Mercury’s anniversary

Mercury’s number is four. This is not a declaration of an esoteric principle or a personal revelation, but a fact of history of religions: the Latin name for the fourth day of the week was dies mercurii, from which come the days’ names in modern romance languages that preserved the theonymic nomenclature. Thus, Wednesday is miércoles in Spanish, mercredi in French, mercoledi in Italian. At the source is the Homeric hymn to Hermes – which may contain older beliefs, as suggested by Karl Kerényi – where it‘s said He was born on a fourth day of the month. That idea is reflected on the calendars of ancient Greece and then found its way into Roman culture, where the number was tied to Mercury. Expressing that link, for instance, is a 3rd century mosaic found at Orbe-Bozceáz, in Switzerland, where the fourth day of the week is represented by the god.

The spark
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.

Ludi Mercuriales

A celebratory table: the domestic shrine, already with flowers and a wreath, and four dishes before it. The strawberry-tree is on the right and the liquor is peeping from behind the biscuit cake.

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.


Duped by translation (& finding a Lar?)

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 – 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, 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.