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  • Writer's pictureKarey Pohn

Bert as Hermes

The "Homeric Hymn to Hermes" catalogs Hermes's antics. Right from the very beginning Hermes is always up to something, from creating the lyre out of a kaleidoscopic tortoise shell, to stealthily stealing Apollo’s cattle, and then covering his tracks by inventing sandals and walking backwards, Hermes is tricky and a liar, but his pranks cause laughter.  He is ingenious and sometimes resolves situations through jokes.  Hermes enjoys jokes and jests immensely.  His full power is attained at dusk and he is also a healer and physician, not to mention culture creator. Hermes has quite the resume when it comes to being a culture bringer.  Among the many cultural creations he is credited with are astronomy, the alphabet and writing, divination, the institution of sacrifice, the practical use of fire, establishing of libraries, arts, sports, hunting, the musical scale, weights and measures, coins and finances, crafts, and commerce.  Hermes was the patron of youths, of flocks, of athletics, commerce, and lucky finds, as well as the god of thieves.  He also enjoys gardening and is credited with introducing the cultivation of olive trees. More recently, Neville (1992) suggests that we experiencing a Hermes inflation, and although Hillman (1999) disagrees with him, Neville notes that the Internet is Hermes's realm, and that our postmodern condition is very Hermes-like.

Mary Poppins’s friend Bert also possesses trickster qualities.  Like the Greek trickster god Hermes, Bert is a bricoleur, a jack-of-all-trades.  Bert has a very mercurial, entrepreneurial spirit, constantly switching jobs as the situation arises.  At the beginning of the movie, at the entrance to the park, as evening descends. Bert is a one-man band and street performer, after which he acts as a tour guide to the audience directing us to Number 17 Cherry Tree Lane.  Later Bert is a pavement artist, creating various different chalk worlds and scenes.  When it begins to rain and the drawings get ruined, he decides to switch to selling hot chestnuts, and the next time we bump into Bert, he is a chimney sweep.  At the end of the movie, inside the entrance to the park, Bert is an entrepreneur selling kites.  Now that we have some background on Bert and Hermes, let us see how Bert might just be Hermes in disguise.

Doty (1993) sees Hermes as a divine connector, creator-restorer-healer, and a shameless comedian and wit.  Hermes's domain is vast indeed, and Doty demonstrates that one of the main functions of Hermes was that of connection.  Hermes connects all kinds of things: he is the messenger of the gods, the psychopomp who guides souls into the underworld, the god of the threshold and the crossroads. As a traveler between realms, mediator, and messenger, Hermes seeks to understand, integrate, and communicate between realms and relationships (Hansen, 2001). Here, Bert acts a subtle guide for us, the audience, as we take this liminal journey, for he brings us to Cherry Tree Lane in the first place.  Bert is often found in liminal places, the entrance to the park, the chimney sweeps world, or dancing with Uncle Albert in mid-air.  Bert also spends time acting as a psychopomp to George in front of the fireplace at a pivotal moment, as well as a ccompnying Mary and the children on liminal outings.  Jurich (1998) points out that Hermes seeks to find new meanings in things and is an interpreter and peacemaker, a translator and facilitator. Bert gets children to see their father’s point of view, as well as getting George to realize the importance of his own children.  Bert, is like Hermes, in that he is “the medium which allows for beneficial occurrences and is also the healer” (Jurich, 1998, p. 213).

While Hermes is a peacemaker, he also stirs up and initiates things.  He fosters relationships between people, in areas as diverse as commerce, athletics and education.  Doty (1993) notes that “Hermes’s association with Eros, the personified principle of connectedness,” is in its nurturing dimension, and Hermes fosters relationships, “he facilitates but does not force connections” (p. 53).  Hermes as god of the marketplace connects the known with the unknown across borders, “bringing unexpected to the commonplace” (Combs and Holland, 2001, p. 93). Hermes also blurs the boundaries between reality and imagination.  He is agreeable and good-natured, too, and was “a deity who is imagined to be especially close to ordinary human lives” (p. 61).  “Hermes is the playful Greek god” (p. 58), and often appears unexpectedly.

We see all of these Hermes qualities in Bert, who creates the artwork in which the “Jolly Holiday” occurs.  In hermeneutics, the art of interpretation, the work opens up a world, and in Mary Poppins, we see that this is true: “it do indeed” as Bert would say. Bert then instigates the adventure by telling the children that Mary is no ordinary nanny and  “What she’s probably got in mind is a jolly holiday somewhere,” as he invitingly describes some possible destinations.  Mary Poppins is not the only one who can put ideas into someone’s head!  Bert can, too, as he inveighs Mary Poppins to take them on an adventure.  Through the power of suggestion, Bert sets things up for Mary’s magic, much as Hermes does things on behalf of other gods.

Hermes is the god of travelers and thieves, of lucky finds, and of bricolage—after all, he did invent the lyre, and he is also the god of the unexpected, and coincidence.  Bert in his role as chimney sweep is lucky indeed. Bert trickily engineers a trip up the chimney, and when the foursome "accidentally" arrive on the roof, Bert exclaims "This 'ere is what you might call a fortuitous circumstance.”

Hermes is also connected with underworld, the unconscious, a place of riches for the psyche. Hermes is the god that brings the contents of this underworld out in the open by his synchronistic tricks (Hansen, 2001, p. 116).  Bert’s liminal overworld of the chimney sweeps, too, is akin to the underworld of the unconscious.

Hermes’s tricks usually end up being helpful, and he is not often tricked by them.  Hermes is also the rescuer of children and occasionally acts as a midwife.  He works out interconnections between people:

hat seems more typically more tricksterish than his creations or inventions are Hermes’ corrections and restorations, often performed at the behest of another deity, in which he enables humans to reunite or to move to a higher level of awareness or insight.”  [emphasis added] (Doty, 1993, p. 55)

Bert rescues the Banks children and along with Mary Poppins helps the whole family move to more wholeness.

Stein (1983)  calls Hermes the "God of Significant Passage," and observes that Hermes is always present during transitions, especially midlife transitions.  Bert’s discussion with George at the hearth while packing up his brooms alludes to this attribute of Hermes. George is definitely in transition at the time, and Bert cleverly leads George in the conversation.  Like Hermes, Bert is clever and charming.

Now that we have learned lots about tricksters and seen the tricky natures of both Mary and Bert, let us go on to the next excursion and learn how they do what they do, as we explore the "Tricks of the Trade."


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