We all know who Mercury — the fast, sneaky and cunning God of Speed in Roman mythology for whom the planet Mercury was named. He is depicted wearing a winged helmet, wings on his ankles and carrying a caduceus. Mercury, however, is low on the god tier, he’s certainly no boss god like Jupiter, god of the sky and king of the gods. Indeed, Mercury is often seen as the errand boy, sent off on a menial task by his boss Jupiter.
We also know Odin — the king of the Aesir, father of Thor and Loki, the All-Father and the biggest boss in the Norse pantheon. He is so awesome that a whole bucketload of things were attributed to him: healing, death, royalty, knowledge, war, magic, poetry, runes, and even death itself.
So we’ve seen how far Odin, the All Father and the Big Boss, is different from Mercury, the errand boy of the gods. But somehow, somewhere, Odin became associated with Mercury to the point that the two were interchangeable! What sorcery is this? It is true, however. Wednesday, as in the day Wednesday, is named after Odin (or Woden in ancient English), but Wednesday during the days of the Roman Empire was named after Mercury (Dies Mercurii).
The thing is, the Roman Empire has this bad habit of interpreting every other culture they came in contact with using their own cultural understanding. This process is known as interpretatio romana. It’s the reason Greek mythology was incorporated into Roman mythology, but with the names of Roman gods. We all know how Jupiter is actually Zeus, and Mars is actually Ares, but I only learned today that Mercury is actually Odin!
We’ll even see that Roman historian Tacitus referred to Odin as Mercury. In his 1st Century work Germania, Tactitus writes about the religion of the Suebi, a tribe of Germanic people who follow the Norse pantheon. Here, he writes:
“Among the gods Mercury is the one they principally worship. They regard it as a religious duty to offer to him, on fixed days, human as well as other sacrificial victims. Hercules and Mars they appease by animal offerings of the permitted kind.”
Here of course, Tacitus is using the Roman pantheon names in his text, but he clearly identifies Odin with Mercury, for Odin was the chief god that was primarily worshipped by the Germanic people. It’s unusual that Odin was not identified with Jupiter/Zeus, who is the equivalent supreme God in Roman mythology.
There are three possible reasons why Odin was associated with Mercury. From the research I’ve done, this is my best guess as to why Odin is the most associated with Mercury:
They were both Psychocomps – Psycho-what you say? Pyschocomp comes from the Greek word “Psuchopompos” which means “Guide of Souls.” A Psychopomp is a being that guides souls from the lands of life to the land of the dead. Examples of psychocomps are Charon of boatman fame, valkyries, the Grim Reaper, and various shinigami as you see in Japanese anime. Shinigami, or Gods of Death, in other words, are very popular psychocomps.
Wait, did you say God of Death? Didn’t we say earlier that Odin was the God of Death? That’s right. Odin was a psychocomp. Half of all those who die gloriously in battle end up at Odin’s table in Valhalla where they become Einherjar and drink fine mead for all eternity until Ragnarok. Odin was also a potent necromancer, and and his ravens are traditionally seen as the birds of the dead.
Mercury as well was a psycocomp. He is the God of Boundaries, and led newly-deceased souls to the afterlife. When Pluto, god of the underworld took Proserpina, Jupiter and Ceres’ daughter, as his bride, Ceres the goddess of the harvest became so distraught that all the crops in the world began to wither. Jupiter, dismayed that humanity would starve to death, ordered Mercury to fetch Proserpina back from the underworld so that Ceres could concentrate on making farms work again. So Mercury did, being the awesome psychocomp that he is, and saved humankind from starvation.
They were both Tricksters – Mercury, the trickster God, has a well-known reputation for being sneaky and cunning. With his speed and devious intelligence, he runs circles around people with deception, stealthy fingers pilfering things and left and right, and gets the job done without nary any violence. But Odin is the Supreme God, why does he need to resort to trickery? And isn’t Loki, his son, the Trickster God?
While we may commonly give this role to Loki, as we’ve mentioned before Odin is so bad-ass that he does everything. That includes being tricky. Odin was a master of disguises, a shapeshifter, and aside from being the All-Father he was also known as the Changing One, the Two-Fold One and the Hidden One. Odin was said to often don disguises and lurk among mortals
They were both the most Popular Gods – as we’ve established, Odin was the most popular god in the Norse pantheon, worshipped above all others. What may come as a surprise is that Mercury apparently was also the most popular of Roman Gods, and not Jupiter. Archeological evidence in Pompeii suggests that Mercury was the most-worshipped god among the Roman pantheon, with Mercury appearing most often in household shrines. Mary Beard, in her book “Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town” details in her book: “Mercury is the most popular divine subject, closely followed by Egyptian Gods, with Venus, Minerva, Jupiter and Hercules, in that order.”
While we can only attempt fathom why Mercury was the most popular, I get the feeling it has something to do with him being the God of Money.Yes, apparently back in the day, Romans were as materialistic as we are today.
So there you have it. While I still have trouble equating Mercury with Odin, there is no doubt that the early Romans associated Odin as Mercury in the same way that they made the association of Mercury with Hermes from the Olympian pantheon.