What Was a Herm in Ancient Greece?

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Herm from the Getty Villa
Herm from the Getty Villa. CC Flickr User Marshall Astor - Food Pornographer

Definition: A herm is a quadrangular stone sculpture, usually placed outdoors, serving as a boundary marker, signpost, milestone, or memorial. A herm has a bearded man's head, but no or stunted arms, yet the square slab often holds an erect phallus. The herm's vestigial arms or brackets may have served to hold drapery. 

The name "herm" is related to Hermes, an ancient god associated with boundaries and fertility (and trickery, trade, and lots of other lovely things).

By depicting Hermes on a statue near a liminal space like a boundary or border, the god of going from one place to another would protect that spot. Where did these herms come from? Perhaps from piles of stones called ​hermai, which were markers much in the same way that herms later were. According to Plato's ​Hipparchus, these figures were didactic originally: Hipparchus "with the design of educating those of the countryside ... set up figures of Hermes for them along the roads in the midst of the city and every district town."

But why was an erect phallus attached to the front of a herm? Anthropologist Walter Burkert theorized that the power inherent in such a member would be apotropaic, meaning it would ward off evil spirits and serve protective purposes. 

One particularly memorable incident involving the herms occurred during the time of Alcibiades of Athens. During the Peloponnesian War, one night all the herms had their faces destroyed!

This foreshadowed poor performance for Alcibiades on his upcoming mission to Syracuse, some said. This was a serious political crime, as it invited curses and bad spirits upon Athens. Whodunnit? Perhaps the Corinthians, who colonized Syracuse; perhaps drunken louts; perhaps Alcibiades himself.

Sources:

  • "herm" The Oxford Dictionary of Art. Ed. Ian Chilvers. Oxford University Press, 2004.
  • "The Origin of the Greek Herm"
    Hetty Goldman
    American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 46, No. 1 (Jan. - Mar., 1942), pp. 58-68

 

-Edited by Carly Silver

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Gill, N.S. "What Was a Herm in Ancient Greece?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 9, 2016, thoughtco.com/herm-in-ancient-greece-118970. Gill, N.S. (2016, August 9). What Was a Herm in Ancient Greece? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/herm-in-ancient-greece-118970 Gill, N.S. "What Was a Herm in Ancient Greece?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/herm-in-ancient-greece-118970 (accessed December 12, 2017).