Pederasty and Pedagogy in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes

Ryan C. Platte

University of Washington

The exchange of the lyre in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes functions as the inauguration of an erotically tinged pedagogical relationship between Hermes and Apollo. This inauguration both casts their subsequent interaction in the mold of a traditional pederastic relationship and guides Hermes towards maturation and the attainment of his fully recognized position among the gods.    This hymn falls into several distinct sections: the birth of Hermes and his nearly immediate antagonism of Apollo, their reconciliation as effected by the lyre exchange, and Hermes' possession of the power of divination, all of which has been demonstrated, despite long standing uncertainty, to form one cohesive hymn (Clay 1998).  It was also most likely performed at a Hermaia (Johnston 2002), a festival in recognition of the maturation of young men, and used the culturally-laden topos of the Indo-European cattle raid to reinforce this theme.   In this paper I argue that there is a pederastic subtext manifest in every stage of Hermes and Apollo's relationship, which is itself bound-up in Greek notions of pedagogy and  is concomitant with the themes of the cattle raid and the hymn's original performative context.

I will discuss three specific points.  First, that the exchange of the lyre initiates this erotic relationship by means of the association of the lyre with Hermes himself.  For Apollo's questioning of Hermes regarding the cattle raid, eirôtais m', Ekaerge, periphrades, is presented with vocabulary similar to Hermes' description of playing the lyre, hos tis an autên / tekhnêi kai sophiêi dedaêmenos exereeinêi,  thus inviting the audience to begin analogizing the two figures (464, 483-4).  The lyre's sound is also described in language which recalls and sometimes exactly repeats the language with which Hermes' voice is described.  Finally, the chief compliment paid to the lyre is that its knows how to speak (agoreuein)  beautifully and fittingly, while Hermes' own cleverness in conversation is repeatedly cited as a defining element of his character, thus transforming the lyre into the symbolic representative of Hermes himself (479).

Secondly, the presentation of the lyre to Apollo represents the sexual submission of Hermes.  This is evidenced by Hermes' entreaty to Apollo: eumolpei meta khersin ekhôn liguphônon hetairên (478).  The word, hetairê, is surprising and suggestive in itself.  It is, however, noteworthy that by the classical period the derivative verb hetairên  and abstract noun hetairêsis were not often used of a mistress or prostitute, but of a man or boy serving the same purpose (Dover 1978.21).  The language of Apollo's response to hearing Hermes play the lyre is also ubiquitously sexually suggestive: he is seized by a glukus himeros and an eros amêkhanos grabs his soul (423, 434).  After hearing the song, Hermes is said to take to loving Apollo continuously, with the erotically charged  ephilêse used to describe this (507).  Apollo also refers to Hermes as arkhos philêteôn, with the form of philêtês, thief, being indistinguishable from that of philêtês (accented on the ultima rather than penult), lover (293).  The association of Hermes with the lyre given to Apollo is not simply endearing, but is heavily erotic.

Finally, the exchange of the eroticized lyre as a substitute for Hermes initiates a pedagogic relationship of the type recognizable in numerous ancient sources, including the Symposium of Plato and that of Xenophon, in which the amorous erastês teaches the submissive erômenos and guides him to manhood.  For after the exchange, Hermes adopts a distinctly inferior, but similar role to that of Apollo.  They both play instruments, but Hermes plays the aulos, an instrument of less consequence than Apollo's lyre and with inherent tones of social inferiority and sexual submissiveness.  Hermes also has the power of divination, but only by use of the Bee-Maidens, not the oracle of Delphi.  Apollo, then, teaches Hermes to use this power of divination and gives him his recommendation to the other gods, thereby validating his maturation, a maturation also suggested by the sudden amorousness of the male and female cattle under Hermes' control at the end of the hymn.  Apollo teaches Hermes to be an adult male.

Hermes' presentation of his lyre to Apollo not only initiates the exchange which will finally grant Hermes his place among the gods, but also indicates his initiation into an pedagogical relationship with Apollo.  The lyre is more than Hermes' invention, it is Hermes himself, erotically suggestive and yielding to Apollo's expertise.  Apollo and Hermes are thus implicitly engaged in an identifiably aristocratic pederastic relationship involving Hermes' sexual subjugation to Apollo in return for Apollo's instruction and guidance, which eventually leads to Hermes acceptance among the gods.  This pederastic relationship, then, functions in tandem with the hymn's depiction of a cattle raid, which is itself a symbol of male maturation, in order to provide the intended audience of young men and boys with a recognizable impetus to their own adolescence. 


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