Who was Mercury?
Mercury was the Roman god of finance, gymnasts, thieves merchants and commerce. Mercury is depicted in art wearing golden sandals and a helmet, he carried a magical wand or staff called a caduceus which was entwined with snakes. On the heels of his sandals were wings which enabled him to fly. Because he had the ability to travel so swiftly he became known as the messenger of the gods. It was his also his job to lead departed souls to Avernus, the gateway to the Underworld and realm of Pluto.
Mercury fell in love with one of the Naiades, a nymph called Larunda (Lara) Larunda was famous for her beauty but she caused great problems by her inability to keep secrets. She told Juno, Jupiter's wife, about his affair with Juturna (Larunda's fellow nymph, and the wife of Janus). As punishment for betraying his trust, Jupiter cut out Lara's tongue and ordered Mercury to conduct her to the Underworld. Mercury fell in love with Larunda and made love to her on the way. She became mother to his two children, referred to as the Lares who were the invisible household gods and stayed hidden in cottage in the woods so that Jupiter would not find her. Every Roman family revered the Lares and had its own guardian, known as the Lar familiaris, to protect the household and ensure that the family line did not die out.
Mercury in Greek Mythology
The Romans habitually assimilated various elements from other cultures and civilisations, including the gods and goddesses that were worshipped by the Greeks and other nations. When the Roman Empire conquered the Greeks in 146 B.C. many of the Greek gods and goddesses were adopted by the Romans. The Romans simply changed the Greek gods names to Latin equivalents.
The Greek counterpart of Mercury was Hermes. The Roman religion significantly differed from the Greeks in that it was officially endorsed by the state and exerted influence over the government of Rome. Politicians took the offices of influential priests, called pontiffs, to gain control of the popular worship, Roman gods and goddesses like Mercury were worshipped at every public event, including the gladiatorial games, where blood sacrifices were made to the gods. In ancient Rome, the pantheon of 12 major gods, including Mercury, were called the 'Dei Consentes' meaning the Council of Gods.
In both Greek and Roman mythology, Hermes/Mercury is known as the fastest of all gods and therefore wears a winged hat and winged shoes. Zeus was his father and Maia (daughter of Atlas) was his mother. He carries the Caduceus, a short staff entwined by two serpents, sometimes surmounted by wings. Hermes/Mercury is Zeus' messenger, God of Commerce and Market, God of Thieves, and also the guide of the dead.
According to legend, Hermes was born in a cave on Mount Cyllene in Arcadia. Zeus had impregnated Maia at the dead of night while all other gods slept. When dawn broke amazingly he was born. Maia wrapped him in swaddling bands, then resting herself, fell fast asleep. Hermes, however, squirmed free and ran off to Thessaly. This is where Apollo, his brother, grazed his cattle. Hermes stole a number of the herd and drove them back to Greece. He hid them in a small grotto near to the city of Pylos and covered their tracks. Before returning to the cave he caught a tortoise, killed it and removed its entrails. Using the intestines from a cow stolen from Apollo and the hollow tortoise shell, he made the first lyre. When he reached the cave he wrapped himself back into the swaddling bands. When Apollo realized he had been robbed he protested to Maia that it had been Hermes who had taken his cattle. Maia looked to Hermes and said it could not be, as he is still wrapped in swaddling bands. Zeus the all powerful intervened saying he had been watching and Hermes should return the cattle to Apollo. As the argument went on, Hermes began to play his lyre. The sweet music enchanted Apollo, and he offered Hermes to keep the cattle in exchange for the lyre. Apollo later became the grand master of the instrument, and it also became one of his symbols. Later while Hermes watched over his herd he invented the pipes known as a syrinx (pan-pipes), which he made from reeds. Hermes was also credited with inventing the flute. Apollo, also desired this instrument, so Hermes bartered with Apollo and received his golden wand which Hermes later used as his heralds staff. (In other versions Zeus gave Hermes his heralds staff).
The offspring of Hermes are believed to be Pan, Abderus and Hermaphroditus. Hermes as with the other gods had numerous affairs with goddesses, nymphs and mortals. In some legends even sheep and goats. Pan, the half man half goat, is believed to be the son of Hermes and Dryope, the daughter of king Dryops. Pan terrified his mother when he was born, so much so that she fled in horror at the sight of her new born son. Hermes took Pan to Mount Olympus were the gods reveled in his laughter and his appearance and became the patron of fields, woods, shepherds and flocks.