Mercury Transit on May 7, 2003

Mercury and Mythology

Hermes and Mercury

Mercury is the smallest planet in our solar system and the one that is closest to the Sun. It takes Mercury 88 days to complete one revolution in its orbit and it is the speediest of all planets.

As a comparatively bright object in the evening or morning sky, Mercury was well known to many of the ancient people. The ancient Greeks associated this celestial body with the swift messenger of the gods, Hermes . They also distinguished between Apollo in its apparition as a "morning star" (low above the eastern horizon, just before sunrise) and Hermes as an evening star (low above the western horizon, just after sunset). However, they realised that the two names referred to the same celestial body.

It has often been stated that the Greek natural philosopher Heraclides of Heraclea Pontus (ca. 388-315 BC) believed that Mercury and Venus orbit the Sun and not the Earth. However, recent research has cast some doubt on whether he really meant this.

On this page, you will find some interesting information about the mythology related to Hermes/Mercury.

Characteristics of Hermes/Mercury

Mercury - the Roman God

Mercury the swift messenger of the ancient gods.

The Greek god Hermes (the Roman Mercury ) was the god of translators and interpreters. He was the most clever of the Olympian gods, and served as messenger for all the other gods. He ruled over wealth, good fortune, commerce, fertility, and thievery.

Among his personal favorite commercial activities was the corn trade. He was also the god of manual arts and eloquence. As the deity of athletes, he protected gymnasiums and stadiums.

Despite his virtuous characteristics, Hermes was also a dangerous foe, a trickster and a thief. He brought the souls of the dead to the underworld, and was honoured as a god of sleep.

Hermes/Mercury's relation to business and speed survives in words like "mercurial" and "mercantile". Because of his speed, he was sometimes considered a god of winds.

As one of the "planets" known in antiquity, Mercury's name is at the origin of the name of "Wednesday" in French and other Romance languages: "mercredi" comes from the Latin "Mercurii dies", or "Mercury's day".


The Greek god Hermes

The Greek god Apollo

The godly brothers Hermes (left) and Apollo (right).

Hermes is the son of Zeus (the father and "chief" of the ancient Greek gods) and the nymph Maia , a goddess of clouds and one of the Plejades, the seven daughters of Atlas. He was born in Arcadia, near the mountain Cyllene.

A precocious youth, a mere five minutes after he was born, Hermes stole a herd of cows from his brother, the sun god Apollo , obscuring their trail by making the herd walk backward. When confronted by Apollo, Hermes denied the theft. The brothers were finally reconciled when Hermes gave Apollo his newly invented lyre and received from him in exchange the herald's staff ("cadeuceus").

It is said that Hermes one day found a tortoise of which he took the shell, made holes in the opposite edges, and pulled cords of linen through them, in honour of the nine Muses. With this instrument Apollo made the best music in the universe. For himself, Hermes made the shepherd-pipe, similar to the pipes (flutes) used by his future son, Pan .

In his job as messenger, Hermes wears a broad-rimmed traveller's hat called a "petasos" or "petasus", and also "talaria" or winged sandals made of "imperishable gold which bore him swift as a breath of air over sea and Earth" and he carries the "cadeuceus" or herald's staff. This was originally a willow wand with entwined ribbons, the traditional badge of the herald. But the ribbons were eventually depicted as snakes. To support this in mythological terms, a story evolved that Hermes once used the cadeuceus to separate two fighting snakes which forthwith twined themselves together in peace. The cadeuceus is said to be able to charm men's eyes into sleep.

Hermes also carries a purse (actually, more like a money-bag...). The purse signifies his role as the Greek god of riches, trade and good fortune and the Roman god of trade, profit, merchants and travellers.

The Hermes family

The genealogy of Mercury

The Genealogy of Hermes (Mercury).

No wife of Hermes has been clearly identified and he was rather promiscuous. With the goddess of love and beauty, Aphrodite , another offspring of Zeus, he had a daughter, Peitho , the personification of persuasion and seduction. It appears that they had at least two other daughters, Tyche and Eunomia . They also had a son, Hermaphroditus , with both masculine and feminine traits.

A liaison with Penelope produced a son, Pan who is well known as the pipe-playing god of shepherds.

As befits the patron of thieves, another son of Hermes was the great thief Autolycus . Autolycus was the offspring of Chione and Hermes , and the grandfather of the famous hero Odysseus .

Ancient and Roman mythology

The god we now know as Mercury has been known at least since the time of the Sumerians (3rd millennium BC). Here he was called Gud , a god favouring rains, agricultural fertility and harvest abundance. Later, in Babylonian times, he was known as Nebo (Nebu) . Nebu was the son of Marduk , the king of the gods. Marduk became the king by slaying the sea monster Tiamat , thus establishing order in the universe. Nebo became the scribe of the gods. It was his job to write down the laws and edicts of Marduk and to communicate them to common men. To the Egyptians, he was known as messenger of the gods, Thoth .

Marduk later became the Greek Zeus and then the Roman Jupiter . Nebo became the Greek Hermes and then the Roman Mercury . In Roman mythology, he was the son of Jupiter and of Maia , the daughter of the Titan Atlas . Mercury was also the god of the merchants and of trading and he shared many of the attributes of the Greek god Hermes .

The worship of Mercury was introduced into Rome in the year 495 BC when a temple was dedicated to him near the Circus Maximus. His yearly festival was celebrated on May 15 .