Feature image: Hermes is depicted psychopomping on the side of a vase. Credit: Wikipedia Commons, Public Domain
Psychopomps are those mythical and (almost certainly) fictional figures charged with the duty of taking the souls of the living to the realms of the dead. And like dying itself, psychopomps come in many fun variations worth discussing, from Japanese suicide demons, to the Grim Reaper, to even dolphins. (Dolphins may not be worth discussing, but it is interesting that they’re psychopomps in Greco-Roman AND Australian Aboriginal traditions. Anyway, I think that’s interesting. Fine.) But for now, let us consider that loveable thief and phallic potentate…
Apart from being the namesake of the accountant on Futurama, Hermes is probably best known as the messenger god of Greek mythology, often depicted wearing winged shoes. In fact, Hermes is more or less where the term “psychopomp” comes from, psychopompos (“soul leader”) being one of his many epithets.
Robert Garland, in his great book The Greek Way of Death, points to the notion that the ancient Greeks seemed unable to arrive at a consensus as to what the underworld is like (many sources say windy). But as Richard Stromer points out in “Hermes as God of Liminality and the Guide of Souls,” the ancient Greeks thought souls that were not guided to the underworld were at risk of wandering the earth in despair as ghosts. Ferrying the souls of the dead safely to the land of the dead is a serious job and a solemn duty, but for the most part Hermes is neither. He’s also a trickster god and the god of magic. But for a trickster god, he’s not great at fooling people.
Hermes is an Evil Baby
Hermes starts out his godly career as a liar and thief. And by starts, I mean this happens his first day out of the womb. Story goes that a hungry newborn Hermes walked away from his mother and stole multiple cows to eat. To hide the theft, he made them walk backwards into a cave while he wore special sandals he’d invented to make the tracks difficult to follow. When he got caught, he lied, saying, “Why would I steal cows? I’m literally one day old!” This lie, though absolutely reasonable apart from the fact that one-day-olds don’t talk, proved unconvincing.
But Apollo, the owner of the cows, was delighted by this dishonest infant. Apollo still takes Hermes before Zeus to answer for the theft, which Hermes again denies. And Zeus, for whatever reason, thinks a diabolical baby is hilarious and, according to Homer, “laughed out loud to see his evil-plotting child well and cunningly denying guilt about the cattle.” (Unfortunately for the ancient Greeks, the important tragedies and cautionary tales The Omen, Damien: The Omen II, and The Omen III: The Final Conflict would not be released for several years.)
Zeus makes Hermes the god of thieves and of shepherds, and also makes Hermes the sole messenger to Hades, the Greek realm of the dead, and thus Hermes becomes a psychopomp.
Hermes the Psychopomp
Shepherding the dead to Hades becomes a big part of his gig, notably taking the suitors Odysseus kills at the end of The Odyssey (spoiler alert!) through the dank passageways that lead to the underworld.
But Hermes is less straightforward than many of the world’s other psychopomps and takes souls every which way. In his Metamorphoses, Antoninus Liberalis relates how, when Heracles’s mom died, Hermes pulled what the ancient Greeks called a “switcheroo” and stole her out of her coffin, leaving a rock in her place. Hermes then took her to the Isles of the Blest, reserved for those who would not die, to marry the judge of the dead. But as with the cattle, the ruse is soon uncovered, when Heracles’s family finds the rock and realizes they’ve been had. But by then there was nothing they could do about the body of their beloved relative getting stolen and that’s basically the end of the story (ha ha?).
Hermes also brings the dead back. According to the Hymn to Demeter, it’s Hermes who tells the King of the Dead to let Persephone go. And Homer says in the Odyssey that when Laodameia built a statue of her dead husband Protesilaos and started treating it like it was alive (like a body pillow but infinitely sadder), Hermes brings him back for a bit. Though only for a bit, and then the disappointment of her husband leaving again leads Laodameia to kill herself. This article is more fun later I promise.
The Fun Part with Penises (See?)
Hermes is different than a lot of other psychopomps in part because people for the most part were not scared of him. Many saw him as more of a positive figure, and according to Garland the Greeks were wont to ask him for a painless death and safe passage to the other side. People would also ask Hermes to go after people they didn’t like, but that’s another story.
Hermes was also associated with magic. The golden wand he carried as a symbol of his status as messenger (his “caduceus”) and would use in guiding the souls of the dead seems a likely precursor to the “magic wands” of later years.
Statues of Hermes called “Herms” or “Herma” would be placed in front of homes or at the boundaries between towns to ward off evil. Herms were often not full statues, however, and instead consisted of a blank slab of rock with Hermes’s head on top and his genitals about halfway down. This plays into a larger theme running through the ancient Mediterranean of phallic symbols being associated with good luck and protection.
Herma could also have a civic aspect. It is said that the tyrant Hipparchus placed Herma around with little inscriptions reading things like, “don’t lie to your friends,” and, “walk with good intent.”
The bad news is that everybody dies. But the good news is that when you die, you might bump into Hermes, and he seems pretty cool.
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