This post is by Nancy Jardine.

I’m quite amazed when some authors tell me they hate doing research for their manuscript writing because it’s a task I absolutely adore in all its forms and those forms can be quite varied. One of my favourite research tasks is seeking out appropriate images to use in publicity materials. The following ones are depictions of the god Mercury but read on to find out why.

Mercury by Bellini
Mercury- Bellini  (Wikimedia Commons)

In my current manuscript set in A.D. 84 northern Britannia (my part of Scotland) my Ancient Roman General Gnaeus Julius Agricola isn’t exactly happy with his barren situation. He’s not finding the kind of local resources that would be easily taxable – something that was essential to the well-oiled running of the Roman Empire.

Typically, the Roman Army conquered a new territory; they subdued the natives; and then made the local ruler (king or high chief) collect ‘taxes’ from their people to send on regularly to the Roman Empire coffers.

The ‘taxes’ weren’t money as in current day government taxing but were more like contributions of grain which was desperately needed to feed the more than a million inhabitants of the city of Rome which could not grow enough for its own needs. Taxes were often other food supplies, leather, metal ores, horses, slaves etc. Unfortunately, in my novel, Agricola isn’t finding it easy to set up the normal system of Ancient ‘Roman-friendly’ government in the barbarian wilds of northern Britannia to provide him with lucrative revenue. The sneaky local Celtic tribes aren’t playing the game properly so he’s resorting to a bit of cursing!

The Bellini painting above is of a relaxed and indulgent scene of the god Mercury where abundance and success are portrayed. This painting amuses me (Philistine that I am!) in that the ‘winged helmet’ of mercury is to me a bit like a chamber pot, and I can’t help thinking the slave behind with bowl on his head is somehow mocking the god. What do you think of this image? 

Back to my novel writing…Generally speaking, when not happy with a situation a lot of people tend to resort to some kind of cursing.  But what would my General Agricola have considered really bad swear words? Experts don’t always agree but it’s likely that the swear words used today wouldn’t have made the same kind of impact in A.D. 84.

Öèôðîâàÿ ðåïðîäóêöèÿ íàõîäèòñÿ â èíòåðíåò-ìóçåå
Dosso Dossi Wikimedia Commons

There was a much more relaxed attitude to sex in Ancient Rome so those kind of curse words (found in the ruins of Pompeii as graffiti) would have been used in a different context. The ‘toilet’ talk cursing of today is a possibility (again found at Pompeii) but natural bodily functions were also not thought to be as taboo a subject as they  can be today.

This painting by Dosso Dossi of Jupiter painting butterflies, Mercury and Virtue is definitely relaxed so I’m not sure any kind of swearing is happening here!  But bear with me as I continue… Jupiter, relaxed and comfy, is quite disinterested about the shushing going on behind him as he gives life to his butterflies before they fly off the canvas to new adventures. But what is going on between Mercury and Virtue? Virtue looks to me to be somewhat desperate. What is she begging to Mercury do? Art historians might say that the painting tells us that creativity is more important than virtue but… What do you think?  

The most powerful kind of cursing I’m likely to use for my General Agricola will be ‘god’ curses. The Ancient Romans and Celts were known to be highly superstitious. They revered a pantheon of gods and goddesses and it’s likely that they used them in both a positive way (praying for good outcomes from their favoured gods) and a negative way when things weren’t going well. (as documented in ancient writing)

Artus Quellinus  -Wikimedia Commons

Finding out what Agricola would use in a negative way has been interesting.

Like most Romans he would have in some way worshipped the 12 most important gods and goddesses – the Dii Consentes.(JupiterJunoMinerva, Vesta, Ceres, Diana, VenusMars, Mercurius, Neptunus, Volcanus, and Apollo) Fortuna was also a popular goddess, and then there was Epona the ‘horse’ goddess who was popular with mounted Roman soldiers.  I now have a lovely long list of deities for my Agricola to pray to or curse – but the most appropriate one for my present writing is the god Mercurius /Mercury.

Mercury is truly a multi-taking god whose remit covers:

  • being the patron god of financial gain and commerce (the name Mercury possibly connected to the Latin derivation merx as in merchant);
  • trade, particularly the grain trade which made him popular in places like Gaul and Britannia where he was also teamed up with commercial success and abundance;
  • eloquence- he is linked to the art of poetry and in music the invention of the lyre  is attributed to him (from being the original Greek god Hermes who was adopted by the Romans);
  • fastest of the gods, he is god of messages, communication (including divination), travellers and boundaries;
  • being a trickster, he is also the god of luck, trickery and thieves.
  • A darker aspect to Mercury is that he is the guide of souls to the underworld, though he does this in the role only as a guide rather than with any judgmental input. It was through this role that he was asked to guide Larunda to the underworld but he fell in love with her and the result was that she gave birth to twins named the Lares.
Hendrick Goltzius – Wikimedia Commons

This painting I like for its realistic portrayal of a young Mercury. I can see this god being a lot more capricious and mischievous than the statue above . Note the cockerel at bottom left looking quite chirpy here as herald of the new day. The winged helmet is a great shape but the lack of winged shoes just might mean this Mercury doesn’t fly so swiftly as the messenger of the gods.

If that’s the case, I’m thinking that my Agricola will be cursing Mercury a lot because right now in my writing Agricola’s messenger systems are not working as fast as he would like them to.

Last Question: What on earth is the woman behind Mercury doing in the Goltzius painting? 

Nancy Jardine writes historical adventure; contemporary mystery and time travel adventure. She’s a member of the Romantic Novelists Association, the Scottish Association of Writers and the Federation of Writers Scotland. She’s published by Crooked Cat Books and has delved into self publishing.

You can find her at these places:

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19 thoughts on “Curses…Mercurial!

  1. A couple of comments about the paintings. In the second one, Mercury has his finger up to his mouth shushing Virtue. I guess he’s telling her to behave herself, otherwise she’ll have to change her name to “Loose Lucy.” In the last painting, it looks like the woman behind Mercury perhaps has a wine bottle in her right hand and a cigar in her mouth. She looks like a party girl to me. Is the chicken or rooster Mercury’s pet?


    1. Ha! Great observations, Mike. I have no idea what the female behind is doing but it ain’t a cigar. Golzius’ dates are 1558-1617. Her long tongue might also be artistically symbolic but I wouldn’t like/dare to interpret that.


  2. As usual, your research posts is so fun to read. I love research and your take on finding the perfect concept is a joy.

    Love the painting of young Mercury. To me, the woman behind is the ‘curses’ of this disgruntled. *Smile* Doris


    1. I confess–I don’t like to do research for fiction. It’s not that I don’t enjoy learning about the subject; I just want to get on with my writing without having to stop and look things up. I admire you writers brave enough tackle historical fiction. I’m sure I would make a terrible error from assuming I know something I don’t. Your remarks about cursing remind me of Catherine, Called Birdy, who as a rebellious young girl decided to make an art of cursing.

      And that’s a chamber pot, all right. The idea of Mercury shushing Virtue is interesting; I wonder what she’s trying to say–and if Virtue isn’t allowed to speak, what might be the consequences. As for the girl in the last picture, I thought she was sticking her tongue out at Mercury but on second examination, I think Mike is right–it’s a cigar.


      1. Hi Kathy! I’m glad you also think it’s a chamber pot! If I get the time I’d love to research Golzius’ career and find out if he was as much of a character as I think he was. There’s an almost anti-establishment aspect to this work. I haven’t worked out what Mercury is painting!


    1. Thanks, Cherley. I tend to come up with ideas of paintings that don’t quite match the established art history theories but it’s fun to spend time speculating.


  3. Wow, I’m impressed with all the research you have done to understand how your characters might act, and the interesting things you find on the way. The paintings of that time in history can be somewhat ribald I think, with subtle messages portrayed in the poses of the characters. It would be fun to understand what the artist was thinking and portraying. Interesting!


    1. I totally agree, Neva. I think in classical art there were so many small ways to say a lot and it takes a long study of art history to appreciate all that’s in a painting. I don’t know if the woman in the background of the Golzius painting is holding a magpie,but if she is then that probably has sinister connotations.


  4. You always impress me with the research you do, Nancy. Truly enjoyed all the paintings, especially the last one. What’s the woman doing? Maybe making fun of him behind his back?? Thanks for an interesting post, Nancy.


  5. I love your observations on the paintings. Also you bring up a valid point what would be considered cursing back then. I like that you strive to be as authentic as possible even in a work of fiction.


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