Mercury is famously known for his winged boots and hat. Born of Zeus and Maia, Mercury grew up to become the messenger of the gods. Yet almost ironically Mercury is also known to be cunning and deceiving. On the day of his birth Mercury stole cattle from his brother Apollo. Then, after fashioning the first lyre out of cow intestine, Mercury dressed himself back in his swaddle to appear innocent to his mother Maia. As the story then goes, Zeus intervenes, but Apollo decides to give Mercury his cattle in exchange for this newly created lyre. Then later as Mercury continues to invent more instruments, Apollo eventually trades a golden wand for Mercury’s flute. This is how Mercury acquired his herald’s staff. Yet perhaps less well known is what else Mercury was worshiped for.
Mercury, besides being a messenger for the gods, was also worshiped for land travel, athletics, literature, and was viewed as the god of the shepherds. It is on this later point that I want to focus. One of the more famous depictions of Hermes is called “Hermes Kriophoros.” It is in this depiction of Hermes that we discover his shepherd side. In this sculpture Hermes is depicted as carrying a ram across his shoulders. It is this exact depiction of Hermes that could have led to the early depictions of Christ.
In the beginnings of Christianity within Rome, Christians often used pagan symbols to not only draw others to their religion, but also to disguise the true meaning of the art. This can be seen clearly in the Catacomb of Priscilla. Inside the catacombs resides the image of “The Good Shepherd.” This drawing portrays a man carrying a ram around his shoulders, while surrounded by the rest of the flock. Now this clearly points to Scripture as in John 10 it is stated, “I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep,” (John 10:11 NIV). So one way to interpret this picture is strictly from this Christian viewpoint, seeing the man as Jesus saving his people from death. This is the meaning that early Christians would have drawn from the image. Yet for the pagans of the time a completely different meaning is true. For the pagans this image might have simply been another representation of Mercury. As I previously stated, Mercury was worshiped as god of the shepherds and therefore was depicted in a similar manner to “The Good Shepherd.” So, in this weird blending of culture, early Christians adapted this symbol of Mercury to become a symbol for the Lord Jesus Christ.
I think this was a brilliant way for the early Christians to save themselves from persecution. In these early times Christianity was not a welcomed religion in Rome. Up until the time of Augustus many Christians were put to death because of their faith. Perhaps the most notable persecutor of the Christians in Rome is Nero. This maniacal emperor often made sport out murdering Christians based off of their faith alone. For Christians, depicting Jesus as a shepherd would help disguise the true identity of the painting. Those who were saved would see Christ, while those who were not save would see Mercury. This piece of art is a prime example of the ingenuity of the early Christians.