Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.04.31 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.04.31

Carmine Pisano, Hermes, lo scettro, l’ariete. Configurazioni mitiche della regalità nella Grecia antica. Religioni e storia, 3.   Napoli:  M. D’Auria Editore, 2014.  Pp. 304.  ISBN 9788870923629.  €32.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Miguel Herrero de Jáuregui, Universidad Complutense de Madrid (


This book is a study of three mythical elements shown to have a central role in the construction of ideas of kingship in ancient Greek literature: the god Hermes, Agamemnon’s sceptre, and the golden fleece. Their relationship with royal prerogatives has often been studied in the past, but generally treated separately from one another. In addition to highlighting the interweaving of the three items in the imaginary of kingship, this study contributes several innovative ideas, a sound and inspiring methodology, and a most readable structure. Indeed, both the maturity of style and argumentation and the originality of the conclusions put this work quite ahead of the usual level of a dissertation turned into a book. Some propositions may be debatable, but none of them affects the solidity and originality of the overall results.

Why these three elements? A research of wide scope like this one gains much by starting from a very specific point, which opens the way to general questions. Pisano’s research is grounded in the close analysis of a passage in the Iliad where Agamemenon’s sceptre is said to have been produced by Hephaestus, who gave it to anax Zeus, who gave it to anax Hermes, who gave it to Pelops, who gave it to Atreus (Il. 2.100-108). Pisano takes G. Kirk’s commentary as the main point of reference that summarizes the scholarly consensus regarding the interpretation of the passage. The omission of J. Latacz’s Gesamtkommentar is not fatal, since it basically refers to Kirk, but one misses a reference to P. Easterling’s deep analysis of the passage.1 Already some ancient scholiasts seem bothered by the repetition of the same verb, dôke, and the same title, anax, for Zeus, who has the indisputable right to the title, and for Hermes. As other scholiasts naturally assume, Hermes, as herald (keryx) of the gods, can transmit the sceptre from the divine king to the human ones. But here, Kirk says, “he cannot be a mere messenger”, since this would imply a different sense of the same verb dôke in the same sentence. The implicit axiom is that the supreme position of the anax is incompatible with the subordinated role of the keryx. This axiom is what Pisano will try throughout the whole book to refute—successfully, in this reviewer’s opinion.

Ancient and modern scholars have tried to explain these lines by trying to relate kingship to Hermes. A scholion reports a version in which Hermes was father of Pelops, which would make the Homeric lines describe a perfectly linear transmission from fathers to sons. Some scholars have theorized that the title anax, employed only here for Hermes, is the fossilized remnant of an earlier royal status of the god, who would have been displaced later by Zeus. A variant of this idea is that he was a particular supreme deity of the kingly dynasty of Mycenaean times. The common denominator of all these neo-euhemeristic theories, aptly summarized by Pisano, is that, being called anax, Hermes cannot be in Il. 2.104 the keryx he always is—in spite of the natural assumption of several scholia.

Pisano carefully researches how Hermes fulfils his role of herald in early Greece. He first differentiates the missions in the Iliad of Iris as a mere “messenger” (aggelos), from Hermes’ missions in the Odyssey as a divine keryx. Iris faithfully transmits Zeus’ words on the battlefield, while Hermes is sent to the margins of the world, where there could be some doubt that Zeus’ orders would be immediately obeyed, and hence there is need of a persuasive herald who makes sure that communication is established. His words to Calypso in Od. 5.75-115 are a paradigmatic case where such persuasion is effective, while Aegisthus’ refusal to follow Hermes’ warning in Od. 1.37-43 makes Aegisthus himself solely responsible for his own miserable destiny.2 In consequence, if Hermes in the Iliad is not sent as herald, it is not because he does not yet hold this title, as is often said, but because Zeus does not need him as such, unlike in the Odyssey.

The next logical step is to establish what holding the sceptre means for keryx. Through discussion of some conspicuous cases, Pisano shows that when the herald is holding his staff he is making the words of the anax real and effective, hence embodying the anax himself. Hermes is, therefore, the one accomplishing (epikrainôn) Zeus’ will. That is, Homer would have called anax Hermes, the keryx, in Il. 2.104, in order to emphasize the direct transmission of the sceptre from Zeus to Agamemnon: in this chain Hermes is as legitimate a transmitter as Pelops, Atreus, or Thyestes.

In the second part of the book the focus changes from Hermes’ role and the sceptre of the herald as sign of royal authority to the golden fleece as symbol of legitimacy. An Argive golden fleece is also linked to the tale of the rivalry between Thyestes and Atreus. Though this Argive fleece has sometimes been related to the Homeric passage because of the sheep-related epithets of Thyestes (polyarnês) and Atreus (poimên laôn), most commentators from Aristarchus to our own time think that Homer ignored (or chose to ignore) this tale, and Pisano agrees with them. He explores, therefore, the Argive and the Argonautic myths and shows how Hermes gives the fleece to execute Zeus’ orders in favour of the legitimate king. There is less novelty in this part than in the first one, but the relevant texts are competently examined.

The study on Hermes’ ways of establishing communication between distant points, in these kingly affairs and in other contexts, is based on careful analysis of many passages from archaic and classical literature, notably the 4th Homeric Hymn, in which the selection of relevant bibliography is generally satisfactory.3 The conclusions are supported in the last chapter of the book in a surprising way, i. e. the analysis of some later perspectives of Hermes. Plato in the Cratylus (407e-408b) relates the activities of the god to the logou dynamis, while the etic views of Hellenistic Judaism and early Christianity are still more relevant. Artapanus says (fr. 3 Jacoby) that Egyptian priests equated Moses with Hermes / Thoth for his knowledge of “divine writings”; the author of the Acts of the Apostles (14.12) reports that Paul and Barnabas were equated, respectively, with Hermes and Zeus in Licaonia because of the miraculous saving power of Paul’s words; and Justin (1 Apol. 22.2) explains to the Greeks the relation of the Logos and the Father in the Christian Trinitarian doctrine by illustrating it with the relation between Hermes and Zeus. These are of course distorted visions of the Greek gods that, however, demonstrate how external viewers considered Hermes: they would not have used the god in this way if such manipulations had seemed implausible to them. Hermes was perceived as the god who makes Zeus’ words effective. And therefore, to return to the point of departure, he can be at the same time keryx and anax.

This book is important not only because of the main arguments, which, departing from the interpretation of an Iliadic passage, reach convincing and innovative conclusions regarding Hermes’ relation to kingship, but also because it is exemplary in its methods of research, in which he combines intelligently influences from French, Italian, and Anglo-Saxon scholarship. Even those who do not follow Pisano in his persuasive reading of Iliad 2.100-108 will enjoy his exemplary application of two main methodological tenets. Firstly, instead of looking for the god’s original substance, whose fossilized traces would remain in classical times, he analyses the “modes of action” of the god in the extant evidence, which has proved to be much more fruitful a method for making sense of individual passages and of the entire web of myths about the god. Secondly, he demonstrates the relevance of the critical study of “etic” approaches, like the Jewish and Christian apologetic literature, to deepen our knowledge of ancient Greek religious thinking.


1.   J. Latacz (ed.) Homers Ilias. Gesamtkommentar. Band II.2, Munich 2003, 38; P. E. Easterling, “Agamemnon’s skeptron in the Iliad”, in M. M. Mackenzie / Ch. Roueché (eds.) Images of authority, Cambridge 1989, 104-121.
2.   Circe’s episode has sometimes (e. g., M. P. Nilsson) been pointed out as an episode in which Hermes acts on his own independent will. Pisano rightly thinks that Hermes is also here in full agreement with—and executor of—Zeus’ will. His argument could well be further strengthened by the clear links between this episode and Priam’s trip in Iliad 24: cf. e. g. G. Beck, “Beobachtungen zur Kirke-Episode in der OdysseePhilologus 109 (1965): 1- 29.
3.   There is only one mistaken assumption, i. e., that Hermes is lying for the sake of persuading Calypso when he includes Odysseus among the Greeks who suffer Athena’s wrath in Od. 5.108-111. This is no lie, as shown by J. S. Clay, The Wrath of Athena, Princeton 1983, unmentioned by Pisano. However, this omission does not affect the general argument of the book.

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