Herma of Dionysus

The herm is a Greek creation whose origins go back to the 6th century BC. It was a pillar, usually square in cross-section, sculpted from stone. A bust of the god Hermes – thus the name of the pillar – usually stood on the top of this. An erect phallus, a symbol of fertility, but also of defence and prevention, was carved on the front of the pillar. However, other theories claim that the first herm in reality represented Dionysus, god of fertility and nature, in his original form.

A herm (Greek plural- hermai) was placed in rural areas to mark and demarcate roads as well as the limits of properties. In cities it was usual to find them outside houses along with figures of the goddess Hecate, protector of crossroads. In antiquity it was believed that in border areas, places of transit also called liminal areas, malign spirits lived who could decide the destiny of anyone who dared to cross over. That is why all types of beliefs were common as well as amulets to protect travellers and traders.

The antropopaic qualities of the herms, that is, the power they had to ward off harm or the evil influences of spirits, adversaries or enemies, favoured the maintaining of the archaic style of these pillars which characterised the earliest-known examples. While the hermai, as a sculptural typology, evolved from the representation of the god Hermes to permit the addition of other divinities and representations of illustrious men, it can be affirmed that an attempt was made to maintain the primitive style. In the Roman epoch the hermai lost their original sense when they were introduced into the gardens of the great domus merely with an aesthetic function as a simple evocation of classical Hellenism. On occasions, however, the sexual organs were still sculpted on the front of the pillar in reminiscence of the archaic relationship with the cult of fertility.

This example, a Roman production from the high Imperial era, imitates the ancient Greek style of the 5th century BC. This is especially visible in the styling of hair of the god. This frames his face with two rows of curls which fall over the shoulders, while three rows of curls are arranged just above the forehead. A diadem sits on the top of the head. The god has a long moustache and a wavy beard, fleshy lips and sunken eyes which would have contained incrustations (now missing).

The choice of Dionysus to decorate this Herm is not accidental: in Greek mythology, Dionysus embodies the wild power of nature: he represents disorder and abandon. Later, these attributes would be brought to the front by Nietzsche in his The Birth of Tragedy (1872), where he describes how Dionysus personifies chaos, and appeals to our emotions and instincts.

Dionysus, Bacchus for the Romans, whose name means “son of Zeus”, was the Olympic god of nature, of celebrations (symposia), of wine, ecstasy, disorder and the theatre. Among his myths are voyages he undertook to distant lands (Egypt, Anatolia, India, etc.). This detail could indicate that he may have had an oriental origin.

The god was the son of Zeus and Semele, princess of Thebes. The myth around his birth portends the mysterious nature that his cult acquired. When the vindictive Hera finds out about the infidelity of her consort Zeus, she convinces Semele, with child with Dionysus, to ask Zeus to appear before her. At first Zeus resisted, but ended up by complying with the wishes of his lover. However, as she was a mere mortal, she immediately perished in lightning-ignited flames on exposure to him. Zeus, in despair, managed to save his son Dionysus by sewing him into his thigh until the time came for his birth. For this reason he is known as “the twice-born”, with the epithet dimetor, (of two mothers). Even though his mother had been a mortal, he himself was considered a god from the time of his birth. There are two versions of how he was cared for after his birth. One holds that Zeus handed the child over to Hermes, while the other narrates that he was under the protection of the rain nymphs of Nysa, who took him from the ashes of his mother and handed him over to Queen Ino.

The fact that Dionysus was able to survive the death of his mother is interpreted as a triumph of life over death, and for this he was worshipped as a mysterious divinity in Eleusis, along with Demeter and Persephone. At the same time, ancient sources claim that the god was initiated into the Phrygian mysteries by the very goddess Cybele. The Orphic tradition tells of the second resurrection of the god: The Titans, jealous of the attentions that he received from Zeus, cut him into pieces and destroyed his whole body with the exception of the heart. This was taken by Athena, given to her father Zeus to eat, from whom Dionysus emerged once more alive.


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