Standing at the Crossroads, Part II: Where Hermes Fits In

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Photography by Hermanne Allan Poe
Photography by Hermanne Allan Poe

In my last article in this series, I began exploring the crossroads through the eyes of Hekate for the purpose of understanding Greek Cosmology through her. Hermes, also a deity of the crossroads, shares many roles with her. Each is, in their own right, a messenger of the dead, a psychopomp, and a savior of the lost. They share many other things besides. It stands to reason, therefore, that, even if Hermes’s view of the crossroads isn’t identical, his view and hers can certainly be reconciled. In this article, I will examine the mythology of Hermes and its connection to the crossroads, as understood by the ancient Greeks.

Let’s Talk About Herms


Primary source texts for the customs surrounding Herms (and similar road markers sacred to Mercury), are scarce.

However, I would like to establish that not only were these road markers meant to represent Hermes, that he was also worshipped at these images, and that this is a significant aspect of his worship. The best primary source text I could find was the Babylonian Talmud, a Jewish text.

In order to understand the quote that I’m about to delve into, you only need to understand a few basic things:

1. Jews believe that to worship through iconography (regardless of what deity, including their own) is spiritually powerful, dangerous, and sinful. Specifically, their belief is that one who worships a being through the icon becomes spiritually confused into worshipping the icon itself. They will therefore become impotent, as the stone (or metal) is impotent in comparison to the living being, or “They who make them will become like them” (Psalm 115:8). It’s actually a bit of “verisimilitude” or sympathetic magical thinking.

2. Jews therefore wanted to avoid contact with icons and the offerings made to them, for fear of negative spiritual influences. They generally believe that benefitting from anyone’s wrong-doing is to be avoided.

3. They believed that the icon was nonetheless sacred to the pagans who worshipped it.  They understood it as being consecrated. The state of it being a no longer being a worshipped object came about when those who worshipped it de-consecrated, or profaned it. This can never be done by a Jew, according to Jewish law.

4. The Aramaic name for a Herma/Herm is “Merkules” (Mem-Resh-Kof-Vav-Lammed-Yud-Sammech). Where the translation I am working with uses this word, I will replace it with the word Herm, in brackets.

5. The region the Jews are discussing is Rome, not Greece. However, it is known that the custom of erecting Herms was borrowed from Greece and originated there.

6. This is a shitty translation, but Google lets me search terms in it, and my physical Talmud, which is fundamentally too big to easily look anything up in unless you have memorized the location of everything in it, does not. The gist is accurate. Picking apart the exact semantics in it would be an exercise in futility. Also, the Babylonian Talmud was never originally divided into books and chapters, but whatever.

“It once happened that the palace of King Janai was destroyed; thereupon came heathens and erected therein a [Herm]; later on others came who did not worship the [Herm], took the stones and paved the streets therewith. Some of the Sages abstained then from treading upon these stones, while others were passing there; hereupon said R. Johanan: The son of saints  treads on them, should we abstain therefrom? …[He was] so called because he would refrain from looking upon the face of a coin [because it is engraved]. But why, this notwithstanding, were some shunning that street? Because they guided themselves by the opinion of  R. Gidel, who said…: Though the idol is capable of being profaned, yet the idol sacrifice is not” (Book 9, Chapter 4, Babylonian Talmud, trans. Michael L. Rodkinson, available on Google Play.)

This is to say, the stones that made up the Herm, where the Herm was a mere pile of stones, were left there as offerings to the god.

The punchline of this joke is that even the Jews who did not consider the stones of the Herm offerings only held this way because, in their worldview, stones can’t be a “real” offering. They readily conceded that the local pagans saw it that way.

So what do we learn from this? – Herms were put along the road, and also in important buildings. – The pile of stones were devotional offerings, but the pile itself was also a part of, or the entirety of, the icon of the god. – The phenomenon of a Herm was common enough that a neighboring religion knew all about the rules and how they worked, even though, I assure you, they did not go out of their way to study it.

This particular ritual would probably benefit from the construction of a Herm, and this is a very easy thing to integrate. I see some possible aesthetic issues with placement of this structure — If we have one of Hermes, it seems reasonable to include of of Hekate, but there is no way to construct one of her, and so a different ritual widget might be needed to balance this out. Yet, the overall emphasis needs to remain on constructing the cross-roads, and not fiddling with deific images. The construction of a Herm remains an important feature of the cross-roads. Whatever we do for Hekate must also bebut it needs to be equally simple to do. 


draft_lens14093031module130229651photo_1288602706Demetra_Hermes_PersephoneI spent weeks combing through Hermes’s mythology, both Latin and Greek, and found excruciatingly little that suggests a clear and cohesive cosmological geography. I get the basic sense that Hades is down, Olympos is up, and the world of human beings is somewhere in the middle. However, that is from Greek mythology, generally, and does not come from anything directly in conjunction with Hermes.

Even in the Hymn to Demeter #2, when Hermes is sent to Erebos, it is simply “to Erebos,” and not “down to Erebos.” What I glean from this is that the exact geography of things may not be so important to Hermes, in a cosmological sense. Maybe he just teleports everywhere. Or maybe it’s more a matter of, “give me a map, and I’ll follow it.”

Actually, hang on, this is starting to make sense. Take a look at this Hymn to Hermes (4), here. 

Then Hermes answered her with crafty words: “Mother, why do you seek to frighten me like a feeble child whose heart knows few words of blame, [165] a fearful babe that fears its mother’s scolding? Nay, but I will try whatever plan is best, and so feed myself and you continually. We will not be content to remain here, as you bid, alone of all the gods unfee’d with offerings and prayers. [170] Better to live in fellowship with the deathless gods continually, rich, wealthy, and enjoying stores of grain, than to sit always in a gloomy cave: and, as regards honor, I too will enter upon the rite that Apollo has. If my father will not give it me, [175] I will seek —and I am able —to be a prince of robbers. And if Leto’s most glorious son shall seek me out, I think another and a greater loss will befall him. For I will go to Pytho to break into his great house, and will plunder therefrom splendid tripods, and cauldrons, [180] and gold, and plenty of bright iron, and much apparel; and you shall see it if you will.”

Hermes was born into a world in which nothing inherently belongs to him. He was born with nothing but his wits and a fair deal of physical strength. The rest of his existence is navigating that hostile or foreign world, taking what he needs, and making the most of the opportunities that come. Moreover, from even a very meager opportunity, he can invent:

[30] “An omen of great luck for me so soon! I do not slight it. Hail, comrade of the feast, lovely in shape, sounding at the dance! With joy I meet you! Where got you that rich gaud for covering, that spangled shell —a tortoise living in the mountains? But I will take and carry you within: you shall help me [35] and I will do you no disgrace, though first of all you must profit me. It is better to be at home: harm may come out of doors. Living, you shall be a spell against mischievous witchcraft; but if you die, then you shall make sweetest song.”

so_cuteLike many a poor boy, for whom imagination must be the first and sometimes the only toy, he sees things not only for what they presently are, but what they could possibly be.

For a rich child, a big stick is no toy at all, since they expect their parents to provide them with something better. A poor child looks at a stick and sees a bow and arrow, a guitar, a spear, or whatever else their imagination can conjure up, because they know the stick is all they’ll get. Necessity is the mother of invention, and poverty is the mother of necessity. The most Hermes thing to do would be to enter into the crossroads, see what was doing, then, upon becoming a god of that particular thing, find a way to make them his own.

Even though I am pretty sure that the pile of rocks at the crossroads pre-dated the three-bodied lady-statue, it seems in keeping with who Hermes is to have him arrive fashionably late in this ritual and simply take advantage of what is already there. Cosmology? That’s Hekate’s bag. She’s a goddess of magic that human beings can actually use. If she’ll sing a few bars for him, however, he can fake it. This argues that the first part of the ritual should focus on the paths, and how they relate to Hekate. The second part should be constructing the Herm, and connecting it to the paths by expounding on the relationship of Hermes to the various places in Hekate’s Cosmos. The very next thing that I need to consider is what specific aspects of the two deities are most applicable in this ritual.


  1. Your ending observation about invention was very interesting. Something pinged rightly about it.
    Thank you.

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