Hermes: Delivering Love Letters from the Universe

The Romans called the Greek god Hermes by the name of Mercury. From him we have inherited the adjective mercurial, meaning subject to unpredictable changes of mind. A review of the messenger god’s resume suggests how his name acquired this meaning. This Olympian is the god of astrology, astronomy, athletic competitions, cunning, diplomacy, gymnasiums, herds, hospitality, roads, trade, thievery. He guides the dead to the underworld. He is the god of language and writing. That is to say, he is the sum of all things. Child of Zeus and Maia, he is a window through which we might experience eternity; he is every one of us. Mercury reminds us of the urgency of life.

In Odysseus’s story, there are two key moments that speak to that urgency: when Odysseus needs to take responsibility for his next move, to vote himself off the island at whatever the cost. In these instances he is with the goddess Circe and then with the goddess Calypso. This powerful women quite like this hero and would be happy to weave him into their personal narratives. Odysseus could be a kept man with all the beer, chips, and sex that he wants forever--Circe would be happy to make him immortal, just like her. Although Odysseus does not lose sight of the fact that he is on a journey home--to himself, his kingdom, his family (his completeness)--he gets caught up in the life adrift and he gives in to the ladies. When he is on Circe’s island of Aeaea, he still has crew, and they have to remind him, “Boss, we need to move on!” The easy life is tempting. Very tempting.

Enter Hermes with his winged sandals and helmet--body and mind propelled forward by the urgency of his message from Zeus. Not only does Mercury tell Odysseus how to go the road with Circe so that he does not get caught up in her spell, reduced to less of a man or stripped of his humanity altogether--like his grasping, lusting crew whom she turns into pigs with human consciousness to teach them a lesson--but also he tells him when it’s time to go. Hermes gives voice to that life-giving force within us that tells Odysseus to fulfill his destiny rather than give up on himself or surrender to distraction. It takes a year for this to happen. This is an urgent matter, yet life seems to wait for us, too. Compassion is the impulse of the universe. We can heal ourselves the way the earth heals itself if we set ourselves to doing it.

At the same time, though, Hermes is a dark force; he is leading Odysseus into the realm of trial. Once the king of Ithaca sets sail, he is going to face rough waters, travel through the underworld--that deepest part of his unconscious mind where he will unlock the secret of himself--lose his crew, get his butt kicked by Poseidon (because while he has unlocked the secret of himself he has not arrived at a full understanding of himself), and wind up on Calypso’s island. Odysseus accepts the challenge and with the help of his new friend and equal, Circe, he heads in the right direction. And then Calypso will want to keep him. Odysseus is a man of physical strength and beauty and a way with words that shapes every moment when he speaks. As an English teacher, I pause every time I think of this--and keep in mind that Hermes is the god of language and writing. I think about the souls I influence by my own words and how I teach them to shape their own destinies by choosing their words and arranging them in such a way that they reveal who they are--to themselves. (No wonder kids think school is hell!) Back to Calypso, though. She keeps him for way too long, merrily weaving him into her story until winged Hermes arrives at her door and says that Zeus says, “Game over; send him home.” Calpyso tells Hermes it’s up to Odysseus to say he wants to go. So Hermes has a word with Odysseus, and Odysseus does that. Thus, Hermes helps Odysseus find the words he had inside himself the whole time and to put them in the order that will shape Odysseus’s journey. Again, the impulse of the universe bends toward the creative, the generative, the healthy.

Hermes delivers love letters from Zeus to each one of us. He tells us, in the words of mythologist Joseph Campbell, to “follow your bliss.” This is not a signed permission slip to indulge in a hedonistic lifestyle but an invitation to find our place in this massive, ineffable mystery. Jesus put it this way: He said, “Go.” It’s delightfully risky business. But the older I get, and the older my elders get, the more clearly I hear Hermes: accept the freedom to live, accept, as Campbell says, “the inscrutability of the guidance we are following, to the peril of our rational ends.” Because life is really, really good.

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  1. "a way with words that shapes every moment when he speaks. "
    Like us all!

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