Highwaymen and their ilk have likely been for around about as long as there have been the roads on which they could ply their trade; that is, common thoroughfares used for commerce and in the intercourse of goods, services, and ideas between and among peoples.
Good Sam, I Am Perhaps the most notable early record of the presence of such scoundrels and the road down which they plodded comes to us from the New Testament of the Bible. The incident, which told in the form of a parable by Jesus, and is recounted by Luke, is contained in the following passage from Luke 10:30-34:
"A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him he had compassion for him. He went to himand bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine."
In this story, it is not clear just who these waylaying robbers or highwaymen were on this perilous 13-mile stretch of a caravan route (J-2-J Highway? Jeri-Jeru Freeway?). Could they have been a bunch of bad Samaritans or Pharisees or Romans or Greeks or Syrians or post-Hasmoneans or pre-Hashemites or proto-Palestinians or some other locals from, neighbors to, conquerors of, passers through, or outcasts wandering about Judea? Nor is it stated whether the victim was gentile or Jew or what his business was that found him out and about on that road alone. While interesting issues on another level, with respect to the principal point of the parable and discussion here, none really matter. The point is that there were, even back in biblical times, various travelers on a road who were verily victimized or maleficent predators or indifferent hypocrites or self-absorbed cowards or samaritanically selfless. And, it is most likely that, although one poor guy got mugged on his way from here to there, the rest of the travelers in this tale--and presumably others who used this caravan route--completed their respective journeys successfully, unmolested, and without incident. No different from any journey today, really.
In Hermes Way Then there is the case of Hermes, a deity revered by the ancient Greeks well before Jesus offered for posterity the Good Samaritan parable. Said to be a product of the union of god Zeus and goddess Maia, and the younger brother of Apollo, Hermes is also said to have had an eclectic set of responsibilities--what may be categorized as “other godly duties as divinely assigned.” As a god, Hermes also has a checkered and colorful reputation. Greek mythology tells us that he began his life stealing some of his brother’s cows. Upon being busted for this youthful indiscretion, he turned right around and invented the lyre, which he gave to Apollo as an appeasement and peace offering. As foreshadowed by this dubious and contrary beginning, and promoted by Hermes’ bold and audacious nature, his curriculum vitae, even within the celestial circles he traveled and, depending on which of the scores of sources one refers, reads like a laundry list of Odyssean proportions.
Hermes was a psychopomp: the guide of souls to the "underworld." He is also said to be the god of the linguistically cunning--those who speak smoothly and with guile or blarney, and who live by their gift of gab to survive. It is to liars and seductresses, and to the stealthy and deceitful, and to double-talkers and spellbinders, and to spies and frauds who Hermes gave his patronage--or did he just pretend to do so? How would you really know? He is claimed to have been the god of good luck, particularly in the matter of making money, and was also an early god of fertility–representing getting lucky or hitting the jackpot in another kind of way, I guess. And, if this wasn’t enough, Hermes was the god of invention, likely as a result of his creation of the lyre for his sibling. Some say his was also the god of poetry, although this is more often attributed to his big brother. Hermes also became the god of herdsmen and the tender of the flocks because of his early stunt of attempting to rustle Apollo’s stock. Some of these and other of his jobs are discussed by another famous ancient author in the following:
"And from heaven father Zeus himself gave confirmation to his words, and commanded that glorious Hermes should be lord over all birds of omen and grim-eyed lions, and boars with gleaming tusks, and over dogs and all flocks that the wide earth nourishes, and over all sheep; also that he only should be the appointed messenger to Hades, who, though he takes no gift, shall give him no mean prize." --Homeric Hymn, IV. To Hermes (attributed to Homer, ca. 800 BC[E])
And there is more. As the god of trickery, he became associated with magic and, thus, with a fellow by the name of Hermes Trismegistus (Hermes Thrice Greatest) who became identified with the Egyptian god, Thoth, and was legendary in the works on alchemy, astrology, and magic and eventually was associated with goings on of Freemasonry. He would assist in the creation of oaths and of treaties and was the patron of translators and interpreters.
But, what does all this have to with the subject at hand? Well, Hermes is also said to have been the god of commerce and of the roads and, thus, of traveling salesmen. And, since he has been known as the god of thieves, it does not take much of a leap to see, in combination of these, he was also the patron of the highwayman! With this, Hermes was the god of boundaries--both inside and outside of them--thus, as the god of travelers and of thieves, each of whom transgressed various types of boundaries, it’s only (super)natural that he would be tagged as the god of highwaymen--those who transgress and trespass where they see the opportunity to do so.
Since Hermes assisted his followers on their journeys, he is said to also have guided them to stone heaps--features were known as “herms”--which were placed along the ancient roads and were sites sacred to him. In that vein, he is associated with crossroads, boundary lines, mountaintops, riverbanks, or any other geographical point that might mark the interface of different peoples, where communications and other dealings with strangers who may speak in other tongues would likely require the services of interpreters. It is interesting, too, that the term hermeneutics refers to interpretations of the Bible. Wonder what Hermes would say about the events surrounding the Good Samaritan parable?
Now, it is not clear if these herms (also called “hermas” or “hermae”) were so called because they were representations of or shrines to Hermes, or if Hermes was so called because the Greeks called these rock piles herms. Which of these actually came first may be a “chicken or egg” argument and may equally have something to do with why the chicken crossed the road. But since these origins may only be solved by philosophers, historians, and lexicographers, and perhaps interpreted by Hermes himself, the subject will not be debated here.
In any case, travelers revered these mounds of stones, so much so that, when passing them on their respective ways, some would add another stone to them and others are said to have placed offerings beside them. These acts may have been performed as a result of custom and as an expression of their thanks for the good fortune they had in making it to the landmark herm unscathed and so to not hurt their fortunes or give extra-terrestrial insurance for a successful completion of that and other journeys. Such stone heaps, which were believed to embody this influential god of travel, came to become welcome sights and sacred sites to the wanderer who sought to negotiate his way from one place to another through empty, open, or unfamiliar tracts. Thus, Hermes would become the protector of the wayfarer. And if by chance the travelers who happened to find themselves short of resources and in need of the particular offering left on the stone heap by a previous venturesome soul, the item was theirs for the taking. The good luck in finding it would, thus, be credited to the grace of this god and would come to be called a hermaion–a word which has come to be associated or synonymous with the modern-day terms “windfall” and “fallen fruit,” that is, unexpected bits of good fortune at your feet for the taking.
It is not surprising that there are hitchhikers of the modern day who have carried forward the spirit of Hermes and the practice of herm offerings from his Hellenistic past. While this link to Hermes and the traditions of the herms may be unbeknownst to the hitchhiker of today, this is witnessed by the following roadside statements and items I have found left by hitchhikers at several highway entrances as these wayfarers waited for their rides:
Message: In back of you, the 4th double yellow reflector has a $1.00 in back of the metal plate Description: Written on a light pole; if an offering had been left, I checked and it was gone. 7/7/96; California Route 99-South, @ Farmerville/Exeter on-ramp
Message: Some kid just gave me some bubblegum Description: A kid either passing in a car or on the street must have offered the thumber some gum 8/3/96: US-101S (Bayshore Freeway) Sunnyvale, CA at Mathilda St (northbound) on-ramp
Message: Left one gram hash, 7-7-77 Description: Written on a light pole; if this offering had been left, it was likely a long time gone 8/11/96; US Route 101-South in Sunnyvale, CA, @ Lawrence Expressway on-ramp
Message: Ron + Patty[?] on way to Big Sur 6/17/74, Hope you have better luck. Pencil down here Description: Arrow drawn down the light pole to the ground to where apparently a pencil had once been left for other travelers to write their own messages 8/11/96; US Route 101-South in Sunnyvale, CA, @ Lawrence Expressway on-ramp
Message: If you read (poles) and you need a smoke or 5¢ look on the first branch of the tree right in front of you. Peace brothers Description: Message written on a light pole; if an offering had been left, it was no longer there 9/4/96; US Route 101-North, Mountain View, CA @ westbound Embarcadero Rd on-ramp
Message: Find bud in foam cup. Gift of love from Howard 3/28/95 Description: Written on guardrail with arrow pointing to open-ended guard rail support where some marijuana apparently had been stashed; if an offering had been left, it was no longer there 7/26/98; Alaska Highway 3 (Parks Highway)-South @ Denali National Park entrance
Item Found: $20 bill; left it in bush near light pole in clear view for a hitchhiker to see Description: Although initially pleased about finding the twenty bucks, I left the money unmolested, since it was intended for a wayfarer in need, which at the time I was not. Perhaps I was being tested by the god of the highways, or perhaps by God, Himself? 8/15/2000; US Route 101-North @ rest area 1/4 mile north of Gaviota State Beach, CA
Eventually, these crudely constructed ancient rock herms were transformed from haphazard heaps first into formal, carved upright blocks of stone and then into statues topped with sculpted heads of Hermes. Boundaries delineated or “marked” by these herms, or landmarks, also came to be used for property demarcations around Greek homes. Because Hermes was regarded as an early fertility deity, these erect stone markers took on the look of or were adorned with phallic symbols and likenesses. (In my research, I have come to find the occasional similar crude and elaborate drawing of male members on highway markers and light poles, as well; to which I have tended to pay little attention like I do when they are drawn in public restrooms. But that’s just me.) Finally, some of these statues were crafted with four-sides; possibly symbolic of the crossroads at which they were erected. These four sides came to represent the four principal or cardinal compass points. Eventually, and likely for this reason, a symbol for Hermes became the cross.
Mercurical Nature Now, the ancient Romans are well known for their practice of adopting and adapting many of the gods and goddesses of the Greeks for their own purposes. Hermes was one such god. He was acquired, repackaged, and marketed by the Romans as Mercury, who is more commonly recognized as the herald and messenger. It is by no accident that the element and metal mercury is also known today as “quicksilver” and has also been called “liquid silver” or “water of silver,” from the Greek hydrargyrus (hydra = water + argyrus = silver);for which "Hg" was chosen by chemists as its symbol--for its ease in mobility, of which liquid mercury certainly seems to be the master. This is a trait also held by the god, Mercury. The planet Mercury, named for the god, is also said to be so called because of its rapid movement across the sky relative to the other heavenly bodies.
As the ancient Romans adopted Hermes as their own, so too did the old Norse who, by that culture, was assimilated as Odin or Wotan or Woden, depending on your neighborhood. Odin was also the god of wisdom and also the king of the gods in Norse mythology. Similar to Hermes, the symbol for Odin came to be a cross in a circle, which may be a Sun-Earth representation of the four seasons, and may also be connected to the four corners of the Earth or being at the crossroads. With this, I came upon the following hitchhiker graffito on a light pole on October 29, 1994, at the I-15-North, Kelbaker Road on-ramp in the dusty little sun-baked desert crossroads town--and self-promoted "Gateway to Death Valley"-- of Baker, California:
Hail Odin ⊕
It is interesting here that Baker, little more than a rest stop for most travelers driving from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, has a well-known restaurant called the “Mad Greek” and one of the most notable landmarks of the Mojave desert, the tallest thermometer in the world; and that thermometers are typically associated with mercury and mercury with the temperature. Just where Hermes fits into all this would all be speculation.
But what is sure is that the spirit of Odin, or Woden, lives on today. Not only are there those resurrecting him as part of a trend toward rekindling Norse, as well as Rune, Celtic, and other Northern European traditions, he comes around like clockwork every seven days in the name of the fourth day of the week, Wednesday--Wodnesdaeg in the Norse tongue for “day of Woden.” Wednesday, the day, is directly connected to Mercury, and through Mercury, Hermes. Even in many cultures generally considered historically and spiritually distant and unrelated to Nordic, Greek, and Roman, alike, there are such connections. Consider the Japanese, for instance. In Japan, Wednesday is Suiyôbi, which means “water day” and the planet Mercury is called suisei, the water planet. Similarly, Suising is Cantonese for the planet Mercury, and the Mandarin name for this planet translates to “Star of Water.” Closer to its Roman roots, in Spanish, Wednesday is miercoles; in which the name of Mercury is plainly evident. Other Romance and other western languages share similar names with the merc root for Wednesday. It is the Greeks who maintain the fourth day of the week in tribute to its ancient mythological god, Hermes as hemera Hermu. And, it is no coincidence that it is the fourth day of the week named for Odin-Mercury-Hermes, to whom the number four is associated going back to the four-sided herms and the four directions at the crossroads. However, although the Greek’s Hermes may have been the god of fecundity and the herms erected in his honor phallic in form and penile in symbology, nowhere until now is there a chrono-copulatory connection of Wednesday to Hermes with respect to the nickname of this day as “Hump Day!”
Speaking of, or in, Spanish, mercurio is the element, mercury. The root or first syllable sound merc, of the words/names mercury and mercurio follows through both English and Spanish from Mercury, who was the Roman god of commerce, from which mercado in Spanish is “market.” This, in turn, traces back to Hermes as the patron of merchants--a word directly related to “mercantile,” a place where “merchandise” is traded for. Curiously, in German, the word mark, which also has a merc or mearc root is not only a monetary unit, it is homonymically also translated as “borderland.” Borderlands are where herms were built as landmarks to delineate one place from another and demarcate ownership. This is all somehow connected to the Latin-derived English word, “margin,” which is a border “marking” where something is either within or outside of. Also in German, there is the word Markstein, defined as a stone boundary marker, and the name for the element mercury, which is Quecksilber (quicksilver). I do not know the implication here, but my name is “Mark Silverstein.”
Finally, some say Hermes was involved with the wind gods, or at least had an interest and role in the in the blowing of the wind controlled by other gods. It only makes sense, since he carried a winged caduceus staff and Mercury has winged feet and is adorned with a petasus–a winged hat.
The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees -- The Highwayman, Alfred Noyes, 1906