The Liminality of Hermes

and the Meaning of Hermeneutics

by

Richard E. Palmer

MacMurray College

 

"By a playful thinking that is more persuasive than the rigor of science," Heidegger tells us, the Greek words for interpreting and interpretation—hermeneuein, hermeneia--can be traced back to the god Hermes.1 However questionable the etymological connection between Hermes and hermeneuein may be, hermeneutics, as the art of understanding and of textual exegesis, does stand under the sign of Hermes. Hermes is messenger who brings the word from Zeus (God); thus, the early modern use of the term hermeneutics was in relation to methods of interpreting holy scripture. An interpreter brought to mortals the message from God. Although the usage was broadened in the eighteenth and nineteenth century to take in methods of understanding and explicating both sacred and secular texts from antiquity, the term "hermeneutics" continued to suggest an interpretation which discloses something hidden from ordinary understanding and mysterious. Ancient texts are, for moderns, doubly alien: they are ancient and they are in another language. Their interpreter, poring over a text in Hebrew, Greek, or Latin, cannot fail to convey the impression that he has access to a body of knowledge from elsewhere, is a bridge to somewhere else, he is a mediator between a mysterious other world and the clean, well-lighted intelligible world in which we live and move and 'have our being.

Hermes is just such a mediator. He is the messenger between Zeus and mortals, also between Zeus and the underworld and between the underworld and mortals. Hermes crosses these ontological thresholds with ease. A notorious thief, according to legend, he crosses the threshold of legality without a qualm. "Marshal of dreams," he mediates between waking and dreaming, day and night. Wearer of a cap of invisibility, he can become invisible or visible at will. Master of night-tricks, he can cover himself with night. Master of sleep, he can wake the sleeping or put the waking to sleep. Liminality or marginality is his very essence.

"Liminality" is a term given currency in twentieth century anthropology by Victor Turner of the University of Chicago. Limen in Latin means threshold, and anthropologists like Turner have become interested in a certain state experienced by persons as they pass over the threshold from one stage of life to another. For instance, Turner notes that the rite of passage at puberty has three phases: separation from one's status as child in a household, then a liminal stage, and finally reintegration into society as a full and independent member with rights and responsibilities that the initiate did not have before. During the liminal stage, the between stage, one's status becomes ambiguous; one is "neither here nor there," one is "betwixt and between all fixed points of classification,"2 and thus the form and rules of both his earlier state and his state-to-come are suspended. For the moment, one is an outsider; one is on the margins, in an indeterminate state. Turner is fascinated by this marginality, this zone of indeterminacy. He argues that it is from the standpoint of this marginal zone that the great artists, writers, and social critics have been able to look past the social forms in order to see society from the outside and to bring in a message from beyond it.

This marginality is the realm of Hermes. In his recent book, The Meaning of Aphrodite, Paul Friedrich remarks (in a brilliant appendix) on the multiple liminality of Hermes and his links with Aphrodite.3 He notes that

1.     Hermes moves by night, the time of love, dreams, and theft;

2.     he is the master of cunning and deceit, the marginality of illusions and tricks;

3.     he has magical powers, the margin between the natural and the supernatural;

4.     he is the patron of all occupations that occupy margins or involve mediation: traders, thieves, shepherds, and heralds;

5.     his mobility makes him a creature betwixt and between;

6.     his marginality is indicated by the location of his phallic herms not just anywhere but on roads, at crossroads, and in groves;

7.     even his eroticism is not oriented to fertility or maintaining the family but is basically Aphroditic--stealthy, sly, and amoral, a love gained by theft without moral concern for consequences; and finally

8.     Hermes is a guide across boundaries, including the boundary between earth and Hades, that is, life and death.4

Truly, one may say that Hermes is the Greeks' "god of the gaps," although not in the sense in which this phrase is used by Bonhoeffer (to refer to a religious attitude that does not turn to God except to fill in the empty spots and question marks one encounters in life).5 Rather, he is one who seems to inhabit an in-between realm, what Carlos Castaneda referred to as the "crack between the worlds."6

The meaning of hermeneutics, then, is closely tied to the character of Hermes. We may see some further implications and dimensions of this fact by considering briefly (1) Heidegger's discussion of Hermes and hermeneutics in his famous conversation with a Japanese on the topic of language in On the Way to Language, and (.2) Walter F. Otto's famous chapter on Hermes in his The Homeric Gods.

For Heidegger, it is significant that Hermes is the messenger of the gods and not just other humans; for the message brought by Hermes is not just any message but "fateful tidings" (die Botschaft des Geschickes).7 Interpretation in its highest form, then, is to be able to understand these fateful tidings, indeed the fatefulness of the tidings. To interpret is first to listen and then to become a messenger of the gods oneself, just as the poets do, according to Plato's Ion.8 Indeed, part of the destiny of man is precisely to stand in a hermeneutical relation to one's being here and now and to one's heritage. Human beings, insofar as they are truly human beings, says Heidegger, "are used for hearing the message . . . they are to listen and belong to it as human beings."9

"From the source of the event of appearing something comes toward man that holds the two-fold of presence and present beings,"10 says Heidegger. .The human being stands in this gap, this zone of disclosure. One does not so much act as respond, does not so much speak as listen, does not so much interpret as understand the thing that is unveiled. The primary movement here is understanding as an emergence of being. The human being becomes Hermes, the message-bearer, only because one has first and foremost opened oneself to a process of unconcealment: "The human being is the message-bearer of the message which the two-fold's unconcealment utters to it."11

What is interesting and important about this description of interpretation is that it goes behind technique-oriented conceptions to a moment more primordial, a moment before our present thought-forms, in order to grasp something essential. Such interpretation enters into a loving and fundamental dialogue with the greatest efforts of the past to grasp the meaning of being. This primordial listening is hermeneutical in yet another sense: it is a listening to texts. The "message" one must interpret is really the doctrines and thinking of one's forbears as embodied in great texts. To exist hermeneutically as a human being is to exist intertextually. It is to participate in the endless chain of interpretation that makes up the history of apprehending being. Says Heidegger, one enters into dialogue with the doctrines of past thinkers, which were "in turn learned by listening to the great thinkers' thinking."12 One participates in the endless chain of listening that constitutes essential thinking. "Each human being is in each instance in dialogue with its forbears and perhaps even more and in a more hidden manner with those who will come after it."13 Again, this suggests the Hermes-related trait of bringing forth a hidden meaning. Heidegger would have the interpreter pore over the text with the philologist's love of words: "Each word in each case is given its full--most often hidden--weight."14

We can also understand Heidegger's choice of the term hermeneutics over such alternatives as interpretation when we remember that implicit in the Heideggerian project is the effort to regain a grasp of being that has been lost in modern times and indeed since the time of Plato and Aristotle. One seeks the "hidden weight" of ancient words precisely in order to go behind what is self-evident in modern thinking. This special and intense listening Heidegger calls for is necessary in order to break away from the confines of the modern world view. Hermeneutics, it will be remembered, is the discipline concerned with deciphering utterances from other times, places, and languages--without imposing one's own categories on them (the hermeneutic problem). It is significant that Heidegger attempts to sharpen his reflection by a conversation with a person from a radically alien world--a Japanese. The atmosphere of the conversation is an effort to understand the most difficult and ineffable conceptions--beauty, utterance, language. A Japanese tentativeness and delicacy pervades the dialogue, and one can understand Heidegger's fascination with a people whose art strives for the letting-be of what is.

But the use of a Japanese dialogical partner is not the only indication of Heidegger's effort to transcend the westernized, modern world view. Heidegger explicitly states that the careful listener will put in question "the guiding notions which, under the names 'expression,' 'experience,' and 'consciousness,' determine modern thinking."15 If one thinks of these conceptions as constituting the make-up of one's "world," then what Heidegger has in mind is that interpretation as hermeneutics should be "world-shaking," a fateful message that shakes the foundations of thought. Only an interpretation that goes outside the prevailing conceptualities can move toward what Heidegger has in mind--"a transformation of thinking."16 Unfortunately, the word interpretation fails to suggest a mediation from something outside and alien, but hermeneutics, since it customarily has reference to interpreting ancient texts in another language, has precisely this sense of relating to something essentially other yet capable of being understood.

The mediation Heidegger has in mind here is ontologically significant. It would seem to be a kind of bridge to non-being. The transcending of the already-given world is elsewhere in Heidegger even called the "step back": a "step back" from presentational thought as such.17 This "step back" is a movement back from embeddedness in a set of fixed definitions of reality, in order to regain access to a certain realm of "latency" which we might also call our deeper sense of the meaning of being. In a recent paper on Heidegger and Lacan, the eminent Heidegger scholar, William J. Richardson, notes that both Lacan and Heidegger root their thinking in a latency lying below the level of manifest consciousness.18 It is not nonbeing in the sense of a mere emptiness but rather a source of being for which the word "latency" seems rather apt. The mediation, in this case, is not between two well-lighted but incommensurate realms of being but between the well-lighted daylight of consciousness and something more like the mysterious night of what lies below and above consciousness. Heidegger clarified in his well-known letter to Richardson19 that this realm, as ontological nonbeing, is not the transcendental in the sense of Kant's conditions for the possibility for phenomena but a kind of creative foundation and source for our being-in-the-world.

Again, one feels the parallel between this realm of indeterminacy and what Turner calls liminality. Like the realm of liminality, it is a realm "betwixt and between," not yet defined. Like liminality, it is a source both of creativity and critique of the prevailing forms of thought and being. A human being in the liminal stage or state has the potentialities of a human being but is suspended between stages or states so he or she is neither this nor that. He/she is in the "crack between the worlds," to use a phrase of Castaneda cited earlier.

When we turn to the chapter on Hermes in Walter F. Otto's The Homeric Gods, we find these and other dimensions of the liminality of Hermes. .Otto notes, for instance, that "It is Hermes' nature not to belong to any locality and not to possess any permanent abode; always he is on the road between here and there."20 When one is on the road, one may encounter sudden good fortune or sudden misfortune. Hermes is the god of the windfall, the quick, lucky chance. Thus, the traveller or trader who suddenly comes on good fortune will thank Hermes, who as cattle-thief knows how to get rich quick and how to make people poor quickly also. Says Otto, "He is the god not only of sly calculation but also of lucky chances. Everything lucky and without responsibility that befalls a human being is a gift of Hermes."21 We may say that the Hermes of sudden lucky breaks, of "deft guidance and sudden gain,"22 is an appropriate god of text interpretation in that the solution to a problem or a burst of insight will come in a flash. And the amorality of Hermes suggests the moral neutrality of understanding as a pure operation of the mind in grasping the point of something. The truth or insight may be a pleasant awakening or rob one of an illusion; the understanding itself is morally neutral. The quicksilver flash of insight may make one rich or poor in an instant.

This sudden almost magical flash of insight suggests another dimension of Hermes, his association with magic. Otto asserts that "his whole character and presence stand under the sign of magic."23 He has a magical cap and a magical wand. With his cap, the Cap of Hades, he can make himself invisible. With his wand, he can put the waking to sleep or awaken the sleeping. He is thus the mediator belonging to those liminal realms mentioned earlier: the magical realm and the realm of ordinary, everyday reality: between waking and sleeping, day and night, world and underworld, conscious and unconscious.

In a brilliant and memorable section of his chapter on Hermes, Otto points to night--the experience of night--as the key to the nature of Hermes. Again, night seems symbolically to possess the characteristics of liminality. Otto refers to the mysterious realm of night as follows:

A man who is awake in the open field at night, or who wanders over silent paths, experiences the world differently than by day. Nighness vanishes, and with it distance; everything is equally far and near, close by us and yet mysteriously remote. Space loses its measures. There are whispers and sounds and we do not know where or what they are. . . . There is no longer a distinction between what is lifeless and living; everything is animate and soulless, vigilant and asleep at once.24

 

This realm of "danger and protection, terror and reassurance, certainty and straying,"25 is the realm of Hermes. Hermes is the god who brings this realm of night into day: "This mystery of night seen by day, this magic darkness in the bright sunlight is the realm of Hermes, whom, in later ages, magic with good reason revered as its master."26

We may ask: What is this realm of night in which the nearness and far awayness of objects vanishes, where there is no objective difference between the lifeless and the living, if not the realm of ideas, of thought, of the mind itself? It is the realm of mind not as perennial moral wisdom but as instant insight. For in the objective world of day things have their finite measure, but in the mind, in imagination and dream, in the world of ideas, distances vanish, relationships of time alter, and one senses himself in a different world. As god of magic and mystery and sudden good luck, Hermes is the god of sudden interpretive insights that come from an ability to approach daytime reality with liminal freedom.

Small wonder it is advisable to have Hermes as a guide. The guide-character of Hermes is central. Otto notes a parallel to the Vedic guide-god Pushan who comes to the rescue of those who have gone astray. A knower of roads (like Hermes), Pushan has a special way of helping men: "his manner of giving treasure to men is that he permits men to find it."27

Again, this has a parallel in hermeneutic methods, in that they are designed to enable the text to yield its treasure, but the interpreter only leads the reader to the treasure and then retires. As a guide, the interpreter remains a liminal figure, an outsider, a facilitator.

Hermes, then, remains a god of roads, crossroads, thresholds, boundaries. It is at these locations in ancient times that one found altars to Hermes. He was considered the patron god of migrant skilled and unskilled workers who, in going from place to place, became professional "boundary-crossers.28 Hermes is the god who presides over all transactions held at borders. Thus he is the god of translation and of all transactions between realms. And it would seem to be the essence of hermeneutics to be liminal, to mediate between realms of being, whether between god and human beings, wakefulness and sleep, the conscious and unconscious, life and afterlife, visible and invisible, day and night. The dimensions of the mythic god Hermes suggest a central element in the meaning of hermeneutics: that it is a mediation-between worlds. And in the strongest instances, Hermes' message is "world-shaking": it brings, as Heidegger says, "a transformation of thinking."29

---

Note 1: This essay was first published in Proceedings of the Heraclitean Society: A Quarterly Report on Philosophy and Criticism of the Arts and Sciences [published by the Western Michigan University Department of Philosophy], vol. 5 (1980): 4-11. Permission from Quentin Smith to republish this here on my Webpage is gratefully acknowledged.

Note 2: This essay expands some hints offered in the final section of my paper, "What Are We Doing When We Interpret a Text?" given May 2, 1980 at Western Michigan University and later published in Eros: A Journal of Philosophy and the Literary Arts [published by Purdue University Department of Philosophy], 7, 2 (June 1980): 1-47. The special issue of Eros was devoted to hermeneutics and philosophical anthropology.

---

ENDNOTES

 

1.     "A Dialogue on Language: Between a Japanese and an Inquirer," in Martin Heidegger, On the Way to Language, transl. Peter D. Hertz (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), p. 29. German original: "Aus einem Gespräch von der Sprache: Zwischen einem Japaner und einem Frangenden," in Martin Heidegger, Unterwegs zur Sprache (Pfullingen: Neske, 1959), p. 121. Hereinafter abbreviated US.

2.     Victor Turner, "Passages, Margins, Poverty," in his Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1974), p. 232.  

3.     Paul Friedrich, The Meaning of Aphrodite (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), Appendix 8, p. 205.

4.     Ibid.

5.     Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, revised edition edited by Eberhard Bethge (New York: Macmillan, 1967), p. -164. Letter dated 25 May 1944.

6.     Carlos Castaneda, The Teachings of Don Juan: The Yaqui Wav of Knowledge (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968). Related is Joseph Chilton Pearce, The Crack in the Cosmic Egg: Challenging Constructs of Mind and Reality (New York: Julian Press, 1971).

7.     Heidegger, loc. cit. Botschaft des Geschickes is translated "message of destiny" by Hertz in the edition cited. Also a good translation.

8.     Ion 534e. Cited by Heidegger, loc. cit.

9.     ·Heidegger, On the Way to Language, p. 40; US, p. 135.

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid., p. 40; US, p. 136.

12. Ibid., p. 31; US, p. 123.

13. Ibid.

14. Ibid., p. 31; US, p. 124

15. Ibid., p. 36; US, p. 130. Emphasis added.

16. Ibid., p. 42; US, p. 138.

17. "For Hegel, the conversation with the earlier history of philosophy has the character of Aufhebung, that is, of the mediating concept in the sense of an absolute foundation. For us, the character of the conversation with the history of thinking is no longer Aufhebung, but the step back." Martin Heidegger, Identity and Difference, trans. Joan Stambaugh, with German text (New York: Harper & Row, 1969), p. 49 (English), p. 115 (German). See my article, "The Postmodernity of Heidegger," Boundary 2, 4 (Winter, 1976): 411-32, esp. 418; or reprinted in Martin Heidegger and the Question of Literature: Toward a Postmodern Literary Hermeneutics, ed. William V. Spanos (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1979), pp. 71-92, esp. 78.

18. Presented at the Heidegger Conference, Thirteenth Annual Meeting, May 1979, Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

19. Preface to William J. Richardson, Heidegger: Through Phenomenology to Thought (The Hague: Nijhoff, 1963), pp. viii-xxiii, esp. pp. xv, xix.

20. Walter F. Otto, The Homeric Gods: The Spiritual Significance of Greek Religion, trans. Moses Hadas (New York: Pantheon, 1954; paperback edition, New York: Thames and Hudson, 1979), p. 117.

21. Ibid., pp. 108-109. 

22. Ibid., p. 111.

23. Ibid., p. 106.

24. Ibid., pp. 118-119.

25. Ibid., p. 120.

26. Ibid., p. 118

27. Ibid., p. 121.

28. Norman 0, Brown, Hermes the Thief: The Evolution of a Myth, (New York: Vintage, 1969), pp. 32, 51.

29. Heidegger, On the Way to Language, p. 42; US, p. 138.

---

Return to Richard Palmer homepage

Last Modified May 29, 2001