ASE Wrap-Up: Aristocratic Vampires

While I’m not going to do a full report on the ASE Conference (other than to say it was a lot of fun and really awesome!), I do want to address a question that came up during my presentation, and hopefully provide some insight into an otherwise dissonant element of my overall argument that the historical vampire was “disenchanted” by vampire literature which represented the Balkans in contrast with western views of itself in the “modern” era. It was a good question, and deserves a bit of space here.

For those of you who haven’t been to an academic conference, this is what usually happens: After a paper is given, the presenter answers questions regarding the paper (or the topic). This is actually a very fun part of the conference in that the speaker has a chance to talk about their ideas with other scholars, get some feedback, and perhaps consider angles they hadn’t thought of previously. The tone is (usually) collegial, though sometimes it can get out of hand.

Now, I prepared in advance for several questions. Here are a few inquiries I did not field, but nevertheless prepared for:

Q: What happened to Arnod Paole?
A: He made several vampires before being staked, at which time he let out a most serious groan.

Q: Why were the Balkans viewed so pejoratively?
A: Their location within Europe made them susceptible to foreign empire, both Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman, and their geographical position held many advantages for the great powers of Britain, France and Russia, who each sought to control access in the region. Thus, by demonizing a peoples they wanted to subject, they could more easily lay claims to power in the region.

Q: Who are you wearing?
A: Kmart Jaclyn Smith Collection…on sale.

But no, I got none of these questions. Instead, I was asked a very astute question which totally complicated my argument that the Balkan peasantry and “primitive” belief in vampires constituted a threat to the west. More specifically, I was asked why Balkan vampires in literature were all aristocrats.

Let me say first, I am not the quickest person on my feet. I think I answered with a bunch of “I don’t knows” and some half-ideas that went…somewhere, maybe. But now that I’ve thought about it, perhaps I can take a stab (ugh) at it here.

Talking about vampires at the ASE.

Stephen D. Arata, I think, provides the clearest reason for the aristocratic vampire. In his analysis of Dracula, he observes how the character of Dracula reverses one version of the orientalist travel narrative (634-639). In brief, this narrative involves a westerner who goes to an exotic locale in the East and “passes” for being a native. However, the converse is rarely true. While an Englishman, such as Richard Burton, can don a headscarf and be mistaken as indigenous, it is unlikely someone from the east could make the opposite journey and move about undetected (Arata 639).

Except in vampire novels. And this is what Arata argues is so terrifying about Dracula. The Count is not one of the backward peasantry, but well studied in the intellectual pursuits of the day. (For some reason, reading train schedules is especially important here.) Even more, when Dracula encounters westerners…he passes. People do not see him as a foreigner, but an aristocrat (Arata 638-639).

In other words, he threatens to break into the existing elite social order. The device of the vampire serves to show how foreign incursions into these areas will drain the vitality—or hegemony—from those currently on top (Arata, 630-632).

While my paper argued that vampires, or more specifically the sort of people who believe in vampires, represented a specific encounter between east and west in the “modern” era, the aristocratic vampire does complicate things. Certainly, literature from the time supports this socio-economic distinction, as western diplomats often accepted their elite eastern counterparts (Todorova 465-466). The vampire designates the sort of threat that can happen within these encounters—meetings which don’t easily stratify into “us-and-them” but rather align along social status. The threat is ambiguous, hard to detect, and undermines the existing hegemony.

We must keep in mind that while these fictional books did encode certain common messages, at the end of the day they were entertainment—and in this case were a form of literature that was intentionally designed to disturb the reader. On the one hand, the Balkan peasants serve as a foil, to remind the reader of how far they’ve come from “primitive superstitions” on the other hand, the aristocratic vampire suggests the threat not only still exists, but is omnipresent, undetectable, and able to infiltrate—and subvert—the highest realms of society.

I hope this helps clarify what is definitely a complicating feature of my argument. That said, the overall message—that the East contains ideas and beliefs that are dissonant with those of the West, I think still holds up, even if that threat is polarized in social status from those who give it credence.

Arata, Stephen D. “The Occidental Tourist: ‘Dracula’ and the Anxiety of Reverse Colonialization.” Victorian Studies 33.4 (1990): 621-645.
Stoker, Bram. Dracula. 1897. New York: Signet Classics. 2007. Print.
Todorova, Maria. “The Balkans: From Discovery to Invention.” Slavic Review 53.2 (1994): 453-482.

Posted in Academic, Vampires | 7 Comments

Vampires, Ghosts, and the Legacy of Antiquity

Next month, I’ll be talking at the ASE about Eastern European vampires. This is a big topic, and while my paper will focus on the vampire’s literary and rhetorical implications, many other issues have been discussed by scholars in relation to the undead. I thought we could investigate some of the more pressing questions which will not be presented in my paper here!

One big area of discussion which surrounds research on vampires is the distinction between vampires and revenants. In historical records, these categories refer to similar, but different phenomena, and much effort has been put into sussing out if they refer to the same creature or not (see pg. 3-4 of the Paul Barber article below for one interpretation). The conflict occurs between the vampire, seen as the stereotypical blood-sucking Dracula-type, and the revenant, which is thought to straddle the line between ghost and un-dead corpse.

Unlike the common spectre which will softly rattle your curtains while cooing “boooooo,” revenants, like vampires, have the very real ability to harm a person. The problem is that some depictions of revenants decidedly look more like ghosts or poltergeists whereas other veer more into full-on reanimated corpses bent on vengeance, pummeling their living ancestors for perceived wrongs and so on (Keyworth 244-247).

But are they a different monster? The distinction, as G. David Keyworth suggests, is more related to chronology than taxonomy (2006). These are not necessarily two different creatures, but rather two sides of the same coin, so to speak. Both come back from the dead to terrorize the living, the distinction seems to be whether or not its goal is to drink your blood.

I want to talk about cases where these distinctions between revenants and vampires overlap in the ancient world. In the following examples, the line between ghost and blood-sucker is similarly blurred.

Let’s start with ghosts. Ghosts held a special place for the living in antiquity, and appeasement seems to be the name of the game here. It was thought that proper homage needed to be paid to one’s ancestors, lest they come back and wreak havoc. There were domestic rites, such as casting beans on the ground to feed dead souls, which were performed in the household to stave off the so-called ‘malevolent dead’ (Turcan 31-32). A peaceful life meant keeping the dead posthumously happy.

What would happen when the dead crossed the threshold and entered the lives of the, well, living? These seemingly benign manifestations of the spirit-world also resulted in placating the dead in some way. When ghosts did speak to the living, it was often to complain about something those still on earth were or weren’t doing, making new demands from the great beyond (Johnston 97-98). In other words, ghosts could nag you from beyond the grave!

We can see how this belief could parallel later accounts of the revenant, a familiar spirit who unleashed woe on its living relatives. But what about blood-sucking vampires? Do we have precedent for blood-thirsty ghosts in antiquity? You betcha.

Our next example comes from the Odyssey, and features ghosts of the dead who feed, not on beans, but on blood. In Book 11, Odysseus goes to Hades, and meets with the ghosts of the dead who reside there. His first action upon entering Hades is to make a sacrifice:

“When with my prayers and invocation I had called on the peoples of the dead, I seized the victims [a cow and a ram] and cut their throats over the trench. The dark blood flowed, and the souls of the dead and gone came flocking upwards from Erebus…With unearthly cries, from every quarter, they came crowding about the trench until pale terror began to master me.” (Odyssey XI)

With the blood, Odysseus summons the souls of the dead and bribes them to answer questions. In fact he does not let them the ‘draw near to the blood’ until they’ve responded sufficiently, only then does he let them feast. This suggests that there is a connection between the dead and blood. These ghosts not only are drawn to fresh blood, but also consume it. This, too, can be seen as a precedent for later depictions of the vampire.

While we don’t see figures like Dracula in antiquity, we do see undead creatures who engage in behaviours similar to reports of vampirism in the pre-modern period. Malevolent spirits, ghosts hungry for blood, and the familial ties between the living and the dead all hint at later folklore about the undead, and serve to complicate the distinction between vampires and ghosts.

So were vampires ghosts? Were ghosts vampires? These days most of us can easily distinguish between a vampire and a ghost and would consider them two very different phenomena. Examples from antiquity, however, suggest a blurring of these distinctions which lasted until the modern era. This overlap in the supernatural has caused much consternation among scholars who study the undead, complicating what would otherwise be neat categories.

If you want to hear more about vampires of the bloodsucking variety, I encourage you to come to the ASE in New York next June. I’ll be speaking at 3:30 on Saturday afternoon and will go over the origins of some of the more famous vampires in early modern literature and their cultural implications. I hope to see you there!


Barber, Paul. “Forensic Pathology and the European Vampire,” Journal of Folklore Research 24.1 (1987): 1-32.
Homer. The Odyssey. Translation Walter Shewring. Oxford World’s Classics, 1998.
Johnston, Sarah Iles. Ancient Greek Divination. Wiley-Blackwell, 2008.
Keyworth, G. David. “Was the Vampire of the Eighteenth Century a Unique Type of Undead- Corpse?” Folklore 117.3 (2006): 241-260.
Turcan, Robert. The Gods of Ancient Rome: Religion in Everyday Life from Archaic to Imperial Times. Routledge, 2000.


Photo by CrazyFast.

Posted in Ancient, Vampires | 3 Comments

Paradox of the Satanic Temple

No doubt you’ve heard about the Satanic Temple, the group who petitioned to put a Baphomet statue up at the Oklahoma legislature, and recently made headlines for attempting to hold a Black Mass at Harvard.

While there are many things that can be said about the group’s efforts (not the least of which is how organized they are!), one aspect particularly strikes me about the Satanic Temple’s foray into the public sphere. It reveals a paradox: the simultaneous act of transgression to attain public acceptance.

Transgression and acceptance are two opposite phenomena. Much has been written about the transgressive nature of modern Satanism in much better ways than I can speak to it. For example, Jesper Aa. Petersen observes that transgression “affirms a new order (or even the permanent lack of order) by interrogating the limit…cherished ideals are questioned and unspoken rules willfully ignored” (174).

In other words, transgression is used as a tool of differentiation, one which set the transgressor apart from normative society. It is provocative, both to the society whose values are transgressed, but also to the Satanist, who believes that through such acts they can transcend and harness the power behind these powerful discourses (Petersen, 175).

The Satanic Temple, by so publicly coming forward, is provoking society. Not only are they stimulating discussion about religious freedom and the place of religion in the public sphere, but they are doing so in ways which shock the sensibilities of many. One need only look to the reactions, not just in online comments (which have been virulent), but also editorial dispatches from more level-headed sources. Chris Stedman, writing for Religion News Service, called the Black Mass a direct attack on Catholicism and went on to question the sincerity of the Satanists. I don’t need to emphasize what sort of dangerous territory we are on when we try to assess the sincerity of another’s beliefs! But when smart, educated people resort to moral outrage and mocking (like Drew Faust, Harvard’s President, who called the Black Mass “abhorrent”), you know you’re really pushing the limits!

The fact that much of the discussion about the Satanic Temple is now on the agenda of the general public speaks to the assimilation (or attempts of assimilation) of non-dominant religions within contemporary society (which is, in America at least, mostly Christian). The Satanic Temple, ironically through transgression, is actually pressing their right to be at the table—a decidedly participatory and non-transgressive act! They are not rejecting the government or public institutions, but embracing (or one could argue, exploiting) them.

The shock value of Satanic transgression, ironically—and ideally—will lead to greater discussion about the place of religion in the public sphere. Will it lead to acceptance for marginalized groups? I’m not sure. But it illustrates quite clearly that the laws are for all.

Jesper Aa. Petersen. “The Carnival of Dr. LaVey: Articulations of Transgression in Modern Satanism” in The Devil’s Party: Satanism in Modernity. Oxford University Press. 2013.

Photo by Diego Martínez.


Posted in Satanism

Fumed-Out Pythiai and Altered States of Consciousness


The Oracle of Apollo in Delphi is often pointed to as the example of divination in the ancient world. Consisting of a large temple complex, persons from all over the Mediterranean would travel to Delphi to hear the God’s pronouncements on a variety of matters. As Peter Green observes, “what emerged from these operations was not so much predictions, in what we might call the Nostradamus sense, but rather a device, based on what was regarded as the will of the gods, channeled through their interpreters” (28).

Apollo’s words were transmitted, as many of you know, through a temple priestess, known as a Pythia. This woman spoke for the god, acting as the medium through which his messages were delivered. She is often depicted in art as sitting on a tripod, holding a branch of laurel, and staring into a bowl. Her responses to questions were often vague, allowing the prophecy of the God to be interpreted in many different ways (Johnston 51-52).

But how did the Pythia talk to Apollo? Or rather, how did Apollo talk through the Pythia? One famous hypothesis is that the temple at Delphi sat above a gaseous chasm which emitted mind-altering chemicals. In other words, the Pythia was high as a kite.

Sarah Iles Johnston sums up this hypothesis in this way:

“During the final years of the twentieth century, a geologist named J.Z. de Boer, surveying active fault lines in Greece…discovered one running under the site of the Oracle. De Boer teamed up with an archaeologist, John Hale, to investigate the significance of this fault line further; together they found a second fault line that intersected with the first one directly under the aduton, the small room at the back of the temple where the Pythia sat on her tripods. They then consulted a chemist, Jeffrey Chanton, who showed that trace amounts of three gases—ethylene, ethane (a product of decomposing ethylene) and methane—rose up through fissures in the bedrock and through the waters in springs that were in or near the sanctuary. Henry Spiller, a toxicologist with expertise in hallucinatory gases, joined the group and noted that small doses of ethylene produce and altered state of consciousness, during which people feel euphoria and have out-of-body experiences, but remain lucid enough to answer questions” (Johnston 48-49).

On the surface, this method seems very similar to modern methods of entheogenic drug use. The priestess, overcome by fumes, physically puts herself into an altered state, whereby her consciousness become more receptive to, well, whatever it becomes more receptive to!

This view that the Pythia generated her prophecies via chemical alteration has been called into contention, however. Scholars have question how she could coherently speak in such a state and have even suggested that the fumes may not have been as strong as this theory leads one to believe.

Johnston steers a middle course and suggests that the fumes, which have a distinctly sweet smell, do put one in an altered state—but not of the same sort. Rather, it psychologically preps the Pythia to enter into a state of mind conducive to prophecy. In other words, the gas in the temple, acts more like incense, creating an atmosphere which signals the priestess that it’s time to commune with Apollo.

Much of the argument for this view also stems from the nature of the Pythia’s prophecies. Scholars argue that, in order to give a coherent pronouncement, she would have to remain somewhat clearheaded. To wit, L. Maurizio observes that the nature of prophecy in Greek culture (or at least in the models offered by Greek philosophy) necessitates coherent speech, for the ability to articulate clearly is a sign of contact with the gods (79)!

Most scholars agree that an altered state of some kind was necessary to invoke the possession of the Pythia by Apollo. According to Green, “The Pythia was said to enter into an ecstatic or trance-like state, during which she became the vehicle of the God’s utterances. In some way, her function was linked to a mysterious inspirational vapour, or πνεῦμα [pneuma]. However that might be explained, the condition was accepted as what it was purported to be: divine possession” (31).

But Green argues strongly against the idea that the gas was only mildly inspirational. He cites the effect produced by the ethylene gas (similar to nitrous oxide), as being consonant with depictions of the Pythia in ancient literature: the above mentioned state of mild hallucination accompanied by lucid speech (Green 40-41).

In contrast to Iles Johnston, Green suggests that attempts to explain the influence of the vapours psychologically, rather than physiologically, reflects our modern views of such practices and thus should be called into question. The ancients, after all, did not think the same way we did, or hold the same values. Instead, we should use the Delphi case as a way to understand how ancients viewed communication with the Gods at Delphi—as a form of possession (Green 41-42). Thus, we should be looking, not to explain away such experiences, but rather to find the means to explain them.

What do we make of this? Was Delphi lousy with fumed-out priestesses? Well, the evidence seems to point to yes. But this is a fuzzy “yes” with a lot of follow-up questions about the nature of the emissions at Delphi. That the vapors affected the Pythia’s consciousness does not seem up for debate as much as questions about the extent and nature of its influence. We know that the temple of Apollo at Delphi sat on a geological fault-line which allowed subterranean gasses to permeate the temple. And while we know the sorts of effects these gasses could have on a person, we don’t know with any certainty the degree to which they affected the Pythia. What we do know is that the Pythia’s pronouncements certainly held sway with the oracle’s seekers, and perhaps for now that is enough.

Green, Peter. “Possession and Pneuma: The Essential Nature of the Delphic Oracle,” Arion, Third Series, Vol. 17, No. 2 (FALL 2009), pp. 27-47.
Iles Johnston, Sarah. Ancient Greek Divination. Wiley-Blackwell. 2008.
Maurizio, L. “Anthropology and Spirit Possession: A Reconsideration of the Pythia’s Role at Delphi,” The Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 115 (1995), pp. 69-86.

Photo by Dale Kav.


Posted in Ancient, Divination | 4 Comments

Five Tools For Advanced Greek

My ancient Greek courses this year were a big change from the previous two years (See here and here). This year, we left the beginner books behind and moved into translating the primary texts. I should stress here that these weren’t adapted texts, whereby an editor adjusts the language to be a bit easier. No, no, no, no, no. These were the real deal.

And they were so difficult! Well, at least for someone who hasn’t translated these sorts of works before. My first semester, we tackled Herodotus’ Histories. My second semester was devoted to Homeric poetry. I had great professors for both courses, but with languages, a lot of your performance is simply up to you.

In order to really do well at the upper levels of Greek, you’ll need a few tools with which to work with the material. Below, I’ve outlined five things which I found completely indispensable to my studies, so that those of you embarking on a similar journey can prepare yourselves accordingly!

1. Time

My first year of Greek I spent two hours a day studying. My second year I spent three. This year I stopped keeping track, though I would estimate I spent an average of five hours per day on Greek. When there was a big project, I would spend the entire day working on material. I’m talking 12-15 hours on nothing but Greek. Hard core!

Unfortunately, they have not yet developed a way to “Matrix” languages into your head, so you’ll need to spend some hard, physical time studying. Plan your schedule accordingly.

2. A Lexicon

I spent most of my time this year looking up words. It was pretty tedious, but unavoidable. The standard is the LSJ, which comes in three flavours according to their size. I have two—the “Middle Liddell” and “Little Liddell.” Personally, I found the “Little Liddell” more than adequate, and my paperback version has a larger font, which is much easier on the eyes than other editions of the LSJ.

2.a A Note About Perseus

Whenever possible, I looked up my vocab in a lexicon. I found this to be a good exercise, since it really forces you to diagnose the word in question. (Is it augmented? What stem is this? Is the accent affecting the meaning?) That said, I turned to Perseus more frequently than I anticipated, and certainly more than I would have liked. Simply put, there was so much vocab that it became logistically impossible to look up every single word by hand.

For those who don’t know what Perseus is, basically, it’s an online database which links the words in a given text to its lexical entry. It is very quick and easy. It is also flawed. Sometimes really flawed. Here are a few tips to use it somewhat reliably:

  • Look up the full entry.
    Open up the full lexicon entry in Perseus, rather than settling on the definition at the top. Sometimes, the word you need is buried far down in an LSJ entry. So give yourself a few options and consider the context of the passage when making your decision.
  • Don’t always trust the “most likely” selection.
    Read the definition, but if it doesn’t make sense, you probably have the wrong word. Have a browse at the other options. If things broke down at this point, I would turn to my lexicon, which I found the most reliable.
  • Use your Brain.
    Don’t fully trust the entry given. For example, I saw ὁ ἄνθρωπος given as the feminine ἡ ἄνθρωπος, which is not as common. If you’re unsure, get a second opinion from your lexicon.

3. A Grammar Book

This is the time to start applying all that grammar you spent the previous couple of years learning. The good news: you get to start working with the material and seeing how it works in real life. The bad news: There is a ton of grammar and you’ve probably forgotten half of it by now. One of my professors recommended a small grammar book, which I found really handy, A Primer of Greek Grammar by Abbott and Mansfield. This slim volume is a quick reference for all those paradigms you learned, with a bit of stuff on other material, like prepositions.

However, the definitive grammar guide is Smyth—a burgundy hardcover with an exhaustive run-down of the Greek language. I turned to Smyth all the time to suss out weird grammatical constructions, or just brush up on what the dative case does. It’s a bit intimidating when you first get it, but indispensable once you start working with it.

4. Your Pome Pony

At this point, I need to admit that much of this list is nicked from one of my professors, who recommended a lot of the material you see here. Including this recommendation for a pony.

Basically, a pony is a text of the work you are translating, which has already been translated! Now, some of you may be thinking, “Sweet! I will just copy that!” But don’t do that. Your pony is there to keep you on track and for checking your own work!

A good pony will get you familiar with the story, providing the crucial background necessary to make sure you don’t start rewriting history! It is also the place to turn for super-tricky passages, as it can provide much-needed clues to grammatical structures, and so on. I used Oxford World’s Classics editions this year, and found them very good.

5. A Tutor

I found the transition from textbooks to primary works very difficult. I think everyone does. Unfortunately, there were holes in my understanding which were holding me back from performing at the level I expected of myself. I had hit a wall, and worse, felt like I was moving backwards.

After several days of crying after class in the bathroom, I decided it was time to get help and approached my professor about getting a tutor. After a wonderful pep talk, he quickly set me up with a super-smart grad student at University of Toronto, with whom I began meeting with on a weekly basis to work on the areas which were giving me trouble.

Working with a tutor became the single best thing I did for my studies. She helped me to grasp difficult concepts, and ensured that I took the time to understand the grammar rather than settle for a lazy translation. My understanding of the material quickly improved, as did my confidence and performance. (Not to mention that it helped to have someone else on my team who understood what I was going through!) I highly recommended getting a bit of extra help, if you find yourself stumbling or want to bring your work up to the next level.

All in all, I found my third year of Greek really challenging and much different from the previous two years. Not only did the materials change, but the tools I used did, too. While some sound like no-brainers (Lexicon? Duh.), some of the items here weren’t obvious to me when I began the school year, but have since become indispensable to my tool-kit. While there are certainly many more things that could be on this list, I’ve found these are the bare necessities for conquering ancient Greek and every serious student should have them on hand.


Photo by Sunsurfr.

Posted in Academic, Greek | 2 Comments

How Did Hermes Get the Caduceus?

It is difficult to imagine Hermes, the messenger of the gods, without his usual accoutrements: wings on his feet, a stylish chapeau, and carrying a winged staff encircled by snakes. The Homeric Hymns, poems written in the Homeric style that date to around 700bce, are often filled with the origin myths of the gods and goddesses. The tales regale their audience with depictions of the immortals, listing the things they rule over and the things sacred to them. And yes, Hermes is among those memorialized in the hymns.

The “Homeric Hymn to Hermes,” which dates from around the sixth century bce, follows in this tradition and recounts the early life of the god, from his birth in a cave to the nymph Maia (herself a consort of Zeus), to his installation among the gods of Mt. Olympus. Along the way, the poem relates how Hermes acquired his famous staff and what it is used for. I thought it would be fun to share this version of the story from the Homeric Hymns and see how the mythology of Hermes is wrapped up with this important symbol.

According to the poem, Hermes is quite the prodigy. He is born in the morning, by noon he is playing the lyre, and at evening he is out-and-about stealing Apollo’s cows. Very ambitious, but it gets better. In order to cover-up his theft, the young Hermes marches the cows backwards, so that their tracks lead in the opposite direction. Thus, anyone who followed the tracks to find the cows (i.e. Apollo) would think they led one way, when they really went the other. Even sneakier, Hermes ties branches to his feet, which obscure the tracks further, making it seem as if a giant was driving the cattle. Tsk-tsk.

This is all good, except someone sees Hermes. An old man working in his vineyard catches him driving Apollo’s cows across the plains of Onchestus. Busted, Hermes orders the old man to keep quiet and hurries on his way.

Upon discovering his cows missing, Apollo sets off to find them. Lo and behold, he encounters the old man tending his vineyard. Despite the earlier warning to not disclose Hermes’ theft, the old man spills the beans and provides this description of the youth he saw with Apollo’s cows:

ὦ φίλος, ἀργαλέον μέν, ὅσ᾽ ὀφθαλμοῖσιν ἴδοιτο,
πάντα λέγειν: πολλοὶ γὰρ ὁδὸν πρήσσουσιν ὁδῖται,
τῶν οἳ μὲν κακὰ πολλὰ μεμαότες, οἳ δὲ μάλ᾽ ἐσθλὰ
φοιτῶσιν: χαλεπὸν δὲ δαήμεναί ἐστιν ἕκαστον:
αὐτὰρ ἐγὼ πρόπαν ἦμαρ ἐς ἠέλιον καταδύντα
ἔσκαπτον περὶ γουνὸν ἀλωῆς οἰνοπέδοιο:
παῖδα δ᾽ ἔδοξα, φέριστε, σαφὲς δ᾽ οὐκ οἶδα, νοῆσαι,
ὅς τις ὁ παῖς, ἅμα βουσὶν ἐυκραίρῃσιν ὀπήδει
νήπιος, εἶχε δὲ ῥάβδον: ἐπιστροφάδην δ᾽ ἐβάδιζεν.

Dear friend, it vexes me. As much as may be seen with the eyes is all there is to tell. For many travelers pass over this road, of whom some strive for many bad things, while others wander to and fro and strive for very good things, and it is difficult to know which is which. However, I was digging the entire day until the sun was sinking around my fruitful vineyard, which abounds in wine. And I thought that a child, most brave one, but I do not know clearly…I saw him, whoever this child is—an infant following with fine-horned cattle, and he held a rod, and he went, turning this way and that.

Homeric Hymn to Hermes, 202-210 (translation mine)

We know a couple of things from this passage. One, this old man sure has a nice vineyard that gives him oodles of wine. Sweet. The other is that Hermes guided the cattle with a rod or stick. This suggests that the divine messenger’s top accessory is not just for show, but has a rather practical purpose: it’s intended to aid in the tending of cattle. More about this later, because it’s totally relevant.

I’m going to flash-forward through the story a bit. Obviously, Apollo apprehends the little thief. After all, he’s the god of divination, and it would be pretty difficult to put one past him. So Apollo nabs Hermes and the two gods go to Mt. Olympus, to have the issue settled by Zeus. After much scheming, Hermes wriggles his way out of trouble by playing the lyre, which Apollo just falls in love with. Thus, Apollo gets the lyre, and Hermes is given status among the gods. But there’s a trade:

ὣς εἰπὼν ὤρεξ᾽: ὃ δ᾽ ἐδέξατο Φοῖβος Ἀπόλλων,
Ἐρμῇ δ᾽ ἐγγυάλιξεν ἑκὼν μάστιγα φαεινήν,
βουκολίας τ᾽ ἐπέτελλεν: ἔδεκτο δὲ Μαιάδος υἱὸς
γηθήσας: κίθαριν δὲ λαβὼν ἐπ᾽ ἀριστερὰ χειρὸς
Λητοῦς ἀγλαὸς υἱός, ἄναξ ἑκάεργος Ἀπόλλων,
πλήκτρῳ ἐπειρήτιζε κατὰ μέλος: ἣ δ᾽ ὑπὸ νέρθε
ἱμερόεν κονάβησε: θεὸς δ᾽ ὑπὸ καλὸν ἄεισεν.

Thus having spoken, Hermes held out his hand. And the bright Apollo received the lyre from Hermes, and in return, he put into his hand the shining whip which he held. And Hermes, the son of Maia, rejoicing, received this and commanded the herd of cattle. And the bright son of Leto, the far-working Lord Apollo, taking the kithara in his left hand, proved himself by song with the Plektron. And it resounded sweetly from him, and the god sang with beauty.

Homeric Hymn to Hermes 496 – 502 (translation mine)

He we see that, in exchange for the lyre (and presumably Apollo’s forgiveness) Hermes is given a whip with which to command cattle. Some translations suggest that at this point in the story Hermes is actually given dominion over tending cattle (Crudden 61). Later we see that Zeus has designated Hermes as the god of commerce (516). It is interesting to note that valuable commodities, money, and livestock are referred to by the same term in ancient Greek, τὰ χρήματα, which suggests an association among these items in the minds of the ancient Greeks.

Nevertheless, we’ve talked a bit about Hermes using a rod to drive cattle, and here he upgrades to Apollo’s whip and gains rulership over the τὰ χρήματα, or valuable things. Finally, towards the end of the story, Hermes receives his famous staff:

ὄλβου καὶ πλούτου δώσω περικαλλέα ῥάβδον,
χρυσείην, τριπέτηλον, ἀκήριον ἥ σε φυλάξει
πάντας ἐπικραίνουσ᾽ ἄθλους ἐπέων τε καὶ ἔργων
τῶν ἀγαθῶν, ὅσα φημὶ δαήμεναι ἐκ Διὸς ὀμφῆς.

I [Apollo] shall give you, for happiness and wealth, a very beautiful rod. It is adorned with gold and thrice-branched and pure. And it shall guard you as you accomplish all the ordinances which are uttered and of the good works, as much as I say to be learned from the voice of Zeus.

Homeric Hymn to Hermes 529-532, (translation mine)

And here Hermes gets a golden rod with three-branches. This rod is to be used by Hermes in conveying the will of Zeus to humans, but under the guidance of Apollo. Hermes has gone from a driver of cows, to a driver of humans. Now, the shape of the wand has been disputed, as τριπέτηλον literally means “thrice-leaved.” Is this a branch with three leaves? Three branches? What’s its deal? According to Nicholas Richardson, this word usually refers to something which “forks at the top in a V-shape” (216). Nevertheless, at this point in the story that Hermes gains the tool which comes to be closely identified with the god from here on out.

This is a bit different than what we’re used to, eh? The rod as we know it today, the caduceus with two snakes, didn’t come into being until the fifth century bce. So until then, Hermes will have to make do with this wand. At least it’s made of gold, so there’s a bit of consolation for the new god.

In the “Homeric Hymn to Hermes” we get a bit of the back-story on Hermes, the messenger of the gods. Of seemingly humble origins, he finagles his way into the ranks of the gods of Olympus through trickery and cunning. At the end of his ordeal, he is given a golden rod with which to conduct his business and is granted rulership of commerce. However, we see the connection between the Hermes, trade, and the symbol of the rod alluded to throughout the story, as the rod is depicted as the key tool with which Hermes tends cattle, animals which were considered to be a valuable good to the Ancient Greeks. The sacred staff that Hermes carries, like the god himself in the story, is transformed from a mundane object with mundane authority to an object of reverence and divine authority. It symbolizes both the things he governs on earth, but is also a token of his status among the gods of Mt. Olympus.


“Homeric Hymn to Hermes” in Three Homeric Hymns: To Apollo, Hermes, and Aphrodite. Edited by Nicholas Richardson. Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics, Cambridge University Press. 2010.

The Homeric Hymns: A New Translation by Michael Crudden. Oxford World’s Classics, Oxford University Press. 2001.

Photo by Andrea Crisante.

Posted in Ancient, Greek

Promoting Classical Languages at York University

Last December I received an email from the Classical Studies department chair, Anne-Marie Lewis, asking if I’d be interested in doing a video to promote the department’s language program. York University, like many other schools, has been very proactive in getting its members out on the internet, and the Classical Studies program was totally stacking the web with its students.

Of course, I said yes.

And then spent the next few weeks panicking.

What would I say? I love languages, but they really are a solitary sport. How do I convey the pure excitement…of memorizing pages of vocabulary? The thrill of victory that comes from…pinpointing an exceptional use of the distributive preposition κατα? You see what I’m saying. The other students talked about going to the Mediterranean, where they dug about in the sands of history. I spend an undue amount of time holed up in my office twittering about off-colour Smyth entries.

Luckily, the folks at York’s communications department were on my side. Together we were able to make studying Greek and Latin seem almost exciting while dispelling the myth that learning a dead language is an irrelevant skill in today’s society. This video has something in it for everyone: There’s a nod to the Dead Sea Scrolls, a cameo from Pope Benedict (!), and of course, my smooth baritone voice which drives all the fellas wild.


Posted in Academic, Ancient, Greek