By M. K. Van Rensselaer.

Although treated by modern writers as one of the minor of the twelve gods of Olympus, Mercury was by no means so looked upon by the ancients, who revered, feared, consulted and obeyed him as they did no other deity, so he wielded more influence over the lives of mankind than did all the other gods put together. Jove was dreaded because a bolt from the blue might destroy the unwary at any moment; even though Mercury was the lightning conductor, the latter was not blamed for the catastrophe. Juno commanded admiration by her beauty, but her cold self-esteem drew few followers; still, as presiding over maternity, she delivered, through Mercury, the newly born to its parents. Diana had, perhaps, the largest number of worshippers, since she had a plurality of attractions, and had under her protection many and various walks of life, when Mercury acted as her lieutenant. It was Mercury who lured Proserpine from the side of Ceres, to reconduct the former to earth when spring followed winter, and it is under this form, as Chthonius, that Mercury is allegorically represented as the messenger conducting the soul at death to the future state.

Mercury was the peacemaker, or adjuster of difficulties, as well as the councillor and intercessor, for he could be appealed to with the certainty that his orders could be received by mankind, and by them could be comprehended through a sign language interpreted by his priests. He was in reality more powerful than any of the other gods taken separately, for, although they might be lavishly propitiated, they could not reply to invocations except through their messenger, Mercury. He was also the inventor of emblems, pictorial art, and language, through which he could be directly approached and his wishes communicated in response to invocations by means of the Atouts and the pip cards. Any profanation of his mysteries was rapidly revenged by his worshippers, so it is little wonder that they were not placed in town records or in early histories. Nor, if they were, would these mysteries have been mentioned as Playing Cards, for the ancient Book of Thoth was not classified as a game, and until the Temple of Toth, as well as the Serapeon, near Naples, were destroyed, compelling the exiled priests to carry on their person the emblems taken from the walls, there was absolutely nothing like a card to mention in the official records. Students, therefore, must search for descriptions of wanderers, of soothsayers, of astrologers, of fortune-tellers, of prophets or of gypsies, if they wish to discover traces of the cult of Mercury, since it was gradually and imperceptibly merged into the Playing Cards as we understand them.

There were few of the homes of the rich Romans that were not adorned with a statue of this god under one of his four great attributes. The best known is, perhaps, one by John of Bologna, showing him as Caduceator, or the messenger, under which guise Mercury carries the caduceus and points with his right hand to heaven. When represented in this way, he is the bearer of news, of life, and of health. It was his wand, or caduceus, that, up to the middle of the eighteenth century, was the emblem of the medical man, who always carried his stick or staff into the sick chamber. It is still used by barbers, who display his staff, apparently wound with bloody rags, before their shops, a survival of a custom dating from the time when barbers were the dentist surgeons and “blood-letters.” His wand was also representative of the stylus which was used to write on the “Tablet of Fate,” for Mercury was also the god Nebo of the Babylonians, who is mentioned under this name in the Bible. He is credited with being “the writer in the Book of Fate” and, says a Cuneiform inscription, “had foretold the destiny of mankind since eternity.” The stylus was also the emblem of Thoth, who wrote in the “Book of Good Works” after death.

Atouts of an Early Italian Pack of Tarots with Two Court Cards


As the protector and foreteller of events, Mercury was represented as benign or benevolent, but the second attribute as reproduced in his statues was purely mercantile. These statues are frequently found holding a purse in the right hand, the coins inside being seen through its meshes, emblematic of the Money pip on the cards. When represented in this way the face is no longer joyous or serene as it is when depicted as the messenger; it is stern, cold and calculating, perhaps rather shrewd, yet still self-reliant, and with an air of concentration, but always youthful. As the god could foresee and foretell business probabilities, since they were already written in his Book of Fate, or could give counsel in mercantile transactions, Mercury was always consulted and obeyed. It was due to this that his image bearing aloft the money bag was a favorite decoration in the homes of successful merchants, who credited the counsels of Mercury with having caused the riches of Plutus to fall into their coffers.

The beautiful statue of Mercury seated idly with a sword girded at his side, but trailing on the ground, is well known. Here another and most powerful attribute of the god was silently displayed for worship in all that concerned enterprises other than commerce, since the sword denoted warlike expeditions, explorations, and voyages, and was the symbol of rulers, of soldiers, and of men of a class superior to rich merchants. Besides, under the attribute of “the sword,” Mercury was the patron of books, and of arts and crafts, as well as the encourager of learning. Girded with the ever-ready sword, presented to him for his wit and understanding by his father, Jupiter, Mercury was alert to point out in the Book of Fate the initiative that should be taken, if success was desired, and also to adjust quarrels, smooth away strife, or heal differences. Under the emblem of the sword, Mercury was an often-consulted oracle. The sword (or lightning) was also emblematic of Nebo.

The fourth guise of Mercury was usually kept for serious or sacred periods of life, and was seldom seen in the home, as it was reserved for more grave positions. After Mercury gave up being the cupbearer of Olympus to the beautiful Hebe he retained the badge of office, and “the cup of Hermes” remained as one of his attributes as a reminder of this position. To-day it is used at Christmas in Italy, when presents are placed in Mercury’s cup for distribution instead of being hung on a tree, as is the more northern custom. The seven-ringed cup was sacred to Nebo as well as to Toth, and this votive cup entwined with two serpents—now in the Louvre—proved that the Chalice and the Caduceus were always typical of Nebo.

As Chthonius, Mercury was always the useful helper of mankind. He presided at birth, when he recorded the future events of a child’s life on “the tablet of fate,” as had been done by his predecessor, the god of the Babylonians, Nebo. He also attended the dead, when the tablet was broken, (which was Thoth’s perogative), so he is allegorically represented on funeral urns, where he is seen leading Proserpine to Hell. The vase has been converted into one of Mercury’s emblems on the cards, as the Cup or Chalice. Many of the beautiful Etruscan vases in the Vatican show Mercury with Pluto’s reluctant wife. Perhaps the most graceful of stone pictures on this subject is in the British Museum, where a female figure reclines on a couch, surrounded by a group of mourners, and behind the dying woman stands Mercury, patient and alert, ready to show the soul to its bourn. The cup of sacrifice is overturned, the tablet is broken, and Mercury’s task is to guide her spirit carefully and gently to another sphere.

Here, then, are the four attributes of Mercury through whose aid he speaks to men: the Caduceus, stylus or magic wand; the Coin or ring, emblem of eternity; the Sword, and the Cup or chalice.

Always depicted as a youthful or, perhaps, irresponsible man, sometimes described as inconsequent, volatile and light-hearted, still Mercury was the most affording and helpful of all the gods of Olympus, and it was he who interceded for men, who presided over births and deaths, as well as over love affairs, business, and the arts. He was, therefore, consulted at every turn of life—small wonder that his image was a prized ornament of their homes, under one of his three attributes, or else near their tombs under the fourth.

Temples to Mercury, to Thoth, and Nebo, were the principal and most ornate ones that were built. The great one at Babylon to Nebo was called E-Sigalia. He was worshipped as the “tablet writer” who foretold fate. There is one to Mercury that is still in a fairly good state of preservation and is first of the group to the other gods of Olympus, at Baiæ, a town ten miles north of Naples in Italy. This temple was probably erected by the rich merchants of Rome, near their own beautiful villas, that have rendered the place historical. The other temples are little more than charming ruins, but that of Mercury survives to remind us that mutilated rites are still held in his honour in all parts of the world, although by persons who have lost their clue to the original intention of the cult that they follow.

It is probable that the adjoining town of Pozzuoli was the cradle of Playing Cards in Europe, for it was here that the mysteries of the Egyptian god Thoth were taught by the priests of that cult. Close to the edge of the water are the ruins of the vast temple of Osiris, or Serapis, called the Serapeon. Here the strangers worshipped, who landed there yearly from the Nile, from a vast fleet which was sheltered in the bay of Baiæ. Its arrival was heralded by a number of swift yachts that could be recognized as they passed through the narrow straits between Capri and the mainland with topsails flying, a privilege that was accorded to none but the visitors from Alexandria, who were too powerful to offend and too desirable not to conciliate.

The exports of corn from Alexandria were of such importance to Italy that the trade enjoyed the peculiar protection of the State, and “the Alexandrian corn fleet,” says Merivale (“Roman Empire,” Volume IV, page 392), “enjoyed the protection of a convoy of war galleys that was met by a deputation of senators.”

The visitors landed at Pozzuoli, at the spot where St. Paul disembarked from the Castor and Pollox, in a bay that sheltered mariners from Spain, Sardinia, Elba, Cyprus and all the great trading ports of Asia Minor, the isles of the Ægean Sea and, above all, Greece. This great centre received merchandise, iron and fine tools from the clever workmen of Elba, and gorgeous carpets from Phœnicia, as well as Egyptian goods and cults; so it was natural that what was presented at this port should also be exported from there. Thus it was with the learning and the arts of Egypt that were taught by her priests or initiates in the temple erected by them at this spot, which points to the probability that their great book was from this centre scattered over Europe.

What is now called the Serapeon is one of the most remarkable ruins in Italy, for through some volcanic action it was buried beneath the sea in the twelfth century during the last eruption of the Solfatara, reappearing after another volcanic outburst in 1538. It had been forgotten for centuries, but when the fresh movement of that ever-swaying shore made the waters recede, the temple again appeared above the surface. Some of its marble columns are still erect, although they are honeycombed with holes made by a little bivalve that is still found in the bay of Baiæ, and in these perforations countless of their shells can be seen. Enough of the temple remains to record the fact that the Egyptians were numerous and prosperous on the foreign shore, and it is probable that it was built 211 B. C., although many students think its erection was even earlier.

Serapis, or Osiris, was worshipped as Hermes, or Mercury, by the Romans, which worship was introduced into the neighbouring city of Rome by the Emperor Antoninus Pius, in A. D. 146, which may indicate the date of the Temple of Serapis (Mercury).

Serapis was the god of commerce, so his shrine was enriched by the merchants who thronged to the ever-busy port. It was probably after this temple (the original home of Mercury) was submerged, that the smaller one was erected to him at Baiæ. The latter was a famous marine watering place of ancient Italy, perched on an indentation of the western shore of the Bay of Naples. It is celebrated for the softness of its climate, and the abundance of its hot springs, so it became fashionable about the era of Lucullus, the ruins of whose magnificent villa, as well as those of Cæsar, Pompey and Augustus, still remain. It was a favourite resort until the invasion of the barbarians under Theodoric the Goth.

Horace alludes to the palaces and temples overhanging the sea, but most of these have now fallen into the water, where beautiful columns may be seen beneath the waves.

Besides these luxurious homes, and the vast temple of Serapis that was so near, there remain ruins of a temple to Jupiter, another to Venus, and others that are unidentified. But the one that remains in the best condition and state of preservation is Mercury’s, as the domed roof protected it when the others were destroyed by the ashes from the neighbouring volcano. The façade of the temple has been removed, but one long vaulted hall remains. It is not pierced with windows, and was probably intended to be dark, for the better perpetration of mysteries. On the ceiling may be traced oblong shaped paintings, “men portrayed upon the wall,” that are too much defaced to identify, but they recall the shape and approximate size of the Atouts of the Tarots. These may be seen at stated intervals, and, when originally placed there, would have accommodated the twenty-two Atout cards ranged in the order in which they are now numbered. It was supposed that the emblematic figures representing Osiris, Maut, Isis and other deities with the virtues, vices, love, marriage, death, etc., were placed in recesses or alcoves in the Egyptian temples, but if these half-obliterated figures in the temple at Baiæ were intended to represent the Atouts, a different plan was followed, more like that mentioned in Ezekiel xxiii:14. It may have been that the priests followed the idea of putting the figures on the ceiling, so that they might teach their followers the significance of the emblems when it was no longer worth while to make mysteries of them and to conceal them.

Beside the temple, and opening from it, is an inner room that was probably once covered by a roof, but that has fallen, and now the space is only an enclosed court. In the centre remains what might have been a platform or altar where the sacrifices of pigs or tongues, and of other things immolated to Mercury, were made yearly at the time of his festival, on the thirteenth of May.

Prof. Charles Anthon, in his “Classical Dictionary,” when describing Mercury, says:

“Mercurius was a celebrated god of antiquity, called Hermes by the Greeks. He was the messenger of the gods and of Jupiter in particular. He was the god of speech, of eloquence, the patron of orators, of merchants, and of all dishonest persons, particularly thieves, of travellers, and of shepherds. He also presided over highways and crossways, and conducted the souls of the dead to the world below, and it would be nearly impossible to discover anything about which this versatile god could not be consulted through his learned priests, who had been taught the gift of speech from him that they transmitted to their followers. The Egyptians ascribed to Hermes the invention of letters, and the Greeks accredited him with many other important improvements that made men’s lives happier or better, such as the invention of the lyre, as well as the regulation of commerce, and the improvement of gymnastic exercises, while, by a strange perversion the Greeks made Hermes the protector of thieves, when, in Egypt, he was the god of merchants, so that it may be possible that the crafty god favoured the person who first propitiated him or, perhaps, the highest bidder.”

Mercury was the son of Jupiter by the brightest of the Pleiades, Maia, herself the daughter of Atlas, King of Mauritania, and Pleione, one of the Oceanides, or ocean nymphs whose mother was Tethys, and father, Oceanus. Such distinguished ancestry may well have placed the ever-youthful Mercury among the presiding deities of Olympus, even if he had not inherited the mantle of the Egyptian god Thoth, and with it the ægis of the god of the Babylonians, Nebo, who was the arbiter of the fate of mankind.

His infancy was intrusted to the Seasons, who could not prevent his stealing the trident of Neptune, the girdle of Venus, the sword of Mars, and the sceptre of Jupiter, all of which are displayed on the old pip cards, the sword and sceptre being two of the pips, while the girdle of Venus encircles the Deuce of Money.

The ingenious god presented the lyre that he invented to Apollo, receiving in exchange the “golden three-leaved rod,” called by the poets Aurea virga. It was represented as a wand of laurel, or olive, with two dainty wings on one end, and entwined with two serpents, the whole emblematical of many things besides peace, or a flag of truce, for which it was generally used. This rod entwined with serpents is one of the most ancient symbols and is found on a vase discovered in Babylonia that is supposed to have been used 2350 B. C. Another device showed the staff wound with ropes tied after a peculiar fashion, and when so depicted the caduceus represented commerce and merchants, since the rope tied after a certain fashion was the token of the Phœnician traders. This is retained on the Ace of Sticks in the Tarot pack. When the caduceus was wound with stripes of red and white it represented surgeons, or the healing arts; and, as has been mentioned, is so displayed on barbers’ poles to-day. The stick wound in this way also represented birth, and, set before the door, was a token of Mercury’s recent visit carrying a babe from Juno to its parents. The caduceus served Mercury as a herald’s staff, and this name was sometimes applied to the white wand or rod that in time of war was regarded as a signal for peace.

The wings of Mercury typify the planet named for him, that is so fast that it completes its revolution around the sun in a little less than three months. He is connected with the old Israelitish legend, referred to in Ezekiel ix:2, where Nebo is one of the seven planets.

The important place given to the rod in the Bible must not be overlooked. It is closely connected with the arrow of primitive peoples, that was used not only for war or the chase, but serving also to ascertain the wishes of the gods, for when a bundle of arrows was cast to the ground from a quiver or the hand, according to certain well-known laws, they indicated the wishes of the divine power by the direction in which they fell. This is recalled in Jeremiah, in the story of Jonathan and David, besides in many other instances.

It was a natural sequence that Mercury, who had inherited the “tablet of fate” from Nebo of the Babylonians, should also have received the “wand of the magi” that, when cast before the Pharaoh by his wise men, was able to swallow the serpents that sprang from the rod of Moses. The rod, when used as a sceptre, has other and important significances, and is one of the chief signs of a ruler’s position and power.

Mercury was the most active and useful of all the gods, owing to his temperament, and no event or ceremony was undertaken without seeking his advice. He had many names under which his good offices were invoked, such as Argiphontes, or the slayer of Argus, when he represented warriors. Then he was called Chthonius, or “he who guides the dead”; when thus represented he is generally seated and is without sword, caduceus, or purse. Another name for him was Agoneus, the patron of gymnastic exercises, of commerce, and of executive ability.

Sometimes Mercury is represented in his birthday suit, at others with a chlamys or cloak enveloping him, the petasus or winged cap on his head, the talaria, or winged sandals, on his heels, bearing the caduceus aloft. Ancient representations of Mercury were simple wooden posts, the terminals carved with a rude head wearing a beard, which were the original signposts.

Professor Anthon says: “Hermes may in some degree be regarded as a personification of the Egyptian priesthood. It is in this sense, therefore, that he is regarded as the confidant of the gods, their messenger, the interpreter of their decrees, the genius who presides over science, the conductor of souls to the realms of bliss.”

One of the Egyptian names for Mercury, when he combined many attributes of Osiris and other deities, was Thoth, which, according to Jablonski’s “Pantheon Ægypt,” signifies “an assembly composed of sages and educated persons, the sacerdotal college of a city or temple.” Professor Anthon says: “Thus the collective priesthood of Egypt, personified and considered as a unity, was represented by an imaginary being to whom was ascribed the invention of languages and writing, hence the sacrifice of tongues to Mercury. He was also credited with the origin of geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, medicine, music, rhythm, the institution of religion and sacred processions, the introduction of gymnastic or health-giving exercises, and, finally, the less indispensable, though not less valuable, arts of architecture, sculpture and painting. So many volumes were attributed to him that no human being could possibly have composed them.

“For many years it was customary for the priests devoted to his service to present the results of their labours to Thoth, receiving no reward or glory for the individual work, which was turned to the advantage of the whole sacerdotal association in being ascribed to its presiding genius, who, by his double figure, indicated the necessity for a plural doctrine, of which the interpretation was confined entirely to his initiates, or priests, who translated the occult signs of the gods or the learning entrusted to their care to the inquirers, who frequented the temples to receive knowledge or directions in the material walks of life which they were taught to believe was transmitted by the oracle to ordinary mortals by the priests of Thoth, who alone understood the painted or written signs.”

Besides the arts and crafts before mentioned as being under the protection of the Egyptian god, was the important one of commerce. “This in like manner,” says Professor Anthon, “was intended to express the influence of the priesthood on commercial enterprises.”

“The identity of Hermes with the Dog Star, Sirius, that serves as precursor of the inundation of the Nile, the emblem of which,” says the same authority, “was the gazelle that flies to the desert on the rising of the waters, his rank in demonology as the father of spirits and guide of the dead, his quality of incarnate godhead, and his cosmogonical alliance with the generative fire, the light, the source of all knowledge, and with water, the principle of fecundity. It is surprising, however, to observe how strangely the Grecian spirit modified the Egyptian Hermes, who was transformed by the Greeks into the messenger or interpreter of the wishes of others who were more powerful than himself, but not omnipotent, as the Egyptian mythology regarded him.”

This is seen in the mystic portions of the early Orphic or Homeric hymns, where Hermes is treated quite differently than is done in the Iliad or the Odyssey. The earliest records of Hermes recall all the peculiar qualities of the Egyptian Hermes, and sometimes even the strange legends of the Hindoo Avatars, as well as the Babylonian Nebo. One of the Hindoo gods bears the same emblems that are devoted to Mercury, namely: the Cup, the Sword, the Staff, and the Ring, Coin, or Circle; but a striking difference is noted when Hermes is adopted by the Romans, who even changed his name as well as his characteristics, although retaining his distinguishing marks or emblems.

“The Romans,” says Professor Anthon, “first received the sacerdotal Hermes, whose worship had been brought into Etruria by the Pelasgi, previous to the time of Homer, and, as the earlier Hermes had been represented by a column, he became with them the god Terminus. When, however, the Romans became acquainted with the twelve great deities of the Athenians, they adopted the Grecian Hermes under the name of Mercury, preserving at the same time the remembrance of their previous traditions and jumbling the attributes of the Egyptian god Thoth with that of the Grecian Hermes.”

But, in order to make this favourite god of use, it was necessary to approach him through his own priests, the only persons who were initiated into his mysteries and who could interpret them. Since these priests were already established and had been for some time in Italy, in the great temple of Serapeon, it is easy to see how the cult engaged the attention of the people, and how readily it absorbed the new-fashioned god who strayed there from so many different quarters.


This is taken from Prophetical, Educational and Playing Cards.





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