A Cool Theological Moment in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes

There is a moment in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes that I didn’t notice before, but once I did, it filled me with excitement, so I want to share it as an example of something theological in the hopes that the inspired words of the poets excite your minds, too.

[Hermes] chose a stout branch of laurel and trimmed
it with a knife <and spun it in a hollowed-out piece
of ivy wood,> holding it in his hand, and the hot
heat blew upward: it was Hermes who first discovered
fire-sticks and fire!
Then he took many dried logs
and piled all of them — a huge number! — in a pit
he had dug, and the flame showed far around, radiating
the blast of the furious fire. And while the might of glorious
Hephaistos kept the fire burning, he dragged two
of the crumpled-horn cattle […]

Homeric Hymn to Hermes, trans. Powell, 2021

First off, the bit of the quotation in angled brackets is a conjectural reconstruction from missing words in the text. Even without that, though, the choice of wood (laurel) is interesting. Hermes has decided to steal Apollon’s cattle as part of his plot to be counted among the twelve Olympians, and it is laurel wood that is first used for Hermes’ discovery of fire-sticks and fire. This seems significant considering Apollon’s position among the Young Gods, and it points explicitly to Hermes acting as a catalyst for the Far-Shooter’s presence. Secondly, as fire is symbolically connected to the idea of reversion (especially in the Chaldean Oracles), it reminds me of the fact that the symbols of the Gods are used technically by theurgists and devotees to come into a good state of reception during ritual.

The bit in brackets is also interesting because ivy is sacred to Dionysos. Consciously or not, Powell decided to use the union of ivy and laurel — of something sacred to the liberator and something else sacred to the unifier — as the catalyst for this divine flame. This is reminiscent of the role that Apollon plays in bringing the parts of Dionysos’ body back together into unity and burying them. While it is conjectural, it is still a cool choice.

The third interesting thing is the mention of Hephaistos and fire. Hephaistos is the Demiurge of Bodies. Theologically, trees are symbols of the appetitive soul and the part of the embodied self that seeks to consume (at least in Plato and the commentators); I defer to scientists who say that there is a lot more going on with plants, but to casual observers or those without scientific equipment, we don’t really know what the secret life of trees is like, and with life that is very unlike us, we can only really see its appetitive aspects. The use of wood here as a vehicle for Hephaistos’ fire seems like an embodiment reference to me.

If you want to see what I thought of Powell’s book in general, I have a review on Goodreads. Otherwise, I hope this very brief thought dump about these verses of the Homeric Hymn to Hermes was interesting!


5 thoughts on “A Cool Theological Moment in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes

  1. Okay, this is awesome, thanks for sharing!

    On the choice of ivy for the fireboard…

    From my (quite limited!) experience in making fire by friction in this way, it’s essential to have two different kinds of wood: a harder wood for the spindle, and a softer wood for the fireboard where the coal will be produced.

    In the first edition of Athanassakis’ translation of the Homeric Hymns, the translator does not choose to fill the lacuna at all. But, in his endnotes on these verses, he points the reader to Theophrastus’ History of Plants 5.9.6. There, Theophrastus tells us that the best choice for the fireboard is ivy, and the second best choice a “wild vine” known as “the traveler’s joy.” His recommendation for the spindle is, as here in the hymn, the wood of the bay. So that’s presumably why your translator supplemented as he did.

    It’s interesting to note that in either case, ivy or vine, we get the same Dionysian connection.

    And there’s still more in the Theophrastus passage that’s worthy of meditation. He tells that the two woods should be different “according to (their) nature” (kata phusin): the wood of the fireboard should be passive (pathetikon), while the wood of the spindle should be active (poiētikon).

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you so much for this historical context. I had been wondering why ivy was the fill-in choice and the Theophrastus makes it much more exciting!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Karl Kerenyi once noted that the Hermaic is where the Apollonian and the Dionysian meet. Considering how Hermes is often in the middle between His two brothers functionally and how He mirrors both, I would say the use of both laurel and ivy is an acknowledgement of this middle position Hermes has between Apollo and Dionysos

    Liked by 2 people

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