It is Wednesday … and it’s also November. So therefore, here’s Mercury, heralding November. For Dies Mercurii, you understand.
Now there’s something a bit different about this depiction – the fact that Mercury is, here, a cynocephal … a ‘dog-headed’ figure (which I suppose would render the apt Old Norse translation for ‘Cynocephalic’ as ‘Ulfhednar’).
It would be tempting to ascribe this purely to syncreticism with the Egyptian Anubis – and certainly, ‘Hermanubis’ etc. is a well-attested figure in later Mediterranean antiquity.
However, to do so would be to disregard the quite extensive associations Hermes / Mercury has always had with Dogs and Wolves.
Indeed, right the way back as far as the Odyssey of Homer, we find Hermes fathering a son named Autolykos – ‘The Wolf Himself’.
Similarly, the Homeric Hymn (number 4) to Hermes likewise directly identifies the God as presiding over both predatory beasts and guard-dogs; and we have an array of more fragmentary references to likewise sketch out these linkages as well.
There is also a rather interesting potential etymological line of inquiry which connects ‘Hermes’ to the Vedic figure of Sarama. Sarama effectively means ‘The Swift’, ‘The Fast Runner’ – and while it would be rather obvious to see how that might pertain to the famously fleet-footed Mercury / Hermes … the point of saliency for us here is that Sarama is also famously a Wolf. A Wolf Goddess, strictly speaking (and a Messenger of the Gods, as well, in Her major Vedic outing in RV X 108, inter alia). Although, of course, several other etymological proposals are also prominent for Hermes.
It is not hard to see how a deity with Hermes’ / Mercury’s portfolios and attributes would make eminently logical sense to have canine associations. With herds of animals as an important store and source of wealth, the raiding of said herds – or their defence against same – quite easily comes into wolf and watch-dog territory, respectively.
And likewise, as we have earlier demonstrated elsewhere, there is a consistent Indo-European understanding for a ‘Wolf’ figure in a psychopompic or metempsychotic association – the Wolves ridden by Valkyries, the cremation pyre devouring the deceased ‘wolfishly’, etc.
Later commentators tended to ascribe the cyanocephaly to mental faculties – a symbolic representation for the keenly perceptive mind and senses of the God. [This would certainly go well with the name of the relevant planet in Sanskrit terms – Budh, which speaks to just such an ‘Awareness’ or ‘Wisdom’, and which also provides the name of this day of the week in various Indian languages .. Budhavar.]
Although I must confess, that the presentation of the dog-head as signifying ‘eloquence’, as at least one prominent commentator of the 1300s (AD) did, is rather curious – as while Mercury / Hermes is most certainly possessed of an eminently ‘silver’ tongue, in actual Classical comparanda, we tend to find the Cynocephalics (at least, those of the wild hinterlands of India in some texts) to be effectively mute in human terms.
Speaking of eloquence – here’s Shakespeare’s character of Autolycus speaking for, as it were, the wolf himself:
“My father named me Autolycus; who
being, as I am, littered under Mercury, was likewise
a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles. “
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