(This article was originally published for The Thiasos of the Starry Bull, on The Boukoleon, 27/10/14)
I live my life by Hermes. For the past six years every dollar I have ever earned has been given to me as donation by strangers. Most often it’s the only interaction I have with these people, they like what I do and they give me money to keep doing it. It’s such a beautiful relationship. As well as how I earn my money I follow the coin, when there is a difficult decision I flip a coin. Many friends have criticise me for doing this, they say I shouldn’t live by chance, but I’ve never found myself in a unfortunate position.
Hermes was one of two gods that introduced themselves to me in dream when I was a teenager before setting out in Hellenic Polytheism . Our relationship goes way back, he is also the first god I ever depicted in art and still use my first ever bronze statue I made on my shrine. Like many gods in the Pantheon he is extremely complex, the divine guide, the trickster, the translator, the trader, lord of logos and magic.
For myself I view Hermes as the spiritual and physical lubricant of this world. The force that transmits all motion to it required destination. He conducts our thoughts, our voices, dictates over what words we wish to express ourselves when writing. While not necessarily the muse, he is the transmitter of the muse, in this manner he is aware of many things. He is the spy, the retainer to the gods, he knows all their secrets but is bound by the highest oath to keep them.
The cult of Hermes could be perhaps the oldest we know of, it may go back to prehistoric times. It’s possible that it started as a cairn building tradition, where travellers would set up stone piles along their way to mark their destination, to inform others of their path or simply as a sign to prevent themselves from getting lost. Cairn building was also used to mark a burial site as a way of honouring those lost along the path, thereby perhaps developing the chthonic aspect of Hermes. As time went on these ‘headstones’ became more elaborate and included pillar with a head of bearded man with a phallus, sometimes accompanied with text, such as directions. Herms had many purposes, they proved to lost travellers that civilisation was near, they gave protection and comfort knowing that a god was watching while they camped on the road and they were used as a conduit for other gods. Travellers brought their gods with them and a herm was a ‘spiritual actor’ a permanent generic way-shrine that could be used to honour other deities. For example: Bacchic cults would use these herms as a means of honouring Dionysus, maenads would adorn one with a mask and dress it as the god, in this manner the herm would become Dionysus. When the troop had finished their festival they would ceremoniously dismantle the sacred mask and cloths from the herm and therefore, kill Dionysus – to much lamenting. However the herm would be restored to its original state until the next year when Dionysus was reborn again. In this manner the herm would become the physical orator, actor, the pillar that upholds the gods.
Greece itself was a ‘meeting ground’ of different cultural influences, in essence it was a place where people exchanged their knowledge. Like most developing cults in the region the cult of Hermes was influenced by outsiders, travellers and merchants. These people would associate their homeland gods with local Greek gods, we see Hermes becoming connected with Thoth in Egypt, who is the divine scribe, master of words and magic. With this association Hermes became further entrenched in the sacred mysteries as god over words and guide of the souls of the dead.
In myth Hermes is usually born on mount Kyllini, his father is Zeus and mother a nymph named Maia. In the humorous Homeric hymn he is depicted as a babe escaping his crib and going about the country side causing mischief, along the way creating many things of ingenuity such as sandals and the lyre. He steals the sacred cattle of Apollo and establishes his own form of sacrifice (animal sacrifice) via creating fire, but is caught out by his brother Apollo. (I think this is the only time where a fart joke is inserted in a Homeric Hymn?) Disgusted by Hermes and unable to convince the truth from him, Apollo takes him to Olympus to be judged before their father. Zeus however is charmed by his mischievous, master of lies, son and orders the two to make amends: Hermes gifts Apollo his lyre and Apollo gifts Hermes some of his prophetic attributes and his heraldic staff, thereafter Hermes becomes an Olympian and friends with Apollo.
In other myth Hermes is the trusted servant to Zeus. He is also charged with protecting Zeus’ offspring. A famous statue attributed to Praxiteles is Hermes carrying the babe Dionysus. Illustrating the scene where Hermes delivers the infant Dionysus to the protection of his nurses and foster father Seilenos. This theme is a popular subject in both sculpture and pottery. As a loyal servant Hermes is often pitted against the machinations of Hera, the most famous is the killing of Argos, a hundred eyed giant sent to guard Io as a cow. (Io being Dionysus’ great-great-great-great-great grandmother or something…) So in some way Hermes has been a protector and guide to Dionysus’ family lineage for a long time.
There are two Orphic hymns to Hermes. In what is typical of Orphism: Hermes has two different parentages depending on his attributes. One where he is addressed as the son of Zeus and Maia and the other focused on the Chthonic Hermes where he is the son of Dionysus and Aphrodite.
Well that should sum up some key basics in regards to Hermes. Feel free to contribute in the comments. Here are three different translations of the Orphic Hymns for convenience:
Orphic Hymn 28 to Hermes (trans. Taylor) (Greek hymns C3rd B.C. to 2nd A.D.)
“To Hermes, Fumigation from Frankincense. Hermes, draw near, and to my prayer incline, messenger of Zeus, and Maia’s son divine; prefect of contests, ruler of mankind, with heart almighty, and a prudent mind. Celestial messenger of various skill, whose powerful arts could watchful Argos kill. With winged feet ’tis thine through air to course, O friend of man, and prophet of discourse; great life-supporter, to rejoice is thine in arts gymnastic, and in fraud divine. With power endued all language to explain, of care the loosener, and the source of gain. Whose hand contains of blameless peace the rod, Korykion (Corycion), blessed, profitable God. Of various speech, whose aid in works we find, and in necessities to mortal kind. Dire weapon of the tongue, which men revere, be present, Hermes, and thy suppliant hear; assist my works, conclude my life with peace, give graceful speech, and memory’s increase.”
Orphic Hymn 57 to Chthonian Hermes
“To Hermes Khthonios (Chthonian, of the Underworld), Fumigation from Storax. Hermes, I call, whom fate decrees to dwell near to Kokytos, the famed stream of Haides, and in necessity’s (Ananke’s) dread path, whose bourn to none that reach it ever permits return. O Bakkheios (Bacchian) Hermes, progeny divine of Dionysos, parent of the vine, and of celestial Aphrodite, Paphian queen, dark-eyelashed Goddess, of a lovely mien: who constant wanderest through the sacred seats where Haides’ dread empress, Persephone, retreats; to wretched souls the leader of the way, when fate decrees, to regions void of day. Thine is the wand which causes sleep to fly, or lulls to slumberous rest the weary eye; for Persephone, through Tartaros dark and wide, gave thee for ever flowing souls to guide. Come, blessed power, the sacrifice attend, and grant thy mystics’ works a happy end.”
Angel of Zeus,
son of Maia,
priest and sage,
of a thousand techniques,
you lulled and slayed
hundred eyed Argos
to give the peacock
guide and guardian,
you love gymnastics,
secrets and tricks.
Giver of good things,
your gifts are
casually found treasures.
You give gain,
honest or dishonest.
and borders amuse you.
Wings on your feet
you soar through space
singing all music
in every language.
With a touch
of your wand
you bring sleep,
a dream or demise.
We honor you, Hermes,
help us in our work.
Give us eloquent speech
and eager virility.
Give us our necessities
and sharp memory.
Give us good luck.
Close our lives in peace.
Servant of the Moirai,
guide us on the path
to the other world.
Son of Dionysos
guide us to Persephone.
You lead the wretched,
sodden with mud,
into long rest in the dark.
A touch of your wand
or wakes the deceased.
Guide of souls
to the other side,
we honor you
Orphic Hymn 28. To Hermes
Hear me, Hermes, messenger of Zeus, son of Maia.
Almighty is your heart, O lord of the deceased and judge of contests.
Gentle and clever, O Argeiphontes, you are a guide whose sandals fly,
And a man-loving prophet to mortals.
You are vigorous and you delight in exercise and in deceit.
Interpreter of all, you are a profiteer who frees us of cares,
And who holds in his hands the blameless tool of peace.
Lord of Korykos, blessed,
helpful and skilled in words, you assist in work,
You are a friend of mortals in need,
And you wield the dreaded and respected weapon of speech.
Hear my prayer and grant a good end to a life of industry,
gracious talk and mindfulness.
Orphic Hymn 57. To Chthonic Hermes
You dwell in the compelling road of no return, by the Kytos.
You guide the souls of mortals to the nether gloom.
Hermes, off-spring of Dionysos who revels in dance,
And Aphrodite, the Paphian maiden of the fluttering eyelids,
You frequent the sacred house of Persephone,
As guide throughout the earth of ill-fated souls,
Which you bring to their haven when their time has come,
Charming them with your sacred wand and giving them sleep,
From which you rouse them again.
To you indeed Persephone gave the office, throughout wide Tartaros,
To lead the way for the eternal souls of men.
But, O blessed one, grant a good end for the initiate’s work.