Hermes the Interpreter

by George Santayana (1922)

A traveller should be devout to Hermes, and I have always loved him above the other gods for that charming union which is found in him of youth with experience, alacrity with prudence, modesty with laughter, and a ready tongue with a sound heart. In him the first bubblings of mockery subside at once into courtesy and helpfulness. He is the winged Figaro of Olympus, willing to yield to others in station and to pretend to serve them, but really wiser and happier than any of them. There is a certain roguery in him, and the habit of winking at mischief. He has a great gift for dissertation, and his abundant eloquence, always unimpeachable in form and in point, does not hug the truth so closely as pious people might expect in a god who, as they say sagaciously, can have no motive for lying. But gods do not need motives. The lies of Hermes are jests; they represent things as they might have been, and serve to show what a strange accident the truth is. The reproach which Virgil addresses to his Juno, "Such malignity in minds celestial?" could never apply to this amiable divinity, who, if he is a rascal at all (which I do not admit), is a disinterested rascal. He has given no pawns to fortune, he is not a householder, he is not pledged against his will to any cause. Homer tells us that Hermes was a thief; but the beauty of mythology is that every poet can recast it according to his own insight and sense of propriety; as, in fact, our solemn theologians do also, although they pretend that their theology is a science, and are not wide awake enough to notice the dreamful, dramatic impulse which leads them to construct it. Now, in my vision, the thievery of Hermes, and the fact that he was the patron of robbers, merchants, rhetoricians, and liars, far from being unworthy of his divine nature, are a superb and humorous expression of it. He did not steal the cattle of Apollo for profit. Apollo himself — a most exquisite young god — did not give a fig for his cattle nor for his rustic employment; in adopting it he was doing a kind turn to a friend, or had a love-lorn scheme or a wager afoot, or merely wished for the moment to be idyllic. It was a pleasant scherzo (after the andante which he played in the heavens, in his capacity of sun-god and inspirer of all prophets) to lean gracefully here on his herdsman's staff, or to lie under a tuft of trees on some mossy hillock, in the midst of his pasturing kine, and to hold the poor peeping dryads spellbound by the operatic marvels of his singing. In purloining those oxen, Hermes, who was a very little boy at the time, simply wanted to mock these affectations of his long-haired elder brother; and Apollo, truly an enraptured artist and not a prig, and invulnerable like Hermes in his godlike freedom, did not in the least mind the practical joke, nor the ridicule, but was the first to join in the laugh.

When Hermes consents to be the patron of thieves and money-lenders it is in the same spirit. Standing, purse in hand, in his little shrine above their dens, he smiles as if to remind them that everything is trash which mortals can snatch from one another by thieving or bargaining, and that the purpose of all their voyages, and fairs, and high-way robberies is a bauble, such as the dirty children playing in the street set up as a counter in their game. But Hermes is not impatient even of the gutter-snipes, with their cries and their shrill quarrels. He laughs at their grimaces; their jests do not seem emptier to him than those of their elders; he is not offended at their rags, but sends sleep to them as they lie huddled under some archway or stretched in the sun upon the temple steps. He presides no less benignly over thieves' kitchens and over the shipyards and counting-houses of traders; not that he cares at all who makes the profit or who hoards the treasure, but that sagacity and the hum of business are delightful to him in themselves. He likes to cull the passion and sparkle out of the most sordid life, and the confused rumble of civilization is pleasant to his senses, like a sweet vapour rising from the evening sacrifice.

His admirable temper and mastery of soul appear in nothing more clearly than in his love-affair with the beautiful Maia. She is ill-spoken of, but he is very, very fond of her, and deeply happy in her love. It is a secret relation, although everybody has heard of it; but the nymph is a mystery; in fact, although everybody has seen her at one time or another, no one has ever known then that it was she. Hermes alone recognizes and loves her in her own person, and calls her by her name; but privately. Sometimes, with that indiscretion and over-familiarity which the young allow themselves in their cups, his brothers ask him where he meets her; and he only smiles a little and is silent. She is said to be a wild unmanageable being, half maenad and half shrew; a waif always appearing and disappearing without any reason, and in her fitful temper at once exacting and tedious. Her eyes are sometimes blue and sometimes black, like heaven. Empty-headed and too gay, some people think her; but others understand that she is constitutionally melancholy and quite mad. They say she often sits alone, hardly distinguishable in the speckled sunshine of the forest, or else by the sea, spreading her hair to the wind and moaning: and then Hermes flies to her and comforts her, for she is an exile everywhere and he is everywhere at home. It is rumoured that in the East she has had a great position, and has been Queen of the Universe; but in Europe she has no settled metaphysical status, and it is not known whether she is really a goddess, mistress over herself, or only a fay or a phantom at other people's beck and call; and she has nowhere any temple or rustic sanctuary or respectable oracle. Moreover, she has inexpressibly shocked the virtuous, who think so much of genealogy, by saying, as is reported, that she has no idea who is the father of her children. Hermes laughs merrily at this, calling it one of her harmless sallies, which she indulges in simply because they occur to her, and because she likes to show her independence and to flout the sober censors of this world. He is perfectly confident she has never had any wooer but himself, nor would dream of accepting any other. Even with him she is always reverting to stubborn refusals and denials and calling him names; but when the spitfire is raging most angrily, he has only to gaze at her steadily and throw his arm gaily about her, as much as to say, "Don't be a fool," for her to be instantly mollified and confess that it was all make-believe, but that she couldn't help it. Then it is wonderful how reasonable she becomes, how perfectly trustful and frank, so that no companion could be more deeply delightful. She is as light as a feather, then, in his arms. The truth is, she lives only for him; she really has no children, only young sisters who are also more or less in love with him and he with them; and she sleeps her whole life long in his absence. In all those strange doings and wanderings reported of her she is only walking in her sleep. The approach of Hermes awakes her and lends her life — the only life she has. Her true name is Illusion; and it is very characteristic of him, so rich in pity, merriment, and shrewdness, to have chosen this poor child, Illusion, for his love.

Hermes is the great interpreter, the master of riddles. I should not honour him for his skill in riddles if I thought he invented them wantonly, because he liked to puzzle himself with them, or to reduce other people to a foolish perplexity without cause. I hate enigmas; and if I believed that Hermes was the inspirer of those odious persons who are always asking conundrums and making puns I should renounce him altogether, break his statue, turn his picture to the wall, and devote myself exclusively to the cult of some sylvan deity, all silence and simple light. But I am sure Hermes loves riddles only because they are no riddles to him; he is never caught in the tangle, and he laughs to see how unnecessarily poor opinionated mortals befool themselves, wilfully following any devious scent once they are on it by chance, and missing the obvious for ever. He gives them what sly hints he can to break the spell of their blindness; but they are so wedded to their false preconceptions that they do not understand him, and are only the more perplexed. Sometimes, however, they take the hint, their wit grows nimble, their thoughts catch fire, and insight, solving every idle riddle, harmonizes the jarring cords of the mind.

The wand of Hermes has serpents wound about it, but is capped with wings, so that at its touch the sting and the coil of care may vanish, and that we may be freed from torpor and dull enchantment, and may see, as the god does, how foolish we are. All these mysteries that befog us are not mysteries really; they are the mother-tongue of nature. Rustics, and also philosophers, think that any language but theirs is gibberish; they are sorry for the stranger who can speak only an unintelligible language, and are sure he will be damned unless the truth is preached to him speedily by some impertinent missionary from their own country. They even argue with nature, trying to convince her that she cannot move, or cannot think, or cannot have more dimensions than those of their understanding. Oh for a touch of the healing wand of Hermes the Interpreter, that we might understand the language of the birds and the stars, and, laughing first at what they say of us, might then see our image in the mirror of infinity, and laugh at ourselves! Here is a kindly god indeed, humane though superhuman, friendly though inviolate, who does not preach, who does not threaten, who does not lay new, absurd, or morose commands on our befuddled souls, but who unravels, who relieves, who shows us the innocence of the things we hated and the clearness of the things we frowned on or denied. He interprets us to the gods, and they accept us; he interprets us to one another, and we perceive that the foreigner, too, spoke a plain language: happy he if he was wise in his own tongue. It is for the divine herald alone to catch the meaning of all, without subduing his merry voice to any dialect of mortals. He mocks our stammerings and forgives them; and when we say anything to the purpose, and reach any goal which, however wantonly, we had proposed to ourselves, he applauds and immensely enjoys our little achievement; for it is inspired by him and like his own. May he be my guide: and not in this world only, in which the way before me seems to descend gently, quite straight and clear, towards an unruffled sea; but at the frontiers of eternity let him receive my spirit, reconciling it, by his gracious greeting, to what had been its destiny. For he is the friend of the shades also, and makes the greatest interpretation of all, that of life into truth, translating the swift words of time into the painted language of eternity. That is for the dead; but for living men, whose feet must move forward whilst their eyes see only backward, he interprets the past to the future, for its guidance and ornament. Often, too, he bears news to his father and brothers in Olympus, concerning any joyful or beautiful thing that is done on earth, lest they should despise or forget it. In that fair inventory and chronicle of happiness let my love of him be remembered.

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