The winged messenger of the gods is, according to all the mythologists, most difficult of explanation, owing the the variety of his offices and the complexity of his characteristics. The interpreters are all at sea about him, and also at loggerheads with one another. The physical school insists that he merely represents the Wind, the motion of the atmospheres, and they ingeniously force everything in his history into a plausible harmony with this notion. Others say that he was originally a sun-god , or a love-god, or a shepherd-god, or an importation of the Egyptian idea of the priesthood, etc, etc. But while there is a certain basis of truth for some of these ideas, none of them represents a just generalization of all the various characteristics and offices of Hermes. To generalize, to marshal into an orderly and systematic whole all the bewildering facts of any subject, is the exclusive perogative of the men of the New Church, who not only possess the Science of Correspondences, but also enjoy the rational perspective afforded by the Doctrine of the New Jerusalem, from the light of which alone, universal views can be given.
If, then, from a careful study of Hermes, we seek to draw a general conclusion, we shall find that all the myths and symbols point to one central and universal idea, namely, the idea of Communication and of all the means of communication between God and men that exist in Heaven or on earth. Viewed from this central idea Hermes stands revealed as representing, in the supreme sense, the Divine Spirit, or the Word; and, next, the human means of communication, viz., the ministry of the angels, the priesthood of the Church on earth, and, ultimately, social intercourse, travel, and trade.
The etymology of the name Hermes has thus far baffled the philologists, some of whom, in their determination to trace everything Greek to the Sanscrit, have derived it from the Iranian word Sarameias, which has been variously interpreted as meaning either "the morning breeze," or the name of the Hindoo hell-dogs, akin to Cerberus. We will let the savants fight out this question to their heart's content, but would suggest, as an alternative, the Greek root ER, whence comes erchomai, to come, or to go. The Latin name, ''Mercury,'' seems more easy of explanation, being plainly connected with the words merx, hire, and mercator, merchant, but it is a question whether these words are derived from Mercury, the patron-god of merchants and merchandise, or Mercury from them.
Whatever be the derivation of his names, there is no doubt as to his history, character and functions. All accounts agree that he was the son of Zeus by Maia, the oldest and fairest of the Pleiades, the seven daughters of the giant Atlas. It was in her honor that the Romans named the month of May, and celebrated the great feast of Mercury on the Ides of May. Immediately after his birth he invented the first lyre, by stretching strings across a tortoise shell, and then set out to steal a herd of oxen from Apollo. The sun-god soon discovered the theft, but was appeased by the gift of the lyre, with which he was so pleased that he presented to Hermes a magic, winged wand, called the "caduceus," and moreover recommended him for the special service of the gods. In Olympus his nimble wit and wonderful agility and energy were quickly recognized, and he was therefore appointed the messenger and herald of Zeus in particular, and plenipotentiary ambassador of the gods in general. Henceforth he was constantly travelling, descending from heaven with messages and blessings from the gods, and returning from the earth laden with the prayers of men,—the chief means of communication and conjunction between heaven and earth.
As the great god of communication, all travellers were placed under his special protection,* and also the natural means of communication, such as highways, streets, and doorways. Hence it was that statues of Hermes were placed at the principal street corners of Athens, where they were held so sacred that their removal or mutilation was a capital offense; and Alcibiades, the Athenian general, was recalled from the ill-fated Sicilian expedition, because he was suspected of having mutilated these statues during a drunken revel by night, and this step ultimately brought about the downfall of Athens as a world-power.
Besides travelling as the Divine messenger, Hermes appears most frequently in the character of leader, conductor, and introducer. He it was who conducted Pandora to Epimetheus, and led the aged Priam to the tent of Achilles to beg for the body of Hector. When Psyche, after her long trials, finally won her way to Olympus, it was Hermes who gently led her by the hand to her long-lost Cupid, with whom she was now to be united in everlasting love. It was his regular function, also, to raise up the souls of the dead and guide them to the judgment-seat of Pluto, and one beautiful onyx engraving shows him in the act of grasping a soul by the arm and lifting him out of the grave. As conductor of the dead he was universally worshiped under the name of "Hermes Psychopompus," Hermes the soul-leader. It is obvious that the ancients in this manner represented to themselves the Divine leading by means of the ministry of the angels, who not only lead man invisibly throughout the earthly life, but also actually assist in the resuscitation of his spirit after death. As a leader Hermes also represents the office of the priesthood, for a leader signifies one who teaches and thereby leads to the good of life and to salvation. (A C. 10794; A. E. 555.)
As the messenger of the gods, Hermes also stands for the message itself, that is, the Divine Revelation or the Word, and hence "Hermes Logos" was worshipped as the god of Divine speech and eloquence, of oratory and logical argumentation, and, finally, of the interpretation of dreams and hidden mysteries. Hence, in Greek, hermeneuein signifies to explain or interpret, and "Hermeneutics" is to this day the name of the science of interpretation or Exegesis, the branch of Theology which defines the laws whereby the meaning of the Scriptures is to be ascertained. This, again, connects Hermes with the representation of the influx and communication of the Divine Proceeding, the Holy Spirit, the "Word, and the priesthood.
Being the tutelary deity of travel, roads, traffic, and communication in general, Mercury naturally became the special patron of all merchants and of trade as a whole, that is, of the communication and interchange of material goods. His images were most common in the shopping district of the cities, and in Rome there was a spring dedicated to him, near his temple, where, on the celebration of Mercury, on the Ides of March, every shopman drew water and sprinkled it with a laurel twig over his head and over his goods, at the same time calling upon Mercury to remove the guilt of all his cheatings during the past year.
But there was a deeper reason than this for the connection of Mercury with trade. In most ancient times merchants were spiritual merchants, priests and missionaries who went forth to spread abroad the spiritual goods and truths of the Church; gradually natural trade followed in the steps of this spiritual traffic; even as in modern times, especially among the English, the trader has followed the missionary into heathen lands.
It was by the perversion of this idea that Mercury became the patron-deity of thieves, that is, when in the decline of the Church the priesthood as spiritual thieves took away the truths of religion from the people, hiding them under esoteric mysteries for the sake of selfish power and gain. This took place in all the countries of the Ancient Church, just as it took place in the Roman Catholic Church, the priesthood of which is represented by the "merchants of Babylon" in the Apocalypse. .(A. R. 759.) But the story of Hermes as an infant stealing the oxen of Apollo is also capable of being explained in a relatively good sense, even as the story of the thefts of Jacob and Rachel, concerning which we read that their stealing the teraphim
The theft of Hermes, like the drunkenness of Noah, may therefore refer to the first state of the Ancient Church, which in the beginning was more or less in faith alone, and then would steal the oxen of Apollo, that is, ascribe to itself the good which is the Lord's alone. But Hermes was forgiven because he invented the first instrument of music;—the infant Church was condoned because it was nevertheless in the spiritual affection of truth, though this affection at first was of a very external quality, as indicated by the shell of the tortoise. As Vulcan has been compared to Tubal-cain, so Hermes may be compared to Jubal, who "was the father of such as play upon the harp and the organ," (Gen. 4 :21), by whom is signified the spiritual affection, or the affection of truth in the Ancient Church, (A. C. 418.)
Though Hermes was said to possess the power of making himself invisible, and also to assume whatever shape he desired, the Greeks nevertheless invested him with a very definite individuality, of a type characteristically Hellenic; graceful, noble, active, and energetic. In the earliest statues he is represented as a strongly formed man, with a pointed beard and a traveller's hat, but in the later and more artistic representations he is shown as a slender yet vigorous youth, beardless and with curly hair, flying through the air or resting for a moment during his journey. The famous statue by Praxiteles shows him leaning with his left arm on a rock, and supporting on it the infant Bacchus. The beautiful marble by Bologna, now in Florence, represents him naked and youthful, flying downwards but pointing upwards, and furnished with the full regalia of all his emblems and symbols. A basrelief, recently discovered at Ephesus, presents him as "psychopompus," conducting a newly-risen soul, who, under the figure of a beautifully draped woman, turns half toward her beckoning guide.
The distinguishing symbols of Hermes are the winged hat, known as the petasus, the winged sandals, called talaria, and the winged staff, the caduceus. The first was the regular broad-brimmed traveller's hat of the ancients, but here furnished with a small wing at each of the temples. By these and the little wings on his "immortal golden sandals" he was borne like the wind over land and sea to whatever part of the universe he was pleased to go, and thus beautifully illustrates the description of God by the psalmist when he says that Jehovah '' walketh upon the wings of the wind," (Ps. 104:3), by which "is signified the spiritual sense which is in the literal sense," (A. E. 2828). Wings always represent the power of the intelligence to elevate its thoughts and thus make spiritual progress, and the wings on the feet and at the head of Hermes beautifully typify the Divine Messenger, or the Word, which comes to us with a natural and at the same time a spiritual sense. The Writings of the New Church teach us that this idea of Hermes originated in the actual representatives of the spiritual world. Swedenborg states, for instance, that
At another time an angel appeared to Swedenborg, "as it were flying from heaven, with two wings about his feet, and two about his temples," carrying in his hands prizes for a company of wise men who had been discussing spiritual subjects. (C. L. 136.)
The "caduceus" or "kerykeion," (herald's staff), in the hand of Hermes, bears at the upper end two little wings, and below it two serpents, entwined about the staff in opposite directions,—the one from right to left, and the other from left to right. This is supposed to be merely a symbol of peace, but to us this remarkable staff, like the two pairs of wings at his feet and head, represents the Word itself, which below, in its literal sense, is sensual, like the serpents, but above, in its internal sense, becomes spiritual by means of the power of correspondence. And there are two serpents, entwined in opposite directions, because in the literal sense there is everywhere the duality of good and truth, the gyre or turning of good being from right to left, while that of truth is from left to right. It was by this staff that Hermes led the souls to their final goal, and we may compare with it the staff on which Moses fixed a brazen serpent for the healing of all who looked upon it.
The butterfly and the cock were also among the emblems of Hermes, the former signifying the resurrection and the other the judgment after death.
In whatever aspect, therefore, we may view Hermes,— whether as god of the wind, or as the herald and messenger of Olympus, whether as leader of men or conductor of the dead, whether as patron of orators, or of travellers, or of merchants,— this interesting and sublime conception of the ancients consistently represents the central idea of Communication and Influx,—in the supreme sense the influx and communication of the Divine by means of its own going-forth or Proceeding, as the Spirit of Truth, the Holy Spirit, or the Word; in the representative sense, the ministry of the angels, and in the ultimate sense, the ministry of the priesthood on earth.
The worship of Hermes seems to have been introduced into Greece from Egypt, where we find the god Thoth, who by the Greeks was called "Hermes Trismegistus," the "thrice greatest.'' The ancient legends concerning this deity are of special interest to Newchurchmen, because we find here a distinct reference to the Ancient Word.
Thoth, like the Greek Hermes, was the messenger of the gods, the conductor of the resurrected spirits, the patron of letters and learning, and the chief means of communication between gods and men. He was also the Scribe of the gods, the "Scribe of Truth,'' the '' Lord of the Divine Words,'' and the priestly office stood under his special protection. His name, in fact, is often used as the collective appellation of the Egyptian priesthood as a whole.
Herodotus, Manetho, Plutarch, and Clement of Alexandria testify that there were two, and some of them say three, successive individuals who bore the distinguished name of ''Hermes Trismegistus." The first Hermes, known as the "celestial Hermes," was the god Thoth himself, who also was "identical with that Edris or Enoch who among the Chaldeans bore the surnames Uriai or Duwanai, i, e., 'great wise one;' he is said to have lived one thousand years after Adam, thus in the second millenium of the world, and was the greatest sage of the earth.'' (Vollmer Worterbuch der Mythologie, p. 850.)
According to Manetho this first Hermes lived before the Flood, and inscribed on tablets, in sacred hieroglyphics, the secret or esoteric doctrines of the most ancient times, together with the elements of all human knowledge. The Egyptian priests declared that they owed to him all that wonderfully minute and exact knowledge of the state of men after death which is revealed in the ''Book of the Dead,'' or book of ''Funeral Rites.'' But these tablets were afterwards buried in the earth, and thus lost from view, during a period of civil revolutions and natural catastrophies which once overtook the ancient world. (Compare the story of Enoch, in New Church Life for May, 1904.)
A second Hermes Trismegistus appeared after the deluge, at the beginning of the third millenium; in the tradition of the Arabs he is known as "the second Uriai" or "Hermes al Mothaleth." He is said to have unearthed the hidden tablets of the first Hermes, interpreted the sacred symbols inscribed upon them, and translated their contents to the comprehension of the common people; with these as a basis he wrote by the command of God a great number of inspired books, in which may be found everything that the human mind is capable of learning. These books, which treated of universal principles, of the nature and order of celestial beings, of astrology, medicine, etc., were deposited in the temples in the care of the priesthood, and to them is ascribed the restoration of the wisdom taught by the first Hermes, and the revival of theology, science, art, and culture among the ancient Egyptians. This second Hermes also taught that the lower world was created after the similitude of the upper world, and he "established a vast system of correspondences between the three worlds, the physical or material, the rational or intermediary, and the psychical or spiritual." (Encyclopedia Britannica, vol. 1, p. 463.)
Then, according to Eusebius and other ancient writers, there arose a third Hermes Trismegistus, who lived a little after the time of Moses. He was a celebrated Egyptian priest and philosopher, who collected the maxims, commentaries, and interpretations of the second Hermes and wrote them down in forty-two books which are known as the "hermetic books," treating in occult language of theology, astrology, science, art, etc., and also containing the recipe for the making of gold and for finding the "philosopher's stone," on which account they were much revered and studied by the alchemists and mystics of later ages.
It must be to this third Trismegistus that Swedenborg refers in the Spiritual Diary, when he speaks of
Fragments of the works of this last Hermes exist in Arabic or Latin translations, but they are so mixed with later additions of gnostic, cabalistic, and alchemistic character that is is difficult to judge as to their original value. They may have been commentaries on the books of the '' second Hermes,'' but these latter were undoubtedly part of the Ancient Word which was given after the Flood, even as the tablets of the "first Hermes" clearly refer to the Book of Enoch which was written before the Flood.