Arlene Allan has worked on Hermes previously and has now published a new overview of the deity in the series “Gods and Heroes of the Ancient World.” Allan’s aim is to introduce the multi-faceted and fascinating god Hermes, the Roman Mercury, and to give an overview of his wide reception from Hellenistic times to the present. On the first pages (i-xviii), Allan provides useful lists of ancient authors, abbreviations, conventions, a map of the Peloponnese, and a genealogical table.1
In her introduction, Allanpoints out that Hermes became necessary as an intermediary after Prometheus had fallen out with Zeus (Hesiod, Theogony 535–57) and thus, the lines of communion (and communication) between mortals and gods were seriously damaged. Hermes is among the oldest of the gods in the Greek pantheon, first appearing in inscribed tablets from three Bronze Age sites (Pylos, Thebes, Knossos; ca. 1100 BC). Allan suggests that the name Hermes might derive from ‘herm‘ or ‘herma, a derivation assumed since the earliest studies on the origin of herms.’ More recent etymological dictionaries, however, indicate that this view must be rejected: the origin of the name is prehellenic, but we have no further knowledge about the language and the meaning of the term.2 Hermes has multiple epithets and epikleses, some geographical, others genealogical.3
Describing the images of Hermes, Allan starts with wooden posts held in place by a pile of stones and continues with the herms, which according to some scholars were allegedly created by Hipparchos in the late sixth century at Athens.4 But there are no examples identified (with certainty) as representations of Hermes, and the oldest known herm dates already in the first quarter of the sixth century. The anthropomorphic representations developed, as Allan points out, from an older, bearded god to a youthful, beardless Hermes with kerykeion, chlamys, and petasos.
The Homeric Hymn to Hermes is one of the important sources of the myth of Hermes, but Allan refers to additional sources, among which are relatively few stories in which Hermes plays a leading role. However, Hermes also appears in numerous stories about other gods and heroes, and the vast majority of these depict Hermes intervening as Zeus’ representative. The Homeric Hymn to Hermes, moreover, provides an example of one form of worship offered to Hermes,and there are no fewer than forty poetic epithets and cult titles used of Hermes in the Fourth Homeric Hymn.
There is but one known civic festival celebrated in his honour throughout the Greek world – the Hermaia, a competitive athletic (and possibly musical) festival for boys under the age of eighteen, perhaps most famous at the town of Pellene in Achaia. Hermes was nevertheless an important member of many civic pantheons, and we do hear of his worship at several publicly funded celebrations in conjunction with one or more of a city’s deities. As Allan points out, we find the greatest number of sacred sites and local festivals of the god in Arkadia. There is broad variation in the forms of his worship with some sites dedicating temples and others merely honouring a simple Herm with dedications. Hermes becomes the divine connector, the conduit and conductor operative within Zeus’ cosmos, bringing together sender and receiver, beginning and end. He is the god who enables transmission, transition, transaction, transformation, and even transgression.
In the main section Allan explores the deity in terms of the key themes of Talents (pp. 21-38), Transmissions (pp. 39-52), Transitions (pp. 53-68), Transpositions (pp. 87-102), Transcendence (pp.103-121), and Translations (pp.122-141). Allan has identified five key talents of Hermes’ divinity: metis, stealth, creativity, wit, and propriety. This means that Hermes is clever or sharp thinking. A trickster, he is able to move through space in a stealthy manner. He has creative potential, and with his cleverness he can make others laugh. In using all these talents, however, he works in the capacities granted him by Zeus. Allan illustrates the theme of Hermes’ “Transmission” using the written sources, which describe him as Herald, Leader of Dreams or Messenger, Interpreter, Instructor, and Orator. She likewise explains Hermes’ involvement in “Transitions” through written and material sources. The Homeric Hymn to Hermes, for instance, depicts Hermes as a divine guide, who finds his way without assistance of any kind. In addition, he was a “protector of property,” which is also attested by the herms’ placement in front of temple portals and at entries to private dwellings. His function as a guardian and protector of youth—he oversaw training, contests, and maturation processes—also falls within the area of transitions.
In the chapter “Transaction,” Allan describes Hermes’ function as the god of the marketplace. She correctly points out that there are more important tasks attributed to Hermes than transactions concerning money. Even if this function applies to Hermes Agoraios, the Roman Mercury more often appears as the trading god. Figure 4.3 does not show a fourth-century Hermes, but a later Roman Mercury. The purse as an attribute of the god does not appear before the third century BC and is found on Gallo-Roman, Greco-Roman, and mainly Imperial Roman representations of Mercury. Under “Transpositions,” Allen lists Hermes' aspects as thief, trickster, wordsmith, bringer of dreams, and game player, all of which appear in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes. Another important skill that Hermes possesses is the ability to cross boundaries and to transcend obstacles, which Allan makes clear in her chapter “Transendence.” Hermes is Zeus’ delight and networker and becomes the Olympian expert in the art of creating relationships.
Finally, in the chapter “Translations,” Allan describes the counterparts of the Greek Hermes in the West, the Etruscan Turms and the Roman Mercury, as well as the counterparts in the East, the Mesopotamian and Egyptian ‘Hermes.’ The Roman cult of Mercury is associated with trade, and in the Augustan times, Mercury receives the additional function as bringer of peace. Also, in the South and East, the counterparts of Hermes are not exactly the same. The cultures that adopted Hermes always added aspects of important local deities to him, and native deities could also adopt the attributes of Hermes, such as Nebo in Hatra/Iraq.
After Allan explains the different functions of Hermes in detail and vividly in the main section, she dedicates two chapters to the post-antique occurrence of Hermes and Mercury. In Chapter VIII, “Transformations I” (pp.145-165), she discusses the different facets of Hermes during Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages: Hermes did not remain the god of former times, but became a mixture of the allegorical Hermes; the Roman astrological, magical, and alchemical Mercury; and the Egyptian Hermes Trismegistos. One important aspect of the ancient Hermes that remained was his eloquence.
In the last chapter “Transformations II” (pp.166-186), Allan presents the reception of Hermes through the present. The god has always exerted a special attraction on artistic culture, and he appears as a motif in Tiepolo, Rubens, and Botticelli. In modern times, he has become an important figure in PlayStation 3’s God of War III and has found his way into poetry, literature, videos, TV, and comics. Hermes lives on, not only in art and literature, but also in philosophy (hermeneutics), psychology, and etymology. The book ends with a list of further reading and a bibliography.
Allan succeeds in categorizing and illustrating the many and varied aspects of Hermes/Mercury to the reader. She has comprehensively searched the ancient literary sources for references to this deity and presents them clearly. Despite the brevity required by the series “Gods and Heroes,” she has managed to show the different facets of the God Hermes from his childhood on. The book is recommended for all who want to learn about Hermes and Mercury and are interested in the figure’s reception from the Middle Ages to the present day.
1. The ithyphallic goddess Orthanes, the offspring of Hermes and a nymph, is omitted from Hermes’ family tree; see Phot. s. v. Ὀρθάνης.
2. R. S. P. Beekes, Etymological Dictionary of Greek (Leiden 2010) 461-462; H. Frisk, Griechisches etymologisches Wörterbuch (Heidelberg 1960) 561-564; P. Chantraine, Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue grecque: Histoire des mots (Paris 1968-1974) 373-374.
3. ‘Imbramos’ is given as example for a genealogical epithet, but this presumed goddess does not exist on the island of Imbros. For further reading see B. Ruhl, Imbros. Archäologie einer nordostägäischen Insel (Marburg 2018) 106-107.
4. I. Trianti, “Αρχαϊκές Ερμαϊκές Στήλες,” ArchDelt 32, 1977, 116–122. The Hipparchos-theory was developed in the 1930s by J. F. Crome, “ΙΠΠΑΡΧΕΙΟΙ ΕΡΜΑΙ,” AM 60/61, 1935/36, 300–313.