I was at a charity shop this afternoon and picked up Robert Graves’ The Greek Myths: I (1955) for pennies. ‘Mercury’ is the Roman name for the Greek god, Hermes. Graves’ account of the myth casts some insight into the nature of Mercury/Hermes, which I will paraphrase in parts and quote in parts here.

Mercury statue Hermes, it is told, was ‘begat’ by Zeus ‘on Maia, daughter of Atlas, who bore him in a cave on Mount Cyllene in Arcadia’ (55). Following the birth of Hermes, Zeus also begat Apollo and Artemis on Leto (55).

Hermes, it is told, ‘grew with astronishing quickness …, and as soon as [his mother’s] back was turned, slipped off and went looking for adventure’ (63). He encountered Apollo tending ‘a fine herd of cows’, and decided to steal them (63). When Apollo discovered the loss, he confronted Maia, Hermes’ mother, who protested her son’s innocence, believing her son to be asleep in their cave. However, Apollo recognised the hides from his cows, and ‘picked up Hermes, carried him to Olympus, and there formally accused him of theft, offering the hides as evidence’ (64).

Zeus was reluctant to believe his own son was a thief and ‘encouraged him to plead not guilty’ (64). Apollo, however, was unrelenting and Hermes finally confessed. He agreed to returning the rest of Apollo’s herd, and admitted to having slaughtered two animals, which he had cut up into twelve portions to offer as a sacrifice to the twelve gods. As it seemed there were only eleven gods on Olympus at the time, Apollo asked, ‘Twelve gods? Who is the twelfth?’, to which Hermes replied, ‘Your servant, sir. … I ate no more than my share, though I was very hungry, and duly burned the rest’ (64). Graves observes that this was ‘the first flesh-sacrifice ever made’ (64).

The two returned to Hermes’ cave, in which he produced a tortoise-shell lyre, which he had invented, and ‘played such a ravishing tune on it …, at the same time singing in praise of Apollo’s nobility, intelligence, and generosity, that he was forgiven at once’ (64). Apollo was so enraptured with the instrument that he offered the rest of his cows in exchange for the lyre, ‘and they shook hands on it’ (64).

While grazing his cows, Hermes cut some reeds and made a pipe, from which he played another tune. Apollo was once again enraptured and offered in exchange his golden staff with which he herded his cattle, crying to Hermes, ‘in future you shall be the god of all herdsmen and shepherds’ (64).

On Hermes’ return to Olympus, ‘Zeus warned [him] that henceforth he must respect the rights of property and refrain from telling downright lies; but he could not help being amused’ (65), and father and son share the following exchange:

… ‘You seem to be a very ingenious, eloquent, and persuasive godling,’ [Zeus] said.

‘Then make me your herald, Father,’ Hermes answered, ‘and I will be responsible for the safety of all divine property, and never tell lies, though I cannot promise always to tell the whole truth.’

‘That would not be expected of you,’ said Zeus, with a smile. ‘But your duties would include the making of treaties, the promotion of commerce, and the maintenance of free rights of way for travellers on any road in the world.’ When Hermes agreed to these conditions, Zeus gave him a herald’s staff with white ribbons, which everyone was ordered to respect; a round hat against the rain, and winged golden sandals which carried him with the swiftness of the wind. He was at once welcomed into the Olympian family, whom he taught the art of making a fire by the rapid twirling of the fire-stick. (65, my emphasis in bold face)

Following his entry into Olympus, Hermes was taught ‘how to foretell the future from the dance of pebbles in a basin of water; and he himself invented both the game of knuckle-bones and the art of divining by them’ (65). Hades, God of the Underworld (Pluto, in Roman mythology, and astrology), also ‘engaged him as his herald, to summon the dying gently and eloquently, by laying the golden staff upon their eyes’ (65).

Hermes also ‘assisted the Three Fates in the composition of the Alphabet, invented astronomy, the musical scale, the arts of boxing and gymnastics, weights and measures … and the cultivation of the olive-tree’ (65).

There is such a wealth of mythic references here that my analysis of the story of Hermes in relation to our understanding of Mercury in astrology must wait till the next post, which won’t be too long.

Part II.

Graves, Robert. The Greek Myths. Vol I. London: Penguin, 1960.

The image, courtesy of Chris Weller, is of a statue of Mercury in London’s Syon Park.