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Chapter 12: Hermes

Terms/Names/Tales to know:

birth tale of Hermes: son of Zeus and Maia (a minor goddess)

Hermes is a liminal god - he is our bridge between the world of the living and the world of the dead (Psychopompos, "Guide of Souls"). He often controls behaviors and professions that straddle good/bad aspects of the same action: merchants/thieves/beggars. His youthful appearance and quick development from infant to adult addresses the metamorphosis of maturation (also see Herms, below). His use of manipulation and persuasion marks him as a smooth social operator, seamlessly moving from one side of an argument to another.

Elizabeth Vandiver suggests another way of explaining how Hermes can be god of so many seemingly disparate things (see her Teachign Company Mythology Tapes):
- see Homeric Hymn for Hermes as trader (lyre for cattle)
thieves - Hermes himself is a thief (Norman O. Brown wrote a book called Hermes the Thief)
beggars - those excluded from trade
cattle/cattle herders
- how wealth was measured
messengers/heralds and travelers/roads: allows commerce to develop and thrive
liars/tricksters - manipulation/persuasion as part of the entrepreneurial spirit?
Psychopompos -  - leads men from one dimension to another

Herms are boundary markers found at crossroads and property lines (another argument for seeing Hermes as concerned with liminalities, or thresholds). They consist of a flat pillar distinguished only by a carved head atop the pillar, and high relief male genitals protruding from the smooth base. They thus represent fertility, productivity (commercial and otherwise), and general good fortune. They also have an apotropaic function (frightening away evil spirits). See the story of the Destruction of the Herms and the devastating effect it had on public support for the war in Athens in 414 BC.


Hermes and Athena (fresco, Batholomaeus Spranger, 1585)

Mercury, Argus, and Io (Jacob van Campen, 1630's)

Mercury Piping to Argus (Johann Karl Loth, 1660)

Mercury and Argus (Rubens, 1635-1638)

Mercury and Paris (Donato Creti, 1745)

Mercury Appearing to Aeneas, 1757, Tiepolo

for attributes (his hat, petasus, his sandals, talaria, and his snake-entwined staff, caduceus):

Mercury in London
Mercury (Bronze, 1580, Giovanni de Bologna)

Mercury as model for FTD Floral Bouquet man
Mercury, (marble, Jean Baptiste Pigalle, 1745)

copyright 2001 Janice Siegel, All Rights Reserved
send comments to: Janice Siegel (jfsiege@ilstu.edu)

date this page was edited last: 08/02/2005
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