In Roman mythology, Mercury, also known as Mercurius, was the quick and agile messenger to the gods. Originally, he was a god of trade related to the corn crop. In fact, his name is derived from the Latin word merces, meaning “merchandise.” He was also lauded as the protector of merchants, travelers, and shopkeepers, and defamed as the patron of thieves and those who played practical jokes.
Myths and Stories
As the gods’ messenger, Mercury plays a role in many myths. For example, he was said to have stolen cattle and a bow and arrow when just a child. In the myth of Cupid and Psyche, he is called upon by Jupiter to make a proclamation demanding the capture of Psyche. In the Aeneid, he is sent by Jupiter to Aeneas with orders to leave his lover and “sail away to fulfill his destiny in Italy.” He also plays a role in Roman poetry and theater, much of which was based on mythology. In the play Amphitruo by the dramatist Plautus, Mercury, dressed as a servant, aids Jupiter when he disguises himself as Amphitryon in order to seduce Amphitryon’s wife. The poet Horace wrote of him in his Odes; in fact, Horace called himself mercurialis, meaning a lyric poet protected by Mercury.
Many of the myths of Mercury are derived from those of the Greek Hermes. Monuments to Hermes were thought to bring good luck, and this idea was perpetuated with Mercury as well. Another borrowed role was that of escorting the souls of the deceased to the underworld. It is speculated that the myths originated among shepherds, lending their interest in “music and fertility.” In fact, in some legends, Mercury is said to have invented the guitar-like lyre, and his son is said to have been a nymph who invented the music of the pastoral societies.
A temple to Mercury was dedicated on Rome’s Aventine Hill in 495 B.C. The festival of Mercuralia was held on May 15, the anniversary of the temple dedication, in honor of both Mercury and his mother Maia of the Pleiades. Rituals of this festival involved merchants drawing water from the well at Porta Capena to be sprinkled on their trade goods and on their own heads. Trade fairs were also held at the temple, and it was the location of Rome’s busy commercial center.
In art and statues, Mercury is typically depicted as a handsome young man, even boyish in appearance, wearing a white garment. Mercury often carries a money purse, symbolizing his function as patron of merchants and business owners. His fleetness as messenger of the gods is represented by a hat or sandals with wings, called petasus and talaria, respectively. Mercury was thus called Alipes, meaning “with the winged feet.” He is also seen carrying a staff called a caduceus. The caduceus was a symbol of peace, carried by ambassadors to foreign lands. It consisted of a branch with two shoots, originally decorated with ribbons or garlands. In later times, these attributes were replaced by two twining snakes, with a pair of wings above the snakes. The snakes were related to Mercury’s role as a fertility god and in delivering souls to the underworld. Today, this symbol is used to represent physicians, the medical field, and the U.S. Army Medical Corps.
Like many mythical figures, Mercury has been immortalized in the naming of celestial objects. The planet Mercury, as visible just after sunset, was called in ancient times by his Greek counterpart, Hermes. This was likely due to the planet’s rapid motion in comparison to other stellar objects. Interestingly, Mercury’s morning visitation, just before sunrise, was not recognized as being the same “star;” it was thus called Apollos. The element mercury (Hg) , atomic number 80 on the periodic table, was once known as “quicksilver.” The symbol for the planet Mercury was used to represent quicksilver in sixth century alchemy, and thus the chemical took on the name of the god as well.
Facts about Mercury
Role in Mythology: God of store owners, merchants, travelers, trade, profit, tricksters, and theives; messenger of the gods, fertility god
Alternative Names: Mercury, Gaulish Mercury, Alipes
Family Relationships: Son of Jupiter and Maia, grandson of Atlas
Symbols: Winged hat or shoes, money purse, winged staff
Greek Equivalent: Hermes
Germanic Equivalent: Wodan
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