Hermes (Greek, Ἑρμῆς, ), in Greek mythology, is the Olympian god of boundaries and of the travelers who cross them, of shepherds and cowherds, of thieves and road travelers, of orators and wit, of literature and poets, of athletics, of weights and measures, of invention, of general commerce, and of the cunning of thieves and liars. His symbols include the tortoise, the rooster, the winged sandals, and the caduceus. The analogous Roman deity is Mercury.
The Homeric hymn to Hermes invokes him as the one "of many shifts (polytropos), 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.
The name Hermes
has been thought, ever since Karl Otfried Müller
's demonstration, to be derived from the Greek word herma
), 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; however, due to the god's attestation in the Mycenaean pantheon, as Hermes Araoia
("Ram Hermes") in Linear B
inscriptions in Pylos
and Mycenaean Knossos
(Ventris and Chadwick), the connection is more likely to have moved the opposite way, from
pillar representations. From the subsequent association of these cairns — which were used in Athens
to ward off evil and also as road and boundary markers
all over Greece — Hermes acquired patronage over land travel. Hermes was a messenger for Zeus. The reason for this was not only was he the fastest god but he was also loyal to his father, Zeus. Hermes is an olympian god and herald to the gods. He is the son of Zeus and Maia. He is known for gymnasium, roads, hospitality, astronomy, astrology, and and animals of husbandry. When he was little, he made the first lyre from an tortoise shell. Hermes was born in Arcadia.
Epithets of Hermes
Hermes' epithet Argeiphontes
), or Argus-slayer, recalls his slaying of the hundred eyed giant Argus Panoptes
, who was watching over the heifer
in the sanctuary of Queen Hera
herself in Argos. Putting Argus to sleep, Hermes used a spell to permanently close all of Argus' eyes and then slew the giant. Argus' eyes were then put into the tail of the peacock, symbol of the goddess Hera.
Other epithets included:
- Agoraeus, of the agora
- Acacesius, of Acacus
- Charidotes, giver of charm
- Criophorus, ram-bearer
- Cyllenius, born on Mount Cyllene
- Diaktoros, the messenger
- Dolios, the schemer
- Enagonios, lord of contests
- Enodios, on the road
- Epimelius, keeper of flocks
- Eriounios, luck bringer
- Psychopompos, conveyor of souls
- General article: Cult (religion).
Though temples to Hermes existed throughout Greece
, a major center of his cult was at Pheneos
, where festivals in his honor were called Hermoea
As a crosser of boundaries, Hermes Psychopompos' ("conductor of the soul") was a psychopomp, meaning he brought newly-dead souls to the Underworld and Hades. In the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, Hermes conducted Persephone the Kore (young girl or virgin), safely back to Demeter. He also brought dreams to living mortals.
Among the Hellenes, as the related word herma ("a boundary stone, crossing point") would suggest, Hermes embodied the spirit of crossing-over: He was seen to be manifest in any kind of interchange, transfer, transgressions, transcendence, transition, transit or traversal, all of which involve some form of crossing in some sense. This explains his connection with transitions in one’s fortune -- with the interchanges of goods, words and information involved in trade, interpretation, oration, writing -- with the way in which the wind may transfer objects from one place to another, and with the transition to the afterlife.
Many graffito dedications to Hermes have been found in the Athenian Agora, in keeping with his epithet of Agoraios and his role as patron of commerce.
Originally, Hermes was depicted as an older, bearded, phallic god, but in the 6th century BCE, the traditional Hermes was reimagined as an athletic youth (illustration, top right). Statues of the new type of Hermes stood at stadiums and gymnasiums throughout Greece.
In very Ancient Greece, Hermes was a phallic god of boundaries. His name, in the form herma,
was applied to a wayside marker pile of stones; each traveller added a stone to the pile. In the 6th century BCE, Hipparchos
, the son of Pisistratus
, replaced the cairns
that marked the midway point between each village deme
at the central agora
of Athens with a square or rectangular pillar of stone or bronze topped by a bust of Hermes with a beard
. An erect phallus
rose from the base. In the more primitive Mount Kyllini
or Cyllenian herms
, the standing stone or wooden pillar was simply a carved phallus. In Athens, herms were placed outside houses for good luck. "That a monument of this kind could be transformed into an Olympian
god is astounding," Walter Burkert
remarked (Burkert 1985).
In 415 BCE, when the Athenian fleet was about to set sail for Syracuse during the Peloponnesian War, all of the Athenian hermai were vandalized. The Athenians at the time believed it was the work of saboteurs, either from Syracuse or from the anti-war faction within Athens itself. Socrates' pupil Alcibiades was suspected to have been involved, and Socrates indirectly paid for the impiety with his life.
From these origins, hermai moved into the repertory of Classical architecture.
Hermes was usually portrayed wearing a broad-brimmed traveler's hat or a winged cap (petasus), wearing winged sandals (talaria), and carrying his Near Eastern herald's staff -- either a caduceus entwined by serpents, or a kerykeion topped with a symbol similar to the astrological symbol of Taurus the bull. Hermes wore the garments of a traveler, worker, or shepherd. He was represented by purses or bags, roosters (illustration, left), and tortoises. When depicted as Hermes Logios, he was the divine symbol of eloquence, generally shown speaking with one arm raised for emphasis.
Hermes was born in Mount Cyllene
. As the story is told in the Homeric Hymn
, the Hymn to Hermes, Maia
was a nymph
, but Greeks generally applied the name to a midwife or a wise and gentle old woman; so the nymph appears to have been an ancient one, or more probably a goddess. At any rate, she was one of the Pleiades
, daughters of Atlas, taking refuge in a cave of Mount Cyllene in Arcadia.
The infant Hermes was precocious. His first day he invented the lyre. By nightfall, he had rustled the immortal cattle of Apollo. For the first sacrifice, the taboos surrounding the sacred kine of Apollo had to be transgressed, and the trickster god of boundaries was the one to do it.
Hermes drove the cattle back to Greece and hid them, and covered their tracks. When Apollo accused Hermes, Maia said that it could not be him because he was with her the whole night. However, Zeus entered the argument and said that Hermes did steal the cattle and they should be returned. While arguing with Apollo, Hermes began to play his lyre. The instrument enchanted Apollo and he agreed to let Hermes keep the cattle in exchange for the lyre.
-like Greek god of nature, shepherds and flocks, Pan
was often said to be the son of Hermes through the nymph Dryope
. In the Homeric Hymn
to Pan, Pan's mother ran away from the newborn god in fright from his goat-like appearance.
was an immortal son of Hermes through Aphrodite
. He was changed into an intersex
person when the gods literally granted the nymph Salmacis
' wish that they never separate.
The god Priapus
was a son of Hermes and Aphrodite. In Priapus, Hermes' phallic origins survived.
According to other sources, Priapus was a son of Dionysus and Aphrodite
According to some sources, the mischievous winged god of love Eros
, son of Aphrodite, was sired by Hermes, though the gods Ares
were also among those said to be the sire, whereas in the Theogeny
claims that Eros was born of nothing before the Gods. Eros' Roman name was Cupid
The goddess of luck
, Tyche (Greek Τύχη
), or Fortuna
, was sometimes said to be the daughter of Hermes and Aphrodite.
was a son of Hermes who was devoured by the Mares of Diomedes
. He had gone to the Mares with his friend Heracles
, the Prince of Thieves, was a son of Hermes and grandfather of Odysseus
List of Hermes' consorts and children
Hermes in the myths
, Hermes helps King Priam
) sneak into the Achaean
(Greek) encampment to confront Achilles
and convince him to return Hector
The body of Sarpedon is carried away from the battlefield of Troy by the twin winged gods, Hypnos (Sleep) and Thanatos (Death). The pair are depicted clothed in armour, and are overseen by Hermes Psykhopompos (Guide of the Dead). The scene appears in book 16 of Homer's Iliad:
"[Apollon] gave him [the dead Sarpedon] into the charge of swift messengers to carry him, of Hypnos (Sleep) and Thanatos (Death), who are twin brothers, and these two presently laid him down within the rich countryside of broad Lykia." - Homer, Iliad 16.681
In book 5, Hermes is sent to demand from Calypso
Odysseus's release from the island of Aeaea
; in book 10, he protects Odysseus from Circe
by bestowing upon him a herb, moly
, which protects him from her soporific spell. Hermes
also appears in book 24, where he plays the role of Psychopompos
and leads the freshly slain suitors and disloyal maids to the underworld.
, the main character of the Odyssey
, is of matrilineal
descent from Hermes.
Hermes aided Perseus
in killing the gorgon
(Medusa) by giving Perseus his winged sandals and Zeus
. He also gave Perseus Hades' helmet of invisibility and told him to use it so that Medusa's immortal sisters could not see him. Athena
helped Perseus as well by lending him her polished shield. Hermes also guided Perseus to the Underworld.
In the ancient play Prometheus Bound
, attributed to Aeschylus
, Zeus sends Hermes to confront the enchained Titan Prometheus about a prophecy of the Titan's that Zeus would be overthrown. Hermes scolds Prometheus for being unreasonable and willing to endure torture, but Prometheus refuses to give him details about the prophecy.
When Hermes loved Herse
, one of three sisters who served Athena
as priestesses or parthenos
, her jealous older sister Aglaurus
stood between them. Hermes changed Aglaurus to stone. Hermes then impregnated Aglaurus while she was stone. Cephalus
was the son of Hermes and Herse
. Hermes had another son, Ceryx
, who was said to be the offspring of either Herse or Herse's other sister, Pandrosus
. With Aglaurus
, Hermes was the father of Eumolpus
In the story of the musician Orpheus
, Hermes brought Eurydice
back to Hades after Orpheus failed to bring her back to life when he looked back toward her after Hades told him not to.
Hermes helped to protect the infant god Dionysus from Hera, after Hera destroyed Dionysus' mortal mother Semele through her jealousy that Semele had conceived an immortal son of Zeus.
Hermes changed the Minyades into bats.
Hermes learned from the Thriae the arts of fortune-telling and divination.
When the gods created Pandora, it was Hermes who brought her to mortals and bestowed upon her a strong sense of curiosity.
King Atreus of Mycenae retook the throne from his brother Thyestes using advice he received from the trickster Hermes. Thyestes agreed to give the kingdom back when the sun moved backwards in the sky, a feat that Zeus accomplished. Atreus retook the throne and banished Thyestes.
Diogenes, speaking in jest, related the myth of Hermes taking pity on his son Pan, who was pining for Echo but unable to get a hold of her, and teaching him the trick of masturbation to relieve his suffering. Pan later taught the habit to shepherds.
Battus, a shepherd from Pylos, witnessed Hermes stealing Apollo's cattle. Though he promised his silence, he told many others. Hermes turned him to stone.
Hermes in classical art
- Walter Burkert, 1985. Greek Religion (Harvard University Press)
- Kerenyi, Karl, 1944. Hermes der Seelenführer.
- Ventris, Michael and Chadwick, John (1956). Documents in Mycenaean Greek. Second edition (1974). (Cambridge UP) ISBN 0-521-08558-6.
- Meletinskii, Eleazar M. 1986, Vvedenie v istoričeskuû poétiku éposa i romana. Moscow, Nauka.
- Introduzione alla poetica storica dell'epos e del romanzo (1993)