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Hermes

by Ron Leadbetter
Hermes

Hermes, the herald of the Olympian gods, is the son of Zeus and the nymph Maia, daughter of Atlas and one of the Pleiades. Hermes is the god of shepherds, land travel, merchants, weights and measures, oratory, literature, athletics and thieves, and known for his cunning and shrewdness. Most importantly, he is the messenger of the gods. Besides that he was also a minor patron of poetry. He was worshiped throughout Greece -- especially in Arcadia -- and festivals in his honor were called Hermoea.

According to legend, Hermes was born in a cave on Mount Cyllene in Arcadia. Zeus had impregnated Maia at the dead of night while all other gods slept. When dawn broke amazingly he was born. Maia wrapped him in swaddling bands, then resting herself, fell fast asleep. Hermes, however, squirmed free and ran off to Thessaly. This is where Apollo, his brother, grazed his cattle. Hermes stole a number of the herd and drove them back to Greece. He hid them in a small grotto near to the city of Pylos and covered their tracks. Before returning to the cave he caught a tortoise, killed it and removed its entrails. Using the intestines from a cow stolen from Apollo and the hollow tortoise shell, he made the first lyre. When he reached the cave he wrapped himself back into the swaddling bands. When Apollo realized he had been robbed he protested to Maia that it had been Hermes who had taken his cattle. Maia looked to Hermes and said it could not be, as he is still wrapped in swaddling bands. Zeus the all powerful intervened saying he had been watching and Hermes should return the cattle to Apollo. As the argument went on, Hermes began to play his lyre. The sweet music enchanted Apollo, and he offered Hermes to keep the cattle in exchange for the lyre. Apollo later became the grand master of the instrument, and it also became one of his symbols. Later while Hermes watched over his herd he invented the pipes known as a syrinx (pan-pipes), which he made from reeds. Hermes was also credited with inventing the flute. Apollo, also desired this instrument, so Hermes bartered with Apollo and received his golden wand which Hermes later used as his heralds staff. (In other versions Zeus gave Hermes his heralds staff).

Being the herald (messenger of the gods), it was his duty to guide the souls of the dead down to the underworld, which is known as a psychopomp. He was also closely connected with bringing dreams to mortals. Hermes is usually depicted with a broad-brimmed hat or a winged cap, winged sandals and the heralds staff (kerykeion in Greek, or Caduceus in Latin). It was often shown as a shaft with two white ribbons, although later they were represented by serpents intertwined in a figure of eight shape, and the shaft often had wings attached. The clothes he donned were usually that of a traveler, or that of a workman or shepherd. Other symbols of Hermes are the cock, tortoise and purse or pouch.

Originally Hermes was a phallic god, being attached to fertility and good fortune, and also a patron of roads and boundaries. His name coming from herma, the plural being hermaiherm was a square or rectangular pillar in either stone or bronze, with the head of Hermes (usually with a beard), which adorned the top of the pillar, and male genitals near to the base of the pillar. These were used for road and boundary markers. Also in Athens they stood outside houses to help fend off evil. In Athens of 415 BCE, shortly before the Athenian fleet set sail against Syracuse (during the Peloponnesian War), all the herms throughout Athens were defaced. This was attributed to people who were against the war. Their intentions were to cast bad omens on the expedition, by seeking to offend the god of travel. (This has never been proved as the true reason for the mutilation of the herms.)

The offspring of Hermes are believed to be Pan, Abderus and Hermaphroditus. Hermes as with the other gods had numerous affairs with goddesses, nymphs and mortals. In some legends even sheep and goats. Pan, the half man half goat, is believed to be the son of Hermes and Dryope, the daughter of king Dryops. Pan terrified his mother when he was born, so much so that she fled in horror at the sight of her new born son. Hermes took Pan to Mount Olympus were the gods reveled in his laughter and his appearance and became the patron of fields, woods, shepherds and flocks. Abderus, a companion of the hero Heracles, is also thought to be a son of Hermes, he was devoured by the Mares of Diomedes, after Heracles had left him in charge of the ferocious beasts. Hermaphroditus (also known as Aphroditus) was conceived after the union of Hermes and Aphrodite. He was born on Mount Ida but he was raised by the Naiads (nymphs of freshwater). He was a androgynous (having the characteristics of both sexes) deity, depicted as either a handsome young man but with female breasts, or as Aphrodite with male genitals.

It was Hermes who liberated Io, the lover of Zeus, from the hundred-eyed giant Argus, who had been ordered by Hera, the jealous wife of Zeus, to watch over her. Hermes charmed the giant with his flute, and while Argos slept Hermes cut off his head and released Io. Hera, as a gesture of thanks to her loyal servant, scattered the hundred eyes of Argos over the tail of a peacock (Heras' sacred bird). Hermes also used his ingenuity and abilities to persuade the nymph Calypso to release Odysseus, the wandering hero, from her charms. She had kept Odysseus captive, after he was shipwrecked on her island Ogygia, promising him immortality if he married her, but Zeus sent Hermes to release Odysseus. Legend says that Calypso died of grief when Odysseus sailed away. Hermes also saved Odysseus and his men from being transformed into pigs by the goddess and sorceress Circe. He gave them a herb which resisted the spell. Hermes also guided Eurydice back down to the underworld after she had been allowed to stay for one day on earth with her husband Orpheus.

Known for his swiftness and athleticism, Hermes was given credit for inventing foot-racing and boxing. At Olympia a statue of him stood at the entrance to the stadium and his statues where in every gymnasium throughout Greece. Apart from herms, Hermes was a popular subject for artists. Both painted pottery and statuary show him in various forms, but the most fashionable depicted him as a good-looking young man, with an athletic body, and winged sandals and his heralds staff. His Roman counterpart Mercury inherited his attributes, and there are many Roman copies of Greek artistic creations of Hermes.

The Greek post office has Hermes as its symbol.


Article details:

  • Also known as:
    Enagonios
  • Pronunciation:
    hur'-meez
  • Image:

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