Who Was Hermes Who Brought Persephone Back From the Underworld?
Hermes, mentioned in this video, is an extraordinary archetype in his own right, and what we know about him enlarges our appreciation of his role in the story of Persephone and Hades. Let’s explore some of the things we learn about him from the myths.
As usual, we will discover in the story of Hermes certain details that would have immediate associations for any listeners in ancient Greece, reminding them of details from other stories that they knew and took for granted, details that “fleshed out” the Hermes story with additional meaning, details perhaps not readily known to us today. So it is useful for us to check out what at first glance seems like unrelated details but that can prove to be part of a meaningful web of associations that expands our understanding.
Hermes is described in texts as the “youngest” Olympian, and not only the vigor and daring of his young manhood, but even stories of his childhood that show his precocious creative intelligence, his audacity in daring the unthinkable, and his clever ability to pull off through tricks and subterfuge. All these qualities will stay with him and mark his particular nature as he shows up as archetype in our own psyches.
So here we go:
It seems that while Hermes was still a precocious child, he decided to steal some cows from the god Apollo’s special herd.
Now cattle rustling is a common motif in the Greek myths (as in Celtic and other culture’s myths). In ancient times, the very ownership of cattle was significant.
The domestication of animals, particularly cattle, was one of the most significant turning points in human history, and the ownership of and control of livestock gave individuals, from about 10,000BC forward, a kind of value and power that others, did not have; those without their own herds had to depend for their food upon the hunting of wild animals, the success of which was a chancy thing seemingly at the caprice of Mother Nature over which they had no control. So cattle ownership gave one special status and power.
One of Hercules famous “labors” was to steal cattle from a giant strongman, Geryon, who was said to be a grandson of Medusa. Geryon lived on an island at the very western edge of the known world where the setting sun turned everything red, including the cattle of Geryon. Now, these red cattle were guarded by a two headed hound, Orthus, a brother to the famous hound Cerberus that guarded the entrance to the underworld of Hades. Indeed, it was said that Hades himself kept a herd of cattle on the same island, and it was Hades’ herdsman who informed Geryon about Hercules theft of the cattle.
So, if our young Hermes is about the business of stealing cattle, we already have these associations with Hercules when he traveled to the edge of the known world to a place connected to Hades’ realm and the realm of the underworld. Here, you see, we pick up these associations that inform us. Because we know that in our video, it was Hermes, a stealer of cows, who knew the way and was able to travel to Hades to bring Persephone back to the upper world.
Sarpedon’s body carried by Sleep and Death while Hermes watches. C 515 BC. Formerly in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Returned to Italy and exhibited in Rome as of January, 2008. Photo by Jaime Ardiles-Arce, Public Domain via Wikipedia
Another detail in the Hermes myth about Apollo’s herd helps us understand how Hermes was able to travel to Hades realm, to cross the boundaries between worlds, and to negotiate cleverly between Zeus and Hades.
When Hermes stole cattle from Apollo’s herd, he got away with it for a while by a cleverly invented strategy. Using bark, Hermes made new shoes for each of the cattle, which he placed on their hoofs backward, and he invented sandals for himself that also would leave backward tracks where he walked. So, in stealing away the cattle, the tracks left behind were in the opposite direction of the actual direction traveled. (This detail is worth considering when we think about the Hermes archetype in our own psyches, this ability to “cover our tracks” or “double back” on our own directions, etc.) So, when Apollo came to follow the tracks, he found it difficult.
Such cleverness on Hermes part marks him, throughout his history in the myths, and it accounts for the ways he is depicted as having a sometimes mischievous, sometimes cunning, ability to work his way into and out of situations.
Hermes was for a short time a herdsman with these cattle, until his theft was discovered and he was called before Zeus for an accounting. Zeus, himself a clever enough trickster, was amused and appreciative of the young Hermes’ natural talents, and so not only forgave him for the theft, but also made him Zeus’ own messenger, elevating Hermes status considerably.
Meantime Apollo, in dealing with Hermes, had learned that clever Hermes had also invented a musical instrument, the lyre, which he had made from a tortoise shell, gut, and reeds, principally to help him steal those cattle from Apollo’s herd (the music put to sleep those that were protecting the cattle). Apollo appreciated the lyre, so, in settling things up, Hermes gave the lyre to Apollo, and from that point on, Apollo was associated with the lyre. Apollo then taught that other great mythical musician, Orpheus, how to play the lyre, and this was useful to Orpheus when he, like Hermes, made his way to Hades’ underworld on a rescue mission. (Music, as most of us realize, is one way to cross the boundaries between realms, between the ordinary world and the underworlds, between Olympus and Hades.) So, as the inventor of the lyre, Hermes is the originator of this power to make the “music” that allows one to pass these boundaries that are usually closed.
Psychologists refer to Hermes as the archetype who is the mediator between the conscious and unconscious parts of the psyche, and he is the guide for inner journeys.
Also, since Hermes knew the way across boundaries, in the myths he became the guide who escorted souls to the realm of the afterlife in Hades kingdom. Hermes’ image was often shown on gravestones. Phlegon of Tralles said Hermes was invoked to ward off ghosts. In the Homeric hymns, Hermes is a bringer of dreams and a guardian in the night.
So, Hermes has these special powers as a psychopomp, and he knows his way around even ambiguous moral territory. He started out by stealing cows, after all (at one time or another he would stead Poseidon’s trident, Artemis’ arrows, and Aphrodite’s girdle). This ability to understand and even transcend moral boundaries would be a help to one who would deal with mortals as they faced the judgment of the god of the underworld after their deaths, and psychologists recognize the Hermes archetype in themselves as they deal with clients who present their own ambiguous moral dilemmas. Hermes’ abilities enabled him to make his way between celestial and chthonic realms.
So, again, in the myths (and in our inner psychological work), Hermes is the one who has the ability to cross both physical and ambiguous moral boundaries. And since he had been so successful in his encounter with Apollo and Zeus as to become Zeus’ messenger, he was often seen as that one who can convey messages between the divine realms, the underworld, and the world of mortals.
“Oh, mighty messenger of the gods of the upper and lower worlds…” Aeschylus
As messenger, Hermes is skilled at communication, using his cunning intelligence to persuade, to open the mind or open the way to other ways of seeing or being.
And so orators called upon Hermes’ blessings, as they too had to be cunning in communication, had to cross borders of understanding using words. Interpreters too, those who cross language boundaries, rely on Hermes’ skills. And still today the interpretation of texts is named for Hermes, hermeneutics. (He was even said to have invented the alphabet.)
Moving between realms, with special skill as communicator, Hermes can open the mind or open the way to other ways of seeing or being. Epithets for Hermes included Stropheus, “the socket in which the pivot of the door moves” or “door-hinge.” In this regard, he was a protector of the door to the temple and to people’s houses, and he was the opener of the way.
His communication between worlds and ways of being required an ability to shift as needed, hence he is called shifty, “god of many shifts.” In Homer’s Iliad, he is said to be “excellent in all the tricks.” He is a trickster. He had daring, the willingness to take chances, to gamble on good fortune. So Hermes was credited with inventing gambling games (dice or knucklebones) and he was considered the god of luck and wealth.
As would be expected, Hermes was revered by travelers. His name, in the form of herma, was applied to wayside markers and cairns or pile of stones; each traveler added a stone to the pile in honor of Hermes and to maintain the marker for other travelers. Later these boundary markers were pillars made of wood, stone, or bronze, with carved images of Hermes.