A Dance with Hermes

 

Lindsay Clarke, Author & Poet

6 September

 

The plan for this evening is to talk about Hermes as the archetype of the imagination and the poetic basis of mind; but life, as they say, is what happens while you’re making other plans, and I’ve recently found myself also thinking about some surprising and convulsive events which have affected all our lives. Consider, for instance, how sudden panic on the trading-floors of the world’s casino shook our faith in the banks ten years ago and dragged most of us into austerity. Consider how, more recently, one Prime Minister, confident that the British public would share his considered opinion, submitted the country to a referendum on its future only to be ambushed by an unanticipated result, while his successor, assured by the polls that she was about to ride a landslide, found her ‘strong and stable’ government returned with a weakened and shaky majority. Not long afterwards a much-bankrupted, morally dubious TV celebrity with little understanding of either world affairs or the difference between truth and narcissistic fantasy, brashly out-trumped all the constitutional checks, balances, and presidential expectations of the USA to find himself in the White House happily prepared to admit on Fox News that he would not be there were it not for Twitter.

In that respect he was the beneficiary of a very recent, seemingly unstoppable process of technological change so breathtakingly accelerated that it seems to demand constant updates to our brain-cells. Yes, it has gifted us with new, more fluent and convenient means of communication and transformed our daily activities in helpful ways, but it is also confusing and addictive, and has opened our private affairs to the risks of hacking, leaks, cyber-theft and scams. Moreover, alarmed by the algorithmic power of their own inventions, experts in the development of Artificial Intelligence, now warn us that it carries a more serious threat to our future than the newly returned shadow of nuclear war.

Meanwhile, under the pressures of climate change, poverty, starvation and conflict, much of the world is now on the move, from the land into the cities, from country to country, from continent to continent. And even as we witness the largest event of migration in human history, the planetary environment is itself suffering from such exploitative abuse that one of our most respected intellectuals, Sir Stephen Hawking, recommends that, if our species is to survive at all, it’s high time we make serious plans for moving house to Mars.

In such times it may seem a trivial exercise to discuss the nature and activity of an ancient, somewhat disreputable god once revered by an extinct religion. But you may already have spotted that over each of the contexts I have just outlined – trade, politics and diplomacy, messaging, technical invention, travel, theft, scams, and above all the disruption of conventional assumptions – the ancients considered Hermes to be the presiding deity. And it’s the contention of this talk that, behind those and other important matters, that slippery god is still alive and active amongst us, and that if we are wise we will stay alert and respectful to what he might be saying to us through all this convulsive activity.

Let me go further and suggest that it’s precisely because we have been  negligent in that respect that he is now making his sometimes discomforting presence felt everywhere– in the political and technological worlds, in the news (fake or otherwise), through our social media, and perhaps also in the sudden hazards and challenges we encounter in personal life, along with occasional, equally unexpected, coincidental sources of guidance and help.

Now I’m well aware that, between the strict intellectual scepticism of materialist thought on the one hand, and the impassioned fervour of fundamentalist religious belief on the other, there is a widespread problem these days with the whole idea of gods, or even of a single God, so before going any further I should try to clarify my use of the word.

In doing so, I may face some difficulty because the information-based mode of education which most of us have endured leaves us more inclined to read things literally rather than be open to their metaphorical significance, and such literalism is further complicated by the dogmatic assumptions of monotheistic religions of the book.  It seems to me that, in some respects, the polytheistic vision of the ancient Greek world was subtler and wider in its reach than any single god can be, and more responsive to the complexity of lived experience. For while recognizing the mind of Zeus as an over-arching universal deity, that vision also acknowledged a wide range of other deities which are divine and immortal because their impersonal powers are manifestly present and active in the life of every generation - though it might be more accurate to say that they are active in every generation because they are divine and immortal.

Thus where a Christian would say, ‘God is Love’, a devout Greek would say, ‘Love is a god.’ And he might add that ‘War is a god’ and that ‘Wisdom is a goddess,’ and so on to address all of what James Joyce once called ‘the grave and constant’ themes of our life. The classical world recognized such powers as immortal because they do not change over time. But what may change, and - as culture evolves - must change is our perception of the gods and the manner in which we relate to them. Thus today, in the light of analytic psychology (which drew much of its inspiration from classical mythology), we can view the gods as aspects of the archetypal structure of the human mind. And to use a contemporary metaphor, we might think of such archetypes as the software with which we all come issued at birth - that which structures the unconscious mind and may be considered instinctual; or - to put it another way – as those innate and available sources of psychic energy with which we have to make a conscious relationship if their impersonal power is not to overwhelm us.

I should add that the metaphor feels inadequate in that it fails to do justice to what I take to be the essentially sacred dimension of experience; but I hope it helps to make clear that when I speak of Hermes as a god I’m referring to a sacred, noumenal idea and energy that is irrepressibly alive in both our personal and our public worlds today, and is demanding recognition.  

By now any sceptics among you may be recalling that such credentials as I have for giving this talk are those of a novelist – a writer who uses imagination to create credible fictions – and you will be aware that novelists conjure their stories into the reader’s imagination by a process much akin to that of smoke and mirrors. So if what I have on offer this evening strikes you as closer to that sort of thing than to the hard coin of intellectual discourse, then it may be because there is something necessarily elusive about the duplicitous god Hermes, but it could also be because I’m hoping to speak less to your intellect than to your imagination. I shall be doing that in part by reading a few short poems from the playful, somewhat irreverent sequence called A Dance with Hermes which took me by surprise not very long ago; so at this point it might be helpful to describe the manner in which the god entered my own life and allowed a new, unexpected pattern – that of a poet - to emerge.

In the closing months of a terminal illness, my friend, the poet, novelist and painter, John Moat, completed an extraordinary memoir titled Anyway… It’s a moving, often funny, always beautifully worded account of a life lived in service of the Imagination, which he equated, metaphorically speaking, with the creative activity of the wing- heeled god.  For in one form or another, Hermes presided over much of John’s life through coincidence after productive coincidence, journey after journey, improbable meeting after meeting, throughout all of his 78 years - including the magically charmed set of circumstances which led to the foundation and growth of the magnificently successful Arvon writing courses, which have been and continue to be, in my opinion, one of this country’s most liberating experiments in adult education.

As a result of those experiences, John conceived of the Imagination as a force much larger than our human share in it– a powerful, inventive life-energy with an intentionality of its own capable of shaping the lives of individuals, of communities, and even of the time itself – the zeitgeist. For John, Hermes was the archetype of the Imagination, and so engagingly was that mysterious figure conjured in his memoir that, when I wrote to him about it, I felt impelled to write a poem on the theme. I included it with the letter and John rang me shortly afterwards saying, ‘Hmm, that looks like the start of something new!’

As difficult personal circumstances had blocked my own imaginative life for a considerable time, I thought to myself, ‘Hmm, if only…’ But blow me if Hermes didn’t enter the house a couple of days later, leaving another poem in his wake. Then another, and another, piling up like stones on a cairn, until I had forty of them looking back at me, all written in the space of as many days. 

I think of them as what the Greeks called a Hermaion, a gift from Hermes – what we would call a god-send. Here, as a general introduction, is the first:

The work begins and ends with him: the sly

light-fingered god of crossways, transit,

emails and exchange, the wing-heeled, shifty,

wheeler-dealing go-between, who’ll slip right

through your fingers if you try to pin

him down. For he is labile, street-wise

and trans-everything. He is the one

two-fold hermaphrodite who’ll rise

 

up sprightly from the earth and turn to air,

and then descend into the underworld

to point his wand at philosophic gold.

You’ll find him anywhere and nowhere,

ever the unexpected messenger, who sends

you glimpses of the wet fire and the lit dark

in the loded stone. With him the magic work,

of which one  may not speak, begins and ends.

Any of you familiar with alchemy will have noted how the poem conflates attributes of the Greek Hermes with those of Mercurius Duplex, the spirit presiding over the alchemical operation which reconciles and transforms conflicting elements into the Stone of the Philosophers. In that spirit the poem also employs anachronistic references and colloquialisms. It’s composed in four quatrains held together by the regular use of half-rhymes to suggest the elusive nature of the god – something almost grasped but not quite - with occasional full rhymes echoing on his presence. The format of that poem recurred in those which followed hot on its winged heels almost by dictation.  

As I’ve already indicated, those poems came thick and fast, trotting out what they had to say with a kind of nonchalant jollity and verve that felt different from the characteristically earnest and sober note of almost all my previous writing. And so breezily did they tip me out of what had been a gloomy state of creative arrest that the experience of finding myself appointed as midwife for their delivery left me convinced that, for all our attempts to understand the process of creativity, it remains deeply mysterious.  I sensed immediately that it had something to do with the unpredictable nature of Hermes himself – the god which Jung had identified as the archetype of the unconscious mind, and which John Moat regarded as the inventive spirit of the Imagination. So the fact that Hermes was speaking to me through the medium of verse – a form to which I had lost hope of ever finding fluent access – left me thinking about the god in relation to poetry and language and to the nature of mind itself.

Those themes are brought together in a phrase which had already intrigued me for some time – the poetic basis of mind. The phrase is not mine, of course. In a manner typical of Hermes, it’s a theft, lifted from the Archetypal Psychologist James Hillman, whose wise post-Jungian imagination insisted on the primacy of images over concepts as a means of relating to the operations of the soul, and on mythology and the arts as the primary guides to those operations. He used the word ‘mind’ because it encompasses both waking consciousness and the work of the unconscious, which is structured around those archetypes which we can only perceive as images. Images such as those which appear in our dreams, and in the myths of the Olympian gods and similar figures who display their powers through the colourful stories which are told about them as the imaginative basis of culture worldwide. Hermes, for instance, has close relations in the Yoruba Trickster God Eshu, in the Navajo figure of Coyote, in the Chinese Monkey King, in the daimonic Papa Legba of Voodoo culture, and in the disruptive figure of Loki in Norse mythology.   

But what about consciousness? We all have a sense of what it means to be conscious, and yet consciousness is notoriously difficult to define. So difficult that in the Macmillan Dictionary of Psychology, Stuart Sutherland wrote: ‘Consciousness is a fascinating but elusive phenomenon. It is impossible to specify what it is, what it does, or why it has evolved. Nothing worth reading has been written about it.’  I’m inclined to agree with that blithe assessment, perhaps because whenever I try to read the work of such formidable thinking-types as Daniel Dennett and Stephen Pinker on the subject, I’m left feeling that I’m drowning in my own shallows. And after a time I begin to sense Hermes behind me whispering that the efforts of a mind consciously seeking to describe consciousness much resemble those of a man trying to examine the back of his own head by turning it round to look in a mirror. 

Yet doesn’t Sutherland’s phrase ‘fascinating but elusive phenomenon’ have more than a hint of Hermes about it? And if I use my imagination I can begin to see the cranium as a kind of crystal ball inside which a whole galaxy of neurons ceaselessly flash and sparkle as they transmit messages across the synapses at quantum speed, constantly trading images, energy and information over the porous boundary between the conscious and unconscious minds. And then I think of Hermes, the messenger god of thresholds and trade, travelling about his business of negotiation and exchange between our human world and the world of the gods, the upper world and the underworld. Hermes - a god with so many attributes and functions that he incarnates in his own polytropic character the subtle polytheistic nature of the whole archetypal pantheon that the Greeks placed on Mount Olympus, but whom we have come to see are deities which, as William Blake once put it, ‘reside in the human breast.’

Such changes of perspective seem to reflect evolutionary shifts in the inflections of our consciousness and we can see them already happening in the way that the ancient perception of the god Hermes evolved and changed over the course of hundreds of years. So let’s take a closer look at him.

We might start by considering a few of his many splendid praise-names.

Among a thesaurus of other titles, he was known to the ancient Greeks as: Angelos Athanaton: Messenger of the Deathless Gods; Diaktoros: a guide;

Agathopoios – he who makes good, meaning ‘fertile’; Khrysorrhapis: the golden-wanded one, referring to his staff, the Kerykeion or Caduceus, which brings about magical transformations and is thus a powerful emblem of the imagination. He was Psithyristis, the whisperer, referring to the inwardly mentoring voice of the daimon. He was Eriounes, bringer of luck, and as Psychopompos he was present at every death, ready to lead the soul across the asphodel fields into the underworld kingdom of Hades.

These are all attributes of the Hermes who was, among all the gods, the friendliest to men. But the Greeks were also well aware of his untrustworthy shadow side. To address him as Mekhaniotes, the contriver, was to praise his ingenuity, but it also carried a wary recognition of his trickster cunning; so he was also known as Polytropos, meaning shifty, and as Pheletes - a thief - and Klepsiphron: a trickster and deceiver. Despite all these disreputable tendencies, perhaps even because of them, he occupied a special place in the hearts of the Greeks, who also knew him affectionately as Koinos Hermes, the ordinary or commonplace god, the god who was to be found everywhere.

Etymologically, the name Hermes has been translated as ‘the god of the stone pile’, and among the most ancient images of him, was the Herma – a heap of stones placed as a boundary marker, or as a way-sign indicating a nearby spring, or at a crossroads, where, as many stories tell us, strange, life-altering events are prone to happen. Hikers and climbers still add herm-stones to cairns, but there is an essential ambiguity in the nature of this god of the stone-pile. He may be there as a guide across difficult terrain but he may also, for reasons of his own, choose to lead us astray. Some of you may already have taken a wrong turn on a journey only for something to happen which turned out to be more interesting and engaging than the route you had planned?

In ancient times, as the image of Hermes evolved, instead of a stone pile a monolith stood in some terminal places, and eventually a bearded head was added to the standing stone, while out of its limbless pillar was thrust a vigorously erect penis. Here was Hermes demonstrating his power as a god of fertility, an ithyphallic alpha-male, formidably guarding his flocks and herds beside the life-giving feminine presence of a spring. In places where the Herma marked that liminal space which is a boundary between territories, people would have made a market for the exchange of goods, either using the silent trade or through interpreted languages. Human nature being what it is, this custom would have supplied ample scope for theft and swindling, and along with the ability to cross marked boundaries, the business of trade and exchange, the complexities of language and the need for go-betweens, and a talent for opportunist sexuality, many other aspects of the god would have manifested there. As they still do, of course, on a larger scale in the busy market places and international trade fairs of the commercial world.

Writing on the theme in his Cratylus dialogue, Plato said, ‘I should imagine that the name Hermes has to do with speech, and signifies that he is the interpreter or messenger, or thief, or liar, or bargainer: all of that sort of thing has a great deal to do with language.’ The etymology is dubious but the myths credit Hermes with the invention of language and we know what that led to.

Here’s a poem called He Giveth Tongue

Surely it takes a god this versatile

to dream up language? He must have watched

dumb mortals grunt and point before he matched

their daily needs with eloquence and style

by putting words into their mouths. And then

all babel was let loose. Once taught to speak

the glib ones found innumerable ways to tweak

the truth of things, as poets and liars, ad-men,

 

lawyers, politicians, journos, novelists.

And just to complicate the case, Hermes

invented polyglottal possibilities to tease

the world into confusion. Still he broadcasts

means of fabulation: he’s the SIM card in your phone,

your satnav’s voice, your texts and twitter, webcam,

broadband fount of knowledge and the source of spam…

and he’ll still be laughing when all’s said and done.

I’ll say more about his relation to language later, but for the moment the point I want to make is that Hermes entered the Homeric world of the Olympian gods – the world in which he is most familiar to us - bringing with him deep-rooted associations and attributes from a far earlier age.

The story of his debut among the Olympian gods is beautifully told in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes, which was composed not by Homer but by the Boeotian school of peasant poets around the 7th century BCE. The Iliad and the Odyssey, both featuring Hermes, were composed around a hundred years before that, and the first surviving mention of him can be traced back much further to the Linear B tablets scribed about 1000 BCE. Yet Hermes appears in the Hymn to his name not as a wise old man of great age, but as a new-born babe, a love-child sired by Sky-father Zeus on the shy nymph Maia where she lived in seclusion from the world in a cave on Mount Kyllene in Arcadia. So Hermes arrives as something new - a baby, yes, but a baby who lay in his mother’s womb for ten months and emerged with extraordinary powers.

We know that the Hymn to Hermes was composed at a time of rapid social change when the power of the age-old agrarian regime of tribal kingdoms was weakening and a new urban merchant class was on the rise with ambitions to institute a more democratic form of government. So it’s as if in the Hymn’s retelling of the story of Hermes an urgently felt need for a new perspective on the god had burst through into the Greek imagination and found expression. What it celebrates is a disruptive rebirth of his subversive energy in subtler, more inflected form. If you wish to pursue the theme, Jules Cashford gives us a graceful translation of the Hymn to Hermes in The Homeric Hymns, published by Penguin Classics. I try to explore that radical impulse of renewal in a sequence of short narrative poems which are somewhat coarser.

Zeus Almighty, randy top Olympian

and father-of-it-all, is making secret love

to shy-eyed Maia in her mountain cave,

and thinking to himself he needs a son

to stir things up, a lad who has the nerve

to broker deals then take evasive action,

or to double-bluff, confusing fact and fiction

with a wily measure of inventive verve.

 

He thinks: a world that’s short on guile

and roguery lacks humour too. Let’s have

a trickster then, who’ll spin a line to save

divine appearances. With such his will,

(and goodwife Hera well-deceived),

he thrusts… until a bright, illicit spark

of his imagination shoots into the fork

of Maia’s loins, and Koinos Hermes is conceived.

 

Then Zeus, of course, takes off. He’s done his bit,

the seed is set, and who (apart from Hera) dare

berate his promiscuity. And Maia? Unaware

what trouble soon will batten on her teat,

she’s lying peacefully asleep, and dreams

Sky-father Zeus has filled her womb with love.

Zeus reckons what he’s fathered is a knave,

a wag whose wits will improvise slick schemes

for trade-offs in diplomacy. The child,

meanwhile is plotting out his destiny.

Impatient, sassy and precocious, he

is outward bound; his DNA is wild

and twisted like two snakes around a rod.

Ten months go by. Already itching for his wand

and wings, he leaps into the space beyond

his mother’s womb… to find out he’s a god.

 

His mother sleeps, exhausted by the long night’s work

of labouring a god into the world. Dawn breaks.

Laid snug inside a wicker basket, Hermes wakes

and stretches, yawns, then hears a morning lark.

At once he’s restless. Eager and wide-eyed,

this babe won’t miss a trick. He knows

a tasty world is waiting, so he puffs and grows

into a frisky boy who’s up and off… Outside,

he steps into the frosty mountain light

that glances off the snow, and what he sees

he likes. The thought of travelling agrees.

Wings flutter at his heels. He’s out of sight.

 

Arcadia unfolds beneath him as he flies

from peak to peak. Alert, unboundaried,

he thinks, That’s it! – one day I’ll be a guide

across a world where every map tells lies.

 

But something’s missing - music that will strum

the air and make a soundtrack for his flight.

No i-Pods yet, no Spotify - the world must wait

till he invents them, but the time has come

for entertainment of the ears. So what will pass?

He makes a banking turn down through the air,

glides back to land outside the  cave, and there

he spots a tortoise nibbling at the grass.

 

A light-bulb moment this! He picks it up,

admires the polished pattern on its shell,

then scoops the creature out. This will

become his Stratocaster once he’s cut

some strings and tuned them with a pick.

A bit more work. He plucks a note and likes

the sound. The tortoise sings. He strikes

a chord, sets generations dancing at the trick.

The moment related in that last poem dramatizes a primary creative gesture of the Imagination. Where others may have seen only the shell of a tortoise, Hermes has seen the shape of a lyre and the thought resonates in his mind as the possibility of music. It is a fine example of that ‘double vision’ – the simultaneous apprehension of both literal fact and transformative insight - which William Blake saw as the essence of imaginative energy. And having invented the lyre, Hermes immediately goes on to sing a song in praise of his father, his mother and his home. He does it, says the Hymn, in the same way that ‘a quick thought darts through the heart of man.’ We have already seen that this extraordinary, ordinary god was credited with inventing language; now we hear him singing the very first song, which means that in the same creative moment he invented poetry too.

Now the lyre and poetry are often associated with Phoebus Apollo, the god who was Hermes’ elder brother, but we are assured by the Hymn to Hermes that their origin does not lie with the Apollonian archetype. According to the vision from which the Hymn springs, music and song, language and poetry were all primary acts of the Hermetic imagination. And this is the first occasion on which Hermes uses his voice, so the myth suggests that it is with Hermes that we will find the poetic roots of language itself.

Now language is the means by which we human beings are able to create the rich variety of cultural worlds which are distinct from, if finally dependent upon, the received world of the natural order. It’s the means by which we convert raw events into experiences which have value for us, and thereby open a passage through from feeling into meaning. So if the myth of Hermes offers a metaphorical truth, and this distinguishing ability can be traced back to his gift, then might we possibly learn something by looking to Hermes for illumination of what could be meant by the poetic basis of mind?

Let’s try for a moment to consider the nature of poetry and what it does. Following the thoughts of Ingmar Bergman, the best definition I’ve been able to come up with is that poetry is a musical form of language that speaks in images from the soul to the soul through the senses in a manner which subtly resists the ego’s intellectual efforts of control. John Middleton Murray, a friend of DH Lawrence, once suggested that a poem communicates a truth so mysterious that it can only be uttered in that precise pattern of words. Poetry cannot be paraphrased or explained without loss of that truth because images, music and experience are inseparable there. Something powerful, something with the transformative effect of a magical spell, is happening as we write or read a true poem aloud: and there’s a kind of virginity to the openness of such experience which makes me wonder whether we might be most conscious when we are least self-conscious. It leaves me pondering the impact of what Emerson might have meant when he said that ‘language is fossil poetry’- a metaphor which implies that poetry is prior to the prosaic use of language.

Thoughts related to that idea were explored in Owen Barfield’s remarkable book Poetic Diction. Barfield was one of the Oxford Inklings Group along with Tolkien, C S Lewis and Charles Williams, and he’s a philosopher who should be better known for his use of linguistic and mythographic evidence to advance an evolutionary theory of consciousness. He suggests that consciousness began in the age of what he called ‘Original Participation’ – that time when human beings had no sense of their separate existence outside what was experienced as the seamless unity of being which is the Soul of the World. We entered the state of Withdrawn Participation once self-consciousness emerged and, with it, the capacity to objectify the world outside ourselves. Our power over what was now viewed merely as inanimate matter swiftly expanded through the application of rational analysis. In consequence, however, we found ourselves estranged in a universe devoid of meaning because meaning was now confined inside our clever heads. Barfield believed that the next stage - and it may be one we are already entering - is that of Final Participation, in which a new relationship opens up between the evolved human soul and the Soul of the World, and the analytic powers derived from separated consciousness are re-united with the sense of our inseparable involvement in the entirety of being.

Barfield traced the origins of language to the era of Original Participation, the mythological age in which, as William Blake once declared, ‘The ancient Poets animated all sensible objects with Gods or geniuses, calling them by the names and adorning them with the properties of woods, rivers, mountains, lakes… and whatever their enlarged and numerous senses could perceive’ - senses which, he says in another context, ‘discover’d the infinite in everything.’   

In thinking about language, Barfield explored the evolution of certain words by tracing their roots into that mythic sensibility of our early ancestors. He showed for instance, how the words ‘breath’, ‘wind’ and ‘spirit’, which belong for us to separate categories were all, for the ancient Greeks, expressed by the single unifying word ‘pneuma’, which acknowledges no distinction between them. This was not a matter of analogy, but of identity, and so the word, by holding together what we have come to consider as separate referents, enacts in microcosm what was originally experienced as the primordial unity of things.

For me such a unified sensibility is beautifully illustrated in that moment of the Hymn when infant Hermes breaks into song as quickly as ‘a swift thought darts through the heart of man.’ Language has sprung to life in him, flowing from the immediacy of his fresh experience. When sensitively read The Hymn to Hermes can work on us today with the same poetic force.

But why does any of this matter here? Perhaps because it suggests that the poetic basis of mind, as dramatized by the Hermes archetype, has a significant bearing on our efforts, in these transitional times, to evolve a fresh mode of consciousness – a transrational mode which, without demeaning all the knowledge that has been gained through the rational intellect, puts the human soul into closer, more responsive relationship to the living Soul of the World.

Yet we should remember too that the figure of Hermes is subversive, and we  we should certainly be wary of thinking about him in monotheistic terms. He is just one among the gods, and maybe his unruly impudence as a liar and thief was the most effective way to make his presence felt in their divine company. So we might consider his arrival among the gods to be a witty, corrective challenge to the dignified Olympian pantheon in  much the same way that a provocative impulse of the unconscious mind can subvert what might have grown too rational and authoritative, perhaps even boring, in the prevailing conscious order. Consider, for Instance, his dealings with his brother Apollo.

His first big escapade is to steal Apollo’s cattle. It’s a caper which he pulls off with characteristic ingenuity by driving the herd backwards to confuse the trail and wearing sandals which reverse his own footprints. Far-seeing Apollo is not deceived for long, but Hermes is not at all intimidated by the anger of the god who is, as another son of Zeus, his elder half-brother. Having denied all knowledge of the crime and broken wind in Apollo’s face, he is brought for trial before the court of Zeus, where the Lord of Olympus is charmed by his son’s insouciance. Even the outraged Apollo is enchanted by the sound of the music that Hermes proceeds to make on his lyre. So Hermes cuts a deal. He reveals the whereabouts of the hidden cows and then gives Apollo the lyre he desires. His generosity of heart dispels all hostile feelings and the half-brothers make a vow of friendship. Apollo swears he will never love any of the immortals more than Hermes and Hermes promises never to steal from his brother again.

So out of a story which begins with theft and is compounded by lies, two different but related modes of consciousness begin a new relationship. The light of rational discrimination - the hallmark of solar intelligence- is modified by the mercurial power of lunar intuition. The order of divine harmony is enlivened and enlarged. And it’s the music of poetry which generates the transforming power by which this new gain is made for consciousness. 

Here’s a poem titled Half-Brothers which condenses what has happened:

Where is the habitation of the gods

if not in us? And where are we if not

inside the mysteries they perpetrate

about us and around? They are our moods,

 

our motives, and the forces pulling us

apart. Also the hemispheres that live

inside the skull whose duty is to strive

to hold the contraries together… And thus

 

while Apollo dazzles in bright sunlight

Hermes prefers to glimmer in the dark;

each knows which best illuminates his work –

sun’s constancy by day, the variable moon at night;

 

but Zeus shows favour to neither son. He allows

discretion and free range to each half-brother.

Like rules and mischief, logic and smart hunch, he knows

that Hermes and Apollo need each other.

I believe that the story has particular relevance to our contemporary condition because for a long time now Apollo has dominated western consciousness in a manner that has left it seriously unbalanced, and may have brought it to a potentially disastrous impasse. Iain McGilchrist’s book, The Master and His Emissary, comprehensively illustrates how corrosive on sensibility and culture are the effects of our over-reliance on the analytic, conceptualising powers of the left-brain at the expense of the right brain which, as the source of meaning and value, provides a larger, coherent context to our experience. I believe we can hear this process of deterioration at work in the kind of language which we have been increasingly pressured to speak these days if we wish to be taken seriously, particularly in our intellectual and professional lives. I mean that drift into abstraction which employs phrases from which our senses instinctively recoil, phrases such as ‘engineering deliverable outcomes’ in management-speak, and in military parlance the talk of ‘degrading enemy assets.’ The point is strongly made to my ear in David Lodge’s essay on ‘Consciousness and the Novel’ in which he wrote (with a measure of satirical intent) that ‘There is a certain affinity between the poststructuralist literary theory that maintains that the human subject is entirely constructed by the discourses in which it is situated, and the cognitive science view that regards human self-consciousness as an epiphenomenon of brain activity.’

To me such language feels symptomatic of what Barfield called ‘withdrawn participation’. The words are stacked like breeze-blocks, almost as if designed to obscure experience rather than reveal it. It’s a way of wielding language which gives its users a heady sense of power and leaves those who don’t share its codes feeling impotent and confused. In recent times other professions than that of literary criticism have begun to write in jargon so abstract that it’s largely impenetrable to those uninitiated in its obfuscating rhetoric, and the rage for it has become so contagious that even in common usage people frequently utter such clumsy abstractions as ‘on a daily basis’ because it somehow sounds more official and authoritative than our parents did when they simply said, ‘daily’ or ‘every day.’

Hermes prefers poetry because it has the feel and taste of language alive. It may be in love with metaphor but it also likes to call a spade a spade. And because it wants to excite the imagination and strike an echo in the heart, it has small use for the left-brain abstractions that so appeal to the clever mind, and now oppress so much of our thought and speech. This matters because, as Wittgenstein said, ‘Our language is our world,’ and if we are to change our world in a way that makes it more responsive to the living quick of the natural order on which our existence depends, as well as to the deep needs of our own bewildered souls, then don’t we need a language which speaks through the compassionate imagination with a more sensitive voice? And to learn that kind of language we must listen to our poets - those amongst us who, like Hermes, are most closely in touch with the poetic basis of mind.

Poetry is powerful in the way that it touches and shakes the heart, but as Shelley insisted in his Defence of the art, it can also be subversive of oppressive authority. Here too Hermes has a significant role. As trickster, he is always ready to pull the rug from under the self-important. By tricking them and us he reminds us that we are only human, and for that reason he is suspicious of all grand narratives, and will find ways to disturb our complacency by stage-managing anomalous events that question our assumptions and make us think again. Hence, in a world inclined to insist that only that which is measurable, quantifiable and demonstrable by repeated experiment can be firmly classified as real, he throws up crop-circles and accounts of abduction by aliens, conspiracy theories and other puzzling phenomena from the daimonic realm. Here’s a poem called He Considers Grand Unified Theories and such:

He likes it when we hanker after truth

in things, yet smiles to see how serious

our need to master life through theories

of everything (eg the thoughts of Alan Guth

on quantum fluctuations in the vacuum,

Dawkins on genes, Karl Marx on history,

and Imams or the Pope on God). For mystery

abides whatever postures we assume,

and Hermes knows the universe expands

in answer to each proffered explanation.

Not this, not that, but both, or maybe none

of the above, his tricksy wisdom understands

what unassisted reason often fails to see:

the tongue can’t taste its buds; the only snake

to swallow its own tail does not mistake

itself as literally true… and nor, he thinks, should we. 

However seriously we take our private and professional lives, isn’t it salutary to remember that the incorrigible impudence of the hermetic spirit can keep us on our toes by prodding us into greater tolerance of ambiguity and alerting us to the dangers of complacency? If we impose dogmatic theories and standard practices on the quick of lived experience without regard to immediate needs and circumstances, shouldn’t we be grateful when he finds ways to deflate us? If he steals from us, might it make us wonder whether we were too attached to whatever he took? If he dupes us might it be to show how asily we are fooled? If he tells us lies might it lead us to question more closely what is real and true? And doesn’t his talent for crossing boundaries provide valuable guidance out of  the ego-managed control of our lives into the fertile deeps of the unconscious?  

He does that perhaps most provocatively through our dreams. So maybe it’s his liminal figure who ushers us through that evanescent moment when the waking mind vanishes into sleep. But the Archetype of Hermes can lead us deeper still. According to the myths he is our guide into what has become the last great obscenity of our materialist age, the one which some people are seeking to make optional rather than accepting it as an inevitable and finally desirable destination. I mean, of course, the shadow-lands of death. Perhaps all we living can ever know of death is myth, and myth is an act of the poetic imagination. So maybe it’s there, where language is silenced at last, that we re-enter that poetic sense of the seamless unity of being from which we and words first sprang.  Who knows? But the Greek myths tell us that, alone among the gods, Hermes is able to travel between the heights of Olympus and the lower depths of the Underworld which are the kingdom of his uncle Hades, and he is perhaps never more our friend than when he comes to lead us down that dark way. Here’s a poem about his role as Psychopomp:

What can the deathless ever know

about the strict and non-negotiable

fact of death? Hades, in that dark hall

to which the shades of mortals go,

has knowledge of all noble things, and death’s no

stranger than the timeless climate of the place

he rules and rarely leaves. But in the case

of Hermes things are different. Although

himself immortal, he is the close companion

and friend of those who have just died.

At their last breath he’s present as their guide

into the underworld of Hades’ dark dominion,

and must on each last journey surely feel

some empathy for human fear and grief?

If so, perhaps as kindly friend and clever thief

it’s just their grief and fear he wants to steal?  

Our fear of death must be closely related to our fear of change and of the loss of ego-control. Death presents an inescapable challenge to the sense of order and security on which we seek to build our lives, and is, so to speak, the final and complete disrupter. But nothing in the mortal realm lasts forever, and in that context let me refer you back to the unexpectedly disruptive events with which this talk began.

Like the ancient Greeks of the time when the Hymn to Hermes was composed we find ourselves in uncertain times of rapid social change; but also in a time for which our expectations and sense of entitlement have left us ill-prepared. So as the gap between rich and poor grows ever wider, so too does the gap between centralized government and the daily reality of those who have to endure the consequences of its policies. Faith in long-established institutions dwindles, voices are raised which have too long gone unheard, and affirming echoes resound along the channels of social media. When those who feel unrepresented are given the chance to act, surprises get sprung, and those who believed that their control of affairs was strong and stable, rational and orderly, find themselves shaken awake as though from a bad dream. Behind all such events the archetype of Hermes is at work – that sometimes troubling, certainly unpredictable god who is ever ready to disrupt any social or psychological system which is becoming complacent and sclerotic.

Maybe he does it so that ground can be cleared for something new and fresh to happen? Perhaps in times such as these he rises up from the depths of the unconscious as an impersonal, countervailing power looking to correct that which has drifted seriously out of balance? And yes, his actions may appear capricious and irresponsible to our limited vision, but as the ancient Greeks remind us, Koinos Hermes, the common or everyday god, is also the friendliest to human beings, and his heraldic emblem is the caduceus, his wand which symbolizes the transforming power of imagination.

A fine engraving done by the 17th Century sculptor Andraes de Vries depicts Mercury and Psyche closely intertwined in an erotic dance, with their bodies twisting around a centre of gravity like the serpents on the caduceus or the double helix of our DNA. Mercury and Psyche, Hermes and the Soul, in mutual embrace - the image depicts how intimate is our psychological involvement with the archetype of Hermes. So there’s much more to say about the tricky fellow. I have poems which reflect on his relations with the feminine and the natural world, on dreams, on our disastrous recourse to warfare and his care for refugees and lost children, on alchemy and the reconciliation of opposites, and other themes suggested by his versatile nature. Yet for me he remains above all the god and archetype of the Imagination, and as such he is:

The god in the louche hat, the liminal,

crepuscular and volatile grand master

of quick whispers and shady deals, who pulls

deft tricks and optical illusions faster

 

than the pixels shift in CGI. He seduces us

and our too literal senses with his wand,

the Kerykeion or (latinate) Caduceus -

that snake-twined staff he carries in his hand

 

to work such vivid magic as draws doves

from darkness or releases some poor captive

from a cabinet of knives. What he loves

best is to astound the mind with such deceptive

 

art as brings about true transformation,

and it’s the virtue of his wand to wide-awaken

into lucid dreams of the Imagination

those who don’t yet see we are myth-taken.

So could that be why he is provoking us in these turbulent times? Could he be pointing out that the conventions, assumptions and myths by which we are living our lives may have grown threadbare and obsolete, and so no longer answer vitally either to our social needs or to the deep needs of the soul? Could what he is asking of us now be a larger, stronger, more athletic exercise of the imagination in response to the potentially disastrous problems that have arisen as the unintended consequences of our intended actions? For in both its poetic, inventive aspect, and in the empathic power through which we reach a compassionate understanding of lives other than our own, the imagination is the always available agent of renewal – so long as we stay open to its claims.

John Moat’s marvellously insightful memoir begins with these words: ‘I see now what I must always have known, that even if we are not, our lives certainly are in the play of Imagination.’ Even as he was dying he affirmed it as the power which gives life its shape and meaning; and where others might see only coincidence, or luck, or random chance thrown up by an absurd universe, John discerned an unfolding order and intentionality that was essentially poetic. It was, for him, as it has become for me, a matter of lived experience, and he saw its often elusive but always enlarging nature characterized in the figure of Hermes.  So if you’ll bear with me a few moments longer, I’ll close with the last poem in the sequence, which was written in his honour.

A body and a soul is all we have.

the body’s destination is the grave.

The soul? Who knows? Mine bids my heart believe

the only remedy for life is love.

 

Is anything more difficult than love?

These half-rhymes are the best reply I have,

and though full rhymes may lie beyond the grave

right now my friend is dying, so I grieve…

 

Yet Hermes, winking, bids me rise and dance

for all that’s joyful in this mortal life,

for friends and children, and a loving wife,

and all that Hermes brings of happy chance.

 

And so, Lord of the Threshold, deathless friend

who guides us into Otherworld… o keep

me loyal to the soul that wakes in sleep,

and lead me gently homeward at my end.

 

© Lindsay Clarke 2017