Herma

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A Herma, (Gk, Ἑρμῆς, pl ἑρμαῖ) commonly in English herm is a sculpture with a head, and perhaps a torso, above a plain, usually squared lower section, on which male genitals may also be carved at the appropriate height. The form originated in Ancient Greece, and was adopted by the Romans, and revived at the Renaissance in the form of term figures and Atlantes.

In ancient Greece the statues had an apotropaic function and were placed at crossings, country borders and boundaries as protection. Before his role as protector of merchants and travelers, Hermes was a phallic god, associated with fertility, luck, roads and borders. His name comes from the word herma (plural hermai) referring to a square or rectangular pillar of stone, terracotta, or bronze; a bust of Hermes' head, usually with a beard,[1] sat on the top of the pillar, and male genitals adorned the base. The hermai were used as boundary markers on roads and borders. In Athens, they were placed outside houses as apotropes for good luck. [The male genitals would be rubbed or anointed with olive oil to obtain luck].[citation needed] This superstition persists, for example in the Porcellino bronze boar of Florence (and numerous others like it around the world), where the nose is shiny from being continually touched for good luck or fertility.

Especially in Roman and Renaissance versions, the body was often shown from the waist up. The form was also used for portrait busts of famous public figures, especially writers like Socrates and Plato. Sappho appears on Ancient Greek herms, and anonymous female figures were often used from the Renaissance on, when herms were often attached to walls as decoration.

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The trial of Alcibiades

In 415 BC, on the night before the Athenian fleet was about to set sail for Syracuse during the Peloponnesian War (see Sicilian Expedition), all of the Athenian hermai were vandalized. This was a horribly impious act and many people believed it threatened the success of the expedition. Though it was never proven, the Athenians at the time believed it was the work of saboteurs, either from Syracuse or Spartan sympathizers from Athens itself. In fact, Alcibiades was accused of being the originator of the crime. He denied the accusations and offered to stand trial, but the Athenians did not want to disrupt the expedition any further. His opponents were eager to have Alcibiades' trial in his absence when he could not defend himself. Once he had left on the expedition, his political enemies had him charged and sentenced to death in absentia, both for the mutilation of the herms, and the supposedly related crime of profaning the Eleusinian Mysteries.

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