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May 15 – The Feast of Mercury

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May 15 was the date of the Mercuralia, the Feast of Mercury. Mercury was the Roman version for the ancient Greek god Hermes, the messenger of the gods and a bringer of dreams, and the patron god of messengers, tourists, travelling merchants, as well as of thieves and game-cheaters (H. A. Guerber, Myths of Greece and Rome. New York: American Book Company, 1893. Page 134).

The ancient Greek god Hermes, and his Roman counterpart Mercury, have curious origins and legends attached to them. Although they are often given the designation of being a divine messenger, both Hermes and Mercury seem to have started off as rain gods who also had some connection to the Underworld. According to Samuel F, Dunlap, a 19th Century “theologian” (I use that term EXTREMELY loosely, since his writings bear more of a resemblance to the rambling rantings of a religious crack-pot or cult leader), the name Hermes comes from Haram-eias, who might he related to Baal-Ram. The name Mercury is related to the Phoenician rain god Mar, and also held the title Mar-Kuri, “Mar of the Dead”. In Greek myth, Hermes was one of several sky gods which included Zeus, Apollo, and Helios. Hermes is mentioned as a rain god who nourished the earth with water from Heaven, and who possibly gave restorative power to the dead. The rooster was an animal sacred to Hermes and served as his symbol (Samuel Fales Dunlap, Sōd: The Mysteries of Adoni. London: Williams and Norgate, 1861. Pages 77-78).

The reason why the Feast of Mercury takes place on May 15 is because his first temple in the city of Rome was dedicated on this day, according to the Roman historian Livy. According to his report, the first temple of Mercury was officially opened on May 15, 495 BC (Gary Forsythe, The historian L. Calpurnius Piso Frugi and the Roman Annalistic Tradition. Berkeley: The University of California Press, 1994. Page 147).

However, it’s possible that May 15 wasn’t just some random date; the date of the opening for his temple may have been deliberately timed to take place on this day. There are two reasons why I say this. Firstly, the “ides” were regarded by the ancient Romans has being very important dates within the calendar. According to Roman myth, Mercury was the son of the goddess Maia, of whom the month of May is named after (H. A. Guerber, Myths of Greece and Rome. New York: American Book Company, 1893. Page 131). Therefore, having the temple’s dedication take place on the Ides of May would have been appropriate, considering Mercury’s divine parentage.

Secondly, it’s possible that Feast of Mercury takes place on May 15 as a continuation of the Lemuria festival. The Lemuria was a festival dedicated to the dead (one of several in the ancient Roman calendar) which was celebrated on May 9, 11, and 13. According to Roman mythology, the god Mercury had a part to play in things related to the souls of the departed: “To Mercury was intrusted (sic) the charge of conducting the souls of the departed to Hades” (H. A. Guerber, Myths of Greece and Rome. New York: American Book Company, 1893. Page 137).

But by and large, Mercury was not thought of as a god of death. Rather, he was associated with commerce, news, dreams, and cleverness. “The profession of merchandise (saith Plutarch) was honourable, as it brought home the produce of barbarous countries, engaged the friendship of kings, and opened a wide field of knowledge and experience” (Anonymous, The Anniversary Calendar, Natal Book, and Universal Mirror. Volume II. London: William Kidd, 1832. Page 485).

On May 15, Roman merchants would take water from the well of Porta Capena, a well that was believed to be sacred to Mercury, and sprinkle it on themselves, their ships, and their cargo to protect them while travelling (C. Scott Littleton, ed., Gods, Goddesses, and Mythology. Volume 6: Inca-Mercury. Tarrytown: Marshall Cavendish, 2005. Page 861). The water in Mercury’s well was known as acqua Mercurii was believed to aid in forgiving sins – both those committed in the past as well as any that might be committed in the future – and was thought to bring good luck. Travelling merchants needed all the luck that they could when carrying out commerce. The threats of storms, shipwrecks, pirates, thieves, bandit gangs, and even outbreaks of war were ever-present on their minds (Rebecca I. Denova, Greek and Roman Religions. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2019. Page 131).

The Romans also had a second Mercuralia festival later in the year, and this one lasted for more than just one day. The second Mercuralia was a six-day-long celebration that lasted from July 14 to 19 (Anonymous, The Anniversary Calendar, Natal Book, and Universal Mirror. Volume II. London: William Kidd, 1832. Page 485). We know a little bit more about the celebrations that took place during this period than the earlier festival in the middle of May. A sow was sacrificed, and, according to the Greek writer Athenaeus, “They poured libations at the conclusion of dinner and offered them to Hermes, not, as in later times, to Zeus the Fulfiller. For Hermes is regarded as the patron of sleep. So they pour the libation to him also when the tongues of the animals are cut out on leaving a dinner. Tongues are sacred to him because he is the god of eloquence” (Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae, excerpts from Book 1, 16B-C; Samuel Fales Dunlap, Sōd: The Mysteries of Adoni. London: Williams and Norgate, 1861. Pages 77).

The symbol of both Hermes and Mercury was the caduceus. Myth says it was presented to Mercury as a gift from Apollo as a reward for inventing the lyre (H. A. Guerber, Myths of Greece and Rome. New York: American Book Company, 1893. Page 134). As an interesting coincidence (or perhaps it isn’t a coincidence), the third full week in May is unofficially known as “National Emergency Medical Service Week” (“National EMS Week”).

Sources:

  • Anonymous. The Anniversary Calendar, Natal Book, and Universal Mirror. Volume II. London: William Kidd, 1832.
  • Athenaeus. Deipnosophistae, excerpts from Book 1, 16B-C. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Athenaeus/home.html.
  • Denova, Rebecca I. Greek and Roman Religions. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2019.
  • Dunlap. Samuel Fales. Sōd: The Mysteries of Adoni. London: Williams and Norgate, 1861.
  • Forsythe, Gary. The historian L. Calpurnius Piso Frugi and the Roman Annalistic Tradition. Berkeley: The University of California Press, 1994.
  • Guerber, H. A. Myths of Greece and Rome. New York: American Book Company, 1893.
  • Littleton, C. Scott, ed. Gods, Goddesses, and Mythology. Volume 6: Inca-Mercury. Tarrytown: Marshall Cavendish, 2005.
  • National Day. “National EMS Week”. https://nationaldaycalendar.com/national-ems-week-third-full-week-of-may/.

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