©Godrey Dykes

March 2015


   Ancient Greece, came many centuries before ancient Rome came into being. Thus HERMES came before MERCURY and much of what HERMES is said by myth to have achieved centuries earlier, MERCURY emulated and the Romans, generally pleased with the myths which fitted their purposes, adopted them piecemeal. Although both are called the messenger of the God's, their very similar roles sometimes broke that myth! Both of them could fly and both frequented the heavens and the sub-surface of the earths crust [the Gods] as well as visiting and talking with human beings on terra firma. Just about every aspects of life, real or spiritual, had a God, and whilst most where in the heavens, some where under the sea [Neptune], and deep down inside terra firma - HERMES at one time was the messenger of the God of Earth - and one of their main jobs was to escort the newly deceased to their place of burial. Both messengers flew from the Kingdom of Gods to earthly mortals exchanging wishes, commands, repentances, and also between God's, sometimes playing one God off against another, said to be a tease or was it devilment? The chief God was their most frequent calling off port of call, namely for HERMES to Gaia the Goddess of all things, mother of earth, sky, heavens, sea, giants, all living and growing things, life, death and the hereafter: to create all things not in the sea she mated with the God of the Sky Uranus and all things in the sea with Pontus God of the sea. For MERCURY Roman God's had different names.

  From our earliest attempt at learning and using a vocabulary/language, we learn the word 'myth'. We also learn that a myth is not true, but a fabrication and but a story, just like a nursery rhyme or a pantomime. Moreover, some are darn right silly whilst others have an element of feasibility. One of the silliest I think, is the myth of HERMES at birth which affects his near historical likeness MERCURY.

  It is said that HERMES shortly after his birth, climbed out of his cot and went off to steal some cattle belonging to his half brother Apollo. By the time Apollo had arrived at HERMES' cot side he was feigning sleep, and Apollo wakened him and was very angry. To say sorry to Apollo HERMES gave him a musical instrument [a Lyre - wait for it - which he had just invented!!!].

  Although later on and unrelated, Apollo gave HERMES a wand, or more correctly a 'heralds staff', and as often as not, HERMES is shown with a staff in his right hand, whilst MERCURY is shown using his left hand, but there are exceptions, and of course, all drawings of them both, coming from centuries of artists and painters exercising artistic licence. The heralds staff in this case, was a plain shaft [or stick] of wood, on top of which were a set of wings, and entwined on the staff were two inter-wined snakes with their heads uppermost, and when correctly drawn from images of antiquity, the heads have reached the wings. The drawing of this image might be considered to be wrong or inaccurate. It is the one used on the crest of a naval association called the RNCCA.

  Between the wings and on top of the staff is a ball, or round spherical object. It is sometimes, but always wrongly, thought to be a globe, an image of the world around which the wings would travel helping to propel HERMES or MERCURY (with the wings on their helmets and boots - respectively called Petasos and Talarial across the skies. In those days, the world was flat, very flat, and you could be cruelly put to death thinking otherwise, or that we went around the sun instead of what most believed, that the sun travelled around us - even the "father of modern science and physics" Galileo, as late as 1642, well over sixteen centuries on from the ancient world of Rome, was ostracised, declared persona non-grata by the Roman Catholic church, declared a heretic and banned for heresy for carrying out his astronomical calculations of heavenly bodies.

This staff (despite the ornate graphics) is much more in keeping in accuracy.

  The staff is called a CADUCEUS today (mainly from Roman times) but in Greek times it had another name - not mentioned so as not to confuse you. As just mentioned above APOLLO gave HERMES his first caduceus, but the snag was that the same designed staff was carried by other important messengers of the Gods (several messengers flitting around in free space) in the same time zones under consideration. So, taking MERCURY's time in ancient Rome there were others as well as well as he carrying such a heralds staff. Extending that, in the centuries that passed between HERMES time and MERCURYs time, countless thousands of heralds carried a similar staff of office. Although MERCURY is even depicted as being dressed the same as HERMES (never mind carrying the same staff) the time divide between them is the equivalent to the time divide period between Richard the Lion Heart (Richard 1) and Queen Elizabeth II.

So what do the snakes on the caduceus mean or represent, and are they relevant today on any badge bearing a caduceus?

There are many myths but two make me smile, so I'll mention them.

The first is that the snakes are copulating and the second that they are fighting!

  At a time when the caduceus was not in the hands of HERMES, and ancient Greece was 'sagging', the caduceus was in the hands of another whose name doesn't matter. He came across two snakes copulating, so (but why?) he killed the female. He was immediately turned into a woman. He/she stayed in that gender for eight years until the surviving male snake made love to her, at which time he became a man again. The staff was now valuable because it had transformative powers.

  Another myth tells of either HERMES or MERCURY coming upon two snakes fighting on the ground entwined in mortal combat. He separated them with his staff and from that time thereafter, two snakes entwined were a symbol of peace and good will, and now good friends.

Believe what you will, if any!

The recognised astronomical sign of MERCURY the planet is this:

  It represents two snakes, their tales joined as one on the bottom at the peak of the staff, and at the top, the snakes have crossed over and their respective heads look like horns.

  You will recall that there were many caduceus carriers over the centuries, and from some of them, messengers of the Gods or otherwise important people, came very close or near-like associations, some of them clearly wrong. The chief culprit is the medical world. In the USA, they use the double entwined snakes to represent medics in both the US Armed Forces and in some parts of their vast commerce areas. The true medical representation is a staff with just one climbing snake as used in all old-Commonwealth armed forces. This confusion is because of another similar, yet distinguished, symbol of the Rod of Asclepius, the staff carried by Asclepius. He is the Greek god associated with healing and medicine. The symbol carries a single snake wrapped on a rod, with no wings on it. Greek mythologists often associate the snake with renewal of youth because a snake is known to shed its old skin.

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  The British Army got it right - of course! - and this is the RAMC - Royal Army Medical Corps badge.

  It would be a fitting symbol for undertakers as both the messengers in their time escorted the dead to their graves.

  A caduceus is a symbol of peace and harmony/balance, of good will, and of spiritual awakening/rebirth. It is an acknowledgement of messengers, and some aspects of commerce. It is a universal symbol and can be found widely throughout the middle east and Asia, naturally tailor-made to their beliefs and myths.

  Here are three naval crests using a Caduceus.

The erstwhile RN Signal School at Leydene>

A WW1 RN Destroyer and later transferred to the RAN. Crest never submitted for approval until 1945 and still awaiting an assignment since approval.

HMS Despatch. A cruiser built at the end of WW1 completed and commissioned in 1919.

  MERCURY (can I call a wandering spirit 'him'?) is depicted in statue form from antiquity right up to the most famous of all statues which is called "Flying Mercury". Some the statues are tall and some very small, and I have had the privilege of seeing the original Flying Mercury full on, sculptured by that brilliant man Giambologna. There are many types and sadly variations (not wishing to stifle art and it's creative powers) of the image, many trying to guild-the-lily in an endeavour to beautify the image. Basically, Giambologna got it right [and as such his masterpiece is universally considered to be the defining moment, the default image] for he added in an additional and fully relevant feature of antiquity which helps to see MERCURY for all he was (in myth anyway) with the ability to wander throughout the universe helped by other God's on his many and tiresome journeys. The universe then and now had no barriers [in myth] and was boundless. In this imagine, note two things of specific interest. Firstly, as always, the caduceus is in MERCURY's left hand, and secondly, note that MERCURY is being assisted into the universe by a large puff of wind coming from the mouth of a God of the Winds (essentially there were two such God's, one of the north/south wind and one for the east/west wind) but they had helpers to cope with swirling winds. This head, on which MERCURY stands on the exhalation of wind coming from its mouth with his left foot, is thought to be Zephyr one of the God's of winds, helping him with his take off.

  Here is that foot - head - puff of wind from Zephyr's mouth in close up, for great detail Many copies were made from an original in the style of Giovanni da Bologna now on display in the National Museum of Florence Recently, whilst visiting the town of Torquay in Devon, my wife and I visited the Torre Abbey Museum, and they have no fewer than three copies of Mercury. If that were not enough, the Torquay Museum itself sports a larger version. If you can't get to Florence, then as a second best, I recommend a visit to the wonderful and beautiful residence of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire's stunning Peak District, for they own a splendid Mercury statue which is on show to the paying public!

  Other images show a statue of sorts (many outstandingly beautiful) standing on a simple polished wooden base.

  The one below, suggests that MERCURY went global only and not universal, with the images standing on a globe. It is a badge of the Royal Corps of Signals based in Blandford Dorset.

  Now in conclusion, dare I suggest that the RNCCA badge (previously mentioned) is changed. 'A' because it is drawn incorrectly and 'B' because the caduceus was far from being unique to MERCURY, indeed, as I have shown, it was the symbol of many users throughout many centuries. Had we had a ship called HERMES now in commission, and had the crew of it chosen the caduceus as their badge, they would have had first right to it. I do know that we don't have a HERMES today! HERMES in her day, chose a very simple badge which could well be HMS MERCURY's badge, namely a headed helmet with a wing on the side.

FOOTNOTE (three weeks later)

  I put this to the RNCCA webmaster but got no response or acknowledgement of my email. Then in fairness, I was reminded that the webmaster is in the throes of handing over to a new webmaster who is in the process of writing a brand new website, so strength to his arm and I can see that neither, and fairly at that, would be at all interested in my story. Therefore, three weeks after scoring the page, I have published it into the public domain.

Go well and Yours aye.