Of all the Greek gods, Hermes took part in many activities; he was quite the Renaissance man of ancient Greece. The attributes most associated with the god are travel, thievery, and roads. However, there are countless more. Trade, wealth, language, luck, wiles, are just a few more. In Roman mythology, he was retitled as the god Mercury, and although they were very much the same, there were a few differences between the deities. Read on to discover Hermes’ indispensable role among the Greek Olympians and the tricks and fun he had.
Hermes: Son of Maia and Zeus
Hermes was the son of Maia and Zeus. Maia was the eldest of the Pleiades, who were the nymphs of the constellations. Zeus was the king of the gods and notorious for falling in love with beautiful men and women. According to myth, Zeus had a secret love affair with Maia, and from their union, Hermes was born.
“Muse, sing of Hermes, the son of Zeus and Maia, lord of Cyllene and Arcadia rich in flocks, the luck-bringing messenger of the immortals whom Maia bare, the rich-tressed nymph, when she was joined in love with Zeus.”
(Hymn to Hermes)
Maia lived in the cave or mountains of Cyllene, which was in Arcadia, in the northern Peloponnese of Greece. She was a shy goddess and retreated from the company of the gods. Due to his birthplace, the god Hermes often has the epithet “of Cyllene” or Hermes “of Arcadia”. Hermes enjoyed playing the pipes, much like the god Pan of the Wild, who also lived in Arcadia.
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After giving birth to Hermes, Maia wrapped him up tightly and laid him to rest. She then fell asleep herself. Without his mother’s watchful eye, he began his first steps of mischief.
God of Thieves
“[Hermes was a god] of many shifts, blandly cunning, a robber, a cattle driver, a bringer of dreams, a watcher by night, a thief at the gates, one who was soon to show forth wonderful deeds among the deathless gods…”
(Hymn to Hermes showing the many epithets and titles of Hermes)
While Maia was sleeping, Hermes crept out of his blankets; he was a fast-maturing youngling god. He immediately began to devise a way to steal his brother’s sacred oxen. At this time in Greek mythology, his half-brother Apollo was the herdsman of the gods.
However, on his way to the oxen, Hermes’ attention was distracted by a tortoise on the mountain. In this instance, his mind lit up with an inventive idea. He took the tortoiseshell and fashioned it into one of the first-ever stringed instruments. This ancient instrument was called the lyre.
“As bright glances flash from the eye, so glorious Hermes planned both thought and deed at once. He cut stalks of reed to measure and fixed them, fastening their ends across the back and through the shell of the tortoise, and then stretched ox hide all over it by his skill. Also he put in the horns and fitted a cross-piece upon the two of them, and stretched seven strings of sheep-gut. But when he had made it he proved each string in turn with the key, as he held the lovely thing. At the touch of his hand it sounded marvelously; and, as he tried it, the god sang…”
(Hymn to Hermes)
From this myth, Hermes became Hermes kharmophrôn, or the “Heart-Delighting” as he brought forth wonderful music to the ancient Greeks.
Hermes the Trickster
With trickery in his heart, Hermes continued on to find the oxen of Apollo. His resourcefulness with his activities earned him the title “Hermes polytropos” which means “many-turning” or “wily”. Still a babe, Hermes found the oxen and began to drive away 50 of them. He also cleverly thought of a plan to confuse Apollo when he came looking for the oxen. From this plan, he began to be titled the trickster, or mêkhaniôtês in ancient Greek:
“He bethought him of a crafty ruse and reversed the marks of their hoofs, making the front behind and the hind before, while he himself walked the other way. Then he wove sandals with wicker-work by the sand of the sea, wonderful things, unthought of, unimagined; for he mixed together tamarisk and myrtle-twigs, fastening together an armful of their fresh, young wood, and tied them, leaves and all securely under his feet as light sandals.”
(Hymn to Hermes)
By making the oxen walk backward, Apollo would follow the tracks in the wrong direction, and this would lead the deceived god away from the hiding spot. The sandals made the robber appear to be an adult, but Hermes was just an infant. The sandals were also the beginning of his infamous winged sandals.
Eventually, Apollo’s pursuit of the thief led him to Hermes, who denied the accusation. Only a council before Zeus would finally resolve the quarrel between the brothers. Zeus commanded that Hermes reveal where the oxen were hiding.
Luck-bringing, or Lucky Hermes…
When Hermes finally revealed to Apollo the location of the stolen oxen, Apollo noticed that some of the cows had been eaten. After this, Hermes was snarkily referred to as the “Slayer of Oxen”, and “Comrade of the Feast”, by Apollo, who was especially peeved at the death of his sacred oxen.
At the discovery of the devoured oxen, Apollo began to burn with fury, but Hermes hastily offered him a gift. He brought out the lyre that he had created, and began to play and sing a mesmerizing tune. Apollo was so impressed with the instrument that he longed to have it as his own.
“Slayer of oxen, trickster, busy one, comrade of the feast, this song of yours is worth fifty cows, and I believe that presently we shall settle our quarrel peacefully.”
(Hymn to Hermes)
Hermes agreed to give the lyre to Apollo, and all grudges were forgotten. Here, he became Hermes, the “Giver of Good Things” and he continued to gift various things in his myths. His invention of the lyre was the precursor to his epithet eriounês, or “the bringer of luck”, as in this moment, he luckily escaped Apollo’s wrath. From that moment, Apollo himself became the god of Music, and Hermes the official god of Thieves.
Slayer of Argos
Hermes’ next myth also involves a cow. A mortal, named Io, had been transformed by Zeus into a cow. Zeus had done this to Io in order to hide her from Hera, Zeus’ wife, because Zeus had been having an affair with her.
Hera was not deceived, and so she demanded the cow as a gift. Zeus reluctantly gave the cow up. Hera tied Io to a tree and sent the hundred-eyed giant Argos as a guard. Argus never slept, and his eyes were always open.
Then, Zeus sent Hermes to kill Argus and set Io free. Hermes knew that sneaking would not be an option here, so he would need to devise another trick. He appeared to Argos and offered to keep him company. He told him tales and then used enchanting music to put Argos to sleep. Once in dreams, Hermes slew Argos.
“With many a tale he stayed the passing hours and on his reeds played soft refrains to lull the watching eyes.”
From this victory, Hermes earned the title Argeiphontes, which means “Slayer of Argos”.
Messenger of the Gods
Hermes is probably best known as the Messenger of the Gods or the Herald of the Gods. In Greek, this was Angelos Athanatôn. He would convey messages between all realms and between the gods. He would travel between the Underworld, Olympus, the divine realm, and through the mortal dimension. Hermes was one of the only gods allowed to pass freely through all these realms; other gods had to ask permission before entering the domain of another god.
He kept himself busy delivering packages and messages all over, and had so many duties that he was nicknamed poneomenos, meaning the “Busy One”. This is why the parcel company Hermes named themselves in reference to the Greek god.
With all this communication and messaging, Hermes was credited with inventing writing and the alphabet. He brought the practice to the letters that heralds would deliver, and to the merchants for more reliable stock-taking.
Hermes, Also Known as the God Mercury
Hermes had another name in Roman mythology: Mercury. There are a few differences between the two, but for the most part, their mythology was very similar.
The Roman god Mercury in myth was more involved in leading the souls of deceased mortals into the afterlife. While Hermes was characterized in myth as a trickster, in Roman myth, the god Mercury more often represented the ceremonial Messenger of the Gods.
The planet Mercury is named after the god Mercury because it moves quickly around the sun and so passes the other planets at a faster rate than others. This is much like the fleet-footed Messenger god.
Hermes and Mercury were the mythological counterparts of each other. The differences ultimately show the assimilation of Greek culture into the conquering Roman Empire. In appearance, the gods appear to be the same, although Mercury occasionally appears more warlike. They both had winged sandals, or a winged helmet, and a caduceus.
Hermes of the Marketplace, Business, and Trade
Hermes and Mercury were associated with thieves and deceit; these very associations also made them immortal representatives of commerce and trade. Hermes’ wit and cleverness easily translated into the cunning of the businessman.
“Hermes wanted to know how much people valued him, so he assumed a human form and went into a sculptor’s workshop. He saw there a statue of Zeus and he asked how much it cost. The man said that it cost a drachma. Hermes smiled, and asked how much the statue of Hera would be. The man named a still higher price. When Hermes saw a statue of himself, he expected that he would be reckoned at an even higher price, since he delivered the messages of the gods and brought profit to mankind. But when he asked how much the statue of Hermes would cost, the sculptor replied, ‘If you buy those other two, I’ll throw this one in for free!’”
Hermes would protect merchants if they worshipped him, helping them to be profitable. With him on your side, mortals could be blessed with wealth either as a thief or a businessperson. In artwork, he sometimes holds a bag of money.
Hermes, Guider of Souls
Hermes was also titled the “Guider of Souls”, and he did this for both living and dead mortal souls. After a person had died, he would guide their soul to the Underworld, which is the afterlife in Greek mythology. He would guide these souls to the River Styx, where the ferryman Charon would then take them to be judged deeper in the Underworld.
As a guide (pompaios in Greek), he also helped heroes on their quests. He guided Heracles, to the Underworld during one of his labors to retrieve the three-headed dog, Cerberus. For Odysseus, he gave him special herbs so that Circe could not entrance him with her magic. He also commanded Calypso to let Odysseus go when the sailor was stuck on her island.
Hermes aided Perseus in his quest to defeat the Gorgon, Medusa. He gave Perseus his own winged sandals to borrow. He then guided Perseus to where Medusa lived and handed him the bag for Medusa’s decapitated head.
Hermes of the Golden Wand
In artwork, Hermes is hardly ever without his caduceus. This was a golden rod intertwined with two snakes. You may have seen it on the American emergency service ambulances. Hermes received the caduceus as a gift from Apollo. After receiving the lyre, Apollo vowed that he would love no one more than Hermes! Since Apollo was so delighted with his own gift, he gave Hermes the caduceus.
“I will give you a splendid staff of riches and wealth: it is of gold, with three branches, and will keep you scatheless, accomplishing every task, whether of words or deeds.”
(Hymn to Hermes)
God of the Roads, Travel, and Hospitality
In ancient Greece, a traveler would pray to Hermes for safe travel and protection. In return, he would ensure they had a hospitable host and could help them avoid robbers on the road. Of course, Hermes himself could side with the robber.
“A traveler who needed to make a long journey vowed that if he found anything, he would give half of it to Hermes. When he came across a bag full of dates and almonds he grabbed the bag and ate the almonds and dates. He then placed the pits of the dates and the shells of the almonds upon an altar and said “You have what was promised you, O Hermes: I have saved the outsides and the insides for you!’”
(From Aesop’s Fables)
Hermes would also protect herdsmen as they traveled with their flocks. This earned him the title “Keeper of the Flocks”. Hermes’ role in communications between travelers also gained him the title of Hermes the Translator. He knew all languages and could communicate with anyone. With all the deliveries and messages being relayed, it is no wonder Hermes needed the gift of tongues.
Hermes: Jack of All Trades
Hermes, or alternatively Mercury, had one of the most versatile roles among the Olympian gods. Here we have covered his participation in thievery, and ironically the opposite, in trade, but also hospitality, mischief, translation and communication, and his role as a messenger, a guide, and gift-giver.
By all accounts, Hermes did indeed encapsulate the following phrase: “A jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one.”