Herma as Guidance and Protection for Travelers in Ancient Greece
The herma (more commonly written in English as herm; plural as hermae or hermai) was a form of statuary that originated in ancient Greece.
In general, these statues were stone columns that corresponded to the stature of the human body, and were topped by the head of Hermes, one of the Olympian gods. These columns were frequently quadrangular in shape, though at times, a triangular shape was preferred. Apart from the head of Hermes, the herma was usually devoid of other anthropomorphic features, though male genitalia were sometimes carved onto these columns at the appropriate height.
Origins of the Herma
The origins of the herma are unclear, though it has been said that their predecessors were heaps of stones. These heaps of stones can be seen in many parts of Greece by the sides of roads, especially at their crossings. The stones functioned as boundary markers, and it was customary for each passer-by to throw a stone onto the pile.
Another way of marking boundaries was by using pillars of stone that were unhewn. The sacred nature of the boundary markers can be seen by the fact that oil was poured on them and that they were often adorned.
A herma in the Vatican Museum. (Public Domain)
The herma was developed when the ancient Greeks began to represent their deities by adding their heads onto blocks of wood or stone. It has also been pointed out that other parts of the body were later added on, initially with a symbolic meaning. This explains the presence of the phallus on some hermae.
Amongst the Dorians, their boundary markers were dedicated to Apollo Agyieus, who was the guardian of the streets and the highways. Nevertheless, it was not the Dorian example, but that of Athenians, that the rest of Greece would adopt when it came to the issue of the hermae.
From Hermes to Herma
The word herma is obviously derived from Hermes, whose head rests on top of these statues. In Greek mythology, Hermes was the god of numerous groups of people and aspects of daily life, including shepherds and cowherds, literature and poets, and athletics.
In the case of the herma, it is the role of Hermes as the god of boundaries and of the travelers who cross them that is emphasized. These roles, which are similar to those given by the Dorians to Apollo Agyieus, were assigned by the Athenians to Hermes. In addition to physical boundaries, Hermes was also believed to have been a psychopomp, i.e. one who escorts the dead into the afterlife. With so much importance, it is not surprising that the Athenians chose to place the head of Hermes on their boundary stones.
Archaic bearded Hermes from a herm, early 5th century BC. (Public Domain)
Apart from marking boundaries, the hermae were also set up in the hope that divine protection would be provided to travelers and merchants. This was due to the fact that even short journeys were dangerous, as roads were often infested with robbers and brigands. Given the symbolism and the importance of the hermae, they were treated with the utmost respect, and the destruction of these objects is said to have been considered as one of the gravest acts of sacrilege.
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The Mutilated Herms and the Downfall of Alcibiades
One famous example of this form of sacrilege can be found in Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian War. According to the ancient Greek historian: “While these preparations [for the Athenian expedition to Sicily] were still in train, most of the stone Herms in the city of Athens had their faces mutilated in one night…”
Some Athenians saw this as an opportunity to bring down Alcibiades, a prominent Athenian statesman at that time. Therefore, they decided to pin this crime on his head. For added measure, they also accused him of being the mastermind behind the parodying of the Mysteries in private houses, which was another act of sacrilege. Most importantly, however, was the allegation that these actions “were part of a plot to subvert democracy” - suggesting that this was Alcibiades’ most serious offence.
Michele de Napoli (1808–1892): Morte di Alcibiade, Death of Alcibiades (circa 1839), Naples National Archaeological Museum. (Public Domain)
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Whilst the herma was originally used in ancient Greece, it was later adapted by the Romans as well. Much later still, the herma was revived in various parts of Europe during the European Renaissance in the form of ‘term figures.’ During this time, however, these statues had lost their original religious function, and served merely as decorative elements.
Featured image: Hermae on display at the Historical Archaeological Museum Almedinilla. Photo source: Public Domain
Atsma, A. J., 2015. Hermes Cult. [Online]
Available at: http://www.theoi.com/Cult/HermesCult.html
Smith, W., Wayte, W. & Marindin, G. E., 1890. A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities: Hermae. [Online]
Available at: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.04.0063:entry=hermae-cn
The State Hermitage Museum, 2015. Herma of Hermes. [Online]
Available at: http://www.hermitagemuseum.org/wps/portal/hermitage/digital-collection/06.+Sculpture/220147
Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War,
[Hammond, M. (trans.), 2009. Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian War. Oxford: Oxford University Press.]
Wake, C. S., 1870. Influence of the Phallic Idea in the Religions of Antiquity. [Online]
Available at: http://www.sacred-texts.com/sex/ipi/ipi06.htm