In Brief

Having mocked his roommate's "absurd name, an ancient Greek," the man previously known as "Buck" says ingratiatingly, "My name is absurd too: Malachi Mulligan, two dactyls." The resonances in this name may not be quite as numerous as those of Stephen Dedalus, but they evoke ancient Irish leaders (at least fleetingly), an ancient Hebrew prophet (in a false, mocking way), and Greek epic poetry. Later details in Telemachus fold Roman mythology into the mix.

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Noting that both names are "dactyls" confirms the typical Irish pronunciation of the first one: MAL-uh-kee, which rhymes rhythmically with the last name just as Oliver rhymes with Gogarty. The dactyls also insinuate one more hint that Joyce's novel is somehow retelling the story of the Odyssey, because Homer's long poem was composed in dactylic hexameter: prosodic lines of six DUH-duh-duh feet. It is possible, though to my knowledge no one has explored the idea, that Joyce may be inviting his readers to listen for dactylic rhythms as they read his first chapter, just as he has asked them to hear the Catholic Introibo being chanted, and will ask them to hear countless musical tunes.

Malachy is a common Anglicized form of Máelachlainn, an Irish name borne by a High King and by one of the companions of St. Patrick. But the relative rareness of the name in Ireland, the highly unusual "i" spelling, and Mulligan's own comments point toward a more symbolic meaning. In Hebrew Malachi, the last of the twelve "minor prophets," means “My Messenger.” Indeed, some biblical scholars have argued that it was not a man’s proper name at all, but a symbolic one indicating the prophet’s function as a messenger of God. Mulligan is clearly aware of the biblical significance of his name. In Scylla and Charybdis he borrows a scrap of paper on which to jot down an idea for a play: "May I? he said. The Lord has spoken to Malachi."

Mulligan's determination to “Hellenise” Ireland arguably does make him a kind of prophet, albeit an anti-Christian one. This assumption is supported by the way Telemachus presents him as the bearer of evangelical "tidings": “He swept the mirror a half circle in the air to flash the tidings abroad in sunlight now radiant on the sea.” In Hart and Hayman's James Joyce's Ulysses, Bernard Benstock argues that the book makes Mulligan a kind of John the Baptist to Stephen’s Christ, in the very limited sense that he appears first, dramatically preparing the way for Stephen to emerge as a character shortly after. By this logic, Mulligan’s crudely anti-Christian message could perhaps be characterized as a proclamation of Good News that introduces Stephen’s similar but much more complex and nuanced message.

Later in the chapter Mulligan calls himself "Mercurial Malachi" and the narrative refers to his Panama hat as a “Mercury’s hat,” alluding to the famous winged hat of the god Mercury. Since Mercury, the Romanized version of the Greek Hermes, was often represented as the gods' messenger, carrying decrees down from Mount Olympus to human beings on earth, this detail builds upon Mulligan’s Hebrew name of Malachi.

By adding in references to Mercury, Joyce was apparently paying tribute to one part of Oliver Gogarty's fanciful personal mythology. In It Isn't This Time of Year at All: An Unpremeditated Autobiography, Gogarty wrote, "It is with the unruly, the formless, the growing and illogical I love to deal. Even my gargoyles are merry and bright; my outer darkness by terror is unthronged. My thoughts are subjected to no rules. Behold the wings upon my helmet and my unfettered feet. I can fly backwards and forwards in time and space."

John Hunt 2012

Orthodox icon of the Prophet Malachia. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The Flying Mercury, by Giovanni da Bologna, 1580. Source:,