The hermae, and mutilation thereof

This is a herm...

and this is another herm...

A herm was a bust of Hermes, who as you surely know was the Messenger of the Gods.

Athens was riddled with hermae. There was a herm at every cross-street in the city. Many houses installed a herm outside their front door. In the Agora was a platform with a hundred or more of them.

Hermes, as Messenger of the Gods, was protector of travellers. By placing his bust anywhere a traveller might pass, the superstitious Greeks were doing their best to protect anyone out on the streets.

Interestingly, Hermes was also protector of thieves, presumably because as an occupational hazard thieves often need to travel quickly at short notice.

In Athens these busts would have been set atop a short pillar, head height at most, and if you looked to the base of the pillar you would probably have seen the carving of an erect phallus pointing up at you, another symbol of good fortune.

These pictures are from the Met., Roman copies of Greek originals, and they are very good quality indeed compared to most hermae. Think of all the cross-streets and houses in Athens: there were thousands of these hermae. Top sculptors would have reserved their valuable time for more profitable work. Probably most hermae were churned out by low-end sculptors and journeymen learning their trade.

One morning in 415BC, Athens awoke to discover every herm in the city had been damaged. Someone had obviously gone about the city overnight destroying all the divine good luck symbols, and considering the many hundreds of hermae involved it could only have been a calculated act of sabotage. This incident has gone down in history as The Mutilation of the Hermae.

Athens was paralyzed with fear. This wasn't mere sacrilege; to most people the Gods were as real as a smack in the face, and a God's cult statue was a place the God could inhabit. The mutilation of the hermae was like kicking the God Hermes in the balls a hundred times over.

The Athenians expected direct and dire divine retribution at any moment. A frenzied search for the culprit began at once. In the panic it only became necessary for someone to suggest a culprit for the accused to be arrested, and more than one of these unlucky men were executed, but the panic went on. Fairly soon debtors were accusing their creditors as a novel means of debt cancellation.

Then suspicion fell upon a fascinating scapegoat: Alcibiades, the first cousin once removed of Pericles. Indeed Pericles, though dead by this date, had been legal guardian of Alcibiades as a child. Alcibiades was brilliant, daring, wealthy, handsome, clever, opportunistic, egotistical, dissolute and utterly self-serving. This was the sort of insane thing Alcibiades might do for a joke.

Now Alcibiades was guilty of any number of crimes in his life, but this probably wasn't one of them. Nevertheless the mud stuck, and even though by then he'd departed to lead an invasion of Sicily, he was recalled to stand trial.

Alcibiades wasn't a complete moron; he turned tail and ran, straight to the Spartans with whom Athens was at war. In revenge, Alcibiades advised the Spartans how best to defeat Athens, and his advice was good.

And so the bad luck of the mutilation came to pass, because the man charged with the crime contributed to the downfall of Athens.

It must be added Alcibiades changed sides again later, and Athens took him back before expelling him once more. If he were alive today, Alcibiades would be a junk bond trader, or a used car salesman, or a world leader, or possibly all three at once.

The real culprit of the Mutilation of the Hermae and the motive for it remains ones of the ancient world's greatest unsolved mysteries.


Jonathan E. Quist said...

I've got two theories.

The first is that a group of Socrates' students went on a late-night rampage through the city, after the barrel of pinon fueling their party ran dry. This would be the world's first drunken keg party fraternity prank.

My second theory is that this act of mass vandalism was perpetrated by a time-traveling Judean, who was later accused of painting the walls of Jerusalem with the slogan, Romanes Eunt Domus.

Trisha Leigh said...

Okay, well there's no competing with Jonathan's comment :-). But I enjoyed the story, and the history lesson. It's nice, traveling from Rome to Greece on occasion!

Amalia Dillin said...

A fascinating instance of a "pagan" witch hunt! All I could think of when I was reading this story was American McCarthyism from the cold war, where we were trying to root out the Communists from our neighborhoods.

Thanks for sharing!

Merry Monteleone said...

This is why I love your posts, Gary, amazing how much I learn here. Apparently our bland 21st century intrigue has nothing on the ancients.

By the way, I just posted an interview with another historical novelist, mostly on researching both fiction and family histories. Thought you might like to pop over and share some of your insights.

Dee said...

I guess you weren't kidding when you told the interns that it wasn't uncommon for people to change sides whenever it suited them!

Gary Corby said...

You might not be too far off Jonathan. In fact that was the theory which trapped Alcibiades. He'd been seen wandering home drunk that night.

You're right, Amalia, the whole mess was remarkably McCarthyist. I wanted to call it a witch hunt when I was writing, but the term can be misread as literal in this period!

No Deirdre, I wasn't kidding when I said people swapped sides at the drop of a hat. National patriotism was a very weak concept back then. The good news is, it makes for some exciting stories with lots of twists and turns!

Loved the interview on your blog Merry!

Stephanie Thornton said...

I love these history posts!

I'd never even heard of the herm statues- that's an interesting tidbit to remember when I teach ancient Greece.

So I guess Benedict Arnold may not deserve the World's Biggest Traitor accolade, eh?

Gary Corby said...

Hi Stephanie, Benedict Arnold is virtually unknown outside the US, and he is very, very far from being the world's worst traitor. These things are culturally relative, but I'm sure I could name dozens worse without trying.

Amalia Dillin said...

I'm curious about the connotation of the label of witch in ancient Greece. Wouldn't priestesses of the gods have witch-like qualities or perceived powers? Would they have been considered witches?

Gary Corby said...

Witchcraft was alive and well in Ancient Greece! But not associated with priestesses.

Circe and Medea were both witches. In The Golden Ass Apuleius right at the start calls Thessaly the land of magic and witchcraft.

OK, I feel a new blog post coming on...

Amalia Dillin said...

Haha! Good, I can't wait to read it!

I think I did know that Circe was a witch, but I'm not sure where the line would be between witchcraft/sorcery and divine power, you know?

Georgeos Díaz-Montexano said...

This is Poseidon no Hermes...

Gary Corby said...

Hi Georgeos, welcome to the blog.

You may well be right, it does look a bit Poseidon-ish, but if so then the Metropolitan Museum of New York has it misattributed. That bust, labeled as a herm, is on the right hand side of the main corridor as you walk into the Greek section of the Met.