Sunday, 13 January 2013

The Nature of Mercury

Bronze pendant of Mercury, circa 100-300 CE (2.5cm x 1.9cm)
Something I have noticed whenever I find a book about pre-Christian religions of Europe is that there is very little written up about the nature of each of the Gods themselves. This is undoubtedly because scholars are more interested in what ancient religion can tell us about ancient societies, rather than to know or understand the Gods themselves. However, like many Pagans I seek to understand both the Gods and the people who believed in them and, like many Pagans, there are certain Deities for whom I feel a strong pull towards – in my case Mercury is prominent among these Gods – and so I have read up as much as I can about this most wonderful of Gods and here share my knowledge as best as I can.

The first thing to do when looking to the nature of Mercury (or Mercurius, as the Romans knew him) is to look to the ancient sources. Fortunately we have a fairly good idea of how the Romans perceived him, as there are a number of ancient descriptions relating to him. For example, he is playfully written in as a character in Amphitryo by Plautus. He says:
“… you wish me … to endow you with profit in all the purchasing and purveying of your wares, and to assist you in all your affairs; and … you wish me to speed a happy outcome for you all in your matters of business both at home and in foreign lands and to increase for evermore with fine and glorious profit those endeavours which you have begun and those which you are about to begin; and … you wish me to endow you and yours, every one, with glad tidings, bringing before you and proclaiming only those things which may contribute to your common weal (for verily you have long known that it is an honour granted and bestowed upon me by the other gods that I should hold sway over messages and profit) … [cited in Beard et al, Religions of Rome: Volume 2: A Sourcebook at 29]”
In another playful and irreverent assessment as to the nature of Mercury, Ovid wrote:
“You, inventor of the curving lyre and patron of thieves, gave the month [of May] your mother’s name [Maia, one of the Pleiades]. This was not your first pious act. You gave the lyre, it’s thought, seven strings, the Pleiads’ number [Ovid, Fasti 5, verses 103-106].”
“Arbiter of peace and arms to the gods above and below, traveller on winged feet, lover of the lyre’s strum, lover of wrestling oil, who instructed tongues in cultured speech. The Fathers built a temple to you on the Ides [in 495 BCE] by the Circus [Maximus]. So this [the 15th of May] is your feast-day. All professional sellers of merchandise offer you incense and demand profit. A spring to Mercury lies by the Porta Capena; if results are trusted it is divine. The salesman comes, tunic hitched, and draws water purely into a fumigated jar. He soaks a laurel bough in this, and douses everything for sale with the soaked laurel. He sprinkles his hair, too, with the dripping laurel, and prays with a voice geared to lying: ‘Wash away the perjuries of the past,’ he says, ‘wash away lying words of yesterday. Whether I made you a witness or falsely invoked deaf Jupiter’s pointless divinity, or knowingly deceived another god or goddess, let swift southerlies dispel my wicked words; and on the coming day allow new perjuries and make the gods indifferent to my speech. Just grant me profit, grant joy in the profit made, and make cheating the buyer a pleasure.’ Mercury laughs from on high at such requests, recalling his theft of [Apollo’s] cattle [Ovid, Fasti 5, verses 665-692].”
"Mercury the Oratore" (circa 100 CE)
On a more respectful note, Horace wrote:
“Mercury, eloquent grandson of Atlas,

Who shrewdly has shaped of late the rough

Ways of men with language, and with custom

Of the fitting gymnasium [or wrestling place], 

Of you I sing, messenger of great Jove and

Of the gods, and father of the curved lyre,

Cunning in whatever it pleases you to hide

In joking theft. 

Unmarried Apollo, lest you had formerly returned his

Herd, stolen through trickery, while he frightened

You as a child with menacing voice, mocked you

With his quiver. 

And more, with you leading, wealthy king of Troy,

Having left Ilium, deceived the haughty sons of Atreus,

And Thessalian Fires and camps hostile

To Troy. 

You return faithful hearts [or pious souls] to their welcome
Place [or happy homes], and with golden Caduceus check

Capricious uproar, and are dear to the highest

And lowest of the gods [Horace, Odes, 1.10].”
And in another illustration from ancient times:
“At Lyons there was an inn, ‘The Mercury and Apollo’; over the door was the hexameter Mercurius lucrum hic promittit Apollo salutem, ‘Apollo for health; from Mercury wealth’ [Ferguson, The Religions of the Roman Empire at 71-72].”
So we see that Mercury is principally a God associated with financial gain and artful speech and communication – which at its most noble includes felicitous negotiation and at its most devious includes shrewd trickery and deceit. He is also, of course, the patron God of commerce – which leads to financial gain. Moreover, Mercury does not only enable commercial profit, he enables the means to do it – by protecting travellers (note that in the ancient world much commerce involved journey making). To my mind these attributes are interrelated. However, some scholarly approaches suggest that the nature of Mercury changed over time as he was merged with various foreign Gods. Thus:
“Mercury … was initially a god of commerce, before identification with Hermes made him the god of the arts (‘inventor of the lyre’) and messenger of the gods. His subsequent identification with the Egyptian Thot added the notions of magic, astrology and writing [Lipka, Roman Gods: A Conceptual Approach at 68].”
“Mercurius, a numen of trade, was identified with Hermes, and so became messenger of the gods [Ferguson, The Religions of the Roman Empire at 211]”.
No doubt there is truth in this kind of reasoning, but I think it fair to say that Roman worshippers of Mercury would not have accepted any associations with the God which did not seem consistent with his fundamental nature, so that it is clear that while principally Mercury is a God of financial gain, profit and social intercourse there are a number of other attributes that are naturally implied as a consequence of these primary attributes.

Silver statuette of Mercury (c. 100 BCE-200CE) 
After having conducted a fair bit of research we may conclude that Mercury is a God associated with:
  • Wealth and financial gain.
  • Trade/commerce.
  • Eloquent speech and writing.
  • Messages/communication (which extends to divination).
  • Negotiation and social intercourse.
  • Trickery, deceit and cunning (including thievery).
  • Good luck.
  • Travel, roads and boundaries.
  • Journeying of souls to the afterlife.
  • Journeying of dreams to those who sleep.
  • Wrestling and the gymnasium.*
We also know that Mercury was a very popular God – at least in Pompeii:
“… one of the most distinctive and easily recognisable features of Pompeian houses is shrines that we now call by the Latin word lararium, shrine of the Lares or household gods … In many cases statuettes of gods and goddesses stood on the ledge or shelf of the lararium. Sometimes these depict the Lares themselves, but a much wider range of deities has been found … After the Lares, Mercury is the most popular divine subject … [Beard, Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town at 295-298].”
It is very fitting that Mercury should appear on a shrine to the Lares, as he was regarded as the father, by Lara (a water nymph), of the twin Lares “who guard the crossroads and watch our city always [Ovid, Fasti 2, verses 615-616]”.

Bronze figurine of Mercury (44 BCE-400CE)  
flanked by animals traditionally associated with 
him: the goat (or ram), tortoise and cockerel. The 
torc around his neck was a Celtic status symbol.
And of course there is no greater proof of the popularity of a God than to name one of the seven days of the week in his honour – and so the Romans called what we call Wednesday (literally Woden’s day) the “dies Mercurii”, the day of Mercury. This brings us to another topic – namely the ancient equation of the important Germanic God Woden/Odin with Mercury. However I will save this fascinating and complex topic for another day and say only that I revere both manifestations.** 

Mercury has also been associated with a Gallic/Celtic God, possibly Teutates, as Caesar wrote:
“Among the gods, they worship Mercury in particular. There are numerous images of him; they claim that he is the inventor of all crafts, the guide for all roads and journeys; they consider that he has especial power over money-making and trade [Caesar, Gallic War, at 55]”.
This probably tells us what Caesar thought of Mercury as much as it tells us about Teutates – in that he ascribes these attributes to Mercury. So we see, consistent with attributions to Mercury as described above, that Caesar associated Mercury with merchants, travel and financial gain. And yet we know that Mercury is more complex still, as discussed above.

Unsure of how to end this exploration in a fitting way I will end it with a description of Mercury by some contemporary and well respected Roman scholars:
 “Mercury is … the god of gain, of commercial profit … On the other hand, Mercury … is … the god of cultivated conversation (Rupke, The Religion of the Romans, at 4).”
“Mercury, God of travellers, boundaries, unexpected treasure trove, merchants and thieves; the guide of souls to the underworld [Glossary to Ovid’s Fasti, Penguin edition, by Boyle and Woodard at 343].”
May Mercury bless you, and may he bless me all the more:p

*Mercury’s association with wrestling and the gymnasium, mentioned by Ovid and Horace (who were both well versed in Greek mythology) appears to be borrowed from the Greek association of Hermes with these things – I note that wrestling is a sport of cunning as well as strength and that, in Greece at least, the gymnasium was traditionally associated with intellectual and literary pursuits and so Mercury is a fitting patron of these things.

** I also note that in Roman Germania (and Gaul) statuettes of Mercury are said to be the most common of all identifiable Gods appearing in what were probably household shrines – clearly Mercury was an important deity to Romanised Germans, possibly due to his equation with Woden/Odin: M E Smith, To Seek the Boundaries of the Roman Lares at 28.

"Mercury and Argus" (1659) by D Velazquez

Written by M' Sentia Figula (aka Freki), find me at neo polytheist


  1. Lovely post.
    Thank you for sharing it!
    What is your favourite read about Mercury?

    1. Anything Ovid has to say is always my favourite, from the Fasti to the Metamorphoses:)