HERMES, the Greek god of boundaries, the ‘trickster’ of the Greek pantheon, and the guide of souls (psychopompos; Figure 1). Hermes was the inventor of fire and sacrifice, the first player of the lyre, the divine thief who stole the cattle of Apollo, and the messenger of the gods. Because of this last function, he came to be represented as a young man with winged sandals, a hat with wings (the petasos), and his chief symbol, the caduceus (or kerykeion), a staff encircled by two coiling snakes (Burkert, 1985). The “herm,” originally a heap of stones bearing his name, evolved into a pillar with a representation of male genitalia and crowned by a bearded head; it signaled the presence of Greek culture wherever Greeks settled.
Hermes was identified with the Roman god Mercury, god of commerce and trade, and came to be provided with a further symbol, the moneybag. In Egypt, he was, furthermore, identified with the Egyptian god Thoth; and under the name Hermes Trismegistus he came to be considered the source of a large number of writings (the Corpus Hermeticum) outlining the ways in which the soul could be released from the bonds of matter (Fowden, 1986).
Evidence for the presence of Hermes in the Iranian world is considerable. The god himself or his symbol can be found on coins: (1) Graeco-Bactrian (bronze issues of Diodotos II show the god; a coin of Euthydemos I, the caduceus; Holt, 1999); (2) Indo-Scythian (Azes I, the god; Maues, the caduceus); and (3) Parthian (Phraates IV, Gotarzes I, Vologases I, Osroes, all showing the caduceus). In a surprising development, Hermes lent his chief symbols to the Kushan god Pharro, as is evident from Kushan coins (Gnoli, 1996) and seals (Callieri, 1997, p. 105). In the context of the gymnasium at Ai Khanum [Āy Ḵānom], an inscribed pillar (possibly part of a herm bearing the image of the father of the dedicators) was found with a Greek dedication to the gods Hermes and Heracles, patrons of the gymnasium (P. Bernard in Veuve, 1987, pp. 91-93, 111-12). Hermes is also represented on one of the rhytons from Nisa (Masson and Pugacenkova, 1982, pp. 101-2) and on (unprovenanced) Central Asian gold objects (Miho Museum, 2002, nos. 53, 74b).
Even further to the east, the god is found on a fragment of textile from Lou-Lan, thought to have been produced in Bactria (or Gandhara; Sakamoto, 2001). On the western borders of the Iranian world, many representations of Hermes have been found in Hatra (q.v.) and several cities of Parthian Syria. The god is also, finally, one of the four persons making up the deity Apollo-Mithras-Helios-Hermes in the dynastic cult of Commagene (q.v.).
The question whether the god occurs in the Hellenistic East simply as a Greek god or in an interpretatio orientalis is a moot point. The association of the Mesopotamian Nabū and the Iranian god Tīr with the planet Mercury (Boyce, 1988) could have facilitated identification with Hermes (Tubach, 1986, pp. 380-81), but the evidence is inconclusive. A further association in Commagene has been suggested between Hermes and Mithra as well as Tīri, but it is likely that this was a local development (Boyce and Grenet, 1991, pp. 343-47). In all other cases, it would seem better to interpret the evidence as relating to the Greek god only.
M. Boyce, “The Lady and the Scribe: Some Further Reflections on Anāhīt and Tīr,” A Green Leaf. Papers in Honour of Professor Jes P. Asmussen (Acta Iranica 28), Leiden, 1988, pp. 277-82.
M. Boyce and F. Grenet, A History of Zoroastrianism III. Zoroastrianism under Macedonian and Roman Rule, Leiden, 1991.
W. Burkert, Greek Religion, Cambridge, Mass., 1985, pp. 156-59.
P. Callieri, Seals and Sealings from the North-West of the Indian Subcontinent and Afghanistan, Naples, 1997.
G. Fowden, The Egyptian Hermes. A Historical Approach to the Late Pagan Mind, Cambridge, 1986.
Gh. Gnoli, “Note Kuṣāṅa: A proposito di una recente interpretazione di Pharro,” La Persia e l’Asia Centrale. Da Alessandro al X secolo, Roma, 1996, pp. 685-702.
F. L. Holt, Thundering Zeus. The Making of Hellenistic Bactria, Berkeley, etc., 1999.
M. E. Masson and G. A. Pugacenkova, The Parthian Rhytons of Nisa, Firenze, 1982.
Miho Museum [Shigaraki, Shiga Prefecture, Japan], Treasures of Ancient Bactria, 2002.
K. Sakamoto, “Re-consideration of the Human-Figure Emblems Excavated in the at-Tar Caves in Iraq,” The Roman Textile Industry and its Influence. A Birthday Tribute to John Peter Wild , ed. by P. Walter Rogers et al., Oxford, 2001, pp. 56-64.
J. Tubach, Im Schatten des Sonnengottes. Der Sonnenkult in Edessa, Harran und Hatra am Vorabend der christlichen Mission, Wiesbaden, 1986.
S. Veuve et al., Fouilles d’Aï Khanoum VI. Le gymnase (MDAFA 30), Paris, 1987.
(Albert de Jong)
Originally Published: December 15, 2003
Last Updated: March 22, 2012
This article is available in print.
Vol. XII, Fasc. 3, pp. 239-240