It is, still today, under discussion and continues debate the concept of the herm, έρμα. As it is familiar for those who have knowledge on the Hellenic religion (ancient Greek religion) herms were identified with the god Hermes. I am not going to touch in any detail the religious principles and meanings behind Hermes. For those who are interested to know must first refer – before even start reading the material at the Web – the eminent written material by M. P. Nilsson (1955), Walter Burket (1985) and Hans Herter’s (1976) excellent study in honor of Hermes (for additional studies see here). However, we are going to see that the connection in between the ‘pile of stone’, ἑρμαῖος λόφος or ἕρμακες has a straightforward and, seems to be also, unquestionable interrelation with the God.

Indeed according to the above-mentioned eminent professors and their studies, the God’s name derives from the on borders pile of stones. Those were a signal – a beam – which underlined boundaries, crossroads and natural resources. It is interesting that we can still find a resemblance to the Greek Christian attitude of the outskirt ‘small Churches’, eksoklisia, and eikonostasia (small constructions with candle and picture of a Saint). For those who visited Greece, I am sure that you were in a position to identify those constructions in crossroads – even in the middle of towns – and further outside in the countryside. The use of those eikonostasia – excluding the case of an accident which then are been used as ‘avert of evil’ for further prevention of accidents – are also used as the ancient herms, signals and border limits.

Another way, for the ancient Greeks, to underline borders and geographical significance was the use of the ithyphallic shape and later the stoned column. It is important to state now that the use of such piles of stones, columns (herms) and phallus, according to Kurtz and Boardman (1971, p. 241), including with other studies, is meanly for ‘protection’ and prevention of any evil. The power of such protection identified as Ἑρμάας or Ἑρμάων in the Mycenae’s writing as e-ma-a, the Doric Ἑρμάν and the Ionic Ἑρμῆς. The herms, clearly, were also recognized as tombs and burial signals. Pausanias gives us the description of the Sikion’s coins with the representation of tombs (II,7.2).

The herm, as we consider it today, was an Athenian creation (Paus. IV,33.3). Peisistratos was the first who created a series of ithyphallic columns (520 b.c.). One of them was named Ἑρμῆς (Pseudo-Plato, Hepparchos 228c-229d). Herodotus gives also the root of the herms, later established in the Peisistratos’ Athens (II,51).

It was not so with the ithyphallic images of Hermes; the production of these came from the Pelasgians, from whom the Athenians were the first Greeks to take it, and then handed it on to others […] The Athenians, then, were the first Greeks to make ithyphallic images of Hermes, and they did this because the Pelasgians taught them. The Pelasgians told a certain sacred tale about this, which is set forth in the Samothracian mysteries.

We can, therefore, support that Hermes is a Pelasgian, pro-Hellenic, and pro-Achaean in origin god (see more about it in J. Orgogozo, 1949). It is also evidence that in Athens Hermes was worshiped as Chthonios with Gaia and Plutonas, Ades (Paus. I28.6). Hermes rules the images of the dead. He, also lead them throughout their journey (His eminent presence as the first who will pass with the souls the chthonic passage).

Conclusively, we can state that the herms where apotropaic symbol used in borderlines, which initially appeared in Athens and, therefore, Hermes Chthonios, empowered the ithyphallic columns according the Athenian religious customs.
References (not included in Bibliography):
  • J. Orgogozo, (1949), 'L’ Hermès des Achéens', RHR 136 pp. 170-7
  • Hans Herter (1976), 'Hermes', RhM, cxix, (3), pp. 193-241