Today is the Ides of May. You’ve probably heard of the Ides of March but there was an ‘ides’ in the middle of every Roman month. On the Ides of May there was a festival in honour of the god Mercury called Mercuralia. Mercury is really the Roman version of the Greek god Hermes. His mother was Maia, and it is after her that the month of May is probably named. His father was Jupiter, who frankly got around a bit. We know that Mercury is the messenger of the gods and that he wears a winged helmet and sandals. He carries a caduceus, a magic, winged staff with two serpents twined around it. Beyond that he’s rather hard to pin down. Mercurial, if you will. He is the god of financial gain, commerce, eloquence, messages, communication, travellers, boundaries, luck, trickery and thieves. That’s quite a diverse range. Though there probably is a link between financial gain and eloquence, luck and trickery. The name Mercury and the word ‘merchant’ probably come from the same root.
All his wings allowed him to travel quickly between the upper and lower worlds. As well as being a messenger he is credited with being a ‘psychopomp’ which is a marvellous word and it means that he guided the souls of the dead to the underworld. A bit like our ‘grim reaper’, but probably a bit more upbeat. His caduceus is a symbol associated with messengers in general and probably pre-dates both Mercury and Hermes. You can see them in images dedicated to the Mesopotamian god of the Underworld dating from the twenty-first century BC. The caduceus belonging to Hermes is supposed to have been a gift from Apollo that had once belonged to his blind prophet Tiresias. Tireseas used his staff to kill one of a pair of copulating serpents a was turned into a woman as a punishment. But that’s a whole other story, that I’m probably not going to have time to get round to. Also as it is sometimes seen as a staff which is dividing two fighting snakes and representing skills in negotiation.
Mercury/Hermes is a clever character but not entirely trustworthy. In Greek mythology, it seems that when he was just four hours old he killed a tortoise, made its shell into a musical instrument, thus inventing the lyre, and learned to play it. Later the same day he stole some cattle belonging to his half-brother Apollo. He managed to cover his tracks by putting the cattles’ hooves on backwards before he drove them away. When asked about it, he denied even knowing what a cow was. Seriously, don’t trust this guy. Hermes and Apollo later made up. Hermes gave Apollo his lyre and Apollo gave him the caduceus.
The Romans adopted a lot of their gods from the Greeks and, as their empire spread, they also got very good at reinterpreting other people’s gods to fit in with their own pantheon. In Gaul and in Britain they encountered a god named Lugh who was similarly represented as a multi-talented fellow who was also a bit of a trickster. So they decided he must be Mercury too. It didn’t really matter that this god had three faces and three penises. The Romans were pretty tolerant like that and they wanted him anyway.
In Rome, the festival of Mercury was celebrated by those connected with commerce. They prayed to him for forgiveness for all the lies they had told in the past and also to ask for success in all the lying they were going to do in the future. If you want to celebrate Mercularia today and you own a ship, merchandise or indeed a head, what you need to do is this… Take some water from the holy well of Mercury, (there is one at Porta Capena in Rome, but maybe you can find another) and dip a laurel branch in it and sprinkle it over your stuff or yourself. If you deal in mainly in electrical equipment though, probably stick with pouring it over your head.