Today is the fourth day of the fourth month of the year, a combination that doesn’t go unnoticed for this particular mercurial devotee. It’s also my fourth piece on this site, so in light of that and as a tribute to the son of Maia, I’ve decided to write an article not about a fundamental topic that needs to be addressed or some obscure aspect of polytheism, but rather something more personal. It’s an expression of my devotion to Mercury, a written offering of sorts that may or may not (but hopefully will) feed into a collective sense of belief that’s part of the building blocks of a religious community. Even when belief is diverse and non-regulated. First, though, some clarifications are in order.
For some years now, I’ve been marking the first four days of April as the Ludi Mercuriales. It’s not an historical festival, even if in his Remus: a Roman myth, Timothy Wiseman does raise the possibility of a celebration under that name in ancient Rome, based on a reference to a collegium Mercurialium (1995: 213, n. 54). It’s a hypothesis and nothing more, but of little consequence in this case, because at the end of the day you don’t have to limit yourself to historical celebrations. At least not if you’re into reviving an ancient religion in the modern world as opposed to merely re-enacting it. If you have a living practice and not a fossilized one, you will freely celebrate dates that were unknown in the ancient world and even create new festivals to mark moments you find meaningful. Which is precisely the case of the first four days of the fourth month: not only does it relate to Mercury’s association with the number four, it also links to His role as a trickster by way of April Fools; even astrologically, if you’re into it (not my case, but I still find it curious), it falls on Aries or Ram, which happens to be one of the god’s animals. And that pretty much explains why I mark the fourth day of the fourth month as Mercury’s birthday.
Now, is He the same as Hermes? The answer is highly subjective, but if asked, I’d say yes and no. He lacked a flamen, which suggests He wasn’t part of the earliest Roman pantheon, and His temple was located outside the pomerium, which also hints at a foreign god. His origin may instead lie in Magna Graecia, which had trade relations with Rome, thus explaining the root of His name in the Latin merx (merchandise). In other words, He is Hermes imported by traders (perhaps grain merchants) and named after their own craft. Therefore, historically speaking, They are the same being. But an old god in a new context is, in a sense, also a new deity, because the host culture will reinterpret Him to a greater or lesser degree according to its parameters and needs, emphasizing certain features in detriment of others and perhaps even awarding new functions. Which results not in two separate entities – at least not necessarily – but different views of one. To use Tess Dawson’s analogy in her latest piece on this site, it’s the same tree seen by a squirrel and a human, which relate to it differently and thus name it in an accordingly different fashion. In other words, Mercury is Hermes’ Roman identity, complete with its own protocol and expectations, much like a man who works in Europe and Japan will act and present himself in a given way depending on the cultural circumstances. In a sense, a different god, though in reality the same.
I should also point out that what follows are not Mercury’s words or things He taught me in a conversation, because I don’t have that sort of interaction with Him. I get hints, subtle clues and signs, mostly in the form of coincidences or lucky finds, and occasionally a few dreams. But nothing along the lines of sitting down and hearing a sermon. What follows are ideas I revisited, wrote down or meditated on while being a devotee of His – things I’ve come to associate with Mercury while walking His path. Others might have different ideas and that’s okay, because I don’t expect the same god to be seen in an identical fashion by different people. So having clarified matters…
All roads are connected
Once, in my early days as a worshiper of Mercury, I asked myself what would be the best place to leave offerings to the Lares Viales. It’s not like I could pour a bit of wheat and wine on every single local pathway, but shortly after the obvious answer dawned on me: anywhere that’s a road, because they’re all connected. That is their purpose, isn’t it? They’re meant to link, communicate and transport, to move people and goods from one place to another, even if a distant one. And if that’s the case, why should it be any different with offerings to the gods of pathways? Just pour wheat or wine on one road and it will touch all who can be reached by it, because movement and connectedness are the realm of the Lares Viales.
So too is that of Mercury, the first among them. He is, after all, a god of messengers, communication and transportation, none of which would work without the ability to move and connect dots – geographically speaking, though there’s also a figurative sense to this, because He is equally a trickster. To be fooled is to miss the point, to be smart is to see it; the latter connects the dots, the former does not. On that note, Mercury isn’t just a god who facilitates movement and communication: He’s also One who blocks it! The lack of wits and cunning is the intellectual equivalent of a flat tire and you’re not going anywhere like that or at least not as fast as you could. And both outcomes can have His finger on.
Sometimes, even roads that at first glance seem to be entirely different or disconnected are actually entwined, if not altogether inside one another. That’s what I realized after joining Mercury’s fold. My previous primary devotion was Freyr, who is still one of the gods I cherish the most. I keep His old shrine, daily prayers to Him, a monthly offering, another on New Year and two annual celebrations, not to mention unscheduled libations, but I hesitated when making the shift, because it felt like a betrayal. Curiously enough, it all happened after spending four months in Santiago de Compostela, in Galicia, a region where the Lares Viales were once highly popular. Funny how things seem to fall into place when you look back and take a wide view. Anyway, I ended up making the change, which meant going deeper into Roman polytheism, so in an effort to keep the old devotion alive while embracing the new one, I invested strongly in a modern Latin cult of Freyr and His family. And that turned out to be not just a rewarding (and still ongoing) experience, but also a very mercurial one, because being a messenger, a psychopomp and a trickster, Mercury is by nature a liminal god. He’s at home in the grey area that exists between one world and another, the inside and outside of a house, the moral and immoral, the male and female, and moves freely to-and-fro, adapting Himself to both sides. So when I had one devotional foot in Heathenry and another in Roman polytheism, I was between cultural worlds. When I Romanized the former, I was translating, bridging and bringing one set of gods from one context into another. By walking Freyr’s Latinized trail, I was “liminaling”, treading a path that’s not only connected, but is an actual part of the wider mercurial way. And on the very same night I realized this and wrote about it, I found a coin on a crossroads I don’t usually pass by on my late walks, but to which one of my dogs led me that time.
Of course, the notions of communication and movement lend themselves to many meanings, literal and figurative, one of which is manifested by this text. You have to write eloquently if you want to be convincing or at the very least communicate your ideas clearly. So cheers to He of Many Crafts, Giver of Good Things and Lord of the Golden Wand if you happen to enjoy these lines! He’s also a god of memory, if nothing else because sometimes you have to memorize whatever it is you need to tell others, and equally of god of learning. While being smart isn’t the same as being knowledgeable, the two form a brutal force when they go hand and hand. And what good is learning if you don’t pass on its fruits and every generation has to start from scratch because it learned nothing from those who came before it? Knowledge that moves through time, between people and places, is an enriching thing; knowledge that doesn’t, that stays hidden and untransmitted, is an impoverishing loss. No wonder one gets the impression that Mercury is a big fan of the internet.
Speaking of time and memory, here’s another way of connecting dots: History! You know that if you ever had the experience of sitting in front of a table full of editions of medieval documents, chronologies, dictionaries, academic studies and perhaps one or two maps in an effort to find references to particular moments, judge the value of the written information or follow a chain of events in both its linear development and the many repercussions. That was much of my daily routine during a lot of my time in Santiago de Compostela and that’s what you do when you’re an historian: you map the roads of time, the lines that link disputes, discoveries, debates, decisions, diseases and disasters, all connected in one complex web where no event takes place in isolation. There are always multiple causes and consequences that in turn are new causes, because it’s all connected dots. Cut a thread or two and there are things that would not have passed or maybe passed differently.
This, by the way, is also the case with you. Yes, you! The individual reading this. Think you’re a self-contained being with an inherent identity? Think again! You’re only who you are because you’re the product of many causes, a crossroads made unique because particular paths have met. Where you were born, who are your parents, how you were raised, your gender, your sexual orientation, the type of body you have – all of this and more makes you who you are. You, your individuality or identity are not an isolated dot or an inherent feature, but a mutable product. In as much as if you were to change the causes or paths that form the crossroads that is you, you’d be a different person. Would you be reading this had you been born in a country where there’s no religious freedom? Would you worship the same gods and have the same beliefs? Would you experience and see the world as you do had you been born a man instead of a woman? Or gay instead of straight, black instead of white, fat instead of slim? Or vice-versa? And how about those around you? How did they shape you, how did you shape them? And how would all have been shaped differently had you not met, not been close, not bumped into and maybe helped each other at some point? Nothing exists in isolation, everything exists connected. All roads are connected. And the change that makes you isn’t just a hypothetical, but a constant fact of life. It’s not like you’ll go on having a stable identity once you’ve been formed by many causes. How many people say they wouldn’t stand their younger selves? How many elderly admit they were pricks during their adult life?
Life is change
Change affects everything that exists, no matter how immutable things may seem. The sun rises everyday in the east and sets in the west, the stars are always up there, either fixed or on predictable paths, seasons follow in the same order every year, tides come and go like clockwork. You may think or say it has always been like this, but it hasn’t and it won’t.
The sun is actually a middle-aged star. If it were a person, it would be in its forties, still strong and healthy, but not as much as it used to. It’s an ageing sun, like many others you see in the night sky, parts of which may already be different. It was born and it will one day die, one catastrophically sunny day. So too will the Earth, which by then will have different continents and oceans and spin at a slower speed, if at all. Because a day hasn’t always had twenty-four hours and no, I’m not talking about cultural conventions. The moon, which is slowly drifting away, does more than just create the tides and regulate the planet’s tilt: it’s also slowing down its rotation. Which is why back in the time of the dinosaurs, had we been around to measure things as we do now, a day would be roughly twenty-two hours long. Even galaxies are subject to change and death, since they clash and cannibalize on each other. The Milky Way has done that and is on a collision course with Andromeda, which won’t end up well. The truth is that millions or billions of years isn’t forever: it’s just a longer life-span, still with a beginning, an inevitable end and plenty of change in-between. A centimetre per year, the rate at which some of the planet’s tectonic plates move, isn’t the same as immobility – it’s just a much slower rhythm of change. Mount Everest, which used to be ocean floor, grows at an average pace of just around four millimetres annually, but it moves nonetheless. Just because we don’t notice it or things seem to be in the same place every day doesn’t mean they really are. Immutability is by and large an illusion – even if a useful one.
Life is change, life is movement. It’s constant fluidity, no matter how slow. Actually, a lot of it is slow, because life needs time to prosper and hence cannot survive on permanently rapid change. But it happens all the same and you see it in yourself: your body ages, your ideas evolve, your personality mutates. You’re not the same person you were a decade or two ago, because you’ve been through things that shaped you into something that wasn’t you ten or twenty years ago. Maybe you’re more mature, maybe you’re less. Maybe you see the world in darker or lighter tones than you did. Maybe life has made you happier or more resentful, optimist or pessimist, indifferent or active, generous or stingy. Change doesn’t just affect people who suffer traumatic events, but touches everyone, even the Gods! Their mood, strategies, perspective on things, influence in the world, the way They relate to us and hence Their behaviour – all of that changes, even if not as fast as humans do. So forget the illusion that you have a self-contained and eternal identity, because you don’t. You’re movement, not stagnation! You are an ever-shifting product of ever-shifting causes. You’re recognizable as being the same throughout several decades because, well, it’s practical and needed for social life, but also because there are certain constants about you that change less or at a slower pace, allowing for sustained recognition to be maintained throughout the years. Much like a mountain is seen as being in the same place and having the same size, even though it is changing. Your body and memories are two such constants. But go away and come back after a few decades and your own friends and family may not recognize you because they haven’t kept up with the changes to your physical appearance. Or if you lose your memory, it will be a bit like a clean slate, even if you have the same body. You’re not immutable. And if that’s the case now, imagine what will it be like when death comes for you.
Embrace life by embracing movement. Learn to work with change, not against it. Be adaptable, not static. And no, this doesn’t mean you should simply forget about the past, move on or give up fighting for things you believe in. But do so with the full awareness that things change and that trying to simply turn back the clock has never worked out well. So while you may want to rebuild, restore or revive something, know that it will never be entirely what it was in the past, even when you seek to right a wrong or bring back the old, because life is movement. You can’t change what happened, only built on it, and in doing so you’ll create a today that will always be in some way different from yesterday. That’s why even tradition isn’t permanent. It may mutate slowly and carefully in order to remain traditional instead of turning into something altogether new, yet if it stops completely, it dies, because it fails to adapt, to embrace change. Get on board the always moving train that is life! Like Heraclitus, embrace the flowing waters, sailing down the ever-changing river of being, but with a caveat.
The journey matters, more so than the destination
Humans are creature of desire. It is one of our fundamental traits that we always strive for something, even if that something is to want nothing. When we don’t, when we have no goals, we grow bored, feel useless and linger. We need quests, destinations, a purpose to strive for, a maze whose centre we must reach. This, too, is part of the movement of life: we’re always going somewhere, because we always need to.
However, as important as a destination is, it must never be the sole thing on your mind. It must be coupled with an enjoyment of the journey, a sowing of the harvest it brings not just at the end, but throughout. Especially throughout! You must live the present moment even as you strive towards a future or else run the risk of losing one, if not both. Imagine someone who spends his days preparing for a death in peace, with a clean conscience and without fear of what follows. If that person fails to enjoy every day, because he’s always thinking of a distant tomorrow, there’s a good chance that when his last hour finally comes, he’ll look back and realize he missed out on what life had to offer since he never took the time to pay attention, let alone enjoy it. And in doing so, he may well find himself crying and regretting, thus causing the goal of a peaceful death to go down the drain.
Don’t be the traveller who spends the entire journey thinking about the next destination without ever looking out the window. Don’t be the pilgrim who’s so eager to reach the shrine on the other side of the mountains that he neglects the sounds, the smells, the view, the warmth, the cold, the colours, the breeze, the animals, the trees, the snacks, the companionship. So much so that when he finally gets there, the only thing on his mind is “that’s it?” and “now what?”. There’s no joy in that, no value, because it mistakes the finishing line for the journey and thus misses out on everything it has to offer. And everything you could learn from it.
Life is constant movement, which means every end is a new beginning. Every time you achieve something, you need a new goal; every time you get somewhere, you’ll have to go someplace else; every time it’s over, it’s just getting started. If you think things will always be in a given way once you achieve something, and therefore all you want is to get there so you can enjoy and be happy, you might want to reconsider. Change is always creeping in and it will leave no stone unturned, no matter how long it takes, so whatever happiness or success you have or strive for, it won’t last forever. There will always be something else to achieve, someplace else to go next, some new challenge to overcome. This is the never ending journey that is life, where no final goal is really final and every end is a new beginning. So if the destination is all you care about, if there’s nothing else on your mind, you’ll end up with a collection of empty shells, of goals you achieved, but which were never filled with the experiences of travelling towards them, leaving you unsatisfied at the end. Because there’s always something afterwards and you failed to take the time to enjoy what was in-between the never-ending succession of goals. You missed out on life, even though you ticked all the boxes in your to-do list.
The point of travelling is to travel. It’s the journey that matters, that makes you grow, makes you wealthier. The finishing line will come on its own if you keep on walking. If you act as if you want to reach the latter instantly, you’ll get nothing out of the former and end up poor at the end. You may get where you wanted to go, but without having been filled and transformed by the travelling experience. Take note, people: “Beam me up, Scotty” is not a good life motto! Instead, you must take time and savour every moment, capture its beauty, its value, its vibrancy, and let the finishing line be an enriching sum of every step, not something you reach as if jumping into it directly.
Never forget to laugh!
And do everything with a smile, even in the darkest hour. Or at least try to, since it’s not always easy and sometimes it’s hard to find a reason to laugh. Maybe the wound is too deep, the pain too strong, the injury too serious, the problems too big. But laughter isn’t a mere accessory with which you decorate life when things are well. It’s not a sort of trendy t-shirt that looks great when you’re out for a walk on a sunny day, but less so if you’re going to a funeral. It is so much more than that!
Laugher is a quieter of storms, a subduer of fears and opener of ways. It is one of the sharpest blades in the arsenal of the trickster, who wields it to collapse pedestals, break chains and cut through the veils of utter seriousness to let in the light of perspective. Or maybe these words are too elaborate and instead I should simply point out that a boggart isn’t just a magical creature in Harry Potter’s books, but a very good metaphor for the power of laughter over fear. Because when confronted with a shape-shifter who takes on the form of what scares you the most, the young wizards are told that the best way to counter it is by turning the boggart into whatever makes you laugh the most. Not because what terrorizes you isn’t serious, but because it shouldn’t be so to the point of taking away your ability to think and react properly. Not lashing out blindly or with brute force, since that too is no more than a product of fear, but reacting with clear focus and perspective. Laughter does that, because when what scares you the most is turned into an object of ridicule, of witty and incisive jokes, it loses the mantle of absolute seriousness with which it seeks to make itself unquestionable. And when that happens, a blow is given to fear’s full control, to its monopoly over speech and mind, because it is faced with a foe that does not recognize its total authority: comedy!
This is subversive, but so is the trickster. He is not the one who moves freely between borders, crossing the line that separates one world from another, the moral from the immoral, the male from the female? He’s a transgressor, a fluid entity, and fluidity is the antidote to whatever presents itself as immovable. Dogma is one such thing and it cannot stand laughter, because it implies the existence of flaws and hence doubts and questions, which are the death of unwavering solidity. It means that something escapes dogmatic control. Terrorism too has an enemy in laughter, for the purpose of terror is to terrify, to paralyze you into submission or drive you into reckless and self-defeating reactions, a goal that cannot be achieved if the seriousness that terrorism seeks to project isn’t serious enough to quell your ability to look at things differently. Because terror thrives on one’s inability to think straight, but laughter, by making it less than completely scary, offers the potential for perspective and clear thinking.
This is equally true for that which haunts us in life, our everyday fears of failure, poverty, disease, rejection, pain and death. It is only natural that we dread those things, none of which we are immune to, because life is change. No matter how healthy you are now, that won’t always be the case. No matter how handsome you look, it won’t last forever. No matter how rich or successful you are, you won’t always be able to bribe away death. She’ll always beat you at chess, no matter how long it takes and sometimes in a way that’s so unexpected, it actually looks like cheating. And if your happiness depends on those things, on being healthy, attractive or wealthy, then buckle up, because you’re in for a rough ride. Time takes it all away, makes present glories past memories, and if you have no other reason to smile, nothing else apart from health, beauty and money, then there’s a strong possibility that you’ll have a very miserable end.
The solution is to first and foremost embrace change. Accept it and enjoy the ride in all its present moments and without being overly focused on the destination. And then add to that the ability to smile and laugh no matter how dark things are. Strive to be ever happy in an ever changing life. It’s not easy, I know it’s far from being easy and at times you will fail, yet neither is it entirely impossible. In all likelihood, it will require work, rethinking habits and change the way your mind words, but it can be rewarding and provide you with a basic joy that is not dependent on a desire to hold on to things that won’t last. Seek out the smallest speck of light amidst the dark and you may come to a point where you’re not happy because you’re successful, but successful because you’re happy. So laugh, exorcize your fears and win a smile every day. I meant it! Nothing is so serious that it can’t be laughed at. Not even death, not even the Gods.
What comes after this life ends? Having been alive all the time since I was born, I’m unsure about it, but this much I know: you won’t be the same after it! Forget about the idea that you’ll be a mirrored, ghostly image of your current self. If your identity mutates so much now, you’ll change no less once you find yourself without a body. Or in a different one, if you believe in reincarnation. Whatever survives, it won’t be you as you know it, because life is change, life is movement. And so is death. The travelling psychopomp know it.