Hermes in Greek Mythology — The Messenger of the Gods and Patron of Trade, Travellers and thieves

Hermes - The Greek God of Trade, Travel; and the messenger of the gods

Who is Hermes in Greek Mythology?

Hermes was the Greek messenger god and the son of ZEUS and Maia. He enjoyed playing tricks and games. During the Trojan War, it was Hermes who was sent to steal something that was otherwise unobtainable. Hermes is usually depicted as a young man with a wide-brimmed hat and winged sandals, carrying a herald’s staff crowned with two snakes.

Think of your favourite deity, male, female, or giant crocodile; it doesn’t matter. It’s likely that gods have a specific field or domain associated with them. For example, the god of the sky, the goddess of wisdom, or perhaps a deity associated with something as abstract as time.

It’s then straightforward to identify these deities because of what they’re associated with, and these associations commonly branch out to other things. A god or goddess associated with numerous ideas is not uncommon, but with Hermes, we have a jack-of-all-trades and a God of many titles.

Hermes being the messangers of the gods
Hermes being the messengers of the gods: Source, Adobe|achivist

The messenger, the trickster, and the conductor of souls are just a few. The absolute number of things that Hermes is considered to be the patron of is only one of the many reasons that he is perhaps a unique god in the Greek Pantheon.

We mentioned a few of his most extensive roles being the messenger of the gods and the souls’ conductor in the afterlife. Still, Hermes was also considered the god of trade, merchants, wealth, commerce, language, crossroads, sports, athletes, boundaries, borders, thieves, graves, and heraldry. Yet somehow, we are still not finished because he was also the patron of shepherds, the protector of travellers, and the divine trickster.

I think it’s fair to say the ancient Greeks couldn’t precisely avoid the worship of Hermes. Hermes’ earliest depictions can be traced back to the Mycenaeans, who referred to him as Hermae, which isn’t too different to how the Greeks pronounced his name today—with the H almost being silent or sounded more like air.

Who we call Hermes, the Greeks call Ἑρμῆς. The exact origins of the name Hermes aren’t precisely too clear, but quite a few scholars believed it to have originated from the word hermae, which referred to a heap of stones that marked a boundary.

This then derived the word Hermie or Hermai, a set of boundary markers used by travellers dedicated to Hermes. Hence why we can explain his association with travellers, boundaries, and borders.

Like the vast majority of Olympians, it should come as no surprise to anyone that Hermes was a child of Zeus. On the other hand, his mother was a nymph named Maia, the eldest of the Pleiades—the seven daughters of Atlas.

The Birth and Trickiness of Hermes

According to popular legend, Zeus visited Mount Cellini, the home of Atlas‘s daughters. It was here during the dead of night that he would impregnate Maia, and somehow by the crack of dawn, Hermes would be born.

The idea of a child being conceived and born within a day would certainly seem more than strange, but when we consider the fact that the Hermes possessed unmeasurable speed, a birth that took mere hours certainly isn’t the weirdest thing we’ve seen thus far.

The first thing Maya did was wrap her newborn son in swaddling bands to keep him safe while she rested, but even as a newborn baby, we start to see the trickster side of Hermes.

Image of Hermes as a newborn with apollo’s cattle

He managed to squirm free of the swaddling bands eventually, and the first thing he did was run from Arcadia to Thessaly, where his brother Apollo graced his prized cattle. Hermes then stole several of the herd and took them back home, where he hid them in a small cave near the city of pilots.

As that wasn’t enough adventure for the newborn Hermes, he caught and killed an enormous tortoise on his way back to his cave. He then used its entrails to create the first lyre.

Apollo believed in at his cattle had been stolen, then travelled to mount Cellini informing Maya that he believed Hermes was responsible. Maia turning to see her son still wrapped where she left him, claimed Apollo’s accusations could physically not be possible.

However, Zeus had been watching his newborn son quite closely, and though his antics amused him, he demanded that he returned the cattle.

Hermes playing the first lyre with apollo admiring his music

Hermes then proceeded to take out the lyre that he previously made and began to play. The music was so enchanting that Apollo just had to have this instrument, so he made Hermes an offer. He could keep the cattle that he had previously stolen, but he would have to give Apollo this new instrument in exchange.

Hermes, of course, orchestrating this entire situation, did not hesitate to accept the offer. The lyre would become one of Apollo’s many symbols, and he would eventually become a grandmaster of the instrument—all thanks to his cunning baby brother, Hermes.

The story not only explains Hermes association with thieves, cattle, and shepherds, but we also get a brief insight into his interest and talent when it came to music. Not to mention how cunning Hermes was, being able to trick out with his brother despite being born on that same day.

For those of you wondering about the Roman or the Etruscan counterpart to Hermes, he went by MERCURY—they were quite similar. However, the Romans managed to narrow down Mercury’s patronage to mostly just commerce and travel.

Hermes’ Lovers and Children

With Hermes now all no longer being a baby, we can look at his numerous lovers, children, and overall family. Being the son of Zeus, Hermes had countless siblings. A list that is far too long for me to go over in just one article, but we can use the rule that if it came from Zeus, it was most likely related to Hermes.

Like his father, Hermes had many nymph and human lovers, with the most famous of these being Dryope and Merope. Along with these nooks in humans, Hermes also had numerous romantic relations and affairs with other goddesses, including Peitho, the goddess of persuasion and seduction; Aphrodite, the goddess of love; and Hecate (Hekate), the goddess of magic.

Like many of the other Greek gods, Hermes had numerous children. But these children never really reached the heights of fame and notoriety of the other Greek gods’ offspring. The child that I’m sure many of you have heard of is the god of the wild, Pan, who does have many different fathers. But some stories claim his parents were, in fact, Hermes and Dryope.

I’m not entirely sure who I’d consider Pan’s father, but Hermes and Pan do certainly share some characteristics, such as they are fun, laid-back, and trickster-like nature. When you couple this with his impressive strength and speed, Hermes being his father is a distinct possibility.

His other children of note included Tyche, the goddess of fortune and prosperity, who Aphrodite mothered. Together, Aphrodite and Hermes had another child named Hermaphroditus, an extremely handsome young boy who fell in love with a nymph named Salmacis.

Image of hermaphroditus: Lady Lever Art Gallery, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Salmacis prayed for the two to be united forever and eventually her prayers would be answered, but not in the way that the two wished, as they will merge creating one hermaphrodite form, both man and woman—hence their name been a compound of Hermes and Aphrodite, and later been the origins for the word HERMAPHRODITE.

The rest of Hermes’s children are either beautiful maidens or minor heroes. These included Myrtilus, whose mother was an Amazon; Eudoros, who was one of Achilles’ five commanders in the Trojan War; and lastly, Angelia, who followed in her father’s footsteps, becoming a spirit of messages, tidings, and proclamation.

With Hermes being born on Mount Cyllene in Arcadia, it’s no real surprise that that is the oldest known location of his worship. Some believe that the first temple dedicated to Hermes was constructed by King Lycaon, the king of Arcadia who was turned into a wolf by Zeus.

Because of the abrupt number of things that fell under Hermes’ patronage, naturally, his worship would spread across the entire country, with a rather large count located in Athens, which then radiated through the whole land of temples and statutes been seen everywhere.

Hermes’ statues commonly depicted him as a young teen, and that’s because many saw his role as helping or guiding the young into adulthood. This was most common among hunters and soldiers, as they would often have some kind of ceremony that signified their transition from childhood into adulthood.

These often took the form of a specific hunt or battle. Regardless of this, these were extremely stressful times for what we were considered today to be just children. The image of Hermes at a similar age to these children, we can assume bought them a certain degree of comfort and provided them with the confidence they needed to face their coming trials and tribulations.

During these festivals honouring Hermes, it was commonplace to see animals such as goats, lambs and pigs, and traditional cakes and honey. However, some of these festivals involved more than just a simple sacrifice in the name of Hermes.

The Hermaea were a series of festivals that celebrated athletics and gymnastics. It was fairly commonplace for adults to be excluded from these festivals because they were seen as the initiation for a young boy to become a man.

Many Hermes followers were also made up of farmers and shepherds, because of his association with nature and cattle. They would look to Hermes to keep their cattle healthy and safe and out of the way of Thieves—which is quite ironic when you think about it because thieves in need of guidance would often turn to Hermes. So, who exactly Hermes would help in this situation? I don’t know. Maybe he flipped a coin, or perhaps he just ignored them all.

Some believe Hermes was capable of travelling through different planes of existence. Drifting in between whenever he was needed, and that is how he could so easily travel between our land and the land of the dead—being able to see worlds that were invisible to mortals, as well as other deities.

Hermes’ Symbols

Hermes’ symbols

When we see Hermes’ statues, he usually appears like a reasonably young man, wearing a wind cap and winged sandals, holding the Caduceus. His wings staff entwined of two serpents, which also served as his primary symbol.

Hermes other many symbols included the rooster, the ram, the hawk, the tortoise, the lyre and the strawberry tree. The trait that most people recognize Hermes form is, of course, his remarkable speed now.

For those wondering how fast Hermes was, I can’t give you a number in terms of miles per hour. Still, my tremendously super professional guess would be, as fast as the DC character, The Flash—I guess Hermes was the deity copied to create the fictional character, Barry Allen.

Hermes’ Humanity

Hermès was also a knowledgeable individual, and there were times he may appear as a bit of a trickster, by no means does that mean he was evil or cruel. He seemed to have quite a strong connection to humankind. When he wasn’t tricking the other gods for his amusement, it would be to help humanity.

In some stories, Zeus sent Hermes to share his knowledge of humanity and teach them the value of justice to help form a relationship between mortals and gods. This arguably could be why Hermes show so much favour to humankind.

Over time, the image of Hermes began to change, similar to that of Dionysus. He appeared as a mature bearded man, dressed as a traveller. This highlighted the more intelligent, friend, and teacher to humanity, which paints a nice contrast between the young, poorly clothed athletic depictions of Hermes.

Hermes in the Underworld

Hermes in the Underworld
Hermes in the Underworld

There isn’t much said about his time in the underworld, but we know he was a conductor of souls, helping to accompany the dead to Hades. He would take his golden staff and send the dead into a deep slumber and whilst in his trance, Hermes would guide them through the dark and treacherous paths before them. The next time they woke, they would be in Hades.

This process also led many to believe that Hermes was a god of sleep and the dreams of omen, which were messages sent by the dead. It’s believed that after the adoption of Persephone, when Hermes was sent to bring her back, he was soon after appointed the guide of departed souls.

Apart from Hades, Persephone, and Hecate, Hermes was the only other deity ever really allowed to leave the underworld, without any repercussions or consequence. If we take a look at the love story of Orpheus and Eurydice, when she’s granted one day on earth to see her husband, it is Hermes who escorts her to Orpheus and then back to Hades.

Stories Hermes Appeared In

Battle of Argus Panoptes

So, we finally move on to the stories of Hermes appeared in, the story of Hermes stealing Apollo’s cattle as a child is one of his most well-known novels. Still, perhaps the most celebrated was his Battle of Argus Panoptes, the giant with one hundred eyes.

The story begins with Hera transforming a woman named Io into a cow because she was jealous that Zeus loved her. She then placed the giant, Panoptes to guard the cow.

In some stories, Zeus transformed Io into a cow and attempted to hide her from Hera, but she demanded the cow from Zeus and once again assigned the giant to guard her.

Zeus then instructed Hermes to steal the cow, but the giant was warned of his arrival, and so he was unable to sneak past the giant—force and said to slay him in battle. Hermes then used his staff to close all 100 of the Giant’s eyes, sending him into a deep slumber. He then cut off the giant’s head of his golden swords and threw it off a cliff, onto the rocks below.

When the Giants then marched in Olympus, Hermes killed the giant Hippolytus with his gold sword. When quite often, Hermes can be seen would in this cold sword in battle.

The Slaying of Typhon (Zeus and Typhon Fight)

Hermes also played a part in defeating the biggest giant of all, Typhon. When Zeus faced Typhon alone for the first time, he lost, and after this encounter, Typhon cut out Zeus’s muscles, leaving him powerless and defeated.

However, Hermes was not amongst the gods who had transformed themselves into animals and fled to Egypt. He, instead, came to aid his father. He then stole back the muscles and restored the power that Typhon had stolen from Zeus.

Other Stories Hermes Appeared In

Hermes also appears in some stories that we can consider a bit more mainstream.

Helping Perseus defeat Medusa, and convincing Calypso to free Odysseus and his men. He also regularly appears in Aesop’s fables. One of my favourite stories is why Aesop believes that all craftsmen are liars and why cobblers were the worst of them.

Zeus ordered Hermes to instill a dose of deceit in every artisan, and so Hermes took a pestle and mortar and began to grind the drug of deceitfulness into a fine powder. He then applied it equally to all craftsmen except for one. The last craftsmen were the cobbler, and there was a large amount of powder left.

Therefore, Hermes then took the mortar’s remaining content and poured it onto the cobbler, making him the most dishonest craftsman.

There are so many stories that feature Hermes, that just like he’s many children and lovers if I sat here trying to explain them all to you, I’d be here all day.

Further Deeds of Hermes

However, in terms of his fellow Olympians, he would often challenge them to the Greek games and regularly play tricks on them, stealing Artemis‘s arrows, Aphrodite’s girdle, and on occasion, even taking the Trident of Poseidon.

There aren’t too many deities brave enough to risk angering Poseidon, but Hermes was one of them. I like Hermes and not just because he’s the god of everything but because the trickster’s archetype is one you don’t see much in Greek mythology, and Hermes is not your ordinary trickster.

Despite all of his responsibilities, he still somehow finds time to show his more fun side. He played tricks on the gods while never neglecting his duties, helping countless others and fighting numerous battles.

I also find it extremely funny that he was conceived and born within a day, and the first thing he did as a newborn baby was stealing his brother’s cattle. Hermes very clearly cares about his fellow gods and his family, helping them out whenever he can. Still, he never really backs down when it comes to helping humanity, regardless of the consequence of his fellow gods or goddesses.

I guess what makes Hermes such a likable respected figure was the fact that he just does everything and whatever he chooses to do, he happens to be extremely good at it. He has all of the positive aspects and likable characteristics you’d want to expect from a god, without much of the negative.

The phrase “Jack of all trades and master of none”, comes to mind but Hermes was a jack of all trades and a master of all.

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