Thursday, March 02, 2006

Hermes and the Shadow

A few days ago I discussed the herm, the pile of stone that became Hermes. Now let’s look at his mythological birth.

Remember that the ancient Greeks threw a stone on the cairn every time they passed. Each stone added to the size and weight of the god and each stone accompanied a thought or a projection onto the cairn that increased the size and real-ness of the spirit that became a god.

Who was this god Hermes? What did he mean to the Greeks? How did they experience him, mold him, develop him, and concretize him?

My sources for the birth is Hesiod’s Theogony, translated by Richard Lattimore, The Michigan University Press 1987 and The Homeric Hymns, translated by Jules Cashford, Penguin Books 2003.

Hermes was the son of Zeus and the nymph, Maia, the daughter of Atlas, the Titan who holds up the world. A nymph is a divinity connected with some aspect of nature. There were water nymphs, mountain nymphs, and tree nymphs.

Maia is named, “the nymph with the beautiful hair,” characterized as shy, and a cave nymph.

Immediately, through the description of the mother and her father we are drawn to the stone, to the mountain, to the earth and the physical universe. This early characteristic will further support the connection between the pile of stones at Hermes’ beginning and Mercurius and alchemy at the end of our tale.

Zeus, a known letch, enters the “shadowy cave” of Maia and makes love to her while his wife Hera sleeps.

Ten months later Maia emerges from the darkness of the cave and reveals her child, who, we learn, will accomplish “glorious deeds.”

Hermes is a child prodigy. “Born at dawn, he played the lyre in the afternoon and he stole the cattle of Apollo the Archer in the evening.”

Zeus and Maia create in darkness a child that “was destined to bring wonderful things to light among the immortal gods.”

Hermes is the half brother of Apollo, Artemis, and Dionysius and he is connected to them in more ways than ancestry. Immediately, he steals cattle from Apollo and he invents the tortoise shell lyre. The lyre connects him to Apollo, the sun god, as well as the theft of cattle. Hermes is the trickster, while Apollo is the serious one, the god responsible for the initiation of youth into adulthood.

One is the shadow of the other. Hermes is connected to the shadow, to the unconscious. However, he is also the son of Zeus so he will be able to travel between the lit world and the shadows of the other world. He is destined to be the messenger and the guide of souls.

The next time we discuss Hermes I will explore his connection to the archetype of the "eternal child."

Tomorrow, I will discuss a Rilke sonnet and transcendence.

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