Hermes Conference Recap, Day 1

Ah, beautiful Charlottesville, Virginia.  Beloved town of Thomas Jefferson, one of the great Founding Fathers of the United States of America, and home of my alma mater, the University of Virginia, where I spent several years in academic, emotional, and spiritual upheaval and chaos which had a significant impact on my life today.  It’s also where an amazing conference is being held on my patron god, titled Tracking Hermes/Mercury, put on by the Department of Classics at the University of Virginia.  If you’re not here, you’re missing out; there are 21 presentations being made over three days talking about the role of Hermes-Mercury in many of his forms in myth, religion, magic, and daily life throughout the antique to late classical periods of European history.  I’m more than pleased to be here, and it’s an amazing group with equally amazing speakers from around the world presenting here on this awesome topic.  Besides the fact that I get to roam around my old stomping grounds again and do a bit of exploration that I couldn’t or wouldn’t do when I was younger, I get to study and learn more about my own patron from some of the brightest and sharpest (though sometimes oddly-accented) experts in the field of classics.  While I’m here, I may as well write up some of my notes and things to think on that I’m picking up at this little conference.

Today was the first day of three, a short day that started in the evening with three speakers: Henk Versnel (Leiden), Nicola Reggiani (Parma/Heidelberg), and Jennifer Larson (Kent State).  Below are some of the talking points and thoughts from their discussions.

  • Hermes was, mythologically, a latecomer to the Olympian gods, being one of the younger sons of Zeus, yet is often held in many inscriptions as a great and powerful god, sometimes omnipotent (pankrator or pantokrator).  This is partially because Hermes never had any one field of expertise, but was a jack of all trades, able to help in any sphere of influence.  That said, many devotional or praise texts of the gods call them omnipotent in only a temporary sense; partially this is because the author wants to flatter and honor the gods in deference to them, and sometimes because the gods they write to are all-powerful for a particular need at that moment and at that time.  Further, many local gods (land spirits, local variants of bigger gods) were similarly held to be exceptionally mighty or omnipotent in their area, perhaps due to their closeness and relevancy to activities that went on in that place.
  • Hymns to the gods (aretalogies) can be divided roughly into two sets: devotional and magical, the former seeking only to praise and worship the gods, the latter seeking to fulfill a request.  (Yes, I know this is a highly modern and artificial distinction.)  In either case, Hermes is described as all-powerful or all-seeing or whatever, and this may be because he’s riding on the epithetical coat-tails of other gods in hymns within the same collections (especially the Orphic Hymns and those in the Greek Magical Papyri).
  • Some katadesmoi or curse tablets use a threefold description of Hermes: khthoniosdolios, and katokos (terrestrial, deceiver, and binding).  This echoes the threefold nature of other wrathful or chthonic deities, like the Erinyes, Moirai, and especially Hekate.
  • Many curse tablets and supplications for justice, of which Hermes is a common target later on in classical history, refer to him as friend or beloved, often in conjunction with terms of rulership like lord, ruler, and the like.  These are highly deferential terms, which are uncommon to be applied to Hermes, especially given his gopher-like nature among the Olympians.  Still, they imply a relationship of closeness and connectedness, similar to like how one grabs the knees of a magistrate begging for legal or justice-related works in our world.
  • In addition to Pan, Hermes and Asclepius (?!) are the two most-common leaders or companions of the nymphs in many cave and dedicatory inscriptions.
  • Hermes was, of course, a god of communication, but principally this was through his role as herald of the gods.  As herald (kēryx), he had the herald’s wand of authority (kērykeion, or caduceus), which gives the power of speech to one bestowed with it.  Compare this to the scene in the Iliad where Agamemnon gives his scepter to Odysseus, giving him license to speak before the tribes of Greece.
  • The caduceus itself is a scepter, and scepters give one divine authority to rule.  Agamemnon, king of Argos, obtained his scepter from Thyestes, who got it from Atreus, who got it from Pelops (origin of the name “Peloponnese”, i.e. the southern half of Greece), who was given it by Hermes from Zeus after having it made by Hephaistos (described in the Iliad).  Hermes always has his own scepter, bearing his message and authority as given to him by Zeus.
  • Likewise, when the herald’s wand was taken away, Hermes is also the god who takes away speech, and thus the god of silence.  Hermes defeated Argos by lulling him to sleep and slaying him after he ceased his talking, and silenced all the dogs and animals on his way back from stealing Apollo’s cattle.  According to Plutarch in “De Garrulitate”, “when in some meeting silence occurs, it is said that Hermes has come in”.
  • Hermes is known also for his associations with stones, specifically those used in heaps as primitive hermai as well as those used in divination and judgment (psephoi).  These associations were ultimately given by Apollo in exchange for the lyre and in substitute for oracular divination.  Further, in other myths, Hermes turns mortals to stone in retribution for speaking out against Hermes or ratting him out, thereby taking away their speech.  One such explanation comes after his up-close-and-personal killing of Argos, which incurred an act of pollution on Hermes, not to mention having gone against Hera who wanted Argos to guard Io; to purify Hermes, the gods threw their voting pebbles (psephoi) onto him.  This is an act of removing sin or pollution, and might be one reason made heaps of stones at crossroads to honor Hermes.
  • Relatedly, Hermes is said (by Aesop) to have written down the crimes and sins of people on potsherds by Zeus and to pile them in a container, so that Zeus to could go through them and exact a penalty from each criminal or sinner.  In this sense, Hermes is now seen as a dispenser of justice, acting as reporter and investigator to Zeus in addition to his messenger and herald.
  • It’s strange to see Hermes as a dispenser of justice, especially given his status as primordial trickster from the get-go as well as someone who had to undergo the first divine purification (involving showering one with judgment pebbles).  Still, it makes sense, as Hermes is one who both delivers judgment and justice as given by Zeus from on high, as well as being one who has already made the transition from criminal to civilian.  He brings people from one state to another, so from lawlessness to lawfulness, from sin to purity.
  • Hermes is a dispenser of far more than just justice, of course.  Another fable from Aesop says that Zeus told Hermes to instill a dose of deceitfulness in every craftsman, so Hermes made up a recipe for deceit and poured it into the mold of each craftsman.  Likewise, he was told to dispense lies and dishonesty to all the peoples of the world.  However, in the former case, Hermes had an overabundance of deceitfulness at the end of his work, and poured the rest of the mixture into the mold for cobblers (those who make shoes); thus, “all craftsmen are liars, but cobblers are the worst of all”.  Cobblers make shoes, like sandals, like the sandals Hermes himself made to steal Apollo’s cattle.  With the latter myth, Hermes had a wagon that he used to dispense lies and dishonesty to the world, but the cart broke down in the lands of the Arabs, who plundered the cart as if it were full of riches; thus, “Arabs are liars and charlatans[;] there is not a word of truth that springs from their lips”.  Arabs, like the Phoenicians, were known as world-crossing traders who sold and bought wares all across the known and unknown world, linking them especially to Hermes (doubly so since they stole from the cart of the godly thief, himself).
  • In stealing the cattle of Apollo, not to mention being born as a new god whose Olympian status was in doubt, Hermes essentially upset the cosmic order of things.  Big claim to make, sure, but in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes, he steals the cattle of Apollo because he wants to plunder the riches and powers of Apollo, and this is only a start to the whole thing.  Plus, he prefaces this by making the lyre and singing out about the history of the gods, but the language used to describe this really implies that Hermes creates a theogony and cosmology from whole cloth, creating a new order.
  • Hermes institutes this order later on by the sacrifice of Apollo’s cattle and proportioning out the meat into twelve parts, not only setting a banquet for the gods (another job as herald) but also setting in place a new method of distributing honor and works to the gods.  He does this by lot, i.e. dice.  Not only does he dice up the cows, he does this by dice.  In this view, Hermes is the god of distributions of fate and what’s due to each person.  This ties into his associations with divination, especially cleromancy or “divination by lot” or sortilege, which then leads naturally to his associations with astrology.
  • Going further with this, Hermes is then linked to the goddesses of fate, usually seen as three in number.  An old Mycenean tablet has the disputed epithet “Areias” for his name, along with three goddesses of unknown importance (at least to me): Peresa, Iphimedeia, and Diwia.  It may be possible (though admittedly a stretch) that Areias is somehow connected to the Areopagus, the Hill of Ares in Athens, where the Erinyes were worshiped (again, a set of three goddesses associated with divine fate and retribution).
  • The similarities between Hermes’ theft of Apollo’s cattle in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes and Heracles’ theft of the tripod from Delphi are striking enough to bear some interesting investigation.  Both concern an Olympian god of no repute at the beginning of the story who seek to upset the cosmic order by stealing from and struggling with their older brother Apollo, in both cases mediated by their father Zeus.  Hermes wanted to take Apollo’s rites of prophecy for himself, and Heracles wanted to obtain a prophecy from Apollo’s priestess, and in either case to get what they wanted they stole from Apollo; Hermes got sortilege, and Heracles set up his own oracle, both with the blessing of Zeus.  In both cases, their struggles with the gods (their older siblings, no less!) was seen not as an act of impiety but as proof of their divinity.  Although we don’t have an original myth written down for the Struggle of the Tripod, it’s likely that it preceded the Homeric Hymn, which may have borrowed both the core idea and some phrases from the Heracles myth (e.g. “strong son of Zeus” to refer to Hermes when this is commonly given to Heracles).

5 responses

  1. Pingback: Hermes and the Other Gods in Mathesis | The Digital Ambler

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  3. Pingback: Sam’s Notes on Hermes | The Boukoleon

  4. Pingback: Notes on Hermes from Polyphanes | The Boukoleon

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