There are many borderline, fluid, and flexible situations where Mercury feels cozy and right at home, and it shouldn’t surprise us that this can extend to a certain amount of gender fluidity as well. At first glimpse, however, Mercury himself seems pretty strictly masculine—some of the earliest Greek depictions of Hermes, after all, were milestones or hermæ that typically depicted one head, one set of male genitalia … and that’s about it.* It’s not without significance that Mercury’s companions are a cock—by which I mean a rooster—get your mind out of the gutter—and a ram (or even goat), rather than a hen and ewe. Furthermore, the motif of an ithyphallic Mercury pops up with some regularity,† for example in wall art at Pompeii. By virtue of seniority, Mercury in some ways out-Priapuses Priapus (who in some versions is Mercury’s son).
Still, it’s worth pointing out that the original Hermaphroditus is also the child of Mercury and Venus (Herm-es + Aphrodit-e). This is a deity with an allure all of his or her own—a fact that did not escape the notice of the Gallo-Roman who presumably consecrated this bronze statuette:
It’s also fun to notice the occasional—perhaps inadvertent?—androgyny of depictions of Mercury like the one at the top of this post.‡ That image is my mash-up of two 1696 drawings by the monk Hyacinthe Alliot (one drawing had a damaged head, the other had no body), depicting stelæ from the great liminal sanctuary of Le Donon in the Vosges. This is probably an echo of a Praxitelean pose, which characteristically feature soft, fluid, asymmetrical postures like this. For all of the burly bearded Mercuries that you see out there, he is more often depicted as youthful, clean-shaven, and even pretty. (Admittedly, the Gaulish Mercury is sometimes more stern-looking—then again, sometimes not.)
That’s actually all I have for this post. I’m sure there’s a doctoral dissertation out there in the wider themes of Mercury and gender, but I’ll leave that to aspiring doctoral candidates. What actually prompts this post is my discovery—and I’m really astonished it never dawned on me earlier—that since Espérandieu’s massive corpora of ancient sculptures from Gaul are old, they are therefore in the public domain and therefore therefore freely to be downloaded from archive.org (which, just to complete the circle, gets a huge lot of its material by scanning books from Robarts Library at the University of Toronto, my alma mater). So expect to see more images plundered from Espérandieu here in the future as I poke around in its venerable pages. Of course, Espérandieu is also (A) rendered partly obsolete by decades of major archæological discoveries from Gaul and (B) organizationally a bit of a mess. So it’s no bad thing that they’re coming out with a Nouvel Espérandieu (albeit at a snail’s pace), even if that one won’t be in the public domain for another century or so!
In other news, hail to the divine Hadrian, whose dies natalis is today (January 24)! May you bestow your restless and far-sighted quest for excellence upon the leaders of the world today; may your love of learning, beauty, and culture inspire generations to come; and may your great-hearted love and devotion illuminate the cosmos. Aue diue Hadriane Auguste!
* I know some who might say, “Perfect! What more do you need?”
† Pun, of course, intended.
‡ When somebody first mentioned the word “androgyny” to me as a child, my immediate reply was, “Who’s she?” My interlocutor answered, “That’s funny for more reasons than you know.”