Essay: The Hermes Archetype: Connection and Transformation
Let’s talk about Hermes. The god. The archetype. The legend.
There are a lot of aspects to this god. Hermes is:
— God of communication (and miscommunication)
— God of travel
— God of illusion and transformation
— God of information and learning
— God of magic and alchemy
— God of shepherding and flocks
— God of diplomats, businessmen, and traders
— God of language and rhetoric and writing
— Guide to the Underworld
— God of thieves
— Trickster who likes to fuck with our sense of reality
Hermes initially felt like a very foreign archetype for me. I mean, there was the simple aspect of “God of quick thought and communication” that I could get in touch with. But the more I spent time with Hermes, the more I realized there was this much deeper aspect to this god and archetype than I had initially conceived. And it was at first very confusing.
I think the reason for that is because in our current society, we don’t have a simple frame of reference for this archetype.
Hermes is MUCH more than just communication and messages. The archetype pulls together most of the points in that bullet list I shared, into a single gestalt concept. But what concept? What is the unifying principle there?
It’s not easy to really sum Hermes up. But a few good phrases that make a noble attempt would be “making connections” ; “crossing boundaries” ; “transforming reality.”
Hermes likes to move—physically, mentally, emotionally. He is quick and agile, traveling with the speed of thought. He likes to move things and people and information from one place to another, and from one state to another. In this way, many of his skills involve not just movement, but transformation.
Transforming reality is really another way of crossing boundaries and making connections. You’re changing yourself, or your world, from one thing to another.
That’s also what happens when you travel (Hermes is the god of travel). Your world shifts from one environment to another. Now, most of the time we’re like tortoises—we carry our shells, our homes, on our backs, and we find that all the problems and personality traits we had in the past come with us into the new environment. No matter where we go, we’re still dealing with the same old shit.
Sometimes, however, magic happens—you can change yourself along with your environment. New places and new friends can inspire new states of mind in you, show you sides of yourself you’ve never seen. I know many people experience this when they learn a new skill or a new language—it’s like they’ve not only learned how to communicate with more people, but they’ve learned a new way to communicate with themselves. An entirely new way of being.
Hermes is all about that transformation.
Hermes is connected to Thoth, the Egyptian god of letters, knowledge, and alchemical magic. Hermes knows that the information you have dictates your understanding of reality, and the way you CREATE your reality. The information you have determines the way you see the world and your place in it, and what you believe is possible, right, and true.
He knows that “reality” is, in fact, based on perception. And this is a fluid, malleable, manipulatable thing. Your perception can shift if you learn new information—so with different information/perception, you can redefine your world. Yes, Hermes can transform one thing into another. He is a shapeshifter. But he can also simply transform your perception of that thing, making it change right before your eyes, even while the physical form remains the same.
This ability to transform things and play with perception is a magical, alchemical aspect of Hermes. (You can see him in The Magician card in the Tarot.)
It’s also a big part of his Trickster aspect.
You think you know what you’re looking at? Oops! Look at that, it just changed! You know jack shit. You only ever had a slice of information taken in by your limited five senses on which to form your understanding anyway. Sucker.
One super easy example of this shifting perception thing is the argument over “The Dress.” You know, where half of the internet thought the dress was white and gold, and the other half thought it was blue and black. I couldn’t even believe this argument was a thing. To my eyes, the dress was unquestionably white and gold.
And then I did an experiment. I stared at the dress. I looked at it from different angles and concentrated on seeing blue and black. And slowly—s l o w l y—the dress began to change colors. It changed from white and gold to blue and black as I watched. Then I tried turning it back to white and gold. It took a little time, but it worked. I could change my perception to see different colors in the dress.
That’s a Hermes trick right there.
Another example of the Trickster playing with perception to cause upheaval is this story about the Yoruba god Eshu. This is particularly relevant right now in our political climate:
There are two farmers who have been neighbors many years. They seem to get along very well with one another, though it’s mostly in the realm of friendly waves and polite conversation. They don’t hang out on weekends or anything.
Eshu decides to see if he can make them fight. You know—just because.
So he walks the boundary between their farms wearing a fine robe and a cap that’s red on one side, and blue on the other.
The neighbors see him pass. One says, innocent and friendly, “Did you see that fine young man with the red cap?”
The other says, “Oh, I saw him—but you’re mistaken. His cap was blue, not red.”
“No,” says the first guy. “It was absolutely red.
“Um, no,” says the second. “I’m not blind or stupid, you know. The cap was blue.”
So the two neighbors are already fighting. Eshu thinks this experiment is going great, so he walks the border between their farms again, going back the way he came. But he switches his cap around, so each neighbor sees the same side of the cap he had seen the first time.
The first neighbor says, “You see! The cap is clearly red!”
“It’s fucking blue you dumbass!” says the second neighbor.
Their fight escalates, and Eshu laughs all the way home knowing that the discord he has sown is entirely based on perception and will never end.
Hermes pulls that kind of shit, too.
The information age is a fun time for Hermes, because it’s so easy to see the demonstration of multiple realities existing in the same space. And which is real? Which is virtual? How do you know who is right and who is just full of the opinions of their allies? How do I see through the fake news?
(I asked Hermes about this whole fake news thing, and it turned into a long conversation—if by “conversation” you mean Hermes explaining to me AGAIN, as though I were a toddler, why that is a moot question and does not even really matter. I’ll publish that in an upcoming post.)
(Meanwhile, maybe I should talk to Apollo or Artemis about the fake news question, because at this point Hermes seems totally disinterested in answering the question in a way that’s relevant for practical everyday use. I feel like I’ve asked a magician how his stage props work. Like I’m saying, “But dude HOW did you cut that woman’s body in half!” And the magician is just a little frustrated because I refuse to understand that I’m asking the wrong questions. Hermes does not want to explain the props, he wants to explain why I was fooled. So I’ll share that exchange in an upcoming post.)
Just like a god of letters should be, Hermes is super smart and eloquent. He’s charming. He plays pranks and has quick, witty comebacks, and he’s equally quick with wisdom.
Those flashes of insight you get from time to time are from Hermes. He’s the herald of the gods. Any message from the heavens comes through him, and as such he has the ability to travel in places where most of the other gods simply cannot go—even the Underworld of Hades and Persephone. (Surprisingly, most of the Olympian gods couldn’t actually set foot there.)
He can do this because he doesn’t recognize death as an ending. He sees only transformation from one state of being to another, and he is the god of transformation. He is the guide for souls “crossing over” into the “afterlife”—these figures are known as “psychopomps.”
So let’s get back to the Hermes of communication. The principle of connection and crossing borders allows us to connect with one another, but that Trickster aspect often comes through and manipulates things, leading to miscommunication.
Again, with communication, we’re dealing with multiple perceptions of reality. I may say something to you, and you may completely misunderstand me, because you don’t hear me—you hear your REACTION to me. And you may even have different definitions for the words I’m using.
“Your perception of me is a reflection of you. My reaction to you is an awareness of me.” (Not sure who originally said that.)
So misunderstandings are common. Clear communication is a true skill, and requires opening to hear another person with more than your mind. True communication is a psychic event. A merging with the other. That’s Hermes in action, too. So he’s there in the miscommunication, and he’s there in the actual connection. He loves it all, like a big clumsy dance eventually turning into a waltz.
The Hermes archetype does love—and he can love very deeply—but he doesn’t like to love by the rules, and he doesn’t like to be tied down. He’s the kind of person who loves outside the lines, and does not see relationship boundaries as valid or cool things. A relationship with Hermes could either be very frustrating and feel flighty and fake, or very deep, full of psychic connection and merging each another’s beings into one.
However, he does love relationships that feel so solid, that he can be free within them. Jean Shinoda Bolen points out, in Gods in Everyman, that a great partner for Hermes would be Hestia, the goddess of the hearth. Another good partner would be Aphrodite, who shares his playful, sexual, friendly nature.
Like Aphrodite, Hermes does have a fundamentally happy energy. He’s giddy, he’s dancing, he’s zipping around and he talks a mile a minute. (He would be the most hysterical tour guide . . .) It would be hard to keep up with him if he weren’t so friendly, and he stops to wait for you while you catch up.
Gender is another border that Hermes has no respect for. Or mega respect for, depending on which way you look at it. In myths, he generally appeared as a beautiful young man, but could shapeshift at will, and sometimes appeared as a woman. One of his children, born of Aphrodite, was Hermaphroditus. Guess what Hermaphroditus’s most memorable characteristic is?
Aw, Hermes, look at you—bringing opposites together!
Now, where does this “theivery” aspect come in?
Hermes is not really interested in theivery or being immoral. It’s just that he sees morality as a human construction—an illusion—and is entirely uninterested in playing inside the lines.
Theives are always breaking rules and taking what is not theirs. They piss people off because they do not subscribe to the boundaries of society. This aspect of Hermes doesn’t acknowledge “this is mine” and “this is yours” as being sensible or valid points of view. Everything is everyone’s.
Another way Hermes steals things is by transforming them.
It’s like you’re looking at something, you see it and think you understand it . . . and then a transformation happens and SNAP—you don’t see it anymore! Where did it go? Hermes fucking changed it into something else and he might as well have stolen it.
To sum up, Hermes brings insight, communication, and connection. He helps us cross boundaries to see things from another point of view, to break our patterns, and to transform. He is playful, tricky, and doesn’t take himself too seriously. He has fun pranking people who DO take themselves (and the illusion of their reality) too seriously.
This is a fun archetype to play with. Spend time with Hermes, and you’ll start to feel like anything is possible if only you know what aspects of yourself to transform.SUBSCRIBE