Mercury is a name that is familiar enough to us in the modern world. Due to his namesake, the first planet in our solar system, most people are aware that Mercury must have been a Roman god, just as Jupiter, Saturn, Mars, and the others were.
But who was Mercury exactly? What was he the god of? What were his origins, his significance, his symbols? From trickster god to messenger god and god of speed to the god of trade and commerce, the faces of Mercury are many and varied. It can be difficult to parse out exactly what he meant to the Romans since his origins are far from clear-cut.
Who was the Roman god Mercury?
According to Roman mythology, Mercury may have been the son of Jupiter and Maia, who was one of the daughters of the Titan Atlas. But he might equally have been the son of Caelus, a god of the sky, and Dies, the personification of day. What does seem clear is that Mercury was not heard of in early Roman religion, before the Romans conquered Greece. After that, he became known as the Roman counterpart of Hermes. There also seems to be aspects of the Etruscan religion in the characterization and cult of Mercury.
Mercury: God of Trade and Commerce
Mercury is acknowledged as the god of many things, including commerce, financial gains, messages, travelers, trickery, and luck. Portrayed with winged sandals, the speed that these shoes gave him seemed to make him a protector of any kind of travel and circulation, whether it was people, goods, or messages. Thus, this granted him the position of god of trade and commerce. He was believed to have facilitated the movement of goods and was the god to pray to when you wanted your business to succeed.
Messenger of the Gods
Like Hermes before him, Mercury carried messages between the gods and to humans. The winged shoes and winged helm that he wore allowed him to fly and swiftly deliver his messages. But this important role also put him in a unique position to play tricks upon the other Roman gods, which he apparently took full advantage of. The Roman god also escorted the dead to the underworld.
Other Gods of Trade
In ancient times, patron gods were essential for survival. You prayed to your patron god for your crops to ripen, for the rains to come, for abundance and commercial success. Among older cultures, a god of commerce was very common, like the Hindu god Ganesha, Turms in Etruscan religion, and Ekwensu of the Igbo people. Interestingly enough, the latter is also considered a trickster god.
Place in the Roman Pantheon
Mercury was not among the early deities surviving from the Roman Empire. He only became part of the Roman Pantheon in the 3rd century BCE. Nevertheless, he became quite an important figure in Roman religion and mythology. Because of his similarities with many of the other gods in the area, after the Romans conquered other kingdoms, the Roman god Mercury became part of other cultures as well.
Meaning of the name Mercury
The name of the Roman god might have been derived from the Latin word ‘merx’ which means ‘merchandise’ or from ‘mercari’ or or ‘merces’ which mean ‘to trade’ and ‘wages’ respectively, with the former being the most likely.
Another root for the name might be from the Proto-Indo European language (merg), examples being the Old English or Old Norse words for ‘boundary’ or ‘border.’ This might denote his place as the messenger between the living world and the underworld. However, this theory is less likely and has not been conclusively proved, but given Mercury’s possible position as a Celtic god and his worship among the Germanic peoples, it is not impossible.
Different Names and Titles
Since Mercury was a god that was syncretized into other cultures after the Romans conquered them, he has a number of different epithets that connect him to the gods of those cultures. Examples are Mercurius Artaios (Artaios being a Celtic god that was linked to bears and hunting), Mercurius Avernus (Avernus being a Celtic deity of the Averni tribe), and Mercurius Moccus (from Celtic god Moccus, associated with boar hunting) among others. It is not clear why exactly Mercury was linked with them and given these epithets but what is clear is that Mercury was a major god for the Celtic people at some point.
Symbolism and Characteristics
Some of the most well-known symbols of Mercury are those that he has in common with other messenger gods of the area like Hermes and Turms. The Roman god is usually depicted wearing winged sandals and a winged helm or winged hat, to signify the speed of his movements. At times, he also has a purse to show his status as god of commerce.
Another symbol of Mercury is the magic wand that was reputedly given to him by Apollo. Called a caduceus, it was a staff with two entwined snakes wound around it. Mercury is often depicted with certain animals, most notably the tortoise to signify the tortoise shell which was used to create Mercury’s legendary invention, the lyre of Apollo. Some sources say that it was for this lyre that he received the caduceus.
Known as a wily and tricky deity who liked to play pranks on the gods for whom he was supposed to carry messages and sometimes stole the belongings of others, Roman myth paints this particular deity as a playful, mischievous, wilful figure.
Not many details are known about Mercury’s family and origins, even the identity of his parents being uncertain. While it is usually believed that he was Jupiter and Maia’s son, it seems that he did not have any direct siblings. Through Jupiter, he obviously had several half-siblings, including Vulcan, Minerva, and Proserpina.
The most well-known consort of Mercury was a nymph called Larunda. The story of Mercury and Larunda may be found in Ovid’s Fasti. Mercury was supposed to take Larunda to the underworld. But when the god of commerce fell in love with the nymph, he made love to her and hid her from Jupiter instead of taking her to the underworld. By Larunda, he had two children known as the Lares.
As the Roman equivalent of Hermes, Mercury is connected to others. Mercury was said to have an affair with Venus, the Roman goddess of love and beauty. Together they had one child. As per Greek mythology, Mercury was also the lover of the hero Perseus.
The Lares were household deities. They were the guardians of the hearth and the field, of fruitfulness, boundaries, and domestic domains. Some had wider domains, such as seaways, roadways, towns, cities, and the state. Mercury’s children do not seem to have been named but it is quite possible that, like their father, they were the guardians of crossroads and boundaries.
Roman mythology has Mercury playing all kinds of parts and roles, depending on what the story requires of him, whether that is thief or protector, killer or rescuer. Of these myths, perhaps the most famous are Mercury and Battus and Mercury’s adventures on behalf of Jupiter.
Trickster God and Thief
Fascinatingly enough, Mercury was also the patron god of thieves and cheats, perhaps due to his reputation as a master thief himself. One myth told the story of how Mercury stole a herd of cattle. A bystander called Battus, himself watching a herd of mares, witnessed Mercury driving the stolen cattle into the woods. Mercury made Battus promise not to tell anyone what he had seen and promised him a cow in exchange for his silence. Later, Mercury returned wearing a disguise to test the man. The disguised Mercury asked Battus what he had seen, promising him a cow and a bull as a reward. When Battus told the whole story, the enraged Mercury turned him into stone.
Mercury’s invention of the lyre of Apollo was also related to an incident of thievery. While just a boy, Mercury reputedly stole Apollo’s oxen. When Apollo realized that Mercury had not only stolen his oxen but also eaten two of them, he took the child to Mount Olympus. Mercury was found guilty. He was forced to return the oxen and give up the lyre that he had crafted to Apollo as penance.
Mercury and Jupiter
According to Roman mythology, Mercury and Jupiter seemed to be quite a duo. Often, the king of the gods sent Mercury in his place to carry important messages, such as when Mercury had to remind Aeneas to leave Dido, the Queen of Carthage, to establish Rome. One story in Ovid’s Metamorphoses tells of the pair’s travel to a village, disguised as peasants. Treated badly by all the villagers, Mercury and Jupiter finally found their way to the hut of a poor couple called Baucis and Philomena. The couple, not knowing who their guests were, shared what little food they had in their hut, giving up their own share to feed them.
Revealing himself to the old couple, Jupiter asked how he could reward them. Their only wish was for them to be able to die together. This, Jupiter granted. Then the angry king of the gods destroyed the whole village, building a temple on the site of the old couple’s home and making them the guardians of the temple.
In yet another tale, Mercury had to step in to save Jupiter from his own folly. Jupiter fell in love with Io, the daughter of a river god. Enraged, Juno, the queen of the gods, threatened to kill Io. As the goddess approached, Mercury warned Jupiter in time for Jupiter to save the poor girl. Jupiter disguised Io as a cow. But Juno was still suspicious. She assigned Argus, a many-eyed deity, to keep a watch on the herd that Io had been placed in. Mercury again saved the day by telling Argus many boring stories until he fell asleep. Then, the swift god quickly beheaded Argus and flew Io to safety.
Mercury as the Roman Counterpart of Greek God Hermes
With the rise of the Roman republic and the conquest of Greece, many of the Greek gods and much of Greek mythology had been absorbed into Roman religion. As with the other gods, Hermes, the Greek god who carried messages and was tasked with leading newly deceased souls to the underworld, became one with Mercury. What the origins of Mercury are and how he came to be worshiped by the Romans is not clear, but soon many of the tasks and characteristics that had been assigned to Hermes were placed on the shoulders of Mercury.
Even the mythology was absorbed, as was the case with Mercury and Proserpina. Hermes having been believed to have escorted Persephone, daughter of Demeter to the underworld to be with Hades, this story was reworked so it was Mercury who took Ceres’ daughter Proserpina to Pluto every year as she made her annual trip to the underworld.
Mercury’s Worship and Position in Roman Religion
Mercury was a popular god but he did not have a priest, since he was not one of the original deities of the Romans. Still, he did have a major festival dedicated to him, which was called the Mercuralia. The Mercuralia was celebrated every year on 15th May. During this festival, the merchants and traders celebrated the god of commerce by sprinkling holy water from Mercury’s sacred well near the Porta Capena on themselves as well as their goods for luck.
Temple to Mercury
Mercury’s temple was built around 495 BCE near the Circus Maximus, on the southwest slope of the Aventine Hill. The year of its building is supposed to have been marked with tensions between the plebeians, the people of common birth, and the aristocratic senators, with disputes arising between different consuls. Since the site of the temple was both a center of trade and a racetrack, it was considered an appropriate place to worship swift-footed Mercury.
Mercury’s Association with Other Gods
Because of the Roman Conquest and the absorption of non-Roman deities into Roman mythology and culture, Mercury has several associations with deities from other cultures, most markedly those of the Celtic and Germanic tribes.
What is Syncretism?
Syncretism is when one combines several beliefs and schools of thought into one. The Roman tendency to see separate deities from other cultures as manifestations of the same deity that they worshiped is an example of syncretism. It is why so much myth, be it Greek myth or Celtic myth or myths believed by the Germanic people, have become absorbed into Roman culture and storytelling to the point that it is often difficult to pinpoint the origins.
Mercury in Celtic Cultures
One example of syncretism is the Celtic deity Lugus, of whom the Romans thought that he was simply an incarnation of Mercury. This led to Julius Caesar’s declaration that Mercury was the chief god of the Celtic people. Even though Lugus probably started out as a solar deity or deity of light, he was also the patron of trade. It was this aspect that had the Romans associating him with Mercury. In this form, the consort of Mercury was the goddess Rosmerta.
As mentioned earlier, Mercury had various names in the various Celtic and Germanic tribes, depending on which of their local gods he was most identified with.
Mercury in Ancient Literature
Mercury finds mentions here and there in some of the ancient poems and classics. In addition to Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Fasti, he also plays an important role in the Aeneid by Virgil. In that epic, it is Mercury who reminds Aeneas of his duty to found Troy and makes him tear himself away from his beloved Queen Dido of Carthage.
Mercury in the Modern World
Apart from being the closest planet to the sun in the solar system, Mercury is still part of our lives in significant ways in the world of today. Whether that be in fiction, cars or the liquid that fills our thermometers, the name of the Roman God can hardly be forgotten.
The ancient Greeks knew the smallest planet in our solar system as either the evening star or the morning star and had different names for them. But by 350 BCE, they had figured out that it was the same celestial body. They named it after Hermes for its swift revolution and the Romans in turn named it after Mercury. Thus, the planet is named after the swift Mercury, the Roman equivalent of Hermes, for the speed with which it moves across the sky.
NASA’s first manned space program, which was supposed to put man into orbit around the planet Mercury, was also named after the Roman god. Project Mercury ran from 1958 to 1963.
Jack Kirby’s first published comic book, Mercury in the 20th Century, published in Red Raven Comics in 1940 features Mercury. However, this character was later turned into Makkari, who is one of Eternals in the Marvel Comics. It is not clear what prompted this change.
Flash, who is the fastest character in the DC comics and notably has a pair of wings on either side of his forehead as part of his costume, is a pretty obvious tribute to Mercury.
Mercury is also one of the characters In the battle arena game Smite, amongst a hoard of playable mythological figures.
The element Mercury, with its modern chemical symbol of Hg, is named after the planet. Also named quicksilver, this element is the only metal that remains liquid at room temperature. Mercury is named after the planet because in medieval times, alchemy associated the seven known metals (quicksilver, silver, gold, iron, copper, lead, and tin) with the seven planets that they knew then. An interesting fact is that the astrological symbol of the planet Mercury, which is a stylized form of the caduceus that Mercury carried, became the alchemical symbol of the element mercury.
The American automobile manufacturer had a division that is now defunct called Mercury. The first brand logo of this Mercury brand was the god. Mercury is featured as a silhouette profile wearing the signature bowl hat with wings to identify him. This was revived for a while again in 2003-2004 before the logo changed.
The famous record label, Mercury Records, references the Roman god not only in their name but also in their logo, which uses Mercury’s winged helm.
The Mercury Dime in the United States which was issued between 1916 and 1945 is named after the god. However, what is interesting is that the figure on the coin is not actually Mercury but a Winged Liberty. It does not wear a winged helm but the soft conical Phrygian cap. It is perhaps due to the resemblance between the two figures that the name has become known in the popular imagination.