Questions of Class

Peter Green

  • The Mutilation of the Herms: Unpacking an Ancient Mystery by Debra Hamel
    CreateSpace, 54 pp, £5.00, March 2012, ISBN 978 1 4750 5193 3

On a summer morning in late May or early June of 415 BCE, the inhabitants of Athens woke to the discovery that the city’s numerous Herms – images of Hermes consisting of a square-cut stone pillar topped by a bearded head, and displaying an erect phallus, but otherwise aniconic – had been vandalised during the night: their faces had been cut about, and their phalluses may also have been damaged. These good-luck images were very popular: they were to be found all over Athens, mainly at the entrances to sacred sites and private homes, and there was a large number of them in the Agora. As Debra Hamel points out in her useful short listing and analysis of the sources for this notorious episode, they ‘stood guard … marking the boundaries between the sacred and the secular’.[*]

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[*] Hamel’s too brief pamphlet could have been even more useful, especially as a teaching tool, had she provided the complete texts, in translation, of all the sources (inscriptions included) for this famous episode, some of which are hard to come by.