Every time I hear someone going on about how the gods are morally pure and show benevolence towards all I can’t help but chuckle. Obviously these people have never met Hermes.
Pretty much from the moment that he emerged from his mother’s womb he’s been lying and thieving and playing tricks on others – his fellow gods as well as us poor mortals. Whenever Zeus, the Mafia don of Olympos had a delicate or dirty job that needed doing – smuggling baby Dionysos out of the country, assassinating the all-seeing bodyguard Argos, procuring some pretty young thing that happened to catch his eye, stealing a treasured item or making death threats – it was Hermes, his soldati that he entrusted with the task.
But all that stuff belongs to the realm of myth. Certainly these old wives’ tales aren’t a true reflection of the nature of the gods and their activity in the world, Hellenic apologists often demur. I personally see no reason to reject the myths out of hand. I wasn’t around back then – and neither were they – so can anyone truly say with certainty whether such things happened or not? Once can question their probability, but I’ve seen enough strange things over the years involving the gods that suspension of doubt is more than warranted here. But for the sake of argument let us dispense with the evidence of the mythologists.
Even the most skeptical amongst us, provided they remain a polytheist, will certainly affirm that Hermes is a god of wisdom and specifically that type of wisdom that we call cunning intelligence, which is more concerned with devising practical solutions to problems as opposed to categorical thought and abstract theorems, activities that more properly belong to the realm of Athene. He’s also a god of chance and probability, which goes hand-in-hand with the first. After all the biggest component of luck is preparedness, thinking several steps ahead of everyone else and possessing a flexibility that allows you to flow with the current and take advantage of unforeseen situations. Right there we see how Hermes got the reputation that he did.
To the dull-witted this sort of cleverness seems like cheating, even – and perhaps especially – when it’s done entirely within the bounds of the established rules. People agree to things all the time without bothering to read the fine print or thinking it through all the way. Then when the consequences catch up with them, instead of blaming themselves for their foolishness they lash out at the other party, accusing them of being thieves and cheats. All they’ve done, of course, is hold up their end of the bargain and insist that the “victim” do likewise. This falls solidly within the domain of Hermes and actually goes back to his earliest origins as a god of treaties and boundary-markers. In fact his name is thought to derive from the piles of stones that delineated one man’s property from that of another. The first people to feel cheated by the god were undoubtedly the nomadic pastoralists who could no longer graze their flocks wherever they wanted once their neighbors began using the land for agriculture and defending their territorial claims. The first step in this war of cultures was to establish boundaries and devise punishments for those who transgressed them. Such agreements were sanctified by bringing them under the protection of a god – and thus were born laws and treaties and the whole tribe of people whose job it was to interpret such matters for the community.
These interpreters belonged to Hermes as their name in Greek – hermêneus – testifies. They were treated with great honor, allowed to travel between communities free and inviolable, for society would not exist without such interpreters and messengers.
But as soon as you’ve got a law or set down a boundary, you’ve got someone who’s trying to think of a way around or through it – and that falls within Hermes’ purvey as well. Cunningness is a morally ambivalent quality: it can be used to sustain a community or destroy it, and that ambivalence lies at the heart of Hermes’ personality. It’s cleverness, after all, that he prizes – not goodness. Goodness is a value judgment, a label we apply to phenomena and actions. You can interpret something as good, but you cannot point to goodness as any kind of concrete object. Often it is a consideration that the safe and comfortable have the leisure to make. When you’re starving your only concern is filling your belly. When you’re trapped your own only thought is how to get the hell out of there. If it isn’t then you end up dead. Hermes understands this and that’s why he imparted some of his cleverness to man. He stands on both sides of the law, and helps both parties, understanding that there are often extenuating circumstances – but he is not a sentimental god. If you don’t use what you’ve got, exploit every advantage you can find – then you’re fucked, simple as that. To the clever and ruthless Hermes dispenses his boons, rewarding them with luck and unexpected favor whether others would think them deserving of it or not. People who don’t understand this about him don’t understand him.
[Sannion is the religious name of Greco-Egyptian polytheist author H. Jeremiah Lewis. You can find his books The Balance of the Two Lands: Writings on Greco-Egyptian Polytheism; Echoes of Alexandria: Poems and Stories;and Gods and Mortals: New Stories of Hellenic Polytheism on Amazon or order them at a store near you. He is also author of the collection From the Satyr’s Mouth. He leaves in Eugene, Oregon, but can be found online at The House of Vines.]