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Message machine.

As gods go, fleet-footed Mercury was better than FedEx.

Affiliated with commerce and travel, the Roman god Mercury was known as Hermes to the Greeks, who designated him as the messenger of the gods. They recognized his talent for communications, and our word for the science of clarifying interpretation, hermeneutics, has its roots in his name.

By the 4th century B.C. the Greeks were calling the faintest of the five planets visible to the unaided eye the "star of Hermes," and in the Roman era it acquired fleet-footed Mercury's name.

The Greeks' notion of assigning planets to the gods had been borrowed from Mesopotamia. In Babylon the planet Mercury belonged to Nabu, the scribe god and divine patron of writing and wisdom. His custody of the Tablets of Destiny made him the master of human fate. He was the minister of Marduk, the high god of Babylon, and transmitted Marduk's decrees. With a talent for communication as the emissary of Zeus, Hermes became Nabu's match in Greece.

A messenger has to move with dispatch, and so Hermes enjoyed a reputation for rapidity. According to Homer's Odyssey, his magical sandals carried him "with the speed of the wind." As the innermost planet, Mercury circuits the Sun faster than any of the other eight, and modern books on general astronomy understandably link Mercury's high orbital speed with the alacrity of the Olympian courier. Here's a typical sample: "Named after the speedy messenger of the gods, Mercury is the fastest of all the planets, whipping around the Sun once every 88 days."

Of course, in the 4th century B.C. no one knew that Mercury outraced the rest of the solar system on the inside track. The ancients could see the Sun, Moon, and planets completing their rounds through the stars at different rates, but the Moon traveled more quickly than any of them. More likely, the ancients saw a quicksilver messenger service in Mercury's behavior because the planet is visible only a short time--in either the morning or evening sky--between absences in the glare of the Sun. In fact, Mercury once again goes incommunicado at the end of this month when it slips toward superior conjunction on the far side of the Sun.

Although we lose Mercury to July's daytime sky, the planet is still running a step ahead of the Sun at the beginning of the month. On July 2nd its close conjunction with Saturn near the east-northeast horizon in the morning twilight (see page 85) allows Mercury to transfer whatever messages Saturn may have waiting.

Mercury is encountered only in the dusk or the dawn, and that also explains why the Greeks saw Hermes in this "star." Mercury's confinement to transitional zones--between day and night, between the horizon and the sky, between the hidden and the seen--allied the planet with the god who also guided souls across the boundary between this world and the next (S&T: March 1998, page 88). It also explains why the planet never appears on our monthly gatefold sky chart, which maps the night after the twilight has gone.

Service to the dead and guidance for the living defined the essential nature of Hermes in antiquity, but today we are more likely to remember his transmission of messages from the gods. As early as the 8th century B.C. the poet Hesiod described Hermes as the "herald of the gods," and in the Odyssey he carries instructions from Zeus to the nymph Calypso. Hermes introduces himself as "the divine ones' errand boy" in Ion, a tragedy authored by the Athenian playwright Euripides (late 5th century B.C.).

Hermes is also the "errand boy" of Zeus in Prometheus Bound, by the dramatist Aeschylus (early 5th century B.C.), who labeled him as the "deputy," "minister," and "messenger" of Zeus as well. The mythographer Apollodorus, in the 1st century B.C., said Hermes was appointed by Zeus to serve as herald to him and to the infernal gods and so confirmed his traffic with the underworld. The travel guide to Greece that Pausanias wrote in the 2nd century A.D. calls Hermes "the Herald," and in Ovid's Metamorphoses, Mercury explains that he "flies across the air as emissary of Jove." In 1997 an animated Hermes appeared in a cameo role as the messenger of Zeus in Walt Disney Pictures' Hercules.

Gustav Holst identified the planet Mercury as "the Winged Messenger," in The Planets, the celestial suite he composed between 1914 and 1916. Holst insisted his musical delineation of each planet's character was unrelated to the god from classical mythology for whom the planet is named but reflected instead the planet's astrological meaning. Astrology, however, extracted from the planets the symbolic attributes possessed by the gods. Michael Delmar's Symbols of Astrology (2000), for example, indicates that the planet Mercury rules the principles of "communication, liaison, [and] exchanges."

Holst's musical direction for Mercury's movement in the piece--vivace, or "lively"--is not only an apt reference to the planet's rapid movement between the morning sky and evening sky but also to the swift flight of the divine messenger of the Olympian gods. According to Adrian Boult's liner notes for the recording he conducted, "Holst has here succeeded in making the orchestra give us a perfect impression of winged lightness and speed."

Forty years ago, space technology emulated Mercury's commitment to commerce and communications and launched the world's first commercial communications satellite, Telstar 1, on July 10, 1962 S&T: August 1962, page 89). Conceived, designed, and assembled by AT&T's Bell Telephone Laboratories, Telstar 1 carried the first live television broadcast across the Atlantic. It took altitude to relay a signal that far around the curvature of the Earth, and in an orbit that carried it between 954 and 5,635 kilometers (593 and 3,502 miles) above the planet, Telstar 1 provided the first direct intercontinental television link. Because the satellite moved swiftly beyond the reach of the broadcaster and receiver, however, the show lasted only a few minutes. If this kind of transmission had been more than experimental, network television could have offered sponsors an unprecedented opportunity for commercial breaks and introduced the infomercial long before its time. Viewers would have had to wait almost two hours for Telstar's return and the live program to resume.

Telstar's career was terminated by high-energy abuse from atomic particles in the Earth's Van Allen "radiation" belts. The 77-kilogram (170-pound) satellite relinquished the Herald's wand and winged sandals to Telstar 2, rocketed to orbit on May 7, 1963. Like its predecessor, Telstar 2 was an instant success and indicated that commercial communications satellites had a future. The technology continued to evolve through more sophisticated and effective satellites.

Hermes could go like the wind, but when satellites were eventually placed at the lofty geostationary altitude Arthur C. Clarke had first proposed in 1945, world communications was transformed with a system that outpaced Hermes at the speed of light. In 1963, dust-jacket copy of Maurice Fabre's History of Communications suggested, "Perhaps today the use of Telstar and other communications satellites signals the approach of a global society." Live global television was on the way. In time, Elvis Presley would be seen in concert by a significant fraction of the population of the Earth, and CNN would broadcast the beginning of the Gulf War live from Baghdad.

Telstar's impact was not just technical. It was cultural. With worldwide name recognition and a mass-media profile, Telstar enjoyed a completely different kind of success a few months after the first liftoff. The Tornados made Telstar a No. 1 song in the United Kingdom in October 1962, and by December of that year the British instrumental topped the U.S. charts.

Already experimenting with exotic "extraterrestrial" sounds, Joe Meek, the record's idiosyncratic writer and independent producer, heard a message in the Telstar satellite's mission in space. He opened his tune with a studio-fabricated audio immersion into a rocket launch and then engineered listeners into orbit with "harpsichord-like glissandos and the keening pre-synthesizer tones of the clavioline," as Richie Unterberger describes the music in Unknown Legends of Rock 'n' Roll (1998). Exhilaration and promise are conveyed by an off-world melody that circles like a satellite and lurches higher like a multistage rocket. Nothing had signaled the future as the Telstar satellite, and nothing sounded more like the future than Meek's record.

Hermes also had a musical career. He stretched seven strings across a tortoise shell and invented the lyre (S&T: September 2000, page 93). The strings correspond to the seven "planets" known to the ancients and reflect Pythagorean notions of celestial harmony. Moving in concentric spheres, Mercury and the other planets created transcendent tones of cosmic music. Space technology turned Hermes into Telstar, and when Telstar turned into a hit record, the medium became the message.

E. C. KRUPP is on-message at Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles.
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Title Annotation:the story of the Greek god Mercury
Author:Krupp, E. C.
Publication:Sky & Telescope
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2002
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