Posted by: Jack Henry | August 29, 2013

Editor’s Corner: Mercury

A couple weeks ago I mentioned that the names of planets are capitalized. I also included a graphic of planetary symbols that several of you asked about. Instead of talking about capital letters today, I’d like to go back to those symbols—in particular, Mercury.

The following symbol is traditionally used for the planet Mercury and as the medieval alchemical sign for the element mercury (Hg). Hg is the abbreviation for Greek hydrargyros (hydr- + argyros) which would be roughly translated as “watery silver.”

Why does this symbol represent the planet Mercury? Mercury (in Greek, Hermes) was the messenger god, flying around with winged feet and winged helmet. The crescent at the top of the symbol represents Mercury’s winged helmet.

Mercury (Hermes) the Messenger
& His Winged Helmet & Feet

Below the “wings” is the symbol for Venus (woman). My guess at the connection is the strong relationship between Mercury (Greek: Hermes) and Venus (Greek: Aphrodite) in mythology. In Greek mythology, Hermes and Aphrodite conceive a child together: Hermaphrodite. From their child’s name, we get the word hermaphrodite, the term for a person born with both male and female “private parts.”

Talk about a tangent! But I think these stories about our language, symbols, vocabulary, and all the details are fascinating.

A little more vocabulary for you, related to our friend the messenger: as you can see in the sculpture above, Mercury is carrying an odd looking staff. This staff, carried by heralds and messengers, is called a caduceus. It is winged at the top, and has two snakes intertwining their way up from the bottom. The caduceus represents commerce, though many people misuse it to represent medicine. There is actually a different symbol that should be used for medicine: the Staff of Asclepius. Asclepius was the ancient Greek god of medicine and healing.

A caduceus:

The Staff of Asclepius:

I hope you’ve found this interesting because I have information for the other symbols, too!

Kara Church

Senior Technical Editor

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