3.15 Mercury

The most common deity in Britain is Mercury, and with 103 figurines plus 13 caducei he is almost twice as popular as the next most common deity, Hercules. Mercury was a god of merchants and travellers and messenger of the gods. The vast majority of Mercury figurines show a youthful, standing figure. He may be wearing a petasos or winged boots, or simply have head or ankle wings. Most often he is nude (e.g. 40, 43 and 516) or partially draped over the left shoulder and forearm (e.g. 9 and 1175), but occasionally he is fully draped (327 and 1041). His attributes are a purse, which is usually held in the right hand, and a caduceus in the left hand. However, the caduceus is almost always missing from the nude figures. The style of the majority of Mercury figurines is classical, but as usual the quality ranges from well executed (Classical 1 and 2) to very crude (Stylised 1 and 2) renditions. A highly unusual example is that from Hail Weston, Cambridgeshire (621), in which the body is decorated with stamps. The use of crescentic stamps can also be seen on other figures, such as Apollo 1188 from Hayton, and on animals, including Horse 687 from Bunwell, Norfolk.

Mercury may also be shown in a group with one or more of the animals with which he is associated. One of the best-known examples comes from St Albans, in which he is accompanied by a ram, cockerel and tortoise (55).

Only two examples, from Dorchester, Dorset (362), and Boxford, Suffolk (840), show Mercury seated. The Boxford example is highly corroded and few details remain, but it is possible to see that he holds a purse in his right hand, while the Dorchester example holds his purse in his left hand. A single example from London (35) depicts Mercury reclining. He is draped across his shoulders and back, but his lower body is uncovered. He wears a petasos, and holds a patera in his right hand and a caduceus in his left. Both of these types, while rare in Britain, are also found on the Continent (e.g. Boucher 1976, nos 171 and 172; Menzel 1966, no. 38; Fleischer 1967, no. 295a; Kaufmann-Heinimann 1977, no. 36).

Figure 6

Figure 6: Hand of Sabazius in the British Museum, provenance unknown. Accession number 1824,0441.1 (© Trustees of the British Museum)

A final, unusual piece from Shotwick, Cheshire (909), is an eagle with a child, who is thought to be Mercury, riding on its back. Sabazius was a Thraco-Phrygian god who had many associations, including Jupiter, and a bust of Sabazius from Bolsena shows him with an eagle on his right shoulder (Turcan 1996, 315-17 and pl. 33). The cult objects most often associated with him are bronze hands (Figure 6). These hands are decorated with a variety of objects including the caduceus, snakes, lizards, frogs and pine-cones (Turcan 1996, 319-20) and, more importantly, eagles and Mercury (e.g. Vermaseren 1983, 36-7, no. 92). In fact there is a small bust of Mercury riding on an eagle's wing in the British Museum (accession number 1771, 0302.110; unknown provenance; Vermaseren 1983, pl. LXXVIII) and both this and the Shotwick eagle may have once been part of a hand of Sabazius. Although the two British Museum pieces are not likely to have been found in Britain, Bird (1996) has discussed the evidence for cult objects associated with Sabazius found in London.

In addition to figurines depicting Mercury, a number of caducei have also been found. Some of these may once have been attached to Mercury figurines, but they may also have been used as votive pieces in their own right. This is particularly likely for the examples from Colchester (1038, 1039 and 1040) and Uley, Gloucestershire (702 and 706, 707, 708, 709 and 710), where temples to Mercury have been found.


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