The Role of Hermes in Mathetic Exploration

As might be evidenced by the ritual of self-initiation, one is basically making oneself into a student of Hermes in the study and exploration of mathesis.  In Greek, we might be calling ourselves οἱ μαθηταί τοῦ Ἑρμοῦ (hoi mathētai tou Hermou).  We’re basically taking him on as teacher, guide, if not even a patron for the purposes of exploring the Tetractys and, depending on how far we take this, the study and practice of theurgy generally.  This is a really big thing, and although it might be expected that Hermes should have a central role in mathesis, we’re getting really involved with him really fast.  We’re begging him to release us from darkness and ignorance and to lead us through to light and knowledge, taking us from the Agnosis Schema to the Gnosis Schema.  We’re bringing his influence and presence into our most personal and deepest of spheres and forging an intimate connection with him.  We are supplicating him and putting ourselves into his hands, putting all our trust in him.

Think about that.  We’re putting all our trust into Hermes.  Hermes is the trickster god of the Greeks, the one who steals, lies, and shits (literally) on the other gods.  We’re relying on him to keep us out of agnosis when he lies to the other gods and disguises himself so he can’t be seen.  Rather than asking “is this wise”, it might be more proper to ask “why the fuck are we trusting him?”

Caduceus

It’s not because Hermes is my own patron god and I’m trying to proselytize or prostitute him out to others (though it’s not like he wouldn’t mind).  Consider: the sphere of Mercury, Hermes’ sphaira, is in the center of the entire tetractys.  Mercury is the center of all the extreme sphairai (αἰ ἔσχαται σφαῖραι, hai eskhatai sphairai) and the middling sphairai (αἰ μέτριαι σφαῖραι, hai metriai sphairai), and connects to all the middling sphairai in a single locus.  Astrologically speaking, Mercury is the only planet without a sect; he is neither diurnal (with the Sun, Jupiter, and Saturn) or nocturnal (with the Moon, Venus, and Mars), but is changed based on whether he’s occidental or oriental of the Sun.  Alchemical mercury is the mediating force between the pure action of Sulfur and the pure materiality of Salt.  Plato’s Timaeus has the third principle of Existence mediating between the two principles of Sameness and Difference.  Mercury is, all at once, a distillation of complementary forces (Light and Dark) as well as a source (Air and Water), and Mercury is the mediation between opposing forces (Salt and Sulfur, Light and Water, Dark and Air).  Mercury is as much “being between” as much as it is “being transformed”.

Indeed, it’s because of Hermes’s role as neutral and shifty guide that Hermes will not accompany us within the sphairai themselves.  He waits outside the gates of each sphairai, just right outside the threshold, and once we cross that threshold from the sphairai to the paths, the οδοι (odoi), we’re back in his hands.  He leads us up and down the paths, always flitting between and among the sphairai but never entering them.  Hermes is the guide; in a sense, he is the god of the roads and he is the roads, but roads are only ever between destinations.  Once we reach our destination, however temporary, we’re off the road and out of his hands.  However long we remain at our station, we are not traveling.  Hermes will accompany us for as long as we need to travel the paths, but he will never accompany us beyond the gates of where we’re going.  The road is between destinations, and words are between people and meanings; Hermes is the interpreter and transformer, but never the one that is interpreted or transformed.  He is the messenger, but we are the message.  The message depends on the messenger to deliver it from its source to its destination, just as the sender and receiver rely on the messenger, too.  We are the thing to be interpreted, transformed, delivered, guided, led.

That said, when you’re not part of any one realm of existence and are capable of flitting to and fro between them, it’s not hard to make the trip from “casual tourist” to “curious thief”.  Hermes, after all, is the divine thief who stole Apollo’s cattle literally right out of the crib.  One possibility that I’ve yet to explore is what might be called the “lost in translation” issue.  Consider: if we’re messages being delivered, or words being translated, something is going to have to change between point A and point B, the sphaira from which and the sphaira to which we proceed.  What is it that changes?  When we speak to one another, the message usually gets across pretty clear, although some nuances I intend to communicate might be lost and some nuances I never spoke get substituted instead.  Sometimes the entire word is wrong, sometimes the entire message, and there needs to be backtrack to make sure everything makes sense.  This isn’t necessarily the fault of either speaker or listener, or for that matter the two sphairai between which we travel, but the choice of the message itself.  Every message is different; some messages are worded better, some are intended for specific ears, and so forth.  When Hermes leads us to a new sphaira, he becomes a cross between a guide on a highway and a highwayman, taking something from us.  Whether it’s an aggregation that makes us human or bound to this world, or whether it’s simply borrowing something from us and rearranging us, or a toll we have to pay or sacrifice is unknown to me just yet; I’m not even sure whether anything needs to be taken, but it might make sense given his mythology.

Which leads me to another aspect of Hermes that I haven’t been too familiar with, that of Knife-holder and Argos-slayer.  Hermes himself, when I was going over the ritual with him, liked the ritual in large parts but wanted something added.  I had difficulty understanding why; after some thinking and discussing with him, he said that “there is no initiation without cutting”.  A blade of some sort, then, is necessary; as for why, I recalled that “of the golden knife” is one of the epithets of Hermes but I didn’t know the story why.  That story is the slaying of Argos Panoptes, the many-eyed giant and favored servant of Hera, set to watch over Io when she was transformed into a cow by Zeus (Metamorphoses, Book I, chapter 8):

The head of Argus (as with stars the skies)
Was compass’d round, and wore an hundred eyes.
But two by turns their lids in slumber steep;
The rest on duty still their station keep;
Nor cou’d the total constellation sleep.
Thus, ever present, to his eyes, and mind,
His charge was still before him, tho’ behind…

Now Jove no longer cou’d her suff’rings bear;
But call’d in haste his airy messenger,
The son of Maia, with severe decree
To kill the keeper, and to set her free.
With all his harness soon the God was sped,
His flying hat was fastned on his head,
Wings on his heels were hung, and in his hand
He holds the vertue of the snaky wand.
The liquid air his moving pinions wound,
And, in the moment, shoot him on the ground.
Before he came in sight, the crafty God
His wings dismiss’d, but still retain’d his rod:
That sleep-procuring wand wise Hermes took,
But made it seem to sight a sherpherd’s hook.
With this, he did a herd of goats controul;
Which by the way he met, and slily stole.
Clad like a country swain, he pip’d, and sung;
And playing, drove his jolly troop along…

Hermes eventually lured Argos to sleep after singing to him and telling him enough stories, at which point Hermes kills Argos with his golden knife.  In this way, the watcher of Io was taken care of, and Hermes led Io out of this danger though some might say out of the frying pan and into the fire.  Argos with his many eyes (some sources say 100 or 10², some say 4, where the numbers should strike you as portentous for all this) keeps an eye on and guards Io, keeping her from being free, although it is the will of Zeus that she be freed so she can accomplish great things, including being an ancestress of Herakles.  Of course, the ghost of Argos also chases after Io once she’s freed, pursuing her as far as Egypt around the Mediterranean.  Only then is Io transformed back into a human.

We can see something of ourselves in this story.  While trapped in the Agnosis Schema, we are unaware of our true nature to some extent and are trapped by the forces around us; we cannot be free as long as we are trapped.  We have things to do, and even the gods want us freed…or, at least some of them.  But there are bigger problems than simply being stuck in our weird form; there are things watching over us, wanting us to stay where we are and doing their level best to keep us there.  Argos might be considered an archonic figure for us, watching over us with his many eyes, understanding and being of the nature of the Tetractys (10² or 4 eyes) though operating solidly within it.  For as long as we’re trapped in Agnosis, we cannot reach Gnosis.  The gods must send Hermes to us, and we must seek his help, in order for this archon-guard to be slain so that we can be free and follow Hermes to our salvation.  Thus, the knife: the knife is to cut the darkness, freeing ourselves from the hold it has upon us.  With the knife of gold we set ourselves free with the help of Hermes, but the knife’s use doesn’t end there.  After all, Argos’ shade pursued Io; even in death, the spirit of the archon will still try to bring us back to Agnosis, luring us off the path of Gnosis at any given stage.  As long as we’re staying stationary in the sphairai of the Tetractys, we are at risk; we can take temporary shelter, but if we stay too long then Argos catches up and takes us back to our prison.  During our travels on the odoi, we are fleeing in ways that Argos cannot follow, but we cannot live or stay on an individual path.

All this leads me to one last thing: if there are days sacred to Hermes, and Hermes is sacred in mathesis, is there a day sacred in mathesis?  After all, we decided that the ritual of self-initiation should be held on the first day of the lunar month, so why not consider it?  In my lunar grammatomantic calendar, Hermes is given to the letter Zeta, so the seventh day of the month is sacred to Hermes in this practice.  Traditionally, however, Hermes was given the fourth day of the month in the Attic calendar for monthly observances, and the Homeric Hymn has his birthday as the fourth day of the tenth month of the lunar year, starting with the first new moon after the summer solstice.  The fourth day of the tenth month.  Four and ten.  The Decad represented by the Tetractys.  Cute, innit?  This day is Hermes’ birthday, the day into which our guide was born to bring joy and power among the gods and the worlds, and is therefore fitting for us to honor.  Perhaps, in the future, initiation rituals should be timed to this date or around the yearly Hermaia, or similar observances held to honor this trickster god in this Hermetic system.

So, all this is just some extrapolation from mythology and basic understanding of Hermes on the paths.  It’s not so much that we should be trusting the tricky little fucker, but that we don’t really have a choice; the tricks he plays on us are as much as part of the journey as is traveling down the odoi themselves.  The Work must be done, and there’s so much more to find out.  We can make the jump from Agnosis to Gnosis; now we need to figure out what’s going on with the sphairai.  The first one we’re brought to is that of Mercury, which is one we’ll be visiting the most, and it’s the sphere most closely associated with Hermes.  But if Hermes does not enter into any sphere, what kind of nature does this sphaira have?  What can we find out and learn about these sphairai and how they relate to the other aspects of the Tetractys, to mathesis, to magic, and to the world generally?  Let’s find out, shall we?

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About polyphanes
I'm a software developer and Hermetic occultist living near Washington, DC, USA. I claim that I'm youthful, dashing, daring, and other things. I make things and chant stuff, and periodically write about them.

One Response to The Role of Hermes in Mathetic Exploration

  1. Pingback: When the lights go dark, look to the Sun. | The Digital Ambler

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