BMCR 2021.12.21

Hermes und die Bürger. Der Hermeskult in den griechischen Poleis

, Hermes und die Bürger. Der Hermeskult in den griechischen Poleis. Hermes – Einzelschriften, 119. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2020. Pp. 437. ISBN 9783515128094 €78,00.

This is the revised and shortened (!) version of Kuhle’s 2019 Göttingen dissertation. With its 350 closely printed text pages, and 2133 footnotes, this study of the cult of the god Hermes may have been shortened, but is anything but short or concise. It does not feel abbreviated in any way: rather, it looks, and reads, like a “tell everything you know about Hermes”, with one exception: the material evidence. The visual evidence does not get its own chapter(s), not even the statuary, more particularly the herms which are important to Kuhle’s argument (they have been covered by Birgit Rückert, Die Herme in öffentlichen und privaten Leben der Griechen, Regensburg 1998). Notwithstanding, the book opens with the hermokopid-affair, the mutilation of the herms in Athens in 415 B.C. What led to this shocking act of vandalism and sacrilege was debated at the time and is still debated now. One of the motives asserted was an attack on democracy: although this is likely to have been formulated only after the affair, Kuhle asks us to consider why such an assertion was at all credible. Hermes, she states, is a god intimately connected with citizenship. This is an aspect of the god that has been neglected, according to Kuhle, as indeed have been the cults of Hermes in general, inside and outside of Athens. Arlene Allan’s 2018 monograph (Hermes, in the Gods and Heroes of the Ancient World series) gets short shrift: too much myth, too little lived religion. Not unreasonably so: we will come back to that. But others she tends to sell short: her reference to Lewis Farnell, Cults of the Greek States, vol. 5, 62-84 (p.18, n.60), as one of the few, non-monographic accounts, is somewhat misleading. Farnell takes pages 1-62 of his fifth volume to discuss Hermes, with an impressive annotation filling the next 22 pages. Gérard Siebert’s work (s.v. Hermes, LIMC 5.1 (Zurich 1990) 285-387) is mentioned as ‘grundlegend’ (p.19, n.70), but the acknowledgment that he does much more than merely list the iconographical sources seems to be given almost reluctantly. And strangely enough, this 100-page LIMC contribution by Siebert has not made it into the bibliography (nor did Sam Eitrem’s 50-column item s.v. Hermai in the Realenzyklopädie). However, although Kuhle here seems to sweep some of her predecessors under the carpet, the relative neglect of Hermes (but not of herms!) is undeniable. In her monograph she wants to put this right.

To this end, she has gathered all the evidence on Hermes and his cults from mainland Greece, the Greek islands and the coast of Asia Minor, for the period between the 8th century B.C. and the 3rd century B.C. Her leading questions are who, where, how and why, and she focusses on “die tatsächlichen religiösen Akte” (21): ‘lived religion’ (a concept she does not use – this is a German study of ancient religion without any reference to Jörg Rüpke!). That set of questions is very much a recipe for “tell all about Hermes”, considering that the mythological element will be included in the answers to the “why” question. But Kuhle also has a hypothesis: Hermes is the god par excellence of the Greek polis, polis in the sense of the community of citizens, politai, and in the sense of the physical space, composed of an urban centre and its hinterland. The polis and religion cannot be seen apart (here Kuhle uses the common trope of embeddedness), but she rejects the idea of “polis religion”: communal religion and more personal forms of religion are a continuum. I agree wholeheartedly, while noticing that accepting this continuum and still seeing Hermes as “a polis god” or “citizens’ god”, may cause some friction.

After 20 pages of introduction, the book consists of one huge second chapter of over 300 pages, followed by a 10 page conclusion. This second chapter is divided in 6 parts: 1) borders (90 pp); 2) sanctuaries out of town (20 pp); 3) roads (35 pp); 4) necropoleis (50 pp); 5) gymnasia (60 pp); and 6) agorai (60 pp). There are subdivisions numbered five levels down, e.g. “ Musische Agone”. As much as I hate that, I have to admit that for a user selectively dipping into a volume, it is helpful, although a proper subject index would be much better – this book has four indices, an index inscriptionum, an index locorum, an index of place names and an index of personal names, but no subject index. The structure of the book takes the reader on a tour of an ideal-typical Greek polis where we wander through the countryside (the chora) visiting sanctuaries dedicated to Hermes – pride of place goes to caves, sacred woods, springs and water courses – and looking at the very roadways that we travel (somewhat incongruously, also at streets inside the urban centre). Next we come to the suburban areas (the proastion), where we observe necropoleis and gymnasia. Finally, we enter the town (asty) and head for the political and economic centre, the agora. In these perambulations we have been at the outer borders of the polis, and returning to the centre we have crossed many other boundaries: town walls, the perimeters (periboloi) of sanctuaries and other public places, the doorsteps of private dwellings. These borderlines are discussed in a separate section, which is understandable and convenient, but somewhat spoils the ruse of touring the polis from chora to asty. The way the book is structured of course has the effect of setting up an immediate association between Hermes, the polis, and the politai. With over 200 pages dedicated to borders, gymnasia and city centre, where the ‘political’ dimension is most in evidence, this association is strengthened even more. As the author’s main hypothesis is the ‘political’ nature of Hermes, we can see why she chose to arrange her material in this way.  And it must be said that it works quite well: even if the view of the road ahead is sometimes obscured by thickets of detail, the reader never completely loses this feeling of being on a journey and of meeting Hermes at every twist and turn.

However, the arrangement also has some weak spots, where the whole idea of touring the polis is stretched to breaking point. With borders come rituals, in the widest sense, that have to do with affirming or protecting borders (the apotropaic nature of the herm is mentioned, but there is no reference to Detlev Fehling, Ethologische Überlegungen auf dem Gebiet der Altertumskunde, Munich 1974, a book that created quite a stir but now seems to have faded away in the mists of history). But subsequently we move on to borders/boundaries in a figurative sense, and rituals that have to do with whatever kind of transgression get included. When we come to roadways, again we move from – on the one hand – the physical road, travelling such roads, and rituals that enfold along roads, such as processions and races, to – on the other hand – pathways and travels in a figurative sense, with a paragraph on marriage. In the lengthy discussion of burial grounds in the proastion, the figurative and metaphysical element is even much more important than the actual grave sites. Death is a journey, death means crossing a very crucial border, and death brings with it certain representations of afterlife. In addition, the mythical persona of Hermes is interwoven with all sections (though not as a main concern; as Kuhle repeatedly, and rightly, observes, too much attention has been paid to a small number of texts, especially the Homeric Hymn, and too little attention has been paid to the epigraphy and other evidence for actual cultic activities). We can ask ourselves why the author departs from her topographical wanderings to let herself get side-tracked by figurative journeys.

Maybe she is trying to do the impossible. Our wanderings from chora to asty and agora are an attempt to pin Hermes down, but as several recent studies of Greek divinities have stressed, they are ‘unpindownable’ – indeed, it is their very essence to be exactly that. This has confounded many past authors who were casting about for the Hermes: the original one, the essential one, the popular one, and so on. Now, what, in the end, is so different here from previous characterizations of the god except that Kuhle includes all of them? We get a Hermes who is protecting all kinds of borders; a Hermes who is a liar, a thief, a trickster (examples of the transgression of borders); a Hermes who leads and protects travellers, over land and over sea; a Hermes who acts as a kind of witness at marriages (a marriage is a journey across boundaries); a Hermes who mediates between the living and the dead, who is at home in the underworld, and who conducts the souls of the departed; a Hermes who is the guardian of gymnasia, is involved in agones of all kinds, and watches over different kinds of initiations: coming of age, and becoming a citizen; a Hermes who protects magistrates and traders, who guarantees contracts and oaths. And so on; we can extend this list almost at will: the number of epithets of Hermes is some 120, and Kuhle smuggles them all in. Her arrangement can accommodate (and wants to accommodate) everything. A random example: we encounter Hermes as the protector of fishermen in the polis of Ainos, in Thrace. Of course, Hermes is called Sôter, saviour, protector, in many instances, and fishermen are as entitled to his intercession as anyone else. But where to put this in Kuhle’s account? It ended up with borders: because to go out to sea means crossing a very important boundary that you would dearly like to cross again, coming back alive from the dangers of the deep. But it also might have to do with Hermes as a typical god of fortune: he guarantees the fishermen good catches and a lively trade (67). In Ainos, Hermes is called Perpheraios, from peripherein, “to carry around”, “to pass around”, possibly because his old and important wooden cult statue there is carried in procession or is handled in some other way. This supposedly shows how close the god is to the citizens of Ainos (or the fishermen? Or especially the fishermen?). However, in Ainos, Hermes has two sanctuaries, one on the coast, for the fishy things, and the other in the agora. So we encounter him again in Kuhle’s section on the agora. There it says that carrying the cult statue from coast to centre – a route not mentioned before – means crossing boundaries, but that it also underlines the political unity of the polis. And by bringing harbour and market place into close contact, Hermes guarantees brisk trade (321, this time under the slightly exasperated heading of “Polyfunctionality” (!)). And so on and so forth. I am not so much disputing Kuhle’s analyses – some are more, others less speculative, all are excellently documented – as feeling slightly uncomfortable with an overall scheme where everything fits in, and often could be fitted in in several different places. A geographical register of Hermes cults, as Farnell offered in 1909, is for several reasons unsatisfactory, but it does not raise such irking problems.

If one examines closely what we learn about Hermes, there is not so very much here that is new. Only, it is all arranged in a different – and pleasant, if also problematic – way. Innovative is to have it all together and to have it so complete. The written sources, including epigraphical ones, are all there: I have not counted them, but close to 500 inscriptions are referenced, often quoted, as are some 1200 literary sources from some 135 authorities. In the almost 40 pages of bibliography all Hermes titles I could come up with were included, except for the strictly iconographical, strictly literary, some titles concerning Hermes and music, and the few exceptions noted above. And of course there is the main argument that Hermes is very much a god of the polis and the politai, indeed the polis god par excellence. The first, I think, is true of a whole range of gods from the Greek pantheon; the second is argued here with quite some force of arguments, though whether Hermes really is so very different from other Olympians as Kuhle argues in her conclusion can be doubted – and if we replace “Olympians” by “divinities” it is certainly overstated. Kuhle’s conclusion “Ein Gott der Bürger” is not only supported, but paradoxically also undermined by the very breadth of her account. The Hermes guarding the outer rim of the city state or the Hermes invoked by magistrates are of a different order from the Hermes officiating at marriages and deathbeds. Of course, the marrying and dying is done by politai (and by other inhabitants of the polis – Kuhle mentions them at several turns, but they are left relatively in the shadows), but not as such. Thus Kuhle’s conclusion seems not to do justice to the multifarious god that we encountered when we went with her on her journey through the polis landscape and the polis mindscape. Hermes is above all a god of human beings (citizens included), the protector and guide of Everyman.

The book is produced to the high standards that we can expect from the Franz Steiner Verlag.[1] No historian of Greek religion can afford to neglect this book: it is indeed the “tell all you know” monograph about Hermes. It is not flawless, because its very comprehensiveness may somehow work against it and its central thesis, but it will be valued for a long time to come by anyone in search of material concerning one of the many Hermai.


[1] They should, however, fine-tune their hyphenation software: e.g. Dokto-reltern (in the 7th line of the book!), Au-ßerdem (86), Stre-cke (163), frü-heste (328), Pers-pektive (340), and many other not incorrect, but irritating instances such as Zie-genbock (67), Doppelher-men (249), or Kallite-les (254). Otherwise, I did not notice any misprints. The author listed as Walkens (394) is called Waelkens.