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Hermes - God of Fire. Reconstructing the Indo-European Background of an Olympian God

Carlsberg Foundation Visiting Fellowships at University of Oxford


Hermes is the most evanescent one of the Olympian gods; he is the messenger of the immortals, but is allowed to cross the inaccessible realm of the dead. He is the patron of thieves and the best helper of mortal men. Such an array of prerogatives has long puzzled historians of religions and philologists, who struggle to grasp Hermes’ ‘true nature’. With my project I apply a comparative angle to the Olympian god in order to dig into his inherited background. Some of Hermes’ features parallel those of fire-gods in traditions belonging to the same linguistic family as Greek, namely: Indo-European. The aim of the project is thus to uncover the ‘fiery’ dimension of Hermes on the basis of a systematic comparison among diverse but related religious and mythological traditions.


The genetic study of the ancient Greek religion can shed light on major inconsistencies of the ancient gods. An investigation of this description allows us to acquire a new, enriched vision on a variety of religious phenomena. For instance, it adds new sense to ancient stories, parts of stories and rituals. In particular, my study could change the way we look at the Greek god Hermes permanently. Moreover, “the gods are fugitive guests of literature” (Roberto Calasso) and, one might add, of music, visual art, and our subconscious. Thus, my research can contribute to clarify aspects of texts and iconographical patterns, which have had a pervasive impact on the intellectual and aesthetic structures of Western civilization.


My project will start with the analysis of Greek literary and iconographical sources connected with Hermes. Some of Hermes’ divine names and functions are difficult to understand from a ‘Greek-centered’ perspective. However, examining the same features under a 'fire-lens' adds new sense to them. Once I have isolated the possible fiery traits of Hermes within Greek, I will compare them to those of his Indo-European divine and semi-divine congeners, such as, among others, the Old Indic fire-god Agni, the Old Norse áss Loki, the Iranian hero Syrdon. Specifically, the reconstruction of the Indo-European dimension of Hermes will be made to rely upon the systematic comparison among words and phrases attested within texts of Greek and its sister languages.


Literature and art make our ‘narrative imagination’ thrive. This can be defined as a sort of narrative empathy, the capacity of putting ourselves in someone else's place by reading a text or experiencing a work of art. In particular, recognizing similarities among different cultural traditions is both the driving force and the ultimate goal of the comparative analysis. Such a standpoint works to achieve a less ‘West-centered’ perspective of our world, by highlighting analogies among the pillars of both the ‘white-culture’, the Classical civilizations, and those of the ‘non-white’ ones, e.g., the Asian civilizations. A deeper insight into some of our ancestral structures and our symbols may add more balance to the perception of our cultural identity.