Sacrilege!: The Desecration of Statues of Hermes in Ancient Athens
By Philip Mathew
On 7 June 415 BCE, various statues of the god Hermes were desecrated in Athens. The Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE) had been raging for decades as one of the biggest civil wars in Ancient Greece, and the Athenians prepared for the expedition to Sicily in 415 BCE. However, a few priests warned against it, and others spoke of disastrous omens. The Athenian statesman Alcibiades (450-404 BCE), on the other hand, spoke of oracles and counter-omens. Regardless, Athens was preparing for the expedition confident of their safety and hoping to acquire a huge revenue source in Sicily. However, on the morning of 7 June 415 BCE a general cause of alarm occurred in Athens; hermai, statues of the god Hermes, throughout the city had their faces smashed and their phalluses hacked off. This event is not without controversy and its impact on Athens and Alcibiades remains important to this day as a prelude to the disaster in Sicily.
On the morning of June 7, 415 BCE, the denizens of Athens awoke to find many stone statues of Hermes throughout the city with their distinctive phalluses hacked off and their faces smashed. This in turn caused mass fear and outrage among Athenian citizens. According to David Stuttard:
The sacrilege was probably discovered first by women hurrying to fountain-houses before dawn, before the men of Athens were awake, surprised as their sandaled feet crunched fragments of smashed marble. But by the time the cocks were crowing and the sun was rising….. the news was already spider-webbing through the city, householders staggering stunned and dazed onto the streets.” (146)
It was a troubling sight, “an unholy wreckage striking at the very safety of both Athens and her forthcoming expedition” (Stuttard, 146). Whoever was behind such an atrocity “chose their targets carefully: the so-called Herms – squared pillars topped with the head of the god Hermes, and furnished, halfway up, with genitalia and an exuberant, erect phallus” (Stuttard, 146).
According to Thucydides (460/455 – 399/398 BCE) who wrote the contemporary History of the Peloponnesian War describes the event:
No one knew who had done it, but large public rewards were offered to find those responsible; and it was further voted that anyone who knew of any other act of impiety having been committed should come and give information without fear of consequences, whether he were citizen, alien, or slave. (376).
There was an inquiry into this blasphemous act, which implicated Alcibiades. Alcibiades was born in 450 BCE to Cleinias, a member of an ancient aristocratic family. He was also a student of Socrates and received a first-class education. In 420 BCE, he was given the title of strategos, which he would hold for 15 years. After the sacrilege, his enemies further amplified his role with the claim that he plotted to overthrow the democracy of Athens. Alcibiades denied the charges against him and demanded to stand trial to clear his own name.
It was important that he did this before he set sail to Sicily, but his enemies managed to postpone the trial for fear of support from his army. They plotted to recall him at a future time. Some resident servants and aliens in Athens gave information of other mutilations of other images carried out by other young men. They had done so “in a drunken frolic, and of mock celebration of the Mysteries” which took place twice a year at Eleusis in the region of Attica (Thucydides, 376). Alcibiades was later summoned home to face trial for his presumed role in the Mysteries and the hermai affairs. Inquiry into these cases, however, had become fanatical as many Athenians feared the rise of tyranny.
When the armada made it safely to sea, an investigating committee pursued inquires into the scandals. A resident alien named Teucrus, who fled to Megara, returned to Athens under the promise of immunity with a lurid statement:
He claimed that he had participated in the parody of the mysteries and could identify the perpetrators of the mutilation of the Hermae, naming eleven other parodists and eighteen men accused of attacking the statues. Alcibiades appeared on neither list. The committee arrested and executed one of these suspects, but all the others fled to safety (Kagan, 264).
A man named Diocleides testified about the hermai, recounting that he took a moonlight walk and found 300 conspirators gathered at the theater of Dionysus by the southern slope of the Acropolis. He concluded the next morning that they were possibly the culprits, and he approached some of those he was able to identify to extort money from them. However, there were no bribes delivered, and Diocleides denounced 42 of them, which included two council members and several aristocrats. These accusations further exacerbated the fear of oligarchs plotting to overthrow Athenian democracy. The council suspended the law to torture Athenian citizens to obtain proper testimony, a measure proposed by Peisander. He planned to put the suspects on the rack to gain quick confessions, but the two council members promised to stand trial and thus evaded torture. These men eventually fled to Boeotia or Megara and a Boeotian army appeared outside Athens, furthering fear of invasion and treason, by tyranny or oligarchy.
Later that evening, another accused prisoner named Andocides, a later Athenian orator agreed to testify. Under a grant of immunity from the council, he revealed that the hetairia, a political dining club was responsible for the hermai mutilations. When he presented his list of those supposedly guilty, it was identical to that of Teucrus, except for four men who fled. The men on the list were either dead or in exile.
Diocleides was next questioned by the council. He admitted to providing false testimony and acted under the instructions of Alcibiades’ cousin, “Alcibiades son of Phegus, and another man who both took flight. Those implicated by the perjury testimony were cleared, and Diocledes was executed” (Kagan, 265).
The people of Athens now believed the hermai affair was now over. The criminals were evidently a small group of men who were part of a hetairia and it was not a major conspiracy. The profanation of the sacred mysteries remained unsolved. Agariste, wife of Alcemeonides, reported a profanation of the mysteries by Alcibiades along with two accomplices. Alcibiades’ enemies used political testimony for their own political ends, claiming the “mockery of sacred rites was part of a ‘conspiracy against the democracy'” (Kagan, 265). Although he took no part in the hermai attacks, his political enemies saw an opportunity to discredit him. As Alcibiades was ready to sail for Sicily, the trial would take place without his strongest supporters. In Athens, Alcibiades was tried in absentia, condemned to death, his property was confiscated, and his name, along with those found guilty, was cursed by the Eleusinian priests.
The Impact of the Desecration
The Athenians regarded the profanation of the Hermes statues as a major offense to the gods and could spell disaster for them. Aside from the fear and outrage generated by this act of sacrilege, the details of the event hint at a political dimension as well. The desecrators had carried out an overnight attack over a wide area range which proved that it was a conspiracy. It was no coincidence either that the attack on the hermai took place just before the Sicilian expedition of 415 BCE. This was obviously an attempt to prevent the Sicilian expedition because Hermes was the god of travelers. Some Athenians believed the people of Corinth were responsible, intending to thwart the attack on Sicily.
As the god of travelers, Hermes was worshiped not only on special occasions but every time an Athenian stepped foot outside. According to Robin Osborne,
Whenever the Athenian prepared himself to make contact with another he had first to make contact with the other that was himself in the herm. It is because of this quality of the gaze of the herm that it was so important that the mutilators not only unmanned the herms but they mutilated their faces. (65)
The mutilation of Hermes’ face was a serious sacrilege and was very serious for the Sicilian expedition. Not only were there individual Athenians preparing to travel but they were also preparing to fight on an island they knew little about. The mutilation of the hermai was considered a sign of imminent danger during their journey.
It is very likely the violators who mutilated the hermai did it for entertainment, possibly as an act of drunken vandalism. They may have also chosen their targets carefully to unman the Athenians and render them helpless, and timing the attack on the eve of the Athenian departure for Sicily caused an interruption in military and political planning. Modern scholars try to tackle the mutilation of the hermai and the profanation of the Mysteries together, classifying them as acts of impiety. Considering the fact that it was hermai that were mutilated, it seems that the mutilation was a carefully planned attack and a particular exposure of the limits of toleration in Athenian society. The strong Athenian reaction to this act reflects the tensions of the Peloponnesian War and the importance of hermai for the Athenian individual and society.
- Kagan, Donald. The Peloponnesian War. Penguin Books, 2004.
- Plutarch & Scott-Kilvert, Ian & Ian Scott-Kilvert & Ian Scott-Kilvert. The Rise and Fall of Athens. Penguin Classics, 1960.
- Robin Osborne. “THE ERECTION AND MUTILATION OF THE HERMAI.” Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society, 31/211/1985, pp. 47-73.
- Stuttard, David. Nemesis. Harvard University Press, 2018.
- Thucydides & Robert B. Strassler & Richard Crawley & Victor Davis Hanson. The Landmark Thucydides. Free Press, 1998.
Originally published by the World History Encyclopedia, 03.01.2021, under a Creative Commons: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.