Hermeneutics and hermenautics

Hermeneutics is the methodology of interpretation. Its history goes back to the ancient Greeks and to their epoch-creating quest for inquiry, knowledge and discovery. The word ‘hermeneutics’, however, was only coined in the 17th century. Its earliest documented root is the Greek word hermeneuein, meaning ‘to interpret into words’, to utter. Beyond that lies legend and a mysterious association with Hermes, the messenger god.

Hermes was also associated with speech and rhetorical persuasion, but first of all he was a prankster god who stole Apollo’s cattle and who responded with humour and wit when challenged by the duped god. He had many functions, but they were all related. He was a creator god (he invented the lyre), a crosser of boundaries and a mediator between different worlds.

Hermes is the god of interpretation and of hermeneutics, not so much on myth-(etym)ological grounds, but because his function is to reach for the openings (in the text), the cracks (in the discourse) which allow for the outside view to sneak in, a crossing of boundaries, a mediation of perspectives – which is what hermeneutics is all about. He is in constant creative dialogue with the past in view of coming up with something new for the future. He covers the space between communicators, he carries the toolbox which helps dissemble the system into smaller bits.

He is risky business, a liability for every established order of things whose nature is to insulate itself from outside influence, to become hermetic – which is also a word harkening back to mischievous Hermes, albeit through misassociation (via the Egyptian god Thoth whose hobby was to seal things off).

So, Hermes being a prankster, I’m sure he wouldn’t mind if I, tongue-in-cheek, abuse his name once again, and go sailing with him. If hermeneutics is the Hermes-inspired skill of interpretation, then what would hermenautics be? I’ve just made the word up, and I’m confident Hermes would not shame me for it.

Hermenautics with an ‘a’ is about releasing Hermes on the high sea of meaning in a little boat (nautikos meaning seafaring, from the Greek ‘naus’ for ship or boat). All sorts of danger await the disobedient captain god in his odyssey for reaching new shores at the edge of the known world. And knowing Hermes, we would never settle for the already-known. So I can say something more about this new word of mine ‘hermenautics’ – it is an acknowledgment that what is known is never enough and that it’s always worth taking the risk of journeying beyond the mark.

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