Reintegrating with Nature: Humans, Nature, and Hermes in Archaic and Classical Greece

If you’ve ever encountered a predatory animal while hiking, you’ve felt the need for Hermes’ powers. Hermes it was who first laid the paths to get around by land and who kept them safe for human-use following Herakles’ heroic efforts against the beasts of the past like the Nemean Lion and the Hydra.

If you’ve ever found yourself lost, on foot or by car, you’ve felt the need for Hermes’ powers. Hermes it is who guides us, though his efforts are often understood only afterward: did you get lost, or did you stumble into something you were looking for—or, better, something you didn’t consciously know you were looking for? Hermes is sneaky like that, operating in the subtle suggestions we call by other names these days given the firmly interiorized state of our emotional selves.

This is only the start of the powers of Hermes, but they are his most essential to European civilization. Hermes is the one who kept the wild apart from the human, and not only in terms of physical space, but also from within the human, as we’ll see in the next post.

In a sense this is because he is himself like the predators of the wild who threaten humans and their means of survival. At the same time, Hermes is like shepherds moving herds through the wild-lands along mountain ranges and the valleys between them. He is thus a patron to herders since, on the logic of ‘it takes one to know one,’ he is a figure who is able to protect herd and herder alike from the thefts and losses of predators in the wild.

I’ve been studying Hermes since November 2010 and I’ll be the first to admit that I’m basically obsessed with this particular deity. Is it legal to marry a an ancient Greek deity in the US? (Kidding, lol… Hermes is not the marrying type.) It was only recently, as I was working on the first draft of a manuscript that might be my first novel (fingers supercrossed!), that I realized Hermes was one of the gods to whom the Greeks looked for a figure that would separate them from the wilds all around. The realization has complicated my views of Hermes no less than Madeline Miller’s Circe complicated my view of Athena in a way that still makes me so uncomfortable. (Congratulations on that, Madeline! But also, I’ll never forgive you for this… [said in a tone that’ll make you wonder whether I’m kidding or not but that’ll also suggest that that isn’t clear to me either]). First Athena, now Hermes… My list of uncomplicated patrons dwindles.

Anyway, Hermes civilized spaces by opening them up for travel–this being the likely origin of the peculiar cult images of Hermes called herms, as I am arguing in my dissertation and in an in-progress academic manuscript on Hermes and the herms). Greeks themselves called these statues ‘Hermeses,’ and one alone was simply ‘Hermes,’ with no distinction made linguistically or practically between deity and image. In fact the self-same quality of Hermes and his herms is implied in the phrase “Hermes [is] in the stone,” used a few times by Aristotle.

The herm is… ahem… distinctive. A tetragonal pillar with a phallus on the front, either carved in relief or else a protruding attachment secured with lead, two small stubs where you’d expect to find shoulders, and the head of a long-haired full-bearded man, typically smiling subtly. The image seems to be a kind of outline-sketch of ancient Greek masculinity, and not only through the generative capacity so prominent in the typically outsized phallus, which on vases tends to be exaggerated even further, venturing into the realm of parody: my own conclusion is that the most important part of the herm is not its phallus but its beard as an expression of the experientially gained wisdom of full maturity, a moderating force against the youthful desires present in the phallus. (To put it very simply: puberty begins with inexplicable erections; full facial hair only comes at the tail-end of that wild ride.)

The herms set out along roadways marked a way as fit for human use and in Attica they also bore inscriptions telling travelers where the road lead and how far they were from Athens. A scholiast on Homer (Σ B.H.Q. ad Hom. Od. 16.471) adds that Romans even called their mile markers Hermaia (singular, Hermaion; a Greek name for herms that were either piles of rock alone to which passersby added their own stone or else such rock-heaps piled around the trunk of a tree, whether living or dead). Hermes made the roads and made them safe(r) for humans; his herms meanwhile served as guides along the way (another of the things people frequently thanked him for). He cleared the land, and then he encouraged travel.

Hermes became the figurehead, if he hadn’t already been since the distant past, of the way of thinking about the world as humans versus nature. He is thus practically the patron of the Anthropocene.*

Next up: We’ll explore this way of dividing the world into human vs. nature and consider the ways that this elementary division was further divided: could some nature be ‘good’ and at least some of the the human ‘bad’? And we’ll also consider whether this division was universally held among Greeks.

*. I can’t resist adding here my suspicion that much of Hermes’ prerogatives will be found behind the figure of Christ. (I think in particular of, among much else, Hermes’ beneficence, his concern for the marginalized, his patronage of the working-class poor and slaves, and his close association to the afterlife as the one who transported souls to Hades’ domain and possibly back up.)
It’s poetically beautiful in a way I don’t think Greek poets could have anticipated, that the last-born of Zeus’ children would in fact ultimately supplant his father as ruler of the universe, and, what’s more, as the sole ruler at the that.
After all, a prophecy was delivered to Zeus that one of his children would replace him. He took that to mean his child then growing inside Metis (‘Cunning’), so he ‘ate’ Metis (think something more like swallowed or absorbed or enveloped; he didn’t sit down at the table with a plate of Metis-steaks before him), thereby giving birth to his child himself, believing that he’d gotten around his prophesied fate.
But no one ever got around their fate in the Greek world, not even Kronos, not even Ouranos, father and grandfather of Zeus, respectively, and each former rulers of the universe. By ‘eating’ Metis, he ensured that all children who followed Athena would also have a share of Metis’ cunning, as happens with generational inheritances, those children being Hephaistos (sometimes) and Hermes, his last-born fully immortal child, whose share of Metis presented as a resourceful ingenuity, that most potent of all human powers by which we have come to the Anthropocene at present, but also that power of ours by which we have any hope of changing the course of things to come.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


Make a one-time contribution to what I do

Make a monthly donation to what I do

Make an annual donation to what I do

Anything donated helps fund my creative endeavors!


Or enter a custom amount


Thank you SO much!!

Thank you SO much!!

Thank you SO much!!

DonateDonate monthlyDonate yearly
%d bloggers like this: