Mercury in the Middle: SERMO between the Discursive and the Divine

2 Pages Posted: 17 Apr 2010

Date Written: April 15, 2010


With renewed interest in the “momentary” gods of Roman religion, scholars have argued that Pistoclerus’ enumeration of a veritable host of such gods at Plaut. Bacc. 114-5 has important implications for our understanding of Roman culture, particularly in relation to religious representation. For example, Denis Feeney (1998, 88-92) points up how the deification of abstract concepts is “one of the specialized ways of conceptualizing and harnessing the power of divinity that was available to state, group, individual, and artist”, arguing that the Roman understanding of divinity “did not rigidly impose demarcations between words, qualities, and instantiations”, while Anna Clark (2007, 18-25) maintains that the conceptual boundary between any particular divine “quality” and the abstract concept that corresponds lexically to that divinity was “highly fluid”, so that “once the quality was a god, there was no point at either end of that spectrum at which both divinity and concept were not in play”.

In this paper, I seek to complicate further the picture of Roman religious and linguistic representation, collapsing distinctions between word, concept and divinity altogether by demonstrating that there is not only an inherent indeterminacy to this category, as Feeney and Clark suggest, but also that this indeterminacy permits a kind of seepage between linguistic and religious meaning. Focusing on one member of Pistoclerus’ erotic pantheon – SERMO – , I first argue that this seemingly mundane category of language in fact belongs to the sphere of the divine. Through a re-analysis of terms marked by the suffix -mō, -mōnis (cf. Díaz y Díaz 1960) I show that this suffix defines a category of that which is inspired or inhabited by divinity, while folk beliefs in gods embodying different modalities of speech (see Perfigli 2004), as well as the divinization of particular “occurrences” of speech (i.e., Aius Locutius), provides a context in which to understand this dimension of how SERMO is conceived. Next, I argue that through an etymological and functional equivalence of (the god (of)) SERMO with the Greek Hermes (explicit in Hyg. Fab. 143), the sacred character of SERMO motivates its close association and even identification with Mercury as the god quintessentially “in the middle”. Finally, I demonstrate how SERMO’s association with Mercury creates a sort of semiotic feedback loop in which specific aspects of Mercury’s divine personality appear to determine linguistic meanings of SERMO, and specific usages of SERMO in literature can be seen to imply meanings that belong to the religious representation of Mercury. Specifically, I show that meanings of the idiom medius sermo – both as a technical term denoting words whose basic sense stands “in the middle” of two connotations or speech “in the middle” of two possible interpretations, and as a literary formula describing interruptions of speech – systematically correspond to representations of Mercury, first as “the mythic embodiment of ambiguity and ambivalence, doubleness and duplicity, contradiction and paradox” (Hyde 1998, 7) and second as the god of thwarted speech (cf. Bettini 2000, 17-19). At the same time, through a discussion of certain passages of Vergil’s Aeneid, I show how by the very use of this expression different “meanings” of Mercury’s divine personality are introduced into the text.

Suggested Citation

Short, William Michael, Mercury in the Middle: SERMO between the Discursive and the Divine (April 15, 2010). Available at SSRN: or

William Michael Short (Contact Author)

University of Texas at San Antonio ( email )

Department of Philosophy and Classics
One UTSA Circle
San Antonio, TX 78249
United States
210-458-5972 (Phone)


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