begins to reverse direction (retrograde motion), 'running' back behind the Sun until the bungy cord begins to tighten and Mercury again slows down, reverses his motion, and then begins to race forward out in front of the Sun. This, in any event, is what it looks like to us as astronomically as we view these two planets from the Earth.

Apollo       Of course, much of this 'observation' needs to be perceived through computer software or on the dome of a planetarium, because as it happens in the sky, we would have to be looking into the glare of the Sun to see it, when this motion is lost in the daylight. For brief periods, we can see Mercury as he moves across the face of the Sun with a heliostat, a special telescope pointed right at the Sun which projects it's image onto a wall or screen, using special filters to deal with the intense brightness. The word heliostat comes from another of the Sun's mythological names, Helios, a Greek God represented as the orb of the Sun who harnessed his four horse chariot by the sea each morning and, at the appropriate time, rose across the heavens at an incredibly steep angle, until he slowly levels out their path as they approach the mid-heaven, then began to descend once again at an equally steep angle as he finally met the western horizon.

      Mythologically, each of the four horses presumably represents one of the four seasons.

      The only time we can actually see this close friend of the Sun is around the period when Mercury changes his mind... ah, motion, and is furthest from the Sun. This would be when our invisible 'bungy cord' is most stretched. When Mercury is at one of these extremes, we can pick him out, either in the early twilight of the evening, close to where the Sun has just gone down in the west, or, in the early morning hours in the east shortly before the Sun rises. It was for this reason that the Native Americans dubbed Mercury Coyote, the 'trickster', a mythological personality not dissimilar to Hermes. In an observational context, his motion is difficult to predict, and one might not be sure of when, or where, he might next appear. In his Greek persona, he stole Apollo's cattle by walking them backwards (to confuse following their trail), and insisted to Apollo that he couldn't have perpetuated the crime, because he was, after all, only a one-day old infant!

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