To Mercury in Belem (Lisbon)

For some time now, I’ve been keeping my eye on a tree stump at a river-side public park in Lisbon. The site has a very mercurial nature in the sense that, both historically and modernly, it can be linked to travelling, transportations, diplomacy, (tourist) guiding, language and historical interpretation, as well as some commerce. Keeping with the tradition of the Greek herma, my initial idea was to collect rocks and erect a heap, but in all likelihood it wouldn’t last long: it is, after all, a public park, well tended by the city gardeners who would certainly remove whatever pile I made. A tree stump offers a solution, since it’s not easily removed. Plus, it has a flat top, which is good for leaving offerings, and it allows for the carving of an inscription on the wood. And that’s exactly what I did!

Belém (Portuguese for Bethlehem) is an area located on the western end of Lisbon. It was originally a village outside the capital, but the city’s growth led to its incorporation as an urban parish. It was also the place from where some of the 16th century navigators sailed, a fact commemorated by the Monastery of the Jerónimos and other later monuments, all located by the river. Today, it’s one of the major tourist sites in Lisbon, which is another way of saying that it’s full of travellers, guides, and a daily dosage of experiences on translation and communication. And where there are thousands of visitors, there’s a natural ground for local commerce. It’s also a place that has hosted several diplomatic events: the treaty that made Portugal a member of the then European Economic Community, in 1986, was signed in the cloister of the monastery, as was the more recent Treaty of Lisbon, and the nearby Cultural Centre of Belem has also hosted its share of summits. As an extra, the public altar is located close to an avenue, train stop, river dock, and a marina. The place has hermeneutic god of travellers and trade written all over it. And, just a bit up river, there’s the area of Alcantara (from the Arab for the bridge), which is one of Lisbon’s main trading docks.

To mark the tree stump, I took a carking knife and inscribed the words Deo Mercurio (To the God Mercury). The letters are not perfect, since I carved them on a natural piece of wood and not a plank, but the text if clearly visible. I then made offerings of water, incense, and wheat to Janus, Mercury, and the local genii.

To give you an idea of the exact location, Belém has three great open spaces by the river: a plaza with a fountain right in front of the monastery, a garden with trees and large paches of grass, and a small gardened square with a column on the centre, in front of a pink palace. The altar is by the borderline between the second and third park.

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