[Coral-List] Final word on origin of hermatypic

Charles Booth booth at easternct.edu
Tue Jun 17 15:47:56 EDT 2008

Thanks to all who responded to my question about the origins of
“hermatypic.”   Here are three responses that pretty much settle the issue
- it looks as though J.W. Wells assumed his readers would be familiar with

(I hope those who responded to me personally don’t mind my quoting them; if
they do, I apologize profusely)

>From Sarah Rathbone:
... the following Greek myth ...might provide some clarity (...or might
confuse things
even more...):
Zeus seduces Io, a priestess of Hera, but then turns her into a heifer so
that Hera doesn't find out about the affair. However, Hera, being a
suspicious woman, ties Io up and has her servant, Argus, guard her. At the
bidding of Zeus, Hermes distracts and kills Argus, setting Io
free. Hera's enraged and puts Hermes on trail for killing her beloved
servant. At the trail all the other gods act as jury and are instructed to
throw a stone at whichever person they believe to be in the right, Hera or
Hermes. Hermes argues his case so skillfully that he ends up buried under a
pile of stones! (...this also happens to be the mythological origin of
"cairns," which are the piles of stones seen along hiking trails and at
mountain summits...people believed that the spirit of Hermes, the god of
travelers, was contained within these piles...)
Although the connection seems weak, maybe Hermes was singled out as the
origin for the word "hermatypic" because he acted as a foundation on which
rocks were piled...symbolically similar to the building of a coral reef...
>From Jez Roff:
… the actual definition / translation of the greek "herma"
seems to vary depending on the source:
"herma (plural hermai) referring to a square or rectangular pillar of stone,
terracotta, or bronze"
As for the etymology of Hermes himself, you are right on the mark - it seems
to relate to his status as a phallic god:
In Greek religion, sacred object of stone connected with the cult of Hermes,
the fertility god. According to some scholars, Hermes’ name may be derived
from the word herma (Greek: “stone,” or “rock,” such as a boundary or
"Greek word herma (ἕρμα), which denotes a square or rectangular pillar with
the head of Hermes (usually with a beard) adorning the top of the pillar,
and ithyphallic male genitals below"
It seems that both Hermes and hermatypic are derived from the ancient greek
"herma" - "stone", "rock" (depending on the literal translation and source)
- hence "hermatypic" literally meaning "rocktype", rather than a direct
connection to Hermes himself.

>From Gordon Hendler:

“Brown (Composition of scientific terms) says that herma in Gr means, among
other things, "sunken rock, reef...".   I thought the derivation would be
found in the OED, but no such luck. Although there, I learned the origin of
the term hermaphrodite refers to hermes hermaphroditic son. ...
Wells (1933) invented the term.  Schumacher & Zibrowius does indeed have the
answer on page 2, quoting Wells, "The term hermatypic, from herma, a reef,
is therefore proposed to describe corals of the reef-building type, the
living species of which possess symbiotic zooxanthellae within their

Chuck Booth

*   *   *   *   *   *   *
Dr. Charles E. Booth
Dept. of Biology
Eastern Connecticut State University
Willimantic, CT  06226

Ph: 860-465-5260
Email: booth at easternct.edu
FAX:  860-465-5213

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