Hermes Conference Recap, Day 3

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!

Hermes Conference Recap, Day 2

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 second day of three, a full day of presentations: Jenny Strauss Clay (Virginia), Deborah Boedeker (Brown), Erin Moodie (Williams), Sandra Blakely (Emory), Joseph Farrell (Penn), Micah Myers (Kenyon), Stephen Harrison (Oxford), and Shane Black (Colorado).  Below are some of the talking points and thoughts from their discussions.

  • Hermes is known for his mastery of seducing and seductive rhetoric, lies, craftiness, improvising, penetrating all sorts of barriers, being nosy, being greedy, and being preoccupied with food.  The same can also be said of Odysseus in Homeric literature; the two share many traits in common.
  • What’s unusual about Hermes is that there’s very little theophanic epiphany between and Odysseus (like on Ciprogedyrce’s island).  Usually, when a god is revealed to a mortal, there’s a good amount of freaking out on the part of the human, strange omens, or some sort of amazing transformation.  The relationship between Odysseus and Hermes, on the other hand, is casual, almost like Odysseus expects to see Hermes when a stranger appears to him.  On Hermes’ part, this shows him to be kind and philanthropic towards Odysseus, though it’s on the down-low between them.  The two definitely share a special bond.
  • An example of this that links the two tighter are when Odysseus visits the Phaeacians, unseen by all until he suddenly appears clutched to Queen Arete’s knees while they pour out their libations to Hermes.  Everyone became dumb-struck, marveling at the sudden appearance of this stranger in awe-struck silence (and remember from yesterday that, when silence occurs in a conversation, they say that Hermes has come in).  It’d be common, after all, in the old mythic ages for gods to feast with mankind.
  • It’s a little odd for Hermes to appear out of nowhere on Circe’s island so readily to Odysseus, especially when he complains of traveling afar to places with no delicious sacrifices for him.  That Circe says that Hermes told her (or, rather, repeatedly told her) to expect Odysseus suggests that Hermes hangs around Circe’s island for…well, you tell me, dear reader.  Hermes’ lasciviousness is nothing secret.
  • The bond between Hermes and Odysseus may go back to Odysseus’ grandfather, who honored Hermes with many sacrifices and great gifts, and whom Hermes celebrated by giving him Hermes’ craftiness and ingenuity.  This apparently was hereditary, given Odysseus’ knack for the same.  However, it’s also suggested that Odysseus’ grandfather was son to Hermes, which would make Odysseus both progeny and prodigy of Hermes.  Ties between the two are strong, even so far as for Circe to use the epithet “polytropos” (many-turning) to describe Odysseus, when this epithet is only ever used in other literature to describe Hermes.
  • Hermes and Odysseus may be immune to Circe’s magic, but they’re certainly not immune to her other charms.  Hermes may very well have been sleeping with Circe before Odysseus came along, and Odysseus just about becomes her sex slave instead of a porcinified one.  Odysseus has to be reminded later that he needs to set out once more on the seas to get home, after all.
  • That Athena is tutelary goddess to Odysseus is nothing new, but there may be evidence to suggest that Athena was added in later on to Homeric literature to help clean up Odysseus’ image.  It may be that Odysseus only had such a relationship to Hermes, but it’s also likely that the two were there from the beginning together.  Athena uses Hermes’ winged sandals in book I of the Odyssey, after all, and appears as a figure sharing many similarities to Hermes later on when Odysseus lands on Ithaca’s shores.  Unlike Hermes, however, Athena openly shows her affection for Odysseus, helping him in battles and everything.
  • Still, even Athena remains distinct from Hermes.  When Odysseus lands on Ithaca’s shores, Athena takes on the image of a young man with many mercurial looks and traits, hoping that Odysseus would spill his heart to her; yet, ever crafty, Odysseus engages in a game of deceitful cat-and-mouse with disguised Athena, both of them using “winged words”.
  • Speaking of “winged words” and banter, it can be said that Hermes is god of not just of eloquence but also of banter and cajoling.  One of the more famous styles of meter used in poetry is the iamb, and it can be said that Hermes is the patron god of this style of poetry.  Yes, it is metrically defined as an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one (da-DUM da-DUM, etc.), but definitions broader than this go back to Aristotle, saying that the iambic meter is used by poets “of a less exalted nature [who] represented the actions of inferior men, at first writing satire…for these the iambic meter was fittingly introduced and that is why it is still called iambic, because it was the meter in which they lampooned (iambizon) each other” (Poetics, 1448b.31).  Even from Hermes’ Homeric Hymn do we see this working well for the god, because even as soon as he made the lyre he started singing out “sweet random snatches, even as youths bandy taunts at festivals”, which Apollo notes as the music and song like that “at young men’s revels”.
  • This is furthered by the use of the Greek word kertomon to describe Hermes, literally “heart-cutting” and translated as “impertinent” or “mischievous”, but also perhaps meaning obscene, scurrilous, and generally thumbing one’s nose at pretension. Hermes was no stranger to being rude or breaking taboo, such as him telling Leto (mother of Apollo and Artemis) to sod off when she challenges him in battle during the Theomachy in the Iliad (when Zeus ordained the gods to fight as they will!), or when Hermes jokes about sleeping with Aphrodite no matter the cost.
  • Of course, it isn’t just being rude to others that was appropriate in iambic poetry, but being rude generally.  Iambic poets love using bodily functions, and Hermes’ Homeric Hymn is likely the only one where farts are mentioned.  Hipponax, my new bestest and favoritest poet ever, made good use of this, writing dick jokes into his poems: “after awaiting at his side the white-robed day, you will make obeisance to the Hermes of the Phlyesians” (where nobody knows where Phlyesia was, but people now think it means masturbation, which pairs well with Hermes’ oft-seen phallic nature), or how “Blessed Hermes, you who know how to awake the sleeper” (i.e. morning wood or curing impotence).
  • Hipponax was a native of Asia Minor, and frequently made use of Lydian (a native language there) in his Greek poetry.  This would be improper, technically speaking, to use streettalk mixed in with invocations to the gods, often to lampoon or satirize others, such as calling Zeus the “sultan” (Lydian palmun) of the gods as gold is the “sultan” of silver (that’s not a very kind metaphor).  To use such a low register is basically rapping at someone on a street corner compared to higher, more artful poetry.
  • Not much of Hipponax’ poetry survives, but what does is fucking hilarious.  There’s something about someone getting into a fight and shitting on the golden wand of Hermes in fright (not kidding, this was actually discussed in the talk), and another poem where there’s some sort of random sexual encounter in a filthy privy where an old woman (the presenter paused here and said “how do I say this in polite company”) performs some sort of magic rite involving hitting genitals with branches, anal penetration, and dung beetles.  What I’m basically saying here is that iambic poetry is not the classiest of styles, so it’s totes proper for Hermes’ purview.
  • Of course, poetry isn’t the only thing Hermes would have a claim in, and it’s quite reasonable that one might claim Hermes to also be the god of comedic theater.  Yes, Dionysus is the god of theater, but Hermes-Mercury as a character (and, thus, actual presence) in comedic plays shows a huge familiarity with comedy and theatership generally.  Tragedies, of course, are taken very seriously and are where gods appear most often, but comedies are another thing entirely.  It was often seen as disrespectful for the gods to appear in comedies with very few exceptions, and many of the characters in comedies engage in metatheatrical behavior: breaking the fourth wall, direct address of the audience, awareness of being an actor in a play, references to theater in general or self-reference to one’s own parts.  Actors of low-class people (slaves, cooks, old men, parasites, etc.) engaged in the most metatheatrical activities on stage, and Hermes (when he appears) engages in some of the most direct and common acts of all.
  • Hermes himself notes in, say, Plautus’ Amphitryon that the gods aren’t fit to appear in comedies; after all, one shouldn’t be laughing at the antics of divinity.  Tragedies were fitting for the gods, after all, but comedies should star only humans.  That Hermes willingly takes part in comedies suggests, again, his closeness to humanity and his philanthropic nature, not to mention his divine nature of being trickster and deceiver.
  • By adopting metatheatrical methods in comedies, Hermes willingly takes on roles of the low class who often get the better of the high class roles, since, say, as a slave in a comedy, “it is proper for me to be wicked, clever, and now astute…with wickedness” (Plautus, “Amphitryon”).  These, of course, are not just qualities of the role Mercury plays (both as an actor of the play and role of himself to be played in disguise), but are qualities of Mercury himself.  This is self-referential on several levels, especially since it could be argued that Hermes himself is the slave to the gods, subservient while remaining deceptively crafty.  He’s the runt of the Olympian litter, effectively low-class, and the servant of the other gods.  His role in comedies, then, is an extension of his role on Olympus.
  • This isn’t to mention, of course, that many of the roles in comedies used iambic meter, and as we already know, iambic meter is quite a mercurial meter to use, especially for laughs and satire.  Not to mention penises everywhere; male roles in theater had a phallus on their costumes to clearly mark them as men, not unlike the phallus on the statues of herms.
  • Dionysus, of course, is the only other god in plays to directly address the audience in metatheatrical behavior, but then, Dionysus and Hermes are tightly connected in many ways (either with Hermes bringing Dionysus up or Hermes being Dionysus’ son, depending on the myth, and further Hermes’ role in the Anthesteria festival).  Dionysus may be a god of theater, but Hermes can definitely assume god of comedic theater since he’s so intimate with it.
  • Even going beyond metatheater, Hermes is the god who evokes laughter with song; he does this to Zeus with his stories and lies, and even gets Apollo to laugh with his lyre and lyrics.  Another reason to give Hermes patronage over acts that make others laugh, like comedic theater.
  • While Hermes is god of many things, Hermes is odd because it’s hard to find temples actually dedicated to Hermes.  Despite his importance as a god in so many things, he’s often denied the cult status or attributions that many other gods have.  A notable exception to this is the mystery cult of Hermes based on Samothrace, an island in the north Aegean on the frontiers of what might be considered proper Greek society.  The only resource notable from Samothrace were onions and a black flaky stone, so they depended almost wholly on maritime transport and commerce for their livelihoods.  Because the economic impact of sailing and ships was paramount to Samothracians, a cult rose up to honor one particular god to preserve Samothracian sailors (and, really, all sailors who were initiated into the cult).  This cult was dedicated to none other than Hermes, though it’s one of the few cults in the Mediterranean dedicated to the god.  And, further, unlike other cults that promised a blessed afterlife, this cult promised only safety at sea.
  • Although it’s not entirely clear how, exactly, Hermes came to be worshiped so importantly on Samothrace, there’s much evidence to link Samothracian Hermes to Kyllenic Hermes (referencing Mount Kyllene, where Hermes was born according to his Homeric Hymn).  Samothrace had a thing for archaic flavors of worship, and incorporated even Mycenaean-looking architecture, sacred stones and megaliths, and old wooden statues of the gods; they link these explicitly with the cult of Hermes at Kyllene, though there’s quite a bit of distance between Western Arcadia and Samothrace.
  • There were many gods of the sea and sailors, of course, besides the obvious Poseidon.  The Dioskouroi, or the divine twins Castor and Polydeukes (Pollux), were often seen to watch over sailors, though there is evidence that worship of the Dioskouroi coincided with that of Samothracian Hermes in many instances.  Similarly, this was also combined with the ever-popular Priapus; they all shared phallic or ithyphallic representations, and not only served to help turn away evil but purify and guide people to salvation and safe harbors.
  • Just as herms were set at crossroads to guide travelers, many monuments to Priapus and Hermes were set up on harbors to watch over harbors and indicate safe landings for ships.  The apotropaic purposes of these statues became more functional than they might otherwise have been; in this sense, this syncretic Hermes became a god of the harbor.
  • Supposedly, Samothrace was the first place the Greeks learned to make ithyphallic representations of Hermes, given Samothrace’s knack for holding onto ancient and archaic styles of worship, and this spread to the rest of Greece by way of the herms.
  • Fishermen on Samothrace, too, prayed to Hermes for prosperity in their business, though this may not always be for direct aid.  For instance, in the Theogony (specifically the Hymn to Hekate), should one pray to Hekate, both she and Hermes will ensure “a good catch”; however, other inscriptions dedicate fishermen’s tools to Hermes with the hopes that “when I’m too old to use these, please help me” (preserve my livelihood even when I can no longer do my job).
  • The nearby city of Ainos was dedicated almost entirely to Hermes, being the port for land routes in Thrace to mingle with the river routes of the Hebrus river and the sea routes of the Aegean; it was an exceptionally wealthy country where Hermes had so much sway.  There’s a particular representation of Hermes as a wooden statue set on a throne overlooking the sea, said to be made and designed by Epeios, the maker of the Trojan Horse.  This image was supposedly found in the sea by fishermen who wanted to burn it for wood, but it couldn’t be hacked apart by axes; it was divined to be a form of Hermes, and so was given worship.  A similar story is given to Methymna, where the statue was definitely Hermes and definitely not Greek (interesting!).
  • Although the Methymnian Hermes may not have been ultimately Greek in origin, some things about Hermes aren’t very Greek to begin with.  For example, Hermes’ love live is considerably lacking compared to the adventures and misadventures of the other Greek gods, especially those of his father Zeus and brother Apollo.  Sure, Hermes has a reputation for helping one elope or be secretive in love, or for ribald lovemaking, but Hermes has almost negligible love affairs in myth, particularly when compared to the other males of his Olympian family.
  • In fact, not only does Hermes lack the notable exploits of his godly peers, but he’s almost completely sublimated any lust or sexual desire he would have.  He has the capacity for it, sure, as he sings of the affairs and exploits of the gods in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes once he makes the lyre (likely in iambic meter, of course).  However, after this, despite being aroused, he hungers for meat, literally “lusting” for it, though this phrase is only applied to lions in other Homeric literature and only humorously here means little more than a physical hunger.  His sexual appetite is sublimated into his actual physical hunger.
  • Hermes is the child of Maia and Zeus, who met in secret at night while Hera slept; this was done in complete secrecy.  Hermes inherited his secretiveness, stealthiness, and secrecy from his parents as a result of this.  Zeus later picks up on this and uses Hermes’ secrecy to facilitate his own affairs (e.g. re-abduction of Io from Argos).
  • The only other expressions of love or lust Hermes shows in his hymn is his bromance (the erudite scholar actually used this word) with Apollo, with whom he promises to love forever, even watched over and officiated by Zeus.  To be fair, the language used is of a deep friendship, but really hints at something more than that.  Still, if it’s anything gay, it’s homosocial rather than homosexual, since there’s nothing to suggest the two gods got it on.  (This brings to my mind the astronomical image of the planet Mercury closely following the Sun, in the tightest orbit of all the planets.)
  • Instead of having sex with Apollo (which, I think, would be fucking hot) Hermes in his Homeric Hymn gives Apollo another source of joy: the lyre.  The music and tool of the lyre is described, essentially, as a girlfriend with a beautiful voice.  In this instance, the lyre is almost like a hetaira, a courtesan or classy whore that the two share like fratboys.
  • Apollo and Hermes may be good friends by the end of Hermes’ Homeric Hymn, but that certainly wasn’t always the case; Apollo is really bad at dealing with young gods.  A highly similar case exists, right down to many of the details, in Ovid’s Metamorphoses when Ovid describes the interaction between Cupid and Apollo.  With Apollo and Cupid, Cupid wants to take up archery, which Apollo scoffs at (since, obvi, archery was his domain); Cupid makes Apollo pay for his hubris by falling in love with the anti-love Daphne, who turns into the laurel tree, which Apollo then takes (almost as a gift from Cupid) as his beloved symbol.  This is very close to the Homeric Hymn of Hermes, where Hermes steals Apollo’s cattle and threatens worse, but they make up by Hermes giving Apollo the lyre.  While Cupid wants honor among the gods, Hermes wants specific dominion, but in either case Apollo gets what he loves (Daphne in tree form or friendship through music).  The episode between Cupid and Apollo is also similar to the theft of Apollo’s bow and arrows by Hermes (yes!) in the Iliad, and both Ovid and Homer share very similar terminology in these episodes.  Another similarity can be drawn between the stories of Cupid/Eros, and that of Mercury/Hermes.  Eros is the child of Aphrodite and, in some sources, Hermes, much as their other child Hermaphroditus.  There may be other parallels between the two that can argue that Hermaphroditus is Eros, and vice versa, though this might be a stretch.
  • Anyway, considering Hermes’ almost neverending role in helping Zeus with the god-father’s sexual escapades, it’s plain that Hermes is essentially the wingman of the gods.  Hermes almost never gets involved with sex, but is almost always needed by or asked for help from the other gods.  Hermes is the god who sets up or prevents affairs, which makes sense, since as a god of guides and guide of men and gods, his job is to lead someone to somewhere or to someone.
  • In this sense, Hermes is often approached by Aphrodite or in conjunction to prayers with her.  In Apuleius’ Metamorphoses, even Venus herself says that she never tries to do anything without her brother Mercury’s help.  Partially, of course, this is flattery so Mercury would help out Venus; but even then, since Hermes-Mercury is the god of flattery, banter, and persuasion, it makes sense that Hermes would have to be involved in getting people together.  Even Horace calls on Mercury in the Odes with Venus together to get into the house of Glycera, not only to bring them together physically but also to help Horace actually get into her house (despite the blocking-man who’s guarding Glycera).  It’s also why Aphrodite, when she’s fallen in love with Anchises of Troy, she says she was a virgin of Artemis abducted by Hermes; while nearly every other god would abduct a girl to rape her, Hermes would only ever lead the girl to someone who should know her (in either or both senses of the word).
  • Hermes, then, is necessary as a wingman either in act (helping the gods or men get together with someone) or in symbol (as our own eloquence to get someone to get with us). This latter part makes good sense, since classical authors often wrote of love needing to be tempered by reason, or saying that it’s better for couples in love to get things accomplished through persuasion rather than fighting.
  • Another reason why Hermes may not have many offspring is, from the few he’s had, they don’t tend to turn out alright.  One offspring of his was Pan, the goat-footed child that freaked out his mother, and another was Hermaphroditus, a child that was effeminate from birth and doubly so after merged with the nymph Salmacis.  The Greeks basically viewed either one as deformed or defective in some way, that his DNA somehow didn’t produce the best offspring; given Hermes’ lack of war conquests and manly stature, maybe it was seen that having a child of Hermes wasn’t that great generally.
  • A notable exception to this is the Homeric hero Eudoros, said to be a child of Hermes to account for his mentally and physically speedy nature, though this may only be a later addition to merely account for it.  Even then, Eudoros was the offspring of Hermes and the woman Polymele, and Hermes didn’t abduct her like most other gods may have, but instead sneaked into her room at night (taking a cue from his parents’ own congress).
  • Besides this, Hermes does have a few other sexual escapades here and there, as hinted at before with Circe, but also with Krokus (in a near replay of the Apollo/Hyacinthus myth), Brimo (likely Hekate), Persephone herself, and a few nymphs on the way to the underworld.  Hermes apparently has a thing for ladies and men of death or the dying.
  • In a sense, Hermes’ lack of sexuality becomes a type of alternative sexuality; not necessarily asexual, but certainly different from the conventional sexualities known and validated by other myths and in classical Greek culture.  He does his own thing on his own terms; when it comes to the relationships of others, he acts as the go-between of two people, bringing them together but staying out of anything that results.
  • Going a bit further in my own thoughts, the fact that Hermes stays out of relationships may be a hint at why he has next to no cults or mystery religions of his own.  Hermes brings people and gods together but stays out of what happens, after all.  Hermes, although an Olympian, is certainly not among the important ones, but he’s still a vital god to work with and crucial in day-to-day living.  Hermes has no temple, because he’s in every temple; he has no rites, because he’s in all rites; he has no expertise, because he’s an expert in everything.  Hermes is the go-between that leads us on in anything and everything; he is the road between destinations, but is not the destinations themselves.  He only leads us along the roads, but the road is where we spend most of our lives and times.  The presence of Hermes is required by man to work with any god, and is required to communicate to man from the gods.
  • Of course, this may not always be easy to explain.  Apparently, the presence of Hermes in book IV of the Aeneid is something of a problem for classicists, I guess because it’s so difficult to explain why Vergil wrote him into the story so as to get Aeneas out of Carthage after he falls in love with Dido at the cunning works of his mother Venus.  Essentially, the divine intervention here is abrupt and disrupts the flow of the story, but then that’s just it: at this stage in the story, the Aeneid isn’t going anywhere.  If Hermes never intervened to get Aeneas out of Carthage, Aeneas would never’ve left, which would otherwise put the Aeneid to an abrupt end, which would be far worse than an abrupt entry of a god to move the story along.
  • While many classicists link Aeneid IV (Mercury getting Aeneas’ ass in gear out of Carthage) with Odyssey V (Hermes telling Kalypso to free Odysseus), the differences here outweigh the similarities.  Odysseus was kept trapped by Kalypso, but Aeneas was happily and willingly staying with Dido even though he could leave at any time.  In either case, sure, fate had to be done, but the whole intent and tone is different.  Rather, it’s more instructive to look at the similarities with the last book of the Iliad, where Hermes is sent to Priam to lead him safely to Achilles to retrieve the body of Hector.  There, Hermes honors Priam for putting himself in danger to do what’s right, and so speaks respectfully as a devoted or loving son to Priam.  In the Aeneid, however, Mercury shames Aeneas for disregarding what’s right to do, speaking angrily as an impatient father.  In this light, Priam is an exemplar of good fatherhood, while Aeneas is being an exceptionally bad father to his own son.  In either case, however, they both exist to make sure the story doesn’t end.
  • Vergil is odd in that he never actually mentions Mercury by name, and even then only mentions Mercury three times through the entire Aeneid.  In book I, he mentions Mercury as “son of Maia” who comes from the heavens to the earth and landing on the shores of Libya; this emphasizes his celestial-terrestrial nature (son of ouranic Zeus and chthonic Maia) and liminal nature (going between the worlds and manifesting in liminal, threshold places of boundaries).  The other two times Vergil mentions Mercury is in book IV, starting with a description of Mercury’s staff, which is given all the usual attributes (guidance, leading people to sleep and wakefulness, etc.) but importantly adding a new power: that of death.  This is distinct from his role as psychopomp, leading the souls of those who have already died; this new power of the wand is a power of making people to die.
  • Essentially, Vergil uses Mercury to resolve the problem of narrative stagnation.  Aeneas is stuck in Carthage, but happily so and would remain there for the rest of his days if he could.  Vergil may have written himself into a corner, and so used Mercury to open the rest of the story up so it could keep going.  Mercury/Hermes here has the ability to keep things going and to give things closure, and he does this moreover as herald and messenger of the gods.  And, as god of transitions, Mercury enables Aeneas to move from impiety to piety once more.
  • Later authors have used Mercury/Hermes in a similar role to resolve narrative stagnation, such as Boccaccio in La Teseida and Chaucer in the Knight’s Tale (essentially the same story, where someone has to die in a fight in order for the story to be resolved but nobody dies until the gods make it so), as well as by Dante in the Inferno, canto 9, when he stands before the Gates of Dis with Vergil.  Vergil, for the first time, fails as a guide and can’t open the gates, and without progress the Inferno would end with them all caught in hell.  Happily, another guide “from heaven” with the appearance of a messenger and a wand uses the wand to open the gates, enabling the story to continue.  That this guide is Hermes/Mercury is more than likely, appearing from one world into another at a liminal place and using a wand to open ways and make things continue; Dante may have used this to “disprove” the idea that Vergil himself was a magician (since he was powerless here).
  • In a broader light, then, Hermes is not only the god of roads but also of road-opening.

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).