This article examines the chart of the famous War of the Worlds radio broadcast and compares that chart to the birth chart and progressions of Orson Welles. The trickster shows up in unexpected and fascinating ways in this real-life drama.
Wild Mercury, Heavy Metal
A Real-Life Halloween Thriller
(originally published in The Mountain Astrologer, Issue #93, Oct/Nov 2000)
“Wild” is an attribute I haven’t always considered for the planet Mercury. And “heavy” is not the usual description for the ruler of the mutable signs Gemini and Virgo. However, this article will showcase the chart of a significant event of the past century in which Mercury played the heavy and displayed his wild side. With one hand tied behind his back (Gemini is intercepted in the 12th house), alchemical Mercury transformed an evening intended for entertainment into a night of terror.
In the fall of 1938, an ambitious young man named Orson Welles was busy with a relatively new radio theater program that ran concurrently with his on-stage acting and directing of the Mercury Theater Company. In a spur-of-the-moment decision, just a week before the Halloween program would be aired, Welles chose the science-fiction novel, The War of the Worlds, by H.G. Wells, as the story line for the upcoming broadcast.
The writers had just one week to feverishly transform the full-length novel into a modern 60-page script. To overcome Mr. Welles’s concerns that the story would be too silly or too ridiculous-sounding, they decided to use the names of real places and a breakaway interview and news reporting style. The real town ofGrover’s mill,New Jerseywas randomly chosen as the location for the opening scene by a scriptwriter who, with eyes closed, touched his pencil point to a map. A similar on-the-scene reporting style had been used successfully just three days before, on “Air Raid,” a radio play that simulated the realistic effects of war on a city, with sounds of soldiers, planes, and bombs—and that program aired without a hitch.
Don’t Touch That Dial!
On the night of this infamous Halloween broadcast, the majority of the radio audience was enjoying the popular ventriloquist act, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, on the “Chase and Sanborn Hour.” When that act ended, the crooning of a syrupy love song began. A large portion of the audience, suddenly bored, began fidgeting with their radio dials, searching for something more interesting. So, at precisely 8:12 p.m., an alchemical flash point occurred as those fickle listeners tuned in to “The War of the Worlds,” which was already in progress. By that time, a Martian invasion of Earth, starting with Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, was apparently under way. Listeners heard an actor realistically report that “at least 40 people, including six state troopers, lie dead in a field east of the villageof Grover’s Mill, their bodies burned and distorted beyond all recognition.”1 The Martians quickly moved on from Grover’s Mill to destroy most ofNew Jersey and then began to invadeNew York City. The tentacled creatures were as large as bears, with black eyes that gleamed like snakes’ eyes and V-shaped mouths that dripped saliva over rimless lips that quivered and pulsated. They were armed with mirrored heat-ray flamethrowers.
Announcements were made three times after most people tuned in at 8:12, to remind listeners that they were listening to the Mercury Theater on the Air, presenting an adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. However, the images that the actors had evoked in many of the listeners’ minds were all too real. A significant number of people failed to register these reminders, and many did not stay tuned long enough to hear that the Martians were ultimately defeated, not by human military might but by lowly earth bacteria.
On this night, Mercury, director of synchronicities and ruler of communications, opposed Uranus, the great awakener and ruler of chaos—both on the nodal axis. (See Chart #1, at end of article.) Mercury and Uranus each squared 9th-house Jupiter in Aquarius. This configuration coincided with jammed switchboards at CBS Radio, local radio stations, and law enforcement agencies across the country. The suddenly inoperative telephone lines added to the panic of the callers who wanted more information; in some cases, people were calling to report their hallucination of the alien monsters and their machines.
Across the country, there was widespread but short-lived panic. The mayor of Flint, Michigancalled to report mobs, violence, and looting. On one block in Newark, New Jersey, “twenty families rushed out with wet handkerchiefs over their heads and faces, trying to escape the gas,”2 after hearing that poisonous black smoke was pouring in from the marshes. In Trenton, New Jersey, highways were clogged with cars, and some people were toting their old World War I gas masks. Hundreds of thousands of Americans took to the streets, believing that death and destruction were taking place. One woman in Pittsburgh was found in her bathroom, clutching a bottle of poison and shrieking, “I’d rather go this way than like that!”3
According to biographer Simon Callow, a shaken Orson Welles remarked that the only anxious thought he had before the broadcast was that it might have bored the listeners. As he came off the air, his only thought was that he hadn’t given a very good performance.4 Even so, both CBS and Mr. Welles received threats of violence. Lawsuits were initiated but never followed through. Welles and CBS subsequently made public apologies, to avoid being investigated by the Federal Communications Commission. CBS called the show “regrettable.” The media had a field day, both here and abroad. The naïveté of the American public and the public’s unquestioning trust of whatever came over the radio waves were spotlighted. For example, one journalist wrote at the time, “If so many people could be misled unintentionally when the purpose was merely to entertain, what could designing politicians not do through control of broadcasting stations?”5
Mercury is the god of commerce. As a direct result of that program, big business began to realize the enormous commercial power of the broadcast media over public persuasion.Campbell’s Soup quickly became the commercial sponsor of “The Mercury Theater on the Air,” changing the program’s name to “The Campbell Playhouse.” The shows were interspersed with messages about how great it would be to have a steaming bowl of “Mmmm, mmmm good!”Campbell’s Soup.
Does Size Really Matter?
In the chart of the broadcast, Mercury and the Sun are involved in separate, powerful T-squares. Both the Sun and Mercury are in the 5th house of creative, dramatic self-expression and in the sign of Scorpio. The mythology of Scorpio includes snakes, dragons, battles with hideous monsters, and transformative crises. The Sun’s powerful t-square, involving the Moon (the public) and Pluto (Lord of the Underworld, Death, destruction, transformation, passion, extremes) contributed to the intensity, creativity, and vitality of the drama. But Mercury, in its own t-square aligned with the Nodes of the Moon, seemed to have an agenda of its own.
The relatively tiny planet Mercury as viewed from the Earth, is always found within 28 degrees of the Sun. However, archetypically, Mercury represents more than a neutral messenger or lightweight assistant to the Sun. As Edward Edinger pointed out in The Eternal Drama, the Hermes principle (Mercury) can deceive the Apollonian principle (Sun).6 One of the first acts that Hermes performed after he was born was, in fact, the theft of Apollo’s cattle. When Apollo and Hermes appeared before Zeus for judgment on the case, Hermes told such convincing yet bold-faced lies that, even though Apollo and Zeus knew he wasn’t telling the truth, they were both so impressed with the young god’s performance that Apollo laughingly dropped the charges. He remained in awe of the youthful character’s innate talent. Mercury’s ability to outwit the Sun is something to keep in mind when delineating charts. Also, Mercury can travel to places “where the Sun don’t shine,” as demonstrated by his journeys to the underworld and back.
The conscious intent of the Halloween radio program was creativity, entertainment, drama, and suspense (fitting for a 5th-house Sun in Scorpio). In the minds of the listeners, however, the broadcast was transformed into something far different. A convincing Mercury stole the show, just as the infant Hermes once stole cattle from Apollo. Even the name of the program was stolen from the Sun by Mercury, the prince of thieves. The original name for this creative radio series was “First Person Singular,” literally referring to the “I” or “me,” and the conscious part of the self represented in astrology by the Sun. However, the program was popularly known and referred to as “The Mercury Theater on the Air.”
A Magical Mystery Tour
In alchemy, the Fount of Mercury was the vessel in which transformation—the changing of form—took place. Mercury’s Fount was a large round bowl filled with “cosmic liquid.” This substance was a blend of the essences of each of the planets. Besides Chaos, it contained all of the various qualities of the planetary gods and goddesses, which together represented Divine Imagination. “This confusion-enhancing state that brings everything into flux provides a great potency.”7 The Mercury Theater’s Halloween play was described by People’s Almanac as a catalyst that ignited the underlying anxiety and tension that permeated a world on the brink of war, the low mental defenses of people exhausted by the Great Depression, and the firmly held belief in whatever was said by authoritative voices over the radio.8 Mercury’s potent vessel for transformation was filled to the brim during the “War of the Worlds” broadcast.
Pluto had only recently been discovered at the time of this false Martian invasion. This outer planet had been priming America’s pump with the stock market crash, the Great Depression, the beginning of years of drought, the Dust Bowl, that many believed signaled the beginning of the end of life on Earth, and a second impending world war. On the evening of the broadcast, a t-square was formed when the transiting Moon and Sun combined with Pluto. Because Pluto was stationary (appearing to stand still in the sky before changing direction), it was more powerful than usual. But a special kind of catalyst was needed to transform this particular broadcast into such an alarming event. The short-lived frenzy and mania caused by this broadcast resulted from a huge misperception of what was actually being communicated so cleverly; this helps to point a finger at trickster Mercury. After all, Martians hadn’t really attacked. A much-quoted journalist of the time remarked, “Nothing about the broadcast was in the least credible, no matter at what point the listener might have tuned in.”9 The adept magician, Mercury, had donned the chthonic cloak of Scorpio; besides triggering (by transit) the Uranus-Jupiter-Nodes t-square, he also wielded influence over Pluto’s t-square as a dispositor of Pluto in this chart. The psychopomp Mercury, positioned at the North Node, led many listeners through unfamiliar territory to the underworld, Pluto’s realm. Mercury both fueled and fanned the fire that ignited the Sun-Moon-Pluto configuration.
Mercury happens to be within one degree of the Vertex point of this chart. Some astrologers, according to Robert Hand, have found that “the Vertex has to do with fateful and important encounters, whether with people or circumstances.” Although Mr. Hand, from his own examinations, was not yet clear about the usefulness of the Vertex point, he did observe it as “most active in situations that are dramatic and not characteristic of one’s ordinary life.”10
Some basic astrology texts describe Mercury as easily taking on the characteristics of whichever sign it falls in and whichever planet(s) it is associated with in a chart—as though Mercury were a relatively passive or neutral influence in a chart, without unique features. Mercury’s mutability should not be automatically interpreted as a sign of weakness, deference or indifference; this natural ability to blend with and skillfully use any of the twelve signs and to combine forces with any of the planets is analogous to the powers of a master magician. Nor should Mercury’s adaptability imply that the planet does not contribute its own unique energy or personality in a chart and in one’s psyche. In fact, people with a “Hermes personality” are described in The Eternal Drama as follows: “Their guiding direction seems to be an interest in the hidden…. [They] are carriers of secret lore, of things that are not on the surface. They tend to be expositors of the symbolical and the dark, transcenders of the ordinary boundaries of human understanding.”11 In fact, two words in the English language reflect this powerful yet hidden or secretive aspect of Hermes. Hermetics refers to the secret or occult sciences, especially alchemy and magic. Hermeneutics is the science of interpretation, often involving the extraction of hidden meanings.
The Master Magician
Orson Welles was just such a Hermes personality. The young, driven, talented Mr. Welles temporarily became the embodiment of the broadcast chart’s Mercury. The following quotation aptly describes both Orson Welles and Mercury in Scorpio in the 5th house. Not long after the program aired, director John Houseman, a colleague of Mr. Welles, characterized him as “a magician whose particular talent lies […] in his proven ability to stretch the familiar elements of theatrical effect far beyond the normal point of tension. For this reason, his productions require more elaborate preparation and more perfect execution than most. At that—like all complicated magical tricks—they remain, until the last minute, in a state of precarious balance. When they come off, they give—by virtue of their unusually high intensity—an impression of great brilliance and power; when they fail—when something in their balance goes wrong or the original structure proves to have been unsound—they provoke among their audience a particularly violent reaction of unease and revulsion.”12
The morning after the broadcast, newspaper headlines acrossAmericaandEuropefeatured the effects of the broadcast and presented Welles as the mastermind. I was curious about what might have been going on for him, astrologically, on the eve of his sudden though stressful claim to fame.
Orson has a Mercury-ruled Gemini Ascendant and a Uranus-ruled Aquarius Midheaven. Keeping in mind that the chart of the broadcast is also a map of the transiting planets, the Mercury-Jupiter-Uranus-Nodes t-square of the broadcast chart was triggering Mr. Welles’s chart. Transiting Jupiter had recently crossed his Moon-Uranus conjunction and was now exactly conjoining his 9th-house North Node at 22 º Aquarius, just shy of his Midheaven at 28º. The Uranus-South Node end of the transiting t-square was conjoined with Orson’s natal Sun/Mercury midpoint, while the t-squares Mercury and Vertex were opposite his natal 12th-house Mercury. In fact, the broadcast’s Vertex at 20º Scorpio was exactly opposite Welles’s own Mercury at 20º Taurus, which puts his Mercury at the Anti-Vertex point of the broadcast chart. The Anti-Vertex, by its house and sign, has been described as the point revealing where and how one can take control over one’s fate. It is also interesting that transiting Saturn was on top of Welles’s Venus and Mars in Mars-ruled Aries (the sign of Saturn’s fall) — the “authorities” certainly came down on Welles for “Martian”-related activities! (See Chart #2, a biwheel, the inner wheel shows Welles’s natal chart; the outer wheel shows the transiting planets, i.e. the chart of the broadcast.)
What I find compelling is the position of Welles’s secondary progressed Mercury at the time of the broadcast. It had advanced 40 degrees and 2 seconds in the 23-1/2 years since his birth, to arrive at precisely the same degree as his 1st-house natal Pluto, exact to the minute! His natal Pluto (0º 38′ Cancer) is conjoined his natal Saturn (29º 25′ Gemini), and together they trine his Midheaven (28º 19′ Aquarius). (See Chart #3, a bi-wheel, Orson Welles’s natal chart surrounded by his progressed planets at the time of the broadcast.)
The alchemists viewed Mercury as having both healing and destructive powers. He was the bearer of the two-snaked caduceus, a rod or wand entwined by two snakes—one snake’s venom was considered healing, the other’s was considered poisonous.13 The following passage from Robert Bosnak’s book, A Little Course in Dreams, sheds some light on the darker side of dual-natured Mercury:
For the alchemists it was of great importance that Mercury, god of imagination, not be loosed on the world in his crude form. They spoke of him as a storm bird, an impudent demon who incites humans to fury. They called him the “wild Mercury” who must be tamed. He reveals himself as a dragon and a roaring lion. Wild Mercury reveals himself as the raw force of destruction that can dominate the imagination and have hideous effects in the world.14
Bosnak also writes how Carl Jung pointed out Mercury’s healing and destructive forms in Jung’s examination of the Grimm Brother’s tale, “The Spirit in the Bottle.” In that story, the spirit of Mercury was capable of murderous rages when let loose in the world. Yet, when contained in the bottle—which provided reflection and thus resembled a more conscious and refined state—he was capable of offering his healing gifts.15
The 1938 Halloween radio broadcast let the spirit Mercury out of the bottle for an hour or so. The effects of the “War of the Worlds” broadcast are a superb example of Mercury’s ability to walk on the wild side. With our freewheeling global communication network in place, perhaps it is beneficial for us to remind ourselves of the power of Mercury in both his wild and tamed forms—the power of the imagination, the power of the unconscious, and the power of the spirit Mercury to ignite our souls and release whatever resides there.
Chart Data and Sources: The “War of the Worlds” broadcast was aired on October 30, 1938, at 8:00 p.m. EST, from New York, NY. Source: Frank Brady, Citizen Welles: A Biography of Orson Welles,New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1989, pp. 167-168.
Orson Welles, May 6, 1915; 7:00 a.m. CST;Kenosha,WI; AA: “Birth Certificate from Steinbrecher.”
References and Notes:
1. Simon Callow, Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu,New York: Viking Penguin, 1996, pp. 401-402.
2. David Wallechinsky, The People’s Almanac Presents the 20th Century,Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1995, p.545.
3. Ibid., p. 544.
4. Callow, Orson Welles, p. 405.
5. Wallechinsky, The People’s Almanac, p. 546.
6. Edward F. Edinger, The Eternal Drama: The Inner Meaning of Greek Mythology,Boston: Shambhala, 1994, p.30.
7. Robert Bosnak, A Little Course in Dreams: A Basic Handbook of Jungian Dream Work,Boston: Shambhala, 1988, p.112.
8. Wallechinsky, The People’s Almanac, p. 546.
9. Ibid., p. 546.
10. Robert Hand, Horoscope Symbols,Westchester,PA: Whitford Press, 1981,pp. 88-89.
11. Edinger, The Eternal Drama, p. 31.
12. Callow, Orson Welles, p. 411.
13. Edinger, The Eternal Drama, p. 135.
14. Bosnak, A Little Course in Dreams, p. 114.
15. Ibid., p. 115.