I’m actually writing this in the Denver airport, which is remarkably appropriate, given that Hermes is the god of travelers. I have my headphones around my neck, specifically so that I can hear the hustle and bustle of the others in the airport around me. Hermes is also the god of writing and languages, and right now when so many people are returning to school or from vacations, you can hear the type, type, type of people as they send messages.
That must make airports the most sacred of places to Hermes in the modern day. Flocks of people needing to be herded to their destination; where travelers, hospitality, roads, and trade meet; where diplomacy can get you a little extra, languages overflow, and we all get a little athletic trying to make our flights. Not to mention being able to fly and reach the sky.
I’ll be honest, writing about Hermes is difficult. Just when I seem to have the right image or words, it slips away or warps so that it no longer quite fits. He sort of reminds me of Jin in the movie House of Flying Daggers. Mei asks what his name is, he responds with “Wind”, because he wanders around like a playful wind; but he has unexpected depths and seriousness. After all, some of Hermes myths we tell children are silly and playful: the clever theft of Apollos cattle and the creation of a lyre from a tortoise-shell. But Hermes also kills the giant Argos who guards Io, helps Perseus kill the Gorgon Medusa, and protects Odysseus from Circe’s magic. On a slightly darker note, he kills the herdsman who reported the cattle theft to Apollo and sleeps with Chione on the same night Apollo seduces her.
Most gods have a complexity that makes them difficult to grasp, after all, they are the purest distillation of humanity. And we as humans are notoriously complex and difficult to fully see and understand. But Hermes makes this complexity an art form. At the most simple, the herma that make his roadside altars are standing stones with piles of rocks around them. At the other end of the spectrum, altars to Hermes can easily become elaborate with rococo business and luxury. Hermes is a god of the sky, flying along Iris’ rainbow path; and the psychopomp to the dead and escort of Persephone up from the underworld. His symbols continue this fierce dichotomy: the tortoise and the hare, the expensive saffron crocus and the common strawberry tree. Even his parentage bounces between the noble Zeus and Maia, and the passionate Dionysus and Aphrodite. Getting a good grasp on Hermes, and what he is is near impossible.
And maybe that’s for the best. We all need gods that we wrangle with. Hermes is not the powerfully defined as Hera, Queen of Heaven or Athena. Nor is he unpredictable in the predictable ways that Poseidon or Hades are. He’s like the wind, and we can never know which way he’s going to blow, if at all or what will come with him when it does.
While Hermes isn’t the only god to have multiple songs in the Orphic hymns (which I prefer far and above to the Homeric ones), he’s in a rarefied group, one that includes both of his potential mythical fathers. Zeus and Dionysus both have 3, Hermes and Gaia both have 2. This grouping highlights Hermes duality even further. Here, Zeus is the King of Heaven, thunder, and lightning. Dionysus is the strong, bull-faced bearer of the vine. Gaia is portrayed as the earth itself and as the mother of the gods. Hermes with his ouranic and chthonic dual nature fits right in.
So, hail to the high and low art. To the high and low in Hermes, and to the high and the low in all of us.
Orphic Hymn 27 : The Fumigation from Frankincense.
Hermes, draw near, and to my pray’r incline, angel of Zeus, and Maia’s son divine;
Studious of contests, ruler of mankind, with heart almighty, and a prudent mind.
Celestial messenger, of various skill, whose pow’rful arts could watchful Argus kill:
With winged feet, ’tis thine thro’ 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 pow’r endu’d all language to explain, of care the loos’ner, and the source of gain.
Whose hand contains of blameless peace the rod, Corucian, blessed, profitable God;
Of various speech, whose aid in works we find, and in necessities to mortals 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 me memory’s increase
Orphic Hymn 56: The Fumigation from Storax.
Hermes I call, whom Fate decrees to dwell in the dire path which leads to deepest hell
O Bacchic Hermes, progeny divine of Dionysos, parent of the vine,
And of celestial Aphrodite Paphian queen, dark eye-lash’d Goddess of a lovely mien:
Who constant wand’rest thro’ the sacred feats
where hell’s 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 slumb’rous rest the weary eye;
For Persephone’s thro’ Tart’rus dark and wide gave thee forever flowing souls to guide.
Come, blessed pow’r the sacrifice attend, and grant our mystic works a happy end.