The Dei Lucrii, spirits of wealth, were the Roman divinities that served as Mercury’s ancestors within early Roman belief. As the religio romana changed and evolved over time, Mercury became associated specifically with commerce and trade, particularly the corn trade. As a result, many merchants and tradesmen were devoted to Him, seeking his blessings and making offerings to him at his temple in the Circus Maximus. Later, as Greek religious ideas came to permeate Roman culture, Mercury was syncretized with the Greek god Hermes. By way of this Greek religious influence, the caduceus, winged hat, and winged sandals were attributed to Mercury. This influence was also responsible for expanding Mercury’s (recognized) jurisdiction to include animal husbandry, knowledge, travel, communication, the newly dead (as psychopomp), and divine heraldry, among others.
When I first began to work with Mercury, laboring on an almost daily basis to understand him, the vast range and diversity of his influence are what struck me the most. That same quality is what I suspect made it so hard for me to “get” him in the very beginning. As I thought about him more and began meditating on him, it occurred to me that he is first and foremost a God of Exchange. Not exchange with a little ‘e’ but Exchange with a big ‘E’. His role in exchange is obvious as a god of trade and commerce, but his reach extends beyond that. To my thinking, Exchange is an unifying construct for understanding his specific areas of jurisdiction. For instance, as a god of animal husbandry, he facilitates an exchange between human beings and the animals and land that produce the stuff that sustains human life. As a god of heralds, he facilitates exchange between nations and other political entities. As a god of omens and divination, he facilitates exchange between humans and the gods. As a guide to the dead, he facilitates the exchange between the world of the living and the world of the dead. As a god of language and knowledge, he facilitates exchange between individual people and between cultures. This is the same exchange that he facilitates as a god of travel, roads, and hospitality. Mercurius was also understood as a god of skill in general. I understand skills as tools that help us to reach some goal or end or to facilitate a process. It makes perfect sense to me that a God of Exchange might need to be skilled at many things!
Related to Mercury’s role as a God of Exchange, he is associated with boundaries – both their maintenance and the crossing of them. To my understanding, it is in this capacity that he serves as a god of thieves and trickery. Like with most gods, he can bring favor or wrath; he can ward against thieves and grant the intellectual prowess that defends against trickery or he can admit thieves to your property and encourage a dullness of mind that would render one vulnerable to a wily trickster.
Interestingly, during the growth of the Roman empire, Mercury also became syncretized, via “Interpretatio Romana”, with a number of other deities including Odin and Wodan among the Germanic peoples and Lugus and Lugh among the Celts, and many others. I think that Mercury’s tendency to be on the front lines of cross-cultural connections also fits with his role as a God of Exchange. It is noteworthy that, from my survey of the scholarly and literary sources, no other Roman god seems to have been so quickly and so easily absorbed by so many diverse nations, which the Romans connected with (via trade) or invaded (via military force). “Gaulish” Mercury comes to mind as an example.
When I think of Mercury, I think of him as the drive toward connection and exchange that lies at the heart of everyday life. We have interpersonal, political, social, religious, economic, and a host of other exchanges and interactions every single day of our lives. His sphere of influence is clearest to me in the morning when I cross a major street in my city to catch the bus to my university’s campus. As I stand waiting for the bus, waiting for the business of my day to begin, I often look up into the trees and observe the wind rustling the high leaves and branches. I always think of it as the breath of Mercurius inspiring the connections, interactions, and exchanges of the day to commence.
The above are my personal thoughts. I have synthesized my own experiences with what I have read about Mercury over the years. Below is a partial list of scholarly and literary sources that have influenced my thinking about Mercury. For a full list and/or full citations, feel free to contact me!
- A Roman Relief of Mercury and Minerva from Aldsworth Gloucestershire by Martin Henig, Robert Cleary, and Philip Purser
- Mercurius Amongst the Magni Dei by H. S. Versnel
- Mercury at the Crossroads in Renaissance Emblems by Barbara C. Bowen
- The Aeneid by Virgil
- The Metamorphoses by Ovid
- The Roman God Mercury: An Entrepreneurial Archetype by Barbara J. Bird
- Votive Objects and Objects of Votive Significance from Great Walsingham by Jean Bagnall Smith
- Ancient Rome. http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/asbook09.html
- Hermes. http://www.theoi.com/Olympios/Hermes.html
- Lugus. http://www.imbas.org/articles/lugus.html
- Mercury (God). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mercury_(mythology)
- Mercury (Planet). http://www.weboteric.com/astrology_planets/mercury.php
- Mercury (Planet). http://www.gryphonastrology.com/mercury.html
- Religio Romana. http://www.religioromana.net/index.htm
- Roman Empire. http://www.roman-empire.net/