Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Metallica's “Wherever I May Roam” as Cultic Hymn in the Mysteries of Hermes

So far I have not been able to discover an actual mystery cult in worship of Hermes or Mercury. It seems that this divinity may be associated too much with other mysteries (eg. as Corvus the messenger in Mithraism and as the psychopomp escorting Persephone to and from Hades in the Eleusinian mysteries). This seems strange in that this god is associated with many things that are particularly apropos for a mystery religion. His early forms were frequently related to fertility, his images frequently phallic. He often functions as a sort of liminal being, standing as a mediator between the mortal and the divine, the living and the dead, and males and females. He was patron of all sorts of common folk particularly those involved with travel and exchange.

The primary identifying characteristic of a mystery religion is that it consists largely of a set of ritual dramatizations that are kept strictly secret by those who have been initiated into the cult. These rituals somehow functioned to provide the initiate with knowledge and some kind of magical appointment (sometimes by means of a sacred marriage) in order that they might attain some advanced form of afterlife. With such celestial goals in view, several of these mysteries and their antecedents possessed a particular interest in astrology. In the hymn “Wherever I May Roam,” several characteristics common to mysteries can be observed, characteristics which indicate Hermes as a focus for the cult. The first line of the hymn is repeated twice and represents both an element of mystery religion and an association with Hermes.

And the road becomes my bride

Inasmuch as the mysteries were held under great secrecy, very little detail is known for certain about the rituals that were contained there. So, I cannot comment on the likelihood that a marriage ceremony would have been a part of the initiation. However, it is generally considered quite probable that initiations consisted, among other things, of rituals providing purification. The concept of purification appears in a couple of places in our hymn starting with second line.I am stripped of all but prideIt is interesting that the initiate's bride is “the road” this suggests the embarkation into the cult which may be represented as a road as such mysteries often involved the devotee progressing through a series of levels or grades until they had learned every rite in the whole system. It is also reminiscent of the road that the deceased may traverse into the higher realms of the afterlife. This aspect of the road also indicates the relationship to Hermes whose interest the roads were.

Only knowledge will I save
To the game you stay a slave

In addition to the ritual sanctification, most mysteries seem to have carried a gnostic component to their soteriology. The knowledge of the mysteries is the critical difference between the celebrants of the cult and the population at large. Such knowledge is the mechanism by which greater stations are obtained after death. This type of salvation is also a liberation and in the case of this Hermetic cult the abandonment of home and goods contributes to this liberation. It seems that the freedom to live as if at home, comfortably and on balance in any situation is the measure of freedom and salvation the Hermeist obtains as seen in the following lines.

and my ties are severed clean
The less I have the more I gain.
Off the beaten path I reign.


Anywhere I roam,
where I lay my head is home.

One indication that this hymn is related to a cult of Hermes is embedded in a string of epithets: Rover, Wanderer, Nomad, Vagabond. It may be that these terms refer to four grades of the Hermetic mystery cult. However, they are succeeded by the line “call me what you will.” This suggests that the terms may be appropriately tied to any individual in the cult according the will or inclination of outsiders, regardless of rank. This concept of wandering is carried over in the following line:

Under wandering stars I've grown.

This is particularly appropriate in such a mystery on two grounds. First it shows the object of the initiate's emulation in the celestial sphere. It also suggests a connection to Hermes in that his planet is the fastest and most wandering of the lot.

One interesting connection with Hermes is one of the abilities that the devotee claims to obtain from his observance of the rites and their associated asceticism.

free to speak my mind anywhere

One may remember the Lucan account in the New Testament of the Apostles Paul and Barnabas preaching in Lystra. When a crippled man was healed, the people believed Barnabas to be Jupiter, but Paul they thought to be Mercury on account that he was the greater orator. The ability not only to speak one's mind, but to speak it well and in strange company would be an ability quite consistent with a tradition worshiping Hermes.

The final evidence for the song “Wherever I May Roam” to be considered a hymn of the hypothetical Hermetic mysteries is found in the final lines. It is the culmination of the system's salvation doctrine and arguably implies the patronage of Hermes both in his role as psychopomp and due to the passage's traveling motif.

Carved upon my stone,
my body lie, but still I roam,
wherever I may roam.