Hermes: Archetypal Greek God, Soul Guide, and Trickster
Hermes Inventing the Caduceus
Hermes, Archetype of Greek Messenger God in Mythology
Hermes, also known by his Roman name of Mercury, was an eloquent speaker, guide of souls to the Underworld, a protector of travelers and thieves, and the inventor of the lyre. He wore a broad-brimmed hat and shoes with wings while on his missions as a messenger. Hermes also carried a staff known as a caduceus, which had two serpents encircled on it, commonly seen on a door of a doctor’s office in our times.
The twin snakes symbolized what alchemists considered to be the representation of the reunited male and female souls, through Hermetic mysticism. Hermes Trismegistus is one of the authors of The Emerald Tablet, a book of truths about the Seven Hermetic laws dating back to the Egyptian god Thoth, who is said to have passed these laws on to Abraham of the Old Testament Bible. Dual snakes can also represent the twin threads of death and rebirth, and more recently have been seen as symbolizing the DNA chain, through which coded genetic information is communicated in living matter. But whether we look at new symbolism or ancient ones, Hermes is always cast in the role of messenger between the realms.
The Resourceful One
Hermes was the son of Zeus and Maia, the Goddess daughter of Atlas, the Titan who carried the heavens on his shoulders. A person ruled by Mercury is highly intelligent, and can think and be capable of accomplishing several tasks at once (this would be a Gemini or Virgo person). It is said that Hermes was born in the morning, invented and played the lyre by the afternoon, stole his brother Apollo’s cows in the evening, and was back in his cradle that night looking just like an innocent, sleeping baby.
So by the end of the first day of life, Hermes already established several personality traits. He was bold to leave his cradle so quickly. He demonstrated resourcefulness as he watched a slowly moving tortoise, inspired to see what he could do with it. Hermes, now an inventor, took the turtle out of its shell, fastened two reed pipes to it, and strung it with seven strings. Then he immediately learned to play the lyre, while singing along to its music.
But all this activity made Hermes hungry, and he wanted meat. So he left the cradle once again, and stole 50 oxen from his brother Apollo, deftly disguising their footsteps by moving them backward, so their hind hooves were in front, and fore hooves behind. He made himself shoes of branches to hide his own footsteps. He made a fire, cooked two cows, then quickly got rid of his shoes, scattered all traces of the fire, and went back to his cradle with the lyre hidden under his swaddling clothes.
Hermes Tries to Fool His Brother Apollo
When Apollo realized his cattle were stolen, he wasn’t fooled for a moment. He went to Maia’s cave and insisted Hermes reveal where the cattle were hidden. Hermes played innocent, saying, “How could a young babe such as I do all that you say?” Hermes swore an oath on his Father Zeus that he did not commit this crime. Apollo called Hermes, “a cunning deceiver and a trained thief.” Finally, Zeus was called in to listen to both stories, and although amused by the whole incident, insisted Hermes return the cows to Apollo. But Apollo spotted the lyre and badly wanted it, promising in exchange 50 cows, a herdsman’s crook and status, and the caduceus which identified him as the messenger and escort of souls to the Underworld. And since Zeus did not punish Hermes for any of these acts, he learned very early in life that he could get away with outrageous behaviors.
Hermes' Children and His Adult Qualities
The adult Hermes had numerous love affairs, but not much is known about them. He fathered five sons. Autolycus was a thief and liar, Myrtilus was a sociopath who plotted his master’s death in a chariot race. Pan,a goat from the waist down who had goat horns, was the amoral god of forests, pastures, flocks and shepherds. Eudorus took after Hermes’ better side, and was an uncomplicated shepherd who had a care taking and nurturing quality sometimes seen in his father. His most notable son, Hermaphroditus, reflects Hermes’ androgynous and bisexual nature, and bore the names of both parents, Hermes and Aphrodite, Hermes most well known lover.
The Hermes archetype has positive and negative qualities. This is a very inventive and inquisitive person. He can think and act quickly and is a great communicator, a trait that can help to achieve goals or deceive others. Hermes-Mercury was the spirit concealed in matter, or quicksilver in alchemy, as mercury is metallic, but also liquid. Mercury only adheres to precious metals, and metaphorically, Hermes can show you how to find spiritual gold.
Alchemy flourished during the Inquisition, when people’s efforts to find spiritual truths and have mystical experiences were called heresy by the Catholic Church. Hermes is considered the Father of Alchemy, an arcane science focused on turning lead into gold. Carl Jung said in Psychology and Alchemy, that “Hermes was the communicator, the guide of souls on a mystical and psychological journey that sought to unite male and female elements.”
Hermes often traveled between Mount Olympus and the Underworld, once to bring Persephone home after her kidnapping by Hades. People who move with ease from one place to another can succeed in fields of diplomacy, media, and trade. This trade can consist of goods or communications, from one culture to another. For a Hermes type person, it is easy to go from one city or country to another, easily making deals, getting media attention, writing or making allies for the future. He could easily head a multinational corporation, or be a tour guide.
But any Hermes archetype excels at persuading others and finding creative financing to conduct his business activities. Hermes does not lie awake at night worrying if all his activities are legal, or if he did something wrong. This is a person who as a lawyer would represent the Mafia, and easily cross the boundary into an illegal world. Hermes cares only whether his scheme or ploy will work due to his creative thinking and problem solving skills. He can easily become a con man or unscrupulous person, as was demonstrated when he stole the cows from Apollo.
Hermes also may have stolen from Apollo because of his birth order, as Apollo was the favorite and older son. Hermes victimized and angered Apollo, then would turn around and charm him. Eventually they learned from each other and bartered, but it was Hermes who began with nothing and acquired a lot. The younger child charms the parents. Later on, he may have to use his wits, especially if he is smaller in size and cannot be a strong physical threat. A Hermes learns how to use words to fight his battles, and can strategize to get what he wants from the older brother or sister.
Hermes as a Psychotherapist
A psychotherapist often plays the role of a Hermes when he needs to guide souls or people through significant passages in their lives. People often experience depression then, or periods of uncertainty and anxiety when faced with new challenges. The therapist aids a patient during a transitional period of life and helps them see the possible obstacles and how to overcome them.
Hermes did this for Odysseus, appearing just before he had to face Circe, the sorceress who turned men into swine, giving Odysseus insight and protection. A Hermes also guides those who seek meaning and integration in the realms of the spirit, communicating and teaching what he knows. As Hermes travels between levels he seeks to communicate between the mental world of the mind and intellect (Olympus), the realm where the ego decides and acts (Earth) and the collective unconscious (the Underworld).
Hermes is our guide when we dare to explore new frontiers with an open spirit and attitude. His archetype is spontaneous, and opens up moments of discovery and synchronicity, where accidental happenings lead us to important and unexpected adventures that we find change our lives in very positive ways. We are also influenced by Hermes when we need to make an important speech, just wing it without notes, and it works out just fine. Hermes is such a great communicator; your unexpected speech may take you and your audience to a wonderful experience, once you have the courage and inventiveness to try it.
Hermes Likes to Push Boundaries
We know how precocious a Hermes child is, but his parents must be aware of his tendency to habitually make up stories, excuses, and lie. These behaviors may later lead to his being a thief, liar, and lacking in character. While Hermes usually does not cross the line or have a bad intent, he can begin to believe his own stories and begin a life of crime and being unaccountable for his behavior. Hermes is intelligent, and he truly believes he does not have to live by the same rules as everyone else.
His brightness and ambition make Hermes want to strive to have more in life, as he is confident in his abilities, and usually gets what he wants, although he may not use the traditional route to get there. At first Zeus was tolerant of Hermes when he stole Apollo’s cows, but later Zeus took a more firm approach in handling Hermes. This is important, because parents who have double standards cause their children harm, and Zeus’s smiling look the other way when Hermes was a baby would have harmed his development if continued.
A young Hermes man likes to test limits and see how far he can push boundaries. He may drop out of college to focus more attention on new inventions or innovative businesses that he thinks have potential for him. A Hermes man does not care about approval of others, unless he has Zeus or Apollo qualities. He succeeds because his work fascinates his inventive mind, and has commercial potential. But when a corporate mentality management style comes into the picture, a Hermes man moves on.
Steve Jobs of Apple computers is a great example of a Hermes man, brilliant and creative, but only wanting to work on his own terms. So the restless Hermes can go two ways: he can be seen as a drifter, thief and liar, or may delve into spiritual, philosophical or psychological interests, a path taken by Richard Alpert, the Harvard psychology professor who left a brilliant career to be a guru in India. He is now known as Ram Dass, a spiritual teacher, a Hermes man who can be identified with Hermes, the Guide of Souls. Let us recall that Steve Jobs of Apple computers became a Buddhist!
A Hermes man is similar to the god: he is not going to be a number in a company or do things by the book. His individuality and diverse interests drive him to finding alternate routes and solutions to problems. He is an opportunist, able to grasp the significance or a person or idea and seize the opportunity the moment it presents itself. Add his communication and negotiation skills, and a Hermes man can go beyond normal limitations to accomplish what he wants.
Hermes-Style Love Life
Charming Hermes men can suddenly appear in a woman’s life, but can disappear just as quickly, as he is very elusive, and does not like being tied down. Hermes is a Don Juan, when he is interested in a certain woman, she is something new to explore, someone exciting. But once he figures her out, he gets the urge to move on. He can get along with women who accept him and don’t have expectations of fidelity and responsibilities in a relationship that he does not want to fulfill.
A Hermes with a darker side may manipulate and seduce women, but really has no intention of keeping any promises he made. As a young man he wants to explore sex because he likes to experiment with various people in a variety of ways. He may be straight or gay. Even if he is straight, he has had more fantasies about having sex with men than other types of men. Regardless of his sexual orientation, Hermes will have a bisexual and nonjudgmental attitude, as he fathered Hermaphroditus, the bisexual god.
One potentiality of the Hermes archetype is that he will remain an adolescent forever. He is capable of committing himself to a career and a woman, but expects to come and go as he pleases. A marriage of two very independent souls can work though. Greek households have a “herm”, a pillar that stands outside of the house, and a round hearth burning in the center of the main room. Hermes can marry a Hestia type woman who is capable, calm, and will tend to all the household issues on her own. She is an inwardly centered woman who enjoys solitude.
A Hermes man will have a successful marriage with an independent woman like Hestia who belongs to the “virgin goddess” group, not because she is a virgin, but because she can be alone and enjoys her quiet time. You could consider Jacqueline Kennedy as an Athena woman, due to her love of horseback riding, or a Hestia woman, independent all the time while JFK ran the country and his numerous affairs. Aphrodite and Hermes were mythologically linked and it worked, because both were not possessive and were open to many experiences. Both can become intensely involved in whatever they are currently doing, she in creative work, he in finding his latest challenge. An irregular living arrangement can work well for these two.
Aphrodite, Lover of Hermes
Hermes, a Seeker of Spiritual Truths
Children of Hermes are often like him, and he fails to set boundaries for them, or even be around much for them. He is playful and will enjoy adventures with his children, as he has imagination, but will leave most of the child rearing to the Mother. If Hermes matures well, and found work that was challenging and materially rewarding, his middle years will offer him even more opportunities, for growth, travel or diversity. A Hermes man who evolved will be a wise guide for his friends, as he knows about many paths traveled. He may be an astute businessman, a psychologist who can help others with their goals, or a politician.
A typical Hermes is exploring, meeting new people, intrigued by new ideas, and probably sees death as a new adventure. But if he did not find success when younger, he will find it harder to hide his lack of substance, even though he may still have charm. A sociopathic or antisocial Hermes may end up in disgrace or in jail. If he stayed the adolescent Hermes into old age, he may end up as a homeless wanderer, or one who does odd jobs at different intervals for small bits of cash. Many Hermes types end up in Veteran’s Hospitals, or other institutions, just to find shelter.
Hermes mythology shows the two gods most important to him, his brother Apollo and his Father, Zeus, have traits that are good for Hermes to emulate. Apollo was ruled by clarity and reason, and was never fooled by Hermes trickery. If Hermes develops clear sightedness and reasoning abilities, he can learn not to rationalize himself. The Apollo archetype is a dominant one and almost unavoidable. Zeus ruled with a firm hand, and was not ambiguous when he gave instructions. The Hermes man needs to learn to respect authority, and fulfill his commitments. If Hermes is part of an old boy’s network, he can prosper in his personal life by putting his communication and mental gifts to work.
Hermes never married or had a consort. His one great love was Aphrodite, but she was married to Hephaestus and had other lovers who attracted her. Hermes wanted her, but at first she would ignore him. Zeus felt sorry for Hermes, and sent an eagle to steal one of her golden sandals while she was bathing. Hermes then offered the sandal back in return for favors, and she was willing. A Hermes man can feel love if some woman becomes his Aphrodite. He needs a challenge, someone he wants but cannot easily have. Hermes also needs someone to help bring out some deeper emotions in him, so he can experience his vulnerability more. Like Apollo, Hermes can grow as a person by developing Dionysus traits, relating through his anima or inner woman.
Hermes also has the potential to be a seeker of meaning of spiritual truths. He seeks these truths by guiding souls back when he ventures into Hades (or his unconscious). Hermes is drawn to what is sacred, to the mysteries of death and the afterlife, and is not complete traveling only one path. Hermes is willing to pass on any information that he has learned.
In the rape of Persephone myth, Hermes went down into the Underworld to return her to her Mother, Demeter. This myth was the background for initiates who no longer feared death. The Eleusinian mysteries predated Christianity, and celebrated the return of Persephone. Hermes plays a similar role and saves his brother Dionysus as a child in his mythology. Persephone symbolizes the soul, and Dionysus the divine child. Hermes as an archetype is found in people who are in touch with these aspects in themselves and in those who seek spiritual meaning in their lives.
Bolen, Jean Shinoda, M.D. 1989 Gods in Everyman A New Psychology of Men's Lives & Loves Publisher Harper and Row New York Hermes, Messenger God and Guide of Souls--Communicator, Trickster, Traveler pgs. 162-191
Jung, Carl G. 1964 Man and His Symbols Publisher Dell Publishing New York Symbols of Transcendence pgs.154-155
Campbell, Joseph 1964 The Masks of God: Occidental Mythology Publisher Penguin Group New York Hellenism Chapter Six pgs. 237-271
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© 2011 Jean Bakula