Sunday, March 6, 2011

Hermes: spellbinder and unbinder

Ovid puts the story of Hermes and Argus within the story of Jupiter, Hera and Io at the end of Metamorphoses I:

Lewis Hyde offers a book-length meditation on the figure of Hermes / Mercury in his Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art. Here he's talking about Hermes as the boundary-crosser, "poised on the threshold . . . ambiguous, androgynous":
It is this double motion that makes Hermes at once an enchanter and a disenchanter. In his enchanting phase, he often begins by going after the border guards, for if they have their wits about them he cannot operate. Earlier we saw how he cast a lazy forgetfulness over the watchdogs guarding Apollo's cattle. In speaking of shame, we saw how he mesmerized Argus with song and story, then sealed the giant's sleeping eyes with a magic wand. Hermes drops the sentinels who watch the peripheries into a stupor, and impermeable boundaries become porous.

This is only the beginning of his enchanting /disenchanting power . . .. He carries his charges into the underworld or out of it, into dreams or into wakefulness, into mythologies or out of them.

Among those guided across borders by Hermes Hyde includes Persephone, the suitors killed by Odysseus, and Odysseus himself as he approaches Circe's home. He also enables Priam to safely cross the battleground at Troy to reach Achilles and reclaim the body of Hektor.

For Hyde, Hermes is neither simply an enchanter or a disenchanter, but both at once:
Hermes of the Dark is the weaver of dreams, the charmer who spins a compelling tale, the orator who speaks your mother tongue with fluid conviction.. . . Hermes of the Light translates dreams into analytic language; he rubs the charm from old stories until they seem hopelessly made up and mechanical. He walks you inland until you stop dreaming in your mother tongue. (Trickster 208-209)
As modern analogues of Hermes, Hyde suggests Picasso, Nabokov, or Freud, ". . .'explaining' Moses while simultaneously retelling the old story of Oedipus in a manner so compelling that, decades after his death, Ivy League literary critics can't get it out of their heads."

One might also think of the loom of Penelope, woven by day, unwoven by night -- the only trick suspending the final act of the suitors, whom Hermes guides to Hades.

John Flaxman: Hermes conducting the souls of the dead suitors
to the land of the dead

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