Wednesday, September 14, 2011


Hermes is fast becoming one of my favourite of the ancient Greek gods. Why is that? He is, like Ulysses, referred to as polytropos - being of many turns. Tropos is a word that has several meanings. Many of the words in ancient Greek had to perform many tasks. Most of the definitions of tropos centre around being a turn, a mode, a fashion or a manner. From this we get our modern, maybe overused word trope; meaning a figure of speech.

Versatile. Cunning he was, a thief and a watcher in the night. He stole the cattle of Apollo and built the first lyre from a tortoise shell and the guts of the stolen cattle. A rover and a drover, the bringer of dreams and of good luck. As he is messenger between the gods and mortals he becomes the guardian of boundaries and the guardian of interpretations. He protects harlots and thieves and crones. In his mode (or trope) as messenger he helps travellers and runners. He is often shown as an adolescent in the art works, alluding to role as a guardian of transitions. It was in this role as guardian of boundaries that he suffered the sacrilege referred to as the Destruction of the Hermai. Statues of Hermes had been set up in many places in Athens. These were simple blocks of stone with the head of the god, as well as his exaggerated phallus. These markers were also rumoured to ward off evil. On the eve of the ill-fated Sicilian Expedition unknown vandals smashed off the penis, as well as (even worse) mutilating the face of many of these statues. This was understandably the cause of great anxiety in the city, and in retrospect should have resulted in cancelling the project, which become in many ways the Stalingrad of the ancient world.

Hermes may be an old god, for he is mentioned in Linear B inscriptions found in Knossos and Pylos as e-ma-a. Others traditions say that he may been an import from the East. Although to my thinking it is best to think of the Eastern Mediterranean as being a single culture. Regardless of his origin he was worshiped in the more remote, wild places such as Arcadia. As such he was the patron of farmers and shepherds. Amusing to me to think the laconic dry witted farmer type gave rise to the smooth talking interpreter. From his early shaman origins he would have been involved in divination, of crossing between this world and the other. Evolving into the trickster dream bringing god, and giving us the words hermetic and hermeneutics.

Also it is interesting to compare Kriophoros Hermes (Ram Bearing Hermes) to early Christian imagery of the Good Shepherd. But that is another story for another day.

Polytropos indeed.

Homeric Hymn 17 - To Hermes

Of Cyllenian Hermes I sing! Slayer of Argos,
Guardian of Cyllene and of Arcadia
Rich in flocks of goats and sheep.

Luck bringing messenger of the gods.
Own child of Maia, daughter of Atlas,
Who had intercourse with Zeus.

Bashful she shunned
The crowded tumult
Of the deathless ones.

Into her shaded cavern
Came the son of Kronous.
To the young fair haired
Cutely trimmed new wife.

They made love in the dark
Of the night entwined in her hair

While smoothed limbed
Hera slept sweetly.

They escaped the notice
Of the deathless gods
And the mortal ones.

Of you I rejoice,
Son of Zeus and Maia
Of you I begin,
And so pass over
To other melodies.

Joy giving guide,
Bringer of good luck.

pictures are from