This painting, created by the French artist Francisque Millet (c. 1642–1679), draws its inspiration from a myth about the god, Mercury (the Roman equivalent of Greece’s Hermes), and an unscrupulous opportunist named Battus, whose name can translate to something akin to ‘Chatterer.’ In the prelude to the encounter between the god and the talkative fellow, Mercury had stolen cattle from his fellow god, Apollo. As the story goes, only one witness saw the crime take place, and this single onlooker was gossipy Battus. Mercury knew he had been seen, so he found Battus in a rocky field and bribed him for his silence, offering the man a single plump cow from the stolen cattle as a hush payment. Battus accepted the deal, and as narrated by the Roman poet Ovid (43 BCE-17 CE), Battus said the fateful line, “‘Go safely on! This stone will inform on you sooner than I’” (Ovid, Metamorphoses, II.695-700). Mercury, however, was well aware of Battus’ reputation and decided to test if the man would keep his word. The god slipped out of sight, then used his divine powers to disguise himself with a new appearance and an altered voice. He returned to Battus and posed as the victim of theft, asking if the stolen cattle had been seen in the area. This time, the disguised god, Mercury, offered Battus two members of the herd—a cow and a bull—as payment if Battus had information that could lead to the recovery of the livestock. Battus could not resist the offer and broke his word, revealing the location of the cattle. The god now shed his disguise and called the man a treacherous liar and informer. It is this last scene, the test of Battus’ dubious trustworthiness, that Francisque Millet re-created in the painting above. Immediately after the events captured in Millet’s artwork, Mercury would go on to transform Battus into a piece of flint as punishment for his betrayal.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Metamorphoses by Ovid. Translated by David Raeburn. Penguin Classics; Revised Edition, 2004.