The Hermathena: the value of being two-faced

Cicero’s favourite sculpture was a Hermathena, a statue which had the heads of the Greek gods Hermes and Athena facing in opposite directions.


Hermes is the messenger of the gods, a quick and cunning trickster who moves easily between the worlds of gods and humans. One of his tasks is to conduct souls into the afterlife. He is the patron of thieves, oratory, wit, literature, poetry, invention, trade, boundaries, and travellers.

Athena, the goddess of wisdom and craft, is calm, slow to anger, and values justice and reason.

So Hermes and Athena both have metis (clever intelligence) in common, but Hermes is of the night (stealthy, cunning, and deceiving) and Athena of the day (calm, reasonable, open in judgement.)

In English to be two-faced is to be deceptive, inconsistent, untrustworthy: it’s a bad thing. But perhaps both to cope with and begin to understand the world it is better to have two faces. Janus is the Greek god who most famously has two faces; he is the god of both beginnings and endings, transitions, and time. He looks to both the past and the future. “In my beginning is my end.”


It’s easy to see why Cicero loved the Hermathena. For him politics is the most noble of all callings: “there is really no other occupation in which human virtue approaches more closely the august function of the gods.” And how can anybody flourish in politics without the having the qualities of both Hermes and Athena, even those that seem contradictory. To succeed in politics, as Cicero did for years, you must be two-faced.



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