Mercurial

05 15 mercuryToday 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.

Your Kingdom for a Horse

04 24 burning of troyA couple of days ago, I talked about Rome and mentioned briefly that one of its supposed founders, Aeneas, had fled from Troy following the Trojan War. Well, today is the traditional date given for the fall of that city, in the year 1184 BC. The Trojan War is a massively important event in the mythology of the ancient Greeks. It involves so many gods from the Greek pantheon and so many beings that are half human and half divine that for hundreds years nobody really believed that it had happened in the first place. Now, we think that it does contain at least a grain of truth. I’m not going to tell you any events of the war in great detail, because there are too many names, too many different versions and it would get confusing.

So, the Trojan war supposedly happened because Zeus thought there were far too many people in the world. Particularly, far too many of his demi-god children. Zeus had become king of the gods by overthrowing his father Cronus, who had become king by overthrowing his father Uranus. He did not want the same thing to happen to him. There was also a prophecy that one of his lovers, a sea-nymph called Thetis, would give birth to a divine child that would overthrow him. To stop this from happening he had her married off to a human, a king called Peleus. It was at their wedding that the trouble really started.

04 24 wedding of peleus and thetis

All the gods and goddesses had been invited except for Eris, the goddess of discord. Keeping discord out of a wedding is, of course, desirable but not always possible. She turned up and was stopped at the door, but she still managed to throw in her wedding gift, the Apple of Discord. It carried an inscription which said it was a gift ‘to the fairest’. Of course, then there was a huge row about which of them was the most beautiful. Having narrowed it down to Hera, Athena and Aphrodite, they asked a human too choose. They chose Paris, who was visiting from Troy. Athena offered him wisdom, Hera offered him power and Aphrodite offered him the love of the most beautiful woman in the world. He chose Aphrodite and she offered him Helen. Unfortunately, there was a problem. Helen was already married to King Menelaus. But Aphrodite was angry with Menelaus because he had promised, when he married Helen, to sacrifice a hundred oxen to the goddess, but then forgotten about it.

Of course the gods get what they want, so Helen fell in love with Paris and, after some adventures, he took her back to Troy. Loads of men in Greece loved Helen, many had wanted to marry her, but when Menelaus was chosen, they swore to protect her. So that was when 1,200 Greek ships set sail for Troy to get her back. Some tried to break their promise. The king of Cyprus had promise fifty ships, but sent only one real ship and forty-nine made out of clay. Odysseus, who had just got married himself, tried to convince everyone, unsuccessfully, that he was mad by sowing his fields with salt. Then there was Achilles, he was the son of Thetis and Pelius. His mother disguised him as a girl so he wouldn’t have to go. But Achilles was quite the warrior. He wasn’t very good at being the sort of girl that was expected of him and soon gave himself away.

04 24 achilles

Achilles’ mother knew about the prophecy that had bothered Zeus and she tried very hard to make him divine. In one story, she smeared him with ambrosia and held him over a fire to try and burn away the parts of him that were human. Her husband caught her and stopped her. Apparently she had already killed several of her sons this way. In another, she dipped him in the river Styx to make him invulnerable, but he still had one weak point where she held him by the heel. His Achilles Heel.

The Greeks besieged the city of Troy for ten years. Loads of Heroes died, sometimes they were killed by their own side. Everyone got very fed up and then Odysseus had his idea about the horse. The horse was the symbol of Troy so they quite liked them. The Greeks built a giant horse, then they burned their camps and pretended to go home, leaving the horse and a single soldier called Sinon to explain that was a gift for Athena. A couple of people were quite suspicious of the horse. There was a man called Laocoön who said that he didn’t trust any Greeks, even if they did bring presents. He tried to stab the horse with a spear but the god Poseidon sent a sea serpent to strangle him. Then there was Cassandra, the daughter of the king of Troy. She had been blessed with the gift of prophecy and tried to tell everyone that the horse would bring about the downfall of the city. Unfortunately she was also cursed. Her curse was that no one would ever believe her. Both these things were very unfortunate for the Trojans, as there were actually thirty soldiers, incuding Odysseus hiding inside the horse.

04 24 trojan horse

They dragged the horse into the city, gave it a big party and then went to bed. That was when Odysseus and his soldiers climbed out and let the rest of the Greek Army, who hadn’t gone home at all, into the city and they completely destroyed it. They captured Helen and took her home. She and Menelaus didn’t really live happily ever after. In fact, he was pretty sorry about the whole thing. During the attack on Troy, the Greeks had behaved appalingly, they burned loads of temples and the Gods were very upset. They wreaked their revenge and hardly any of the Greeks involved in the Trojan War ever made it home. Or if they did, it took them a really, really long time. Some were killed, some founded other colonies elsewhere. Many european rulers have claimed descent from the survivors of the Trojan War. Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, the Habsburgs, even our own Royal Family.

But, by the 1870s, pretty much everyone thought that the whole thing was complete made up nonsense and there was never even any such place. But then, a man called Heinrich Schliemann discovered the ruins of a Bronze age city exactly where Troy was supposed to be. Since then, several cities have been identified on the same site. Troy has been destroyed and rebuilt many times. But at some point, possibly in the thirteenth century BC, it certainly looks as though it was destroyed by a war.

Drink to the Future

800px-Sileno_(Museo_del_Louvre)Well, today has been difficult. I have spent most of the day researching a person only to find that Wikipedia had lied to me about a date. Never mind, I didn’t really like him anyway. But, by happy chance I’ve also spent part of the day talking with a friend about a character from Greek Myth called Silenus. He was much more fun, so I’m going to tell you about him instead.

Silenus was the foster father, companion and tutor of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine. His origins seem to be very old indeed. He has no mother but Gaia, the earth herself, and sprung fully-formed out of the ground. He’s a sort of man of the forest, who is sometimes described as having the ears, tail and perhaps legs of a horse. You can often see him in paintings of Dionysus and his companions. The one thing you need to know about Silenus, is that he is always drunk. So drunk that he can’t really walk very well. He will be the one sitting on a donkey, falling off a donkey, being supported on a donkey by some satyrs or generally being held up by someone.

02 19 silenus di cosimoRemarkably, he is also very wise. When intoxicated, which as I mentioned is all the time, he possesses special knowledge and the power of prophecy. His favourite things are wine, music and sleep. If you can catch him sleeping and surround him with flowers or chains, he would be under your spell and he might sing for you, tell you a story or foretell your future. That is probably how he came to be at the court of King Midas. Either Midas tempted him with a fountain full of wine, so that he drank it and went to sleep, or some shepherds found him, put a crown of flowers on him and brought him to the king.

For five days, Silenus entertained the king and his court with stories. He told them about a vast continent, far beyond the known world that was peopled by happy and long lived giants, who, by the way, enjoyed an excellent legal system. Once, ten million of them had sailed to our lands but they thought it wasn’t very nice, so they went back again. He told them of a giant whirlpool that no traveller may pass and of two streams nearby. There were fruit trees on the banks of the streams. By one stream, the fruit made people weep and pine away, but eat the fruit on the bank of the other and your youth would be renewed. In fact, you would start living your life backwards, getting younger and younger, until you finally disappeared. Silenus wasn’t keen to tell Midas his fortune though. After being plagued about it for quite some time he said: “… why do you compel me to tell you those things of which it is better you should remain ignorant? For he lives with the least worry who knows not his misfortune…” he went on to say he thought it was better for humans not to be born at all. Actually, we all know what was going to happen to Midas. When Dionysus caught up with his friend, he was so grateful to the king for looking after Silenus, that he offered Midas any gift he would like. Midas chose the gold thing. It did not go well.

Euripides, a playwright from the fifth century BC, wrote a play called ‘Cyclops’ which is a sort of burlesque on Homer’s Odyssey. When Odysseus arrives on the island of the Cyclops, Silenus and his satyrs are already there, captives of the giant. The story is basically the same but a lot more chaotic. There is a bit where the Cyclops is so drunk that he takes Silenus off to his cave because he thinks he is a beautiful young boy. Silenus also claimed that he helped out at a battle between the gods and a race of giants who lived on the earth long ago. He slew the giant Enceladus and frightened the rest of the giants away with his braying donkey. Cyclops is the only surviving Greek play that is neither a comedy or a tragedy, but a satyr. As far as I can tell it’s almost exactly like a tragedy, except with a bunch of hairy satyrs in the chorus making it silly and rude.

Fire Risk

08 23 vulcanIf we were ancient Romans we would be celebrating Vulcanalia today. A festival in honour of the god Vulcan. As he is the god of fire, they had to pay special attention to him at this time of year. Otherwise he might decide to set fire to their recently harvested grain. Even by Roman standards he is a very old god. The oldest shrine in Rome is dedicated to him and it is supposed to have been built in the eighth century BC. It is situated at the foot of the Capitoline Hill and was probably originally outside the city walls. After all, you wouldn’t want an excited fire god kicking off inside your city. It seems the Romans would celebrate by building a bonfire and throwing in live fish and small animals. Maybe I’ll have a barbecue instead.

Vulcan was the son of Jupiter and Juno, the king and queen of the gods. His mother thought he was so ugly that she threw him in the sea. He was rescued by Thetis, a sea-nymph, who raised him as her own. Vulcan had a happy childhood, playing with pearls and swimming with dolphins. Then one day he found the remains of a fisherman’s fire on the beach. He was so fascinated by a glowing ember that he put it in a clamshell and took it back to his underwater home. At first he just looked at it. Then he found he could make it hotter with bellows and use it make certain stones sweat iron, silver or gold. Later he found he could beat the metal into shape and make jewellery, weapons and tools. He built himself a silver chariot which was pulled by seahorses.

Once when Thetis went to a party on Mount Olympus, she was wearing a beautiful necklace of silver and sapphires that Vulcan had made for her. Juno admired it and asked her where it came from. Thetis knew that Vulcan was really Juno’s son and was reluctant to say. Juno was suspicious. When she discovered the truth, that the son she had rejected had become a talented blacksmith she was furious. She demanded that he return home. He refused, but he did send her a gift, a beautiful chair made from silver, gold and mother-of-pearl. Juno was delighted. Until she sat on it. Her weight triggered springs inside and straps flew out fastening her to the chair. The more she struggled, the tighter the straps became. He had built a trap for her. She was stuck in it for three days. Vulcan only agreed to release her when his father, Jupiter, offered him Venus as his bride in return for freeing his mother.

Keep an eye on Vulcan, you never know when he’s going to get out of hand. It was during the festival of Vulcanalia in 79 AD that Mount Vesuvius first began to rumble. If you’ve ever been to Pompeii or to Herculaneum, or even if you haven’t, you probably know how that turned out.