Modern Technology and the God of Communications

Greek mythology offers insight into our love of technology
April 12, 2019 Updated: April 12, 2019

We love our technology, and not surprisingly, for it appears to make our lives easier, more productive, and more secure. But with every advance in human “progress,” we find that things come with a cost, sometimes a steep one—and sometimes one we refuse to acknowledge until it’s too late.

Using digital devices now seems disconnected from the consideration that the 20th century was the bloodiest in human history. Yet for that scale of bloodshed to have occurred, we needed the scientific advances that have led to the technological revolution we are currently experiencing.

As weird as it seems in this context, psychiatrist Carl Jung suggested that a neurosis is like an offended or neglected god, according to Jungian analyst James Hollis. Surely one must ask then, when we see people wandering down the street talking into mobile devices, driving while chatting into a cellphone, or being unable to switch off their phones, tablets, and laptops, whether there must be an “offended god,” for this is neurotic behavior, as it is certainly not healthy, psychologically or physically.

The Offended God

But which god is offended? Who is upset? And why? There are 12 gods on Mount Olympus to whom the ancient Greeks told us to pay special attention. Alongside these 12, there is also one other vitally important, powerful, and wealthy god who is not numbered in the 12 because he does not live on Olympus with them: Hades (or, in Latin, Pluto, who was also the god of wealth).

Hades’s name has also been extended to mean his kingdom where he lives—generally called the underworld as it’s below ground. Hades is wealthy because all the minerals of the world are below the Earth’s surface where his kingdom is, and because he gets to possess all who live—hence the word “plutocrat,” the very rich. The more popular word for Hades in English is “Hell.” Keep that in mind when we get to the relationships between the gods—and when we consider how wealthy the originators of this mobile and internet technology have become: truly the plutocrats of the modern world.

There are two gods of technology. The first, Hephaistos (or Vulcan in Latin), we can dismiss as irrelevant here. He is old-school technology: At his forge, hammering out metal weapons, he represents, perhaps, the sort of manufacturing industries that we are familiar with in the West that now seem to be in decline.

But the second god is the one in whom we find a curious set of parallels to our own modern technology, communications, and even mobile devices. I refer, of course, to the god Hermes (or Mercury in Latin). And while we are on the meaning of words, mercury as an element is sometimes called “quicksilver,” which, as we will see, is also significant.

Hermes and Hermeneutics

Hermes is the god that the modern Western world—and possibly all the world—now worships, and for good reason. “The Penguin Book of Classical Myths” describes him as “a mobile divinity.”
Consider his attributes: He is the god of “ready speech” (of communications, per se); his winged cap signified he was a traveler (in other words, he crossed boundaries); his staff indicated he was a herald (so a bearer of news); and his golden sandals had wings, which meant he could fly across lands and seas with astonishing rapidity. The sandals also erased footprints, so nobody would know of his presence.

What does this all sound like? The god of our modern world in which we can communicate with anyone, anywhere, anytime. We can have news 24/7 and break through even national boundaries and borders, and we can circle the world with instant communications. Plus, we can electronically cover our tracks in all sorts of ingenious ways.

This last point leads on to the word Hermes itself, from which we get phrases such as “hermetically sealed”—suggesting secrets that cannot be uncovered and discovered—and also the word “hermeneutics”—meaning the art of interpretation of what is subtle, obscure, arcane, and difficult.

All this sounds good and useful, but sadly there are two other sides to Hermes that we must draw into this discussion. First, Hermes is often depicted as having a bag of money—he is the trickster god, the god of luck, and the god of fraud, merchants, and thieves.

Moreover, he is the god of perjury: The day he was born, he stole Apollo’s cattle and denied it to Apollo’s face. Keep in mind, Apollo was not only a powerful god, but also Hermes’s half-brother. It was only when Apollo hauled him before Zeus, the king of the gods, that Hermes was forced to confess his lies—even he dared not take on the lord of the universe.

The God of Fake News

These negative traits of Hermes seem relevant to the internet of things, the mobile devices, and the purposes to which we find they are being put. Increasingly, we’re becoming aware of the frauds, thieves, and general perjury (“fake news”) that this communications revolution is promoting, as well as the opening up of some deep and dark areas—gambling, pornography, terrorism, and violence—even to children barely out of their diapers. This is Hermes in action.

Here we might comment on the Roman name, Quicksilver. However useful it might be, quicksilver is not gold. It’s not the real, solid thing of value that gold is; it’s a cunning counterfeit whose speed astonishes and attracts us. In the past, we have taken quicksilver, or mercury, as medicine, especially to treat syphilis, but it’s ultimately deadly and induces madness.

This leads to the second side of Hermes, namely, his other title. He was known as Psychopompos because he was the guide of dead souls to Hades.

We have to understand something important to get the full picture of what this means. The kingdom of Hades—of Hell—was just as out of bounds to the other gods as Olympus was to Hades. Hades was a hateful place; the Greeks themselves detested it. Achilles was virtually inconsolable there when Odysseus met him on his “living” trip to hell. The gods on Olympus equally had a hatred and horror of the place and never went there. Why exchange their light and immortal ambrosia for the world of darkness and shadows?

Who Can Go to Hell?

A statue of Hermes on the façade of the Yeliseyevsky store, in St. Petersburg, Russia. Hermes is considered the trickster god, the god of luck, and the god of fraud, merchants, and thieves. (Karasev Victor/Shutterstock)

Hermes was the one god permitted to visit Hades. He was the intermediary between the king of the gods, Zeus, on Olympus, and the king of hell in Hades. He alone could navigate its dangers and illusions and madness—perhaps because he was as tricky as death itself and could not be caught or trapped there.

But, as Jung wrote, “To journey to Hell means to become Hell oneself.” The danger of worshipping Hermes potentially leads us—our souls—to Hell itself; only, unlike the god Hermes, once we are there, we invariably cannot come back.

This seems to me to be where the modern world is now: Hermes has not been offended or neglected, but on the contrary, has been worshipped to such an extent that the human race is in danger of disappearing into an apocalyptic, technological hell that will make the bloodshed of the past century seem mild. How can it be that the last thing people now want to do at the point of death is not pray but check their phone one more time?

So, who is the offended or neglected god, aside from all 12 on Olympus? The answer, and the solution, is Apollo, the half-brother and best friend of Hermes.

Hermes once killed a tortoise and from its shell made the first lyre. When he played it, he mesmerized Apollo, and then gave the lyre as a gift to him. And so Apollo forgave Hermes for stealing his cattle, and they became best friends.

But notice the link: The god of communication makes the technology that generates the music—indeed, which makes art. Apollo is the god of light, reason, proportion, poetry, and healing. This is the god we have neglected and offended: Our art is not art, our music is not music, and our poetry is drivel; no wonder there is little healing in the world.

We have to return to the god Apollo in our subconscious minds if we are to rescue ourselves from the technological madness that the idolatry of Hermes has created. This is the challenge for our age now.

James Sale is an English businessman and the creator of Motivational Maps, which operates in 14 countries. He has authored more than 40 books from major international publishers, including Macmillan, Pearson, and Routledge, on management, education, and poetry. As a poet, he won first prize in The Society of Classical Poets’ 2017 competition.