Gateway to the Classics: Gods and Heroes by R. E. Francillon
Gods and Heroes by  R. E. Francillon

Mercury and Iris

V ERY often, in these stories, you have met with Mercury, and have heard that he was Jupiter's chief messenger. The office he held made him so busy with all the affairs of heaven, earth, and Hades, that there is scarcely a story without Mercury in it; and it is therefore time to know something more about him.

Now you must know that the people who, ages ago, made these stories about the gods and goddesses in whom they believed, thought that the earth (which you know to be a globe) was a large island surrounded by a boundless ocean. The sky—so they imagined—was a solid dome, on which the sun, moon, and stars made their various journeys. Every morning Phœbus drove the chariot of the Sun forth from the stable beyond the ocean in the east, across the blue dome, till it sank beyond the western ocean, and then passed underground back to the eastern stable, so as to be ready to start again. The Moon, that is to say, the chariot of Diana, also had her proper course across the dome, and so had every planet and star. And this dome, or sky, with all its wonders, was supported on the shoulders of Atlas, a gigantic Titan, condemned to this task (some say) for having helped the giants in their war against the gods.

This Atlas was a great king, and his kingdom stretched westward till it touched the ocean which surrounds the earth. And that is why this part of the sea is called the Ocean of Atlas, or Atlantic Ocean. The name of his kingdom was Mauritania, now called Morocco, where he owned a thousand flocks, and orchards with apples of gold. And he had seven beautiful daughters, whose names were Alcyŏne, Asterŏpe, Celæno, Electra, Maia, Mĕrŏpe, and Taygĕta. Six of these married gods; Mĕrŏpe alone married a mortal. After their death they were honored by being set as stars in the sky, where you may often see the seven sisters clustered together in a beautiful constellation called the Pleiades. But it is very difficult to see Mĕrŏpe, because she married a mortal instead of a god, and therefore shines dimly. If you can see more than six of the seven sisters you have good eyes.

Of all the Pleiades Maia is the brightest, for she was chosen by Jupiter. She had a son named Mercury, and a promising child he must have been. For on the very day he was born he stole the oxen of King Admetus of Thessaly, although (as you may remember) Apollo himself was then the king's herdsman. And Mercury not only stole the oxen, but ran away with Apollo's quiver of arrows. Proud of this feat, he stole the zone of Venus, the sword of Mars, and the hammer of Vulcan; and at last he carried off the very scepter of Jupiter. Instead of punishing him, however, Jupiter was so delighted with his cleverness and impudence that he made Mercury his chief messenger and cup-bearer. He also gave him a winged cap, wings for his heels, a short sword, and a scepter called caduceus—a rod round which two living serpents coiled. The winged cap was called pĕtăsus, and whenever he put it on he became invisible; the wings for his heels were called talaria, and made him able to fly faster than lightning to any place he pleased. The caduceus was a magic wand. It first belonged to Apollo, who used to drive the flocks of King Admetus with it. But when Mercury invented the lyre, he gave the lyre to Apollo in exchange for the caduceus. The lyre became Apollo's favorite instrument, and Mercury used the caduceus  to drive the flocks of dead souls to Hades, for that was one of his duties. He could also send people to sleep with it, and could bring back the dead to life by touching them with its point. You will always know a picture or statue of Mercury from his caduceus, and from the wings on his cap and heels.

He needed to be quick, active, and clever, for he had a great deal to do—so much that Jupiter relieved him of the office of cup-bearer and gave it to a young Phrygian shepherd, named Ganymede. That is what Mercury had to do. He had to carry all Jupiter's messages, which, of course, obliged him to be almost everywhere at once; he had to see that the laws of the great council of the gods were properly carried out; to keep Jupiter's secrets; to know everything that was going on all over the world; to conduct the souls of the dead to Hades—each one of which things was enough, one would think, to take up his whole time. However, he managed to do it all, and a great deal more, and was not very particular how. For it must be owned that Mercury, though a god, was not above lying and cheating whenever it suited his purpose. He was wonderfully eloquent, and could make anybody believe anything. And he was the patron, that is to say, the friend and protector, of merchants, travelers, orators, and thieves.

Juno also had a chief messenger—a goddess named Iris. The path of Iris from heaven to earth and back again is the rainbow; so whenever you see a rainbow you may know that Iris is bringing a message down from Juno. Indeed "Iris" means "Rainbow."

I ought to tell you that the planet nearest to the sun is called Mercury, and that Mercury is another name for the metal quicksilver.

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