Architectural Ornament in Human Forms
Hermes was also honored by Greek shepherds in Arcadia, the mythical home of Pan. They sought his protection by piling up stones outside their houses as resting places for his restless spirit. In time these heaps of stones marked routes for travelers. They evolved into steles, stone shafts, that were often capped with Hermes’s head or torso. “Herms”, as they were called, were attached to buildings as column-like supports also called atlantes; they have heads and torsos, but turn into architectural elements at their midsections.
Atlantes are related to Atlas, the Titan whom Zeus sentenced to forever support the heavens because he had joined a revolt against the gods. They appear here as fragments of muscular humans who wearily hold up roof cornices, balconies, etc. Their contorted faces and postures express the discomfort they experience because of their predicament.
Whatever the origin of the enslavement of humans to architecture, the public exhibition of prisoners of war and miscreants bound or chained to structures was a common practice in many cultures.
Malevolent spirits permanently subdued by architectural bondage often appear in the nooks and crannies of buildings. Their stony pain seems quite real.
Several types of detached heads appear on the keystones of arches, peering out from under balconies and roofs, or as parts of friezes. They are often bearded males whose faces have curling locks that merge with plant tendrils. This kind of ornament was labeled “grotesque.”