Hermes the God of Commerce

How the Myth of Mercury Figures in Digital Business Culture Today

Hermes confronts Argos Panoptes, to release the nymph Io from her imprisonment and transformation

The next full episode of This Human Business will be about the ability of ritual to enhance business practice. It’s a topic that may seem strange to some, especially those who are acquainted with thinking of business as a straightforward rational craft. Actually, the connection between ritual and commerce is an ancient one, going back long, long before Adam Smith and his Enlightenment gloss of economic abstraction.

Last week, for Labor Day, a special bonus episode retold the story of John Henry in the light of business in the digital age. The following text is the transcript of another bonus episode that tells another tale — the myth of the god of commerce himself.

Thousands of years ago, people devised a new technology for international trade, a new way of holding value that disrupted the economic power of aristocrats who had controlled their city states for hundreds of years using local traditions of gift exchange. The radical new technology was the coin, an audacious invention that declared value in the ability to shift back and forth between stability and flow at will.

We don’t know exactly who invented the coin, or what they intended with it, but the ideas behind the culture of coin are represented mythologically, in the legend of the god of commerce, Hermes.

This bonus episode tells the story of Hermes, and it also reveals the secret of that strange symbol in the logo of this podcast, the staff with the two snakes twining around it. What’s that all about? Be patient. You’ll see.

The Birth Of Hermes

The story begins with a divine baby boy, whose father, it was said, was the sky god himself. Why should he not be? His mother was Maia, the goddess of planet earth.

Of course, Zeus was claimed by the goddess Hera, who held that the bounds of marriage must never be broken, once established. Her husband’s frequent dalliances with other goddesses, nymphs, and even humans were not just a matter of faithlessness. The expansiveness of the sky, in truth, could be held firm by no one. The conflict between Zeus and Hera was set in motion by a gap between their fundamental characters.

The fundamental character of Hermes was set in the gap as well. He was made a god of the gaps, in rebellion against boundaries even before he was born.

Afraid of the wrath of Hera, Maia hid the birth of her son Hermes in darkness, as the earth keeps many things. Hermes was born in the back of a deep cave, and there she intended to keep him safe. Nonetheless, on the very first day of his life, he was determined not just to remain in one place.

A Lyre For The Liar

As soon as his mother fell asleep, Hermes wriggled loose of the blanket he had been swaddled in, jumped out of his crib and walked confidently out to the very mouth of the cave, standing with one foot in cool shadow, another in the warmth of the sun.

There, he met a turtle, the first witness of the special gifts of the newborn god. The turtle was reluctant to speak to the precocious infant at first, but Hermes displayed his ability to get people to come out of their shells.

“Come, let me ask you,” said Hermes, “why do you settle for such a small size?”

The turtle stopped in his tracks and asked the baby what he meant, for the turtle thought himself quite large for his kind.

“I don’t mean to be rude,” Hermes said, “but I couldn’t help noticing that you’re allowing yourself to be confined by that little cave you carry on your back. A creature of your quality, I’m sure, could grow much larger in a cave of more adequate size, and I just so happen to have one right here. Imagine yourself growing to fit the space I’m standing in right now. I was born in this cave myself, and can attest to its quality.”

The turtle craned its neck to look back at its shell, which suddenly did appear to be rather smaller than he had thought it to be.

“Here’s what I’m saying,” Hermes continued. “I’m a rather small fellow, as you can see. I don’t need all this space. It would be a fair trade, don’t you think, for me to take your small cave in exchange for my large one? If you’ll just come over here, I’ll help you out of that tight spot you’re in, and I think you’ll find that, in the end, you’ll be singing merrily.”

The turtle clearly saw that he would be getting the lion’s share in this deal, and so hurried up to the little boy’s feet. Before the reptile could protest, Hermes pulled him right out of his shell, killing him in the process.

Hermes was true to his word, in a manner of speaking, and set the turtle to singing, transforming its body into the very first lyre. He strung the guts of the turtle across its empty shell, and strummed the new instrument to accompany his voice in a bawdy song celebrating the love between his mother and Zeus.

The Ascension Of Hermes

After many raucous verses, Hermes stopped playing in the middle of a line, his eye dazzled by the light of the sun, falling toward the horizon as the day drew to a close. The sun wasn’t just a beautiful ball of light to Hermes. It was a family heirloom, pulled across the sky every day by his half-brother Apollo. Hermes decided it was time for a visit.

As fast as thought, Hermes followed the course of the sun as it fell below the horizon amid the mountains of Pieria. There were the stables of the gods, where Apollo kept the horses for his solar chariot. The attention of Hermes shifted, however, when he saw Apollo’s herd of cattle in a peaceful mountain pasture.

Under the cover of the dim light of dusk, Hermes stole over to the pasture’s gate and opened it, stealing fifty cattle and driving them toward his home. All through the night, he took the beasts on a circuitous route designed to thwart anyone trying to track the path of his theft. He even urged the cattle to walk backwards at times, to create the appearance that they were moving in the opposite direction of their actual target.

Though he might be a thief, Hermes was not completely disrespectful. He stopped at dawn and built a fire, then roasted a dozen of the cattle, sending the smoke up into the sky as a sacrifice, one for each of the gods of the elite Olympians… including himself. Hermes was born of the earth, a bastard, but he had decided that he belonged on Mount Olympus by the side of his father. Though he was hungry, he refused to eat the delicious meat of the cattle, determined to consume the smoke alone, as the Olympians did.

After this strange breakfast was completed, Hermes led the rest of the herd off to a grassy field in a secluded valley, and then walked back to his cave, where his mother was waiting for him.

“What do you think you’ve been up to,” she asked, “stealing away like that? The earth tells me the story of your travels. You’ll get us in a terrible spot of trouble with your father and the rest of that Olympian lot.”

If Hermes felt any shame, he didn’t show it. “Look, mother, you may be content to remain hiding here in this cave, but I know that we can do better. Why should the gods up on the mountain feast on the smoke of sacrifice, while we have to scrounge around for our meals here on the ground? Come back here all you like, but I’m going to ensure a place for us on Olympus as well.”

Before the two could wade deeper into argument, a shining presence stepped into the shadows. Apollo had come to visit.

Unlike Hermes, Apollo wasn’t born yesterday. While he didn’t have the power to see everything taking place on earth, riding his chariot up so high in the sky, it wasn’t very difficult to track the little thief. As soon as he started hearing stories about a little infant leading a herd of cattle, Apollo knew he was on the right track.

Hermes denied it all, of course. He lay in his crib, wrapping himself in blankets and sucking his thumb, pretending to be an ordinary baby.

“Look, big brother,” he said. “I didn’t steal any cows, all right? I’m a baby. You and I both know that babies can’t steal cows. Besides, what’s a cow? I wouldn’t know. I’m just a baby, see.”

Hermes didn’t stop to think that the whole talking baby thing kind of gave him away. He still had a thing or two to learn about true trickery.

The two divinities were at an impasse. Hermes wouldn’t confess, and Apollo wouldn’t stop demanding answers. So, after several hours of arguments, Hermes finally came up with a solution: They would go to their father, Zeus, and demand judgment from him. Apollo, realizing that the case for guilt was quite clear, agreed to the plan.

What Apollo didn’t count on was their father’s admiration for capricious souls. As Apollo told the tale, in front of the entire assembly of Olympian gods, of how he single-handedly tracked down and caught the thieving, dishonest newborn baby who had stolen his cattle, Hermes winked and batted his eyelashes, clutching his baby blanket, making a fool of Apollo even as the truth of the case was made plain.

When there had been enough amusement, Zeus issued his judgment: After Hermes would finally tell the truth, the two brothers would have to make a deal between themselves.

The will of Zeus could not be disobeyed, and so Hermes finally admitted what he had done. Apollo stood taller, proud of himself, though he did not understand why the Olympian court still snickered at him.

As Hermes showed Apollo where he had hidden the stolen cattle, the divine brothers negotiated their trade. Hermes would be made an Olympian, as the intercessor between Earth and Olympus, as the god of commerce. In return, Hermes would watch over Apollo’s cattle, to protect them from other rustlers, and give his brother the lyre. To guide the cattle, and other beings, he was given a magical staff, a rod with two serpents twining around it, known as the caduceus.

Stealing From The Land Of The Dead

Hermes showed that commerce meant much more than just economic trade when he was called upon to enact a very special sort of transaction.

Hades, the god of the underworld, had forcefully taken the goddess Persephone to his realm to be his prisoner and wife, and refused to let her return to the world of the living. Persephone was the daughter of Demeter, the goddess of agriculture, and this meant that the abduction had severe consequences for human beings. Demeter was so upset that she neglected her sacred duties. The earth grew cold, and crops failed. People were starving to death.

Eventually, Zeus intervened, and persuaded Hades to allow Persephone to return from the land of the dead, although Hades forced her to return to his realm for half the year, because she had eaten the food of the underworld, a pomegranate seed, and could never again be completely free from death.

As a divine thief and god of trade, Hermes was the only god who could cross the boundary between life and death at will. So, every year he was sent by Zeus in springtime to accompany Persephone back above ground into the sunshine. Every autumn, Hermes conducted her back into the earth.

Hermes thus became the original Good Shepherd, even though he began as a cattle rustler. With gentle guidance, he performed the duty of escorting all souls from the land of the living to the underworld at the time of their death.

The All-Seeing Giant’s Blind Spot

Hera was the mirror image of Hades. Though she lived in the sky and not underground, like Hades, what she held fast to most of all was the solidity of boundaries. As a guardian of the boundaries of propriety, she never forgave the transgressions of Zeus, or his bastards. For this reason, she and Hermes were in frequent conflict.

So it was that Hermes was set against Argos Panoptes, an all-seeing giant whose body was covered with a hundred eyes. Argos had been assigned by Hera the duty of watching over the nymph Io, whom Hera had made her prisoner, after transforming her into a cow. Hera’s purpose was to prevent Zeus from siring a new generation of gods with Io, fearing that her own children would be deposed.

Argos could see Hermes coming from a mile away, so the trickster god did not conceal his approach. Nonetheless, Argos could not see what was coming next.

Hermes approached in a nonconfrontational manner, but his heraldic greeting to Argos contained a hundred words of secret power, each of which put one of the eyes of Argos to sleep. With all the watchman’s eyes closed, Hermes picked up a stone and killed Argos with it.

Hermes in Commerce Today

There’s a great deal of meaning packed into the story of Hermes, all of which points to an ancient practice of commerce from which business has significantly strayed.

Commerce, you see, is just one mode of business. Not all businesses practice true commerce. Many are plutocratic instead.

The ancient distinction between Hades and Hermes is essential in understanding the difference between what business has become and the more human alternative of what it could be. The Greeks regarded Hermes as the most familiar and friendly to humanity of all the gods, after all, though he could be deceptive at times.

The Roman name for Hades was Pluto, and it is from this name that the word plutocratic is derived.

Pluto is a god of the earth, and Hermes began as an earth god as well, with a significant difference. Whereas Pluto does everything in his power to keep the prosperity he holds (Persephone was also known as Proserpine, and her name is linked with a word we use for wealth today: Prosperity), Hermes seeks freedom of movement from earth to open air, and back again.

Pluto merely amasses wealth, without spending it. Hermes trades one thing for another, never holding on to any form of value for very long. Whatever he touches is transformed, as the turtle was changed into a musical instrument. Whenever Hermes shows up, the story moves forward. He breaks static patterns, the original disruptor.

Pluto is powerful, but immobile. He never leaves the land of the dead. Hermes, in contrast, represents social mobility. He begins his life as a minor deity, but finds a way to steal his way onto an Olympian throne. The story of Hermes is a parable of liberation, teaching us that we don’t have to be stuck, that we all have the ability to change our essential nature.

The caduceus, featured in the logo of This Human Business, is a symbol of this special kind of Hermetic power in commerce.

The caduceus is not, by the way, properly used as a symbol of medicine. The rod of Asclepius, the true symbol of medicine, features just one snake coiled around a staff.

The two serpents on the caduceus symbolize binary opposites, such as life and death, male and female, sacred and profane. The staff in the middle of them represents the boundary that is supposed to separate these opposites, but the power in the caduceus comes from the way that the serpents cross that boundary over and over again. They trade places, showing that the difference between what we are and what we are not is not as firm as it seems to be.

The story of the entry of Hermes into the ranks of the Olympians is a mythological representation of a real transgressive intrusion of traders into classical Greek society. Before the invention of the coin, and the arrival of international trade that accompanied its use, the economies of Greek city states were controlled by the local aristocracy through a system of ritual gift exchange. This system excluded lower class locals and foreigners, as reflected in the myth of Perseus, who was humiliated by the king Polydectes when he was unable to provide the gift of a horse.

The pre-Hermetic Apollonian aristocracy in Greece regarded merchants as thieves, because they violated the system of gift exchange, and because they stole across boundaries. The verb “steal” still carries this double meaning, referring both to robbery and to surreptitious, transgressive forms of movement.

The invention of the coin made the refusal of the Greek aristocrats to participate in commercial trade untenable, because coins could be earned by people of any social class, if they were clever enough. The story of the theft of the cattle of Apollo by Hermes, and of the subsequent deal-making by the rival sons of Zeus, is an allegorical retelling of this shift in economic systems.

The Apollonian system of gift exchange depended upon small systems of close social relations, and was resistant to change. The Hermetic system of commercial exchange using coins was more expansive, not just because it used units that could be understood internationally, but also because the coin was itself a magical symbol, representing the fluidity of Hermes himself.

To understand this symbolic relationship, it is important to consider the special metallic identity of Hermes. The Roman name for Hermes was Mercury, which is also the name of the metal also known as quicksilver. Mercury is the only metal that remains liquid at room temperature, a potent metaphor for a condition of fluidity given to objects, and to people, who are ordinarily quite solid in their identity.

It’s worth remembering that, at the time of the origin of the myth of Hermes, perhaps three or four thousand years ago, metalworking was still a new craft. The ability to melt solid metal into a liquid, and then change its form into something quite different, yet more solid than any other material then known, was regarded as a magical transformation.

Mercury remains fluid, and so is perfectly suited to guide the rest of us into conditions of temporary fluidity, conditions like those that exist when metal is cast into the form of a coin, a unit of liquid wealth. The snakes on the caduceus are emblematic of this condition of flow, which business culture knows well as a condition of particular importance to creativity and innovation. They move like water, in waves, and their skins slough away in a perpetual cycle of aging and renewal.

Commerce is nothing more than the state of being with the god Mercury, traveling with him on his fluid path across borders. Commerce is a Roman word, meaning literally with (com) Mercury (merx).

Mercury evades obstacles, such as those presented by stiff, stolid figures like Apollo, Hades, Hera, and the giant Argos Panoptes.

The character of Argos brings nothing to mind so much as the gigantic digital corporations of our own time, such as Google and Facebook. Their power rests with their ability to see apparently into everything, collecting such massive amounts of data that they cannot be contended with.

These giants are made overconfident by their visionary power, however, imagining that because they can see great distances, they can see everything. Google and Facebook, for example, propose that because they have algorithms capable of reading facial expressions, that they can automatically measure people’s emotions. These systems of automated sentiment analysis inevitably fail, not just because of their technical imprecision, but because of the fundamental blindness in mistaking outward appearances for inner, subjective motivation and experience.

In ancient times, Argos Panoptes had the same problem. The giant could see anything that was happening in the present, and anything that had happened in the past, but was as blind as anyone about what might happen in the future. Furthermore, while Argos could see any physical object or activity, he could not see into people’s hearts. Argos saw nothing but exteriors.

The panoptic giant let down his guard because he believed that physical sight was all that he needed. Argos could manage anything that he could measure, and became so overconfident in this ability that he came to believe that anything he couldn’t measure didn’t even exist.

Systems of commerce can challenge the panopticons of digital giants that hold on to massive hoards of data like disciples of Pluto. Instead of data mining with an industrial attitude of resource extraction, with inflexible personas of identity types, a new generation of digital commerce could embrace the fluidity of identity, serving as a guide to user transformation, melting the boundaries that hold back prosperity instead of holding us prisoner to the inequitable system of digital haves and have-nots that Silicon Valley presides over today.

The next full episode of This Human Business — on the rituals of commerce, will be coming on Wednesday — just a couple days from now. Tune in then, and in the meantime, keep it fluid.

Serpentine Post-Script

What you read above is a nice, neat story, but it’s just one version.

Historically, the truth is that Hermes and his caduceus almost certainly predate the stories told above, which date from the time of the Homeric epics. The image of a caduceus image seen here comes from ancient Babylonia. In this case, the caduceus doesn’t just represent a divine sceptre. It is itself a divinity, the Babylonian god Ningishzida.

Caduceus-like imagery was rife in the ancient world, stretching all the way over to India and China. In each place, the stories related to its origins differ significantly. What’s similar is the core symbolism: The pair of snakes intertwined around a central staff represent the transcendent of binary opposites — an apt source of inspiration to an alternative form of business in our age of reduction to long strings of ones and zeroes.

What’s the original mythology that predates and unites all of these manifestations of the caduceus? I’m afraid you’ll have to live with some mystery on this question — no one really knows.