Known for his cunning, shrewdness, and sagacity, Hermes is well known for his many inventions. Amongst his inventions are the lyre, the alphabet, the syrinx, withies, the calendar, numbers, weights and scales, boxing, foot racing, writing, the cultivation of the olive tree, astronomy and astrology, dice, fire sticks (with which to create fire), sandals, the music scale, masturbation, and animal sacrifice.
The Kerykion/Caduceus is the most important attribute of Hermes’ iconography. Adorned with wings and having multiple functions as a magic wand, herald’s staff, and shepherd’s staff, Hermes would be remiss if he left it somewhere. But there’s one question about Hermes’ staff that seems to be on everyone’s mind: what are the snakes for? As always, the answer to that question is not cut and dry.
Mythologically speaking, there are two origin stories for the snakes on Hermes’ staff. The first one involves the seer Tiresias. One day while out for a walk, Tiresias saw a pair of snakes copulating and struck them with his staff, killing the female snake. This act offended Hera so much that she decided to punish Tiresias by turning him into a woman. Tiresias then spent the next seven years of her life living as a woman. Tiresias became a priestess of Hera, got married, had children, and even became a famous prostitute. This went on for sometime until Tiresias came upon another pair of snakes copulating. One version of the myth claims that Tiresias left the serpentine lovers alone this time while another versions claims that she struck the pair with her staff and killed the male snake this time. Either way, Tiresias was turned back into a man. Tiresias’ staff (along with the snakes that he killed with it) eventually found its way into the hands of Hermes and he has had possession over it ever since.
A second possible origin story of the snakes on Hermes’ staff is comparatively shorter and less convoluted. One day, Hermes was going about his when he came upon a male snake and a female snake fighting. Wishing to stop the fight, Hermes cast his staff into the middle of the fray, successfully coming between the two animals. The snakes then entwined themselves around Hermes’ staff and began copulating. This particular myth is indicative of Hermes’ heraldic role as a harbinger of peace and glad tidings .
On a more practical level, some scholars suggest that the snakes on Hermes’ staff are a fanciful reference to the white ribbons that hung off of the staves of heralds. Others suggest that the snakes are symbolic of prudence, life, health, and other related ideas.
When Hermes was a baby, he asked Apollon to teach him the art of prophecy. Apollon quickly told the young Hermes that it was decreed by fate that only Apollon would know what went on in the mind of Zeus (it is from Zeus that Apollon derives his prophetic powers). However, Apollon did not leave his younger brother without some kind of divinatory skill. Apollon remembered when he was a little boy that he was taught a form of rustic divination by the Thriae. Named Melaina, Kleodora, and Daphnis, the Thriae are three bee nymphs that live on Mount Parnassus that are described as having the upper bodies of women with the lower bodies and wings of bees. A kind of white meal, perhaps barley, is bestrewn in their hair and they are said to draw prophetic inspiration from consuming a mysterious, honey-like substance. These three Goddesses taught Apollon an ancient form of divination favored by shepherds and cattle-herders (of whom Apollon and Hermes are patrons) that involved the casting of pebbles from an urn. Apollon had the Thriae put Hermes under their tutelage and Hermes has since been the presiding deity over this form of divination.
Depicted here is a relief of a Bee Goddess, possibly one of the Thriae, that can be viewed in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts.
Hermes is the Word. Hermes is the Silence. Hermes is the Luck. Hermes is the Traveler. Hermes is the Hospitality. Hermes is the Feast. Hermes is the Youth. Hermes is the Shepherd. Hermes is the Flock. Hermes is the Gate. Hermes is the Road. Hermes is the Door. Hermes is the Merchant. Hermes is the Transition. Hermes is the Boundary. Hermes is the Herald. Hermes is the Peace. Hermes is the Stone. Hermes is the Guile. Hermes is the Laugh. Hermes is the Countryside. Hermes is the Market. Hermes is the Thief. Hermes is the Adjudicator. Hermes is the Trade. Hermes is the Persuasion. Hermes is the Journey. Hermes is the Guide. It is in these things that we see Hermes. May you see Him with your heart!
Here’s an interesting piece spotted by a friend at the Brooklyn Museum. Depicted here is Hermes overseeing a commercial trade agreement between Britain and France (possibly referring to the Eden Agreement signed in 1786 which brought a brief end to the commercial conflict between the two countries at the time). Considering that Hermes is a God of Diplomacy and a God of Commerce, coupled with the fact that he is a harbinger of peace and a promoter of social discourse, this makes him the perfect deity to preside over the agreement in this work of art.
Come, O great Hermes and Athena, the beautiful children of Zeus that edify the minds of humanity and encourage glory! Craftiness and inventiveness, prudence and strategy, learning and wise counsel; these are the gifts of Atlantiades and Tritogenia! Together, brother and sister unite to mold the minds of their pupils! Hermes and Athena, most cerebral of the deathless Gods, furnish us with your gifts and guide us in bettering ourselves intellectually and bettering our community with our knowledge. Accept our offerings, Hermes and Athena, and put us under your mentorship. May all humanity become enlightened through you and your gifts. Io Hermes Io Athena!
Art credits to Bartholomaeus Spranger
If there is one common theme that Hermes has, it’s the idea of liminality. Many of Hermes’ role involve an exchange or transition from one point to the other. Hermes comes and goes but never stays. He is neither Point A or Point B but the space between points. Hermes is the door, the gate, the road. He has no fixed abode in the heavens nor the earth but instead has his feet in all realms. Perhaps this is why he is so close to humanity? We spend most of our lives getting there than we do being there. We spend years upon years upon years preparing, gathering resources, and focusing all our energy into making sure that this one goal that we have goes right, even though that this one goal often times only takes up a small fraction of our lives. This is often the reason why people don’t enjoy attaining their goals as much as they thought they would; they forget to enjoy the journey to this goal. Let’s face it, the goal will never be what it’s cracks up to be but that’s not the point. Life is not Point A or Point B. Rather, life is the transition through these points going onward into our destiny. Hermes teaches us to appreciate the journey.
Come, O great Hestia, Goddess of the Hearth! First and last daughter of Kronos, it is You who is present at all rites! Come now and bless this endeavor that it may be fruitful! Io Hestia!
Come, O great Hermes, dearest of the Deathless Immortals to my heart. Angel of Zeus, I hereby dedicate this space to You! Come and accept worship and praise from those that honor and recognize Your power and the power of all of the Theoi, Daimones, Ancestors, and Heroes. I dedicate this temple to You! Io Hermes!
Khaire, O Blessed Gods! Never leave. Cease all illness and drive away sorrow.
I wanted my first words on this blog to be ones of piety. Hello, everyone! My name is Andrew Bayless but I am also known as Tetradactyl (more on that later). I have decided to start a blog dedicated to Hermes, His retinue, the Hellenic pantheon, and my journey as a Hellenic Polytheist. Here I shall record articles, essays, short writings, flights of fancy, and whatever else I might have to offer on Hermes and His worship as well as other writings on my own personal experiences in the community and any observations I might have. I hope that you enjoy this site and that you learn something from it. I certainly will learn something from this experience.