Hermes, a son of Zeus and Maia, the daughter of Atlas, was born in a cave of Mount Cyllene in Arcadia,1 whence he is called Atlantiades or Cyllenius; but Philostratus2 places his birth in Olympus.
In the first hours after his birth, he escaped from his cradle, went to Pieria, and carried off some of the oxen of Apollo.3 In the Iliad and Odyssey this tradition is not mentioned, though Hermes is characterized as a cunning thief.4 Other accounts, again, refer the theft of the oxen to a more advanced period of the life of the god.5 In order not to be discovered by the traces of his footsteps, Hermes put on sandals, and drove the oxen to Pylos, where he killed two, and concealed the rest in a cave.6 The skins of the slaughtered animals were nailed to a rock, and part of their flesh was prepared and consumed, and the rest burnt; at the same time he offered sacrifices to the twelve gods, whence he is probably called the inventor of divine worship and sacrifices.7 Hereupon he returned to Cyllene, where he found a tortoise at the entrance of his native cave. He took the animal's shell, drew strings across it, and thus invented the lyre and plectrum. The number of strings of his new invention is said by some to have been three and by others seven, and they were made of the guts either of oxen or of sheep.8
Apollo, by his prophetic power, had in the meantime discovered the thief, and went to Cyllene to charge him with it before his mother Maia. She showed to the god the child in its cradle; but Apollo took the boy before Zeus, and demanded back his oxen. Zeus commanded him to comply with the demand of Apollo, but Hermes denied that he had stolen the cattle. As, however, he saw that his assertions were not believed, he conducted Apollo to Pylos, and restored to him his oxen; but when Apollo heard the sounds of the lyre, he was so charmed that he allowed Hermes to keep the animals.
Hermes now invented the syrinx, and after having disclosed his inventions to Apollo, the two gods concluded an intimate friendship with each other.9 Apollo presented his young friend with his own golden shepherd's staff, taught him the art of prophesying by means of dice, and Zeus made him his own herald, and also of the gods of the lower world. According to the Homeric hymn,10 Apollo refused to teach Hermes the art of prophecy, and referred him for it to the three sisters dwelling on Parnassus; but he conferred upon him the office of protecting flocks and pastures.11
The principal feature in the traditions about Hermes consists in his being the herald of the gods, and in this capacity he appears even in the Homeric poems; his original character of an ancient Pelasgian, or Arcadian divinity of nature, gradually disappeared in the legends. As the herald of the gods, he is the god of skill in the use of speech and of eloquence in general, for the heralds are the public speakers in the assemblies and on other occasions.12 As an adroit speaker, he was especially employed as messenger, when eloquence was required to attain the desired object.13 Hence the tongues of sacrificial animals were offered to him.14 As heralds and messengers are usually men of prudence and circumspection, Hermes was also the god of prudence and skill in all the relations of social intercourse.15
These qualities were combined with similar ones, such as cunning both in words and actions, and even fraud, perjury, and the inclination to steal; but acts of this kind were committed by Hermes always with a certain skill, dexterity, and even gracefulness. Examples occur in the Homeric hymn on Hermes.16
Being endowed with this shrewdness and sagacity, he was regarded as the author of a variety of inventions, and, besides the lyre and syrinx, he is said to have invented the alphabet, numbers, astronomy, music, the art of fighting, gymnastics, the cultivation of the olive tree, measures, weights, and many other things.17 The powers which he possessed himself he conferred upon those mortals and heroes who enjoyed his favor, and all who had them were under his especial protection, or are called his sons.18 He was employed by the gods and more especially by Zeus on a variety of occasions which are recorded in ancient story. Thus he conducted Priam to Achilles to fetch the body of Hector,19 tied Ixion to the wheel,20 conducted Hera, Aphrodite, and Athena to Paris,21 fastened Prometheus to Mount Caucasus,22 rescued Dionysus after his birth from the flames, or received him from the hands of Zeus to carry him to Athamas,23 sold Heracles to Omphale,24 and was ordered by Zeus to carry off Io, who was metamorphosed into a cow, and guarded by Argus but being betrayed by Hierax, he slew Argus.25 From this murder he is very commonly called Argeiphontes (Ἀργειφόντης).26 In the Trojan war Hermes was on the side of the Greeks.27
His ministry to Zeus is not confined to the offices of herald and messenger, but he is also the charioteer and cupbearer.28 As dreams are sent by Zeus, Hermes, the ἡγήτωρ ὀνείρων (hēgētōr oneirōn), conducts them to man, and hence he is also described as the god who had it in his power to send refreshing sleep or to take it away.29 Another important function of Hermes was to conduct the shades of the dead from the upper into the lower world, whence he is called ψυχοπομπός (psychopompos), νεκροπομπός (nekropompos), ψυχαγωγός (psychagōgos), etc.30
The idea of his being the herald and messenger of the gods, of his traveling from place to place and concluding treaties, necessarily implied the notion that he was the promoter of social intercourse and of commerce among men, and that he was friendly towards man.31 In this capacity he was regarded as the maintainer of peace, and as the god of roads, who protected travelers, and punished those who refused to assist travelers who had mistaken their way.32 Hence the Athenian generals, on setting out on an expedition, offered sacrifices to Hermes, surnamed Hegemonius, or Agetor; and numerous statues of the god were erected on roads, at doors and gates, from which circumstance he derived a variety of surnames and epithets.
As the god of commerce, he was called διέμπορος (diemporos), ἐμπολαῖος (empolaios), παλιγκάπηλος (paligkapelos), κερδέμπορος (kerdemporos), ἀγοραῖυς (agoraius), etc.;33 and as commerce is the source of wealth, Hermes is also the god of gain and riches, especially of sudden and unexpected riches, such as are acquired by commerce. As the giver of wealth and good luck (πλουτοδότης, ploutodotēs), he also presided over the game of dice, and those who played it threw an olive leaf upon the dice, and first drew this leaf.34
We have already observed that Hermes was considered as the inventor of sacrifices, and hence he not only acts the part of a herald at sacrifices,35 but is also the protector of sacrificial animals, and was believed in particular to increase the fertility of sheep.36 For this reason he was especially worshiped by shepherds, and is mentioned in connection with Pan and the nymphs.37 This feature in the character of Hermes is a remnant of the ancient Arcadian religion, in which he was the fertilizing god of the earth, who conferred his blessings on man; and some other traces of this character occur in the Homeric poems.38
Another important function of Hermes was his being the patron of all the gymnastic games of the Greeks. This idea seems to be of late origin, for in the Homeric poems no trace of it is found; and the appearance of the god, such as it is there described, is very different from that which we might expect in the god of the gymnastic art. But as his images were erected in so many places, and among them, at the entrance of the gymnasia, the natural result was, that he, like Heracles and the Dioscuri, was regarded as the protector of youths and gymnastic exercises and contests,39 and that at a later time the Greek artists derived their ideal of the god from the gymnasium, and represented him as a youth whose limbs were beautifully and harmoniously developed by gymnastic exercises. Athens seems to have been the first place in which he was worshiped in this capacity.40
The numerous descendants of Hermes are treated of in separate articles. It should be observed that the various functions of the god led some of the ancients to assume a plurality of gods of this name. Cicero41 distinguishes five, and Servius42 four; but these numbers also include foreign divinities, which were identified by the Greeks with their own Hermes.
The most ancient seat of his worship is Arcadia, the land of his birth, where Lycaon, the son of Pelasgus, is said to have built to him the first temple.43 From thence his worship was carried to Athens, and ultimately spread through all Greece. The festivals celebrated in his honor were called Hermaia (Ἓρμαια).44 His temples and statues45 were extremely numerous in Greece. The Romans identified him with Mercury. Among the things sacred to him we may mention the palm tree, the tortoise, the number four, and several kinds of fish; and the sacrifices offered to him consisted of incense, honey, cakes, pigs, and especially lambs and young goats.46
The principal attributes of Hermes are:
1. A traveling hat, with a broad brim, which in later times was adorned with two little wings; the latter, however, are sometimes seen arising from his locks, his head not being covered with the hat.
2. The staff (ῥάβδος, rhabdos, or σκῆπτρον, skēptron): it is frequently mentioned in the Homeric poems as the magic staff by means of which he closes and opens the eyes of mortals, but no mention is made of the person or god from whom he received it, nor of the entwining serpents which appear in late works of art. According to the Homeric hymn and Apollodorus, he received it from Apollo; and it appears that we must distinguish two staffs, which were afterwards united into one: first, the ordinary herald's staff,47 and secondly, a magic staff, such as other divinities also possessed.48 The white ribbons with which the herald's staff was originally surrounded were changed by later artists into two serpents,49 though the ancients themselves accounted for them either by tracing them to some feat of the god, or by regarding them as symbolical representations of prudence, life, health, and the like. The staff, in later times, is further adorned with a pair of wings, expressing the rapidity with which the messenger of the gods moved from place to place.
3. The sandals (πέδιλα, pedila). They were beautiful and golden, and carried the god across land and sea with the rapidity of wind; but Homer no where says or suggests that they were provided with wings. The plastic art, on the other hand, required some outward sign to express this quality of the god's sandals, and therefore formed wings at his ankles, whence he is called πτηνοπέδιλος (ptēnopedilos), or alipes.50
In addition to these attributes, Hermes sometimes holds a purse in his hands.
Several representations of the god at different periods of his life, as well as in the discharge of his different functions, have come down to us. In ancient art he is initially portrayed as a powerful man with a beard. As such he is found on Greek vases, dressed in a traveler's cloak (chamlys) and wearing a traveler's cap (petasos) and winged leather boots (pteroeis pedila), and holding in his hands a staff (kerykeion, Latin: caduceus). Sometimes he wears winged sandals or a hat with wings. Later he is depicted as a beardless, powerful youth with an intelligent and kind look.
Famous is the statue by Praxiteles, showing Hermes with the infant Dionysus (fourth century BCE), and the resting Hermes, a bronze statue from Herculaneum. The god rests on a rock, nude, with only wings at his heels. As psychopomp he appears on many cenotaphs, among which a famous relief at the Villa Albani in Rome that depicts the parting of Orpheus and Eurydice. Here, Hermes wears traveling clothes, his hat hanging from his neck. Occasionally he is portrayed as a shepherd carrying a ram, or as the god of trade carrying a purse, for example the Hermes at the Capitoline.
- Homer. Odyssey viii, 335; xiv, 435 ff.; Homer. Hymn to Mercury, 1 ff.; Ovid. Metamorphoses i, 682; xiv, 291.
- Imagines i, 26.
- Homer. Hymn to Mercury, 17.
- Homer. Iliad v, 390; xxiv, 24.
- Pseudo-Apollodorus. The Library iii, 10.2; Antoninus Liberalis, 23.
- Comp. the different stratagems by which he escaped in Hymn to Mercury, 75 ff. and Antoninus Liberalis, l.c.
- Homer. Hymn to Mercury, 125 ff.; Diodorus Siculus, i, 16.
- Homer, l.c.; Diodorus Siculus, i, 16; v, 75; Orphic. Argonautica, 381; Horace. Carmina i, 10.6.
- Homer, l.c., 514 ff.
- 533 ff.
- 568; Lucian. Dialogi Deorum, 7; Ovid. Metamorphoses ii, 683 ff.
- Homer. Iliad i, 333; iv, 193; vii, 279, 385; viii, 517; xi, 684; comp. Orph. Hymns, 27.4; Aelian. History of Animals x, 29; Carmina i, 10.1.
- Homer. Odyssey i, 38; Iliad xxiv, 390; Hymn to Ceres, 335.
- Aristophanes. Peace, 1062; Atheneus, i, p. 16.
- Homer. Iliad xx, 35; xxiv, 282; Odyssey ii, 38.
- 66, 260, 383; comp. Eustathius on Homer, p. 1337; Iliad v, 390; xxiv, 24; Pseudo-Apollodorus. The Library i, 6.3.
- Plutarch. Symposiacs ix, 3; Diodorus Siculus, l.c. and v, 75; Hyginus. Fabulae, 277.
- Homer. Odyssey x, 277 ff.; xv, 318 ff.; xix, 397; Sophocles. Philoctetes, 133; Hesiod. Opera et Dies, 67; Eustathius on Homer, p. 18, 1053.
- Iliad xxiv, 336.
- Hyginus. Fabulae, 62.
- ibid., 92; Pausanias. Description of Greece v, 19.1.
- Servius on Virgil's Eclogues vi, 42.
- Pseudo-Apollodorus. The Library iii, 4.3; Apollonius Rhodius. Argonautica iv, 1137.
- ibid. ii, 6.3.
- ibid. ii, 1.3.
- Homer. Iliad xxiv, 182; comp. Scholiast on Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound, 563; Metamorphoses i, 670 ff.
- ibid. xx, 72 ff.
- Homer. Odyssey i, 143; Iliad xxiv, 178, 440; Hymn to Ceres, 380; Eustathius on Homer, p. 1205.
- Homer. Hymn to Mercury, 14; Iliad ii, 26; xxiv, 343 ff.
- Odyssey xxiv, 1, 9; Hymn to Ceres, 379 ff.; Eustathius on Homer, p. 561; Diogenes Laërtius, viii, 31; Fabulae, 251.
- Odyssey xix, 135; Iliad xxiv, 333.
- Iliad vii, 277 ff.; Theocritus, xxv, 5; Aristophanes. Plutus, 1159.
- Plutus, 1155; Pollux, vii, 15; Orphic Hymn 27, 6; Pausanias. Description of Greece i, 15.1; ii, 9.7; iii, 11.8 ff.
- Homer. Iliad vii, 183; Aristophanes. Peace, 365; Eustathius on Homer, p. 675.
- Aristophanes. Peace, 433.
- Homer. Hymn to Mercury, 567 ff.; Iliad xiv, 490; xvi, 180 ff.; Hesiod. Theogony, 444.
- Homer. Odyssey xiv, 435; Eustathius on Homer, p. 1766; Aristophanes. Thesmophoriazusae, 977; Description of Greece viii, 16.1; ix, 34.2; Scholiast on Sophocles' Philoctetes, 14, 59.
- Homer. Iliad xxiv, 360; Odyssey viii, 335; xvi, 185; Hymn to Mercury, 27.
- Pindar. Nemean Odes x, 53.
- Pindar. Pythian Odes ii, 10; Isthmian Odes i, 60; Aristophanes. Plutus, 1161.
- Cicero. On the Nature of the Gods iii, 22.
- On Virgil's Aeneid i, 301; iv, 577.
- Hyginus. Fabulae, 225.
- Dictionary of Antiquities, s.v.
- Dictionary of Antiquities, s.v. Hermae.
- Pausanias. Description of Greece vii, 22.2; Aristophanes. Plutus, 1121, 1144; Homer. Odyssey xiv, 435; xix, 397; Atheneus, i, 16.
- Homer. Iliad vii, 277; xviii, 505.
- Lucian. Dialogi Deorum vii, 5; Virgil. Aeneid iv, 242 ff.
- Scholiast on Thucydides, i, 53; Macrobius. Saturnalia i, 19; comp. Hyginus. Poetical Astronomy ii, 7; Servius on Virgil's Aeneid iv, 242; viii, 138.
- Orphic Hymn 27, 4; Ovid. Metamorphoses xi, 312.
- Aken, Dr. A.R.A. van. (1961). Elseviers Mythologische Encyclopedie. Amsterdam: Elsevier.
- Hirt, Aloysius. (1816). Bilderbuch für Mythologie, 2 vols. Leipzig: C.G. Nauck's Buchhandlung. σ
- Smith, William. (1870). Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. London: Taylor, Walton, and Maberly.
This article incorporates text from Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology (1870) by William Smith, which is in the public domain.