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► “Hermes & Writing in Ancient Greece”: “Collaboration with Alan Severs”✍️:

Statue of Hermes/Mercury. Roman copy. 200 AD.


“Hermes”, by W. B. Richmond. From “The magazine of art” vol. 9, 1886.

♠Divided into three sections, this article revolves around three main themes: Hermes, as The Greek God of Writing and his equivalents in other cultures; Plato´s derogatory ideas of writing, amidst the prevailing Oral Tradition; and how this eventually would change, as writing became a most accepted form, when the Greeks adopted the Phoenician Alphabet.

Greek God Hermes was the equivalent of the egyptian God Thoth, and from both of them resulted a Hybrid God: Hermes Trismegistus.

Hermes´roman counterpart was Mercury

In Norse Mythology, his Homologous figure was Odin.

Hermes and his associated figures are described in the first section.

♠The second section refers to Plato´s dialogue “Phaedrus”, emphasizing Socrates´quite negative statements concerning writing in that dialogue.

In “Phaedrus”Plato denies the legitimacy of the written word in favour of the oral tradition. With that purpose, Socrates tells us a myth, featuring Thoth (also known as Theuth and Hermes´egyptian equivalent).

Greece’s transition to literacy, was slow, and it augmented and transformed the traditions of oral culture which had for centuries been instrumental in the handing down of certain forms of cultural knowledge.

Before the advent of writing, Greek citizens’ knowledge of their history, the ways of their gods, and the attitudes, mores, and taboos of their society were orally transmitted. This occurred not only through parent-to-child communication and transmission within a community, but also through the poetry of the bards, most notably Homer and Hesiod.

The third section  delve into this issue, taking into account how writing effectively evolved in Ancient Greece.

As a matter of fact, Writing went through different phases, summed up as follows:

>Linear A Script: It was the written language of the Minoans of Crete, remains undecipherable.

>Linear B Script: It consists of the Mycenaean Civilization and the only partially decipherable Linear B script of Crete. 

>Phoenician Alphabet: It was the alphabet of ancient Phoenicia, which first came to Greece sometime before the 8th century BCE, from whence it spread.

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Section I. Hermes, Thoth, Hermes Trismegistus, Mercury and Odin:

Hermes was son of Zeus and one of the Pleiades, Maia

Hermes, Greek God. 540 BC

The name Hermes appears to have originated in the word for “stone heap.”

Probably since prehistoric times there existed in Crete and in other Greek regions a custom or erecting a herma, consisting of an upright stone surrounded at its base by a heap of smaller stones. Such monuments were used to serve as boundaries or as landmarks for wayfarers. A connection existed between these simple monuments and the deity named Hermes.

Hermes had many attributes and represented many things. Hermes was the Olympian god of herds and flocks, travellers and hospitality, roads and trade, thievery and cunning, heralds and diplomacy, astronomy and astrology. Besides, he was the herald and personal messenger of Zeus, and also the guide of the dead who led souls down into the underworld. 

He was also a god of science and wisdom, art, speech, eloquence. And, most importantly: “the God of Writing”. 

The Greek God Hermes, as God of Writing, finds his analogue in Egypt as the ancient Wisdom God Thoth (sometimes spelled Thouth, Theuth or Tahuti). 

Thoth, Egyptian God of Writing.

Thoth was important in many myths of Pharaonic Egypt: he played a role in the creation myth, he was recorder of the gods, and the principal pleader for the soul at the judgment of the dead. It was he who invented writing. According to relevant sources, he wrote all the ancient texts, including the most esoteric ones, including “The Book of Breathings”, which taught humans how to become gods.

In ancient Egypt,  Thoth created script. Besides, he was connected with the moon and thus considered the ruler of the night.

Furthermore, Thoth acted as an emissary between the contending armies of Horus (Egyptian God of the sky and kingship) and Seth (god of the desert, storms, disorder and violence in ancient Egyptian). Thoth eventually came to negotiate the peace treaty between these two gods. His role as a mediator between the opposites is thus made evident, perhaps prefiguring the role of the alchemical Mercury as the “medium of the conjunction.”

Both Hermes and Thoth were gods of writing and of magic in their respective cultures.

Hermes, the Greek god of interpretive communication, was combined with Thoth, the Egyptian god of wisdom, to become the patron of astrology and alchemy. In addition, both gods were psychopomps, guiding souls to the afterlife. Hermes Trismegistus may be a representation of the syncretic combination of the Greek god Hermes and the Egyptian god Thoth.

As Alan Severs says in his post “The Grammar of Magic”:

“Writing and magic have always been closely associated. The Egyptian God Thoth was thought to be  the inventor of writing and the patron of every magical art. The considerable cultural contact and resulting overlap over the centuries because of conquest and trade between Egypt, Greece and Rome led to the deities Hermes and Mercury who shared many of the same attributes as Thoth before they all further blended together, creating the composite figure that was to later an immeasurable influence in the history of ideas, Hermes Trismegistus”.

Last, but not least: there is still another Egyptian parallel. Specifically, in the figure of Anubis. In classical mythology, Hermanubis was a god who combined Hermes with Anubis (given that they were both conductors of souls).

Hermes Trismegistus, floor mosaic in the Cathedral of Siena. 1480s.

Hermes´roman equivalent, Mercury had essentially the same aspects as Hermes. He also wore winged shoes and a winged hat, and carried the caduceus, a herald’s staff with two entwined snakes that was Apollo‘s gift to Hermes. He was often accompanied by a cockerel, herald of the new day, a ram or goat, symbolizing fertility, and a tortoise, referring to Mercury’s legendary invention of the lyre from a tortoise-shell.

Like Hermes, he was also a god of messages, eloquence and of trade, particularly of the grain trade. He was also, like Hermes, the Romans’ psychopomp, whose ability was to lead the newly deceased souls to the afterlife.

Thoth. Hermes Trismegistus and Mercury.

Another related God, given his attributes, is Odin.

Odin is a prominently mentioned god throughout the recorded history of the Germanic people, from the Roman occupation of regions of Germania through the tribal expansions of the Migration Period and the Viking Age. In the major mythological Old Norse texts, the Poetic and Prose Eddas, Odin is depicted as one-eyed and long-bearded, frequently wielding a spear named Gungnir, and wearing a cloak and a broad hat. He is often accompanied by his animal companions: two wolves and two ravens named Huginn and Muninn (Thought and Memory). As well as being the Germanic equivalent of Hermes, Odin appears to have marked shamanistic tendencies as he frequently has ecstatic visions in other realms after undergoing various trials and ordeals.

In Norse Mythology he was associated with healing, death, royalty, the gallows, knowledge, battle, sorcery, poetry and the runic alphabet. In the long Eddic, gnomic poem Havamal (The Words of Odin the High One) Odin sacrifices himself to himself by hanging from a tree (presumably Yggdrasil, the World Tree) for nine days and nine nights in order to obtain knowledge of the runes, which is suggested throughout Norse mythology as being a symbolic alphabet used for magical purposes. 

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►Section II. Plato´s dialogue “Phaedrus”, in which Socrates pronounced himself in favour of the prevailing Oral Tradition and, thus, against writing:

In his dialogue “Phaedrus”; Plato denies the legitimacy of the written word as capable of conveying knowledge in any truly significant way.

In this dialogue, Socrates puts the case against writing into the mouth of  Thamus, the Egyptian equivalent of Zeus.

When Thamus is presented by the god Theuth (Thoth) with the invention of writing, Thoth claims it “will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memories, for it is an elixir of memory and wisdom that I have discovered”. But Thamus replies:

‘Most ingenious Theuth, one man has the ability to beget arts, but the ability to judge of their usefulness or harmfulness to their users belongs to another; and now you who are the father of letters, have been led by your affection to ascribe to them a power the opposite of that which they really possess. For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise’. (Plato´s “Phaedrus”. Line 140 and following).
Socrates adds his own conviction that written words are inhuman, unresponsive to questioning, and indiscriminate as to whom they address themselves. At best, they can only “remind him who knows the matter about which they are written” (Plato´s “Phaedrus”. Line 278).

Walter Ong points out in his book “Orality and Literacy” [*Click here to read book] that these denunciations can by the modern reader as the same ones levelled by many against computers. This analogy is instructive because it allows us to understand in some small way the nature of the enormous change that was taking place in early Greek culture at the time of Socrates and Plato: the transition from a dominantly oral mode of transmitting knowledge to a slowly emerging literate one.

The Egyptian god Thoth, or Tehuti, in the form of an ibis. With him is his associate, the ape, proferring the Eye of Horus.

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►Section III. Towards a Literate Society: Writing in Ancient Greece:

1) >Linear A and Linear B Scripts:

Linear A (1700 BC)  was the written language of the Minoans of Crete. It consists of 60 phonetic symbols representing syllables and 60 symbols representing sounds and concrete objects or abstract ideas. There is no consensus on how to translate the Linear A symbols

Linear B (1450 BC) was first studied by Sir Arthur Evans, but it was not until 1952 that it was deciphered by Michael Ventris.

Linear B  is generally seen as a more simplified and less pictorial version of the earlier scripts . It is also far more cursive in its shape. The script consists of about 87 symbols, which each represent a syllable, as well as some ideograms which represent an entire word or idea. It seems that the Myceneans used writing not to keep historical records but strictly as a device to register the flow of goods and produce into the palaces from a complex, highly centralized economy featuring regional networks of collection and distribution. [To see examples of  decipherments of Linear A and Linear B Minoans tablets, please visit this guest post at “The Shield of Achilles”].

2) >The Phoenician Alphabet in Greece:

The alphabet of most modern languages was originated in ancient Phoenicia (11oo BC) and first came to Greece sometime before the 8th century BC, from whence it spread. Homer’s “Illiad” and “Odyssey”, written around 800 BC, are early examples of the Greek use of the Phoenician alphabet, as are the classics “Theogony” and “Works and Days”, by Hesiod.  Homer’s poems appear to have been recorded shortly after the script’s invention: an inscription from Ischia in the Bay of Naples, dated 740 BC, appears to refer to a text of the “Iliad”; and illustrations inspired by the Polyphemus episode in the “Odyssey” were found in Mykonos in 715 BC.

Herodotus claimed that the Phoenician alphabet was brought by Cadmus to Boeotia where he founded the city of Thebes.

The early Greek alphabet, based on the alphabet of the Phoenicians, was different from the linear and hieroglyphic scripts preceding it in that each symbol represents a single consonant as opposed to a syllable.

The Phoenician alphabet consisted of 22 characters with vowel sounds built into the symbols. The Greeks modified the Phoenician alphabet by changing some of the symbols as well as creating separate vowels.  They also made their alphabet more phonetically correct.

By using individual symbols to represent vowels and consonants, the Greeks created a writing system that could, for the first time, represent speech in an unambiguous manner. Furthermore, while Linear B seems to have only been used for inventories and lists, the Greek alphabet was used for literary purposes. Writing became not simply a means of recording events, but also an art form in itself.

⇒Writing from right to left. Bidirectional writing. Writing from left to right:

In the earliest versions of the alphabet, the Greeks complied with the Phoenician practice of writing from right to left and the letters had a left-facing orientation.

A good example of writing from right to left is shown in the inscription on the so-called Nestor’s Cup, a clay drinking vessel of the 8th century BC, which bears a famous inscription.

The text of the inscription runs:

Nestor’s cup, good to drink from.
Whoever drinks from this cup, him straightaway
the desire of beautiful-crowned Aphrodite will seize.

The so-called Nestor’s cup from Pithekoussai, Ischia and its inscription.

This was followed by a period of bidirectional writing, which means that the direction of the writing was in one direction on one line but in the opposite direction on the next, a practice known as boustrophedon.

During the 5th century BCE, however, the direction of Greek writing was standardized as left to right, and all the letters adopted a fixed right-facing orientation. 


So far, we have seen that there are clear and effective similarities, when it comes to certain Gods.

Gods Hermes, Thoth (and the hybrid resulting of both: Hermes Trismegistus); as well as Mercury and Odin, they all represent similar ideas.

They all seem to be fused in an eclectic space of cultural juxtaposition, despite the cultural differences.

This could prove Carl Jung´s thesis of the Collective Unconscious. According to him, the human collective unconscious is populated by archetypes and universal symbols, shared among beings of the same species.

Worth noting that Hermes and his equivalents were mainly considered here keeping in mind their specific roles as “Gods of Writing”.

Plato was a keen defender of Oral tradition, against writing. This is evident particularly in his dialogue “Phaedrus”, in which Socrates (by retelling an Egyptian myth), states that Writing will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory.

Pisistratus (6th century BC/ 527 BC) was tyrant of Athens whose unification of Attica and consolidation and rapid improvement of the city’s prosperity helped to make possible it’s later preeminence in Greece.

Pisistratus clearly supported Oral tradition. And he did so, by specifically encouraging Dramatic Arts and TheatreIndeed, theatre was a key technological factor of specialization in Greek culture. The choral poetry offered a fissure through which the choir was first sung until the actors took over in order to visually stage the oral poetry.

Probably, this was the most evident symptom of the transition from an Oral culture to a hybrid, semi-oral or audiovisual Culture, which dominated the fifth century BC and classicism. At last, by the end of the century, Writing prevailed.

When introducing writing, (Linear A, Linear B, and especially alphabetic writing), the Ancient Greeks privileged the visual sense against other senses such as seeing or hearing. Alongside this changes, their conception of space and time was also altered, going from discontinuous to a linear, homogeneous conception. Hence, the chronological narrative and History itself arose as new types of discourses.

By objectifying words and making meaning accessible to a much longer and more intense meaning of what is orally possible, writing fostered private thought and increased awareness of individual differences.

Thus, Writing led to free initiative and creativity of the Ancient Greek society as a plural “whole”, while preserving the value of the individual forms. Such a tendency could be also considered a “call for democracy”, as a political correlate of literacy, expressivity, abstraction and individualization.

♠About Alan Severs: Alan defines himself as an occasional writer of fiction, poetry; and essays on modernism, mysticism, mythology, magic and mystery. His blog, Cakeordeathsite covers many of these and other interesting subjects. Please check it out hereThank you, Alan! 🐬

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Click to visit Alan´s blog.-

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