Mercury, the travelling god, with his hat and staff and cloak, is easily compared to Odin, the god with the wide-brimmed hat, blue cloak, and staff or spear. Both seem to be able to travel through all the worlds, both are connected to the dead, and both are tricky to deal with. Both rely on their cleverness to get them out of sticky situations.
Of course, Mercury is mainly depicted as a handsome young man, often naked to show his physical perfection, while Odin is a one-eyed old man with a gray beard. (His son Baldr is the physically perfect one.)
As I mentioned in my second post on Rosmerta, the Germanic peoples who were in contact with the Romans saw Mercury as the Roman equivalent of their god Wodan. (Or the Romans interpreted Wodan as Mercury – which way did the interpretatio go?)
The names of Germanic Mercury
The cult of the Germanic Mercury was strong – there are many inscriptions to Mercury, usually with a suffix to specify exactly which Mercury was being invoked.
The list includes:
- Arvernorix: this name, and the following one, are a bit of a puzzle, because they would seem to relate to the tribe of the Arvenians, who were Celtic. The inscription was found in Germanic territory, however, next to one for M. Cimbraianus, who was German. Presumably the cults fused or existed side by side.
- Arvenus: also probably related to the Arvenians, with seven inscriptions to his credit. All seven were found in Germanic territory.
- Channin(i)us or Hannin(i)us: this one is uncertain: does it refer to the tribe of the Cananefates, or the name of the person who set it up?
- Cimbrianus: the five inscriptions to him have been found in three different locations in Germanic territory, so his cult was not just a local one. This Mercury was most likely the god of the Cimbri. Simek suggests that the Cimbri may have been migrating during the period that these inscriptions were made, which would account for their wide spread.
- Dumatius: this Mercury (of Puy-le-Dome) is a Celtic one, but probaby an imported Celtic god.
- Eriausius: this name comes from one fragmentary inscription, so it could also be read as Friausius, but at any rate it seems to be Germanic. (The name Friausius comes from Germ. *frija, kind, according to Simek.)
- Gebrinius: found on 10 votive stones in Bonn. The meaning of “Gebrinus” is not clear, with some tracing it back to Old Norse gífr, monster, while others derive it from Celtic gabros, ram.
- Leudisius: this is another mutilated inscription, so it could refer to the name of a town, Lüttich, or else come from the verb *leudisjan, “own, dominate” or leidi– “people” and *leudisjan “to rule” (GardenStone: 13), which would connect to Mercurius Rex.
- Mercator: the Latin word for merchant or trader.
- Negotiator: dealer.
- Nundinator: trader.
- Rex: king. Presumed to refer to Wodan, since the Romans would not have given Mercury that title.
Another, intriguing, dedication is to Mercurius Hrano, comes from the base of a ruined statue. It was found in a small town between Cologne and Bonn, home of several other dedications to Mercury, and perhaps once a cult centre. The inscription reads Mercurio/ Hrannoni/ Nigrinia/ Titula ex/ visu monita/ l(ibens) m(erito). (Enright: 254)
This inscription, once the Latin is tranlated, gives us the name Mercurius Hranno. In later Norse literature, Odin goes by the name Hrani in Hrolfs saga kraka (pdf), and the name also pops up in Widsith, an Old English poem, as the name of a North Germanic tribe. (Ibid)
Others, including GardenStone, are unconvinced. He doesn’t think that Old Norse Hrani could have come from Germanic Hranno. (n. p. 17)
Mercury and Wodan/Odin
We can see from several names on the list that Mercury was very important to the traders who moved through Romanized Germany and along the Rhine. This makes sense, Mercury being a merchant’s god. Wodan/Odin, on the the other hand, was more the warrior aristocrat. (The closest Odin comes to a connection with trade is in one of his many by-names: Farmatýr, or Cargo-God.)
His frequent travels and quickness of speech may have helped an identification with Mercury. If Wodan, like Odin, was connected with poetry, that may have counted as facility of speech.) That the Roman dies Mercurii became Wednesday shows that the two gods went together in people’s minds.
Rex is also an interesting title, because it must have come from the locals. The title Leudisius also points to a ruler, and the five titles in the form “Mercury of the X” indicate a tutelary god.
Enright’s theory is that as society moved from tribal warfare to small, committed warbands with a charismatic leader (and later, to wariror-kings and their followers) the Germanic Mercury became the warrior-king Odin. It is amusing to think that the elevated cult of the god Wodan may have been spread by the mercators – traders moving along the waterways and tracks of Germania.
Enright’s own thesis (Scribd) and also available on Amazon.
GardenStone 2011: The Mercury-Woden Complex: a proposal, Books on Demand.
Green, Miranda 2011: The Gods of the Celts, The HIstory Press.
Simek, Rudolf (trans. Angela Hall), 1996, Dictionary of Northern Mythology, D. S. Brewer, Cambridge.
Webster, Jane 1995: “”Interpretatio”: Roman Word Power and the Celtic Gods”, Britannia 26: 153-61. (available through JSTOR)
For the image at the top, click here.