Who was Hermes?
Hermes was conductor of the soul into the afterlife, herald of the gods, protector of human heralds, travellers, merchants, and orators. Despite these serious functions he was known for being the most mischievous of the Olympian gods and very clever, hence he also became the herald of thieves.
Hermes is usually described as the son of the God son of Zeus and Maia, one of the Pleiades. His parentage resulted in numerous siblings, including Aeacus, Angelos, Aphrodite, Apollo, Ares, Artemis, Athena, Dionysus, Eileithyia, Enyo, Eris, Ersa, the Graces, Hebe, Helen of Troy, Hephaestus, Heracles, the Horae, the Litae, Minos, the Muses, the Moirai, Pandia, Persephone, Perseus and Rhadamanthus. In addition, Hermes himself had a range of consorts, the key four of those being Merope, Aphrodite, Dryope and Peitho. These relationships resulted in numerous offspring, most notable of which were Pan, Hermaphroditus, Abderus, Autolycus, Eudorus, Angelia and Myrtilus.
Hermes was known for his impish character and need for amusement. When he was still a baby stole 50 cattle from the sacred herd of his half-brother Apollo, covering his tracks by reversing their hoofmarks using bark shoes and this beginning an associated with thieves. Hermes also stole Poseidon’s trident, Artemis’ arrows, and Aphrodite’s girdle. He killed the monster Argos on the orders of Zeus, and freed Ares from imprisonment in a cauldron by Otus and Ephialtes, as well as acting as leader of souls to the underworld.
In art Hermes is depicted in a range of forms, from a young, lithe and athletic man with no beard to a mature and bearded man. Whatever his age in the imagery he is usually presented in possession of one or more of his symbolic objects, such as a wide brimmed hat known as a petasos, wings, a staff of intertwined snakes known as a caduceus, sandals, a purse, robe and gold sword. Epithets attached to Hermes have included ‘Conductor of Dreams’, ‘Shepherd of Men’, ‘Conveyor of Souls’, ‘tricky’, ‘Captain of Raiders’ and ‘Giver of Wealth’.
As a result of his qualities specific occupations and lifestyles have become associated with Hermes, such as accountancy, bookselling, clerking, codebreaking, comedians, electricians, gypsies, hypnotists, journalism, linguists, magicians, media, occultists, philately, post office, postmen/women, programmers, psychologists, researchers, salespersons, secretaries, spies, teaching, technicians, telephone operator, thieves, tourism, trading, translating and writing.
Similar deities to Hermes which are found in other cultures include the Roman God Mercury, the Egyptian Gods Thoth and Anubis, the Etruscan God Turms, the Norse God Hermod, the Hindu Gods Hanuman and Nareda, Slavic God Veles and the Scandanavian God Loki.
The Hermes Archetype
Hermes association with thieves, as well as his roles as conductor of the soul into the afterlife, herald of the gods and protector of travelers, has led to him becoming the archetypal fool or jester, mischievous in nature, willing to cross boundaries and good at communicating. Whilst this may sound like a fairly frivolous archetype compared with many of the others, and it certainly does encapsulate some of life’s more fun and engaging qualities, it actually also encompasses some deep and important characteristics of humanity.
The archetypal Hermes certainly enjoys the lighter side of life, making the most of their prodigious sense of fun, humour and free-spirited, light-hearted approach to the world in order to make the most of their time on earth. They seek to embrace life as it is and live each day as it comes rather than plan too far ahead or worry too much about what the future may bring, living in the moment whatever the potential repercussions for themselves or those around them. These tendencies can lead to a perception of them as being irresponsible, shunning the more long-lasting commitments or deeper responsibilities of life for an immediate sense of enjoyment or adrenaline rush. They are likely to prefer a series of short, non-committed relationships to a dedicated lifelong marriage.
The archetypal Hermes fears tranquility and stillness, always needing to be on the move, with a nervous energy that needs to be satiated by activity and new experiences. They have a tendency to enjoy life’s thrill-seeking opportunities – theme parks, fast cars and extreme sports for example – despite any risk to themselves. They seek out opportunities to travel wherever possible, enjoying the opportunity to see the world and experience difference cultures. Sometimes the need for an adrenaline rush or a new experience can lead them to act in a deceitful or cruel manner, even with trickery, desperate as they can be to secure the next rush. Such tendencies can make this archetype prone to the risk of addiction.
Despite these characteristics, psychiatrist Carl Jung saw the Hermes archetype as playing a crucial role in psychoanalysis through its role as a messenger. Jung considered Hermes role as the messenger God and guide to the Underworld made him the God of the unconscious mind of each individual, the mediator between our conscious and unconscious mind thus a potentially crucial guide for our inner psychological and spiritual journeys. Jung theorized that tapping into the Hermes archetype was beneficial as Hermes role as a trickster made him a helpful guide through the psychotherapeutic process.
Further reading: 11 Best Carl Jung Books, Essays & Publications to Read
Characteristics of the Hermes archetype
- Nervous energy
“Guide of Souls” is the usual translation given to the Hermes-epithet “Psychopompos” and it refers to his role as the god who leads souls into the underworld when they die. But πομπóς (still present in every French funeral store’s “Pompes funèbres” description of itself) is more than guide, and even more than guide to the underworld. It means to lead, but Hermes as leader is not quite right either. It means something more like to lead on. Hermes is the god who “leads you on.” … This means he is deceiving you, taking advantage of your gullibility, “taking you for a ride.” That, however, is how Hermes works, and how he gets your soul to move anywhere, how he gets you to budge even a hair off whatever you’re in …Go ahead and buy the Brooklyn Bridge from this man. Be had. Be incorrect. Be foolish. You pay with your soul for this kind of reading. And Hermes does not take plastic.”
― Karl Kerényi, Hermes: Guide of Souls
“Hermes, we love you,” Hades said, “but you rarely do as you’re told, and you always do as you wish, and I haven’t the slightest idea what you’d do with an immortality fruit, but I’m sure it would be both creative and disastrous.”
― Molly Ringle, Underworld’s Daughter
‘If there were a god of New York, it would be the Greek’s Hermes, the Roman’s Mercury. He embodies New York qualities: the quick exchange, the fastness of language and style, craftiness, the mixing of people and crossing of borders, imagination.’
― James Hillman