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 last day of three, a full day of presentations: Alan Shapiro (Johns Hopkins), Hélène Collard (Liège), Athanassios Vergados (Heidelberg), Ljuba Merlina Bortolani (Heidelberg), Thomas Biggs (Yale), Duncan MacRae (Cincinnati), Jenny Wallensten (Swedish Institute at Athens), Stéphanie Paul (Liège), and Carolyn Laferriere (Yale). Below are some of the talking points and thoughts from their discussions.
- Just as a neat note that was made in passing, this conference could conceivably have a birth date back in 1998 when discussion among the professors of the department of classics first started. That’d be about 16 years, or 4 times 4, and 4 is the sacred number of Hermes. Cute.
- Hermes is among the most commonly-featured god in Greek art, and he’s not limited to any one aspect or situation where he’s featured. However, as might also be expected of Hermes, he’s usually not the protagonist or central feature in the art, usually playing accessory roles (again, the whole “involved but detached from everything” schtick, in keeping with the rest of his nature and exploits). This contrasts with his mother, the mountain nymph Maia, who appears in such art only very rarely, and even then almost always in connection with her son. The two are usually shown in a sort of deep paternal/filial relationship, emphasizing Hermes’ son-ness (presenting him as beardless even in old Greek art, when even then he’s often given a beard).
- The presence of livestock in depictions of Maia and Hermes (often sheep, but also includes goats and lions) recalls Hermes’ mastery over the animal kingdom and animal husbandry. The depiction of livestock here may suggest that this is something that not only comes from Apollo’s blessing of Hermes in his Homeric Hymn, but also in part due to Maia herself as a mountain nymph, a kind of sub-class of earth goddess. After all, being the nymph in one of the highest mountains in pastoral Arcadia, it’d make sense she’d have some rule over the animals in her lands as well.
- Going off the connections between Hermes and Heracles from before, there’s mention of an Attic celebration of Maia in a list of other of Heracles’ family members by a particular clan in Sunion (if I heard correctly). That Maia appears here, at least in name, is unusual, since she got next to no cult in this part of Greece, and to be tied in here with Heracles is unusual. Hermes is often seen accompanying Heracles to Olympus or just chilling with him generally, so they might be bros if not brothers.
- When Maia is represented in art, it’s almost always in rememberance and honor of the birth of her son. On the other hand, whenever Hermes appears in art, it’s usually for his minor role he plays in others’ stories. Rarely is he depicted in his own adventures or exploits beyond that of his birth (which is a small group on its own). When he appears with Apollo, which is common, Apollo is playing the lyre while Hermes is playing the pipes, sometimes to contrast rustic music with refinement, sometimes to act as a chorus of friendship in a performance.
- Rather than picturing Hermes directly, it’s far more common for vases to depict herms, the apotropaic pillars put at liminal places. Herms likely began in Attica in the 6th century BC, and from there spread across Greece (though the practice of piling stones at crossroads preceded this and anticipated proper herms), and is attributed to the artist Hipparchos. They were rectangular/had four sides, usually with an erect phallus on the front and a bust of a bearded man, though in much later periods had busts of heroes or even women. The rectangularity of the herms is sacred to Hermes, whose holy number is 4, and given that he can see in the four directions from a herm, especially at crossroads.
- Greek vase art presented herms in a variety of situations, usually to mark a place of holiness or a sanctuary; these were possibly common in art due to their easily-drawn and easily-identifiable nature. The rectangularity of the herms suggested stability and unshakeableness, an important thing in the body of a divine being.
- Common depictions of them show them present before sacrifices being made at altars, or being approached in worship closely (being touched, embraced, whispered to, even grasped by the phallus). This is strange in graphical depictions of statues of the divine, since art never shows physical contact with a statue besides herms, even though literature is replete with this (e.g. a supplicant grabbing the legs of a statue). This suggests that the herm was used as a messenger to the god, directly supplicated or approached in a way that other divine works weren’t. Hermes, ever the lowest of the celestial gods and closest and friendliest to mankind, would appreciate this, directly working with his supplicants and working with them or relaying their prayers to the proper gods. Thus, herms could be taken as a divine image of Hermes or as a bridge between mankind and the gods, just as Hermes is herald and messenger between the gods and men.
- Then again, it could be that a difference in medium is necessitated by a difference in focus. Literature and drama, say, require emphasis on devotion or meaning, while drawn art might have different foci. Thus, it may be that herms themselves were never physically approached like other statues, or that all statues were approached, but from the evidence we have, it may be that herms are a special case among statues, and records of people physically touching other statues are a special case among worship.
- Herms in art are commonly depicted with garlands, necklaces, flowers, fruit, and the like, and a good number of them support caduceuses on their own. Herms were associated with Hermes outright, so it’s unusual for a reduplication of symbols to be present in art, unless it’s to emphasize the herm’s Hermaic nature. Even then, this suggests that the herm wasn’t always associated with Hermes, depending on its presence and appearance, so it can’t be taken wholly for granted that the presence of a herm suggests the presence of Hermes. Still, the fact that herms are associated primarily with Hermes suggests that cult and sacrifices were made to Hermes often and everywhere; it may be that he had little need of formal temples, since the presence of a herm was his temple.
- Herms were especially decorated with plants, and even more than that with figs. According to several papyri (Oxyrhynchus 7 and 17), the fig is a sacred fruit to Hermes. Not only is it the first fruit offered in sacrifice, but it’s among his most favorite and favored fruits, as evidenced by excerpts from drama and proverbs. The fig also links Hermes to Dionysus, since its leaves are used in Dionysus’ garlands. It’s an exceptionally sweet fruit of the Greeks, and is considered the “sister of honey”, and when eaten makes one’s words sweeter than honey just as Nestor, the famed mentor and talker of the Homeric epics.
- A joke, however, can be considered when expanding this outside of Greece. A particular ritual to Thoth, the Egyptian god most syncretized with Hermes, involves eating honeyed figs (mingling honey and figs both, and both are considered Hermaic due to their sweetness in speech and the mouth) while exclaiming “truth is sweet”. Bear in mind, however, that Hermes is anything but truthful, being the prince of lies and deceivers and thieves.
- For as similar as Hermes and Thoth might be, there are limits to their similarities. This can be seen quite readily if one inspects some of the hymns to Hermes present in the Greek Magical Papyri (PGM V.400, VII.668). These particular hymns open up a ritual for dream divination, which makes sense for invoking Hermes since he’s the god who sends sleep and dreams and wakefulness to mankind, as well as sending messages from the gods to mankind generally. However, the language of these hymns bears a lot of incongruities in the Greek mindset that more properly describe Thoth. In this case, the magical hymns to Hermes present a less Greek method of interacting with the gods than an Egyptian one.
- These hymns call upon Hermes by name, but describe him as being “ruler of the cosmos”, “in the heart”, “circle of Selene”, “founder of the words of speech”, “who obey justice”, and the like. None of these are particularly Hermaic in any sense; Hermes is the eternal divine servant of the rest of the gods and is hardly ruler of anything, much less the whole cosmos; Hermes has no particular associations with the heart, much less being “in the heart”; he’s certainly not associated with the Moon, but with his own planet of Mercury; though he’s the god of communication and rhetoric, he can hardly be said to be the inventor of it; and he’s certainly not an obeyer of justice and laws, being more apt to bend them or break them outright. Rather, these are all of Thoth’s attributes: he’s the creator of the Ogdoad, the principle deities of Hermopolis, and thus the creator of the world; as the guiding god of intelligence, he abides “in the heart”, considered the seat of the mind and soul by the Egyptians; he’s a lunar god; he invented speech and writing, and uses magical words and knowledge of true names; and he’s a god of justice.
- Still, the hymns do present commonalities between Thoth and Hermes: the two are both gods that travel the underworld, with Hermes as psychopomp and Thoth as companion of Ra as the sun-god traveled through the underworld every night. The hymns present the god Hermes as “spherical and square”, referring to the Thothian lunar orb and Hermaic herm, and to the emerging neo-Platonic idea of the gods abiding as pure planetary essences in the spheres of heaven. Both are gods of divination, though Thoth is more directly related to this since (as a lunar god which is used to make calendars), he’s the god of the passage of time, and therefore of the duration of the lives of mankind, and therefore of fate, and therefore of prophecy.
- Yet other things with the magical hymns are distinctly Greek in nature; they describe “wearing a mantle, with winged sandals”, and the like, though these are distinctly not Thothian qualities. Still, the essentially Egyptian nature of some of these texts leads us to think that explicitly Greek language and description only borrow the iconography of the Greek gods, rather than their essence.
- The rough time of writing of the PGM texts, in the 1st to 5th centuries, closely follows the beginning of Hermeticism; although “Hermes Trismegistus” does not appear in the PGM, there are references of a “thrice great Hermes” here and there. Certain lines in these Hermes-Thoth prayers have some Hermetic or Gnostic elements to them; “spherical and square”, for instance, can be interpreted as a kind of Alpha and Omega of the Egyptians; “who hold the wind’s reins” references pneuma, the spirit and breath of life itself, and therefore the capacity to use and obtain the Logos within the body and soul of the human. “Ruler of the cosmos” (kosmokratōr) is a fairly Hermetic term, and “in the heart” can not only represent the seat of the soul in Egyptian thought but also the divine spark of Life within life.
- Some of these notes on the PGM text discussed here brought to my mind parallels of the Headless Rite, or the Stele of Ieu in PGM V. There, you have the Headless One (Akephalos), whose name is “Heart Girt with a Serpent”, who “commands all things by the power of [his] voice”, who is “lord, king, master, helper”, “whom the winds fear” (and thus controls), “whose mouth is utterly aflame” (a common Egyptian thing). Thoth is said to be the “lord of sky, earth, water, and mountains”, an Egyptian phrase to symbolize the whole world; the entreaty of power from the Headless Rite asks for Akephalos to subject all spirits “whether heavenly or aetherial” (sky), “upon the earth or under the earth” (earth and mountain), and “in the water or on dry land” (water, earth). The addition of “of whirling air and rushing fire” are later additions added by Crowley in his Lemegeton version of the ritual, but since the entirety of the world was encapsulated in this charge of power in the Headless Rite, I see no reason why it should be augmented so in practice. These types of things are common throughout the PGM, so I’ll need to really go back and do a more thorough inspection of the texts there and see what I can find.
- Moving from Egypt to Rome, there was a bit on Mercury in Roman maritime culture. A variant of the Aeneas myth, related by Naevius, says that, as Aeneas was fleeing Troy (or Carthage, it’s unclear and I couldn’t catch the reference), he sailed out on a ship built by Mercury. Mercury isn’t often known as a shipwright, but he is connected to the maritime Romans who used the sea to conquer most of the easily-accessible parts of the Mediterranean, though fighting on land was their primary strength. Like the Samothracians from before, Mercury was related to maritime works only so far as offering safe travels with good results; that Mercury built Aeneas’ ship says that his journey would ultimately be safe (ish) and result in fabulous wealth: the eventual creation of the Roman Empire. Besides, trade will always follow war, and after the Punic Wars that had a lasting impact on Roman minds, trade over sea was significantly increased in importance. There’s some similarities, too, between Aeneas and his Trojans and Jason and his Argonauts, too, another possible source for part of the Aeneid myth.
- Speaking of Roman Mercury, let’s stop by in Pompeii, where the remarkably well-preserved town gives us many insights into the paintings and lifestyles of day-to-day citizens. Going down roads in Pompeii, one would pass dozens to hundreds of images of Mercury, most commonly outside storefronts, and sometimes before gambling dens or bathhouses. The ubiquitous of Mercury here would make sense, but how he came to be is a little unusual. The usual Hellenic signs are there: winged sandals and cap, caduceus, and the like. Roman Mercury, however, was often seen carrying a moneybag, and nearly always was presented in motion, such as running towards the doorway of a shop (something that the shopowner would hope their prospective customers would identify with, running into their shops with their wallets).
- It would seem like Mercury started appearing on shops due to his role as a god of commerce, but it could be equally as likely that he became a god of commerce because he started appearing on storefronts. It’s like a meme on the Internet; it keeps replicating itself and picks up more uses and stability in a culture. Likewise, Pompeii, being a commerce-based port town, would be getting lots of imports from countries where Hermes was already known; Hermes would be imported as Mercury, who kept appearing on storefronts, and became a symbol of merchantry because of that, not the other way around. In other words, people recognized Mercury as a god of commerce because his presence in areas of commerce developed it over time in its own cultural milieu.
- This is not unlike paintings of Jesus Christ. Some people, upon seeing an image of Jesus, will say that “it looks exactly like him”, despite never having seen Jesus in life nor having any textual or archaeological representation of Jesus. Yet, we all know what Jesus looks like because pictures of him were developed almost memetically in our culture for so long. Likewise, Mercury’s role as a god of commerce could easily have been developed over a period of time in the Roman mind due to his constant connections with commerce.
- This makes me want to point out that, for all their similarities, Hermes and Mercury are not the same god. Hermes is a native Greek god, while the Romans never had an original god to compare with Hermes, only later borrowing him explicitly as “god of the merchants” (merx, merchant, deus mercum, god of merchants, Mercurius). The tasks and purview of Mercury, inasmuch as they overlap with those of Hermes, present a tightening or refocusing of Hermes’ responsibilities into a distinctly materialistic and mercantile area. Mercury had some other roles here and there, of course, but the two are only similar gods in how they turned out, though they’re certainly much closer to each other than Hermes is with Thoth. This kept getting more and more muddled over time, however, to the point where Hermes and Mercury are essentially synonyms; the Romans of the late classical period certainly saw them that way.
- One of the biggest things we have evidence for in Hermes worship are dedications: votive offerings, such as statues or plaques, made in Hermes’ honor. There are a good amount of them, and many describe for what they were given. Despite Hermes’ obvious commercial, pastoral, and heraldic functions, a vast majority of votive offerings were given to Hermes by wrestlers and gymnasts, only secondarily for magistral or priestly functions (and that’s a very far away second). Though Hermes quite naturally becomes the god of geeks in our modern day, he’s also the god of the gymnasium and contests (a fact I’m still, er, wrestling with myself). After all, the monthly and yearly Hermaia were dates for contests of physical and combative skill, especially for young men (over whom Hermes also rules, being the divine equivalent of one himself). When it comes to dedicatory offerings, it would seem like the winners of contests would get a trophy and give another trophy to Hermes in return for his patronage and aid. Only a tiny minority (like less than 5%) of offerings in this manner are for purposes other than wrestling or magistral activities; trade, despite Hermes’ huge role, simply doesn’t show up very often in votive offerings.
- It may be that the types of offerings made may depend on the type of work done, or the type of relationship held between devotee and god. For instance, pastors and shepherds may have given skins of animals in dedication to Hermes, or knuckle-bone dice, which had no need or chance to be engraved. Of the engraved dedications we have of votive offerings, the vast majority (like 80~90%) are given by men, and another 5~10% are of unknown gender. Just as profession may dictate what offerings might be appropriate, it’s also likely that one’s gender has a role to play, too. Women simply weren’t as involved in the same spheres of influence that men were, although there are notable exceptions to this (both in terms of the social role women played and votive offerings given by women).
- Speaking of Hermes and the gymnasium, a huge amount of epithets used to describe the gods roles, especially in dedicatory inscriptions, relate to contests and wrestling. One such epithet was Εναγωνιος (enagōnios), “presider over contests”, from αγων (agōn), “a gathering for contests” or “struggle” (from whence later came our notions of mental suffering and anguish). This word shares the same root as agora, “a meeting place for a gathering of people”, what we’d consider a forum or marketplace, and Αγωραιος (Agōraios), “of the agora”, is another epithet for Hermes. The god has many more epithets related to these, such as “of the weights” (in the sense of balancing scales for selling and buying), “of the grain-importers”, “chariot driver”, and the like; where people are gathered, Hermes is, too.
- One example of this are in votive engraved plaques in mountain caves where nymphs were said to dwell; travelers would take pilgrimages to these caves and honor the nymphs there. These places were often at or near the peaks of mountains in the wild, a fitting place for Pan, leader and companion of the nymphs generally. Hermes, however, frequently appears in such plaques especially on Kos. Generally, the idea is that he’s leading the nymphs out to greet the humans who have traveled there, but it’s also due to his paternal relationship with Pan, his son. Pan and Hermes are tight; Pan’s Homeric Hymn is the only one where the name of the recipient of the hymn is not in the first line, and is here replaced by “the dear child of Hermes” (giving Hermes’ name importance, and not Pan’s).
- Hermes really does love Pan, and Pan Hermes. That said, Hermes knows from his own self that Pan is a trickster and often up to no good, and in many votive plaques, Hermes stands between the nymphs and the ithyphallic Pan almost like he’s protecting the nymphs from Pan’s rowdiness. Similarly, herms present in the countryside are perfect to protect one from the more violent and wild side of Pan; Hermes has eyes not only in the back of his head but facing the four directions (rectangular, remember?), perfect for keeping an eye on his rowdy son.
And with that, I bring my writeups to a close. I intended to go to the after-conference dinner with the presenters and other attendees, but it was starting to rain pretty bad and was only going to get worse, so I figured it’d be better to leave sooner rather than later. Two hours later, and I was home, making offerings to Hermes in thanks for a safe, highly informative, and exceedingly excellent time in Charlottesville. The conference has given me so much more knowledge to work with, and has put me in contact with so many amazing experts who really know their shit. Athanassios Vergados, for instance, has recently published his A Commentary on the Homeric Hymn to Hermes, described as “magisterial” and “the definitive word for our time” on the highly important hymn that was brought up time and time again throughout the conference (and I want it SO BAD); Ljuba Bortolani’s research on the PGM and its various cultural connections is something I’m going to be perusing thoroughly later (she also has fantastic taste in jewelry and rolls her own cigarettes, my heroine). Hopefully, the compilation of papers will result in a single volume on Hermes from UVa; if so, you can bet your ass I’ll be talking about it and hawking it to anyone who has ears to listen.
More importantly, despite the brief durations of the talks, the conference really helped open my eyes to a lot of the things that I’ve missed out so far with Hermes or that I’ve only glossed over. The points I brought up, though not indicative of the entire conference, are definitely the ones that stuck out strongest to me, and will help guide me in my future work with Hermes. I’ve already got some research and ritual planning in my mind involving him, such as mapping out his many epithets as they can apply to, say, Qabbalah and the other planets or gods, and writing up a literature-backed Hermaic road-opening ritual. I hope my paltry writeups, which don’t do the presenters nor the presented justice in the least, have helped dispense at least a little of the material to you, dear reader.
And now, to close all this out, I’ll honor Hermes one last way tonight with the shorter Homeric Hymn to Hermes:
I sing of Cyllenian Hermes,
the Slayer of Argos,
lord of Cyllene and Arcadia rich in flocks,
luck-bringing messenger of the deathless gods.
He was born of Maia,
the daughter of Atlas,
when she had made with Zeus,
a shy goddess she.
Ever she avoided the throng of the blessed gods and lived in a shadowy cave,
and there the Son of Cronos used to lie with the rich-tressed nymph at dead of night,
while white-armed Hera lay bound in sweet sleep:
and neither deathless god nor mortal man knew it.
And so hail to you, Son of Zeus and Maia;
with you I have begun:
now I will turn to another song!
Hail, Hermes, giver of grace, guide, and giver of good things!
I’d love to see a literature-backed Hermaic road opening ritual!
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“It would seem like Mercury started appearing on shops due to his role as a god of commerce, but it could be equally as likely that he became a god of commerce because he started appearing on storefronts.”
There is a Chinese warrior god, Guan Di, who is extremely popular among business owners and restauranteurs. Guan Di has come to be seen as a God of Wealth in his own right, though it seems most likely that his association with commerce began as a protector/overseer of loyalty to contracts.
So it certainly seems possible to me that Mercury may have had a different sphere of influence initially, which grew to include commerce.
These notes that you typed up are very interesting, thank you!
Thank you! I only wish I had taken better notes.