Categories: Gods > The “Twelve” Gods
Gods > Cosmocrators (Planets)
It will be some time before I can (gods willing) write a full article that remotely does justice to the amount of material relating to Hermes that still exists. But for now, I am compiling some information about him here, drawing from the Neoplatonists, the so-called Greek Magical Papyri (PGM), and a few other texts. I am especially interested in illustrating what the Neoplatonists meant by the Hermaic chain or series, and in providing a useful basis for practitioners. This concept was not shared by the writers of the PGM, but as it was formulated in part to make sense of texts like them, it seems only right to apply it. The structure of the article at this point is rather associative, and will hopefully be improved upon in the future.
Now, as the ancient priests attributed their writings to “Hermes, the god ruling (hēgemōn) the logoi” (Iamblichus, Response to Porphyry 1.1), that is, of words, discourses, rationality, reasonings, patterns and proportions, so let this work be dedicated to him. “And let us pray to the logioi gods that they may grant good to us and to these efforts, and that we may reach the end of this work!” (Syrianus, On Hermogenes, p.2.)
2 The Hermaic series, according to the Neoplatonists
Perhaps the most fundamental Neoplatonic text concerning Hermes is a work based on lectures by Syrianus on Plato’s Phaedrus, put into writing by the auspiciously named Hermias. The Platonic dialogue contains a narrative about the god Theuth (Coptic Thōyth, standard Greek Thōth, generally translated as ‘Hermes’) inventing writing and presenting his invention to his king, the god Ammon. Hermias explains that, because of the security of their country from natural calamities, “among the Egyptians, inventions are more immortal; and so what the Greeks attribute to Palamedes or Prometheus, the philosopher refers to Egypt and the god overseeing (ephoros) the logoi, Hermes” (On Phaedrus p. 254): “the rational (logikos) god Hermes invented every art (tekhnē) and rational invention” (ibid. p. 255).
He then comments on the fact that Plato refers to Theuth as both a god (theos) and as a daimōn: “It is useful to know that there are angels, daemons, heroes and humans related to each god. Now, because the invention had to come from the god Hermes to humanity by some intermediary, since divine things are not in unmediated proximity to humanity, and the daemonic nature is in the middle, for this reason, he mentioned the daemon Theuth, transmitting the inventions to us below him. For he is calling Hermes Theuth” (Hermias, On Phaedrus p. 255).
I once misunderstood this to mean that Theuth was being taken as a daemon of Hermes, but that is not the case. Theuth is treated as the Egyptian name of the god, and by Neoplatonic convention, daemons share the name of the god to whom they are related, the summit of their series: “Around each god, there is an untold multitude of daemons, honored with the same names of their ruling gods; for they delight in being called Apollōnes, Dies (‘Zeuses’) and Hermai, insofar as they are moulded in the character (idiotēs) of their own gods” (Proclus, On Alcibiades 69).
This also applies to certain souls of the Hermaic series or chain (seira). “For example, some souls that proceed from the Athenaic series and preserve the form of life proper to their own order unchanged, give themselves a name fitting both their activity and their goddess […] And I think that, in the same way, there are also Dionysoi, Asklēpioi, Hermai and Hēraklees, sharing the name of the gods overseeing (ephoroi) them, who have come forth with a divine mission for the benefit of these places here” (Proclus, On Cratylus 81). But not just these extraordinary souls come from the gods; each human soul has its own “leader of the herd” (agelarkhēs) or “herder” (nomeus), whom it can choose to follow or disregard (ibid.).
And what is “the form of life proper to their own order”? Hermaic souls are suited to a “rational (logikos) life” (Olympiodorus, On Alcibiades 20), because, as has been mentioned, Hermes is the overseer (ephoros) of logos (Hermias, On Phaedrus p. 26) or lord (despotēs) of logoi (Proclus, On the Works and Days 79). For instance, geometry is a “Hermaic gift” (Proclus, On Euclid p. 50), but so is mathematics more generally, since in a dream, it was revealed to Proclus that his soul was that of the Pythagorean arithmetician Nicomachus of Gerasa, belonging to the Hermaic chain (Marinus, Life of Proclus). His student Isidore, according to Damascius, had a nearly square face, “the sacred type of Hermes Logios” (Philosophical History fr. 13 Athanassiadi), for reasons that will become clear below.
After gods, angels, daemons, heroes and the rational souls of human beings, there follow irrational animals, plants, and inanimate objects like stones. These too have their gods.
Hermias mentions that the bird ibis is sacred to Hermes, “because it has a relationship with its related god; for the gods carry their own activities down to the last forms. And (the head? body?) has a heart-like shape, because the heart is the principle of the living being. Further, the ends of its wings are black, but the rest white: the logos shows that the truth is clear inside, but hidden to the outside. On their outside, the logoi are concealed, but inside, when disclosed, they reveal divine images (agalmata), as Alcibiades also said about Socrates in the Symposium. Further, its steps are symmetrical from foot to foot. And in the middle, it lays its egg through the mouth. Likewise, the uttered logos (i.e., the spoken word), which is our progeny, is uttered by the mouth” (Hermias, On Phaedrus, p. 254).
Besides, the dog is called “the last trace of the Hermaic series” (Hermias, On Phaedrus p. 26), which explains Socrates’ strange oath “by the dog”.
The mythical plant moly is called Hermaic by several Neoplatonists, but usually interpreted allegorically as logos by them (e.g. Elias, On Categories p. 119).
Each of the planets is ascribed a metal; that of Hermes is tin (Olympiodorus, On Meteorology, p. 267).
3 The god Hermes himself and his sphere
Although different souls belong to different gods, Proclus refers to each of the planetary gods, and sometimes other deities, as “our lord” or “our lady”. So the god Hermes, who is called Thōyth in Eyptian and Mercurius in Latin (see, e.g., Martianus Capella, Philologia 102, where Thōyth is declared Mercury’s true divine name), and embodied in the planet Mercury, is of importance not just to the likes of Proclus, but all humanity: “logos (i.e., thought) and the emission of logos (i.e., speech) is common to all, and for this reason, ‘Hermes is common’” (Proclus, On Alcibiades 104). This phrase, koinos Hermēs, was proverbial (Simplicius, On Epictetus p. 132).
Even today, of course, the planetary gods are omnipresent in the names of the weekdays, with Wednesday, ‘Woden’s day’, being a translation of ‘Mercury’s day’, or the day of Hermes (cf. John Philoponus, De opificio mundi, p. 307). In the ancient lunar month, the fourth day was also sacred to Hermes (Scholia on Works and Days 770), not to mention all his other Greek and Roman festivals, or astrologically auspicious times indicated by the movements of the planet.
According to the late Neoplatonists, the ultimate origin of the Hermaic series is one of the henads (‘ones’) around the First Cause, the One. But its proximate source is the “fontal summit of Hermes” (mentioned in two of Psellus’ summaries of Chaldaic theology), a divine intellect, contained, like all the gods whose series reach into the cosmos, within and under Zeus the Demiurge. (“There is a hierarchy [taxis] even among the gods”, says Hermias [On Phaedrus, p. 256]; but while subordinate to Zeus, Hermes is still one “of the first, highest and most principal gods, and of the higher order” [ibid., p. 254].) The intellect of Hermes is divinized by participating in the divine henad just as our bodies are ensouled by participating in human souls.
Now, we humans are only bodies animated by souls (or souls animating bodies, depending on your perspective). But the gods exist across all realms: they have bodies, souls, intellects and henads, almost like a series of nesting dolls. The divine body of Hermes is the planet Mercury, called ‘Hermes’ or ‘star of Hermes’ in Greek). In his embodiment as an encosmic god, or ‘god within the cosmos’, Hermes rules one of the twelve cosmic spheres, elementally described as “aetherial water” (Proclus, On Timaeus, vol. 2, p. 48). According to Sallustius VI, he is one of the gods “harmonizing” the cosmos.
As there are souls sowed into the Earth (namely us humans), there are also “particular souls” sowed into Mercury as “around each of the other (planets), and before the souls, daemons complete the heards (agelai) of which they are the rulers (hēgemones)” and of course there are heroes and angels there too. But their spheres also contain certain gods, “as for example concerning our lady the Moon, there are certain goddesses within her, both Hekate and Artemis”. “From which it is clear that truly each of the planets is the leader of a herd (agelarkhēs) of many gods fillings its respective orbit” (Proclus, On Timaeus, vol. 3, pp. 131–132), that is, not the celestial body, but the whole sphere in which it lies, and which is ruled by the same principal deity. (Albeit some gods do share in the planetary divine bodies, Damascius, On Parmenides, p. 224.) These subordinate deities have their own, independent fontal intellects, but in the cosmos, they are like so many stars following the motion of their leader in the same way that the fixed stars all move together. However, unlike the fixed stars, their divine bodies are invisible to the human eye (ibid., p. 131).
Martianus Capella gives an account of the sphere of Mercury. It contains a crowd of 2000 attendants (ministri = daemons?), “according to a certain Syrian” (Iamblichus?); the goddess Facundia (Eloquence), who, according to Etruscan tradition, is the god’s wife; and Maia, his mother, in both the Greek and the Latin language. To the latter, he gives a bilanx, probably meaning a merchant’s scales, as she like her son was worshipped by merchants. Capella also locates a goddess whom he identifies as “either Themis, Astraea or Erigone” in the sphere, but by this, he means the zodiac sign Virgo, which of course is contained in the sphere of the fixed stars, not that of Mercury (Philologia 170–180).
4 Hermes, his gifts and powers
Mercury creates symmetry (symmetria) of proportion (logos), bringing about the differentiation into diurnal and noctornal or masculine and feminine, while Venus brings together what he has separated. Thus, they both co-contribute and harmonize the creation of the Sun. (Proclus, On Timaeus, p. 66 and 69; cf. Sallustius above.)
There is also a power or illumination of Hermes into the Earth, although the Earth is in the first instance a goddess in her own right. This terrestrial power is called the Chthonic Hermes (Proclus, On Timaeus, vol. 3, p. 140). Proclus said “somewhere” in a lost work that the one whom the Greeks call Chthonic Hermes is the same as the Etruscan Tages (John Lydus, On Omens 3).
-planet: phônêtikon (Tim. 1-34; 3.354)
-learning imitation of hegemonikos Hermes: ?? (Crat.?)
-god of profits Crat. 22
-properties: Phaedr. 167; Rep. 2.340 & 351
-Rep. 1.36(64?) peithous demiourg-
-Hermes (specifically the planet Mercury) is the demiurge of “the motions of imagination (phantasia)” (Proclus, On Timaeus, vol. 3, p. 69: with context).
-In Tim. 3.64: Hermes is life by essence to intellect
-There is also an illumination (ellampsis) from Hermes into the Earth, a particular power that is called the chthonic Hermes (Proclus, On Timaeus, vol. 3, p. 140). Tages: Lydus De Ostentis 3
5 Hermes and education
According to Proclus, “these [following things] are all examples of Hermaic education (paideumata): he is the god overseeing (ephoros)
- “the gymnasia, which is why they used to set up Hermai in the wrestling-schools (palaistrai),
- “music, which is why he has been honored as Lyraios (‘he of the lyre’) in heaven,*
- “mathematics, which is why they refer the invention of geometry, arithmetic and all such things to him,
- “and logic (dialektikē); for the god is the inventor of all logos, if he is ‘the one who is of a mind to speak’, as we have learned in the Cratylus (408a).
[*This is probably an indirect reference to the constellation Lyre, which is supposed to be the lyre of Hermes, not necessarily a reference to an otherwise unattested cultic byname of the god.]
“So, since he presides (proestōs) over all education (paideia), he is rightly (called) Hēgemonios (‘he of guiding’), leading us to the intelligible and elevating the soul from the mortal region, directing the different herds of souls, dispersing their sleep and oblivion as chorus-leader of remembrance (anamnēsis), the goal of which is the unadulterated intellection of the divine beings” (Proclus, On Alcibiades, p. 195).
In the last sentence, Proclus is creatively adopting Hermes’ role as conductor of souls or psychopomp (cf. Alexander, Pythagoric Memoirs), and his staff, which according to myth can put people to sleep or waken them, to a Platonic soteriological framework.
In the Athens of Plato’s time, Proclus goes on to say, only vestiges of the various Hermaic paideumata survived: the teaching of grammata (‘letters’, or more generously ‘literature’ or ‘grammar’) aiming at dialectic, lyre-playing at music, and wrestling at gymnastics (Proclus, On Alcibiades, p. 195). Education in such disciplines is especially appropriate to youths, since different stages of a person’s life are assigned to the different planets in turn, in the sequence Moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn. “We have gone through all this to show that letters and the entire education of children depends on the Hermaic series” (Proclus, On Alcibiades, p. 196).
6 Maia and the vexed issue of Hermaic angels
In Martianus Capella, two sheep are sacrificed to Maia and “the master of wealth” (lucrorum potens), Mercury (Philologia 180), reflecting a historical tradition of their joint worship; in fact, there was once a Roman shrine to the pair near my hometown, Regensburg, dedicated by some merchants.
A fragment from Proclus quoted by John Lydus (On the Months 4.76) explains their relationship as follows: “Maia is the one who leads the things hidden in the unmanifest forth into the manifest, very much like midwives (maiai); Hermes is her son as the logos present throughout all things. In eternal and primary manner, he takes the cohesion of beings in the unmanifest and reveals it in the separation and providence and logoi, creating a chain, succession and continuity, as the expresser of the uncertain passions of the soul in us.”
We can add Proclus, On Cratylus 25: “To investigate is instilled in our souls from the mother of Hermes, Maia, but finding (or ‘invention, discovery’) from the Hermaic series, because the more universal genera of the gods are active before the more particular ones, as well as with and after them.” By this logic, Maia must be the the deity of higher rank, and not subservient to Hermes as leader of his herd, which is what the narrative of Martianus Capella would suggest (although that is perhaps a too literal reading).
This is confirmed by another passage, in which Proclus explains that both learning (mathēsis) and discovery/invention (heuresis) are divine gifts from the Hermaic series, “but the latter insofar as this god is the son of Maia, daughter of Atlas, the former insofar as he is the messenger (angelos) of Zeus. For by showing forth the paternal will, he instills learning into the souls; but by proceeding from Maia, who investigation is contained within secretly, he makes a gift of discovery to his nurslings” (Proclus, On Alcibiades 188; cf. Olympiodorus, On Alcibiades 62, where Hermes is called “overseer of knowledge [gnōseōs ephoros]”).
This complicates the picture of a single series depending from each god, with angels as their first attendants. How can Hermes be the angel or messenger of Zeus (also cf. Proclus, On Works and Days 85) if he is a god in his own right? Part of the answer lies in the fact that angels too constitute a series, and it is Hermes and Iris on whom this series depends; “according to the inspired poets (theologoi) of the Greeks, they are the rulers of the angelic series, he of the masculine, she of the feminine, and they serve the demiurges of the universe” (Proclus, On Republic, vol. 2, p. 255); and of course Zeus is the primary Demiurge.
Does this mean that “our lord Hermes, although he is an archangelic monad, is hymned as a god” (Proclus, On Cratylus 117)? Or should it be “even insofar as he is an archangelic monad”, the first among all angels, “he is hymned as a god”? In short, I do not know where to place “archangelic Hermes” (Proclus, On Cratylus 79) in the ontological hierarchy. If he belongs to the obscure rank of archangelic gods, he is firstly a real god (against what Proclus says), and superior to the planetary Hermes. If he is simply the archangel of Hermes, then another Proclus passage would seem to rule out his being the foremost of all angels: “They mythologized that the children [of Atlas] are the seven Pleiades: Celaeno, Sterope, Merope, Electra, Alcyone, Maia and Taÿgete. These are all archangelic powers set over the archangels of the seven spheres, Celaeno of the Saturnine sphere, Sterope of Jupiter’s, Merope of Mars’s, Electra of the Sun’s, Alcyone of Venus’s, Maia of Mercury’s and Taygete of the Moon’s” (Proclus, On Works and Days 383–387). If he is the planet, then how is he not a god, and how do we account for the last quotation?
In all, I do not know how to resolve this complicated problem, but at any rate it makes sense that Maia, being of a higher rank than her son, should have a fixed star among the Pleiades as her divine body, while Hermes “merely” has a planet for his.
7 Iconography of Hermes
Hermes was sometimes represented by ‘herms’, sculptures in which the torso was simply a cuboid, with only the bust and a phallus differentiated from the abstract shape (and sometimes even by heaps of unhewn stones, called hermaxes).
-number (Phaedr. 139). Nicomachus.
The square belongs to Hermes (Damascius, On Parmenides p. 127)
When depicted in full, Hermes was sometimes given wings (like the Muses, Sirens, Nike, Iris and Eros, as noted by Porphyry, On Abstinence 3.16).
-winged: Phaedr. 128
Iconography: my thingimajig on shapes re: hermes
As all logoi are Hermaic, “the erect Hermes is the overseer (ephoros) of physical logoi” (Proclus, On Timaeus, vol. 1, p. 148).
“According to common conceptions, they have assigned a spear to Athena, a trident to Poseidon, and a staff to Hermes. For, being logos (‘reason’), he can calm those who are angered, but make those who are thoughtless eager about logoi.”
Venit etiam quaedam decens ac pudicissima puellarum, quae praesul domus custosque Cylleniae, uerum Themis aut Astraea aut Erigone dicebatur; spicas manu caelatumque ex hebeno pinacem argumentis talibus afferebat:
erat in medio auis Aegyptia, quae ibis memoratur ab incolis,
sed cum petaso uertex atque os pulcherrimum uidebatur, quod quidem serpentis gemini lambebat implexio; subter quaedam praenitens uirga, cuius caput auratum, media glauca, piceus finis exstabat; sub dextra testudo minitansque nepa, a laeua caprea,
sed dilophon alitem, quae sit oscinum <im>mitior, in certaminis temptamenta pulsabat.
Ipsa uero ibis praenotatum gerit nomen mensis cuiusdam Memphitici.
Hanc tabellam cum ingestam sibi cognosceret uirgo uenerata, licet sponsi cognosceret argumentum, tamen non ausa est sine supplicatione transire.
8 Filling in gaps in the Hermaic series
-Nymphs: Proclus, In Crat.?; On Phaedrus 264
-appearance of daemon: Procl. In Rep. 1.113 [Scholia?]
using Sallustius and the thing on telestic
For cinquefoil as a plant of Hermes, see the Poem On Herbs. For gemstones of the seven planets, and their engravings, see On Stones and Their Engravings. … Lithika Kerygmata … Cyranides …
Statues: PGM IV.2359 – 2372, PGM IV.2373 – 2440 (names), V.370 – 446 (this is the big one)
PGM V.172: Hermes – theft spell (cf. Sextus)
VII.664 – 685: hymn & names
VII.919 – 924 (characters!)
VIII.1-63 (most important for filling in details!!!) + Lydus confirms association with serpent
PGM XVIIb : hymn
XIII: incense and flower
. Alexander Rhetor, From What Things One Must Praise A God .
9 Summing things up
In a word, Hermes is logos, or more precisely, the overseer (ephoros) of logos.
He is a divine henad, a divine intellect, a divine soul embodied in the planet Mercury. (For a different philosophical articulation of Hermes as logos, see Porphyry, On Cult Statues.)
Although grammatically masculine, he is said to be ‘masculo-feminine’ or bigendered (Proclus, On Timaeus, vol. 1, p. 46).
His name in Greek is Hermēs; in Latin, Mercurius; in Coptic, Thōyth, which according to Martianus Capella is his true name. (Other languages may be added, but Greek, Latin and Egyptian were in many ways the most important languages of Ancient Mediterranean polytheism, at least during the Roman imperial period.)
From practical ritual texts, we also have some extraordinary logoi that could be understood as names of Hermes, albeit only one ritual (PGM VIII.1–63, the Binding Love Spell of Astrampsychus) explicitly identifies such names:
- Firstly, there are his “names in heaven: Lamphthen Ouōthi Ouasthen Ouōthi Ouamenōth Enthomouch”;
- then, his “barbarous (barbarika) names: Pharnathar Barachēl Chtha”;
- his “true name […] inscribed on the sacred stele in the shrine at Hermopolis […]: Osergariach Nomaphi”;
- and a “second name […]: Abrasax”.
- The rite contains another name that must refer to him, “Phthoron Phthionē Thōyth”,
- and other “great names” which may or may not: “Iahō Sabaōth Adōnaie Ablanathanalba Akrammachamarei”.
The latter are found in many other rituals as well, as is Abrasax. (PGM V.439 also refers to a 100-letter name of Hermes, but the empty space left for it is not filled in.)
The (kata)chthonic Hermes (i.e., of the earth/underworld) in particular is encountered in an address to the gods of the underworld that is extant in multiple versions. In SEG 8.574, a curse tablet, he is called Hermēs Katachthonios Thoouth. SEG 38:1837 adds an incomprehensible name to this with Hermias[!] Katachthonios Thōouth Phōkentazepseu. An expanded form is found in PGM IV.338ff, Hermēs Katachthonios Thōouth Phōkentazepseu Aerkhthathou Misonktai Kalbanachambrē (with a slightly shorter variant form found in another curse tablet, SEG 26.1717: Hermēs Katachthonios Thōouth Phōkensepseu Erektathou Misonktaik).
His characters, or one version of them at least, are as follows:
His number is 4 and his shape the square.
There are a number of surviving Hymns to Hermes/Mercury, including two Orphic Hymns, one to Hermes, one to Chthonic Hermes. (Not to mention Egyptian-language devotional texts, of which I am shamefully ignorant.)
[iconography and such…]
the rational beings of his series
Hermes proceeds from the goddess Maia, and his archangels are ruled by the archangelic power Maia, embodied in one star of the Pleiades. The archangelic Hermes (whatever that means) is the monad or source of the (masculine) angelic series, and the messenger/angel of Zeus.
The daemons of Hermes are called Hermai; […]
The heroes (and heroic souls) of Hermes are (probably) those who in myth are accounted as his sons and daughters, such as Keryx […]
There are nymphs, embodied souls inferior to heroes but superior to our souls, who cooperate with Hermes, and are in his series.
Humans in the series of Hermes devote themselves, or at least should devote themselves, to a life of logos. There have been some incarnated souls that (by divine guidance or mission) preserved the character of the Hermaic series so completely they became known as Hermes.
[stages of human life and such]
irrational and inanimate members of his series
[animals, plants, stones and metals]