The god of light demanded instant restitution, and was lavish of menaces, the better to insure it. But his threats were of no avail, for it was soon found that the same thief had disarmed him of his quiver and bow. Being taken up into his arms by Vulcan, he robbed him of his tools, and whilst Venus caressed him for his superiority to Cupid in wrestling, he slipped off her cestus unperceived. From Jupiter he purloined his sceptre, and would have made as free with his thunder-bolt, had it not proved too hot for his fingers.
From being usually employed on Jupiter's errands, he was styled the messenger of the gods. The Greeks and Romans considered him as presiding over roads and cross-ways, in which they often erected busts of him. He was esteemed the god of orators and eloquence, the author of letters and oratory. The caduceus, or rod, which he constantly carried, was supposed to be possessed of an inherent charm that could subdue the power of enmity: an effect which he discovered by throwing it to separate two serpents found by him fighting on Mount Cytheron: each quitted his adversary, and twined himself on the rod, which Mercury, from that time, bore as the symbol of concord. His musical skill was great, for to him is ascribed the discovery of the three tones, treble, bass, and tenor.
It was part of his function to attend on the dying, detach their souls from their bodies, and conduct them to the infernal regions. In conjunction with Hercules, he patronized wrestling and the gymnastic exercises; to show that address upon these occasions should always be united with force. The invention of the art of thieving was attributed to him, and the ancients used to paint him on their doors, that he, as god of thieves, might prevent the intrusion of others. For this reason he was much adored by shepherds, who imagined he could either preserve their own flocks from thieves, or else help to compensate their losses, by dexterously stealing from their neighbors.
At Rome on the fifteenth of May, the month so named from his mother, a festival was celebrated to his honor, by merchants, traders, &c. in which they sacrificed a sow, sprinkled themselves, and the goods they intended for sale, with water from his fountain, and prayed that he would both blot out all the frauds and perjuries they had already committed, and enable them to impose again on their buyers.
Mercury is usually described as a beardless young man, of a fair complexion, with yellow hair, quick eyes, and a cheerful countenance, having wings annexed to his hat and sandals, which were distinguished by the names of petasus and talaria: the caduceus, in his hand, is winged likewise, and bound round with two serpents: his face is sometimes exhibited half black, on account of his intercourse with the infernal deities: he has often a purse in his hand, and a goat or cock, or both, by his side.
As to his origin, it must be looked for amongst the Phoenicians. The bag of money which he held signified the gain of merchandise; the wings annexed to his head and his feet were emblematic of their extensive commerce and navigation; the caduceus, with which he was said to conduct the spirit of the deceased to Hades, pointing out the immortality of the soul, a state of rewards and punishments after death, and a resuscitation of the body: it is described as producing three leaves together, whence it was called by Homer, the golden three-leaved wand.