A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities/Hermae

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HERMAE (ἑρμαῖ), and the diminutive HERMULI (ἑρμίδια), statues composed of a head, usually that of the god Hermes, placed on a quadrangular pillar, the height of which corresponds to the stature of the human body (ἡ τετράγωνος ἐργασία, Thuc. 6.27; τὸ σχῆμα τὸ τετράγωνον, Paus. 4.33.4). Some difficulties are involved in the question of their origin, and of their meaning as symbols of Hermes. One of the most important features in the mythology of Hermes is his presiding over the common intercourse of life, traffic, journeys, roads, boundaries, and so forth, and there can be no doubt that it was chiefly in such relations as these that he was intended to be represented by the Hermae of the Greeks and by the Termini of the Romans, when the latter were identified with the Hermae. It is therefore natural that we should look for the existence of this symbol in the very earliest times in which the use of boundary-marks was required; and in such times the symbols would be of the simplest character, a heap of stones or an unhewn block of marble. Now we find that there were in many parts of Greece heaps of stones by the sides of roads, especially at their crossings, and on the boundaries of lands, which were called ἑρμαῖα or [p. 1.954] ἑρμεῖα, ἑρμαῖοι λόφοι and ἕρμακες (Hesych. s. vv.: the remarks on the etymology of these words in Buttmann's Lexil. and L. and S. ed. 7 should be corrected from Curtius, Gr. Etym. 349, 350). A ἑρμαῖος λόφος near Ithaca is mentioned in the Odyssey (16.471)); Strabo noticed many ἑρμεῖα on the roads in Elis (viii. p. 343); and even now an ancient heap of stones may be seen on the boundary of Laconia (Ross, Pelop. vol. i. pp. 18, 174). The religious respect paid to such heaps of stones, especially at the meeting of roads, is shown by the custom of each passer-by throwing a stone on to the heap (Nicand. Ther. 150); this custom was also observed with reference to the Hermae of later times, at least to those which stood where roads met and served as milestones or direction posts (Brunck, Anal. 3.197, no. 234). Such heaps of stones were also seen by Strabo on the roads in Egypt (xvii. p. 818). Another mode of marking a boundary or other definite locality was by a pillar of stone, originally unhewn, the sacred character of which was marked by pouring oil upon it and adorning it (Theophrast. Char. 16 ; comp. Genesis 28.18, 22, 31.45-48, where both the pillar and the heap of stones are set up for a witness, 35.14).

Of these heaps of stones and pillars, those which marked boundaries were, among the Dorians, dedicated to Apollo Agyieus, the guardian of the streets and highways (Müller, Dor. 2.6.6; 8.17); a worship which was subsequently introduced into Attica (Aristoph. Wasps 875; Dem. c. Mid. p. 531.52). At Athens, on the other hand, Hermes was from the first invested with the same offices, and other Greeks borrowed this image from the Athenians (Paus. l.c.; cf. 1.24.3).

The first attempt at the artistic development of the blocks of stone and wood, by which, in the earliest period of idol-worship, all the divinities were represented, was by adding to them a head, in the features of which the characteristics of the god were supposed to be expressed; and afterwards other members of the body were added, at first with a symbolical meaning. [Daedala] These changes produced the Hermae, such as they are described by the ancient authors, and as we now have them. The phallus formed an essential part of the symbol, probably because the divinity represented by it was in the earliest times, before the worship of Dionysus was imported from the East, the personification of the reproductive powers of nature. So the symbol is described by Herodotus, who ascribes the origin of it to the Pelasgians, who communicated it to the Athenians, and they to the other Greeks. (Hdt. 2.51; Plut. an Seni ger. sit Resp. 28, p. 797 f.; Cic. de Nat. Deor. 3.2. 2, § 56; comp. Creuzer's note, in Baehr's edition of Herodotus.) Pausanias gives the same account of the matter (1.24.3; 4.33.3), and also states that the Arcadians were particularly fond of the ἄγαλμα τετράγωνον (8.48.4; where the statue referred to is one of Zeus), which is some confirmation of the tradition which carried back the invention to the Pelasgic times.

In the historical times of Greece, too, it was at Athens that the Hermae were most numerous and most venerated. So great was the demand for these works that the words ἑρμογλύφος, ἑρμογλυφικὴ τέχνη, and ἑρμογλυφεῖον were used as the generic terms for a sculptor, his art, and his studio (Plat. Symp. p. 215; Lucian, Somn. § § 2, 7; and the Lexicons).

Houses in Athens had one of these statues placed at the door, called ἑρμῆς στροφαῖος or στροφεύς (Thuc. 6.27; Aelian, Ael. VH 2.41; Suid. s.v. Pollux, 8.72; Athen. 10.437 b); sometimes also in the court-yard (Lucian, Navig. 20, p. 261), which were worshipped by the women as conducive to fecundity, and the great reverence attached to them is shown by the alarm and indignation which were felt at Athens in consequence of the mutilation of the whole number in a single night, just before the sailing of the Sicilian expedition. (Thuc. 6.27, with Grote's remarks, ch. 58, 5.146 ff.; Andoc. de Myst.; Aristoph. Lys. 1094, and Schol.; Aristophanes applies the term ἑρμοκοπίδαι to the mutilators; see also Phot. s. v. ἑρμοκοπίδαι.)

They were likewise placed in front of temples, near to tombs, in the gymnasia, palaestrae, libraries, porticoes, and public places, at the corners of streets, on high roads as sign-posts, with distances inscribed upon them (Boeckh, Corp. Inscr. No. 12; Brunck, Anal. 3.197; and the epigrams on Hermae in 198=Anth. Pal. 6.221); and some are still to be seen at Athens with the names of victors in the gymnastic contests inscribed upon them. (Leake, Athens, p. 17, n. 1.) They were even made vehicles of public instruction, according to the author of the Platonic Hipparchus (p. 228 D–229 B), who says that the tyrant Hipparchus placed Hermae in the streets of the city and in roads throughout Attica, inscribed with moral verses, such as the following:– “Μνῆμα τόδ᾽ Ἱππάρχου: στεῖχε δίκαια φρονῶν. Μνῆμα τόδ᾽ Ἱππάρχον: μὴ φίλον ἐξαπάτα.” (Comp. Harpocrat. s. v. Ἑρμαῖ: Hesych. sub voce Ἱππάρχειοι Ἑρμαῖ. Those which stood at cross roads had often three or four heads (Philoch. fragm. 69 Müller; Harpocr. and Etym. M. s. v. τρικέφαλος Ἑρμῆς: Phot., Hesych. sub voce τετρακέφαλος Ἑρμῆς: Eustath. ad Hom. Od. p. 1353, 3).

Numerous examples occur in Pausanias and other writers of their being placed on the boundaries of lands and states and at the gates of cities (πρὸς τῇ πυλίδι, προπυλαῖος, Paus. 8.34.3, s. 6; 4.33.3, s. 4, &c.; Harpocr.). Small Hermae were also used as pilasters, and as supports for furniture and utensils. (Pollux, 7.15, 73; Müller, Archäol. § 379, n. 2.) Respecting the use of the Hermae and Hermuli in the Circus, see p. 433, with cuts of the doors of the Carceres.

With respect to the form of these works, the essential parts have been already mentioned. A pointed beard (σφηνοπώγων) belonged to the ancient type (Artemid. 2.42). A mantle (ἱμάτιον) was frequently hung over the shoulders (Paus. 8.39.4; D. L. 5.82). Originally the legs and arms were altogether wanting (Pausanias calls them ἄκωλοι, 1.24.3), and, in place of the arms, there were often projections to hang garlands upon; but when the reverence attached to the ancient type became less, and the love of novelty greater, the whole torso Was placed upon a quadrangular [p. 1.955] pillar, which tapered towards the base, and finally the pillar itself was sometimes chiselled to indicate the separation of the legs, as may be seen in a tetragonal female statue in the Villa Albani. (Winkelm. Storia delle Arti, vol. i. tav. 1.) Sometimes, as above stated, the head was double, triple, and even fourfold. The whole figure was generally of stone or marble; but Cicero (Cic. Att. 1.8) mentions some which were of Pentelic marble, with bronze heads. (Müller, Archäol. d. Kunst, § 67.)

Many statues existed of other deities, of the same form as the Hermae, which no doubt originated in the same manner, and which were still called by the generic name of Hermae, even though the bust upon them was that of another deity. Several images of this kind are described by Pausanias; one of Poseidon at Tricoloni in Arcadia (8.35.6), another of Zeus Teleios at Tegea (ib. 48.4), and another of Aphrodite Urania at Athens (1.19.2). The reason why the statues of the other deities were developed into perfect forms, while those of Hermes so generally (by no means universally) retained their ancient fashion, is obviously on account of the religious significance attached to the symbol of the pillar, as a boundary mark. Where this motive was not called into action, Hermes himself was represented in the complete human form with all the perfection of Greek art, as, for example, in his statues in the palaestrae, and in those which embodied others of his attributes. (See Müller, Archäol. d. Kunst, § § 380, 381.)

Some statues of this kind are described by a name compounded of that of Hermes and another divinity: thus we have Hermanubis (Anth. Pal. 11.360), Hermares, Hermathena (Cic. Att. 1.1 and 4), Hermeracles (Cic. Att. 1.1. 0), Hermeros (Plin. Nat. 36.33), Hermopan (Bekk. Anecd. 1198). It has been disputed whether such figures were composed of the square pillar, as the emblem of Hermes, surmounted by the bust of the other divinity; or, secondly, whether the heads of Hermes and the other god were united, as in the bust of Janus; or, lastly, whether the symbolical characteristics of the two deities were combined in the same statue. The best recent criticism is in favour of the first of the above explanations : “as commonly assumed, they were statues of those deities in the Hermes form, not Janus-like compounds of the two deities named” (Baumeister, 1.604a; cf. Müller, Archäol. d. Kunst, § 345). Exceptions, however, seem to have existed: a Janus-head of Hermes and Athena in Müller's Denkmäler, pl. xlii. No. 526. Some, again, such as the Hermerotes of Tauriscus, mentioned by Pliny among other masterpieces of sculpture, were probably not of a terminal character at all, any more than the Hermaphroditi, of which specimens are extant [Hermaphroditus]. It is not unlikely that they may have been simply hermaphrodite Erotes, like those depicted on some south-Italian vases. It is difficult to believe that the sculptor of the Dirce-group (Toro Farnese) would have condescended to the embellishment of terminal figures.

There is still another class of these works in which the bust represented no deity at all, but was simply the portrait of a man, and in which the pillar loses all its symbolical meaning, and becomes a mere pedestal. Even these statues, however, retained the names of Hermae and Termini. The examples of them are very numerous. A list of these and of the other Hermae is given by C. W. Müller. (Ersch and Gruber's Encyklopädie, art. Hermen.)

The Hermae of all kinds were in great request among the wealthy Romans, for the decoration of their houses and villas (Cic. ad Att. ll. cc.). It is also stated that they used them as posts for ornamental railings to a garden, in which case they were commonly decorated with the busts of philosophers and eminent men, some of which may be seen at the Vatican and other museums, with the square holes in their shoulders into which the transverse rail was inserted. This square hole, however, is also seen in Hermae of old Greek workmanship, in which cases they were probably the sockets of the projections, above mentioned, for hanging garlands on.

Hermes. (From a bas-relief).jpeg

The existing remains of ancient art are rich in terminal statues of all the classes which have been described; and specimens of nearly all may be seen in the British Museum, and in engravings in Müller's Denkmäler der alten Kunst (vol. i. pl. i. Nos. 3, 4, 5;–vol. ii. pl. xxxi. No. 341; pl. xxxiii. Nos. 376, 386, 387; pl. xxxvi. Nos. 428, 429; pl. xlii. No. 526). The first two examples in Müller are very interesting: the one is a bas-relief, exhibiting a Hermes decorated with garlands and surrounded with the implements of his worship, as shown in the following engraving; the other is also a bas-relief in which we see a terminal bust of Dionysus washed and decorated by a man and three women. Hermae of the bearded Dionysus occur frequently among existing remains (Gurlitt, Archäol. Schr. p. 194 ff.) Respecting the Hermae on coins, see Rasche, Lex. Univ. Rei Num. s. vv. Herma, Hermathene, Hermes. (C. O. Müller, Archäol. der Kunst; Müller and Osterley, Denkmäler der alten Kunst; Baumeister, Denkmäler, s. vv. Götterbilder, Hermes.) [P.S] [W.W]