Myths of Greece and Rome, by Jane Harrison, , at sacred-texts.com
If Apollo is, next after Zeus, greatest among the Olympians, Hermes is certainly least; he is the herald, the messenger, the servant in general. As messenger he appears in modern literature:
[paragraph continues] As messenger, too, he appears in the Iliad. To him is entrusted the difficult and delicate mission of escorting Priam to the tent of Achilles, and he acquits himself of the task with a tact really divine. Zeus, as he sends him on his errand, says to him with affectionate condescension: "Hermes, my son, to thee is it especially dear to companion men; go forth and so guide Priam to the hollow ships of the Achaians that no man behold or be aware of him."
"Thus spake he, and the Messenger, the slayer of Argus, was not disobedient unto his word. Straightway beneath his feet he bound on his fair sandals, golden, divine, that bare him over the wet sea and over the boundless land with the breathings of the wind. And he took up his wand wherewith he entranceth the eyes of such men as he will, and others he likewise waketh out of sleep: this did the strong slayer of Argus take in his hand, and flew. And quickly came he to Troy-land and the Hellespont, and went on his way in semblance as a young man that is a prince, with a new down on his chin, as when the youth of men is the comeliest."
Again, in the Odyssey it is Hermes who is commissioned to go to the nymph Calypso, and bid her despatch Odysseus to his home.
"And straightway Hermes bound beneath his feet his lovely golden sandals, that wax not old, that bare him alike over the wet sea and over the limitless land, swift as the breath of wind. And he took the wand wherewith he lulls the eyes of whomso he will, while others again he even wakes from out of sleep. With this rod in his hand flew the strong slayer of Argus. Above Pisria he passed and leapt from the upper air into the deep. Then he sped along the wave like the cormorant, that chaseth the fishes through the perilous gulfs of the unharvested sea, and wetteth his thick plumage in the brine. Such like did Hermes ride upon the press of the waves."
Hermes is messenger from Olympus to Earth. He is also messenger from Earth to Hades under the Earth. When Odysseus has slain the suitors, it is Hermes who comes to conduct their souls to Hades. He is Psychopompos.
"Now Cyllenian Hermes called forth from the halls the souls of the wooers, and he held in his hand his wand that is fair and golden, wherewith he lulls the eyes of men, of whomso he will, while others again he even wakens out of sleep. Herewith he roused and led the souls who followed gibbering in the secret place of a wondrous cave, when one has fallen down out of the rock from the cluster, and they cling each to each up aloft, even so the souls gibbered as they fared together, and Hermes, the helper, led them down the dank ways."
Such is Hermes as we know him to-day. Such is Hermes as Homer "composed" him. "Touching Hermes," says Pausanias, "the poems of Homer have given currency to the report that he is the servant of Zeus, and leads down to hell the souls of the departed."
This goodly young messenger, with the winged sandals and the golden wand, in what form was he actually worshipped? The answer comes as a distinct shock. He was worshipped as a herm--that is, as a rude block or post, later surmounted by a head. Pausanias, when he came to Pharæ in Achaia, saw an image of Hermes Agoraios (He-of-the-Market).
"It was of square shape, surmounted by a head with a beard. It was of no great size. In front of it was a hearth made of stone with bronze lamps clamped to it with lead. Beside it an oracle is established. He who would consult the oracle comes at evening, burns incense on the hearth, lights the lamps, lays a coin of the country on the altar to the right of the image and whispers his question into the ear of the god. Then he stops his ears and quits the market-place, and when he is gone
outside a little way, he uncovers his ears and whatever word he hears that he takes for an oracle."
Not only Hermes, but, it would seem, many of the other gods, began their ritual life as hermæ. At Pharæ, close to the image of Hermes, Pausanias goes on to tell us, "stood about thirty square stones; these the people of Pharæ revered, giving to each stone the name of a god." "And," says Pausanias, "in the olden time all the Greeks worshipped unwrought stones instead of images." At Orchomenos in Bœotia, where was a very ancient sanctuary of the Charities or Graces, their images were "stones that had fallen from heaven." Pausanias elsewhere tells us that the square-shaped images of Hermes were first used by the Athenians, who were a people "zealous in all religious matters," and from Athens their usage passed to the remainder of Greece. The sanctity of these square-shaped hermæ was seen in the panic that ran through Athens when, just at the time of the fatal Sicilian expedition, the sacred hermæ were sacrilegiously mutilated.
Nothing could apparently be more unlike the winged messenger Hermes than the rude, immovable, square herm. The anomaly struck the Greeks themselves. Babrius, writing in the second or third century A. D., makes the god himself wonder what on earth he was. Was he a tombstone, a wayside post, or was he an immortal?
The answer to the god's own question might hardly have been found in Greece, but from the old Slavonic rites of Russia comes a simple solution. After they had held a sort of "wake" over the dead man, the body was burned, and the ashes were placed in a small urn and set up on a pillar or herm on the boundary line of two properties.
The dead grandfather was the object of special reverence, under the title of tchur, which means in Russian either grandfather or boundary. In the Russian of today prashtchur means great-great-grandfather, and tchur menya means "may my grandfather preserve me." On the other hand, the offence of removing a legal landmark is expressed by the word tchereztchur, which means "beyond the limit," or "beyond my grandfather." The grandfather looked after the patriarchal family during his life, he safeguarded its boundaries in death. His monument was at once tombstone and term.
Hermes, then, to begin with, is just a herm, a pillar or square stone to keep the dead in memory and mark his grave; in form it is identical with a boundary stone. The mourner hopes and believes that his kinsman, loving; and faithful in life, will be faithful in death. So when; the autumn comes and he sows his seed, burying it in the ground, he believes that his father or his grandfather, if duly mourned and honoured, will look after the seed in the underworld. The herm becomes a giver of increase (charidotes).
Nor is this the end. During their lifetime a man will go to the elders of his tribe, to his father and his grandfather, and ask for counsel in time of need. Surely, now they are dead, they have not quite forgotten him. So, as night falls and ghosts are about, he steals to the grave and whispers to the herm his question. Even if the herm be dumb, the first chance word spoken by a passerby seems miraculous. There is always magic in the dead,
because they have passed into the unknown, and, when the living fail, they may have power to help. So on the herm is painted the rhabdos, which, to begin with, is not a messenger's staff at all, but a magician's wand. And about the wand is coiled a snake, for a snake is the symbol--nay, the incarnation--of the dead man, and creeps and coils about his tomb.
Little by little the herm takes over the guardianship of all that man prizes. If the worshipper is a shepherd, the herm tends his sheep and rams, and becomes Criophoros (the Ram-Bearer), the prototype of Christ, the Good Shepherd. Always the herm is guardian of children and young men; he is Kourotrophos (Child-Rearer). As such Praxiteles made his great statue of Hermes carrying the child Dionysos.
Exactly how the long leap was taken to Olympus we do not know. When the high gods settled in Olympus, it was not unnatural that their humble Pelasgian brother should be received as messenger and servant. He had always been the means of communication between the upper and the lower world. But when he became the messenger of the Olympian gods, he had to shift his shape; his feet, once so firmly rooted in the ground, must be loosed and fitted with golden sandals, his magician's wand with snakes becomes a herald's staff, and he himself is no longer a bearded man, but a youth with the down on his cheek, "the time when youth is most goodly."
One interesting link between Hermes and his more magnificent brother, Apollo, remains to be noted. Both are musicians. The Homeric Hymn-writer thus addresses Apollo:
"Phœbus, to thee the swan sings shrill to the beating of his wings, as he lights on the bank of the whirling pools of the river Peneus; and to thee with his shrill
lyre does the sweet-voiced minstrel sing ever, both first and last."
He and the Muses are scarcely distinguishable.
the lyre is as much his attribute as the bow or the bay.
In the charming Homeric Hymn to Hermes we are told how Maia, the fair-tressed nymph, bare to Zeus the babe Hermes, Lord of Cyllene and Arcadia, rich in sheep.
"And the babe, when he leaped from the immortal knees of his mother, lay not long in the sacred cradle, but sped forth to seek the cattle of Apollo, crossing the threshold of the high-roofed cave. There found he a tortoise and one endless delight, for lo! it was Hermes that first made of the tortoise a minstrel. The creature met him at the outer door, as she fed on the rich grass in front of the dwelling, waddling along, at sight whereof the luck-bringing son of Zeus laughed, and straightway spoke, saying:
"'Lo, a lucky omen for me, not by me to be mocked! Hail, darling and dancer, friend of the feast, welcome art thou! Whence gatst thou the gay garment, a speckled shell, thou, a mountain-dwelling tortoise? Nay, I will carry thee within. Living shalt thou be a spell against all witchery, and dead, then a right sweet music-maker.'
"So spake he, and raising in both hands the tortoise went back within the dwelling, bearing the glad treasure. Then he choked the creature, and with a gouge of grey iron he scooped out the marrow of the hill-tortoise. He cut to measure stalks of reed and fixed them in through holes bored in the stony shell of the tortoise, and he fitted the bridge, and stretched seven harmonious cords of sheep-gut. Then took he his treasure and touched the strings with the plektron, and wondrously it sounded under his hand, and fair sang the god to its notes."
Here we have the invention of an instrument in principle different from the lyre. The lyre is purely a stringed instrument like the harp; the instrument made by Hermes out of the chelys, or tortoise-shell, has a sounding-board. It is the rudimentary form of the modern violin. The chelys of Hermes was characteristic of the south, the lyre of Apollo of the north.