Recent controversy about Church of England clerics claiming to have seen a ‘transgender Christ’ in depictions of the crucifixion reveals the true governing god of our age is not Jesus, but Hermes. At Trinity College, Cambridge, the spirit of J.G. Ballard’s subversive 1973 novel Crash, in which a cabal of social renegades develop a sexual fetish towards the wounds of car-wreck victims, is alive and well. Ballard was writing dark satire, however, unlike junior research fellow Joshua Heath, who sadly appeared quite in earnest.
Heath delivered an evensong sermon inside Trinity’s chapel on Sunday 27 November 2022, which left several church-goers shouting “heresy!.” This reaction was not entirely surprising, as the subject of Heath’s homily was a blatantly blasphemous re-reading of three artistic images of Christ’s crucifixion, in which the spear-wound in His side, inflicted by the Roman centurion Longinus to make sure He was really dead, was obscenely reimagined as having “a decidedly vaginal appearance.”
As one disgusted parishioner wrote in a letter of complaint, “I am contemptuous of the idea that, by cutting a hole in a man, through which he can be penetrated, he can become a woman.” This specific objection was engendered by the fact that, inevitably, Heath’s deliberate genital misinterpretation was used by him to develop the further apparent line that Jesus was actually transgender. According to Heath, whose doctoral supervisor is the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, these supposedly vaginal images depicted Christ as possessing a “simultaneously masculine and feminine body.” If Christ died for every human soul on the cross, as orthodox Christian doctrine teaches, then His body was surely “the body of all bodies” and thus “also the trans body,” Heath continued, a microcosmic recapitulation of every single one of us within the limits of one single frame.
Technically, therefore, Heath left himself with just enough verbal leeway to be able to claim he had not in fact preached Jesus was transgender, but he must have been well aware that this was the way the average listener was likely to take his tastelessly sub-Ballardian words anyway. Michael Banner, Dean of Trinity and a contributor to BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day, was thus enabled to subsequently defend Heath’s heresy as being, in a very real sense, a “legitimate” form of intellectual speculation, and to say his speech had been “grossly misrepresented” by critics. Thus, Heath’s other nonsensical assertion, that paintings showing the dying Jesus’s naked penis somehow “urge a welcoming rather than hostile response towards the raised voices of trans people,” was also redeemed as merely an interesting academic exercise rather than “a new heresy for our age,” as the anonymous angry letter-writer averred.
As several sceptics pointed out, you really did need faulty eyesight to see the spear-wound as anything other than a spear-wound, lying as it did immediately beneath Christ’s breast and nowhere near His groin. In turn, detractors interpreted all this as just yet another woke power-play, but there is an alternative perspective: namely, that the true god now worshipped by our post-Christian age is no longer Jesus Christ, but the ancient Greek deity Hermes, and a wider constellation of deities who once orbited around him.
There being no absolutely standardised version of Hermes present as a constant in the wider Greek pantheon, he (or s/he, perhaps) is sometimes depicted as being both male and female simultaneously. This quality, of course, is more usually reserved for his son/daughter Hermaphroditus, from whom the now rather un-PC term ‘hermaphrodite’ was originally derived. Sired by Hermes upon the goddess of love, Aphrodite, Hermaphroditus was born unambiguously male, but fell foul of the attentions of the equally unambiguously female nymph Salmacis, who was so smitten with the ephebe she tried to rape him. Failing, Salmacis prayed to Olympus that the two should never part, whereupon the gods’ caprice made the two merge into one another, becoming the man-woman with male genitalia and female breasts and hairstyle later depicted in Classical sculptures and friezes.
The original interpretation of this figure was as a presiding god of marriage. By embodying both male and female aspects of humanity in unison, s/he represents the complementary union of man and woman in their (non-gay) nuptials; mythologically, Hermaphroditus was the first to legally bind man and woman together in matrimony. Occasionally, when a real-life hermaphrodite was born, with genitalia of uncertain definition, it was considered a sign or omen from the gods: it was believed that the appearance of such a disordered child might portend the parallel birth of social disorder in the wider world. Overwhelmingly, such infants were viewed negatively in Greece and Rome, as disturbers of the pax deoreum, or ‘peace of the gods.’ And yet, as with Joshua Heath’s radical reinterpretation of the side-wound of Christ, so too ancient depictions of Hermaphroditus have now also been subjected to woke academic repainting, with ill omens recast anachronistically as good ones.
Consider Linnea Åshede, whose 2015 doctoral thesis at Sweden’s University of Gothenberg, Desiring Hermaphrodites: The Relationships of Hermaphroditus in Roman Group Scenes, argued that “Contrary to the predominant modern view of atypically sexed individuals as pathological deviations, Hermaphroditus is depicted as an attractive, idealised and positive figure” in Greek and Roman sculpture. Åshede claims that post-Enlightenment scholars who have interpreted Hermaphroditus’ depictions in a negative light merely “unintentionally reproduced transphobic stereotypes.” Instead, “It’s possible that Hermaphroditus served as a ‘safety valve’ in relation to society’s norms, meaning that the figure provided space for fantasies about alternatives to rigid gender roles.” Note how much heavy-lifting the word ‘possible’ does in that sentence.
Whilst claiming mainstream Classicists may have unknowingly projected their own latent transphobia onto the god/goddess’ unusual form, Åshede conveniently fails to notice how she may well be projecting her own evident transphilia onto it herself, just like Joshua Heath with his supposed ‘trans Christ.’ And yet, in treating ancient art as a mere politico-semiotic Rorschach Test, both scholars are also channelling the spirit of Hermes, whether they know it or not.
When spotting vaginas on Jesus, or the precursor of Ru Paul in Hermaphroditus, such contemporary haruspices are engaging in the art of hermeneutics. Hermeneutics is the practise of interpretation of texts, signs, and images, a word whose etymology—rightly or wrongly—is often traced back to Hermes, the inventor of language and messenger of the gods, who in some sense is a personification of the very alphabet and of human speech itself. Aristotle’s De Interpretatione introduced the idea into Western philosophy, and it continued in the later religious tradition of biblical exegesis, the sifting through of holy scripture for hidden meanings. In Greece, interpreters of Oracles, like the Pythonesses of Delphi, were the first hermeneuts, parsing the characteristically gnomic messages from the gods. Often delivered in a deliberately polyvalent fashion, like the prophecies of Macbeth’s Three Witches (really the Three Greek Fates, Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos), such pronouncements proved language could lie at the very same time as it told the truth.
A noted liar, Hermes the cunning linguist became thus both the teller of untruths, and, as god of interpretations, the means of unravelling them. In the Homeric Hymn to Hermes, the baby god swears blind to Zeus that he did not cross the threshold of a certain door. In this, he both lies and truth-tells simultaneously; he did breach the door’s barrier, but not by opening it and crossing through the door-frame, as Zeus was asking him. Instead, he changed his usual form momentarily and slipped, mist-like, through the keyhole. Thus, his lie here is technically also the truth.
For verbally inventive gods just as for contemporary woke academics, language thus became a means of world-construction, as when Hermes’ rough Egyptian equivalent Thoth was said to have created the world by ‘speaking’ it into existence, the most impressive use of magic words in all history. Today’s academic Left do this all the time, with equally magic formulae such as ‘male wombs’ or ‘female penises’ being in truth mere verbal possibilities not physical ones. Yet, by ‘speaking them into existence’ by having them encoded into the public lexicon by compliant political, media, and medical authorities, they seem to succeed in conjuring up a world in which they do exist—or a world in which the public are compelled to act as if they do, often by law. Supposedly, all babies are now merely randomly ‘assigned’ a sex at birth by wicked midwifes and doctors, the solid signifiers of their fleshly genitalia dissolved like Hermes into the boundary-breaching mist of airy semiotics. Hermes, it may be said, is now reborn as the god of Newspeak.
Hermeneutics is a legitimate art—how would it be possible to read an allegorical text like the Book of Revelation, or an allusion-saturated Modernist poem like The Waste Land without it?—but follies like seeing a flesh-wound and thinking it is a vagina are classic examples of hermeneutics gone badly wrong, upside-down exercises in reading 1984 as a utopia, not a dystopia. The chief schools of hermeneutics in operation within the Academy today are variants of the 1960-’70s deconstructionism of French post-modernists like Derrida and Lyotard, refashioned through an identitarian lens into solipsistic dogmas like Critical Race Theory or Queer Studies.
Deconstructionism fostered an intense suspicion of metanarratives, or grand schemes of interpreting the world, like that of Christianity, and replaced them with an infinite Babel of endlessly competing personal micro-narratives, with the subjective internal self now becoming the sole arbiter of external truth. So, if a spear-wound feels like a vagina to you, then maybe it is one. Man becomes God (or Demiurge, maybe). Like Hermes in the guise of Thoth, man is the creator of his own personal universe, a universe whose ‘validity’ everyone else should be forced to acknowledge, whilst simultaneously actually living in a whole other one entirely. In this sense, maybe modern man is actually worshipping Narcissus, not Hermes, after all?
Making Babel of The Bible
As deconstructionism calls for the dismantling of all metanarratives (except its own arbitrarily favoured ones, that is), you would think it was incompatible with Christianity, perhaps the greatest human metanarrative of all. Yet certain theologians disagree; witness U.S. religious philosopher John D. Caputo’s 2007 book What Would Jesus Deconstruct? The Good News of Postmodernity for the Church. Postmodernity is emphatically not ‘Good News’ for the Christian Church, but Caputo disagrees, presenting Jesus as an earlier precursor of Jacques Derrida, an avid deconstructor of the texts and rulings of ancient Jewish religious councils like the Sanhedrin, thereby to recreate the age-old Word of God anew, thus ushering in a new era for mankind, that of the Kingdom of God.
This view is not entirely without merit, but Caputo’s consequent interpretation of the contemporary Church as an ossified Sanhedrin-like edifice whose traditional teachings on issues like divorce, homosexuality, and abortion need to be deconstructed and dissolved, could easily lead to the spread of mad heresies like those now preached in the chapels of Cambridge. Caputo speaks openly and approvingly of the need to use “devilish hermeneutics” in contemporary theological discourse. But to deconstruct religion endlessly in this way is ultimately to tear it down; Martin Luther was a sort of unrestrained deconstructionist critic of The Bible too, and look what chaos he and his fellow exegetes unleashed upon Europe. Reformist movements promising the utopian advent of the true Kingdom of God can easily shift into antinomian cults, as in ‘utopian’ hell-holes like Anabaptist Munster. Eternal truths are supposed to be just that: eternal.
If the Church is now meant to just shift its teachings to fit in with the modish mores of every passing wannabe Christos Hermeneut, then there is an obvious risk of people simply reading their own personal obsessions and tastes into religious doctrine, before then spuriously representing them as being made in Jesus’s name. By applying Roland Barthes’ ‘Death of the Author’ theory to The Bible itself, we risk only recreating Nietzsche’s ‘Death of God.’ According to Caputo, who has clearly been reading his Dostoyevsky, if Jesus were actually to return as the Second Coming and subject the contemporary Church to as withering a critique as that to which He had once subjected the arch-priests of his own day, two millennia previously, they would have no option but to crucify Him all over again: such would be the deconstructionist power of the postmodern Word of the Lord.
Caputo’s Christ—the Divine Logos embodied—is not just Derrida. He is also Hermes. There are some legitimate parallels to be drawn between the two. Each acted as a mediator, or messenger, between Earth and Heaven; each went into the afterlife and returned to tell the tale, Jesus following his crucifixion, Hermes following his quest to retrieve the abducted Persephone from Hades. Both are, then, reasonably interpreted as deities of the borderlands, the liminal, the in-between—but this does not automatically therefore make Jesus into an example of that ultimate borderline being, a transsexual. Another of Hermes’ many guises was the ‘Mercurius’ of the alchemists, a miraculous quasi-chemical agent of change who would facilitate transmutation of lumpen lead into glimmering gold, via a process often dubbed solve et coagula—‘dissolve and then coagulate.’ Yet, all too often, it seems as if contemporary deconstructionist dogmas seek only to dissolve—solve et solve.
There is an old saying that ‘Hermes is the midwife to Dionysus,’ and this is still very true. By some inexplicable alchemy, Dionysus—god of wine, orgy, and excess—was born from his father Zeus’s thigh, after his mother, Semele, had burned to death in his blazing embrace. Tearing the foetus (or sometimes merely his heart) from her womb, Zeus sewed it into his leg to gestate, thus making him into an early model of that now similarly sacred figure, a ‘pregnant male’—at least to certain contemporary hermeneuts, who might also spy an imaginary vagina lurking within the god’s limb. Hermes then became Dionysus’s midwife figuratively, when spiriting him away straight from Zeus’s leg-womb to be raised elsewhere. To escape the wrath of Zeus’s jealous wife Hera, the young Dionysus was disguised as a girl in a distant land. Later becoming the god of grape and vine, Dionysus roamed Asia Minor in his chariot, accompanied by a train of orgiastic followers, nymphs, and satyrs, ranging from the permanently aroused fertility-god Priapus (his son) to a chorus of god-possessed female followers named maenads, who would tear apart wild animals and unfortunate human beings alike during their wine-fuelled ecstatic rites in honour of their leader—the original Dionysiac revels.
Dionysus, raised as a girl and often thus depicted as effeminate in ancient art, now becomes god not only of wine but, according to one online historian, also the “genderqueer god” of “partying and [gay] pride” and so of “smashing the gender binary into tiny little pieces”—solve et solve. Supposedly, Dionysus “was first assigned [as a] male, then lived as a girl until reaching adulthood, only to reject both binaries and embrace a bigender identity that caused great anxiety to the category-loving Greeks”; so says our new online Hermes, who also spies parallels between Dionysus’s foetal death and rebirth and the similarly alchemical ‘rebirth’ of men as women when undergoing modern so-called ‘gender-reassignment surgery.’ How long before Jesus too is recategorised in such terms, in relation to his own death and rebirth in The Bible? Perhaps the ‘vagina’ Joshua Heath hallucinated onto Him during His crucifixion was merely an early symptom of a later and much fuller metamorphosis yet to come?
And what will happen to those of us who, stubbornly, refuse to accept this new, now quasi-official, way of seeing things? Naturally, we will suffer the same fate as all victims of Dionysus’s maenads once did: we shall be torn apart by a mob, albeit this time not physically, but verbally, online. As god of communication, Hermes is also often now painted as the possible patron deity of the Internet; until 2021, Cambridge University’s internal e-mail system, presumably also used by Joshua Heath to spread his heresies, is actually called ‘Hermes.’ Conveniently, maenads nowadays can hide behind a private screen, and operate under Twitter-handle pseudonyms.
In his 2018 essay Dionysus Reviled: Transgender Visibility and the Pentheus Complex, U.S. academic Nicholas S. Literski (pronouns: they/them), argues the historically standard reaction of conservatives towards transgender persons—i.e. to dismiss and marginalise them—means they are suffering from what he terms a “Pentheus Complex.” Like a typical so-called ‘TERF’ today, Pentheus, King of Thebes, once tried to end the god’s damaging cult of wine and abandon, openly calling it all a brand of debased charlatanry, only to be ripped to shreds by Dionysus’s maenads for his heretical efforts. One of his murderers, blindly drunk on her own ecstasy and self-righteousness, turned out to be his own mother Agave, at least in the playwright Euripides’ version of the legend. Such intergenerational conflicts now replay themselves anew online, but with the age-roles reversed, with the young, brainwashed by their Hermetic lecturers, now tearing their reluctant elders apart in brutal online pile-ons. In this sense, Hermes really has become the midwife to Dionysus once more.
Hermes is a useful god, in many ways the most entertaining in the whole Greek pantheon, in whose praise I have myself written at length elsewhere, but he is inherently a god of the margins. When he is drawn right into the centre of things, and made the Jungian-style governing archetype of an entire civilisation, then it seems unlikely that that civilisation’s centre will be able to hold for very long. If the Second Coming of Christ is really now due to be a transgender one, then, as in Yeats’s famous poem, perhaps that Second Coming shall really be that of the Anti-Christ, traditional symbol of a world turned upside-down… or deliberately deconstructed down to death, you may say. Let us, then, seek to banish Hermes and his associates back towards the margins where they rightly belong before the maenads one day end up coming for us all. There is perhaps a reason why all these ‘marginalised communities’ we keep on hearing so much about these days became marginalised in the first place. It is because their wider social embrace is profoundly dangerous to any society foolish enough to offer it to them.