The Greek God Hermes is the only Olympian that appears as the main character within Aesop’s Fables. For many Western readers, the moralistic children’s stories known as Aesop’s Fables were their first introduction to the ancient past. Yet, despite his notoriety, very little is known about the ancient figure called Aesop and much of what we do know appears more as legend than truth. Furthermore, the fables readily available to us today share little resemblance to the fables that circulated throughout ancient Greece.
Aesop’s Fables provide some insight into what life was like for ordinary people in ancient Greece. They describe ancient homes, how pets were fed and treated, common superstitions, how children were treated, and what aspects of religion were important. As a genre curated by the common populace, the fables help inform us exactly how the God Hermes was understood and worshipped in the past.
The God Hermes, His Importance, and Aesop’s Fables
The Greek gods play a significant role in the majority of Aesop’s Fables. However, they rarely take part in the fables narrative and tend to be introduced at the end of the story to pass moral judgments on the main characters. The themes of mockery and crass humor are not ideal for the gods. As entities they were treated with humble piety making their brief appearance within the fables understandable. However, one god appears in many fables as the main actor, Hermes, the messenger of the gods. Hermes’ appearances in fables are often treated with the same contempt and mockery as the mortal actors.
Hermes holds a very unique position within the Greek pantheon as the god of the boundaries, trickery, thieves and liars, lots, craftsmen, heralds, musicians, athletes, herdsmen, merchants, and travel and movement. He was also a guide in the underworld. Hermes’ powers and the myths told about him influenced how people worshipped him and we can infer why this lone god found his place within the world of fables.
The God of Trickery: Hermes’ Original Story
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Hermes is the herald and messenger of the Olympian pantheon. He is the child of the chief god Zeus and the Nymph Maia one of the Pleiades. Hermes’ origins foreshadow the types of powers he will one day control. Zeus and Maia were secret lovers. Zeus would sneak into her cave at night hoping to avoid his wife Heras’s notice. The two immortals spawned the god of lies and trickery through their clandestine love affair.
Within a few hours of being born, Hermes set off on his first adventure to find something to eat. On this journey, Hermes invented the lyre; stole his brother Apollo’s sacred cattle; and potentially invented sandals to cover up the evidence of his theft. Still hungry, Hermes butchered one of the cattle and proceeded to establish the common method of ritual sacrifice popular in ancient Greek worship. Through this process, Hermes distributed the offerings of the cow equally among all the gods, fixing the mistakes his earlier counterpart Prometheus enacted at the feast of Mecone. So far, young Hermes was focused on appeasing his hunger, yet he refused to eat the sacrificial meal he had painstakingly prepared. The gods of Olympus only eat nectar and ambrosia, so if Hermes ate the sacrificial meal he may be relegated to the mortal world.
While Hermes proceeds with the first official religious sacrifice, his elder brother Apollo notices his missing cattle and begins investigating what happened. Apollo, the god of light and prophecy fails to divine exactly what happened due to Hermes cleverly camouflaging his tracks. Eventually, Apollo discovers Hermes’ location and is taken aback by his age. Apollo tries to grab Hermes but fails when the infant farts in his face. Apollo demands justice for Hermes’ crimes and takes him to Olympus for Zeus’ judgment.
The two brothers are brought before their father and the other Olympians where they both plead their case. Hermes points out that he was born yesterday and that it would be impossible for a baby to accomplish any of the crimes mentioned by Apollo. Hermes — the master of language, mediation, and inversion — turns truth upon itself and successfully argues his innocence. Amused and impressed by Hermes’ words, Zeus declares him innocent, but still orders Hermes to show Apollo where the cattle are hidden.
Hermes leads his brother to the cattle. Apollo notices that the infant managed to butcher and string up an entire cow and attempts to capture Hermes with magical vines. However, as the god of movement and trickery, Hermes easily escapes his brother’s clutches and immediately begins to play an improvised song dedicated to the gods on his newly invented lyre. The song captivates Apollo the god of music and Hermes, the god of trade, offers Apollo a deal. Hermes trades Apollo his lyre for the cattle and finally swears an oath to never steal or use trickery against the immortals. In return, Apollo grants Hermes the caduceus, patronage over several kinds of animals, and appoints Hermes as the messenger to Hades. Hermes is officially offered a seat on Olympus next to his brother and best friend Apollo.
Hermes’ origin story outlines some of his most essential aspects; he is the god of trade, travel, theft, mediation, and trickery. Hermes is also an inventor and thus became the patron god of Greek craftsmen, traders, and day laborer’s that traveled Greece looking for work. Hermes is often on the ground floor of the mortal realm as the messenger and herald of the gods. Out of all the gods he is most likely to appear directly, speaking with and helping mortal protagonists as in the Odyssey and the Iliad. Hermes is the god of trickery; he enjoys playing tricks on both mortals and immortals and he is linked to comedy with appearances in the comedic plays Wasps and Peace by Aristophanes.
Hermes is a god that celebrates mischief and humor, he is also strongly associated with the working class through his patronage over craftsmen, herdsmen, merchants, and travelers. All of these elements inform us why Hermes alone appears as a main character in Aesop’s Fables. Ancient fables celebrate crass humor and the misfortune of others. They highlight human greed and selfishness and their consequences. Hermes is the most human of all the Olympians, he gets hungry, thinks crude fart jokes are funny, and is willing to do anything to get what he wants. He is uniquely qualified for the dark humor of Aesop’s Fables.
Fables About Hermes
Hermes appears in 21 fables and in the majority of them he is the principal actor, which is not the case with the other gods. Not all of these fables will be examined here, a handful of fables collected and summarized by Prof. H. S. Versnel have been selected that illustrate Hermes’ characteristic demeanor. Hermes is the only god consistently depicted humorously and he is represented empathetically, socializing with mortals.
1. Hermes and the Statues
Wishing to know in how much esteem he was held by men, Hermes took the form of a mortal man and entered the workshop of a sculptor. First, he asked about the price of a statue of Zeus, which was one drachma. Next one of Hera, which was higher. Then, seeing a statue of himself and supposing that men would consider this more valuable since he was the divine messenger and the god of profit, he asked “How much is this Hermes?” “If you buy the other two,” said the man, “I’ll throw that one in for free.”
Hermes is treated with a definite lack of reverence compared to Hera and Zeus. Although the sculptor deems Hermes’ statue as less than the other two, the fable still celebrates Hermes. Hermes is the god of profit and trickery, to some extent, he was the personification of these ideals in ancient Greece. There is something poetic about seeing the god of trade barter for himself. Hermes must barter and haggle for himself because only the god of such aspects could do so without causing divine offense. The fable shows Hermes being treated as he would treat others.
2. Hermes and the Dog
A square-hewn statue of Hermes stood by the roadside, with a heap of stones at the base. A dog came up and said: “I salute you first of all, Hermes, but, more than that, I would anoint you. I could not think of just passing by a god like you, especially since you are the athlete’s god.” “I shall be grateful to you,” said Hermes, “if you do not lick off such ointment as I have already, and do not make a mess on me. Beyond that, pay me no respect.”
Hermes is strongly connected to statues. Throughout ancient Greece, stone herms, busts resembling his appearances were constructed as road markers. Travelers would offer gifts to Hermes to protect them during their travels. A common motif within ancient Greek myths and fables was that gods would possess statues that depicted them. Hermes is often referenced as the god of thieves, putting guard dogs to sleep to aid thefts, making the dog’s anointment slightly more personal. As a statue, Hermes has no autonomy. His fate so to speak is in the hands of the earnest dog who only wants to show his respect for the god.
However, Hermes understands the dog’s intentions. He does not smite or punish the animal for their attempted offerings. He gives his thanks but asks that the dog refrains from making more of a mess around him. In this fable, Hermes is blatantly disrespected. However, the god treats it with good humor and does not attempt any petty revenge — as was common among the Olympian pantheon.
3. Hermes and the Cobblers
Zeus charged Hermes to pour over all the artisans the poison of lies. Making an equal amount for everyone, he poured it over them. But when he got as far as the cobbler, he still had plenty of the poison left, so he just took what remained in the mortar and poured it over him. Ever since then, all artisans have been liars, but most of all — cobblers.
Hermes is the god of lots, servants and heralds and often acts as a cosmic distributor. This fable is one of many that show Hermes distributing wisdom or the poison of lies throughout the world. He is always instructed to do so by his father Zeus and almost always makes a mess of things. In this case, unevenly distributing the poison of lies among all the artisans leaving the cobblers to take the brunt of it.
In another fable, Zeus orders Hermes to distribute lies among all the people of the world, but Hermes crashes his chariot and gets lost. The people of that land then plundered his chariot becoming the greatest liars in the world. What is most fascinating about this type of fable is it depicts Hermes, an Olympian god, as less than perfect. He is fallible and liable to get lost, crash his chariot, or miss calculating the potions to be distributed among the people. Hermes is shown failing in a very human way, something rather unfamiliar within the mighty Greek pantheon.
4. The Traveler and Hermes
A traveler had vowed to offer half of everything he might find to Hermes. He finds a wallet with almonds and dates (although he had hoped that it would contain money), eats everything edible and gives the rest to Hermes: “Here you have, Hermes, the payment of my vow; for I have shared with you half of the outsides and half of the insides of what I have found.”
Although Hermes does not make a direct appearance in this fable, it still demonstrates his unique position within this genre of storytelling. Hermes the god of trickery and lies is himself tricked by a mere mortal man. Through the use of clever wordplay, the traveler tricks Hermes out of the almonds and dates. The fable infers the type of relationship Hermes had with his worshipers; he celebrates trickery even if it’s directed toward him. The gods of Olympus were famously prickly and prideful. To even consider duping one of them could bring down divine wrath. However, as this fable shows, this is not the case with Hermes — the god closest to mortals.
5. Hermes and Tiresias
Wishing to test the prophetic abilities of Teiresias Hermes stole his oxen. Then, adopting the likeness of a man, he went to live with Teiresias as a guest. They went together to the outskirts of the city to find the stolen oxen and Teiresias asked Hermes to report anything that might seem of worth as an omen. An eagle, flying from the left to right, was deemed irrelevant but then a black crow appeared looking first upward towards heaven and then downward at the earth. After Hermes had reported this observation Teiresias declared: “Here we have it, this crow is calling heaven and earth to witness that I shall get back my oxen . . . . . . that is: if you wish it so.”
A common theme within fables is the gods taking on a human disguise to test mortals. As the messenger of the gods, Hermes often does this when delivering divine messages to mortals. Teiresias was a blind prophet of Apollo and is a central character in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and the Bacchae by Euripides. Teiresias is close to all-knowing through his prophetic connected to Apollo. In both Oedipus Rex and the Bacchae, Tiresias foreshadows the truth despite the protagonists failing to understand his true meaning. In many ways, the prophet of Apollo is the ideal challenge for the god of theft and trickery, who better to try and trick and steal from than an individual who knows all. However, Hermes fails to deceive Teiresias. Although a god Hermes is still fallible his powers do not exceed the prophetic wisdom of Apollo.
Hermes and Aesop Meet
There is an interesting fable documented by the sophist Philostratus in his Life of Apollonius, wherein Hermes and Aesop are the central characters. The fable begins with a lonely shepherd named Aesop tending to his flock close to a temple of Hermes. Aesop prays to Hermes asking for the gift of wisdom. However, other worshipers have asked Hermes for the same blessing. They offered up gold and silver while the poor shepherd, Aesop, could only offer up his devotion. Hermes heard them all and began distributing wisdom. However, in line with Hermes’ role in such tales, he completely forgets to bestow any wisdom upon Aesop. Hermes only realizes his mistake after all the knowledge has been allocated to those that gave more extravagant gifts than the shepherd.
Hermes remembers a form of storytelling that he enjoyed while still a baby in swaddling clothes. Thus Hermes “bestowed upon Aesop the art of fable called mythology, for that was all that was left in the house of wisdom.” It is noteworthy that we have a fable regarding the origins of fables themselves, and Hermes, the most popular divine figure within this genre, appears as a central character. For the ancient Greeks, fables were full of stark and crass humor, where fast wit and deception are celebrated, and thus the genre is strongly associated with Hermes.
This fable also provides a glimpse into how the ancient Greeks perceived the genre. It was not associated with those who offered extravagant gifts to the god, but those at the bottom of the barrel, like the humble shepherd. This narrative form is foremost a type of storytelling for the common populace. In a way, the ancient fables of Aesop provide a picture of ancient Greek thought, but not that of the upper crust. They paint a view of how ordinary people perceived the world around them.
Why Is Hermes in Aesop’s Fables?
Hermes possesses a very human disposition in this genre and, indeed, no other Olympian embodies so many human foibles and traits as Hermes does. He does not inspire awe or fear but facilitates a friendly and joking relationship with both gods and humans. In fables, Hermes appears very accident-prone, a victim of misfortune, and the willing target of mockery. Yet despite this, Hermes is never depicted as truly offended and appears to relish his very human connection to humanity: he is the paragon of human weakness.
In many respects, Hermes is pictured as a fellow creature and companion, who may temporarily be the dupe, but who will re-emerge and survive through ingenious maneuvers and clever tricks.