Hermes the Thief by Norman O. Brown

Book Review by Pantagathus

From the work of Pausanias to its explosion during the 19th Century, the study of mythology as represented in art, architecture and classical literature is well trodden scholarly ground. In this light, it has continued to astound and delight me when someone comes along with such a solid and convincing thesis that hundreds of years of accepted understanding and basic dogma are rendered obsolete.

Norman Brown’s work “Hermes the Thief” is not new per se, as it was first published in 1947. Nevertheless, the work remains eternally fresh as it has become the standard model for how the modern mythographer should approach a myth when attempting to understand it’s evolution over time and the meaning for its ancient , contemporary cult followers.

The core of Brown’s study focuses on the question (as stated on the jacket):
“Whether Hermes the Thief is the prototype, from which the Trickster was derived by extension and analogy—or is the notion of trickery fundamental, and that of theft merely a specific manifestation of it?"

In other words, ‘What reason was there for a venerated God to be glorified for theft?’ A notion that by Pausanias’ time made the Cult of Hermes seem immoral. Without wasting any time, Brown presents a well conceived and excellently researched hypothesis that answers the question quite sufficiently in the first two chapters while continuing to lead the reader on to his solid conclusion of how the Cult was to become questionable by the Classical Age.

To trace the evolution of Hermes into the Hellenistic Age, Brown leads the reader from the pre-historic tribal society of pre-Mycenaean Greece, through the Age of Homer (Mycenaean Age), then the Age of Hesiod (Early Archaic), finally culminating with a study of the Homeric Hymn to Hermes and a commentary on where he identifies with the authorship; 5th Century BC Athens.

The premise focuses’ first on Hermes original role as a representation (or personification) of the tribal magician and pre-historic culture hero. It is during this period that Hermes is equated with epithets like ‘tricky’, ‘whisperer’, ‘bringer of dreams’, etc. It is also during this period as the tribal magician that Hermes became equated with borders and the primitive trade conducted on them with other tribal groups. The marker stones that would eventually evolve into the formal ‘Herm’ were a talisman placed on borders and at sacred spots to protect a tribal group from the strangers they may encounter there.

Brown takes great pains to explain through comparative semantics how Hermes’ the trickster or the ‘Stealthy’ did not mean the same as people eventually thought of it. He explains how the Greeks of the Mycenaean period and before differentiated between ‘Robbery’ & ‘Theft’; the first being “appropriation by force” and the later being “appropriation by cunning” both of which were sanctioned activities performed by the elite. The later was typically exhibited through the deft use of the magical & binding ‘oath’.

As Greek society evolved into the Mycenaean period, the tribal magician also evolved. In a society that moved from autonomous tribal communities to one centered around the palace of the ruling elite, the sacred functionary was now to be found in the herald. This role of course is the one so frequently equated with Hermes as expressed so clearly in the Odyssey.

According to Brown, the major change for Hermes seems to have come during the Archaic period. Hermes’ ancient role as the crafty, culture hero began to be embraced by the growing population of professional craftsman and his cult moved from the boundary fringes to the city agoras.

With the concept of ‘acquisitive individualism’ taking hold in the Greek world, the new merchant-craftsman made gains in a manor seen by many as a new form of “appropriation by cunning.” In line with acquisitive individualism, appropriation now affected the individual’s property rights and the more modern concept of theft began to evolve.

Brown makes an interesting connection between this cultural change and Hermes’ role in the myth of Pandora as presented by Hesiod. He brings to light how Hesiod, in his real life capacity as a farmer is an excellent sounding board for disparaging the rise of the merchant class who he sees as making a living by ill means. This is reflected specifically in ‘Work and Days’ as he extols an honest day’s work and attacks idleness and the practice of usury.

From this point Brown arrives at the Homeric Hymn of Hermes’ which he convincingly maintains has caused confusion and controversy over the ages because people have studied it out of context. Brown argues that by accepting it as a pastoral product of the bygone age of Greek cattle raiding; based solely on the infant Hermes’ action in the poem is wrong. Brown states that accepting this view has caused so many people to become confused over the seeming contradictions across the body of mythic works on Hermes because they have put things out of order.

Though the whole book to this point is extremely informative and fascinating, Brown’s breakdown of the Homeric Hymn to Hermes is absolutely superb. It becomes clear that Hermes by the time of the Hymn is the embodiment of the common man’s ideals. He is the patron of the ‘Nuevo Riche’ in an early democratic society where acquisitive individualism has helped break down the barriers between the common man and the aristocracy.

Brown presents Apollo as a symbol of aristocracy. As with Hermes’ diatribe telling his mother that he wants equal footing with his half brother; the chapter exposes how at every turn Hermes now encroaches on all the areas once reserved for Apollo, a clear signal that the social environment was in upheaval when the hymn was written. It is with this interpretation in mind that Brown then further examines minute details in the Hymn to prove that it was a product of a very specific time in 5th Century Athens and whose court it was probably written for.

The entire study is captivating as Brown really does an excellent job explaining away inconsistencies by putting it all in perspective. Hermes becomes even more endearing as you realize how old his cult really is and how through it’s very humanistic symbolism, it has evolved overtime to stay fresh in our minds and eternally appropriate in our hearts.

Through this work, Norman Brown has done much to give back to the God who was known by the epithets of “Giver of Good Things” and “Friend of Mankind”.

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