In the context of Mercury’s cult, the fourth day of the fourth month thus has a particular symbolic relevance. There’s no word of it being noticed in ancient Rome, though there are references to a collegium Mercurialium, which could have been responsible for its own celebrations, and we have very little information on the festive calendars of other cities. As our knowledge stands, the ancient Roman feast to Mercury was on the 15th of May, perhaps out of a connection with Maia, His mother. But none of this prevents the creation of festivities today, just as each community in the ancient world was entitled to institute new or expand existing ones, a freedom equally true – if not more so – in the domestic context.
As such, wanting to make use of the date’s symbolic charge, for several years now I’ve been marking the fourth day of the fourth month as Mercury’s birthday, a practice whose meaning is reinforced by the traditional April Fools, since Mercury is also a trickster. And because of that, instead of a single day, the festivity lasts four, from the first to the fourth of the fourth month, thereby stressing the numerical link even further.
Tell me a story
It’s one thing, however, to have a general concept; it’s quite another to give meaning and especially bind everything together in a coherent fashion. That’s where tales can come in, stories that create a narrative frame and award an overarching significance to a series of practices that could otherwise be just disjoint gestures with a common date. And so, in the manner of traditional tales…
Once upon a time, there was a confusing first day of April, full of laughter. Nothing seemed safe, because everything could be a prank, and there were many who laughed for no apparent reason. Alarmed or just curious, the following day people consulted oracles, cast dices, drew cards and observed auguries. And Maia, the mountain nymph, declared herself pregnant and about to give birth. One day after, processions of Lares Viales were seen along the roads, singing about how they were waiting for Maia’s son, the lord of pathways, and invited those who heard them to join in. So people saluted the gods of roads and erected cairns, pouring offerings on them, and readied themselves to celebrate the birth of the god. They prepared food, cleaned the doorways of their homes and made wreaths. And on the fourth day of the fourth month, Maia gave birth to a son, the crafty Mercury of many gifts, acclaimed by the Lares Viales, who spread the word. On the streets, people took part in games, theatre and pranks, while at home they hanged wreaths on their doors and set the tables with abundant food. There were sacrifices in the morning and afternoon, parades and long walks and people visited each other, going into their neighbours’ homes as if arriving from a journey, sharing food with them.
To be clear, this is not an account of historical events, the product of a personal revelation or a parable, allegory or any other kind of story with a metaphorical purpose. It’s simply a fictitious tale I created to give a narrative codification to religious practices and ideas, so that they have a story that inspires and gives meaning, rather than just being a simple list of things to do in a given time. Specifically, the pranks and humour of the first day of April, the worshiping of Maia on the second, the veneration of the Lares Viales on the third and, on the fourth day of the fourth month, the celebration of Mercury’s birthday with sacrifices, wreaths, food and activities connected to Him, at home and on the streets and roads.
So it went like this…
In line with that structure, the first day went normally with a bit of humour – a prank would have been ideal, but the surprise effect gets lost if there’s one every year. On the second day of April, I performed a formal ceremony to Maia, in both her celestial and terrestrial aspects, offerings portions of the ingredients used to produce the food I prepared for Mercury’s birthday. On the third day, I went for a walk – small, due to the stormy weather – raised cairns by roads and poured offerings on them. And on April 4th, I performed two ceremonies to Maia’s son, one in the morning and the other in the afternoon, offering him flowers, food and beverage. A walk or a bike ride would have been a good activity in tribute, but the weather was far from encouraging. Still, I bought a few lottery tickets and left coins by crossroads.
This year, however, was special, given that April 4th was also the month’s first Wednesday, which is when I make my monthly offerings to Mercury. Something exceptional was therefore in order.
And the solution was to multiply the offerings and tributes, emphasizing the number four whenever possible. As a result, in each of the first four days of April, I made four morning offerings to Mercury – a portion of grinded anis, one of cinnamon, one of wine and a tea-light candle – left four coins by crossroads and, on the third day of the month, erected four cairns, pouring four offerings on each – wine, wheat, honey and cinnamon.
For the god’s anniversary, instead of preparing one dish to share with Him, I prepared four, three of them home-made: a pineapple semifreddo, aletria, a biscuit cake and four custard tarts. With the exception of the semifreddo, they’re all common, traditional even in Portuguese cooking, so there’s an element of cult regionalization there. Take aletria, for instance, a thin pasta partly baked in milk, then added sugar and egg yolks and sprinkled with cinnamon: it’s Arab in origin, at least by name – from al-itria – thus expressing the Islamic layer of Portuguese culture. And since it’s typical of Christmas celebrations, if it’s good enough for the birth of one god, it’s good enough for the birth of another. In this case, I accentuated the mercurial purpose by choosing to sprinkle cinnamon in a pattern of squares and crossroads.
On April 4th, during the first ceremony, I burned the morning offerings – a gesture I had done every morning since the start of the month – and made four floral tributes to Mercury: flowers and a wreath for his domestic shrine, an additional wreath to hang on the front door and a strawberry-tree to be planted in family land. In the afternoon sacrífice, the four dishes were consecrated, a small portion of each placed on the sacrificial fire, and then ritually deconsacrated, a process accompanied with libations of medronho strawberry and honey liquor. And then, once the ceremony was over, that same beverage was used for four toasts to Mercury, followed by a brief urban walk during which I bought four lottery tickets.
It was, in short, a “fourgasm”. Because Maia’s son deserves the effort – and may enjoy the pun.