[Sidenote: Birth of Mercury.]
As already repeatedly stated in the course of this work, Jupiter was
never a strictly faithful spouse, and, in spite of his wife's
remonstrances, could not refrain from indulging his caprice for every
pretty face he met along his way. It is thus, therefore, that he
yielded to the charms of Maia, goddess of the plains, and spent some
blissful hours in her society. This divine couple's happiness
culminated when they first beheld their little son, Mercury (Hermes,
Psychopompus, Oneicopompus), who was born in a grotto on Mount
Cyllene, in Arcadia,--
"Mercury, whom Maia bore,
Sweet Maia, on Cyllene's hoary top."
Virgil (Cowper's tr.).
This infant god was quite unlike mortal children, as will readily be
perceived by the numerous pranks he played immediately after his
birth. First he sprang from his mother's knee, grasped a tortoise
shell lying on the ground, bored holes in its sides, stretched strings
across its concavity, and, sweeping his hands over them, produced
strains of sweetest music, thus inventing the first lyre.
"So there it lay, through wet and dry,
As empty as the last new sonnet,
Till by and by came Mercury,
And, having mused upon it,
'Why here,' cried he, 'the thing of things
In shape, material, and dimension!
Give it but strings, and, lo, it sings,
A wonderful invention.'"
[Sidenote: Mercury's theft.]
Being very hungry toward evening, young Mercury escaped from his
sleeping mother, and sallied out in search of food. He had not gone
very far, before he came to a wide meadow, where Apollo's herds were
at pasture. The oxen were fat and sleek; and the mischievous little
god, after satisfying himself that they were young, and therefore
promised to be tender and juicy, drove fifty of them off to a secluded
spot, taking good care to envelop their feet in leafy branches, so
they would leave no traces. Then, his hiding place being reached in
safety, Mercury coolly killed two of the oxen, which he proceeded to
Apollo soon missed his cattle, and began to search for some clew to
their hiding place or to the thief. He could, however, discover
nothing but some broken twigs and scattered leaves. Suddenly he
remembered that the babe whose birth had been announced early that
morning in high Olympus had been appointed god of thieves. He
therefore lost no more time in useless search and conjecture, but
strode off to Mount Cyllene, where he found Mercury peacefully
sleeping in his cradle. With a rude shake, the sun god roused him from
his slumbers, and bade him restore the stolen cattle. Mercury
pretended innocence, until Apollo, exasperated, dragged him off to
Olympus, where he was convicted of the theft, and condemned to restore
the stolen property. Mercury yielded to the decree, produced the
remaining oxen, and, in exchange for the two missing, gave Apollo the
lyre he had just fashioned.
[Illustration: FLYING MERCURY.--Bologna. (National Museum, Florence.)]
This, like most other myths, admits of a natural explanation. Apollo
(the Sun) was supposed by the ancients to possess great herds of
cattle and sheep,--the clouds; and Mercury, the personification of the
wind, born in the night, after a few hours' existence waxes
sufficiently strong to drive away the clouds and conceal them, leaving
no trace of his passage except a few broken branches and scattered
[Sidenote: Mercury's wand, cap, and shoes.]
The gift of the lyre pleased Apollo so well, that he in return wished
to make a present to Mercury, and gave him a magic wand, called
Caduceus, which had the power of reconciling all conflicting elements.
Mercury, anxious to test it, thrust it between two quarreling snakes,
who immediately wound themselves in amity around it. This so pleased
him, that he bade them remain there forever, and used the wand on all
"A snake-encircl'd wand;
By classic authors term'd Caduceus
And highly fam'd for several uses."
Mercury was in due time appointed messenger of the gods, who, to make
him fleet of foot, presented him with winged sandals, the Talaria,
which endowed him with marvelous rapidity of motion. As these sandals
did not seem quite sufficient, however, the gods added the winged cap,
Petasus, to the winged shoes.
"Foot-feather'd Mercury appear'd sublime
Beyond the tall tree tops; and in less time
Than shoots the slanted hail-storm, down he dropt
Towards the ground; but rested not, nor stopt
One moment from his home; only the sward
He with his wand light touch'd, and heavenward
Swifter than sight was gone."
Mercury was not only the messenger of the gods, but was also appointed
god of eloquence, commerce, rain, wind, and the special patron of
travelers, shepherds, cheats, and thieves.
[Sidenote: Story of Io.]
Jupiter often intrusted to Mercury messages of a delicate nature, and
always found him an invaluable ally; but the faithful messenger was
never so much needed or so deeply appreciated as during Jupiter's
courtship of Io, the peerless daughter of the river god Inachus.
To avoid Juno's recriminations, Jupiter had carried on this affair
with even more than his usual secrecy, visiting his beloved only when
quite certain that his wife was asleep, and taking the further
precaution of spreading a cloud over the spot where he generally met
her, to shield her from all chance of being seen from Olympus.
One fine afternoon, all conditions being favorable, Jupiter hastened
down to earth to see Io, and began to stroll with her up and down the
river edge. They heeded not the noonday heat, for the cloud over their
heads screened them from the sun's too ardent rays.
From some cause Juno's slumbers were less protracted than usual, and
she soon arose from her couch to look about her realm, the atmosphere,
and convince herself that all was well. Her attention was soon
attracted by an opaque, immovable cloud near the earth,--a cloud which
had no business there, for had she not bidden them all lie still on
the blue until she awoke? Her suspicions being aroused by the presence
of this cloud, she sought her husband in Olympus, and, not finding
him, flew down to earth, brushing the cloud aside in her haste.
Jupiter, thus warned of her coming, had but time to change the maiden
beside him into a heifer, ere his wife alighted and inquired what he
was doing there. Carelessly the god pointed to the heifer, and
declared he had been whiling away the time by creating it; but the
explanation failed to satisfy Juno, who, seeing no other living
creature near, suspected that her spouse had been engaged in a
clandestine flirtation, and had screened its fair object from her
wrath only by a sudden transformation.
Dissimulating these suspicions with care, Juno begged her husband to
give her his new creation, which request he could not refuse, but
granted most reluctantly, thus adding further confirmation to her
jealous fears. The Queen of Heaven then departed, taking Io with her,
and placed her under the surveillance of Argus, one of her servants,
who possessed myriad eyes, but one half of which he closed at a time.
"The eyes of Argus, sentinel of Heaven:
Those thousand eyes that watch alternate kept,
Nor all o'er all his body waked or slept."
Statius (Elton's tr.).
[Sidenote: Argus' watch.]
She bade him watch the heifer closely, and report anything unusual in
its actions. One day, therefore, as he was watching his charge pasture
by the river, Argus heard her relate to her father, Inachus, the story
of her transformation, and immediately imparted his discovery to Juno,
who, advising still closer watchfulness, sent him back to his post.
Jupiter, in the mean while, was in despair; for days had passed
without his being able to exchange a word with Io, or deliver her from
her imprisonment. Finally he called Mercury to his aid, and bade him
devise some plan to rescue her. Armed with a handful of poppies,
Mercury approached Argus, and offered to while away the time by
telling him tales.
As Mercury was the prince of story-tellers, this offer was not to be
despised, and Argus joyfully accepted; but instead of exerting himself
to be entertaining, Mercury droned out such lengthy, uninteresting
stories, that Argus soon closed half his eyes in profound sleep. Still
talking in the same monotonous way, Mercury softly shook the poppies
over the giant's head, until one by one the remaining eyelids closed,
and Argus was wrapped in complete slumber.
Then Mercury seized the giant's sword, and with one well-directed blow
severed his head from the huge trunk. Only one half of the task was
successfully accomplished; and while Mercury was driving the heifer
away, Juno discovered his attempt, and promptly sent an enormous
gadfly to torment the poor beast, who, goaded to madness by its cruel
stings, fled wildly from one country to another, forded streams, and
finally plunged into the sea, since called Ionian. After swimming
across it, she took refuge in Egypt, where Jupiter restored her to all
her girlish loveliness, and where her son Epaphus was born, to be the
first king and the founder of Memphis.
"In coming time that hollow of the sea
Shall bear the name Ionian, and present
A monument of Io's passage through,
Unto all mortals."
E. B. Browning.
Juno mourned the loss of her faithful Argus most bitterly, and,
gathering up his myriad eyes, scattered them over the tail of her
favorite bird, the peacock, to have some memento of her faithful
servant ever near her.
"From Argus slain a painted peacock grew,
Fluttering his feathers stain'd with various hue."
This story also is an allegory. Io personifies the moon, restlessly
wandering from place to place; Argus, the heavens, whose starry eyes
keep ceaseless watch over the moon's every movement; Mercury is the
rain, whose advent blots out the stars one by one, thus killing Argus,
who else was never known to close all his eyes at once.
[Sidenote: Mercury's offices and worship.]
To Mercury was intrusted the charge of conducting the souls of the
departed to Hades, and when occupied in this way he bore the name of
Psychopompus, while, when addressed as conductor of Dreams, he was
"Gently as a kiss came Death to sever
From spirit flesh, and to the realm of gloom
The pallid shades with fearless brow descended
To Hades, by the winged god attended."
He was one of the twelve principal gods of Olympus, and was widely
worshiped. Temples, altars, and shrines were dedicated to his service
throughout the ancient countries. His statues were considered sacred
boundary marks, and their removal punished by death. Solemn annual
festivals were held in Rome in Mercury's honor in the month of May,
and from him received their name of Mercuralia.