Hermes: Guide of Souls

Good Friday 2020, Orthodox.




The god Hermes (Mercury) was evolved from several sources:*

from the stone phalli of a pre-Hellenic fertility cult;

from the pre-Hellenic archetype of the Divine Child;

from the Egyptian god of intelligence, Thoth;

and from the Egyptian Anubis, conductor of souls to the underworld.





Hermes, with archaic mannerisms and hair style. 27-68 A.D., marble.  Metropolitan Museum of Art



The long elaboration of the character of this god resulted in a coherence not normally associated with the Greek gods.


I take it that this coherence derives from the valuable example it holds for the lives of humans.  



And so it was for Karl Kerenyi (1899-1973), the Hungarian classical scholar. **


He was an initiate of the god’s mysteries and the god was an intimate of his life.  And so he never came to write a monograph on Hermes.


Hermes’ gifts (hermaion, singular, and I don’t know the plural) were of the greatest spiritual  and practical value to Karl Kerenyi.  The scholar’s gravestone is marked with the acknowledgement of his discipleship.


It seems that Kerenyi did not use the ‘archetype’ concept for any part of Hermes’ history. 


Instead he created the word mythologem: a group of stories or beliefs with an internally coherent, connected theme.


Hermes for this scholar is the mythologem of the masculine ideal.


That is to say that Kerenyi found the balance of the god’s virtues and vices, as developed in the god’s exploits and words, to be worthy guides for his own values and behaviour.





Mercury, 16th century, bronze.  16th century Italy. 

National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC





Hermes was the son of Zeus and Maia.


He was, from very early childhood, most captivating:

curious, charming to complete seduction, lovable beyond all your empathy, quick, discerning and very active. 


He seduced Apollo with a gift of the tortoise-shell lyre and plectrum which he had invented and on which he played songs of praise to Apollo. 

Apollo it was who gave him in return the golden caduceus with which he – Apollo – had herded his cattle.





Oval carnelian gem with Hermes playing the lyre, 3rd to 1st century BCE.  

Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; photo from its website.




This was after he had, as a baby, stolen cattle belonging to Apollo and lied about it.  Apollo forgave him and regaled Zeus with the story.


Artemis loved Hermes’ music-making; and took him hunting. 


Zeus, amused by his son’s precocious antics, made him promise to tell no more lies and to honour the ‘sanctity’ of property.


Hermes promised if his father would give him the guardianship over divine property. 


Hermes  promised to tell no lies but not the whole truth necessarily either.


From then on, Hermes promoted commerce, protected treaties, guarded boundaries, protected travelers and their many pathways.   


He owns immense herds himself and is the protector of animal husbandry. 


And he is also the protector of liars and thieves and gamblers.


He became herald to Hades and he summons people to their deaths by laying his golden staff on their eyes.  Very gently.



Hermes’ beauty is no less than that of Dionysos.





Chalcedony head of Mercury (Hermes), 1st-2nd century AD, Roman.  Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY



The gods are beautiful because they are beautiful. 


But then again, who would agree to be taken by the hand by Hermes to their death;


or would listen to Dionysos who advises us to accept the mystery of our life/death/life


were it not (also) for the seductive beauty of these gods?





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

Museum of the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia





As marks of Hermes’ authority, his father gave him a staff with white ribbons and winged sandals and a helmet.


Voyages are associated very much with Hermes.  He is rarely still. 





Mercury, carrying the caduceus, bronze.

After Giovanni Bologna, Flemish, active in Italy, 1780-1850.  National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.



For Hermes, the messenger of the gods and the guide of souls (psychopomp: a second, in the Christian tradition, being the Archangel Michael) is always on a journey. 





Mercury, carrying the cadeuces, bronze.

After Giovanni Bologna, Flemish, active in Italy, 1780-1850.  National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.




Likewise, Hermes is associated with physical boundaries and entrance points. 


Herms were installed and some mounted with the heads of other gods at such boundaries.  Some displayed male genitalia, understood as protective devices associated with fertility and power.





Bronze herm, c. 490 BCE. Arcadia, Greece.

Metropolitan Museum of Art; photo from its website.  The museum notes that Arcadia had rich flocks of sheep in antique times and that this herm was probably dedicated at a sanctuary of Hermes.



And 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 the god has acted. 




Round carnelian gem with head of Hermes. 1st century AD, Roman.

  Excavated at Tell Dafana, Egypt by William Matthews Flinders Petrie.  Boston Museum of Fine Arts from their website




I recall reading that it is Hermes who is the guardian of the deep spaces of the earth and of the abysses and vast valleys.


The Greek islands are full of such spaces, of course;  and Greeks crossed and recrossed them with their herds for pasture; and to reach sacred grounds. 



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



Nor is this a simple god for the Hermes idea evolved over the centuries, as all the gods did; and many stories reveal his life. 



For all that he is beautiful, swift, often generous, always compassionate when he comes to lead someone to Charon towards Hades,


he also likes trickery and deceit. Admiring also of a bit of thievery which his father bade him stop when he was still a child. 


He is something of a rogue and shameless. Sometimes he is contrary.


But these characteristics, says Kerenyi, have a ‘divine innocence’ inherent in them. 





Hermes, a gelatin silver print 1988 .

 Robert Mapplethorpe, 1946-1989, American. MOMA, NY



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 equally. 


I suppose this comment of Kerenyi’s is a hint as to why his devotion to Hermes.





Mercury, 1551, bronze. 

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



For the scholar there was ample evidence of the sophistication of the god’s balance between good, generous and compassionate and impulses less benign.


A balance not born in the god but derived upon reflection and action by the god in the course of his duties, travels, interactions.    


A trajectory interesting – astonishing -enough to encourage and sustain the spiritual exercises of mere mortals.





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




There is evidence also that this is a god  who knows what a joke is.  So refreshing for an immortal.



Hermes is a god the memory of whose  complex, coherent, exciting masculinity, and astonishing beauty,  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 – hermaion – in our final hour on our last human journey.






Mercury, 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 effect, a descriptive word for the gift of an example for the evolution of our spiritual lives



where Hermes represents a most far-reaching example of the gifts we may give ourselves:


the handling of complexity of many kinds;

the appreciation and acceptance of human frailties and misdemeanors;

the care for animals, music, beauty;

the development of reverence for aspects of life we cannot change.


Hermes is the guardian of our travels and pathways, our entering and leaving; 

our guide through intersections.

It is he who conducts our final leave-taking from our human lives.






Hermes, 117-138 ACE, Roman after a Greek original, marble from the Greek island of Thasos. 

Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Boston from whose website this photograph.



  * The Greek Myths, Robert Graves, 1895-1985, British.  First published 1955.

** Hermes  Guide of Souls.  Karl Kerenyi, 1897-1973, Hungarian active Switzerland, translated from the original German in 1944.