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The Mutilation of the Herms

Pictures related to the so-called "mutilation of the herms," a city-wide act of vandalism that led to a sort of witch hunt in Athens in 415 B.C. The incident is the subject of my self-published book The Mutilation of the Herms: Unpacking an Ancient Mystery.

Diocleides allegedly saw the hermokopidae milling around the Theater of Dionysus in the middle of the night before they'd vandalized the statues. He had woken up early because he had to walk down to Laurium in southern Attica, some 20 or 25 miles away, to collect a payment from a slave who was working the silver mines there.

A symposium scene on a red-figure vase. It was at parties such as this that the Eleusinian Mysteries were performed, outside of their appropriate context. It was a great sacrilege that was uncovered during the Athenians' investigation into the vandalism of the herms.

Aristophanes refers to the hermokopidae--literally "herm choppers"--in lines 1093-1094 of his play Lysistrata: "If you're smart [he says to a chorus of men sporting huge erections], you'll close your coats lest the hermokopidae see you."

Cover of the paperback version of The Mutilation of the Herms.

The cover of my Kindle book, The Mutilation of the Herms: Unpacking an Ancient Mystery

Our principal source for the mutilation of the herms is Andocides' speech On the Mysteries.

A fragment of one of the inscriptions that recorded the sale of property confiscated from those found guilty in the scandals of 415 B.C.

The Temple of Hephaestus, in Athens' agora, where Diocleides allegedly talked to one of the hermokopidai, Euphemus.

The charismatic Alcibiades, who had been appointed as general of the upcoming expedition to Sicily, was implicated in the profanation of the Mysteries.

This 17th-century engraving by Pietro Testa depicts the drunken Alcibiades interrupting a more sedate get-together (as described by Plato in his dialogue Symposium).

The Theater of Dionysus, near the Acropolis in Athens, where Diocleides said he saw the hermokopidai ("herm-choppers") gathered before they went out to mutilate the statues.

The investigation into the mutilation of the herms led to the discovery of a series of unrelated offenses: the profanation of the Eleusinian Mysteries. Pictured is an excavation site at Eleusis, some 20 miles northwest of Athens.

The herms were mutilated in late May or early June of 415 B.C., shortly before the Athenians launched their expedition to Sicily. The expedition would end in disaster two years later.

A red-figure vase from the early fifth century B.C. showing a herm.

Some herms' genitals were carved in relief rather than projecting from the pillar. These were less vulnerable to amputation.

This vase from the early fifth century B.C. depicts a trio of herms.

Herms were ancient greek statues of the god Hermes that looked kind of like Pez dispensers, with one obvious difference.