Hermes (Mercury), the mythologem of the masculine source of life is one of my favourite gods.  Not just for his beauty but also for his coherent complexity,  his gentleness, his compassion and his occasional cruel contrariness.

Coherence is not normally associated with the Greek gods and I take it that if one of them is such, it is because his characteristics are of the greatest value to the lives of humans.  

For the gods – all of them without exception – come out of our minds and our spirits and are us.



Mercury, 16th century, bronze.  16th century Italy.  National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC



A god and archetype so coherent over the hundreds of years of his elaboration by the Greeks that Karl Kerenyi (1899-1973), the Hungarian classical scholar, would not write a monograph on Hermes.  He wrote several on other gods.  Hermes’ gifts (hermaoin) were of the greatest intimacy and value to Karl Kerenyi and his gravestone is marked with his acknowledgement.




Hermes, a gelatin silver print made in 1988 by Robert Mapplethorpe, 1946-1989, American.  Museum of Modern Art, New York.


Kerenyi said that the god, the child of Zeus and Maya, was very close to his life.  Kerenyi became aware that his life was proceeding under the god’s protection particularly in his voyages, in his work and in the circumstances of his permanent exile in Switzerland from his native Hungary which resulted from a talk he gave about the god’s history and characteristics.

 Kerenyi  felt that he had been initiated into the mysteries of the god. What little Kerenyi wrote of this god is as clear as something you know very well and can explain in a few words.



Mercury, carrying the cadeuces.  Bronze, after Giovanni Bologna, Flemish, active in Italy, 1780-1850.  National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.


Voyages are associated very much with Hermes.  He is rarely still.  For Hermes, the messenger of the gods and the guide of souls (psychopomp: the other in our Western tradition being the Archangel Michael) is always on a journey.  Many of his stories are about the people and events on these journeys. 


Likewise, Hermes is associated with physical boundaries


Herm of Dionysos/Bacchus, 1st century BCE.  I do not know where in Italy this was found. Museum of the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia

and entrance points.   Herms were installed and some mounted with the heads of other gods at such boundaries.


And a hermaion is also a gift of food left for travelers.  For travelers and not for the god.  A gift of the god to travelers by  men and women – on whose spirits he has acted – out of empathy.

I recall as a young woman reading that it is Hermes who is the guardian of the deep spaces of the earth and of the abysses and vast valleys. Came into my mind the reason why the Greeks needed to associate these spectacular spaces with a protective god because their islands are full of such spaces which they needed to cross and recross with their herds (Hermes is also the god associated with animal husbandry); and to reach Athens. 

After I read these words,  I, who dislike air travel, was never again afraid of the mountains over which my airplane descends to reach my native city  on a high plateau formed of the great East African Rift Valley.  Gift of Hermes



Mercury, National Gallery of Art, DC-1

Mercury, carrying the cadeuces.  Bronze, after Giovanni Bologna, Flemish, active in Italy, 1780-1850.  National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.


Nor is this a simple god for the Hermes idea evolved over the centuries like those of all the gods of classical Greece. 

For all that he is beautiful, swift, often generous, often compassionate when he comes to lead someone to Charon towards Hades, he also likes trickery and deceit. A bit of thievery.  He is something of a rogue and shameless. 

But these characteristics, says Kerenyi, have a ‘divine innocence’ inherent in them.  This I take to mean that the god is without guile. Both shameless and without guile.   A rare combination of characteristics for a god.  For mortals, too.

 And that the god knows what a joke is.  So refreshing for a god.



Mercury, 1551, bronze.  Zanobi Lastricati, 1508-1590, Italian (Florence).  Walters Museum of Art, Baltimore, Maryland


Hermes is a god the memory of whose beauty, complex masculinity, and example of a life – immortal in his case –   is still with us.   And will be when he comes to guide us with, says the literature, the greatest gentleness which is a parting gift of the god,  in our final hour on our last journey.



Mercury and details, 1551, bronze.  Zanobi Lastricati, 1508-1590, Italian (Florence).  Walters Museum of Art, Baltimore, Maryland


At which hour, say the texts, we return the god’s gifts in the manner of  our silence and reverence.   This quiet in the presence of Hermes is also called a hermaion.


 Hermaion being, in effecta descriptive word for the evolution  of our spiritual lives where Hermes represents among the most farreaching archetypes of the gifts we may give ourselves.


For the gods – all of them – come out of our minds and our spirits and are us.

 Mercury, National Gallery of Art, DC-2 - Copy

Mercury, carrying the cadeuces.  Bronze, after Giovanni Bologna, Flemish, active in Italy, 1780-1850.  National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.




2 thoughts on “Hermes

  1. He has always been one of my favourite gods as well. I met him recently in a novel by John Banville called infinities, which I recommend. Above all, he carries the transcendent dimension of our souls between its fleshly abode and the invisible realm to which we are connected. It is no wonder that Hermes is often portrayed as a deliverer of eros.


  2. Thanks for your comment! My favourite Hungarian exegete would not entirely agree that Hermes delivers Eros because the texts say that Eros is a far earlier creation than Hermes. Eros is a primordial god.

    It may be that Hermes is so popular that he has been elided in relatively recent times in the same way as the cadeuces – two snakes – of Hermes has been elided with the rod of Ascelpius (one snake) and adopted – the cadeuces – by the US Army Medical Corp! And that people forget that Eros also has wings!

    That said, Kerenyi does say that there is a parallel and minor tradition in which Eros is the son of Hermes.

    So you may be right!


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