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Who is Hermes?

Copyright 2001 by James Dolan

I was approached by a strange man in dark clothes, with some kind of hood over his head. As he got closer, I could see that his pants were open, that his penis was exposed, that he had an erection. He tried to penetrate me, but I closed my legs, and clamped my body down tight, and he went away.

Later, a friend of mine said, Do you know who that was?... a serial killer, he's been around, trying to do that to everyone! I felt a rushing tingle of fear go through me.

Then, something happened, and the scene changed to this: I am walking along a neighborhood street, and I sense someone watching me from a porch. I see that it is the same guy! He is sitting in a porch chair, with no pants on, and he is playing with his dick. And looking directly at me. His dick is very large and erect, and against my best wishes, I am fascinated by it. He seems to be communicating to me that he knows I want it. I am on the verge of losing my self control, but I remember what I was told, and fear overcomes my desire, and I wake up.... scared, sexually aroused..... what a weird combination!


his dream was recently related to me by a client, aged fifty, single, struggling with depression, anxiety, alcohol addiction. She was frightened by the clarity of the dream, and the seeming nearness of danger. She used the word more commonly used than any other to describe the eerie power of her dream: 'weird.' (My best understanding of the origins of 'weird' is that it is the Old English 'wyrd,' the noun which begat both 'witch' and 'wizard,' and when applied as an adjective means 'that which has had a spell cast upon it.' Or, is eerie, uncanny, not of this world) Although I usually encourage people to try to find other words to describe their dreams, I nevertheless feel that 'weird' is accurate for this dream, as the visitor she encountered is truly not of this world. He is Hermes, the Trickster, the Messenger, always in transit between this world and the next, either above or below.

Hermes is the offspring of Zeus and Maia, the 'rich tressed nymph' whose abode was deep within a shady cave. Zeus laid with Maia while his wife Hera was 'bound in the arms of sleep.' That is, he is born of a deception. And already, there is in his origin the mark of Zeus' phallic need to penetrate wherever and whomever he could, whether it be by trickery or by straightforward approach. Hermes' older brother is Apollo, god of Science and Reason. Hermes was a guardian at crossroads, an inhabitant of dark places, a thief at the gate, a bringer of dreams, a guide to the Underworld. He was the carrier of the caduceus, the staff of healing, which today is the symbol of the art of medicine.

The stories that outline his character in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes are breathtaking in their richness, depth, detail. He is one of the most telling and inexhaustible archetypes of the Eternal Youth. Puer, as he is known by some. The Homeric Hymn relates how Hermes, born at dawn, by noon had taken a tortoise, stripped him of his shell, and then used the shell to fashion a lyre. Hermes was immediately a virtuoso of the instrument. Three thousand years later, or thereabouts, we are still hearing of his exploits: Deep down in Louisiana close to New Orleans/ Way back up in the woods among the evergreens / Stood a log cabin made of earth and wood / where lived a country boy name o' Johnny B. Good / well, he never learned to read 'n write too well / but he could play that guitar just like ringin' a bell.......... (Chuck Berry).

Brilliant man that he is, I don't believe that Chuck Berry ever read the Homeric Hymn to Hermes. Nevertheless, he had tapped into the well of images in our culture, and found the one most emblematic of the Baby Boom culture getting ready to explode. He had found the myth of eternal, phallic youth, instantaneously making music on his lyre, completely without instruction. Hermes is one of the bedrock archetypes of the Baby Boom. His personality permeates us in the same way that Apollo (Eisenhower's 'military industrial complex') guided the generation before us.

I want to go through the attributes and lore of Hermes. I want to see how Hermes continues to make himself present in our world, how he informs our lives. I want to establish how it might be that Hermes is the predominant god of our age; how he might appear to us each in our individual lives.



Hermes the Thief

he story told in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes mostly relates the oral history of his origins, mentioned above, and the tale of his relation to his half brother, Phoebus Apollo (Zeus + Leto = Apollo). Hermes notoriety as the thief god comes from that fact that on the evening of his birth, he stole Apollo's sacred cattle. The theft was ingenious. He turned the herd around and drove them backwards, so that in following the direction of their prints, a tracker would go in precisely the opposite direction. He made himself a pair of sandals that concealed his print, and trackers would not detect the presence of a driver. Long story short, Apollo, himself one of 'many shifts', was able to track and confront Hermes about his theft, which he flatly denied ('blandly cunning'). They agreed to take their conflict to Zeus, their father.


Hermes leading Apollo's cattle

Again, Hermes denied having taken the cattle, denied having developed a taste for flesh; he denied having butchered and roasted one of the cattle of Apollo. He proclaimed his innocence, saying that Apollo had to be wrong, for he was unable to produce any witnesses to the theft. Zeus saw through the lie, but was so amused and impressed by the infant clad in swaddle lying so deftly that he could not punish him. Instead, he commanded gently that Apollo and Hermes go together and search for the cattle, and that Hermes reveal their hiding place. And this is what they did.

There is more to this story, and a reading of the Homeric Hymn itself would reveal a depth of detail in the character of Hermes not presented here. What is shown in the fragments presented is that Hermes is the emblem of youthful deception and misdirection. He presents that side of us that is always devoted to its own ends, no matter the cost, no matter the ethical/moral complications. If you have ever had a seven year old child of your own, you would recognize Hermes.

If you have ever been conned, you will recognize Hermes. The con is the individual in our midst who takes what he wants from us by seeming to give us what we want. An old adage of the con man is: You cannot con the man who has no larceny in his heart. Meaning, you lead the cows out backwards, so the owner thinks they are going in one direction, when actually they are going the other. This is the Hermetic reversal at the heart of the con. You are given the notion you will get something for nothing, when in actuality you are giving something and getting nothing.

Hermes is unapologetic. He is sociopathic. He is ever the Trickster, he of many shifts. Like all the other gods and goddesses, he lies deep within the heart of every individual, and again, beyond us, as an impersonal presence, one of the archetypes of Being, existing everywhere and at all times. He is the Coyote of Native American myth. Wherever there is mythology, there is the Trickster. Among African-Americans of the old South, he was called Br'er Rabbit. He of many shifts, who got what he wanted through cunning and misdirection.



Hermes, Bringer of Dreams

associate Hermes as bringer of dreams with his role as the guide of souls to the Underworld. In this capacity, he was known as the Psychopomp, the soul guide. Hermes came by this honor in a deal he made with Apollo. After Zeus had commanded the two brothers to go and settle their squabble, and Hermes had led Apollo to the cave at Pylos where the cattle were hidden, and driven them out, Hermes then began to play on his lyre. Hermes' lyre had three irresistible qualities: it provoked love, joyfulness, and sweet sleep. Apollo coveted it.

Ever clever Hermes offered a trade; the lyre for some of the powers of Apollo. He was given Herdsman's status, and the Herdsman's crook (dominion over the animals). He was also given a golden staff decorated with three leaves. This was not the Messenger's staff, with the entwined snakes, but seemed to be associated with soothsaying. Apollo was the soothsayer of Zeus; that is, he was privy to Zeus' thoughts, and decisions, which made him the high soothsayer. What he gave to Hermes was the soothsaying of the three virgins of Parnassus, and which gave him a degree of knowledge of the future. Lastly, Apollo gave the Office of initiated Messenger on the path leading to the House of Hades in the Underworld.

At the same time this deal was being struck, Zeus acted on his own liking for the cheeky little liar and gave him the right of traffic between the human world and the divine. He was made Messenger of the gods. There are those who say that the human race benefits some from Hermes, but not much, because he willfully leads them astray in the Dark Night.

So, Hermes plays upon his lyre, and brings sweet sleep, and then, once we are under he guides us into the dark realms of the underworld. There we are led and misled, instructed by misdirection, stolen from, given gifts. We have terrifying encounters with near death, we rise from the dead, we re-connect with the dead. We are in the land of myth, where everything both is and is not exactly what it seems to be. This is the work of Hermes, to play with our sense of certainty, and to widen our sense of things beyond the ordinary and the given.

Thus, I believe as the Psychopomp, Hermes becomes.....



Hermes the Healer  

e are all familiar with the Caduceous, the Healing staff of Hermes. How did the ancient sign of the Trickster God become the symbol of modern medicine? There are no obvious connections, as the staff is emblem of the time that Zeus sought to couple with the goddess Rhea, also his mother. She resisted, going even to the extent of transforming herself into a serpent so he wouldn't recognize her. Zeus of course was wise to the ploy, and transformed himself as well into a serpent, in order to couple with her, entwining himself around her. The staff may have been awarded to Hermes by Zeus in the orgy of gift giving described above in the telling of the early exploits of Hermes.

Whatever, the Staff is the sign of Hermes and should probably best be thought of as having to do with transformation. A meditation on these themes shows how Hermes heals by indirection, by leading one into the Underworld, and bringing about a transformation. Not necessarily a transformation of the body, but of the Psyche, so that we go from one stage of life to the next, changing shape as we go. It is fascinating to think that exposure to the ever youthful god assists us in our maturing, so that eventually we do not face ourselves or others with naive beliefs that what we see is what we get. Repeated encounters with Hermes remind us that there is always the trickster and the thief lurking in most transactions, and he must be accounted for and made part of every deal.


Hermes with his staff leading the goddesses

It might be better to think of Hermes as the Bringer of healing, rather than as the healing force himself. He creates the conditions under which new forms of thought and being are brought to bear, thus bringing about a 'healing.' Go back to the dream that opens this article. The dreamer is exposed in a variety of ways to the erect penis of the dark, mysterious, menacing entity in the dream. He is saying I am Hermes, this is my staff. The dream does an interesting job of combining the staffs associated with Hermes into the single image of the erect phallus.

When presented with the staff, one should know that there is a message from Zeus (or the Self, in the Jungian view). If you remain present to the Trickster god, rather than recoiling in denial, the message will be presented. In this dream, the dreamer reacts with typical human denial in the face of messages from the gods. She closes herself. Had she remained open, she would have heard the message from outside of herself, shed some ego, and been led on an Underworld journey. This is the shaman's route, who in his travel's in the spirit world, is not only dismembered and reassembled himself, but also summons the forces of healing for his community.

I guess we could say that the healing is the Underworld journey. In Hesse's Steppenwolf, Harry Haller is cured of his maladies in a phantasmagoric journey through the Dream Theater. The healing happens as we take the courage to go into the Dark, not recoil from it.



Hermes and the Baby Boom

t is not such a stretch to go back to the dawn of modern civilization, the mid-50s, and see the Hermes myth playing out again. It is a world dominated by Apollo, the god of science, and Ares, the god of war. The two gods working together formed Eisenhower's 'military/industrial complex.' Zeus himself had been throwing atomic thunderbolts around the globe for the last 10 years. Into the middle of this world is born a guitar strumming youth, wiggling his hips, advertising boldly, crazily, his sexuality, his youth, his utter indifference to all the heavy shit going on in the world. I don't even have to tell you his human name. But he bore the mark of Hermes. He came almost literally out of the ground a full blown musician. He could play that guitar just like ringin' a bell. As could Hermes his lyre.

Elvis aged and died, but the archetype of our generation, the eternal youth, his sexuality, and his guitar haven't. We are now, in middle age, with our beepers, cell phones, email, PalmPilots, voice mail, obsessed with communications. We have concerns with healing and medicine. We are seeking our shamanic journeys in the New Age, or the return to the religions of our youths. But we are as erratic and felonious as our archetype. We can't be faithful to our spouses, our concerns with an adolescent type of sexuality lead us into the failures of our marriages, or to serial monogamy. We have 'trouble with intimacy'. We are willing to lie when it suits us. We go bankrupt. We elect Bill Clinton, a Hermetic character if ever there was one.

Bill is the ever lying one of many shifts, who leads this way in order to go that. He is as exasperating to the gray old men as Hermes was to Apollo. Clearly, we see in Bill the Hermetic outlines of complete, gleeful self interest. He is scorned because he is us, that in us that is willing to lie, misdirect and manipulate in order to get what we want. His sexuality is ever youthful and omnivorous. He is born of a mother seduced by her husband and abandoned. He had to be clever in order to survive in a world whose doors were nearly shut to the children of poor single mothers, unable to join the all white, all male enclaves of the patriarchal South.

We can stand on our moral podium and bleat loudly about Slick Willy, but we are only doing so in our shame over the slick willy living at the very core of Sex, Drugs, and Rock 'n Roll baby boomers everywhere. We want to distance ourselves from our Hermetic past, while yet holding on to undying youth, and the values of instanteous communication, getting what we want, and doing whatever we have to to get it. We hold on to Hermes in the operating rooms of plastic surgeons and the mirrored halls of the health club.

So, in the manner of all essays such as this, let's return to where we started: Who is Hermes? He lives in the dark, in dreams, he is the bringer of sleep, and wisdom, the guide of souls. He is the ever youthful, ever horny, ever lying self interested youth. He is a dominant figure in the collective Baby Boom imagination. Elvis, Mick, Jimi, Jim, and on and on. He is instanteous communication, he lives in the Internet. His being infused the life of our last president.

Need we even ask 'Who is Hermes?' Isn't it obvious?

Copyright February 2001 by James Dolan


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