Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Friday, March 1, 2013

Hermes and the Art of Poetry

Having quoted Greek on these pages in characters that do not transfer to the blog and in distracting transliterations, I have decided this time to simply quote from the close if old-fashioned Loeb’s Library version by Hugh G. Evelyn-White. My references to line numbers are, of course, to the Greek. I would have preferred to use my own translation, but my version of the poem is as yet incomplete.




Along with Homer and Hesiod, the so-called Homeric Hymns provide the earliest information about the literary theory of ancient Greece. These poems exemplify the role of poetry in providing access to the astonishingly efficient mythic system by which the Greeks understood the world. The Hymn to Hermes is the primary source for an aetiological myth of the origin of lyric poetry, a sort of back-story to the shining Olympian, Apollo who is commonly associated with the art. With the attribution of the lyre to Hermes comes a more dialectic complex picture of artistic signification, portrayed prior to the unadulterated Apollonian light, as a necessary duality of lie and truth.

Most will recall the charming Hymn to Hermes an infant trickster story, something like Krishna the butter thief. The baby’s cheeky mendacity and his comically ingenious stratagems are undeniably entertaining, but in the hymn’s plot-line, they serve in the end simply to bring Hermes together with Apollo to allow the gift of the tortoise-shell lyre. Hermes had invented the instrument that very morning, but he gives it up to resolve strife he has himself created, a peace offering to the god who is to govern poetry for the next thousand years and more. [1]

Hermes’ very first act is to seize the tortoise in his courtyard. With a lie, using his characteristic wile, he tells the animal it is dangerous outside (37), and a moment later, he kills it and fashions the lyre. His emphasis is wholly upon pleasure, for him it is a “comrade of the feast” (31), inspirer of joy (32). In a rush of invention, he conceives the instrument “as a swift thought darts through the heart of man when thronging cares haunt him, or as bright glances flash from the eye.” (43-45) He sang on it “sweet random snatches, even as youths bandy taunts at festivals,” (55-56) sliding into a celebration of his own birth and of the muses. The creative process is described as a delight in itself, the exercise of the forebrain damping pain and providing pleasure in itself, as well as enabling future art. After this mental work in done, the god’s attention turns to his belly. Motivated by a desire for meat (unsatisfied apparently with the prospect of nectar and ambrosia), his mind turns then to his larcenous plot, a design of “sheer trickery” such as “knavish folk pursue.” (66-67).

Poetry appears then at first as a pure party pastime, whether it is casual improvisation or theogonies. It seems in this way on a par with other desires, such as a wish for a satisfying meal. Yet its unique characteristic is the unpredictable glancing energy of creative human thought which, through its potent symbolic manipulation, can design a new and useful object or compose a song.

When Apollo first hears the lyre, his reaction is upwelling laughter. (420) Hermes sings again the story of the gods, first among them Mnemosyne “for the son of Maia was among her following,” (430) inspiring in Apollo a “longing” (eros) ”not to be allayed.” (434) He finds it in particular a “path” to remedy “desperate (or “irremediable”) “cares” (or “suffering”). (447) In his speech (436-463) Apollo praises the invention as a “marvel,” “noble,” “heavenly,” “wonderful, “sweet,” and “glorious,” while calling Hermes a “trickster” and “thievish.” He concludes by promising not to “deceive” Hermes, the habitual deceiver who does not shrink from bald-faced lies even before all-knowing Zeus.

Instructing Apollo, Hermes advises him to give himself to “merriment” (or “triumphal display”[2]) The emphasis remains solidly on convivial dinners, “rich feast and lovely dance and glorious revel.” (480-481) According to Hermes, the lyre rewards the listener who is susceptible to “delight” (484) while bringing “the ignorant” only “vanity and foolishness.” (488) He proceeds to consider his theft repaid, though he asks to be caretaker for the herd, prophesying abundant offspring and assuming co-ownership. Apollo is so taken with the music he accepts with pleasure. (493-494)

Through the hymn poetry, the lyric art, is consistently identified with pleasure, whether on the occasion of casual party verses or solemn hymns to the divine. Both offer necessary relief: the symbolic manipulations of art are essential to both passing the time with friends and reflecting on first principles and final things. The disquiet that awakes in the reader when the tortoise is tricked into death, by nature, one might say, at the outset can be salved only by verbal art. Redemptive song compensates for the distressing void of mortality, providing both “entertainment” and supernatural explanations in a pre-Horatian version of “teach and delight.”

Little, however, in the character of Apollo matches the subversive, all-too-human character of Hermes. He is a con man because of his own selfish interests. He cancels out his own assertions by declaring his undependability. In this poem Hermes provides Apollo with a gift beyond the lyre: dissimulation.

After the settlement between the Olympians, all seems harmonious, but Apollo’s nervousness about being again tricked leads him to elicit from Hermes a solemn vow not to steal from him. With this renewed settlement comes the acid test of the value of poetry: prophecy. Apollo says that only he can be confidant of Zeus with reference to the future, yet he prevaricates about the value of omens, claiming sometimes to tell the truth through signs and sometimes to deceive. This ambiguity is very broadly true, as he says also that he bedevils men as well as blessing them. He illustrates this very contradictory revelation – the truth that is untrue – by telling Hermes of the mysterious bee-like Thriae whose oracular reputation for speaking the truth (561) is tempered by the fact that they also lie (563). (We might all make the same claim for our prophecies.) Another analogue concludes the poem when Hermes is said to “profit” some and “cozen” others. (577-578)

One would then have to qualify the marvelous image Nietzsche imagined, doubtless aware that he had heightened the contrast: “In an eccentric way one might say of Apollo what Schopenhauer says, in the first part of The World as Will and Representation [I:1, 3], of man caught in the veil of Maya: ‘Even as on an immense, raging sea, assailed by huge wave crests, a man sits in a little rowboat trusting his frail craft, so, amidst the furious torments of this world, the individual sits tranquilly, supported by the principium individuationis [principle of individuation] and relying on it.’ [The World as Will and Representation, I:4, 63] One might say that the unshakable confidence in that principium has received its most magnificent expression in Apollo, and that Apollo himself may be regarded as the marvelous divine image of the principium individuationis, whose looks and gestures radiate the full delight, wisdom, and beauty of ‘illusion.’” [3]

The author of the Hymn to Hermes would have agreed with Nietzsche when he said, “Much will have been gained for aesthetics once we have succeeded in apprehending directly-rather than merely ascertaining-that art owes its continuous evolution to the Apollinian-Dionysian [sic] duality, even as the propagation of the species depends on the duality of the sexes, their constant conflicts and periodic acts of reconciliation.” He surely had in mind just such a conflict and reconciliation as that narrated in the Hymn to Hermes.


1. Since writing this piece I have been told of an admirable treatment along similar lines in Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art.

2. Aglaia is also one of the Graces according to Hesiod.

3. Both quotations are from The Birth of Tragedy in Francis Golfing’s translation.

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