Hermes: Patron God of Typewriters
Hermes: The Patron God of Typewriters
A brief examination of the impact of the Greek Pantheon on the typewriter.
As the old adage goes, “a picture says a thousand words,” and when we have a long standing picture, we call it symbolism. Symbolism has long played an important role in human culture. Throughout the ages symbols have said what words could not, transmitting abstract thoughts and ideas that serve to guide our thoughts and behaviors (Udechukwu 1). Symbolism by its very nature is vital to human communication; it serves as the pathway for us to share complex ideas that have the ability to transcend time. In the case of the ancient Greeks a variety of symbols were attributed to their many gods. These symbols represented specific domains that the gods had patronage of, for Poseidon it was the trident, and for Zeus it was the lightning bolt. Though the settings and context, like the Greek Pantheon, for many ancient symbols have long since eroded away, even some of the most archaic of symbols maintain meaning and reverence through to the modern era; and sometimes they change and evolve in a grasp for pertinence. They transition to take on new meanings for new eras, and in that manner can remain impactful for generations. One example of this is the Greek god Hermes, and his unintended role in shaping the modern world through speed and language.
In Greek mythology, Hermes was the son of Zeus and the Titan Lord’s daughter Maia, in turn he was the father of the nature god Pan (Cartwright). Hermes was heavily involved in some of the most famous Greek myths, as a trickster, a thief, and most importantly as an aid to heroes. Perhaps two of the most famed heroes aided by Hermes were Odysseus and Perseus, to whom he gave both guidance and gifts (Cartwright). He was called the messenger of the gods, so often praised for his speed, that he was the personal messenger of Zeus and responsible for leading the dead to the underworld (Theoi.com). For this reason, he is the patron god of travelers. Among his duties as a messenger, he was a mediator between the gods and humanity, noted for his diplomacy. This, along with his credited invention of the alphabet also marked him the patron god of language (Cartwright). He had several additional patronages, particularly of thieves, but it is perhaps the notion of both language and travelers that lends most to the importance of his legacy in the modern world. Despite the decline of the Greek Gods, their symbolism has transitioned over into modern times. Much of western society has been influenced by echoes of the Greeks, our architecture, our language, and in particular our judicial practices and our democracy (Santos). Perhaps the most widely known example of symbolic transitions for Hermes is the modern American symbol of medicine: the Caduceus. The Caduceus, simply put, is the winged staff of Hermes, which features two intertwined snakes. In accordance with mythology, a keen eye would notice that the staff should appear with a single snake, as the staff of Asclepius God of Medicine, but this distinction was changed as the American Military adopted the Caduceus as a medical symbol that reflected both neutral and non-combatant actions (Prakash).
Aside from the Caduceus, the more striking of Hermes’ attributed symbols were both his winged cap, and his winged sandals. The cap, known as a petasos, was commonly worn by ancient Greek travelers, though some mythology cites a bronze helmet made by Hephaestus, god of the forge (Britannica). Later iterations of Hermes show his petasos to have wings as well, a symbol that has been since passed to Lady Liberty as well as other modern media figures, though perhaps better acknowledged were the winged sandals. Known to the Romans as the Talaria, from the Greek talus meaning ankle, these winged sandals were a gift from his father Zeus (Quinion). In mythology, these sandals were what gave Hermes his speed, allowing him to fly over land and water. They were the very sandals he loaned to Perseus on his maiden quest to slay the gorgon Medusa. The Talaria also make an appearance in Homer’s Iliad, notably when Hermes guides King Priam to retrieve the body of his son Hector from Achilles (Homer, 402). In this manner, according to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, Hermes is representative of the power of persuasive language during a moment of deep vulnerability and passion from Priam (Mayhew). Here, the sandals were not specifically stated to be winged, but rather carried Hermes as if he were winged—a distinction that was muddled by later scholars like Aristotle and Cornutus. The latter, who also relates to what Heraclitus said, states that “He [ That phrase Cornutus uses, “winged words”, refers to specific words of a high significance; his use of that phrase, and Heraclitus’ direct explanation of Hermes’ patronage of language, launches Hermes and his symbols directly into the modern era (see Appendix A).. Hermes] wears winged sandals and travels through air, in accord with the so-called ‘winged words’ (Mayhew).”
This leads to the most intriguing example pertaining to the modern symbols of Hermes, which strangely enough lie in the typewriter industry, and idea fitting for the patron god of language. This link between Hermes and early typewriters is quite distinguished throughout the early 20th century, most notably with the Underwood company who launched their familiar-sounding “winged words” campaign in the 1920s (see Appendix B). This series of advertisements portrayed the Underwood line of typewriters with varying symbols of wings, including eagles, cherubs, and of course the wings of Hermes. The core idea was that typewriters represented an unprecedented linguistic speed and significance, all of which highlighted by the use of wings. What is interesting to note, is that cherubs were classically seen as the offspring of both Hermes and Aphrodite, with their Roman versions being romanticized in both Art Deco, and Art Nouveau (Britannica). For a long while, the wings of Hermes could also be seen topping the globe on the Underwood logo, and even for a short time embossed into the front of the Royal portable typewriters of the 1940s (see Appendix C). These symbols linking typewriters to Hermes contain what most modern scholars consider the three basic pillars of symbolism: a general consensus, a meaningful setting, and a purpose (Udechukwu 2). Typewriters have encompassed all of these, these symbols were widespread across multiple manufacturers, they were used to highlight an important innovation, and they served to reflect this idea of a newfound speed and prominence in written language. The legacy of Hermes didn’t just grace the face of a few advertisements; it adorned typewriters of many eras around the world.
If the connection from Cornutus to Underwood doesn’t serve to illustrate this symbolic transition, then one distinct machine should stand out among all others to bridge the gap; the Hermes typewriter, a fine testament to Swiss engineering with a near unprecedented popular following (Keller). Hermes was a branch of the Paillard Company, well established makers of watches, music boxes, and cinematic cameras (Keller). It is difficult to trace the exact ideas that fueled the name for these machines, but the impact that the Hermes typewriter had on modern literature is quite large, favored by authors such as Jack Kerouac, Steinbeck, Tennessee Williams, and—among many others—Douglas Adams, who notably wrote Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy on a Hermes Ambassador (Polt). Early Hermes corporate letterhead even featured the bust of the god himself in direct relationship to the name (see Appendix D). It was a conscious effort, a general consensus if you will, to bridge the gap between Hermes and typewriters, which finally connects Heraclitus’ idea of linking Hermes with the power of words.
It is not strange that Hermes, being the patron god of both travelling and language, should find modern solace in typewriting. There is something stirring about how typewriters have continually influenced the world’s creatives in a way that is intensely personal, with their “winged words,” they were both monumental and powerful. Jack Kerouac seemingly ties both the traveling and the language together in a single notion in his journal entry of 1951:
At 4 a.m. I staggered across the field with my big old typewriter that my father used in Lowell Mass. before I was even born ... the typewriter with which I not only wrote The Town and the City but my earliest loomings in 1937. If all my life, in spite of anything that happens, is connected by that typewriter to the one unswerving idealistic purpose which was revealed to me in youthful dreams of pure glory, then I don’t care if it weighs a ton as I carry it across the night (Polt).
In this moment, Jack is traveling with the single machine that has given voice to the deepest parts of his life, we see a traveler reflecting on the power of language. It’s not just the words themselves, but the emotional meaning behind them, and the goal of expressing as John Lennon put it “what we all [collectively] feel,” that is what gives these words their winged power (SFO). American sports-writer Red Smith once referred to the process of writing as sitting at a typewriter and bleeding, a quote later attributed to Hemingway (Berkow). The typewriter was a messenger of a deeply personal inner dialogue, it mediated ones internal universe with the outside world in a way that it could be received and understood—the same way that Hermes helped Priam in the Iliad. The typewriter is raw, personal, and mass-consumable, giving voice to anyone with the will to write. It was, and always will be, the single greatest communication device mankind has ever conceived. Just as Hermes mediated between the metaphysical and the physical, so too does the typewriter, and somewhere along the lines of the human subconscious, the symbols of Hermes have followed it.
I would like to think that the executives at E. Paillard & Co. were for certain conscientious of the symbolism that’s attributed to Hermes. It would be the neat little bow that ties the entire story together: “Hermes, patron god of travelers, language, and typewriters”. What an impactful ad campaign that might have been in a westernized society that reveres the ancient Greeks. Unfortunately no such story exists, only a small trail of breadcrumbs in the shape of scattered wings. Despite how seemingly unrelated it may seem, Hermes had an impact on typewriters. It could also perhaps be the other way around, that typewriting influenced our modern interpretation of Hermes, but that would be to say that the chicken came before the egg. One of the things that I often debate with colleagues is why the typewriter is still relevant. By its very definition as a single purpose writing implement it should be obsolete, but it very well is not. The answer to that is simple: it is a machine that gives language to our very abstract inner lives, and uses that language to create a physical tangible manifestation. It shows us, and everyone else, our true selves. That is what Kerouac was getting at, that is the heart of symbolism, our very human need for intraspection and interpersonal communication (Udechukwu 6). And that is something that cannot be replaced. The typewriter gave all of us a language that could travel—a physical manifestation of our innermost thoughts, ideas, emotions, and opinions that we could fold up in a neat little square and send anywhere, to anyone. History has seen countless symbols rise and fall, and just as many change meaning and form. Therefore, it would seem that attributing patronage of typewriters to Hermes is not at all unreasonable after all is said and typewritten.
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Cornutus specifically states that the flight of Hermes is directly linked to the idea of “winged words.” As Oxford Dictionary puts it, winged words are words that are “highly apposite or significant.” To the Greeks, Hermes was a symbol of powerful and aptly spoken language. This distinction was made again by the Underwood Company, among others, to highlight the power over language that could be had with their machines. In their ad, (see Appendix B) the typewriter in question is being advertised as a tool that could allow the user to breathe vibrant life into their writing. In this manner, the early connection between Hermes and the typewriter is solidified.
Underwood, Saturday Evening Post, June 23, 1923
Royal Quiet Deluxe, late 1940s. Note the winged motif on the ribbon color selector. This is mirrored on the other side with the ribbon direction leaver.