The Greek Gods – What if these deities were alive today?

My personal view is that the polytheism of the Greeks gives us a rich language in which to describe experience. In this issue I look at Hermes.

Hermes is often called the god of communications and commerce. So, if he hadn’t been brand-snatched by a courier company, he might have been an icon on every screen. But perhaps not. The nub lies in the nuance as with all the Greek deities. Never still, never grounded with his winged helmet and sandals, he quicksilvered over every ancient business deal, throw of the dice, invention, and journey; he was the most pervasive of all the gods. Yet Hermes is also the one who accompanied souls on their way to the Underworld (and occasionally back from it).  He carried dreams to their recipients; he carried messages from the gods to mortals. His image was placed at road junctions, at city boundaries. He is the god of transitions and transformations.

Hermes with his caduceus- entwined snakes on a staff, symbol of his power. The image is in a cup by the Brygos painter 485-80 BCE
at the British Museum.

In the Odyssey he persuades the nymph Calypso to release Odysseus from the sexual slavery she has imposed on him, and he gives Odysseus the moly herb which guards him while he negotiates with Circe. He’s facilitating here two major transitions for Odysseus in his journey from war-torn warrior to level headed King of his homeland. In the Iliad he accompanies Priam on his night time journey to the tent of Achilles to beg for the return of his son Hector’s body and is present as the King of Troy and his enemy find common ground in grief.

His presence can be felt now at moments of intuition, changes in perception, sudden dawning of understanding. He’s there at points of connection, where an insight, an acceptance, a warmth or empathy changes the dynamic. He’s there when a flash of inspiration finds the correct word or feeling which changes a negotiation or seals a deal. He’s the invisible facilitator, the energy that smooths the path and tips the balance. 

One of the myths about his youth tells how he spotted a tortoise and immediately imagined how it might make a musical instrument – the first. The tortoise had an unexpectedly shortened life but was immortalised in the form of a lyre. Hermes then used this to beguile Apollo when he was berating Hermes for stealing his cattle. In this guise, Hermes is like the handsome younger son who ‘gets away with murder’ because of his breathtaking audacity, wit and charm. He’s the one who comes up with a left of field solution which eludes everyone else, beautiful in its simplicity. The god of sleight of hand.

The story doesn’t shy away from revealing the element of ruthlessness which is so often present in acts of invention. Creativity usually contains some element of destruction, even if expressed in the act of selection, the sharpening of a tool.  It reconnects us with his more exacting role as guide of the soul.

The internet is perhaps his revenge for our neglect of him, with a style of communication stripped of gesture, tone, body language and eye contact, and with its gluttonous appetite for imagery in which the particular and the nuanced easily drown. Sensing the loss of his usual channels of power he sends us dumbing down. 

Instead of an icon on our screens, his image might be more appropriate at all our cafés, our community hubs, at Emmaus and most of all at Open, home of the refugee buddy project, absolutely his natural home. 

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