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Deity with a Semiotic Face
by Dimitar Trendafilov| Sofia, Bulgaria
Monday, 17 October 2011
tags: art & design, culture, europe, making sense, semiotics
In Spring 2011, at a conference on cultures, languages and religions in the Mediterranean and the East, I presented a paper on Hermes, a Greek deity who stands as an ancient emanation and personification of semiotic activities. This is a short version of that paper.
Decades ago the specialists deduced that the medium itself had converted itself into a message and there was no longer any reason for us to think of it as a simple bearer of information. The idea that Hermes is just a herald of Zeus plays down another significant role this god plays in the tangled web of relationships between the inhabitants of Olympus, on one hand, and between the gods and mortals on the other. This second role raises the question of not who Hermes is but what he represents, and why that became so important for the culture of Europe as a whole. Hermes from this perspective appears as an obligatory element in the Pantheon, filling the vacuum which would exist if there were no channel of communication. If the image of Hermes did not exist, a similar signifier or function would still need to be invented to cover the strategically important position between particular characters in mythology and to strengthen specific stages of mythological narratives. Hermes thus anticipates an idea perpetuated by Marshall McLuhan and other commentators over the last half century of innovation in communication and information technologies – of the medium having in some senses become the message.
The most important role of Hermes in relation to mythological space. from a semiotic point of view, is on the horizontal plane of the map. The winged god is the only figure who moves without difficulty from one end of the culture field with which the Ancient Greeks were familiar and the other – visiting towns, islands, crossing seas far and wide, etc. Movement of this kind was expressed in the material culture of the Greeks through what are called ‘herms’, dedicated to Hermes, which were placed at crossroads and marked distances along the roads.
Along the vertical line of the map Hermes moved from the top of the Olympian hierarchy down below to the kingdom of the dead (in which he became ‘a Guide of souls’. Thus he was not only honoured by the mortals as the ruler of the land movement but was also, at the same time, the ruler of the air movement- a member of the divine family whose work was literally to ‘circulate’ between the highest point and the lowest through the religious space of the Greeks. Moreover, Hermes was the figure who fixed and protected frontiers between the various spaces in which people lived, dividing cultural spaces and creating tipping points between them – including the points between realms of myth and science.
So, summarizing these associations, Hermes came to symbolize exchange between heaven and earth, journeys, and transitions between the heavens, earth and the underworld. Logically extending trade, journeys and information transmission we may infer that Hermes, mythologically, served the purpose of representing most things before which we could place the prefix trans- (this mobile god’s areas of jurisdiction might include, for example, transfer, transgression, transcendence, even the hermaphrodite’s trans-genderedness). Simultaneously patron of tradesmen, thieves, shepherds and craftsmen Hermes has a unique and versatile application to cases where we are speaking about a transfer of matter, ideas or messages from one state to another or from one subject to another – i.e. things that constantly change their position in space, in the broadest sense.
In keeping with these qualities of transfer and transformation, Hynes and Doty in Mythical Trickster Figures (1993) put Hermes at the top of their trickster list – with analogues in the mythologies of many other cultures. Unlike many of his brothers-in-arms from Asia or the Americas, however, Hermes is a significant member of the Pantheon characterised by being neither socially disengaged nor marginalised as trickster figures can often be. Hermes’s play at and with the frontiers of the world, as mentioned above, continues in many other forms of marking and shaping of the material world. He becomes god of weights and measures, of the science of measure, of “proportion, relation and scale” (Harari & Bell, Hermes: Literature, Science and Philosophy, 1982). All these potentialities also become extended beyond the material world into representation in language and written texts. From this position to the introduction of hermeneutics as a concept there is only one small step. After participation in language invention, Hermes/hermeneutics also govern the meaning which people derive, attribute and share in their verbal and symbolic communication. The link between Hermes and texts Hynes & Doty (1993) describe as “an open-ended finding of new meanings that may change the interpretative force from one context to another; the values of a way-god must necessarily be flexible and adaptive”.
(This analysis will continue with an account, to follow, of the Hermes symbol in commercial messaging).
© Dimitar Trendafilov 2011