As a devotee of Mercury, I’m naturally interested in what is traditionally associated with Him. And because I believe Him to be the same as Hermes, one of the best online places to look for historical information in a nutshell is Theoi.com
– which, to be clear, is an excellent website I highly recommend. This post is not a critique of it, just a personal admission of having been duped by double translation.
So the story goes like this…
In the section on Hermes’ sacred plants, you find krokos and andrakhnos, the latter of which translates into English as strawberry-tree. The translation is correct, but my interpretation of it was not, because when I hear strawberries – or in this case read it – I immediately think of a roughly conic red fruit, when in fact the Greek andrakhnos refers to something else. Something that may be translated as strawberry in English, yes, but which in Portuguese has a different meaning. To put it in pictures:
On the left are regular strawberries or morangos in Portuguese, but on the right are the “strawberries” meant by the Greek andrakhnos, which translates into Portuguese as medronhos, the fruit of the medronheiro or “strawberry-tree”. You see where this is going, right? By neglecting the original word, I assumed Hermes was associated with the plant on the left based on the common Portuguese translation of the English term, thus failing to realize that it can mean different plants. Had I looked further on Theoi.com, I’d have found a list of plants of various myths and gods with additional information, including the scientific nomenclature (and photos!): the andrakhnos is also called in Greek komaros and it stands for the arbutus andrachne or arbutus unedo species, i.e. the Portuguese medronheiro.
So what, then?
Ok, so this is interesting and may even be conceived as a religious experience, since mistakes, translations and hence lapsus linguae are well within the universe of Hermes or Mercury. If He’s a god who likes to play tricks, I’ve obviously been at the receiving end of one or at least walked myself into an error with a mercurial value. But so what?
Well, there are practical consequences, in particular when it comes to offerings. Not so much in the sense of having used regular strawberries for sacrificial purposes all these years, since there’s nothing wrong in offering things for which there is no historical basis, provided that they’re well received by the gods. It’s more of a matter of the world of possibilities that opens up, in particular for a Portuguese individual like me, who’s trying to formulate a regional cult to Mercury and the Lares Viales, something that grants the use of equally regional products a special meaning. Things like the Portuguese aguardente or brandy made from medronho, which can be employed for libations or in baked cakes to be given to Mercury and his host. Or a similar liquor with honey that’s traditional from Monchique, in the Algarve, or medronho bread, not to mention groves of strawberry-trees as native sacred spaces. There are multiple possibilities that can make a perfect bridge between the ancient history of the god and His modern regionalization.
Speaking of which…
And since we’re on the topic, I realized my interpretational mistake while researching the heraldic symbolism and decorative elements on the tombs of Portuguese princes in the Chapel of the Founder, at the Batalha monastery, at some point googling part of the information in English so as to look for additional sources.
Now, for the purpose of context, my interest in a religious structure from the 15th century is due to me being 1) a historian and 2) born and raised in the small city of Alcobaça, located relatively close to Batalha and even closer to the village of Aljubarrota, which gave its name to the nationally quintessential battle that led to the construction of the monastery. If you’re familiar with English history, think of it as a Portuguese equivalent of Agincourt. Its history and the people involved in it are therefore part of the national and local lore, which is why I occasionally dive into the subject, more out of personal interest than professional need. And one of tombs in the Batalha monastery is that of prince John (1400-1442), where you’ll find a depiction of his chosen personal heraldic symbols as carved at the time of his death: a pouch with three scallops and a plant whose identity is not entirely certain, though it’s commonly believed to be a strawberry-tree – and hence why, when looking for the information in English, I realized my mistake. It’s all well within the world of hermits and pilgrims, matching the prince’s status as general administrator of the Portuguese branch of the military Order of Santiago and his presumed devotion to Saint John the Baptist, to whom there was once a shrine within the chapel, in a corresponding position to the tomb. Hypothetically, according to the reading of the funerary set that several scholars have argued for, the heraldic elements chosen by the prince may also express his view of life as a journey.
The pilgrim pouch with the three scallops and the presumed “strawberries” on the tomb of prince John in the monastery of Batalha.
To be clear, prince John was a devout Christian, pretty much aligned with the prevalent anti-Semitism of the time, though also critical of the Church, in particular the idea of holy wars, all of which can be read in a letter he wrote to the his brother king Duarte. He was not in any way or form a polytheist. Which is okay for me, because I don’t expect him – or my family ancestors, for that matter – to be anything other than someone from his own time, with all the differences in mentality and religion that that entails. Yet with that in mind, I nonetheless have to consider that…
If I’m formulating a regional cult to Mercury as leader of the Lares Viales, who were very popular in Roman Galicia, a popularity that finds a curious (and coincidental) continuity in the camino to Santiago, so much so that I’ve decided to drink from that continuum and adopt the scallop as a modern symbol for a polytheist cult.
If I practice Roman polytheism as part of the modern world and hence entwined with a modern culture, language and country, instead of practicing it as part of an anachronic re-enactment of a long-gone empire or republic of which I’m not an actual citizen, and if as a result the heroes I worship are largely those of my country, not those of a Roman state that ceased to exist over a millennium ago.
And if you view the Lares Viales as a category of wayfarer deities that may include not just greater gods like Mercury or Quangeio, but also smaller ones, including deceased humans, and if, in line with what I said above about hero worship, I’m considering the inclusion of Portuguese travelling heroes among the Lares Viales…
… then I should take note of the fact that a Portuguese prince’s choice of personal symbols were the pilgrim’s pouch with scallops and the strawberry-tree, perhaps expressing a view of life as a journey. Not to claim that he was a polytheist – he wasn’t! – or that his worldview was identical to mine – it too wasn’t – but to stress the coincidence of symbols, those of the prince and those of the modern cult I’m working on, emphasized by the fact that the former’s nationality and the regional focus of the latter are also coincidental. Perhaps, who knows, I found another historical figure to count among the Lares Viales of modern western Iberia.