Hermes from Boccaccio’s “Primavera”
I. “…Hermesian reading is an open, in-depth reading, one that lays bare the metalanguages for us, that is to say, the structures of signs and correspondences that only symbolism and myth make it possible to conserve and transmit. To read, to find the depth of things—by looking in the right place.”
Antoine Faivre, The Eternal Hermes: From Greek God to Alchemical Magus, translated by Joscelyn Godwin
II. “It ascends from the earth to the heaven
and again it descends to the earth
and receives the force of things superior and inferior.”
The Emerald Tablet, transl. by Isaac Newton
From the Homeric hymn to Hermes we learn that “the luck-bringing messenger of the immortals,” “a bringer of dreams,” and “a watcher by night” was born in “a deep, shady cave” at dawn, when the first light was penetrating the darkness of earth’s womb. (1) Hermes felt right at home in this liminal space, for he is the only planet which hellenistic astrology did not assign to either day or night. The luck-bringing part is hidden in the very name of the god, since hermaion means “fallen fruit” or “windfall” while the discipline of hermeneutics is “all about bringing hidden treasures to light.” (2) The Orphics invoked Hermes as “a man-loving prophet to mortals” in one of their hymns. In Plato’s dialogue Cratylus, Socrates associates the name Hermes with language:
“I should imagine that the name Hermes has to do with speech, and signifies that he is the interpreter (ermeneus), or messenger, or thief, or liar, or bargainer; all that sort of thing has a great deal to do with language.” (3)
As a god of language he welcomes all the fanciful etymologies of his name, including the Arabic “haram”, which means the pyramid and is apparently connected with Hermes. (4) Further, as we read in Faivre,
“Court de Gébelin, on the basis of a Celtic etymology, suggested that one read in ‘Mercury’ the words ‘sign’ (mere) and ‘man’ (cur). Thus he would be the signbearer, the marker, the lighter of beacons, the one who helps us interpret history and our own lives by giving us symbolic landmarks. His signs are never abstract or rigid – their mediating function reflects the nature of medicurrius or medius currens …—of that which ‘runs between,’ or ‘in the middle’.” (5)
The Celtic derivation makes a lot of sense since Hermes is a much older god than the whole Greek pantheon; he is undoubtedly ancient and primordial. Others derive his name from the Greek word herma which signifies a stone heap. In his essay “Hermes and the Creation of Space” Murray Stein quotes from Greek Folk Religion, a classic book by Martin Nilson, which was published in 1978:
“If our peasant passed a heap of stones, as he was likely to do, he might lay another stone upon it. … He performed this act as a result of custom, without knowing the real reason for it, but he knew that a god was embodied in the stone heap and in the tall stone standing on top of it. He named the god Hermes after the stone heap (herma) in which he dwelt, and he called the tall stone a herm. Such heaps were welcome landmarks to the wanderer who sought his way from one place to another through desert tracts, and their god became the protector of wayfarers. And if, by chance, the wayfarer found on the stone heap something, probably an offering, which would be welcome to the poor and hungry, he ascribed this lucky find to the grace of the god and called it a hermaion.”
Here we encounter Hermes as a patron of the crossroads, protector of travellers. Nilsson speculates that in ancient times stones were also used to mark burial sites. Stein draws a further conclusion that such a herm would then “mark a space that was a crossroad in a double sense, with one axis horizontal, another vertical.” Thus Hermes, guide of the souls, might have been born, a god who “stands at the edge not only geographically and interpersonally but also metaphysically.” (6) What is more, the ritual performed by the peasant can also be interpreted as an instance of primitive magic. Murray sees Hermes as the god who “marked the limit of consciousness.” This boundary between the conscious and the unconscious psyche is mercurial, always in flux, moving, flowing, unstable.
A guide and a messenger are the two most obviously archetypal roles of Hermes. He prefers to move along serpentine paths, always seeking to connect but never choosing the shortest route. As a patron of knowledge, he especially favours the wisdom that connects various fields and disciplines. In famous works of art, he is often shown standing at the edge, for example in Botticelli’s “Primavera.” As the god of wind (pneuma in Greek means both spirit and wind, we are reminded by Murray), he “commands the winds and clouds.” (7) He looks more like a sage in the painting than a light-hearted trickster and thief from the Homeric hymn. A hierophant, he is “dissipating the clouds of the mind and playing with them.” (8) On the right-side there is Zephyrus pictured in the act of kidnapping a nymph. Faivre sees him as “the breath of passion,” which “returns again to heaven in the spirit of contemplation,” symbolized in the painting by the figure of Hermes. (9)
Sandro Botticelli, “Primavera”
Another famous portrayal of Hermes comes from the Mantegna Tarot created in the 15th century in Italy.
The decapitated head of Argus is what makes the image especially unique and what connects it to alchemy. Argus Panoptes was a many-eyed giant whom Hera asked to guard the white heifer-nymph Io, so that Zeus, who was besotted with her, could not kidnap her. Hermes was able to lull the ever-watchful monster to sleep by gently playing the flute. He then killed the giant with a stone.
Pinturicchio and assistants, Hermes Lulls Argus
To show her gratitude, Hera transferred the eyes of the faithful servant onto the peacock’s tail. Th myth illustrates the nigredo/putrefacion of jealousy and passion of Hera and Zeus, which is fixated (coagulated) by Hermes with a blow of a stone. In this way he integrates all polarities, leading to the creation of the peacock’s tail (cauda pavonis), which was an important stage of the alchemical opus. The emergence of the peacock’s tail in the alchemical opus heralded the imminent successful end of the work and the attainment of its goal.
Diego Velazquez, “Mercury and Argus”
According to Jung, Hermes played a pivotal role in the alchemical process. In Alchemical Studies Jung thus summarizes the role of Mercurius:
“The multiple aspects of Mercurius may be summarized as follows: (1) Mercurius consists of all conceivable opposites. He is thus quite obviously a duality, but is named a unity in spite of the fact that his innumerable inner contradictions can dramatically fly apart into an equal number of disparate and apparently independent figures. (2) He is both material and spiritual. (3) He is the process by which the lower and material is transformed into the higher and spiritual, and vice versa. (4) He is the devil, a redeeming psychopomp, an evasive trickster, and God’s reflection in physical nature. (5) He is also the reflection of a mystical experience of the artifex that coincides with the opus alchymicum. (6) As such, he represents on the one hand the self and on the other the individuation process and, because of the limitless number of his names, also the collective unconscious. (par. 284)
As said before, Hermes is much older than the Greek God: as Hermes Trismegistus he is classed among the ancient, pre-classical sages or representatives of “prisca theologia (ancient theology),” which is a term first used by Marcilio Ficino, who translated Corpus Hermeticum into Latin. He is included in a venerable lineage, which is a sequence of the sages presented in this order: “Enoch, Abraham, Noah, Zoroaster, Moses, Hermes Trismegistus, the Brahmins, the Druids, David, Orpheus, Pythagoras, Plato, the Sibyls.” (10) The term prisca theologia asserts that there is a single thread of eternal truth running through the ages. The Italian Renaissance was a crucial moment with Hermes’s teachings erupting after a long time of his absence in the realm of the western civilization. In 1488 another pivotal work of art was created: a celebrated mosaic of Siena Cathedral. It shows Hermes Trismegistus and bears the inscription: “Hermes Mercurius Trismegistus Contemporaneus Moysii.” He is surrounded by pagan prophets, one of whom could be Plato, and five Sibyls.
Hermes Trismegistus, mosaic in Siena Cathedral
Pinturricchio, “Allegory of the Hill of Wisdom”, Siena Cathedral
Libyan Sibyl, Siena Cathedral
Who was the enigmatic Hermes Trismegistus, purported author of The Emerald Tablet? “Was he one, or many, merging / Name and fame in one, / Like a stream, to which, converging / Many streamlets run?” as wrote H.W Longfellow in his beautiful poem “Hermes Trismegistus”?
Augustus Knapp, “Emerald Tablet of Hermes”
The Greeks gave the name of Hermes to Thoth and renamed Khmonou, the place of his worship, as Hermopolis. This amalgam of Hermes and Thoth was referred to as “megistou kai megistou theou megalou Hermou,” “two superlative forms of ‘great’ followed by a positive form of the same word.” (11) Faivre says that the epithet three times great may suggest that Hermes-Thoth belongs to the three worlds, i.e. celestial, terrestrial and subterranean. Esoteric teachings of the Hellenistic era and beyond abound with different genealogies of Hermes, which are summarized in detail in Faivre’s book. It was believed in the Hellenistic era that the first Hermes was Thoth, who engraved his knowledge on stelae, which he proceeded to hide to preserve it from destruction by the Flood. What all the fantastical stories seem to have in common, is that Hermes was “the mythical creator of civilization, responsible for medicine, chemistry, writing, laws, art, astrology, music, magic, rhetoric, philosophy, geography, mathematics and much more.” (12) He was even a founder of cities, as can be read in the Picatrix. Faivre includes his own translation of the pertinent passage from the Picatrix, devoted to Hermes:
“[According to the Chaldeans] Hermes was the first who constructed images by means of which he knew how to regulate the Nile against the motion of the moon. This man also built a temple to the Sun, and he knew how to hide himself from all so that no one could see him, although he was within it. It was he, too, who in the east of Egypt constructed a City twelve miles long within which he constructed a castle which had four gates in each of its four parts. On the eastern gate he placed the form of an Eagle; on the western gate, the form of a Bull; on the southern gate the form of a Lion, and on the northern gate he constructed the form of a Dog. Into these images he introduced spirits which spoke with voices, nor could anyone enter the gates of the City except by their permission. There he planted trees in the midst of which was a great tree which bore the fruit of all generation. On the summit of the castle he caused to be raised a tower thirty cubits high on the top of which he ordered to be placed a light-house the color of which changed every day until the seventh day after which it returned to the first color, and so the City was illuminated with these colors. Near the City there was abundance of waters in which dwelt many kinds of fish. Around the circumference of the City he placed engraved images and ordered them in such a manner that by their virtue the inhabitants were made virtuous and withdrawn from all wickedness and harm. The name of the City was Adocentyn.” (13)
Johfra, “Hermes Trismegistus”
Historians have proved that the Greek texts known as the Hermetica were written in Alexandria around the 2nd century CE. But the inspiration for the profound wisdom included in these texts may well be lost, perhaps still buried in the sands of the Ancient Egypt.
Is there a common thread of perennial wisdom that can be extracted from all the tales of the mercurial god? Hermes invites us to interpret the world in a plural way, says Faivre in his book. As a sage included in the lineage from Enoch to Sibyls, he may be viewed as “a catalyst for the union of reason and inspiration, the logos and the Sibyls, history and myth.” In “a forest of symbols,” which is the Hermetic universe, he looks for “the hidden face and form in beings and in objects.” (14) He is the ideal mediator, who sees the supernatural in the carnal and vice versa. Faivre calls him an antitotalitarian god; his is “a philosophy of plural totality, which signifies a refusal to objectify the problems of the spirit (for example, of evil) into simplistic or abstract concepts that flatten the soul.” Looking at his cadeceus we recognize Hermes as a god who is “capable of unlocking antagonistic dualisms” by mediating between “he body and the spirit, sky and earth, God and the World (this is anima mundi), passion and reason, the ego and the id, eros and thanatos, animus and anima, heaviness and grace, spirit and matter.” Seeing the divine magic everywhere means being able to “transcend the illusion of banality,” which is the ultimate gift of Hermes, says Faivre. There is passion in Hermeticism for the particular, the bodily, the individual; this passion is the antithesis of exclusion, abstraction, formalism, which shut the mind off from the outside world. With Hermes, says Faivre, we walk “the path of otherness, of living diversity, of communication of souls.” (15)
Vincenzo Cartari, Imagines deorum, qui ab antiquis colebantur : in quibus simulacra, ritus, caerimoniae, magnaq(ue) ex parte veterum religio explicatur, via https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Imagines_deorum,_qui_ab_antiquis_colebantur_-_in_quibus_simulacra,_ritus,_caerimoniae,_magnaq(ue)_ex_parte_veterum_religio_explicatur_(1581)_(14561939809).jpg
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(2) Antoine Faivre, The Eternal Hermes: From Greek God to Alchemical Magus, translated by Joscelyn Godwin
(7) Antoine Faivre, The Eternal Hermes: From Greek God to Alchemical Magus, translated by Joscelyn Godwin
(11) Brian P. Copenhaver, Hermetica: The Greek Corpus Hermeticum and the Latin Asclepius in a New English Translation, with Notes and Introduction
(12) Gary Lachman, The Quest for Hermes Trismegistus
(13) Antoine Faivre, The Eternal Hermes: From Greek God to Alchemical Magus, translated by Joscelyn Godwin