The Hermes Archetype in Stories
I’ve written a bit about Hermes, especially from a metaphysical perspective. I’ve got some channelings on here with him, and it’s been all fun and games (as he likes it).
Time for something a little more down to earth about the psychology of the archetype and how he shows up in stories.
I have a little niece who is smart as a whip. She’s been able to read and count from a very young age, and she started pulling pranks early, too. She’s very smart and sly.
When it was time to place her in a school, she sat down with some teachers to test how her intelligence stacked up against other kids’. And my niece deliberately answered every question wrong. Just to fuck with them. (She’s kind of my hero.)
That’s Hermes in action, right there.
The Hermes archetype doesn’t care how serious things are. He’s going to fuck with you. Just because.
This is the kid who grins innocently when he’s caught with his hand in the cookie jar. In Gods in Everyman, Jean Shinoda-Bolen likens him to the kid who was always climbing out of his crib, who as he grew began making up stories and telling white lies just because. Sometimes these fibs aren’t really a problem . . . and sometimes they are.
Because Hermes as the Trickster is the archetype of pranksters, con artists, and thieves.
Think Frank Abagnale in Catch Me If You Can, Neal Caffrey in White Collar, and even Bugs Bunny. (Come on, remember all those times he got the one up on Elmer Fudd? And all the times he cross-dressed? Bugs Bunny is a total Trickster!)
These Tricksters are super-smart, mentally agile, and they have hearts of gold. Sure, they wreak havoc everywhere they go, but we forgive them because they’re charming, smart, and fun.
These Tricksters often have a backstory that gives them a reason for pulling all these hijinks.
In the Homeric Hymn to Hermes, the newborn god has a conversation with his mother, Maia, who is trying to scold him for sneaking out of his crib to steal his big brother Apollo’s special fancy golden cattle (that was pretty much the first item on Hermes’ to-do list after he was born). Hermes explains to Maia that he doesn’t want them (he and his mother) to stick around Olympus as “the only two among all the immortal gods without any gifts!”
Think of this version of Hermes like a lovable Trickster who starts stealing and lying and conning in order to get his mom out of the trailer park, or to pay for her cancer treatments. He’s not diabolical or cruel by nature. He is not out to hurt anyone. Sometimes people do get hurt in the course of his antics, but he usually feels bad about that, and often seeks to make reparations.
But sometimes the Trickster takes on a darker aspect. Like with Loki in Norse Myth and the Thor franchise. This version of the Trickster is not just out to have a good time. He’s out to fuck things up—sometimes just for the hell of it—and he doesn’t care who he hurts.
Here’s an example. In Norse Myth, Loki heard that everything in creation had vowed never to harm the beautiful, perfect, golden-boy Baldr . . . so Loki set out to see if that was true. And it basically was. The only thing that hadn’t promised not to harm Baldr was the mistletoe.
So one day all the Norse gods are having this party, and everyone is just throwing shit at Baldr—because he can’t be harmed. So they’re flinging logs, power tools, live animals, all kinds of stuff, and it’s all just bouncing off of Baldr, and they all think this is the most hilarious thing ever. Even Baldr is standing there like, “Come on, throw the sea bass with laser beams attached to their heads, haha!” Sounds like a good time, right?
So then it’s Loki’s turn, and he throws the mistletoe.
Guess what happened. Baldr died and the games came to a sudden, tragic end, that’s what. And why? All so Loki could get a kick out of proving that Baldr could, in fact, be harmed.
As the Trickster, Hermes is a shapeshifter. He will say anything, be anything, change into anything, in order to pull his pranks. He often shifts genders, and he’s smart enough to masquerade as an expert in any field.
When it comes to holding a steady job, Hermes usually doesn’t play that game. If he does, he’d better be in a position where he can innovate and play by his own rules.
Maybe he’ll be like Jack Sparrow—yeah, he’s a career pirate and he does all the pirate things, but he only follows the Pirates’ Code when it suits him.
He can be loyal in relationships . . . but he’s best paired with an Aphrodite type, who won’t demand serious commitment. It’s not that Hermes doesn’t love. He does love—and deeply—but if you try to force him to be predictable, reliable, and responsible, he’s going to get bored. He’ll choose himself every time. (Again, think Neal Caffrey or Frank Abagnale.)
Another way the Hermes archetype shows up in stories (and in real life, because really what’s the difference when we’re dealing with archetypes?), is as the Magician.
This version of Hermes makes things happen with alchemy, wisdom, spiritual powers, occult knowledge, and seemingly arcane talents. I’m thinking of Giles in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Here’s a quote from Jean Shinoda-Bolen about this version of Hermes:
“In contrast to the commercial or criminal bent that a Hermes man might take in his young adult years, some Hermes men delve deeply into spiritual, philosophical, or psychological interests during this time. This was the path taken by Richard Alpert, the bright young Harvard psychology professor, who left a brilliant career to find a guru in India. Now known as Ram Dass, he is a spiritual teacher, a Hermes man who can be identified with Hermes as Guide of Souls.”
This is the Hermes who has realized that his ability to shapeshift and flow easily from one thing to another is actually pointing to the deeper spiritual truth of transformation—he realizes that he is all things, that he can experience all things, and that he can guide others on their journeys as they move from one thing to another. They don’t find it as simple as he does, so he can help. (Hermes is the god of travelers, and guides the dead to the Underworld.)
If you meet Hermes in a story, or in life, you’re probably going to like him. He’s fun, he’s clever, he’s persuasive, and he comes off as both charming and authentic. He knows just how to win you over without making you feel manipulated.
Have fun with him! Just don’t have expectations of him. He hates those.
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