In the Service of Hermes

When I moved to Santa Barbara, one of my friends asked me if I’d like to work as a guide for her events company, shepherding groups of visitors around to various destinations. A guide? I thought. For travelers? Something gleamed at the corner of my eye, like a golden, winged sandal whizzing past. My friend continued: I’d have to beguile the visitors with stories about the area, and I’d have my phone pretty much grafted onto my hand to receive and relay last-minute changes to itineraries. I couldn’t help but think of Hermes — the guide of souls, patron of travelers, the speedy, talkative (text-)messenger of the gods. How about it? he seemed to whisper. I said, “Absolutely.”

Photo by Michal Maňas, via Wikimedia Commons
By Michal Maňas, via Wikimedia Commons

So I’ve been playing mother duck, leading visiting executives around. Hermes relishes hanging out with all that money. He’s the god of commerce and thieves, after all, and his sandals and caduceus are made of gold. I love how the two serpents climb that winged wand, moving together, moving apart, moving together, moving apart, always in perfect synchrony. They rise in tandem as though lifting each other. Serpents symbolize fear, but also wisdom and rebirth. In the caduceus, they transcend their limitations; they rise up off the ground toward the golden wings. An image of evolution, they even look like the double helix of DNA. But they climb the magic wand of a god, so they also suggest the dazzling surprise of psychological and spiritual growth. Soul evolution. And their image has a unique form of gender fluidity — phallic, but also sinuous and circular. They side-slip all attempts to label them as masculine or feminine. Their relationship is a relationship of two, that’s all the image says.

Anyway, one night last week, after I guided a board of directors during the day, another friend asked me to go with her to get her first tattoo. I picked her up and drove her to an ink den straight out of central casting: everything in black and red, unshaven but heavily tattooed personnel, a gluey residue coating the binders of clip art. The tattooist scheduled to draw on my friend hadn’t shown up because someone else who worked there died that day. They assigned another tattooist to my friend, a gentleman of maybe 60 wearing an Iron Maiden t-shirt and coke-bottle glasses with thick black rims. He injected ink (subcutaneously) into my friend’s foot (the lowest part of her body) until a dragon appeared there (a creature that inhabits caves and underground lairs). Down, down, down I went, from the luxurious realm of CEOs, into the earthen underworld. Meanwhile three other tattooists sat in a circle talking about their dead colleague, tallying up the many people they knew or knew of who died from combining Xanax and alcohol. Beside them lay a giant black dog, part Great Dane, part elephant, all black, all the way. I almost called him Cerberus.


Hermes, by the way, is the only Olympian authorized to visit the underworld. He guides souls around the earthly plane, sure, but more importantly he leads them to the kingdom of Persephone and Hades when it’s time to make that journey.

Once, maybe a year ago, I attended a writing group where we did a free-writing exercise about a childhood memory. I wrote about my old imaginary friends, and one of the other participants, a woman in her late sixties or early seventies, said, “That reminds me of my daughter’s imaginary friend, who only showed up when she was seven years old and in the hospital. She said his name was Hermy, and he came over to her room from the cemetery across the street.” I said, “Wow, that makes me think of the Greek god Hermes, the guide of souls.” The woman blinked at me, startled.

After the meeting she chased me down outside and spoke urgently, in an undertone: “Hermy stayed with her all the way until the end. She died the next year. She was eight.” She insisted that her daughter had no access to Greek mythology, would have had no possible way of reading or hearing about it.

Antonio da Correggio, Mercury in "The Education of Eros" [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Antonio da Correggio, Mercury in “The Education of Eros” [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Coincidence? If so, it’s a coincidence drenched with meaning. Maybe there’s a logical, linear, cause-and-effect explanation for a little girl’s imagination providing her with a friend and helper named Hermy, from a graveyard, at that time in her short life, and for her mother finding out decades later that the image of this friend has resonance far beyond her family’s experience. Meanwhile the woman wanted to know everything everything everything about Hermes. I told her what little I knew at the time, but it felt hopelessly inadequate. I couldn’t tell her what she wanted to hear: that her daughter was all right, that the girl lived on, that Hermy/Hermes had somehow made everything ok.

Now I know that, in addition to moving with ease to and from the underworld, Hermes also guides the way to growth, change, relationship building. He’s funny and fun, he loves tricks, and, being the messenger of the gods, he carries divine meaning and inspiration. He offers the gift of seeing the world with sparkle, with fresh eyes. To him, souls are as equal as they are unique. He accompanies CEOs around in their private jets, tattoo artists on the way to funerals, children across the great divide, perhaps entertaining them along the way with magic tricks. If I could talk to that woman today, I would tell her that I can’t think of a better friend for a little girl stuck in a hospital room, nor any better traveling companion.

Guns and Gods

Dear Fire Angel Baby,

Jewelry brings me joy. I delight in a little felt box with a bow as much as any other woman. So when my Facebook feed showed a Tiffany blue box, my heart raced a bit, until I noticed that it was a weapon. Diamonds don’t kill. Confused? Me too! Here, let me show you:

Hand Gun

This… I don’t understand. My friend was asking for this for Mother’s Day. Mother’s Day! So there you are, all us Mamas packing heat, walking around like James Bond.

Fire Angel Baby, please tell me, should I be packing heat in Texas?

Looking for Designer Bullet-Proof Vests

Dear Looking,

Rest assured that Tiffany does not sell this product. Individual gun shops paint plain pistols then add the accessories, much to the dismay of Tiffany’s brand identity police. But what an image!

Of course your heart races at Tiffany blue. The color alone conjures luxury, abundance, romance, passion. The heart also races at the sight of a handgun, but that’s because of fear, violence, the threat of coercion. By making the gun the object of affection, this photo elicits both forms of adrenaline at once. Someone painted this gun lovingly. They adorned it with a heart.

FoudreMythologically guns belong first and foremost to the thunder gods. Zeus in Greece, Indra in India, Shango in African traditions — they all throw lightning bolts really fast, really loud, bolts that can kill you before you know what happened. But because these gods are kings, asking for a gun for Mother’s Day mixes mythic metaphors. When the King usurps the festival of the Mother, goddesses object. Demeter in Greece, Durga in India, and Yemaya in Africa all have different interests than the lightning gods.

Ideally, a king serves his realm by establishing fruitful alliances with neighboring kingdoms, by making sure the people are sheltered, fed, and supplied with the resources they need to work and play. Your inner kingliness accomplishes all this on behalf of the realm that is your own life.

But sometimes kings get out of control. Thinking they have to do everything themselves, they get defensive. They gather weapons. They load the weapons. They love the weapons. Eventually the weapons take over, inducing the kings to claim power by taking others’ lives in yet another heartbreaking mass shooting.

Heroes, by the way, so often don’t carry guns — firefighters, teachers, doctors, parents. (Here’s looking at you, Looking.) Remember the men who stopped the gunman on the train in France? They charged a would-be murderer with only their courage, strength, and quick wits — their beautiful, unmetaled humanity.

Still, we buy guns. We elect representatives who pour our collective treasure into a preponderantly military budget. The government, in collusion with the NRA, continues to protect the easy exchange of our beloved guns, like medieval knights sworn to a lady’s service.

"Yemaya-NewOrleans". Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons
Yemaya-NewOrleans.” Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons

See how we twisted the roles? We put guns on the throne, kings on their knees. But guns rule as tyrants, demanding ransom in blood on a regular basis. We need our kings on their feet to put the guns in the armory then address themselves to the business of collaborative, compassionate administration — working with mothers, builders, artists, and doctors to balance the budget with generosity, a sense of style, a flair for peace. Lightning has a place in the natural order, but so do wind, water, earth, and life.

You’ve got some interesting archetypal pressures in Texas, where gun-toting, go-it-alone individualism takes on legendary proportions. But you assert your individuality brilliantly, Looking. Yemaya loves the way you sidestep the mainstream, creating connections and community in your own gorgeous way.

Thanks for the juicy image.

Your loving,
F. A. Baby

Mythic Ashley Madison

When the Greek god Hephaestus learned that Aphrodite, his wife, was having an affair, he forged a magic, invisible net in his sacred smithy. He set the trap over his own marriage bed then pretended to leave town. Aphrodite and her lover Ares dove between the silken sheets. The net fell, held them fast, then Hephaestus burst back in with a seismic, “Gotcha!”

469px-Guillemot,_Alexandre_Charles_-_Mars_and_Venus_Surprised_by_Vulcan_-_Google_Art_ProjectHe bellowed for the rest of the Olympians to come witness this travesty. The goddesses declined, giving a self-righteous roll of their ravishing eyes. The gods, on the other hand, dropped everything to race over to Hephaestus’s palace and laugh at the beautiful lovers caught in that glittering net.

You see where we’re going. Angry hackers, crafty as Hephaestus, snared 36 million adultery accounts from a site called Ashley Madison, then bellowed for everyone to look at the evidence. They cheated the cheaters, on a scale grand enough to gratify the gods. 36 million accounts, from all over the world. 36 million human beings. 36 million stories. 36 million situations — cries for help, bids for a thrill, boredoms, yearnings, reachings-out in a way that seemed safe. Now there are 36 million reputations at stake. 36 million broken hearts. 36 million families.

What an archetypal mess.

But where there’s an archetypal mess, there’s an archetypal message, right? In this case I’m sure there are 36 million of them.

Aphrodite, the embodiment of Love, never wanted Hephaestus. He tricked her into marrying him through a separate ruse, to which she agreed because she thought it meant marriage to Ares. Hephastus wanted her for his own and no one else’s, regardless of her desires. Love cannot abide such lovelessness. After the episode of the net, Aphrodite and Hephaestus broke up, leaving her and Ares free to see each other as much as they wish. Which they do to this day.

9achagallfev052The myth gives us an image of one partner treating the other like a possession, demanding fidelity on principle alone. Love — aka Aphrodite — considers this preposterous. Love knows that love comes first. Love means first and foremost loving the beloved, second and second-most wanting the beloved. If Hephaestus loved Aphrodite, he would not have married her, much less expected fidelity, because he knew she wanted Ares. Ares, by the way, never makes petulant demands. He’s too busy going watery in his magnificent knees every time he sniffs her skin, swooning in dizzy joy at her voice, staggering around in a dazed kind of gratitude that she exists at all.

The word “fidelity” comes from a Latin word for faith. And doesn’t the massive manifestation of infidelity encoded in the Ashley Madison data create a massive loss of faith on the part of all those betrayed partners? Acting faithlessly destroys faith. But I’ll venture a guess that some of that faith may have been placed in monogamy as a God-sanctioned prerequisite for love. I know I was trained to believe that, but according to Ginette Paris — an author, therapist, and one of my teachers — we have it precisely backward:

“It is quite a natural thing for satisfied lovers to be faithful to one another, without resentment…. This kind of fidelity cannot be promised, it can only exist and one notices it after the fact, a posteriori. When faithfulness is mixed up with control the confusion fogs the transparency of the relationship even more than unfaithfulness. It moves love into the territory of control and kills desire.” — Ginette Paris, “Marriage, Intimacy and Freedom”

In other words, faithfulness, when it happens, arises from mutual love. This fidelity wells from the deepest springs: faith in each others’ beauty, dreams, talents, being, humor, sorrow, struggles, triumphs. Each partner sees and believes in the other’s true self. We’re talking about soul fidelity — a holy, mystical depth of love that turns Aphrodite on like no amount of walking the beach or snuggling beside a roaring fire.

Ashley Madison profits from people seeking more than they have. Its users hunger for Love, and the site’s marketing team crafts a message that seems to offer exactly that. The names even sound similar, with the initial short “a” and the two strong stresses: APH-ro-DI-te, ASH-ley-MAD-ison. Now those customers might find themselves in embarrassing or dangerous situations, but maybe some of them actually had an Aphroditic experience. Who knows.

The forces at play in the myth are still at play today. Call them by other names, castigate them with moral codes, they will not be denied. So it’s comforting that Hephaestus moved on and dealt with his relationship issues. Eventually he married Aglaia, the Goddess of Glory and one of the three Graces. Theirs is a vital and, yes, faithful partnership. They have a bunch of beautiful daughters. Everyone agrees that no matter how painful it was, he had to cast that glittering net. Look at him now, building swing sets and jungle gyms, raising a new generation of goddesses. He never could have done that with Aphrodite. She approaches child rearing in a completely different way. Just ask Eros and Psyche.