Hermes and the Archetype of Transformation

“You can see what kind of a deity this is, a new thought, a new spirit. All the old gods were psychological facts which later on became ideas. The old gods represented by the planets Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, are the old personal gods living on Olympus. They became later on psychological constituents of human character. We speak of a saturnine expression, a mercurial temperament, a martial bearing, jovial behaviour, etc., and we forget that we thus liken man to the great rulers of Olympus. A god may appear to you if it pleases him to do so, and if you integrate or entertain him, as it were, that means a new spirit, a new attitude in you.” (Carl Jung, Seminar on Dream Analysis, pp. 181-182)

Hermes, great messenger of the gods, and son of Zeus and Maya is most popular for his capacity to bring the will of the gods, generally Zeus, down to mortals from above, particularly in Homer’s Odyssey. There is, however, another role which he plays for which he receives a smaller, but potentially more important, bit of credit: as psychopompos. A psychopomp, from psuche+pempein (soul+to send), is a spirit or daimon who brings souls between worlds, like Charon, or Hermes himself. In both the Iliad and Odyssey Hermes acts in this capacity in Book 24 of both Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey (once with Priam to his son Hektor, and in the latter he takes the souls of the suitors to the Underworld). But he also is mentioned in the famous Book IV of Vergil’s Aeneid as both taking souls to and from the Orcus, the Underworld, and the same power is ascribed to him in Book I of Statius’ epic, Thebaid.

Given our recent course of study starting from the archetype of the hero as bringing about tremendous change in the conscious dominant of a person or society, and the archetype of Dionysos proving the necessary “space between” or katharsis before a new dominant takes hold of a person or place: what then does Hermes as an archetype represent, and when in this process does his role become operant? We will begin by examining Hermes’ role as psychopomp in the epic tradition, and then we will connect that role with his “birth myth”, and finally we will consider the symbolism of Hermes/Mercury in conjunction with his purpose and function as archetype.

In Book XXIV of the Iliad, Hermes is sent by Zeus to ensure safe-passage of Priam from his safe and living world of Troy to the camp of his opposite number, his dead son, Hektor, and his son’s murderer, Achilleus, who now holds the body of Hektor hostage. Priam must therefore leave his home, cross the battlefield, and then “kiss the hands” of his sons’ killer–transitioning both his physical place and his state of being across the battlefield. As Zeus commands Hermes down, he makes an interesting comment about Hermes: “Hermes, for to you beyond all other gods it is dearest to be man’s companion, and you listen to whom you will, go now on your way, and so guide Priam inside the hollow ships of the Achaians…” (Homer, Iliad, Bk XXIV 334-337. Lattimore tr.) And then again Hermes is described: “He caught up the staff, with which he mazes the eyes of mortals whose eyes he would maze, or wakes again sleepers.” (Ibid, 343-344) One observes from these two descriptions two important aspects of Hermes: he of all the gods most cares for man (ostensibly, now that Prometheus is out of the picture), and he has the capacity to wake or put to sleep a man. What this means, is that Hermes is the archetype, par excellence, of the transition between one state of being and another, or transformation (for it is humans who go from sleeping to waking, and alive to dead*). Just as Dionysos represents the space necessary between states, so does Hermes represent the active process of transformation, though this transformation can be positive, waking, or negative, being put to sleep, both aspects are essential to transformation. Let us now look to Hermes’ expressly stated role as psychopompos that we might not be tempted to think his role as transformational archetype be a “stretch”.

In Homer’s Odyssey, Book XXIV, after god-like Odysseus has killed withe suitors with the help of his herdsmen (Eumaios and Philoitios) and his son Telemachos, all 108 suitors require guidance to the underworld. It is in this way that Book XXIV opens.

“Hermes of Kyllene summoned the souls of the suitors to come forth, and in his hands he was holding the beautiful golden staff, with which he mazes the eyes of mortals whose eyes he would maze, or wakes again sleepers [my ital.]. Herding them on with this, he led them along, and they followed, gibbering. And as when bats in the depth of an awful cave flitter and gibber, when one of them has fallen out of his place in the chain that the bats have formed by holding one on another; so, gibbering, they went their way together, and Hermes the kindly healer led them down along the mouldering pathways.” (Homer, Odyssey Bk XXIV 1-10, Lattimore, tr.)

We see above that Hermes not only brings sleeper to wakefulness and wakened ones to sleep, but he also commutes the living to the world of the dead, and as we will see below, vice-versa. Interestingly, just as the suitors are transformed from living to dead, so is their speech, of which Hermes is the god, also rendered from intelligible to unintelligible as well. His power is by its very nature the active principle of transformation. Whether he is represented as putting one to sleep (like Argos, the giant whom he killed and earned the epithet Argeiphontes for), waking one up, or bringing one back to life or guiding one down to death. Even in more subtle ways does he represent transformation in the Odyssey where he transforms Odysseus from captive to free-man on Kalypso’s island, Ogygia (Ibid, Bk V 98-117), or when he gives Odysseus moly to prevent him from transforming when he ate the food of Circe (Ibid, Bk X 275-310). If one looks closely, one even observes that Hermes “explained the nature of [the plant, moly]” (304), therefore transforming Odysseus from ignorance to understanding on the substance. We will now conclude the historical overview of Hermes as a transformational archetype in epic with two brief quotes from Vergil’s Aeneid and Statius’ Thebaid. Though the Thebaid was written first, we will continue with Vergil’s Aeneid.

Interestingly, in Book IV of Vergil’s Aeneid, Mercury (Hermes) speaks twice to Aeneas insisting that he hurry along away from mad Dido. First he reminds Aeneas that he has his own city to fight for and colonize (Vergil, Aeneid, Bk IV 345-371, Mandelbaum tr.). And then when Aeneas has the audacity to attempt to sleep the night away, Mercury drops the bombshell that resonates throughout time along with Agamemnon’s assessment of Klytaimestra from Book XI of Homer’s Odyssey, “Why not flee this land headlong, while there is still time? You soon will see the waters churned by wreckage, ferocious torches blaze, and beaches flame, if morning finds you lingering on this coast. Be on your way. Enough delays. An ever uncertain and inconstant thing is woman [my ital.].” (Ibid, 781-786). But where one observes his capacity as psychopompos in its clearest form is in his description before his first visit:

“Mercury made ready to follow his great father’s orders. First he laces on his golden sandals: winged to bear him, swift as whirlwind, high across the land and water. The he takes his wand; with this he calls pale spirits up from Orcus and down to dreary Tartarus sends others; he uses this to give sleep and recall it, and to unseal the eyes of those who have died.” (319-327)

And then again in Statius’ Thebaid:

“His father spoke. Atlas’ grandson appeared and quickly bound winged sandals on his feet. A cap concealed his hair. His glow dimmed stars. In his right hand he held the slender wand he uses to induce and banish sleep or send dead souls to deep, dark Tartarus or, on occasion, bring dead shades to life [my ital.]. Down he leapt, upright; by the air sustained that instant, flying on the vast sublime and traced a mighty down-gyre through the clouds.” (Statius, Thebaid, Bk I 303-311, Ross tr.)

With Hermes effectively demonstrated as not only the god of transformation (life to death, sleep to wakefulness, unintelligibility to intelligibility (through language), etc. Let us now consider how his birth and theft of his brother Apollo’s cattle myth yet further demonstrates his archetypal capacity to transform. We will here quote from a summary, but full details from a variety of primary sources exist here.

“Conceived of Zeus, he had been born of a night-sky nymph named Maia…In a cave [Hermes] had been born, at dawn; and toddling forth from his cradle before noon, he has chanced–or had seemed to chance–at the entrance of the cave upon a tortoise (an early animal symbol of the universe), which he broke up and fashioned into a lyre, to which at noon he beautifully sang. That evening he stole Apollo’s cattle, and to appease the god gave him the lyre, which Apollo passed to his own son Orpheus.” (Joseph Campbell, Creative Mythology, P. 203)

So, we see above that Hermes, like Dionysos, was an illegitimate son of Zeus, but unlike Dionysos who gained authority through being dismembered (passively) and re-unifying, Hermes, himself, transforms his rank and earns acceptance through his transformational deeds. First, at dawn, a time of transition, at the mouth of the cave he was born at (the space between inside and out), he transforms a living tortoise into the dead lyre by which he transforms moving air and words into son. He then steals his brother’s cattle, transferring ownership from Apollo to him, a markedly underhanded transformation, but one all the same. And then he transforms Apollo from foe to friend, by transferring ownership of the lyre to him, and in doing that, he is accepted as an Olympian by Apollo and Zeus.

All this said, however, how exactly is it that Hermes as archetype of transformation represents a point in time or an energic process in both man and society? Just as in the beginning of this series we suggested that the task of the hero was to remove the “old-king” or dominant of the collective consciousness from power, so did we then indicate that a “purging” or katharsis had to occur between the rule of the old and new king (collective attitude). After the fall of the former dominant, and then after the “clearing of space” of the wild and unruly Dionysian archetype, then does the active transformation of a person or culture begin. That is the space of the archetype of Hermes. Let us observe his description as Mercury from Richard Tarnas.

“the principle of mind, thought, communication, that which articulates the primary creative energy and renders it intelligible; the impulse and capacity to think, to conceptualize, to connect and mediate[my ital.], to use words and language, to give and receive information; to make sense of, to grasp, to perceive and reason, understand and articulate;  to transport, translate, transmit [my ital.]; the principle of Logos; Hermes, the messenger of the gods.” (Richard Tarnas, Cosmos and Psyche, P. 90)

What one sees above is that the principle and essence of the archetype of Hermes is furnish and transmit a new leading collective or personal attitude after the former one has been destroyed by the archetype of the hero. Just as an old conscious dominant ceases to reflect reality and therefore halts the flow of life, vitality, and meaning, so does it become, after the steps above, necessary in some way to reconnect and mediate the new myth which will inform and unite a people or person with creative unconscious or reality as it is. It is precisely in this moment that the archetype of Hermes, messenger of the gods, mediator of wisdom, transformative archetype, is activated.** In the moment after the archetype of Dionysos does its work, then is a space created for the transformative connection between the unconscious and consciousness of a man or society. During this moment of connection or mediation, a link may be created by which the new myth of a person or a people is perceived and interpreted. Plato has a description of such a moment in his Symposium:

“I don’t know whether anybody else has ever opened him up when he’s been being serious, and seen the little images inside, but I saw them once, and they looked so godlike, so golden, so beautiful, and so utterly amazing that there was nothing for it but to do exactly what he told me.” (Plato, Symposium, 216-e-217a, Hamilton tr.)

And when this moment of transformation and transmission occurs on the personal level, the psychologists call it either the coniunctio or part of individuation.

“Our pictures of the coniunctio are to be understood in this sense: union on the biological level is a symbol for the unio oppositorum at its highest. This means that the union of opposites in the royal art is just as real as coitus in the common acceptation of the word, so that the opus becomes an analogy for the natural process by means of which instinctive energy is transformed, at least in part, into symbolical activity [my ital.].” (Carl Jung, The Practice of Psychotherapy, P. 250, Par. 460)

Just as Alcibiades received insight into the images inside by means of connecting to Socrates, so does one in a psychological sense, achieve a transformation of consciousness or attitude by receiving and embodying a new symbol or myth, a risen phoenix from the ashes purged from the old, now dead one. Jung uses the example of a physical or natural union as a process for transforming instinctive energy into symbolical activity, sometimes called sublimation. So, however, does the archetype of Hermes connect opposites (conscious to the unconscious; mortal to immortal; god to man) in order to revitalizes and reinvigorate the energy, meaning, and purpose of modern culture and modern man.

*Though the gods do appear to sleep in Homer’s Iliad Bk XIV (250-256; 352-355) with the help of the god Sleep, anyway.

** “And with Right may the son of Maia lend his hand, strong to send wind fair for action, if he will. Much else lies secret he may show at need. He speaks the secret word, by night hoods darkness on the eyes nor shows more plainly when the day is there.” (Aeschylus, The Libation Bearers, Ll. 811-818, Lattimore tr.) Hermes is no fewer than three times called “Hermes of death” or “lord of the dead,” as well (124, 623, 726)