In honor of the establishment of the lovely Digital Herm website this past week, I thought I might offer some of my initial thoughts on the interesting and complex relationship between Aphrodite and Hermes, with a focus on the destiny of their mythical progeny.
Although I personally do not do a lot of what one would call “priestessing” with Hermes, he is definitely a consort figure to me, and in many ways is probably the patron deity of our home, given that most of our income sources and recreational pursuits are in under the direct purview of his influence. I frequently say I am not his priestess, I just do his Work.
Unlike Aphrodite’s relationship with Ares, we don’t seem to have a significant body of lore, cult or iconography that suggests in any depth what the dynamic between these two deities might have been. We can fit the relationship between Aphrodite and Ares, or Adonis, or even Hephaestus into a fairly tidy little box (if that is something you want to do), but the relationship between Hermes and Aphrodite seems rather more complex and nuanced. Perhaps this is because if we are trying to extrapolate anything about their relationship from their children, we are going down the wrong road.
The God/ess Hermaphroditus has come to be emblematic of the merging of what we might consider to be classically male and classically female elements into one new being combining both-an androgynous being. That might suggest that Hermes and Aphrodite both contributed highly gendered traits to create a new being. While certainly Aphrodite pretty much always appears as a high femme, Hermes isn’t the most stereotypically masculine kind of god. Although he was certainly known for being, ahem, rather priapic, he appeared to be a queer god, enjoying the company of both men and women, and in terms of what we might stereotypically masculine qualities, it’s not like he was known for throwing his weight around, not like those other guys anyway. He’s more about brains than brawn. To me this suggests that Hermes is not quite the polar opposite of Aphrodite on the gender spectrum (if you buy that concept), although this notion is probably a pretty modern one anyway and culturally bounded. I expect ancient cultures had a very different sense of gender, and their spectrum may have had wildly different details. As such, I don’t really see Hermaphroditus as the result of the “union of opposites”, it is more like the refinement of an idea.
Trying to understand the nature of the child by explaining the parents isn’t really fair anyway, and denies the agency of the new being. Hermaphroditus asks us to reject essence and origin, and it’s quite likely that the pairing of Aphrodite and Hermes has other lessons to teach us that may not be this one in any case. Historically, we can extrapolate that the story of the union of the deities itself was probably a retrofit to explain the prior existence of a male Aphrodite, Aphroditus, who presided over cross dressing festivals and who symbolized possibly fertility, but also quite likely lusty sex. She was a beautiful Goddess with a beard and penis, who like Aphrodite herself, emerged early from Cyprus in about the 4th century BCE and may have also had historical links with practices related to Innana. When the image of the God/ess became Aphroditus of the Herm embodied in a 4 sided pillar, an origin story emerged which became embedded in a literary and later an iconic and visual tradition.
But magical stories take on a life of their own, and through the ages they themselves generate all sorts of teaching. Thus, the idea of the Hermaphrodite as the “union of gendered opposites” has become a very important notion magically, certainly in the context of alchemy, in some forms of modern sex magic and also in ceremonial magic, which suggests that we think about the nature of the forces being combined and /or overcome. This is going to be a very simplistic overview, but in the alchemical symbolism of the Hierosgamos, conjunction, sacred union or chemical marriage, we see the union of the gendered polar opposites (a concept with which I am in no way comfortable) as a symbol of synthesis and potentially of the non dual. The Hermaphrodite as symbolized in the alchemical literature of the early modern period then evolves into the idea of an inner unity that one must achieve so that one is no longer associated with, or bound up in a specific gendered identity. In this case, the union of opposites becomes an entirely undifferentiated new being, not restricted by gender or physical sex. Although this union may be represented by a child, it is also represented not by a third, but a one. Obviously this is a very short, completely oversimplified summary of this symbol set and warrants a much longer discussion which would address theories of physical and spiritual alchemy and how they develop when incorporated into the modern occult movement and get all Jungified. Maybe I will put that on my to do list.
But the Classical God/ess Hermaphroditus, in my view, has a more social function that becomes more articulated and evident as he/she emerges into a mythic and literary tradition. She/he is not about achieving the non dual in a contemplative sense in quite the same way, she/he also represents social agitation, and urges us to change our expectations of what is right, “normal”, or beautiful. Hermaphroditus allows us to confront other ways of being, other ways of attracting and being attracted, and the cultural challenge to the gender binary. One represents the inner process, and the other is the outward social manifestation of the same struggle. Both I believe to be useful projects, but I approach the first with a particular caveat: In my much younger days I found the idea of the integration and union of opposites within oneself to be a compelling idea. But now I realize that this idea itself may well be a trap. It reinforces ideas of essentialized gender polarities and traits even as we are directed to reject them. Wouldn’t it be easier and more liberating not to buy into them in the first place?