Mental Over-steering: Mercury and the Tarot Eights

AUTHOR’S NOTE: In the Book of Thoth Aleister Crowley expounds at length on the fact that the Sevens and Eights are unbalanced, “low down on the Tree and off the middle pillar.” In the case of the Eights they represent an over-emphasis on intellectual rationalizing divorced from the more mystical, intuitive and fluid outlook of the Sevens. In other metaphysical schools of thought, the binary number Eight is viewed as symmetrical and harmonious (thus a “lucky number”), but here it is overburdened in the direction of cerebral excess.

Those who approach the tarot from an esoteric perspective relegate Mercury to Hod, the eighth sephira of the Qabalistic Tree of Life, thus joining it with Saturn and Mars to make a hard-headed trio on the “Pillar of Severity.” By association, the Eights of the tarot are also related to Mercury, bringing to them a logical choice between demonstrably “right or wrong” ways to perform the actions signified by the suits and their elements, without regard for ethical hair-splitting. In the realm of the Eights, we may decide that what is very clearly “right” according to conventional wisdom and accepted standards is just as obviously “wrong” for us, and we then indulge in strenuous “pretzel logic” to prove it to ourselves while the world looks on bemused. “Right” or “wrong” in the cards might reasonably be equated with upright or reversed orientation, but reversal usually isn’t that straightforward. It’s simpler to say that “overthinking” in any situation (with its associated hesitation and second-guessing) could result in ultimately steering it awry, while judicious discernment will serve to keep it on-course.

The 8 of Wands suggests that the “right” way is the one that gets the job done quickest and with the least amount of fuss. The “wrong” way is to rush heedlessly to completion and perhaps stumble over one’s own feet. The “over-steering” of the title surfaces in trying to keep too tight a rein on the steeds of ambition, preventing them from reaching full potential. Mercury wants to make sure none of the “checkpoints” is missed along the way, and the “finish line” just poses an incidental distraction.

The 8 of Cups proposes distancing oneself from barren emotional entanglement as the “right” way to apply mental discrimination, while the “wrong” way would be to “throw the baby out with the bathwater” by trying to escape involvement at all costs. Over-steering could occur in assuming that a situation is going to be unpleasant before it shows any sign of becoming so, thus potentially missing a valuable opportunity by staying clear of it.

The 8 of Swords risks putting too fine a point on critical thinking about a conflict, and thereby failing to allow some intuitive insight to seep in as the “right” way fend off stalemate. The “wrong” way would be to try building an airtight mental argument and thus forego some of the subtle signals that could invite compromise. It would be possible to arrogantly “over-steer” oneself directly into the hands of an adversary by being too literal-minded and not nimble enough to anticipate and counteract their agile maneuvering.

The 8 of Pentacles is the card of the “bean-counter,” skilled at massaging the bottom line but less adept at inventory management (and inventory carries “sunk costs” that won’t be fully recoverable in an economic downturn). The “right” way to handle this energy is to carefully match available supply to projected demand so a surplus doesn’t accumulate in the warehouse. The “wrong” way is to ignore obsolescence and keep on making the “same old widget,” however perfectly. Over-steering would manifest in the belief that since a planned approach has”always worked in the past,” it will continue to do so in the future with no adjustment, resulting in a conservative trajectory that is impervious to market realities. The difference in the Waite-Smith card and the Thoth version is instructive: the craftsman in the RWS card has his nose to the grindstone and is oblivious to anything but tirelessly cranking out carved tokens, while the Thoth card is titled “Prudence,” which is more of a sober “right-minded” sentiment.

Mercury disdains messy imprecision, and Eight is a rather “soft” place to bring such stringent expectations to bear; inevitably there will be disappointment. I have always been partial to the Thoth titles for the Eights over the prosaic narrative vignettes of the RWS deck because there is no mistaking Crowley’s cynicism, while Waite and Smith mainly offer mundane trivialities. Although the distinction is sometimes blurred, when coupled with the evocative images of Frieda Harris the Thoth Eights make for a compelling symbolic “right or wrong” dualism: Swiftness/Rashness; Indolence/Impotence; Interference/Stoppage and Prudence/Inaction. (Note that the “wrong” side of each split definition is my contribution and not Crowley’s.)


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