a game of telephone


History is a bit like a game of telephone, isn’t it? Couple hundred years from now they’ll be talking about how tomorrow’s holiday honored King Martin Luther II, and how he freed the slaves or something. Maybe sooner, if the American educational system continues its steady decay. Anyway, however you celebrate it I hope you have a good one!

Some relevant quotes

Hermes, Herakles and Theseus, who are honored in the gymnasium and wrestling-ground according to a practice universal among Greeks, and now common among barbarians. (Pausanias, Description of Greece 4.32.1)

Above all other Gods they worship Mercury, and count it no sin on certain feast-days to include human victims in the sacrifices offered to him. Herakles and Mars they appease by offerings of animals, in accordance with ordinary civilized custom. Some of the Suebi sacrifice also to Isis. I do not know the origin or explanation of this foreign cult; but the Goddess’s emblem, being made in the form of a light warship, itself proves that her worship came in from abroad. The Germans do not think it in keeping with the divine majesty to confine Gods within walls or to portray them in the likeness of any human countenance. Their holy places are woods and groves, and they apply the names of deities to that hidden presence which is seen only by the eye of reverence. (Tacitus, Germania 9)

When morning was come they set up an eagle at the eastern gate, and erecting an altar of victory they celebrated appropriate rites with all due solemnity, according to their ancestral superstition: to the one whom they venerate as their God of Victory they give the name of Mars, and the bodily characteristics of Hercules, imitating his physical proportion by means of wooden columns, and in the hierarchy of their Gods he is the Sun, or as the Greeks call him, Apollo. From this fact the opinion of those men appears somewhat probable who hold that the Saxons were descended from the Greeks, because the Greeks call Mars Hirmin or Hermes, a word which we use even to this day, either for blame or praise, without knowing its meaning. (Widukind of Corvey, Deeds of the Saxons)

Among the rest of the Thracians it is the custom to sell their children for export and to take no care of their maidens, allowing them to have intercourse with any man they wish. Their wives, however, they strictly guard, and buy them for a price from the parents. To be tattooed is a sign of noble birth, while to bear no such marks is for the baser sort. The idler is most honored, the tiller of the soil most scorned; he is held in highest honor who lives by war and robbery. They worship no Gods but Ares, Dionysos, and Artemis. Their princes, however, unlike the rest of their countrymen, worship Hermes above all Gods and swear only by him, claiming him for their ancestor. The wealthy have the following funeral practices. First they lay out the dead for three days, and after killing all kinds of victims and making lamentation, they feast. After that they do away with the body either by fire or else by burial in the earth, and when they have built a barrow, they initiate all kinds of contests, in which the greatest prizes are offered for the hardest type of single combat. (Herodotos, Histories 5.6-8)

And again Hera would have destroyed the son of Zeus but Hermes caught him up, and carried him to the wooded ridge where Kybele dwelt. Moving fast, Hera ran swift-shoe on quick feet from high heaven; but he was before her, and assumed the eternal shape of first-born Phanes. Hera in respect for the most ancient of the Gods, gave him place and bowed before the radiance of the deceiving face, not knowing the borrowed shape for a fraud. So Hermes passed over the mountain tract with quicker step than hers, carrying the horned child folded in his arms, and gave it to Rheia, nurse of lions, mother of Father Zeus, and said these few words to the Goddess mother of the greatest: ‘Receive, Goddess, a new son of your Zeus! He is to fight with the Indians, and when he has done with earth he will come into the starry sky, to the great joy of resentful Hera! Indeed it is not proper that Ino should be nurse to one whom Zeus brought forth. Let the mother of Zeus be nanny to Dionysos – mother of Zeus and nurse of her grandson!’ This said he put off the higher shape of selfborn Phanes and put on his own form again, leaving Bakchos to grow a second time in Meter’s nurture. (Nonnos, Dionysiaka 9.136 ff)

Kallisto was loved by Zeus and mated with him. When Hera detected the intrigue she turned Kallisto into a bear, and Artemis to please Hera shot the bear. Zeus sent Hermes with orders to save the child Arkas that Kallisto bore in her womb. (Pausanias, Description of Greece 8.3.6)

A Strange God in strange lands

Although it’s been a while since I asked for Starry Bear writing prompts, I haven’t forgotten. Over the last couple days I got around 8 or 9 pages down on Hermes’ role in the pantheon, with a particular focus on his presence in Germanic and Russian lands and how that shapes our conception of him within the tradition. Unfortunately while doing some research for this I made a discovery that’s going to necessitate completely changing how this paper is written. We’re talking from the title on down to the concluding paragraph. Which, on the one hand is pretty fucking cool. And on the other is irksome, as I’m rather lazy.  Funny thing – this isn’t the first time that’s happened since I started working on it. Laying it all out like this is both forcing me to refine my understanding of certain things and bringing up layers I’d never glimpsed before. Which, of course, is helping me grow closer to Hermes. Talk about a hermaion

Orestes Mainomenos

As you go from Megalopolis to Messene, after advancing about seven stades, there stands on the left of the highway a sanctuary of Goddesses. They call the Goddesses themselves, as well as the district around the sanctuary, Maniae (Madnesses). In my view this is a surname of the Eumenides; in fact they say that it was here that madness overtook Orestes as punishment for shedding his mother’s blood. Not far from the sanctuary is a mound of earth, of no great size, surmounted by a finger made of stone; the name, indeed, of the mound is the Tomb of the Finger. Here, it is said, Orestes on losing his wits bit off one finger of one of his hands. Adjoining this place is another, called Ake (Remedies) because in it Orestes was cured of his malady. Here too there is a sanctuary for the Eumenides. The story is that, when these Goddesses were about to put Orestes out of his mind, they appeared to him black; but when he had bitten off his finger they seemed to him again to be white and he recovered his senses at the sight. So he offered a sin-offering to the black Goddesses to avert their wrath, while to the white deities he sacrificed a thank-offering. It is customary to sacrifice to the Graces also along with the Eumenides. Near to the place called Ake is another sanctuary called . . . because here Orestes cut off his hair on coming to his senses. (Pausanias, Description of Greece 8.34.1-3)


When Orestes had departed in haste from the Taurians with his sister, it so happened that he contracted some disease. And when he made inquiry about the disease they say that the oracle responded that his trouble would not abate until he built a temple to Artemis in a spot such as the one among the Taurians, and there cut off his hair and named the city after it. So then Orestes, going about the country there, came to Pontus, and saw a mountain which rose steep and towering, while below along the extremities of the mountain flowed the river Iris. Orestes, therefore, supposing at that time that this was the place indicated to him by the oracle, built there a great city and the temple of Artemis, and, shearing off his hair, named after it the city which even up to the present time has been called Comana. The story goes on that after Orestes had done these things, the disease continued to be as violent as before, if not even more so. Then the man perceived that he was not satisfying the oracle by doing these things, and he again went about looking everywhere and found a certain spot in Cappadocia very closely resembling the one among the Taurians. I myself have often seen this place and admired it exceedingly, and have imagined that I was in the land of the Taurians. For this mountain resembles the other remarkably, since the Taurus is here also and the river Sarus is similar to the Euphrates there. So Orestes built in that place an imposing city and two temples, the one to Artemis and the other to his sister Iphigenia, which the Christians have made sanctuaries for themselves, without changing their structure at all. This is called even now Golden Comana, being named from the hair of Orestes, which they say he cut off there and thus escaped from his affliction. (Prokopios, History of the Wars 1.17.18-25)

The Stranger King


Something else I’m thinking about: the assumption that the cultural institutions of the ancients were ageless and unchanging.

They weren’t.

For instance, when did the Athenians stop celebrating Anthesteria?

If memory serves, Plutarch is one of the last authors to speak of carrying out the rites; subsequently references to it tend to be in the past tense.

His observances are also very different from the evidence we have for the Classical Athenian form of the festival, which differs again from what was done in Southern Italy, and likely Ephesos and Magnesia too.

Interesting fact: Themistokles (of 300: Rise of an Empire fame) is credited with transplanting Anthesteria to the latter polis, where he was banished after successfully defending his mother-city from Persian incursion.

I bet Orestes’ Supper held some interesting resonances for him, especially considering the tragic hero’s ties to the Black Sea region.