God of commerce and luck, patron of travelers, thieves, and merchants, and champion of athletes and athletic competitions, Hermes was a wily trickster who often put his own amusement over the interests of the gods. As herald and messenger of the gods, Hermes delivered the news, advice, and commands that maintained order and often sustained their fragile, tumultuous relationships. Hermes could also be unpredictable, however. Driven by impish designs and a fondness for sport, Hermes routinely tricked, lied, and—in several well-known instances—stole from the gods.

Like other trickster gods, Hermes tested norms, challenged conventions, and crossed boundaries. He was neither good nor evil, although he was capable of both; he instead chose to be the figure at the center of things, one who tilted chaotically in one direction or the other according to whim alone (hence his ability to be the patron of both thieves and merchants). Hermes’ oscillations between good and evil were mirrored by his ability to move among Olympus, the mortal world, and the underworld. For the ancient Greeks who worshiped him, Hermes represented the disorder and moral relativism they saw in the world.

*Hermes Ingenui* (2nd Century BC), Vatican Museums, a Roman copy of a Greek original. As is common in depictions of the god, Hermes appears as a very young man without a beard (he was the second youngest of the Olympians). He is shown equipped with his customary winged temples, his herald’s staff, called a *kerikeion* (also a caduceus), a musical instrument called a *kithara*, a round hat, and a traveler’s cloak.

Etymology

The names “Hermes” was derived from the ancient Greek herma, meaning a cairn, or heap of stones used to indicate the boundaries of something. The Greeks also used the word hermai to describe stone pillars adorned with phalluses, which were built along roads and dedicated to Hermes. That his name was derived from words associated with roads and thresholds suggested not only his status as god of travlers, but also his reputation as a trickster who played with boundaries.1

Family

Hermes was the son of Zeus and Maia, daughter of the titan Atlas (whose children were called the Atlantides) and the Oceanid nymph Pleione, whose seven daughters were known as the Pleiades (a name given to a constellation of seven stars).

As was the norm with Greek gods, Hermes had a plethora of lovers and multitudes of children. In line with his commitment to fleeting pleasures, Hermes rarely extended his affairs and seldom had more than one child with any of his partners. He successfully courted Aphrodite—with a little help from Zeus, who stole one of her sandals and lured her to Hermes to retrieve it—and sired Hermaphroditus, who later in life would merge his body with that of his female lover, thus becoming a single person with both male and female genitalia.

In some accounts, Hermes also mated with Dryope, an Arcadian nymph. Together, the two had the god child Pan, a rustic deity associated with shepherds and their flocks. A symbol of both the wild and mountains, Pan was known for his raw and voracious sexuality, unstructured musical improvisation on the shepherd’s pipes, and having the horns, legs, and rump of a goat. His peculiar anatomy aside, Pan was much like his father.

Hermes was also known to have taken many male lovers, including Perseus, the famed mortal hero and slayer of the Gorgon Medusa, and Chryses, the priest of Apollo whose mistreatment at the hands of the Achaeans tempted Apollo into battle outside Troy.

Mythology

Origins

Hermes was born in secret in a dark cave on the slopes of Mt. Cyllene in the Peloponnese. His mother, Maia, a nymph and the eldest of the Pleiades, had retreated there in an attempt to avoid contact with the gods. Zeus found her despite her best efforts, and thus began a sexual relationship that culminated with the conception of Hermes. According to the Homeric Hymn to Hermes:

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,—a shy goddess, for she avoided the company of the blessed gods, and lived within a deep, shady cave. There the son of Cronos used to lie with the rich-tressed nymph, unseen by deathless gods and mortal men, at dead of night while sweet sleep should hold white-armed Hera fast. And when the purpose of great Zeus was fixed in heaven, she was delivered and a notable thing was come to pass. For then she bare a son, 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.2

Growing faster than his mother could have expected, the young god child crept from his mother’s embrace and crawled away on the first night after his birth. As he ventured forth into the darkness, Hermes found a turtle. Perceiving the felicitous uses to which it could be put, he scraped its meat from its shell and set reeds into its exposed shield. In so doing, Hermes created the first lyre, an instrument forever associated with ancient Greek culture.

Hermes' next stop was the pastures of Thessaly, where his half brother Apollo kept his herds of cattle. In an early showcase of the mischievous behavior that would come to define him, Hermes made off with Apollo’s cattle. Apollo reported the theft to Maia, who hardly believed Hermes could walk, let alone steal a herd of cattle from under the nose of the wise, perspicacious Apollo. Nevertheless, she helped Apollo appeal the case to Zeus, who often arbitrated feuds among the gods. Finding Hermes guilty, Zeus ordered the young god to return the cattle. Cornered, Hermes offered Apollo his lyre instead, an offer his half-brother eagerly accepted. So it was that Apollo first took up the lyre, the instrument he would use to become the greatest of all musicians.

Hermes carrying away Apollo’s cattle, a much reproduced scene from Greek mythology.

Hermes the Deceiver

The most roguish of all gods and goddesses, Hermes was a master of whispers and an inventor of lies. At various occasions, Hermes stole Poseidon’s trident, Artemis’ arrows, and the girdle of Aphrodite. In some stories, he was credited as the inventor of fire, and in the myths of Pandora he was said to have filled her infamous pithos (often mistranslated as “jar,”) with speech and deception:

The Argos-slaying guide [Hermes] implanted in her breast
deceits and wheedling words, the habits of a thief,
according to loud-thundering Zeus's plans. And speech
the herald of the gods put in...3

When he did perform heroic deeds, he accomplished such tasks with wit and wile—never brute strength. One famous episode told by Hesiod featured Hermes rescuing Zeus’ lover Io from the vengeful designs of Hera and the watchful gaze of Argus. Zeus had fallen for Io, a young, mortal priestess of Hera, and in his lust came down from Olympus to ravish her. When Hera found out about the affair, she set out to find and punish Io, leading Zeus to transform his young lover into a heifer and hide her within a herd of cattle. Hera discovered the ploy and ordered Argus, a giant with many eyes, to watch the herd until Io revealed herself.

On the verge of being bested, Zeus appealed to Hermes for assistance. Flying into action, Hermes distracted the giant by lulling him to sleep with his pipes, whispering charms in his ear, or hypnotizing him with his staff (the kerikeion), depending on the version of the story. When the all-seeing giant finally succumbed to slumber, Hermes slayed him with a rock and whisked Io away to safety. The adventure resulted in Hermes earning the title “Argeiphontes,” meaning “slayer of Argus,” an epithet that would come to be closely associated with the god.

Hermes in the Homeric Epics

As the chief herald and messenger of the gods and goddesses, Hermes wielded the enormous power of information. Nowhere was this faculty better exemplified than in the Homeric epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey.

In the Iliad, Hermes was among the gods who backed the Achaeans in their fight against the Trojans. His role in the conflict was largely unremarkable, save for an episode in which he guided King Priam of Troy to the body of his son, Hector, and allowed him to retrieve it.

Hermes had much more to do in the Odyssey, where he used the full measure of his cleverness to deliver Odysseus, his great grandson, back into the loving embraces of his wife and son. Hermes first visited Odysseus on the island of Aeaea, where the hero of the Trojan War was being detained by Circe, an enchantress and mischief-maker who had turned Odysseus’ crewmen into pigs. Hermes informed Odysseus of Circe’s treachery and gave him a magical herb called mory, which Hermes promised would protect him from the sorceress’ charms. Thanks to this valuable exchange, Odysseus was able to force Circe to restore his men to human form.

Later in the epic, Odysseus again found himself detained, this time by the beautiful nymph Calypso on the island of Ogygia. Hermes came to his aid once more, this time delivering news from Zeus himself. The king of Olympus had ordered Calypso to release Odysseus so that he could continue on his journey home. Seeing she had no choice in the matter, Calypso relented and released Odysseus and his crew.

When Odysseus finally returned home to Ithaca, he slayed the opportunistic suitors who—by seeking Penelope’s hand in marriage—had sought to usurp Odysseus’ role as patriarch of his family. Fittingly, it was Hermes who conveyed their unworthy souls to the underworld.

Jacob Jordaens, *Mercury and Argus* (ca. 1620), the Museum of Fine Arts, Lyon, France. Depicted here is the famous mythic scene in which the sly Hermes lulls the watchful Argus to sleep. Note the white heifer in the background.

Pop Culture

While Hermes was not the most popular of gods due to his rather unimposing reputation, he and his famous accoutrements have nevertheless appeared often in popular culture.

Hermes has appeared in most modern depictions of Greek mythology. In Disney’s Hercules (1997), Hermes was depicted as a geeky, bespectacled messenger who avoids confrontation. His character was voiced by longtime David Letterman band leader Paul Schaffer. In the film version of the Rick Riordan novel, Percy Jackson and The Sea of Monsters, Hermes was played by Nathan Fillion. In the film, he was again presented as a messenger (to be more specific, as an executive of a package delivery company), who was quirky and unpredictable, though ultimately well meaning.

Hermes’ various instruments were often used to refer to his attributes and abilities. The feathers of his winged temples have become synonymous with swiftness and reliability; they have often appeared in various advertisements and logos. Goodyear used this symbol to sell its tires by conjuring hopes of swiftness and reliability. Likewise, the FTD flower delivery company used the image of a streaking Hermes with flowers in his hand as shorthand for the swiftness and reliability of its delivery services. Hermes has also been used as a logo for many national mail services.

Perhaps most famously of all, Hermes’ staff, the kerikeion or caduceus—a winged rod with a pair of snakes coiled around it—was used as a general symbol of medicine and served as the chief symbol of the American Medical Association. Such a symbol was but another expression of Hermes, who delivered one from sickness to health.

References

Bibliography

  1. Hesiod. Works and Days. Translated by Bruce MacLennan. Diotima. https://diotimawcc.wordpress.com/pandora-hesiod-works-and-days-53-105/.

  2. Homer. “Homeric Hymn IV, to Hermes.” Hesiod, the Homeric Hymns, and Homerica. Translated by G. Hugh Evelyn-White. Project Gutenberg. Last modified February 4, 2013. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/348/348-h/348-h.htm#link2H_4_0037.

  3. Wikipedia contributers. “Hermes.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hermes.

Footnotes

  1. See the Wikipedia entry for “Hermes.” 

  2. Homer, “Homeric Hymn IV, to Hermes,” 1–29. 

  3. Hesiod, Works and Days, 77–80.