Why Hermes? What is his attaction to me? What does he have to offer?
Why Hermes? First you must read the Homeric Hymn to Hermes and read his story. Hermes is the son of the daughter of the Titan, Atlas, and one of the Pleiades. Her name means, by some sources 'mother'. Hermes is derived from an ancient word for a boundary marker which in Greek is called a herm. A herm is a pile of stones that marked the boundary between something. like property or two tribes and so forth. But the name may have a more ancient origin. It may predate the Greeks of the Dark Ages.
There are a few words that are hard to translate that obviously came from the era before the Greeks, the Achaeans, came to the Greek peninsula. This civilization that existed in the Cyclades and on Crete had a language that as yet unknown though speculation that it may be related to Carian of the southwestern part of modern Turkey which has a language that is as yet not related to any known lauguage.
The first civilization in Europe was in these islands. Archeologists have found sites that are dating back to the Neolithic and before the mainland, but the earliest on these islands is in the Neolithic. If you look at a map pof the Greek Islands of the Dodeconese you will see that they are like stepping stones across to Crete from Turkey. Thus the connection but as yet unproven(1)
There is strong evidence that the Minoan-Mycenaen religion survived into Classical Greek religion, as well, for place names that have un-Greek constructed roots still existed. I would speculate that Hermes and the herm came from that remote period as well. Other evidence that might indicate such a connection it that there are a number of artifacts showing a young male seemingly floating in the air above an altar (often marked with what is called Horns of Consecration, and or the double bladed axe, the labrys). Also of note is the appearance of many young women in these scenes, some are worshipers and some are goddesses, and the goddesss are usually recieving the veneration of the worshipers. On occasion, this young man, in the air, matched up with a goddess. Could this god be a god that can fliy and his mother? If it is so it could be the model which Maia's relationship to Hermes as originally depicted.
During that period after the end of the Minoan-Mycenaen period and the Archaic Period, a new group of Greek speaking peoples entered the Greek peninsula and settled in most of Greece. These were the Dorians. Warlike and divided they gradually settled down and developed into the Archaic Greeks. These Dorians were, like the earlier Achaeans (Mycenaens) patriarchal, and had more male gods than female goddesses, but the power of place and the association there was where the power of the goddess could not wholly be 0verthown, but was incorporated into myths of their leading gods marrying or seducing the older goddesses, thus legitimizing their power over the feminine deity. Such marriages and seductions, like Hera with Zeus, or in our particutlar instance, Maia being seduced by Zeus, are examples.
So the herm, which was a pile of stones. in time became a standing stone marker or plinth. Such plinths were common in Ancient Greece and their name gave thier power to Hermes, the one who could be the crosser of boundaries, but first he was the maker of boundaries. It is interesting to note that in Classical Greece these herms often took on a plallic appearance or a phallus was added to them, they became important symbols of fertility to the women of the time. Certainly they were important enough that when the herms were mutilated by vandals that implicated Alcibides, which pushed him into exile from Athens, that it was considered a major calamity for the city of Athens (2). Also Pan, who has an aspect of fertility was said to be the son of Hermes, I'll get back to that later.
Hermes is a protector of travelers as well. Again, you can look to the boundary marker f0r this. Travelers often cross some sort of boundary or another at some time in their travels. Similar to the roadside shrines in some Christian countries, these markers would also serve as a place of offering to the deity of that boundary. A more pronounced version of this is the veneration of boundaries that the Celtic peoples had. Sacred sites would be set up wherever there were boundaries. Springs mark a boundary between the world below and this one. Hilltops as well would be sacred as they marked the boundary between the earth and the sky. Likewise caves were sacred as boundaries similar to springs, between the earth and the underworld. I think that similar such shrines were set up at boundaries and since the were herms, then Hermes was awarded the role of protector of travelers. Hermes is also the God of Commerce, which is a natural extension of that of the traveler, as commerce, would be like a traveler on the road, which would cross some sort of boundary or another. By further extension, Hermes is also the conductor of the dead to the Underworld, Hermes Psychopompos.
This brings up one of the most familiar symbols associated with Hermes, the Caduceus. This was the wand, that Apollo traded with Hermes to get the reed flute. This wand is an unique symbol in that it is also a visible manifestation of Hermes and his power of transcendence. It consisted of a wand with two intertwined serpents. It belongs to a class of symbols that are universal, the so called axis mundi, or the world's axis. There are many examples of this symbol. Yggdrasil of the Norse tradition, the World Tree, is one example with its roots in the Underworld, Niflheim, and the top most branches in Heaven, Asgard. Meru, the sacred mountain of the Hindu faith is another which has its roots in the subterranean world and heights in the heavens. Odin's, Wotan's, Woden's Spear, is also an example but more subtle, for it gives this deity authority over all the world. Such a symbol is the caduceus. More interesting is the resemblance to the structure of DNA's double helix, the basic building block of all life on the Earth.
Because it connects the levels of reality together it also represents Hermes himself, a sort of icon of the power of the god. So when you see the caduceus that could stand for Hermes himself at the same time, just as the lingam of the Hindus represents Shiva. I will go into the connections with other deities later.
The caduceus is a phallic symbol, as well, as any such shaped object is. This brings in the connection with fertility. Again, go back to the incident in Athens with the herms. It is notable that the Athenian women often would pray for fertility to these herms. They often were part of a household as well as boundaries. In the Ancient World, where life was often short, fertility was important, not only for humans but for all things that humans depended on to survive. Even today on some places in the Mediterranean you can see phallic symbols, some bold and forthright like phalli, or subtle, like the cornicello worn by Italian men as a sign of their virility.
Because of the sybolism, and the awareness of the goat's viritlity, Pan is often shown with a exaggerated penis. Pan is said to be the son of Hermes by a nymph. Some of the herms have horns with refer to Pan, and clearly there is some equation between Pan and Hermes. Hermes (Kriophoros, ram-bearer, a Pelasgian god, (Pelasgian being the pre-Hellenic peoples of Greece) is a god of the shepherds and cattle-herders. This may be as a result of his theft of Apollo's cattle, or this incident, in the Hymn, may have been a later way of representing that aspect. He is the herder's god, and the flute that the herder plays, it is said, was Hermes' invention. Perhaps, Pan is the wild side of Hermes then, the wild man of the woods and fields, such as Cernunnos, Faunus, and satyrs (or fauns to the Romans) which were lesser gods of the fields and woodlands.
What is not well known is Hermaphroditos, who is said to be the son of Hermes by Aphrodite. He is the archetypical androgenous male, and may actually be both male and female, by some accounts. He gives his name to those that have both male and female gender characteristics.
All of this put together, in my opinion leads me to conclude that Hermes has a fertility aspect to him. Also the majority of images of Hermes that you see that are survived the ages, show him as being rather androgenous in appearance, such as a young man in his post puberty may look. This brings in an additonal aspect of Hermes' character, that of the eternal youth. Each time Hermes is described he is youthful, mostly in is depictions (3).
What I see now is a deity that can cross any boundary, has a wild aspect to him, a thief, but who is responsible for treaties, conmerce and trade. He is also, because of this, a god to do with the laws that are related to these areas.
The next aspect is not so evident though, the Magician and Trickster. The Trickster aspect is the most obvious in the way he gets himself out of trouble by bargaining with his inventions and getting out of being punished for stealing Apollo's cattle. As for the Magician aspect, you need to look at how that Greeks saw Hermes, in exotic gods, most notably Thoth, the Egyptian god of medicine, learning, culture, and magick. When the Greeks came to Egypt, they saw Thoth was Hermes. In post-Classical times, namely that of the Hellenistic and Roman periods, Hermes became associated with, and especially in Egypt, with Thoth. Out of this syncretistic joining came Hermes Trismagistes, Hermes thrice great. who is said to be the author of The Kybalion, or his Three Initiates. What was it that Thoth (Djehewty in Ancient Egyptian) that caused this equation? That is difficult to say now, but magic was definitely a part of Thoth's characteristics. According to the Egyptians, Thoth was the originator of their writing system. which was a major component of their culture. When the hieroglyphs were written down certain words would be wrtitten in red ink instead of black, which was mostly the color used. These words were of great importance qand often magical. One possible origin of the name for the divinitory cards, Tarot, is and epithet of Thoth, Hry-turot, "he who is over the red letters:. Thoth also recorded the result of the weighing of the heart of the dead to judge their innocence or guilt, more properly the right actions (called ma'at in Egyptian and was symboized by a feather) when the dead were judged before Osiris.
One symbolic tool stands out when it comes to magick and magicians, the wand. and the caduceus is said to be a wand. It is phallic and the power arises from that phallic power. The associations and identification of Hermes with the caduceus shows his magicakal nature, which is not always evident in what has survived to us (4).
To the Ancient Romans, he was known as Mercury, and that is his most popularly known name. The Romans borrowed the tales of the Greeks and grafted them on to their native stories of the goddesses and gods. Mercury was originally, Mercur, and can be seen in Etruscan paintings of their time, just before the rise of Rome. Not much is known of Mercur, as the Etruscan language is as yet to be translated, and seems to me a non-Indo-European language, but in the time that the Etruscan kings ruled Rome, he came into the pantheon of the Romans. Also at this time, a developemental time for Roman history, they were influenced by the Greek colonies to the south of them in Campania, such as Neopolis (Naples) and Cumae. It is likely that at that time the Greek religious stories were added on the Romans, and who were the most interested in ritual than in what beliefs lay behind them.
The Romans, as their power grew and they encountered other religious communities, ran into the welter of different gods, and tried to understand them as the Greeks, did by identifying them with there own pantheon. In the writings of some of the Roman writers that had contact with the Germanic tribes beyond the Rhine, they described a wanderinig god, who on many ways sounds like Wotan/Woden/ Odin, and called him Mercury. Something in the character of these wandering gods was like that of Mercury, therefore something like Hermes.. Some speculation has been made that the earliest form of Woden was that of a god to do with death, even a conductor of the dead, a psychopompos (5).
Alexander, the Great, said that Hermes was honored amongst the gods of the Indus River people as well. Again we are hampered by the lost knowledge of those people as we do not know for sure who he is refering to, but some speculation has been that it is Shiva, and that may be an association with some of the characteristics of Shiva, like the trident he carries that is so like the caduceus. He is also a known trickster as well, like Hermes, as well as a god that can transcend boundaries. Thus in any magician and trickster god is the essence of Hermes.
Carl Jung discovered that there are certain universal themed religious beings that appear in many disguises. He is called these archetypes, and one that is universally recognized is that of the Messenger, Trickster and Magician. Hermes combines all of these archetypes. Christopher Penczak states that this archetype is "one of the most important archetypes. The messanger is the image of the magician and shaman, the one that travels between worlds bringing messages and magick, and guiding souls... these gods of invention, magick, writing, mystery and higher consciousness...trickster and healers."(6) Christopher goes on to to account other gods that fit the archetype, just as I had years ago such as Ganesha, the spiritual remover of obstacles to the spiritual, as well as of traveling; Celtic deities like Math ap Mathowy, Gwydion, Merlin, and Taliesin, amongst the Welsh; the Gaelic Ogma, Mannanon mac Lir, Lugh (who Caesar equated to Mercury) and Diancect of the Tuatha de Dannan.
Other modern writers an Pagan mystics, such as the Radical Farie, Mitch Walker, in his book, Visionary Love: A Spirit Book of Gay Mythology and Trans-mutatioonal Fairie, see in Hermes this same being that can assist in the ability to transcend boundaries. These are the reasons that I am a devotee of Hermes, but I have taken away the epithet of Zeus and given it to his son, Eleutheron, The Liberator, for Hermes can liberate you from the bounds of this plane of reality and take you where you have never gone before.
(1)p222-3 The Minoan-Mycenaean Religion and Its Survival in Greek Religion, Nilson, Martin P., Biblo & Tannen, NY, 1971
(2) p 309-10 History of the Pelopannesian War by Thucydides, translated by Richard Crawley, Everyman;s Library, new ed. 1993, reprint 1995, Charles C. Tuttle Co., Inc, Rutland, VT
(3) Another deity that may have the same cultural origins is Dionysus. There is evidence that he was a dying and reborn god, but has origins deep in the pre-Hellenic period. When the Olympians came to the fore when the Dorian "invasion" occured he fell out of favore in most of the Hellenic territories but like Hermes, was remembered wher the Dorians were not dominant, such as in Athens, and in Thrace. Considered a Thracian deity before a Greek one, he eventually became widely known. But no where wass he so honored as in Athens, where his rituals gave birth to the theater, during the Classical Period. Some statues of Hermes, by Praxiteles, found at Olympia, show hin with the baby Dionysus. I find this interesting in that they both have similar cultual origins,m but Dionysus did not receive as much prominence as Hermes until the Classical era, and he was reintroduced to the Hellenes by Thracians.
(4) Much of ancient knowledge has been irrevocably been lost. It is only by chance that any knowledge has survived. What we know often is what was preserved by the Arab Moslems which while Europe was in its most barbaric, and learning was the preserve of the Church, they found value in.
(5) p. 96, 'The Lost Gods of England, by Brian Branstonk, Thames & Hudson, Ltd., London, 1974. He quotes a poem by a 10th Century poet (in Anglo-Saxon) Kembles, in a poem "Solomon and Saturn". The whole of Chapter 6 is devoted to Woden.
(6)The Outer Temple of Witchcraft:Circles, Spells and Rituals, by Christopher Penczak, Llewellan Publications, 2004