IX: Mercury

Wrapping up metal month with alchemy.

IX: Mercury
Escaped mercury. Photo by Tavo Romann via Wikimedia Commons.

Good morning. Today is nonidi, the 29th of Nivôse, Year CCXXXI. We celebrate le mercure, the liquid metal we call quicksilver.

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The Roman god Mercury is often used in popular culture as a short-hand for speed. While it's true that he was a swift mover, this was only in the execution of his less-savory job duties as a messenger, trader, trickster, thief, and guide to the underworld. Mercury was not a name to be trusted, and his incredible speed only added to that negative reputation. While the Greeks (with Hermes) and Romans used this god of merchandise (that's where his name comes from) to great effect as an amoral chaos agent in their stories, in modern times, he's likely to be used as a token messenger for plot exposition. What a waste.

There's a myth-building tendency to think that science sprung up from out of nowhere during the Enlightenment to challenge the church for dominance in the European mind. Sure, science-type stuff was happening around the world, mainly in China and the Middle East, but in Europe, science halted when the Greeks – what did happen to the Greeks, did they get, like absorbed by Romans? – stopped philosophizing and mathematizing and only resumed when an apple fell on Newton's head.

But science was there the whole time, and asking all the same questions that religion either didn't bother with or was only too happy to cede to the quotidian minds of the secular world. In modern times, this medieval observation-and-experiment-based science is usually called "alchemy" and dismissed as laughable crackpot chemistry.

Alchemists were doing science, though, and throughout the entire world. The story of what alchemists learned, and how they did it, is not only important to acknowledge, but the learn from. The same mistakes that led to "alchemy" acquiring a very, very bad reputation are in danger of pulling down the edifice of "science" today.

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