Because of stamps, the Roman god Mercury really gets around

August 24, 2014 11:10 AM

The fleet-footed figure of the Roman god Mercury has appeared on many stamps from countries all over the globe. But why?

His winged helmet and shoes gave Mercury the ability to fly, making him a swift messenger. Those winged accessories are visible on many stamps that picture Mercury, including Australia's 1949 airmail stamp (Scott C6).Mercury was a multitasker, the patron for commerce, the arts (especially poetry), trickery and fertility.

Ancient Rome was influenced by ancient Greece, and as a result, the Greek god Hermes and the Roman god Mercury are essentially the same god.

It is not surprising that Greece was the first nation to use an image of Hermes on its postage stamps. In fact, Hermes graced the first Greek postage stamps, issued in 1861.

Since them, Hermes has made frequent appearances on Greek stamps. A full figure of Hermes appeared on stamps from a 1901 set reproducing Giovanni da Giambologna's famous statue (Scott 165-174).

Although Hermes originated in Greece, those 1861 Hermes stamps were not the first to bear the image of Mercury or Hermes.

That honor belongs to Austria, which issued stamps for mailing newspapers in 1851. The stamps feature a left-facing portrait of Mercury oriented to show off his winged helmet (Scott P1).

Austria continued to use Mercury for newspaper and special handling stamps. By 1908, Mercury had taken on the latest design style of the arts and crafts era (Scott P15).

The special handling stamps were even more attractive, adapting the art deco style (Scott QE1).

Mercury's appearance on a French stamp includes his winged hat, but it adds a caduceus, which in modern times has been adopted as a symbol for medicine.

These French stamps were issued beginning in 1938 (Scott 353-369), but Mercury appeared much earlier, too, as the figure on the right of the Peace and Commerce definitive stamps, also known as the Type Sage issue, so named for the stamp's designer, Jules-Auguste Sage. The lower left and right corners of the stamps bear Sage's name in quite small type. Look for "J A SAGE INV" using a magnifying glass.

While you are using the magnifying glass, check out Mercury's wings and caduceus.

It can't be too surprising that Mercury appears within the logo of the Universal Postal Union, the international organization that coordinates cooperation among postal authorities worldwide.

In 1949, the UPU celebrated its 75th anniversary, and many nations issued stamps that used elements of the UPU logo. Most of the British Commonwealth colonies issued a set of four stamps, two of which show Mercury as a messenger. Other anniversary and UPU conference years brought about additional Mercury stamps.

Arguably, the most unusual Mercury stamp was an airmail issued by Hungary in 1933 (Scott C32). The art deco design features an upright Mercury with his arms spread wide above his head. His winged helmet and feet are augmented by an enormous propeller attached to his body. One hesitates to say more, but nevertheless it is an attractive and interesting stamp.

Being an excellent messenger, Mercury is still around in more recent times, including a Greek souvenir sheet in 1990 that pictures Mercury on the stamp and in the margins.

Having graced so many postage stamps, perhaps Mercury should be the patron of stamp collecting.