Response Paper 3


Mercury exists in many forms with occasional clear relations between each. The planet, the element, the musical composition and the god all move with great speed. There are other connections that only bridge between a few versions of Mercury, such as the deadliness of the planet and the element, with the former’s lack of atmosphere and supremely hot temperatures and the latter’s extreme toxicity. Perhaps the last connection between these versions of Mercury would be the communicative power of the god and the composition by Holst. These connections, strong or weak, all build towards depth and meaning of the concept of Mercury in all his forms.

Assuming that the interpretatio Romana combined not just the physical traits, but also the totality of the Greek god Hermes, Mercury was a god with a varying personality and purposes. Not only was he the well-known Messenger of the Gods, relaying directives to mortals and immortals alike, but he was also the Psychopomp of the classical world, the deliverer of the dead to the underworld. Mercury was not simply gifted in delivery though, he took many roles as expressed in the anonymously written Homeric Hymn to Hermes “(Hermes is) blandly cunning, a robber, a cattle driver, a bringer of dreams, a watcher by night, a thief at the gates, one who was soon to show forth wonderful deeds among the deathless gods.” Mercury’s speed and erraticism become apparent when his duties and activities are compared at once. Mercury was also the god of commerce, which makes even more sense today, as the economy of the world is built of speed and efficiency and which appears, at least to me, to be very chaotic. Lastly, Mercury was associated with health, typically represented by his carrying of the Caduceus, a staff with intertwining snakes along the shaft. This relation to health has had ironically negative outcomes.

Mercury, the element, is one of the most poisonous substances on Earth and has led to the sickness and death of countless people over the span of thousands of years through industrial means as well as ill-informed medical uses. In ancient times, the relation between the element and the god led practitioners of medicine to prescribe mercury as a topical remedy for bodily injuries and ailments as well as an internal remedy for illnesses. The 2nd century Chinese Emperor Qin Shi Huang was obsessed with immortality and understanding the “medical power” of mercury ingested many mercury pills in an attempt to evade death. As you would expect, these pills had the opposite effect and ended his life prematurely. So goes the idea of Mercury as the embodiment of health! The element is also known as quicksilver, due to its fast moving liquid state and silvery appearance, which I can’t help but relate to Mercury the god for he too was fast moving, and though it is a modern understanding of speed, I always think of silvery, shiny rockets as being the epitome of speed.

Mercury the planet has the least connection to the other forms of Mercury, be it god, song or substance. The planet is unbelievably fast though, which may be the attribute of greatest importance connected with the rest. The speed in which Mercury flies around the sun, which is just about 130,000 miles per hour and thus slightly less than twice as fast as Earth’s orbital speed, makes for a year that lasts only 88 Earth days. If I were to have magically been born on Mercury, I would already be 108 years old! An interesting aspect of Mercury’s rotation in regards to its orbit is that due to tidal connections, the planet only rotates one and a half times per orbit, or in terms of days, it would be one full day of sun and night every two years. The remaining characteristics of the planet have little or nothing to do with the rest of our subjects. The planet has a dense metal core that produces a small magnetic field, which baffles scientists, as the observable facts of Mercury’s physical form should point to either a strong magnetic field or none at all. It has no atmosphere, as it is too small and too close to the sun, which means that the surface now only changes due to impacts from small meteorites. In Mercury’s past, ridges and faults on the surface were created by rapid cooling, which contracted the surface and by the tidal pressure from the sun, which pulled the surface into shape. Finally, Mercury is a planet of extreme temperature difference with highs near 600 degrees Fahrenheit on the side facing the sun, and lows of -280 degrees Fahrenheit on the side away from the sun. I suppose there could be some connection made between the distinctive nature of the planet and the element as the element has a freezing point of -39 degrees Fahrenheit and a boiling point of 675 degrees Fahrenheit, but it seems a stretch.

Mercury, the composition by Holst, is beautifully linked to both the god and the planet. It is quickly paced, sometimes chaotic and surprising as well as sounding hopeful and energetic. The flitting, ever-changing nature of the piece emphasizes the god’s movements on Earth as he bounds from one duty to the next. One can almost see Mercury descending from the sky on a brightly lit day bearing a message from Olympus. There is once section of the piece where the volume and tempo increases intensely, only to drop away moments later, which paints the image of the orbiting planet, zooming into focus just to shoot around the sun again on its speedy journey. In contrast, there are moments where the music seems to stumble and halt, almost as if poor Mercury was not watching his path and collided with a temple or mountain.

These four forms of Mercury illuminate the characteristics of a fascinating god, a poisonous metal, a speedy planetary neighbor and a robust musical composition. I feel there may not again be such a complementary fusion between such different subjects, though again, Holst has nailed down in musical form the essence of an incredible character. The richness of his music speaks volumes on his subjects if given the right context, but even without, his pieces still resonate on deep, emotional levels.