Friday, February 10, 2006

This morning, while drinking coffee at my local Starbucks, I thought about the two Hermes.

The oldest and, for me, the richest image is of an older man, with a dark beard, wearing a long cloak and carrying a golden wand and a seven string lyre made from a turtle’s shell. The newer more modern image is that of a bright, sleek, handsome, clean-shaven man.

In my imagination, I align the older image with the archetype of the senex and the younger with the archetype of the puer.

The older image is connected to darkness and is more consistent with Hermes’ role as a guide of the soul. The darkness that surrounds him and that is illustrated through his beard and hair shows his connection to the chthonic forces of the underworld. The underworld, as James Hillman has shown in Dream and the Underworld (Harper 1979), is a world rich with meaning and soul.

The younger image is more accustomed to the marketplace, to the agora of ancient Athens, than to the underworld. Perhaps, this is the reason that florists (FTD), scarf manufacturers (Hermes), car manufacturers (Mercury), and comic book companies (the Flash) have appropriated the more youthful image.

The older image is also more conducive to the Hermes that appears in alchemical images and processes.

Alchemy can be traced back to the ancient Chinese; however, it emerges first in Western culture in Alexandra and Hellenistic Egypt around 300 B.C., when Greek science flourished. After the Arabs took Alexandria from the Byzantines, alchemy grew and matured in the Islamic world. In the 12th century, the Arabs took alchemy to Europe through Spain and southern Italy.

I like to think that it was Hermes or, as the Romans called him, Mercurius, that was guiding the process and growth of alchemy across Asia, Africa and Europe. As Lyndy Abraham writes, Mercurius is “the central image in alchemy, also known by the equivalent Greek name Hermes, symbolizing the universal agent of transmutation. (A Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery, Cambridge University Press 2005)

As I wrote yesterday, meeting the shadow is essential in creating soul. The darkness of the shadow is also connected with the symbolic underworld of alchemical change. One of the first steps in psychological alchemy is a metaphorical journey to the underworld or in Jungian terms a meeting with the shadow. (see Alchemical Psychology: Old Recipes for Living in a New World by Thom F. Cavalli, Putnam 2002) The darkness of the underworld and interaction with the shadow are connected. In that Hermes is seen as a guide and an impetus, I nominate the darker image of Hermes as the more interesting archetype. As Karl Kerényi states in Hermes: Guide of Souls (Spring Publications, Inc.2003), Hermes “is most likely the same dark depth of being from which we all originate.”

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