Mercury Markers, History and Theory

In my last post I went over the story of my read-through of Ink Black Heart. I focused on my claim that each of the Strike books has had its primary villain secretly indicated by a hidden reference to various Hermes-related figures, what may alliteratively be called “Mercury Markers”. This, aside from its predictive value, seems to be, on the face of it, a very strange thing to expect an author to do. I wish to make the claim that a move of this type is common for any author like Rowling who writes within Hermetic or Alchemical traditions. The central motif of the Hermetic tradition is this: a hidden word or sign, that will make itself readily apparent only to the “initiated” who have been informed to expect the word or sign, brightly highlights a Deeply Important Something that is going on “behind the scenes.” Below, I plan to track the main places I see similar effects being used and provide a more detailed account of where I see this being used in the Strike novels.

The Ancients and Commedia Dell’Arte


Homer, British Museum

The earliest I have found this tradition is in the works of Homer. The story of Hermes is told in detail in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes. For much of the classical use of Hermes, this is the text that “initiates” readers into the images that hint that the god Hermes is at work. It is set in the early days of the Olympian’s rule after they overthrew the Titans. Hermes is the son of Maia (whose name means “midwife”) and Zeus, in one of Zeus’s overly frequent infidelities to his wife Hera. Maia is the daughter of the Titan Atlas, who after the overthrow of the Titans had been condemned to hold the sky above the earth. Hermes, by his lineage, finds himself in a middle place between the powerful and oppressed. Hidden in a cave to hide from Hera, Maia gives birth to Hermes. Before his first day’s end, he has invented the lyre and stolen the cattle of Apollo (driving them backwards so that the apparent trail leads the wrong direction). Apollo finally captures him and brings him before Zeus for judgement (during which process, a sneeze occurs that is interpreted as omen of other infant bodily functions). Hermes argues before the divine court that he can’t have stolen the cattle of Apollo, as he was literally only born this morning. The laugh this induces in Zeus reduces the tension of the situation, and he directs Apollo and Hermes to reconcile. They exchange gifts, Hermes receiving divination by lots from Apollo, who gets the lyre in return. Hermes also takes on the role of psychopomp, guide of the souls of the dead to Hades. Hermes has, by apparently wandering about doing nothing, set up a domain for him to rule over, where by his birth alone none was due to him. He takes the roles of all the other gods, but those roles as done “behind the scenes” rather than in plain sight.

The images set up here can be listed, however incompletely: clever servant (being of an oppressed family now among the powerful), the turtle (from which the Lyre was made), cattle theft and sudden increases in wealth generally, midwives, caves, disguise, sneezing, divination by casting of lots (Hermes as shadow of Apollo), travel to the underworld (Hermes as shadow of Hades), bringer of dreams, unity of opposites (Hermes as shadow of Aphrodite, working behind the scenes to bring love to success), bad arguments that win court cases, and the Caduceus (the magic wand of two thrice-intertwined serpents). Any mention of any of these elements should instantly set us on guard for hidden action.

In Book II of Homer’s Iliad, a dream is sent to Agamemnon telling him that he is able to win the war if he attacks now. He, trying to test his troops, tells them to board their ships, pretending that he has decided to give up. While issuing this statement, he wields a scepter that he inherited in a line from Hermes. His troops, missing the hidden message behind this, head for the ships. Odysseus, great-grandson of Hermes, jumps in, grabs the scepter, and starts directing the soldiers back to their posts. Thersites, the cripple outcast, proceeds to give fairly valid criticism of the leaders of the Achaean army, before Odysseus beats him with the scepter into silence. 

The Greek reader of the Iliad would interpret this scene with all the images of the Homeric Hymn to Hermes in the back of his mind. Hearing that a “dream” was sent from the gods to Agamemnon, they know Hermes is in the scene, unseen and unmentioned, bringing the dream. Agamemnon’s response, deciding to say the opposite of what he means out of hope that his soldiers would sense his hidden meaning, is relatively inexplicable except for Hermes’s too-crafty influence. The power of Hermes (represented by the scepter) is then used by a deeply subtle figure (Odysseus, of the house of Hermes) to forcefully “illuminate” the troops as to the hidden meaning of Agamemnon’s speech. Then Thersites, the social outcast, gets up and loudly speaks the truth, but is not believed due to his position and as suppressed by Odysseus. Homer writes “dreams”, “Hermes’s scepter”, and “false meanings” as almost throw-away elements in the scene. But, they signal to the attentive reader who has been initiated into the importance of these symbols to expect hidden meaning and behind-the-scenes events. By this clever system Homer tells us, with all the plausible deniability in the world, to listen to the social criticism of Thersites.

Br'er RabbitAesop centers many of his stories on the clever trickster archetype, frequently a trickster rabbit or fox. Hermes, somewhat contrary to form, is the only Greek god to explicitly show up in Aesop, in part because these stories are frequently written from the perspective of the clever social outcasts themselves. These stories have the underdog rabbit trickster gaining the upper hand in conflicts with other animals by speaking in a way only he will understand, expecting that the other characters will, by their lack of experience, misread what he says to his advantage. Here we see Hermes-figure used as figure of an oppressed group, who uses his power of “words only understood by the initiated” to overcome those who would oppress him. This figure was passed through an African tradition and reached written expression in the Br’er Rabbit stories of Uncle Remus (the “briar patch” means something powerfully different to the “initiated” Br’er Rabbit, rather than to Br’er Bear and Br’er Fox). Bugs Bunny is also a literary figure in this very same tradition (“Rabbit Season!”).

The philosopher Plato also centers the hidden content of much of his dialogues around Hermes references. Socrates, the central figure of Plato’s dialogues, regularly swears by “the dog, the god of the Egyptians”. Anubis, the jackal-headed god who was the psychopomp of the Egyptian pantheon, was considered by the Greeks to be the form Hermes took on when he went into hiding in Egypt when Typhon drove the gods from Olympus. It is precisely in the vicinity of Socrates swearing by Anubis that some of the most logically weak or otherwise suspect arguments are made. In the dialogue The Symposium, two people swap the order in which they present their speeches in praise of Eros when one of them comes down with hiccups (a condition that is only cured when he is able to sneeze).


Elsewhere in Athens at exactly the same time, the Athenian general Alcibiades is off defacing statues of Hermes, before arriving at the feast where the speeches are being given. Here, just the reference to a “sneeze” is the sign to the initiated reader that something deeply important is going on behind the scenes (important enough that the Athenians will later blame the failure of the Sicilian expedition on the consequences of Alcibiades’s impiety), and that one should direct one’s attention to the two interchanged speech’s as central to Plato’s true meaning. In the Republic, during the extended discussion of which things should be censored in the Perfect City, Socrates insists that any literature involving a magician god who hides himself should be forbidden (the hidden meaning: Plato doesn’t mean this section on censorship to be taken literally, particularly as Plato’s dialogues as a whole are central examples of this type of literature.) In the Theatetus, Socrates describes his art of dialogue as “maieutics”, a “midwifery” of philosophical ideas that he practices in imitation of his mother who was a midwife; the connection to Maia/midwife the mother of Hermes/Socrates is forced upon the attentive reader. 

The Greek and Roman traditions of comedy, particularly in the Roman comedian Plautus, centered themselves strongly on the figure of Hermes. The typical plot revolved around a young couple, thwarted in their hopes of love by their elders, who turn to a clever servant who enacts a plot to bring them together. A good way for one to get the sense of the genre would be to watch the 1962 Sondheim musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum or its movie adaptation, which borrows the stock characters and standard plots from the comedies of Plautus in a very accessible way to modern audiences. (Comedy Tonight!) Hermes has been borrowed in this stock-plot as a central, driving, character. The actions of Hermes can be made much more “front and center” in comedy, in that the tropes of the genre already play on subtle meaning.

The traditions of Plautine comedy were adapted centuries later into the Commedia Dell’arte stock characters of Italian commedy. The “clever servant” of Plautus became the Harlequin, who served the same role as he had in Plautus, helping the star-crossed couple unite despite opposition from their elders. An excellent example of Commedia stock-character writing is Niccolò Machiavelli’s play Mandragola (“The Mandrake”).  This set of stock characters also introduced a foil to Harlequin in the character of Pierrot, the tragic clown. The clown, by his opposition, can also act as a pointer back to the Harlequin. DC Comics has notably referenced this pair of mutual foils in the pair of Batman villains Joker and Harley Quinn.


Mystery Novels

Here is where we reach the Mystery Novel. The detective goes about, looking for subtle clues that often appear only meaningful to him unless you can find the hidden key. Hermes, subtle and hiding behind hard-to-see signs, is for this reason the ideal model for the criminal in this type of novel. He is the thief trying to get away with stealing Apollo’s cattle. The Detective plays the role of Apollonian reader, looking for the signs that point the way toward things happening off-scene. In a mystery novel we want the solution to be readily apparent once the signs have been interpreted, but hidden from all except the highly the attentive reader beforehand. (The art of interpretation, “hermeneutics’, is almost certainly named after Hermes.) Further, the best criminal for a mystery novel is one that you least expect, given his position in society or in the scene. Hence the greatest cliché of the mystery novel: “The butler did it.” Of course it would be the Butler, always present but never noticed, the clever servant, who would be in exactly the hidden position to accomplish his aims.

Agatha Christie, in several of her works, brings this Hermetic fittingness of the mystery novel into contact with direct Hermes-figure references. In the very first Hercule Poirot short story, “The Affair at the Victory Ball”, the murder occurs at a costume ball, to which a group went dressed as Commedia Dell’arte stock characters. The victim was dressed as Harlequin, the murderer as Pierrot. In my first read through of the short story I was able by this fact alone to guess the murderer prior to seeing the conclusion. In Christie’s short story collection The Mysterious Mr. Quin, we are introduced to the character of Mr. Harley Quin, who in these stories appears unexpectedly to the aid of Mr. Satterthwaite, a lesser known Christie detective. Here, more than a mere sign, the aspects of Hermes are used in Christie’s creation of characters.


Mercury Marker Theory

I suspect Rowling of continuing this tradition of subtle reference in the Strike books. Around the first appearance of the villains in each book, we have gotten significant incidental references to Hermes-related figures, which in any event should put us on our guard that something hidden is going on. My evidence is the following:

    1. In Cuckoo’s Calling, Strike leaves his office following his first interview with Bristow, turns the corner from Denmark street to Tottenham Court Road where in front of the Dominion Theater there stood a statue of Freddy Mercury. This statue actually exists, and was outside the Dominion Theater until 2014  during the time the Queen musical We Will Rock You played at the theater. “Mercury” acts as the Hermes reference here, being the name of the Roman equivalent of Hermes. That Rowling was able to craft this brief introductory walk that takes the son of a rock musician from a road historically known for its music production (Denmark Street) to an immediately adjacent road with the oversized statue of another rock musician with a last name that doubles as a Hermetic reference in order point to Bristow as the killer is, in itself, an astounding effort of geographical writing and series building.
    2. In The Silkworm, our introduction to Liz Tassel is accompanied by the presence of a dog described as “an Anubis”. As mentioned above, Anubis is the Egyptian equivalent of Hermes, is the guardian of tombs and the one who guides the dead to the afterlife. Anubis, upon bringing the souls of the dead to the underworld, judges them by weighing their disembodied heart against Maat, the standard of morality and justice. The disembodied Heart that is considered against a scale of justice plays a larger role in The Ink Black Heart, nicely paralleled here.
    3. Laing is shown for the first time in Career of Evil in Strike’s memory of a boxing match with him, and is here described as like Atlas. Here we get the apparent reference to the Titan grandfather of Hermes. The inclusion of boxing is also a pointer to Hermes. The Gemini, the twins Castor and Pollux, sons of Leda, were strongly associated with Hermes. (In astrology, the star-sign Gemini is ruled by Mercury.) Castor excelled as a breaker of horses and Pollux as a boxer (paralleled in the Strike books by Robin’s excellence as car driver and Strike’s former excellence as a boxer). Thus we have both Atlas and Strike-qua-Pollux acting as Hermetic references at the book’s first introduction of Laing.
    4. Lethal White has probably the easiest to spot of these references. “Raphael” is the name of the biblical archangel from the book of Tobit. In that book, Raphael plays a role strongly reminiscent of Hermes. He accompanies Tobias on his long journey to retrieve his father Tobit’s large deposit of money, disguised throughout as a cousin of Tobias. Along the way, they catch a fish that Raphael reveals possesses magical properties. By burning one part, the demon Asmodeus is driven far away, allowing the wedding of Tobias and Sarah. Raphael here takes on the role of magician god who hides himself in order to bring about the wedding of the otherwise thwarted young couple. The book of Tobit, in its description of the divine destruction of Nineveh and in centering around a miraculous fish, acts as an pseudo-continuation of the book of Jonah. I think we may expect Whale references as an extraordinarily oblique form of Hermetic reference to potentially show up.
    5. Troubled Blood is a place where this pattern proved very difficult to effectively use. I suspect this is where Rowling began to include extra Hermetic references as red herrings. The name Hermes appears for a series first in this book, in a context surrounded by Henry VIII references. My current theory for this red herring is that it is designed to point to the Four Elizabeths narrative that I have theorized has been at the back of Rowling’s mind for some time. Paul Satchwell’s appearance as a one eyed figure, which instantly read to me as Odin, the Norse equivalent of Hermes, was a red herring figure I followed carefully in my first reading. However, at the first appearance of Janice Beattie, we see her foil Irene Hicks described as  having “…outlined her hooded eyes in black, penciled her sparse brows into a high, Pierrot-ish arch and painted her thin lips in scarlet,” (212). The Pierrot/Harlequin pair, as in Agatha Christie, points from Hicks-as-clown directly to Janice-as-Harlequin as the killer. As far as I can find, this is the first Commedia stock character reference in the series.
    6.  In Ink Black Heart, so many of these strands come together. Our introduction to Gus Upcott is shortly accompanied by Freddy Mercury playing in the background, which music in turn ties him to his alt Twitter account “Scaramouche”, both another name of the Harlequin and a reference to Mercury’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” That Rowling has managed to bring back the elements from the short walk in Cuckoo’s Calling while tying in yet another layer of Hermetic reference is remarkable. The second appearance of the Upcotts appears around a reference by Anomie to a “trickster god”. The B-plot villain, in the Halvening conspiracy, Cardew, is first seriously considered as a suspect in the only chapter that directly references Odin.


Who has more to hide, more likely to be working behind the scenes, than the main villains of each of these books? Hermetic references have been standard for millennia to put the audience on guard that something is happening off-stage or is otherwise hidden. I think Rowling is playfully incorporating these Mercury Markers to point us in each book in the direction of who committed the crime. These markers are a natural continuation of the literary tradition both in a wider global literary context and within detective novels more specifically. The question is, of course, whether Rowling is actually using them.


  1. LudicrousMoniker says

    There is a previous reference to a Pierrot in the series; and it fits with your theory. In Career of Evil, Chapter 28, in Lorraine MacNaughton’s house in Corby. “One wall was dominated by a painting of a saucer-eyed child dressed as a pierrot. Strike could no more imagine Donald Laing living here than he could visualize a bullock bedded down in the corner.”

  2. Evan, I’ve been held captive by your thoughts ever since I first read this over a month ago, the post that included HP6 parallels to HP1. I think this is my favorite line in this post :”The central motif of the Hermetic tradition is this: a hidden word or sign, that will make itself readily apparent only to the “initiated” who have been informed to expect the word or sign, brightly highlights a Deeply Important Something that is going on “behind the scenes.” I wonder what you will think of another hermetic reference in CC that parallels a wild notion, which I definitely would not have noticed in a first reading, nor would it enable making a prediction about the killer in IBH. But since I don’t personally care about making predictions, I humbly present it to you for an amusing after thought.

    In CC both Strike and Bristow have these flashes of images. Strike still had vivid memories of both Charlie and his house, but if he saw or heard “quarry” mentioned, he saw “the face of a laughing blond boy fragmenting..” Meanwhile Bristow “distinctly rabbity in appearance” (Bugs Bunny and Br’er Rabbit!), told Strike that seeing his name in the book “felt like – like a sign. A sign from Charlie.” These images not only point to a”Deeply Important Something” (you sound like Dumbledore here! I love it!), but they also point to Hermes as messenger, crossing the boundary of death to deliver messages from the dead to the living.

    In chapters 21-22 IBH Strike and Barclay part company and Strike contemplates his next move but his attention is arrested by a tiny, pale, emaciated and black-clad girl under extreme distress and whose “eyes were outlined with a lot of black kohl, so that they stood out starkly against her very pale skin.” When she finally gets a hold of someone she’s been trying to reach on her phone, she has a very unsatisfactory argument, the reasoning of which escapes her as she repeatedly asks “why?” Then when she’s sobbing, still on the phone, a young man “with the hood raised on his zip top passed, his eyes sliding over the sobbing girl without compassion.” When the phone conversation ends, the girl “came to a halt, level with the imposing neo-gothic gatehouse that formed the entrance to the cemetery…looking towards.. the cemetery… a child mourner… contemplating the graveyard.” A little over 35 minutes later Strike sees a Tweet from Anomie: “If god meant us to feel sympathetic, why’d he make crying people look so f** ugly.”

    Louise has already suggested Zoe is channeling Edie’s spirit/ghost, which seems apparent here (though I myself had no clue), and Zoe is very Pierrot-ish, the tragic clown and hermetic figure. And though Anomie is also unidentified at this point, he’s clearly just walked by Strike and Zoe, while Hermes is sending messages from the dead and buried Edie. I kept wondering why that phone conversation was so prolonged until it struck me that Zoe was being subjected to a very dissatisfying argument, a hermetic element the tragic clown had to endure. This scene raised more questions than it answered until weeks after it was over but it’s Anomie’s first physical appearance and Hermes is all over it. I feel almost initiated? Maybe? You decide.

  3. I do hope Evan will write a post just on ‘Rabbits in Rowling’ from Oonaugh and the Athorns in Troubled Blood and the Blue Bunny of Christmas Pig to the dying pet rabbit that causes Hermione’s exit from the In Crowd and Trelawney’s classroom. That these and other loose hares are Mercury Markers is a fascinating find, one of Rowling’s sweets hidden at the bottom of the bag.

  4. Evan Willis says

    Zoe/Pierrot as ghostly psychopomp is an excellent find. That fits very well. The very idea of a ghost, having a central place in the Strike series, is very close to the idea of Hermes as Psychopomp. Well read, as far as I can see.

    One thing I didn’t mention in the post that I should have: the “initiation” mentioned doesn’t actually need to be anything terribly profound. This is, in fact, a very everyday process for most of us. Learning to read for the first time in Elementary School is the prime example of such an initiation. Obscure signs that we would see as just so much gibberish until we were instructed in their meaning, that now regularly reveal to us things beyond the page. Kindergarten teachers are, by profession, Hierophants. I appreciate your kind thought that “Deeply Important Something” sounded Dumbledoreish (though, my intended model for that expression was far more A.A. Milne than Dumbledore).

    Rabbits certainly need looking at, I’ll add it to my posts-in-progress list. Their Hermetic cousin, the clever fox, probably needs at least a passing glance too (notable in HBP as the only non-Horcrux animal perspective character in the HP series).

  5. In TB, when Strike and Robin meet Janice and Irene, Irene tells them her Margot Fonteyn china figurine had shattered that morning. We are supposed to take note of the name Margot, but there is a crater on Mercury named the Fonteyn Crater, named after the dancer. Is there any other reason to specifically mention Fonteyn if not for the Mercury connection?

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