Looking Toward the Future: The Work of noos in the Hymn to Hermes

Christopher Bungard

The Ohio State University

Hermes is essentially a god of mobility, serving to tie together disparate realms of the world. He is the god who leads the souls of the dead from the upperworld to the underworld. He is the messenger who transmits the words of Zeus to other gods and mortals. By allowing for movement from one state to another, Hermes in effect calls into question the boundary between the two, but this questioning of the two states as separate weaves them together into a still larger whole. Clay (1989) sees this process as creating a "dynamic movement and vitality" (102) in the Olympian order. Johnston (2002), focusing on the role of the hymn in festivals connected to youth maturation, emphasizes the importance of Hermes' ability to permanently change what he is presented with through his crossing of boundaries, which in a different light is along the lines of what Schelmerdine (1984) sees as a celebration of Hermes' transformation from infant to god of craft.

All of these interpretations, however, place an emphasis on Hermes' reordering the world into which he comes, which is a process of weaving together elements that one might not initially think of as connected. In fact, it is this weaving together of disparate elements that allows Hermes throughout what we call the Homeric Hymn to Hermes to affect the lasting changes he imposes. Through the functioning of noos Hermes alters and transforms the visible world he encounters. It is this interchange, between the transformative function of noos and the realm of vision that forms one of the richest interchanges in the hymn.

Immediately from the moment that it narrates Hermes' conception, the hymn sets these two faculties against each other. The conception of this new god occurs apart from the sight or attention of the rest of the world. He is destined to remain in obscurity, born from a mother who dwell apart from the company of the gods in a remote and shadowy cave, unless he is able to bring himself into the sight of gods and men. The description of his conception happening apart from the visual attention of the world is immediately followed by a description of his conception as fulfilling the noos of Zeus. (10 Dios noos exeteleito) Even before his birth, Hermes is associated with the intellectual capacity of the ruler of Olympus. Hermes too will possess a noos that on a fundamental level is a force for altering the world as it is found. Noos goes beyond what is merely visual and perceptible on the surface to recreate that visual and perceptible world. Zeus sees beyond the cosmos before the arrival of Hermes and sees a space for something that is not there.

As a force for the power of noos, Hermes is constantly seeing the world not as it is, but as what it can become. A turtle immediately becomes a lyre, tamarisk and myrtle become sandals. In constant struggle with Hermes throughout the hymn is Apollo, who is caught up in experience and knowledge of the world primarily through vision (199-200). Vision can only take the world at face value, seeing what an object is at a particular moment in time. Vision by itself is not capable of looking forward beyond the object in the here and now. It is a necessary element to the complete working of noos (43-46), but not in itself sufficient in fully understanding Hermes. Apollo cannot unravel the mystery of where his cattle are until he learns to move beyond the visual into the realm of noos, through which after all Hermes was able to steal the cattle and disguise his route.

There is a delicate balance at play throughout the hymn between the transformative, future-oriented capacity of noos and the static, reflective capacity of the knowledge based on sight. Sight often plays an important part in the working of noos, but noos of course goes beyond sight. It is noos more than anything that allows Hermes to carve out for himself a little space and acquire his own timai among the gods, but in order to be accommodated into the order of the Olympians, Hermes must be properly placed within the framework of Zeus' noos. Hermes, as fulfillment of the noos of Zeus, must be subjected to but free to operate within the overall scheme of Zeus' plan.


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