BMCR 2023.05.15

Tracking Hermes, pursuing Mercury

, , Tracking Hermes, pursuing Mercury. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2019. Pp. xxiv, 378. ISBN 9780198777342.


[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

[The reviewer apologises for the lateness of this review]


This fascinating and wide-ranging volume on an equally captivating deity began as the conference “Tracking Hermes/Mercury” at the University of Virginia in March of 2014. The volume editors, Jenny Strauss Clay and John F. Miller, seek to shed new light on seemingly well-known and yet still enigmatic figure of Hermes/Mercury—a god of contradictions who flits in and out of focus and constantly demands renewed scholarly attention. A consummate liar and swindler, Hermes also brings luck and acts as a friend to humanity: traversing mental and physical boundaries, he facilitates communication, commerce, theft, rhetoric and, occasionally, lust. In his cosmic capacity, Hermes mediates between humans and gods, treading tangled paths between the Olympus, the earth and the underworld. As befits his nature, Hermes/Mercury constantly evolves to fit new contexts: he is equally at home in Greece, Rome and Egypt, adapting to new circumstances with wit and charm.

As the editors emphasise in their introduction, although Hermes has been studied by thousands of scholars, no one has attempted so far “to discuss in a coherent manner the surprising variety of his literary, cultic, and artistic manifestations” (2). To introduce a measure of order into the bewildering variety of relevant material, the contributors use the Homeric Hymn to Hermes as their foundational text, tracing how this early and complex depiction of this god reverberates in Greek, Roman, and Egyptian art, literature, and cult. The volume is divided into nine groups of papers: every group comments upon some aspect of Hermes expressed in the Hymn, pitting it against his other manifestations.

Papers in Part I examine Hermes’ family: his hidden parentage and relationships with Maia, Heracles, Pan, and the Nymphs. Chapter 2 (H. A. Shapiro, “Like Mother, Like Son? Hermes and Maia in Text and Image”) discusses the few surviving vases that jointly depict Hermes with Maia: in Shapiro’s convincing reading, visual depictions underscore Hermes and Maia’s humanity, filial closeness, and Hermes’ mastery over animals (perhaps inherited from his mother, a nymph of Arcadia). In turn, Chapter 3 (Carolyn M. Laferrière, “Hermes among Pan and the Nymphs on Fourth-Century Votive Reliefs”) considers late classical votive reliefs that pair Hermes with Pan and the Nymphs. Laferrière interprets this somewhat surprising trend as an Athenian attempt to embed Athenian nymph cults within the Olympian worship system, forging genealogical and conceptual ties between the local and the Panhellenic. The following chapter (by Jennifer Larson) juxtaposes Hermes and Heracles, highlighting some thought-provoking correspondences: these younger sons of Zeus, worshipped in gymnasia, confront Apollo to win some favour (with the fraternal conflict eventually mediated by Zeus). Larson postulates that the Homeric Hymn to Hermes alludes to the poorly attested myth of Heracles fighting with Apollo for the Delphic tripod.

Hermes the trickster–and his thievery, greed, creativity, and philanthropy—are the focus of two chapters in Part II of the volume. Chapter 5 (Jenny Strauss Clay, “Hide and Go Seek: Hermes in Homer”) demonstrates deep affinity between Odysseus and Hermes: consummate liars, inventors, and travellers. Strauss Clay draws attention to ties between Hermes and his protegee, the cunning cattle thief Autolykos (Odysseus’ grandfather), proposing that Odysseus may have inherited his grandfather’s divine favour. Chapter 6 (Andrea Capra and Cecilia Nobili, “Hermes Iambicus”) interprets the Homeric Hymn to Hermes as a mythical precursor or aition of bawdy classical iambs, with surviving fragments of Hipponax jestingly depicting Hermes as a materialistic swindler.

In a similar vein, two chapters in Part III trace depictions of Hermes in comedy. Simone Beta (“The God and His Double: Hermes as Character and Speaking Statue in Greek Comedy”) analyses Peace and Wealth, where Hermes appears as an actual character and a speaking herm. In Beta’s view, this lowly messenger and thieving trickster occasionally voices tongue-in-cheek political comments. Chapter 8 (Erin K. Moodie, “Hermes/Mercury: God of Comedy?”) builds on the traditional link between comedy and trickster archetypes like Hermes to postulate that Hermes in Greek New Comedy and Roman comedy is deliberately cast in roles of low-status characters with metatheatrical implications. A god of (mis)communication, comedic Hermes consciously engages in metatheatrical behaviour (through his abject/self-abashing stance), exploiting theatrical conventions to speak to his audiences.

Two chapters in Part IV exhaustively comment on erotic aspects of Hermes. Chapter 9 (Joseph Farrell, “Hermes in Love. The Erotic Career of a Mercurial Character”) offers a comprehensive survey of Hermes’ links to the erotic, arguing that Hermes, for all his lusty ribaldry, promotes love affairs of others rather than of his own.  Chapter 10 (Micah Young Myers, “Lascivus Puer: Cupid, Hermes, and Hymns in Ovid’s Metamorphoses”) draws parallels between Mercury and Cupid across the Graeco-Roman literature and scrutinizes how Ovid syncretises these characters to comment on politics of the Augustan period.

Part V of the volume focuses on Hermes the Mediator, analysing his liminal and protective aspects in literary contexts. Chapter 11 (S. J. Harrison, “Horace’s Mercury and Mercurial Horace”) reads Horace’s works and career through the Mercurial lens. The poet, Harrison argues, envisioned Mercury as his personal protector, acknowledging his tutelary deity’s loftier and baser preoccupations: the sublime Odes stress Mercury’s protection, musical talent, and his role as a psychopompos, whereas the Satires focus on cruder Mercurial aspects of erotic intrigue and moneymaking. Sergio Casali’s chapter (“Crossing the Borders: Vergil’s Intertextual Mercury”) underlines Mercury’s status as messenger and dispatcher in the Aeneid, stressing Vergilian debts to Homer’s Odyssey and Apollonius’ Argonautica.

In Part VI, contributors discuss Hermes’ ties to commerce and exchange. Chapter 13 (Duncan E. MacRae, “Mercury and Materialism: Images of Mercury and the Tabernae of Pompeii”) interprets images of Mercury on or near entrances to Pompeian tabernae: a youthful Hellenised type in contrapposto, Mercury is depicted as if stepping into a shop, to invite mortal customers inside through sympathetic action. In turn, Chapter 14 (Thomas Biggs, “Did Mercury build the ship of Aeneas?”) focuses on Naevius’ Bellum Punicum, which uniquely depicts Mercury as a god who built a ship for Aeneas: Biggs considers a wealth of possible intertexts and comparanda, pointing to Mercury’s short-lived ascendance during Rome’s war with Carthage.

Part VII, consisting of three chapters, concentrates on Hermes’ presence in Greek religion and cult. Chapter 15 (Hélène Collard, “Communicating with the Divine: Herms in Attic Vase Painting”) examines vase depictions of herms, questioning why few other deities were honoured with such markers in the classical era. According to Collard’s thought-provoking reading, herms were ritual space markers that, due to Hermes’ nature, could open up a channel of communication with any member of the Greek pantheon. Hermes, the intermediary and oracle, would—not unlike Hecate of Hesiod’s Theogony—open the way for mortal prayers to reach all the gods. Chapter 16 (Jenny Wallenstein, “Hermes as Visible in Votive Inscriptions”) interprets a dossier of inscribed dedications to Hermes from Greece, outlining differences in epigraphic habits. Hermes, a friendly god, featured in many types of dedications (mainly related to commerce, gymnasia, messengers, travel, funerary cults, officials, and illustrious individuals of the later Hellenistic and Imperial eras), but, somewhat surprisingly, only rarely in pastoral contexts. Chapter 17 (Sandra Blakely, “Hermes, Kyllene, Samothrace, and the Sea”) posits Hermes as a perfect god for religious landscape studies, a shapeshifting traveller and herald who changes to fit his semantic scope to local conditions. Blakely investigates Hermes’ cultic presence on Samothrace and in sailors’ cults, considering his connections to local ithyphallic divinities of the Aegean who ensured safe passage at sea.

Two chapters in Part VIII focus on Hermes’ reception in Egypt. Chapter 18 (Ljuba Merlina Bortolani, “The Greek Magical Hymn to Hermes. Syncretism or Disguise? The Hellenization of Thoth in Graeco-Egyptian Magical Literature”) studies the Egyptian magical hymn to Hermes. According to Bortolani, the hymn stands for a relatively early syncretised depiction of Hermes-Thoth in a Hellenised context, with two deities sharing much of their oeuvre. Chapter 19 (Athanassios Vergados, “Hermes and the Figs: On P.Oxy. 17.2084”) examines a jocular parody of an encomium that praises and personifies the lowly fig, Hermes’ favourite. Previously thought to be a schoolboy’s exercise, this 3rd c. CE text from Oxyrhynchus shows subtle parallels to the Homeric Hymn to Hermes in a syncretic context, cleverly juxtaposing Thoth’s gifts of truth with Hermes’ consummate lies.

The final group of papers in the volume (Part IX) deal with Hermes in his cosmic aspect. Chapter 20 (Nicola Reggiani, “Rethinking Hermes: Cosmic Justice and Proportional Distribution”) surveys an astounding variety of Hermes’ roles. The god of luck and boundaries, Hermes throws stones and divines by pebbles through the art of prophecy he won from Apollo. Reggiani reads Hermes’ ties to stone throwing as related to cosmic acts of distribution, division, splitting and boundary crossing, drawing parallels between Hermes’ prophetic semnai and the Moirai. The final contribution, Chapter 21 (Henk Versnel, “Great Hermes: Three Ways toward Stardom”) sketches three possible trajectories through which Hermes attained his elevated position as Trismegistos. First, Hermes was worshipped in caves at the time when confession stelai were becoming popular: since these imperial stelai formulaically praise gods as omnipotent, Hermes may have been reconceptualised as a much more powerful deity. Second, Hermes might have been included in aretalogy hymns, which also tend to praise a given god as an all-powerful being. Third, due to Hermes’ chthonic aspect, he might have been reimagined as a great divine judge of the underworld, lending his powers to curses and imprecations.

The volume opens with lists of figures, abbreviations and contributors and ends with three indices (an index locorum, an index inscriptionum and a general index).

Keeping in mind the extremely ambitious task set by the editors of the reviewed volume, I believe they have succeeded at showing Hermes/Mercury in all his bedazzling complexity. The contributions within the volume complement one another, drawing illuminating parallels between far-flung manifestations of this ever-wandering god. The collection has already become a standard reference work for all those studying Hermes/Mercury, opening many a fascinating research avenue to pursue this elusive god.


Authors and Titles

  1. Introduction: Jenny Strauss Clay and John F. Miller


  1. Like Mother, Like Son? Hermes and Maia in Text and Image, H. A. Shapiro
  2. Hermes among Pan and the Nymphs on Fourth-Century Votive Reliefs, Carolyn M. Laferrière
  3. Hermes and Heracles, Jennifer Larson


  1. Hide and Go Seek: Hermes in Homer, Jenny Strauss Clay
  2. Hermes Iambicus, Andrea Capra and Cecilia Nobili


  1. The God and his Double: Hermes as Character and Speaking Statue in Greek Comedy, Simone Beta
  2. Hermes/Mercury: God of Comedy? Erin K. Moodie


  1. Hermes in Love: The Erotic Career of a Mercurial Character, Joseph Farrell
  2. Lascivus Puer: Cupid, Hermes, and Hymns in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Micah Young Myers


  1. Horace’s Mercury and Mercurial Horace, S. J. Harrison
  2. Crossing the Borders, Vergil’s Intertextual Mercury, Sergio Casali


  1. Mercury and Materialism: Images of Mercury and the Tabernae of Pompeii, Duncan E. MacRae
  2. Did Mercury Build the Ship of Aeneas? Thomas Biggs


  1. Communicating with the Divine: Herms in Attic Vase Painting, Hélène Collard
  2. Hermes as Visible in Votive Inscriptions, Jenny Wallenstein
  3. Hermes, Kyllene, Samothrace, and the Sea, Sandra Blakely


  1. The Greek Magical Hymn to Hermes. Syncretism or Disguise? The Hellenization of Thoth in Graeco-Egyptian Magical Literature, Ljuba Merlina Bortolani
  2. Hermes and the Figs: On Oxy. 17.2084, Athanassios Vergados


  1. Rethinking Hermes: Cosmic Justice and Proportional Distribution, Nicola Reggiani
  2. Great Hermes: Three Ways toward Stardom, Henk Versnel