The son of Maia and Zeus, Hermes was the last to arrive in Mount Olympus. He is also the youngest of the twelve gods, is always full of goodwill for mortals and always maintains a perfect equanimity.
As the child of Zeus and Maia, he is the expression of a new impulse of the spirit aiming to establish in man a new phase, the overmind, by anchoring it into the body.
His mother Maia’s paternal grandparents are the Titan couple Iapetus and Clymene. This couple holds a very special place, for their descendants illustrate the stages to be surpassed in the progression through the levels of the mind to realise the link between Spirit and Matter, as well as all the human conquests already achieved. The different stages are defined by the seven Pleiades, children of their son Atlas.
In Homer’s texts (The Odyssey), Atlas is ‘he who knows the depths of every sea, and himself holds the tall pillars which keep earth and heaven apart.’ Thanks to these pillars, he maintains the separation between Spirit and Matter and curbs their powerful mutual attraction, but he is also the last step before they are united again.
Basing themselves on Hesiod’s text which states that ‘Atlas supports the sky (…) on his head and his tireless shoulders’, other representations of this story have inversed earth and sky, making the former the charge of Atlas by an inversion of meaning, and thus giving not the image of a separation, but of a terrible burden assigned by Zeus. But in fact it is only in later traditions that Atlas was made guilty and his task interpreted as a punishment for having supposedly taken the part of the Titans in the war against the gods.
Hesiod specifies that Atlas stands at the confines of the West near the garden of the Hesperides, a symbol of the origin of evolution. Hespera, evening, is also the region of the setting sun, the place of the past opposed to the East, which is what is eternally new. The garden of the Hesperides represents both ‘what was’ in the past and the ‘memories’ which have covered up this origin, making it more obscure, distorted and inaccessible. It is there that all the great heroes will have to go to engage in ‘rediscovering’, for the transformation of memory is the key to evolution.
While Atlas is the image of separation, he is therefore also the symbol of its opposite, that which bridges Spirit and Matter. He represents the path which man must embark on if he wishes to once again reunite what had become divided when he entered into the human mental plane. This is why Atlas is united with Pleione, which means ‘the evolution of what fills with consciousness’ (from the root Πλε). The origin of the word Atlas proposed by etymological dictionaries seems doubtful (an association of the verb τλαω). It seems more likely that the word was formed around the structuring characters ΤΛ, a splitting on the plane of the Spirit.
The couple of Atlas and Pleione therefore represents what fills the space between Matter and Spirit and weaves the links between them. It is their seven children, the Pleiades, who mark the stages that will fill this void. Individuals who progress through them become themselves the bridge between Spirit and Matter, creator and created, or in other words ‘Man’.
In addition to the Pleiades, Ovid and Hyginus mention six other children of Atlas, who through their names seem to indicate an evolutionary series. These are Hyas and the five Hyades. All of them disappeared through the effects of evolution, of the ego or of an excess or demobilisation of the primitive vital nature (Hyas was stung by a snake or killed by a lion or wild boar in Libya, and his sisters consequently died of grief). This version, which we will study in greater detail in chapter four, adds that the Pleiades’ deaths followed after theirs.
The Pleiades therefore appear in the genealogy of all the heroes, for they indicate the stages described in the corresponding legends. They are Alcyone, Celaeno, Merope, Sterope, Electra, Taygete and Maia. No specific order is given in mythology, and the one presented here has been established by the study of their alliances and of the stories in which they appear. The classification of the mental plane corresponding to each of them is taken from the works of Sri Aurobindo, who also describes seven levels or planes of the mind. This classification only exists to facilitate a better understanding, but there is really only a single continuum of consciousness. Even if their representation seems abstract and forbidding, this differentiation of planes is often the only key allowing us to orient ourselves in mythology.
Let us specify that these planes are proper to man: the preceding levels belong to the evolution of animal consciousness, the powerful influences of which are still present in man and will be described in the following chapter with the study of Pontos’ line of descent. Humankind as it is today in its vast majority only functions in the two or three first planes described below.
(Refer to the diagram “Planes of consciousness”.)
Most indications given hereunder are taken from Sri Aurobindo’s writings.
The first is that of the physical mind. It is represented by Alcyone. The Halcyon is a mythical bird which nests near the sea and the breaking waves, and is therefore a symbol of a mind just emerging from the plane of the animal vital personified by the children of Pontos. This is an aspect of the mind that is mostly preoccupied with the satisfaction of the needs and wellbeing of the body like food, sleep, security, reproduction and so forth.
The second level is that of the vital mind. It is represented by Celaeno (Κελαινω), whose name means ‘black, dark’. It is the second level of the human mind, a quality of mind which still progresses in darkness but acquires a gleam of reflective consciousness, hence the name of the son she had with Poseidon, Lycos, ‘the light preceding dawn’.
In this plane mental activity is concentrated on the justification of vital expressions such as passions, desires, ambitions, etc. It is the source of prejudices and opinions which cannot resist the urge to analyse, and is associated with what is peremptory, arrogant, undisciplined and resistant to all spiritual progress in man.
The third level is that of the intellect or the reasoning mind, and is represented by Merope. Merope means ‘mortals’ or ‘men’ if the word is built from Μεροψ, or ‘partial vision’ if it is built from Μερος+οψ. In both cases, this describes humankind in its current state, having reached the stage of reason. We are familiar with this plane, for it is the one responsible for establishing all major civilisations. It supports itself on memory and functions through deduction, induction and inference, pursuing the truth through trials and errors. As it builds up new hypotheses which ceaselessly break down previous ones, it is almost impossible for this aspect of the mind to integrate opposing truths. The illustration of this is given in the myth of Sisyphus, the spouse of Merope, in the line of descent of the great hero Bellerophon who triumphed over the Chimera.
It is on this plane that man is situated in his moments of real reflection. The rest of the time he functions at the preceding levels, with a great persistence of the animal mind associated with the reptilian and limbic brain represented by the children of Pontos.
The following level is the plane of the higher mind represented by Sterope, ‘lightening’ or ‘extended vision’, a particular modality of the perception of Truth.
It results from a widening of the mind, a vast vision which introduces the intuitive mode so as to surpass the approximations of the logical mind. Attaining this plane presupposes the effort of questioning one’s opinions and prejudices and striving for a higher synthesis. It is for this reason that Sterope took as her lover Ares, the destroyer of established mental forms. She participates to the genealogical line of the Atrides, being the great grandmother of Agamemnon and Menelaus through her daughter Hippodamia.
Then comes the illumined mind. This is a relatively stable state of the higher mind in which consciousness is filled with a flow of light. In this state there is a great enthusiasm for achieving the aim which the soul has set for itself in its incarnation, and which becomes clearer and clearer for the seeker as he moves forward in his progression. The emergence into this plane is often accompanied by new creative capacities, the most natural expression of which blossoms in the domain of the arts (let us however specify that only a very small number of artists produce works of the level of the illumined mind).
It is represented by Electra, who was one of Zeus’ lovers. Their son Dardanos was at the origin of the royal dynasty of Troy.
The following plane is that which Sri Aurobindo calls the intuitive mind. In this plane, the flashes from the world of Truth become more numerous and precise. Everything becomes more rapid, evident, immediate and simple. However, this is still a vision of disparate points rather than of a whole. The corresponding Pleiade is Taygete, named after a majestic Peloponnesian mountain. She too was one of Zeus’ lovers and appears at the origins of the royal line of descent of Sparta. Her descendants include the Dioscuri Castor and Pollux, Helen and Clytemnestra, as well as Ulysses’ wife Penelope.
The last plane is the overmind. It is the plane that forges a transition with the Supramental. In the Vedas, it is described as an ‘ocean of stable lightening’. This mass of light in the consciousness allows the vast extensions of space and time to be considered, but not to be comprehended in their totality yet. It is the plane of the highest knowledge which can be attained by the mind at the level of a great inner force. It is represented by Maia, whose name signifies “dedicated consciousness”, or “gift of oneself”. She is the mother of Hermes, whose name, formed around the characters PM, indicates ‘the evolution of a devotion or dedication in accordance with the right movement’.
Hermes therefore represents the highest plane of the mind accessible to human consciousness, probably from a period earlier than that of Homer or ancient Egypt. This explains why he is the last god to have arrived on Mount Olympus.
The initiates of ancient times have highlighted the fact that the overmind is a plane of transition by making Hermes to be, amongst the twelve Olympian gods, the sole representative of the fifth divine generation, the one closest to humankind. This explains his function as a herald of the gods: he transmits their wills to mortals, sometimes ensuring their execution and becoming the agent of the deities’ wills.
It is only at the level of the overmind that the seeker can completely integrate within himself the forces which these gods represent. It is here that take place the close combats between great heroes and gods in the advanced stages of the path.
As the god of the surpassing of limits in the ascension towards the world of Spirit he must also allow a descent into the depths, for evolution is a process of ascension and integration. He can thus be instrumental in removing the barriers which separate us from the deep subconscious and the corporeal inconscient. Hence his role as one who accompanies the shades to the kingdom of Hades, the place of reunification.
At this level, he is often given the task of forging the link, in accordance with the needs of the path, between the elements of current life and those of other levels of existence. In this context he could be a symbol of the law of ‘correspondence’ or ’cause and effect’.
This so-called Karmic law must not be interpreted from the restricted point of view of human morals, nor from the idea of a reincarnation of personalities. It expresses the fact that the psychic being carries out an integration, or gives itself again the means of achieving a victory over a difficulty that was till that point ignored or unvanquished.
Some say that Maia conceived him while gods and men slept: till this day, the great evolutionary leaps of humanity have all taken place in the collective unconsciousness, that of ordinary men as well as of sages and priests. The story of genesis takes up the same image at the time of the entry of the discerning mind, when ‘God Yahweh cast a deep sleep over man’. (Genesis 2.21)
On the very day he was born, Hermes beheld a tortoise and made of it a lyre, or it is sometimes said a zither. That same night he stole a part of Apollo’s herds, ensuring that they did not leave any traces by making the animals walk backwards, tying branches to their tails or fixing special hooves on them. He then led the stolen herd across all of Greece till they reached the land of Pylos. In the morning he returned to his cradle, but left it definitively on the second day.
Apollo was told of the theft by an oracle. Furious, he went to confront the new-born Hermes, and despite the latter’s negations brought him before Zeus to demand justice. Hermes swore that he was innocent, insisting that he would be incapable of lying. Zeus could not contain his laughter before such effrontery, and ordered Hermes to lead Apollo to the place in which he had concealed the herd. There, Hermes played his lyre, and Apollo was so seduced by its music that he offered Hermes his herd in exchange for the instrument.
To make up for the loss, Hermes invented the shepherd’s flute (the Syrinx, or Pan Flute). According to some traditions, Apollo also offered the young god a golden shepherd’s crook, sometimes depicted as having three heads.
Hermes then begged Apollo to initiate him in the art of prophecy. The latter answered that the highest forms of this art were for him alone to know, but that the Thriai could teach him a lesser form of divination.
Like all the gods, Hermes represents a force of evolution. He can therefore be an active force for each individual at any point on their path.
At his birth, his action is so limited that his effrontery makes Zeus laugh.
If Hermes steals the herds of Apollo in the hope of equaling the god of psychic light, it is because it is difficult for the mind to recognise a different functioning than his own and the superiority of the psychic being.
But there is probably a need for the possessions of the latter (the herds of Apollo), to be understood and brought to their rightful place within the structure of the being. Even if they must be integrated by the mind these experiences must not remain under its governance alone, for any experience that is mentalised too soon loses its power. In addition, the seeker must not believe that they could be the fruits of the mind’s workings alone. The inner reorganisation will therefore be carried out by the highest mental plane, Zeus, through the means of the intuition, for Apollo receives his knowledge through the interpretation of oracles. The place where Hermes leads the stolen herd probably indicates the moment in which these gifts will become accessible, when the seeker will pass through the Triphylian Pylos, ‘the door of the three wild olive trees’, which is to say when he will have purified each of the three lower planes, the mind, the vital and the body, and will have brought to them the light and the governance of the soul.
All the same, Apollo entrusts Hermes with his herd in the end, for the overmind will assist in maintaining the experiences of the soul alive and coherently grouped.
Hermes is a crafty god and employs ‘deceit’ because he is the one who stands closest to the Absolute’s game of hide-and-seek with himself. Perhaps the initiates of ancient times also attributed these characteristics to him to demonstrate that those levels of the being are beyond ordinary virtue, and that penetrating into the overmind is to draw near to a plane beyond duality.
More fundamentally, as the herald of the gods Hermes must transmit the knowledge originating from the higher planes, but cannot do so without distorting it in some way. For as evolved as it may be, the mind cannot access the totality of Truth, let alone express it in the lower planes without distortions, while through its contact with Truth by identification the psychic being manifests itself in an infallible way through its representatives on the mental plane, Apollo and Artemis. Hermes can therefore only access minor forms of soothsaying, those which communicate through the intuitive part of the mind.
As long as Zeus is identified with Metis, he primarily uses Hermes for the work of expansion of consciousness. As the seeker progresses and with the growth of Hermes, Apollo and Artemis take on a greater and greater importance, eventually becoming the ones to direct the being. Then Hermes will form an alliance with the powers of the supramental, the children of Helios Circe and Aietes.
Although Hermes can offer clues for the interpretation of symbols, only Apollo is capable of prophecy, the direct transmission of truth. It goes without saying that the interpretations originating from the inferior planes of the mind, including the intellect, do not possess the same quality.
It is also this intermediary position between the overmind and the supramental which makes Hermes the god of the arts and of the word, not only as a vector of the truth issued from the plane of the supramental, but also through the true value of sounds. As a god belonging to the world of the generation of forms, he is the inventor of those forms which allow for the transmission of superior harmonies, the musical instruments, while the generation of music itself is the responsibility of Apollo. The psychic being therefore needs the forms created by the mind to express itself. Let us also note that the lyre of Hermes has seven strings, thus reflecting the worlds of creation. In the tree of life there are seven planes and four worlds- the divine world, the world of creation, the world of formation and the physical world. The gods belong to the ‘world of formation’, which includes the planes of life and of the mind. Apollo is an emissary of the psychic being belonging to the ‘world of creation’.
It must also be said that an imperfect reception does not require an acutely sharpened instrument, a fact which is expressed in the version of the myth in which Hermes keeps the Pan flute, or Syrinx – for this instrument is considered to be less elaborate than the zither – while the zither becomes the instrument of Apollo.
This myth illustrates that an adjustment is progressively created consisting of an affinity and an appropriate division of roles between the psychic being and the overmind, with an adaptation of means resulting in a constructive exchange between the two.
Hermes quits the cradle and its motherly protection from the second day following his birth, a sign that the overmind is the plane most representative of the true freedom with is a liberation from attachment, desire and the ego of the mind and vital.
Hermes is known by different names in Homeric Hymn to Hermes including:
Kriophoros, ‘he who carries the ram’ for he is the one who walks forward, the ram being both the one to lead the herd as well as the first sign of the zodiac.
‘Nocturnal lookout’, for he remains vigilant while the seeker descends into the night.
‘He who introduces or guides dreams’, for he transmits the symbolic dreams which guide the seeker.
The stories in which Hermes intervenes are linked to the help given by the overmind during certain tests: in this manner he aided Perseus in acquiring from the nymphs the helmet of invisibility and the winged sandals which will aid the latter to vanquish fear.
Hermes is the protector of roads and of the travelers or seekers of truth, and intervenes in many a desperate situation, as he did twice in Ulysses’ adventures. He is also the god of thieves, but this is often in reference to the theft of Apollo’s herds.
Hermes is the father of one of the Argonauts associated with Heracles.
Ovid and later writers of mythology also attribute to Hermes’ parentage Hermaphrodite, a child borne by Aphrodite. Hermaphrodite was raised on Mount Ida. He became a magnificent young man and the nymph Salmacis fell in love with him, and was granted the favor by the gods of never being separated from him. Their bodies fused, and they became a being who was half male and half female. It is the symbol of he who achieves within himself the union of the two poles resulting from Knowledge, Hermes, and Love, Aphrodite, or of he who is astride of the two worlds and is half man and half god. This character does not belong to the original mythological cannon and does not appear in any other myth.
One of his most famous children borne by Philonis, ‘she who loves evolution’, is Autolycos, ‘he who is his own light and onto himself’, who is himself the grandfather of Ulysses, also described as the greatest of thieves. Here too, the overmind usurps the qualities of the psychic being. Autolycos can also signify that in the overmind, things are luminous in themselves- not the elements of reality necessarily, but the elements seen in that plane. (See Mother’s Agenda, Volume 3).
Hermes’ special attributes are his Caduceus and winged sandals. The latter allow him to travel over both oceans and land. They demonstrate a capacity for gaining elevation and are thus also indicative of an expanded and receptive mind capable of a wide synthesis and which can disengage from material contingencies – for Hermes’ wings are attached to his feet – and from the vital plane of emotions, desires, etc. They most importantly indicate a great mental agility and speed.
We may also see a capacity for accelerating the spiritual ‘journey’ here: the more the seeker advances, the less time he will have to pause on the path.
As a herald, (Κηρυξ), Hermes transmits the knowledge issued from the superior planes which comprehends through identity and is often known as ‘occult’. This knowledge includes the messages of the gods, which is to say the orders of the higher consciousness applied at the right time. It was Hermes’ task for instance to put an end to Ulysses’ time with Calypso.
This knowledge reaches the mind through symbolic forms. In his role as a herald, Hermes carries the herald’s sceptre, the Caduceus (κηρυκιον), at least in the representations dating from the beginning of the 5th century AD. In his works Homer already mentions a shepherd’s crook of gold, and in the Homeric hymn to Hermes it is described as one of the gifts offered by Apollo, which confirms the capacity of the overmind to watch over psychic acquisitions, which is to say to keep them alive to conscious awareness.
The Caduceus is a symbol known from the time of highest Antiquity under similar though not identical forms, as shown by the goblet of Gudea from the end of the third millennium BCE. The goblet of Gudea is currently at the Louvre Museum. It has been extensively studied in its static form in the Jewish Kabbalah. However, as the ancient sages describe the corporeal experience of currents (known as Ida, Pingala and Sushumna in the ancient Indian tradition) and that of the seven centers of energy, the Chakras, it seems obvious that they had had these experiences.
The goddess Iris, daughter of Thaumas in the descendance of Pontos, the vital plane, is also represented holding a caduceus. Only two rings are depicted as in certain representations of the Caduceus of Hermes, and in this case it is a symbol of the knowledge of the plane of life.
For further information on the Caduceus, refer to the corresponding appendix.
As he belongs to the overmind, Hermes is at the origin of many legends which it has not been possible to record here except in their most basic elements.
Hermes within us
That which aspires tirelessly to knowledge within us and transmits lightning flashes of truth, and is a source of the perception of the right time for the right action.
That which loves evolution.
That which aspires and dedicates itself without any reserve.
That which grants us certain gifts and powers in accordance to the level which we have attained.