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Hermes of Praxiteles Statue a Timeless Symbol of Hellenism

statue of Hermes and the Infant Dionysus
The statue of Hermes and the Infant Dionysus. Credit: Paolo Villa/CC-BY-SA-4.0

The statue of Hermes and the Infant Dionysus, supposedly created by Praxiteles, was discovered on May 8, 1877, but its influential presence makes it a timeless piece of Hellenism, and later, Western culture.

It is seen as the epitome of the ideal image of youthful gods in Greek art.

The statue, known as the Hermes of Praxiteles, or the Hermes of Olympia, was found in the ruins of the Temple of Hera in Olympia, Greece. The priceless artwork is displayed at the Archaeological Museum of Olympia.

The marble sculpture dates back to the fourth century BC, based on a remark recorded by the second century Greek traveler, Pausanias. Its style has defined what is known as the “Praxitelean Style” although art historians doubt its was indeed created by Praxiteles because there are no identified ancient replicas of it.

A German archaeological excavation of the Temple area, led by Ernst Curtius, was begun in 1875 after an agreement was made with the Greek government.

On May 8, 1877, in the Temple of Hera, archaeologist Gustav Hirschfeld uncovered the main parts of a statue of a young man resting against a tree trunk, covered by a mantle. It was in an excellent state of preservation.

It took a great deal more effort and six additional discoveries to uncover the rest of the parts of the statue as it is displayed today. There are parts of the Hermes still missing, such as his right forearm, two fingers of his left hand, both forearms below the elbow, the left foot, and his penis. Dionysus is missing his arms and the end of his right foot.

Much of the tree trunk and the plinth are also lost. However, an ancient base of the statue survives.

statue of Hermes and the Infant Dionysus
Statue of Hermes bearing the child Dionysos. Olympia Archaeological Museum. Credit: Paolo Villa/CC-BY-SA-4.0

Place of Hermes in the Greek Pantheon

Born to Maia, a daughter of Atlas and Zeus, according to Greek mythology, the infant Hermes snuck out of his cave on Mount Cyllene in Arcadia on the day of his birth and traveled all the way to Pieria 250 miles to the north in Macedonia to meet his half-brother Apollo, who was grazing his cattle.

The young god stole all fifty of the animals and then went into hiding. Apollo chased Hermes back to Arcadia and brought the miscreant in front of their father. Hermes protested that he was an innocent infant, and it was impossible for him to have done such a thing. To add insult to injury, Hermes stole Apollo’s bow and arrow from him, as well.

Zeus put Hermes on trial, and ruled that the young god should return the cows he stole at any cost. Again, Hermes proved to be the winner in this situation. While in Pieria, he had invented the lyre, an instrument he built using a turtle shell, two cow’s horns, and sheep gut.

Hermes began to play the instrument and sing so heartbreakingly beautifully that the god of music decided he must have the lyre, and he offered the fifty cows in return.

Apollo also taught Hermes the art of prophecy and gave him the kerykeion, a winged staff with two snakes wrapped around it, his future trademark as messenger of the gods. He received this distinction from Zeus immediately after the said trial.

Clearly, Hermes was a mischievous god from the moment of his birth. Moving easily between Mount Olympus and Earth, he was very popular with mortals. He was a great liar and thief and even became the patron saint of thieves, liars, and merchants. We can see that even from antiquity, traders have had a reputation for telling fibs to sell their merchandise even when there may have been nothing wrong with it.

The messenger of the gods

Hermes also served as the messenger of all the gods and was seen as the god of travelers and athletes because of his speed and physical fitness.

The messenger of the gods was also a friend to mankind and, by relaying divine messages to mortals, he became the highest ranking being that they would ever encounter on their level of existence. Mortals could relate to him much more so than to the utterly fearsome Zeus.

In ancient philosophy, Hermes was the representative of “logos,” the word, as well as meaning and reason itself. The Greek word ερμηνεία (hermeneia, meaning “interpretation”) derives from his name. Therefore, the term “hermeneutics” means the study of the methodological principles of interpretation.

Hermes’ name was used in Hermeticism, Hermetic Magic, and alchemy, all highly influential ancient disciplines which lasted well into the early modern age. These practices even gave us the modern phrase “hermetically sealed.”

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