Herm of Hermes

Although this piece is of Roman production, this typology of sculpture comes from Ancient Greece. For the Hellenic Greeks a herm was a square or rectangular pillar of stone, although there are also examples in terracotta or bronze. A statue of the god Hermes - thus the name of the pillar – usually stood on top of this. However, the name may also derive etymologically from the Greek word for “blocks of stone”. Hermes has a beard, a sign of physical strength. The base of the herm displays an erect phallus, a symbol of masculinity and of readiness to bear arms, that is, a symbol of defence.

They were used to mark and demarcate roads and frontiers, as well as the boundaries of properties. While certain related information was to be found on them, they also had an apotropaic function, that is, designed to avert evil, either malign spirits, or adversaries and enemies. In Athens herms were placed outside the houses to bring good luck. Each district had its herm. There exist painted vases showing private sacrifices made in front of these pillars.

Over time, with artistic evolution, many statues of other deities came into existence with the same form as the herms and designated with the same generic term, even though they no longer displayed the bust of Hermes. Pausanias described various images: one was a Poseidon in Tricoloni (Arcadia), another was of Zeus Teleios in Tegea and yet another of Aphrodite Urania in Athens. Many of them became perfect forms, with the head and bust of the god atop the lower section. Those displaying Hermes heads generally, but not always, followed the ancient style which was clearly owing to the religious meaning associated with the pillar as a boundary mark. When this motive was not of importance, Hermes himself could be represented in a completely human form, with all the perfection of Greek art, as can be seen, for example, in the statues in palaestrae.

There is a third typology of these pieces, where the bust does not represent any deity but rather was simply a depiction of a man. Here the pillar loses all its symbolic meaning and becomes a mere pedestal. Another special type is the double herm, where two heads facing opposite directions are placed on the pillar, joined only at the neck. The Roman god Janus was often represented in this manner, as were some famous poets.

The Romans made copies of much Greek sculpture following original models simply to decorate their houses and villas. Herms were no exception to this practice. They were much sought after by the more well-to-do Romans to be used as posts for ornamental lattices in their gardens. In this case, they were usually adorned with the bust of a philosopher or eminent person. Others had square holes in their shoulders so that rails could be inserted. These square holes, however, were also present in herms from Ancient Greece, and in this case, they were probably hollowed-out spaces in which to hang garlands or wreaths. The Romans placed heroes like Hercules and indigenous gods on their herms. During the period of the Empire, their function was more architectural than religious: they supported curtains inside houses, and in the Circus Maximus they were used to support barriers.

This herm presents the face of Hermes in its upper area. He was an Olympian messenger of the gods, god of shepherds, travellers, orators, god of invention and trade in general. He was also described as quick and cunning, and as the patron of thieves and liars. He is shown sporting a beard, a sign of physical strength and of a mature countenance.


- Herm with the image of Hermes. Prado Museum, Madrid.
- Herm with the image of Hermes. Getty Villa, Malibu.

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