Dartmouth Toxic Metal Research: Mercury - Element of the Ancients
The promise of power
Intriguing because of its silver hue and liquid state at room temperature, elemental mercury was known to the ancient Greeks, Romans, Chinese and Hindus. Each civilization had its own legends about mercury, and it was used as everything from a medicine to a talisman. Mercury’s chemical symbol, Hg, comes from the Greek "hydrargyrum" meaning liquid silver. Mercury is also known as "quicksilver," a reference to its mobility. Speed and mobility were characteristics of the Roman god, Mercury, who served as a messenger to all the other gods and shared his name with the planet nearest the sun. The symbol for the planet was used by the alchemists to identify mercury before it was given its more modern chemical notation.
Although mercury’s mystique held the promise of power, many of the ancients also knew it to be toxic. It was in the mining of the element where mercury first became associated with human illness beginning as tremors and progressing to severe mental derangement. The largest natural source of mercury is cinnabar, its only known ore, and the richest deposits are found in Spain and Italy. This reddish mineral containing mercury and sulfur has been used as a pigment since prehistoric times. Cinnabar dating from 500 BC has been identified at a Mayan site in Peru, and prehistoric skulls painted with cinnabar have been found in Italy.
The Romans used their mercury mines as penal institutions for criminals, slaves, and other undesirables. The warders were among the first to recognize that there was a high likelihood that the prisoners would become poisoned and spare the keepers the need for formal executions. Mercury is primarily a neurological poison, causing tremors, extreme mood changes, and eventually loss of hearing and restricted vision. Certain forms of mercury poisoning also cause damage to the liver and kidneys. The life span of a worker in those mines was tragically brief.