Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Not so hidden meanings

In a recent post we presented this seal without explanation. It is the old seal of the BIPM, or Bureau International des Poids et Mesures. Not finding any info on the web, we decided to call the BIPM directly to find out of they had any more info. In short measure (ha!) we were put through to a nice lady from the BIPM library. She emailed us this little note she wrote on the images in the seal.

The seal represented on this page is the ‘macaron’ of the BIPM and represents an allegory of science holding in her hands the new metre standard with its decimal divisions. Mercury or Hermes, the god of commerce, invention and weights and measures wearing a winged cap is an allegory of industry, he carries his herald’s staff and as befits the messenger of the gods sits upon a map. The other feminine figure in the seal carries the symbols of industry, the mallet and a gear wheel. The macaron carries the inscription in Greek “Metro Kro” or “use the measure”.

It is suggested that the laurel decorating the ends of the metre represents the triumph of the work of those who made the new metric prototypes.

According to Wikipedia: 
Hermes is the Messenger of the gods in Greek mythology. An Olympian god, he is also the patron of boundaries and of the travelers who cross them, of shepherds and cowherds, of thieves and road travelers, of orators and wit, of literature and poets, of athletics, of weights and measures, of invention, of general commerce, and of the cunning of thieves and liars.

Hermes gives us our word "hermeneutics" for the art of interpreting hidden meaning.

In Roman mythology, Mercury was a messenger, and a god of trade, profit and commerce...

In Celtic areas, Mercury was sometimes portrayed with three heads or faces, and at Tongeren, Belgium, a statuette of Mercury with three phalli was found, with the extra two protruding from his head and replacing his nose; this was probably because the number 3 was considered magical, making such statues good luck and fertility charms.
In light of recent posts, we don't need to add much comment. Relating to Mercury, we would tentatively propose that each figure in the seal is holding some sort of phallus. They are a magical trio indeed.

In addition to being a messenger, Mercury symbolizes trade and profit. Likewise with Hermes, communicating hidden meaning, patron of industry squatting on a map. Thus confirming our suspicion that the metric system was primarily designed to facilitate commerce and measure new divisions of land in service of an emerging industrial and capitalist culture. He is the God of boundaries, invention, commerce, thieves and liars.

Finally, we would posit that the figure on the right, carrying a mallet and sitting behind a gear wheel, is none other than the Marianne, or Lady Liberty. Both can be seen pictured with laurels. Her "mallet" is more like a flag, think Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People. The gear is like a shield. With shield and flag, there's also something of Pallas Athena in her.

During the French Revolution of 1789, many allegorical personifications of 'Liberty' and 'Reason' appeared. These two figures finally merged into one: a female figure....

If the figure is indeed a kind of Marianne, it would only serve to reinforce the idea that the metric system adopted by Revolutionary France was inexorably linked with progress, the advance of reason and the Republican ideal.

New measurement for a new order.

The final, central figure seems to be older and wiser than the others. There appears to some writing on her sash. Does it say Europa? Or are they just wiley wrinkles? Any insight is welcome.

The Gid has found out that the BIPM: 

"was originally charged with maintaining the international standards for various measurements, which were categorized in three "dimensions" (a poor choice of words since the measurements do not correspond to the traditional three dimensions): length, mass, and time -- which originally (?) had the base units of metre, kilogram, and second."

He proposes the three figures represent these dimensions. One can also add that the figures form a rough triangle within a circle. What do you think?


  1. Curiously, BIPM is my brother's initials.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. That lady retired the day after I called her. She was very nice. I have an oddly vivid image of her appearance in my head. Prim, curly white hair, beige skirt suit. Old school elegant yet plain.

    So it was fortuitous I called on her last day. Efficient to the end, I got that email quickly.

    Bonne retraite madame!

  4. NO images of this 3 phallus statuette of mercury are to be found and no information on who found it. it has been mentioned many times but does it even exist?

    1. It's mentioned in several books (accessible via Google Books) as having been a bronze figurine found in a cemetery, the Gaulish equivalent of Lugus: "Gaulish Mercury [eg Lugus] is associated with triplism: sometimes he has three faces, sometimes three phalluses, which may explain the plural dedications." As for a photo, this Flickr page purports the show a bronze statuette of Mercury with three phalli from the Gallo-Roman museum in Tongeren:

      So it would seem there are a lot of references and an image...unless the museum is mistaken and the literature is repeating the error, I'd say we can conclude it exists. Just curious, why do you doubt it's existence? Do you have reason to believe the identification made by the museum is incorrect? It wouldn't be the first time!


Thanks for taking the time to comment!

Need to add an image? Use this code: [ximg]IMAGE-URL-HERE[x/img]. You will need to remove the the boldface x's from the code to make it work.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.