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Notebook

Notebook, 1993-

ANCIENT GREEK CULTURE

Hermes

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Hermes [Mercury]. Son of Zeus and Maia, he was born on Mt. Cyllene [Zereia of Arcadia] and was before ascending to the abode of Olympus a local deity of shepherds. Very popular with the Greeks, he was given by them all the frailties and virtues of man which they admired most. Intelligent, cunning, lovable, mischievous, but a thief to boot, he began his career early in life. His first act was to steal the cows of Apollo, then he invented the lyre which he gave as a gift to that god, receiving in exchange the shepherdÍs crook which eventually evolved into the caduceus. A very restless deity, he acquired many attributes in the passing centuries. Thus he appears always as the official herald of the gods, conductor of the souls of the dead to Hades, guardian of orators, of travelers, of thieves, and the inventor of the alphabet, of music, of astronomy, weights and measures since he was the god of merchants and of commerce. Often he performed special duties for Zeus which required much finesse and tact, such as when he saved the young Dionysos and abducted Ino. He even calculated the lawful rate of profit in commerce, and of course deceit and fraud. A mischievous and good-humored fellow, he was involved in numerous incidents with both mortals and deities whom he did not hesitate to rob. He thus stole ZeusÍs sceptre, the girdle of Aphrodite, the bow of Apollo, the trident from Poseidon, and the tongs from Hephaestos. He did not even spare his mother when he stole her robes while she was bathing and did not return them until he had teased her at length. Lastly, Hermes was the patron of all those circulating in the streets or on the paths and tried always to keep them on the right track. And so one finds the hermae or mileposts on the roads or streetcorners and road junctions. Moreover, Hermes was the god of youth with symbols such as the phallus, the goat, the boar, and the ram, and also helped people overcome illnesses. The god is usually depicted with winged sandals and a staff in hand and a broad-rimmed hat [petassus] which also has wings on either side. A genuine Greek from the point of view of character, Hermes was the divine friend of all the Greeks. [p. 41]

[Stassinopoulos, Arianna and Roloff Beny. The Gods of Greece. New York: Abrams. 1983.]




Hermes carrying the baby Dionysos to the nymphs who were to bring him up, c. 350-340 BC. Hermes carries in himself the primordial divine child, the child that if man is lucky he never outgrows. Hermes' world, like that of Dionysos, is the shifting world of reality that includes endless transformations.

To ask who is your favourite god is as vain a question as to ask which is your favourite Mozart opera. Yet we all have our favourite among his operas, and I certainly have my favourite among the gods. The Magic Flute is my favourite Mozart opera--indeed, my favourite opera--and Hermes my favourite god. Only recently did I become aware of the connection. The Magic Flute is about the voyage, the adventure, of a soul through different realms, different tests, through love, fear, pain and joy. Hermes is the guide of our voyage and the guardian-spirit of our adventure.

If I close my eyes and try to conjure up Hermes, I see motion: winged sandals, winged words, wings on his low-crowned hat, wings on his magic wand, the gods' messenger who 'flies as fleet as thought', the driver of the sun's chariot, the guide to the Underworld, 'the wayfarer', 'swift-running', 'swift-footed'. My mind quivers with the epithets, the images, the representations of unchained energy.

I cannot write about Hermes impersonally. He is the first god who moved me, who opened my heart to the mystery of the gods and the extraordinariness of the ordinary. He is the god of the unexpected, of luck, of coincidences, of synchronicity. 'Hermes has entered in our midst', the ancient Greeks would say when a sudden silence entered the room, descended on the conversation, introduced into the gathering another dimension. Whenever things seem fixed, rigid, 'stuck', Hermes introduces fluidity, motion, new beginnings--and the confusion that almost inevitably precedes new beginnings.

He is the primordial divine child, the child that if man is lucky he never outgrows. He was born of Zeus and the nymph Maia in an Arcadian cave and he was admitted into the Olympian hierarchy immediately, as a child. His divine innocence bears the closest connection to the origins of life and to [p. 190] immortality. And as a child, the Homeric Hymn tells us, he introduces childlike qualities--mischievousness, spontaneity, delight--into the Olympian order. 'Born in the morning, he played the lyre by afternoon, and by evening had stolen the cattle of the Archer Apollo . . . . As he stepped over the threshold of the high-roofed cave, he found a tortoise there and gained endless delight. So it was Hermes who first made the tortoise a singer . . . . The son of Zeus, the helper, looked at it, burst out laughing and said this: 'What a great sign, what a help this is for me! I won't ignore it. Hello there, little creature, dancing up and down, companion at festivals, how exciting it is to see you.'

First there is the laughter, then the attention to the signs life gives us. Hermes stumbles over the tortoise and makes the first lyre out of its shell. 'Few of us automatically honour the chance find, the stumbled-over discovery that makes life-music.' Hermes' world is a magical world full of signs and significance. He was the god who first gave me, as a child, a sense of the miraculous all around me. I 'grew up' and lost it. I got caught in rational plans, will-power, the need to control circumstances, to impose certainties in my life, to even things out to what my more Hermetic sister called 'a vanilla grey'. And then, by rediscovering Hermes, I recreated his spirit: fluid, trusting open to signs, coincidences, the unforeseeable and the unexpected. 'He charms the eyes of men or awakens whom he wills', Homer tells us in the Odyssey. Introducing the element of the unexpected into our lives is one of the means he uses to spur us out of sleeping wakefulness and to break through the rigidities and confinement of habits and conventions.

We learn as much about Hermes from his appellations and epithets as from his myths. He was known as the god 'of the gateway', the god 'dwelling at the gate', and the unique gate he opened up for me led to the hidden world of meanings beneath the surface of the obvious. He was also known as the guide of dreams and the psithyristis, a word which still in modern Greek means the whisperer; and he taught me to listen to the inner whisperings that tend to get drowned in the mind's cacophony, and to value and respect my dreams.

Along with our first image of Hermes as a divine child we have the view of him as an old man with a beard represented in the phallus-shaped stone pillar, the herm. It is one more paradox in a divinity made of them. He was considered the demon or spirit of the most primitive form of herm, the stone heap, and even now in certain mountainous parts of Europe the traveler who wants to invoke good luck will add a stone to the pile already there beside the road. Stone has always represented that great forever, outside space, time and the constant change to which we are relentlessly subjected. And the [p. 193] god, whose myths portray him mostly in flight, frequently vanishing before our eyes, is also represented in the symbol of the greatest, most permanent and irreducible reality--the stone.


[The Palestra, or wrestling ground, at Olympia, 3rd c. BC. Hermes, who 'flies as fleet as thought', 'swift-footed', 'swift-running', was considered the god of racing and wrestling. Both his appellations and his images--winged sandals, wings on his low-crowned hat, wings on his magic wand--are representations of the unchained energy he embodies.]


For many years I was uncomfortable with this aspect of Hermes. My mind would not allow my god of motion and freedom to be imprisoned in stone. But the gods cannot be tidied up to fit our understanding, and I have gradually learned that when a part of a myth or an aspect of a god does not fit my perception, the answer is not to dismiss the paradox, but to enlarge my perception to include it. So when I thought I had caught Hermes as spirit in motion, he emerged as matter in stone. And with the unexpectedness Hermes would have relished, it was in the world of modern science that I discovered the key to this double nature of an ancient god. Matter, Einstein showed us, is condensed energy, energy convertible to matter. What the increasingly surrealistic discoveries of post-Newtonian science reveal is that mass and energy, particle and wave, are merely two aspects of the same reality. Once again, Hermes takes us by surprise and, through modern science, he is teaching us the same lesson he taught us through ancient myth: what appears as opposites, as distinct dimensions, are in fact one, expressions of the same reality, fired by the same breath. Which is why he is the god of connections, bridging realms and dissolving frontiers: between earth and the Underworld, men and gods, life and death.

Every other god has a centre, a particular colour in the spectrum, determined for all time, a special imprint on an aspect of our lives and ourselves. Hermes' centre is everywhere, part of an ever-expanding spiral, and every colour in the cosmic rainbow is his. He excludes nothing and illuminates everything. He is equally at home on Olympos and in the subterranean depths. He is the god of everyday reality, of commerce and the market-place, and the god of the eternal who guides souls to the Underworld and to knowledge beyond death. He is the cleverest of the gods and he is their messenger and servant.

When Zeus was desperate to release his beloved Io from Argus, the monster with a hundred eyes that was guarding her, he appealed to Hermes. For 'there was no god cleverer than Hermes'. Hermes disguised himself as a shepherd, and began to play on his pipe of reeds as monotonously as he could and then to talk as drowsily as he could--to play and to talk, to talk and to play--until gradually Argus could not keep any of his hundred eyes open. Where Zeus' strength failed, Hermes' trickery won, and Argus was bored into surrender. When the two giants, Otus and Ephialtes, took young Ares their prisoner, bound him with chains of brass and shut him up in a big clay jar, it was once again Hermes who discovered the prisonerÍs whereabouts and managed stealthily to release him. And when Odysseus' men were [p. 194] turned into swine by Circe, Hermes appeared in the guise of a young man and gave Odysseus the moly, a magic herb, to counteract Circe's deadly arts: magic pitted against magic, the magic that releases against the magic that ensnares, the enchantress turned into the enchanted.

Magic and trickery, mischief and lying, belong as naturally to Hermes' world as guiding souls to the underworld and initiating men into the mysteries of death. Hermes is appointed messenger of the gods because he promises never to lie, but adds that 'it may be necessary for him not to tell the truth in order that he may not lie'. We cannot translate the highest mysteries of spirit and death and immortality into our three-dimensional world, Hermes is telling us, without lying. When we hold up as truth the forms of the visible world we stop ourselves from seeing the Truth that is within the formless substance out of which the forms were created. Whenever we speak of the soul, of the formless in the world of forms, we are bound to fall into error, half-truth and deception. Language and speech which, according to Plato, were invented by Hermes, belong to the world of form. 'The name Hermes has to do with speech and signifies that he is the interpreter, or messenger or thief, or liar, or bargainer; all that sort of thing has a great deal to do with language . . . . Speech signifies all things, and is always turning them round and round, and has two forms, true and false.'

Mercurial is the word that has come down to us from Hermes' Latin counterpart to indicate inconstancy and unpredictability. But something that appears erratic, fitful, whimsical and capricious from one perspective can, from Hermes' perspective, be the wisdom that cannot be captured in objective statements and concrete facts. A T-bone steak is undoubtedly less mercurial than Beethoven's last quartets, but we have denuded, not enriched, our world by this demand for the tangible and the objective. In fact almost everything that gives our world meaning and value--poetry, literature, religion and indeed modern science--is mercurial; elusive in appearance, inscrutable by reason alone, but solidly based in our imagination and experience. The god who bequeathed the word mercurial to our world is also the god of 'hermeneutics', the science of interpretation and explanation, which is a particular way to approach understanding. If true to Hermes' spirit, it brings light and clarity through the insight that sees through sudden openings in an instant--which is the elusive spirit of 'finding and thieving'.

Hermes' world is not the heroic world of objective facts and rigid absolutes but the shifting world of reality that includes endless transformations. Around Hermes' magic rod were coiled two serpents: symbols of transformation into new life. 'This is the rod of Hermes: touch what you will with it, they say, and it becomes gold. Nay, but bring what you will and I [p. 196] will transmute it into Good. Bring sickness, bring death, bring poverty and reproach, bring trial for life--all these things through the rod of Hermes shall be turned to profit.'

Hermes has, throughout history, been seen as the patron of alchemy--the art of the transmutation of base metals into gold, symbolic of the transformation of man through the descent of spirit. Through all our transformations Hermes hovers before us: a bridge between ourselves and what we feel greater than ourselves, between what we know and what we dimly perceive, between what we are and what we are not and yet feel called upon to become, between the last horizon of our known self and the compelling mystery which encloses it as the universe the earth. Whether the compelling mystery drives us to explore outer space or the depths of the Underworld, he is always our guide--the god of the borderlines urging us to break through established frontiers into what Plato calls 'the beyond'.

He was called the 'light bringer', but he was also the god of the night, its magic, its inventiveness and its hidden wisdom, the god who with his rod put men to sleep and sent them dreams, messages from beyond the border of our everyday reality that illuminate our experiences and bring eternity into time. Hermes' stone heaps marked boundaries; the flying god blurred their edges.

The herm, the stone pillar that was to be found in almost every courtyard of ancient Greece, symbolized the ambivalent nature of the god: it consisted of a head of Hermes and a huge erection, head and genitals represented together. The god of the solemn descent to the depths of spirit was also the god of sexuality. When the gods are called by Hephaistos to watch Ares and Aphrodite in the net he has laid to trap them, Hermes is the only god who is not caught in shame, anger or embarrassment. When Apollo, in his detached, inquiring way, asks him whether he would care, 'though held in those unyielding shackles, to lie in bed by golden Aphrodite's side', Hermes fantasizes freely and unselfconsciously in front of all the gods.

Hermes fantasizes but is never trapped. Whether in the realm of sexual fantasy or chasing the nymphs, dancing and mating with them 'in the depths of pleasant caves', Hermes is involved but never caught. The god of becoming embodies the longing in us to move beyond fantasy and beyond experience into our ever-expanding reality, always en route, never caught by the magic, the glamour of any stage in the journey, yet fully enjoying the scenery along the way. So, after we have laughed at his wit, been held in the grip of his drama, nourished ourselves in his wisdom, reveled in the colour and layers of his adventures, he still raises echo after echo in our minds and hearts. Which is not surprising, for the Hermes in us is as inexhaustible, as mysterious and as mercurial as life. [p. 197]


[Mosaic from a Roman villa, 2nd c. AD. The flute is not only a musical instrument associated with Hermes, but part of the god's magical side. In Mozart's opera it is the magic flute that protects Tamino through the different tests of his journey, as Hermes guides and protects man in his voyage through different realms and adventures, through love, fear, pain, and joy.]

[Statue of a shepherd, Roman copy of a Hellenistic original. Hermes is the god of the solemn descent to the depths of spirit and the god of sexuality, the god of everyday reality, of shepherds and the marketplace, and the god of the eternal who guides souls to the Underworld and to knowledge beyond death.]

[Stassinopoulos, Arianna and Roloff Beny. The Gods of Greece. New York: Abrams. 1983.]




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