Hermes invented the lyre the same day he was born and gifted it to Apollo after being caught stealing his cattle.
In Homer's Odyssey, Hermes protected Odysseus from the enchantress Circe’s spells and interceded with the nymph Calypso to free Odysseus and his crew.
Hermes was neither good nor evil. He was a trickster god who prized cleverness and amusement above all else, and was willing to toy with mortals and immortals alike.
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 above the interests of the gods.
As herald and messenger of the gods, Hermes delivered the news, advice, and commands that maintained order and sustained the gods’ fragile, tumultuous relationships. Hermes could also be unpredictable, however. Driven by impish designs and a fondness for sport, he routinely tricked, deceived, 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 operate at the periphery of things, tilting chaotically in one direction or the other according to his whims (hence his role as the patron of both thieves and merchants). In addition to oscillating between good and evil, Hermes also moved freely between Olympus, the mortal world, and the Underworld. For the ancient Greeks who worshipped him, Hermes often represented the disorder and moral relativism they saw in the world.
The name “Hermes” seems to have originated in the Mycenaean period, the earliest period of Greek history (ca. 1600–1100 BCE). It was first written as e-ma-ha in the syllabic Linear B script used before the invention of the Greek alphabet.
Hermes’ name may have been related to the ancient Greek herma, a cairn or heap of stones used to indicate the boundaries of something. Indeed, many of these “herms” were dedicated to Hermes. But it is not clear where the word herma comes from or how exactly it is linguistically related to the name “Hermes.” Scholars today generally agree that Hermes’ name is pre-Greek in origin.1
Hermes’ Roman counterpart was called Mercury.
Hermes’ most common literary epithet was Argeiphontēs, meaning “killer of Argus.” This related to the famous myth in which Hermes outsmarted and killed the hundred-eyed guardsman Argus (see below). Other important epithets related to Hermes’ mythology included Atlantiadēs, meaning “descendant of Atlas” (Hermes’ mother, Maia, was the daughter of the Titan Atlas), and Cyllēnios, meaning “Cyllenian” or “of Mount Cyllene” (Mount Cyllene was an important cult center of Hermes, sometimes said to have been his birthplace).
Other epithets described important attributes of Hermes. These included dolios (“tricky”), angelos and diactoros (“messenger”), eriounios (either “swift” or “beneficial”—the meaning is uncertain), and chrysorrhapis (“he of the golden wand”).
Finally, Hermes boasted numerous religious and cult epithets that described his many functions as a god. Among these were hodios (“he of the road”), oneiropompos (“conductor of dreams”), poimandrēs (“shepherd of men”), agoraios (“he of the market”), and psychopompos (“conductor of souls”).
As a god, Hermes was primarily associated with four domains: (1) messengers and heralds; (2) boundaries, travel, and commerce; (3) shepherds; and (4) the mysteries. In these capacities, Hermes presided over many areas of human life.
As the messenger of the gods, Hermes broadly represented communication and was invoked as the patron and protector of heralds and diplomats.
Hermes’ association with boundaries was also very broad: he was the god not only of travelers but also of merchants, thieves, and even the passage from life to death (it was Hermes who led the souls of those who died to the Underworld).
Hermes was also a pastoral god, seen as the protector of shepherds and livestock. Indeed, in his iconography Hermes was sometimes portrayed with a ram slung over his shoulder to represent his role as god of shepherds.
Finally, Hermes was associated with the enigmatic mystery cults of the ancient world, which tended to promise a privileged afterlife attainable through initiation and ritual. Hermes was often regarded as the god who presided over these mysteries.
#Iconography and Symbols
Hermes’ representation in art and literature was quite distinctive. He was usually shown wearing a chiton (a short tunic), a chlamys (a short robe), and a petasos (a broad-brimmed sun hat). He could also be easily identified by his winged sandals and the kērykeion (better known by its Latin name, caduceus), a herald’s staff or wand wrapped by two intertwined snakes.
In early Greek art, Hermes was shown as either bearded or beardless. But from the fifth century BCE on, he was almost always boyish and clean-shaven.
Possibly the most distinctive object in Hermes’ iconography was the herm, a semi-anthropomorphic stone pillar used as a boundary marker throughout ancient Greece. Herms were often topped by a bust identified as Hermes; the middle of the pillar featured a phallus, perhaps representing Hermes’ association with fertility.
Hermes was known as something of a loner and did not have a grand entourage like many of the other Olympians. He was, however, sometimes seen in the company of the animals deemed sacred to him, which included the rooster, the dog, the goat, and the ram.
Hermes was the son of Zeus and Maia and the grandson of Atlas, the Titan who held the heavens on his shoulders.2 He had countless half-siblings, the products of Zeus’ marriages and affairs with various mortals and immortals. These included the gods Apollo, Athena, Ares, Artemis, and Dionysus, as well as the mortal heroes Heracles, Minos, and Perseus.
As was the norm with Greek gods, Hermes had a plethora of lovers and children. In line with his commitment to fleeting pleasures, he rarely prolonged his affairs and seldom had more than one child with any of his partners.
Hermes had a number of important children, including Pan (sources disagree on the identity of the mother).3 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.
In other stories, Hermes successfully courted Aphrodite and sired Hermaphroditus by her. This Hermaphroditus, who took after both his parents in his shocking physical beauty, would later in life merge his body with that of his female lover, thus becoming a single person with both male and female genitalia.
Hermes was also the father of Autolycus, a cunning and famous thief (once again, the identity of the mother varies in different sources).4 Autolycus was the grandfather of Odysseus, whose wanderings were the subject of Homer’s epic the Odyssey. This made Hermes the ancestor of the great Odysseus.
Hermes was usually said to have been born in secret, in a dark cave on the slopes of Mount Cyllene in the Peloponnese (around the region of Arcadia).5 His mother, Maia, one of the daughters of the Titan Atlas, had retreated there in an attempt to avoid contact with the gods. Zeus found her despite her best efforts and 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.6
#The Theft of Apollo’s Cattle
Growing faster than his mother could have anticipated, 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, scraped the meat from its shell, and set reeds and animal sinews into it. In so doing, he 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 the cattle. When Apollo discovered the theft and tracked Hermes down, the newborn god tried to play the part of an innocent baby. But Apollo was not fooled.
When Hermes continued to deny his crime, Apollo appealed 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.
#The Killing of Argus
Hermes always accomplished his heroic deeds with wit and guile—never brute strength. One famous myth 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. To obscure any evidence of his infidelity, Zeus transformed his young lover into a heifer and hid her among 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 Argus, in most versions by lulling him to sleep. When the all-seeing giant finally closed all of his eyes in slumber, Hermes killed him with either a stone or a sword (there are different versions).7 The adventure resulted in Hermes earning the title “Argeiphontes,” meaning “killer of Argus,” an epithet that would come to be closely associated with the god.
#Hermes and the Olympians
The most roguish of all gods and goddesses, Hermes was a master of whispers and a teller of lies. His status among the other Olympian gods was a complex one: though one of the Twelve Olympians himself, Hermes was also the messenger of the gods, representing communication between the powerful, remote gods and the mortals whose lives were often at their mercy.
Hermes did not have a wife; more than almost any other god, he stood out as a loner, often more at home in the rough world of scrappy mortals than in the unchanging blissfulness of Olympus. By comparison, even Hephaestus, the gruff cripple, was married (albeit to the unfaithful Aphrodite).
However, Hermes certainly pulled his weight among both gods and mortals. When the Giants attacked Mount Olympus, Hermes fought alongside the other gods and goddesses, killing a Giant named Hippolytus.8 Some stories also credit Hermes as an inventor of fire: it was Hermes who discovered how to kindle a flame using friction by rubbing sticks together.9 In other stories, Hermes lent a helping hand to various heroes, including Perseus and Heracles.
Not all of Hermes’ actions were benevolent, however. According to Hesiod, when all of the gods imbued Pandora with their special “gifts,” Hermes contributed speech and deception. This ensured that Pandora would open “Pandora’s box” and unleash all known evils upon the world of humans.10
#Hermes in Homer
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 generally backed the Greeks 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, helping him to safely retrieve it from the violent and dangerous Achilles.11
Hermes also had a role in the Odyssey, where he used the full measure of his cleverness to deliver Odysseus, his great-grandson, back into the loving embrace 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 moly that protected him from the sorceress’s charms. Thanks to this valuable exchange, Odysseus was able to force Circe to restore his men to human form.12
Later in his travels, 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.13
When Odysseus finally returned home to Ithaca, he killed 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.14
Festivals of Hermes were usually called Hermaia and were often Saturnalia-esque: that is, societal roles were temporarily reversed during the festival. For example, the island of Samos had a festival of Hermes Charidotes during which everybody was permitted to steal.15 On Crete, there was a different festival of Hermes in which masters waited on their slaves.16
Hermes’ most important centers of worship were on Mount Cyllene in Arcadia, where he was usually said to have been born. According to myth, the ancient temple of Hermes on Mount Cyllene was actually built by Lycaon, one of the first kings of Arcadia, who was transformed into a wolf for his hubris.17
Hermes also had temples and sanctuaries in other major cities, such as Athens, Sparta, and Thebes.
Finally, Hermes’ most widespread sanctified spaces were the herms: semi-anthropomorphic stone pillars adorned with a bust and phallus that were set up along roads, houses, and buildings throughout ancient Greece.
A famous historical event illustrates how seriously the Greeks took the herms. In 415 BCE, many of the herms in and around Athens were mysteriously vandalized in the middle of the night. Numerous high-profile suspects were arrested, and one suspect, the general Alcibiades, actually went into exile to avoid a trial and possible execution. Alcibiades ended up defecting to Sparta, with whom the Athenians were fighting at the time. Thus, the religious fears and superstitions of the Greeks ended up influencing interstate politics.18
Hermes was not the most popular of gods due to his ambiguous reputation; nevertheless, he and his famous accoutrements often appear in popular culture.
Hermes can be found in most modern depictions of Greek mythology, though these contemporary characters don’t always align with his reputation in antiquity. In Disney’s Hercules (1997), he is depicted as a geeky, bespectacled messenger who avoids confrontation. In the film version of the Rick Riordan novel Percy Jackson and the Sea of Monsters, Hermes is again presented as a messenger (or more specifically, as an executive of a package delivery company)—quirky and unpredictable, though ultimately well-meaning.
The feathers of Hermes’ winged sandals often appear in advertisements and logos as a symbol of swiftness and reliability. Goodyear, for example, has used this symbol to sell its tires. Likewise, the logo of the FTD flower delivery company features an image of Hermes rushing by with flowers in his hand—shorthand for the swiftness and reliability of its delivery services. Hermes has also been used in the logos of many national mail services.
Perhaps most famously of all, Hermes’ staff, the caduceus (a winged rod with a pair of snakes coiled around it), has been used as a general symbol for medicine and the chief symbol of the American Medical Association.
Homer: Hermes often appears as the messenger of the gods in the Iliad and the Odyssey (eighth century BCE).
Hesiod: Hermes appears in connection with several myths in the seventh-century BCE epics of Hesiod, including the Theogony and the Works and Days.
Homeric Hymns: The fourth Homeric Hymn (seventh and sixth centuries BCE), one of the longer ones, is dedicated to Hermes and describes his birth and childhood escapades. The much shorter eighteenth Hymn is also dedicated to Hermes.
Aeschylus: Hermes is a character in the fifth-century BCE tragedy Prometheus Bound, traditionally attributed to Aeschylus (but whose true authorship continues to be debated). In this tragedy, Zeus punishes Prometheus for stealing fire from the gods, but soon discovers that the Titan has secret knowledge that could prevent Zeus from losing his power. In the last scene, Zeus sends Hermes to Prometheus in an unsuccessful attempt to force him to reveal what he knows.
Euripides: Hermes appears briefly in the prologue of Euripides’ Ion (410s BCE), where he narrates the backstory, explaining how his half-brother Apollo was the true father of the tragedy’s protagonist, Ion. In the tragedy Helen (412 BCE), Helen claims that she was brought to Egypt by Hermes, while the Trojan prince Paris took only a phantom with him to Troy.
Aristophanes: Hermes is a character in two surviving comedies by Aristophanes: Peace (421 BCE), where he helps the mortal protagonist Trygaeus rescue the goddess Peace, and Wealth (408 BCE), where he plays his accustomed role as messenger of the gods.
Orphic Hymns: The Orphics were a Greek cult that believed a blissful afterlife could be attained by living an ascetic life. Orphic Hymn 27 and 56 (ca. third century BCE to second century CE) are dedicated to Hermes.
Strabo, Geography: A late first-century BCE geographical treatise and an important source for many local Greek myths, institutions, and religious practices from antiquity.
Lucian: Hermes features in a number of Lucian’s satirical writings (late first to early second century CE), including the Dialogues of the Gods, where the gods complain that Hermes has stolen various items from them, including Poseidon’s trident and Aphrodite’s girdle.
Pausanias, Description of Greece: A second-century CE travelogue; like Strabo’s Geography, an important source for local myths and customs.
Quintus of Smyrna: In the fourth-century CE epic Posthomerica, Hermes occasionally appears as the messenger of the gods.
Nonnus: In the epic poem Dionysiaca (fifth century CE), Hermes plays an important role as the protector and ally of the young Dionysus.
Colluthus: In the fifth- or sixth-century CE poem Rape of Helen, it is Hermes who presides over the infamous Judgment of Paris.
Virgil: Mercury (the Roman equivalent of Hermes) appears throughout the Aeneid (19 BCE) as the messenger of the gods.
Ovid: Various myths of Hermes/Mercury are told in Ovid’s poems, especially the Metamorphoses and Fasti (both ca. 8 CE).
Statius: In the epic Thebaid (first century CE), Hermes/Mercury is the messenger of the gods, especially Jupiter.
Silius Italicus: In the Punica, a first-century CE epic about Hannibal’s war against the Romans, Hermes/Mercury shows up a few times in his accustomed role of divine messenger.
Mythological Handbooks (Greek and Roman)
Diodorus of Sicily, Library of History: A work of universal history, covering events from the creation of the cosmos to Diodorus’ own time (mid-first century BCE). Contains various references to the myths of Hermes
Apollodorus, Library: A mythological handbook from the first century BCE or the first few centuries CE. There are various references to the myths of Hermes.
Hyginus, Fabulae: A Latin mythological handbook (first or second century CE) that includes sections on the myths of Hermes/Mercury.
Fulgentius, Mythologies: A Latin mythological handbook (fifth or sixth century CE) with sections on the myths of Hermes/Mercury.
Athanassakis, Apostolos. “From the Phallic Cairn to Shepherd God and Divine Herald.” Eranos 87 (1989): 33–49.
Baudy, Gerhard, and Anne Ley. “Hermes.” In Brill’s New Pauly, edited by Hubert Cancik, Helmuth Schneider, Christine F. Salazar, Manfred Landfester, and Francis G. Gentry. Published online 2006. http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/1574-9347_bnp_e510080.
Brown, Norman O. Hermes the Thief: The Evolution of a Myth. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1947.
Burkert, Walter. Greek Religion. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985.
Cartwright, Mark. “Hermes.” World History Encyclopedia. Published online 2019. https://www.ancient.eu/zeus/.
Gantz, Timothy. Early Greek Myth: A Guide to Literary and Artistic Sources. 2 vols. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.
Graves, Robert. The Greek Myths. London: Penguin, 1955.
Guthrie, W. K. G. The Greeks and Their Gods. London: Methuen, 1962.
Kerényi, Károly. The Gods of the Greeks. London: Thames and Hudson, 1951.
Long, C. R. The Twelve Gods of Greece and Rome. Leiden: Brill, 1987.
Rose, H. J. A Handbook of Greek Mythology. London: Methuen, 1929.
Smith, William. “Hermes.” In A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. London: Spottiswoode and Company, 1873. Perseus Digital Library. Accessed May 18, 2021. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.04.0104%3Aalphabetic+letter%3DH%3Aentry+group%3D9%3Aentry%3Dhermes-bio-1.
Theoi Project. “Hermes.” Published online 2000–2017. https://www.theoi.com/Olympios/Hermes.html.