Hermes (Gr. Eρμης; Lat. Hermes) is the son of Zeus and Maia, the eldest of the Pleiades, the daughters of Atlas and Pleione.
He is one of the twelve Olympians and was assimilated to Mercury among the Romans. He is depicted as a handsome and athletic young man with no hair, or as a bearded man in the prime of his life in the first performances.
What is Hermes the god of?
He was the god of commerce, the guardian of roads and crossroads, the holly master of travelers, thieves, the driver of souls to hell and the messenger of Zeus and the gods. He had the most varied attributions and bore various nicknames or epithets corresponding to his different functions or the location of his places of worship.
Messenger of the gods
His function as messenger and companion god was prefigured by his pastoral function, to which his son Pan remained even closer.
During the Trojan War, he took sides with the Achaeans but hardly participated in the battle. However, he found himself facing Leto, the mother of Apollo and Artemis but refused to fight her. He is happy to be the messenger and interpreter (his name is related to the word ἑρμηνεύς / hermêneús, “interpreter”) of Zeus. Thus, he guides Aphrodite, Athena, and Hera, who competed for the golden apple, to submit them to the judgment of Paris. He escorted Priam, who had come to fetch Hector’s body from the Greek camp; he warned Aegisthus (unsuccessfully) not to kill Agamemnon; he gave Callisto the order to free Odysseus. After the war, he was the one who brought Helen to Egypt.
Similarly, it is Hermes, who according to the pseudo-Apollodorus, have to kidnap Io at Zeus’ request, kills Argus with a hundred eyes, placed under surveillance by Hera, hence his epiclesis of “Argiphonte” (Ἀργειφόντης / Argeiphóntês, “Argus killer”) – the interpretation of this epithet is nevertheless subject to question: the legend of Argus is probably later than Homer, who already uses this epiclesis; another interpretation translated as “in white, dazzling light”. He is aguide to heroes like Athena: he led Perseus in his quest for Medusa and guided Heracles to the Underworld.
Driver of souls to Hades, hence his epithet of Πομπαῖος / Pompaĩos, then later “Psychopompe” (in Greek Ψυχοπομπός / Psukhopompós). At the end of the Odyssey, we see him leading the souls of the suitors into the meadow of Asphodel. The Orphic hymn dedicated to the underground, chthonian or infernal Hermes, the so-called son of Dionysus and Aphrodite. He also calls him “master of the dead”.
This function of messenger, conveyer, and herald owes nothing to its pastoral origins, but is typical of the divine Fires: it is that of the sacrificial fire that connects the gods and men. This function is also one of the main functions of Agni, the Vedic divinity, lord of the sacrificial fire and the hearth.
He is described as (w)ánax “king” and despótēs “householder”. Like Janus and other divine Fires, he shares the status and prestige of the master of the home where he burns.
But, reverse extension, he is the god of servants. Prometheus called him a “valet”, a “servant”, qualifications that are in accordance with the Hermaea festival during which the masters serve their servants. He is a popular god who serves the little people and whose pillar is found in the places where they work and play.
He is the inventor of friction fire production. In doing so, he gave fire to men a function comparable to that of Prometheus.
He is also the inventor of the zither which allows him to enter the pantheon and which he abandons to Apollo. Then he invented the pan flute, which reflects his pastoral origins.
Hermes with the “goldenrod” is a divinity easily recognizable by his symbols.
- The caduceus, a rod made of olive or olive wood laurel surrounded by two snakes and surmounted by two wings. He is the badge of messengers and heralds. In fact, the first representations show a stick ending in a sort of 8 open at one end. (not to be confused with the stick of Asclepius).
- The winged sandals (talaria);
- The winged helmet reminds us that he was the messenger of the gods capable of flying through the sky.
- The flute he had received in exchange for Apollo’s share.
- The petasus, a hat with a wide brim, the symbol of traders and travelers.
- A purse was full of coins.
- A large cape.
According to legend, he is the son of Zeus and Maia, who, daughter of the giant Atlas, is an immortal but not a goddess. He was born one morning in a cave on Mount Kyllini of mount Cyllene in Arcadia “to be the torment of mortal men and immortal gods”.
Hermes, the cattle thief (1860)
by Sir Edward John POYNTER
He was just born, he already knew how to talk and walk.
According to the first Homeric Hymn dedicated to him, he jumped out of his cradle just moments after his birth and set out in search of Apollo’s flock. On his way, he meets a turtle that he kills; from the shell, he makes a lyre on which he celebrates his own birth and his mother’s home. Some time later, he invented the pan flute or syrinx. That same evening, he reached Petri where the divine flocks graze. He stole fifty oxen from his half-brother Apollo, half of a hecatomb. He takes the opportunity to invent snowshoes sandals to cover his tracks when he pushes the animals in front of him. While trying to cook two of the animals, he found the art of making a fire by rubbing pieces of wood against each other, then dedicating the meat to the twelve gods. He himself refrains from touching the sacrifice. After scattering the ashes, he returned to his mother’s house and confidently announced his intention to choose the best job he can: a thief.
When Apollo discovered his thief, Hermes began claiming to be a newborn without malice, even offering to swear his innocence on Zeus’ head. The archer god is not fooled and wants to grab his half-brother by the arm when Hermes stops him with a sneeze. The case is finally brought before Zeus. Once again, Hermes protests his innocence. Amused by his son’s early age, the king of the gods ordered reconciliation; Hermes had to reveal to him the place where he had hidden the flock.
According to Pausanias, he was raised by Acacus , son of the Lycaon, who was also the founder of Acacesium in Arcadia.
Facts and myths about Hermes
Later, Hermes, who kept the flock he had previously obtained from Apollo in exchange for the lyre, invented the flute.
Apollo wanted to buy him this new musical instrument and for this, he offered him a goldenrod (which would later become the caduceus, the snakes would have appeared while he was trying to separate two of them) Hermes agreed to this exchange but also asked for some lessons on the divination made with the help of small stones (geomancy and cleromancy).
Hermes on the stock exchange
A master in the art of persuasion and lies, Hermes tried to seduce the king of the gods with his speech. “Zeus, of course, I’ll tell you the truth: I’m honest and I can’t lie.” Did Zeus get caught? No, because Zeus knows everything, but beyond lies and perjury he saw the mediator working at the limits of truth and at the borders of the mortal and divine world. Thus Zeus delighted to have such a clever son, named him his personal messenger and other gods often called upon his services.
Hermes fixing his heels
Jean-Baptiste Pigalle 1744
He also has the role of mediator as a liaison between the world of the living and that of the dead, He is indeed the one who is accompanying the dead souls to the underworld. He is thus at the frontier between the world of the living and the world of the dead souls.
Hermes is very often present in myths but he appears as a secondary character, messenger of the gods, in charge of an important mission. His true leading role is the one we have just seen in the legends of his childhood.
Hermes by RUBENS
- In the Gigantomachy, wearing Hades’ helmet that makes the wearer invisible, he killed the giant Hippolytus.
- He delivered Ares locked in a bronze pot by the Aloadae.
- When Typhon stole Zeus’ sinews and hid them under bearskin in a cave in Cilicia, he managed to take them back from the snake Delphyne.
- He accompanied Priam to Achilles’ tent to demand the return of Hector’s remains.
- He gave Odysseus the moly, the magic plant that will protect him from the enchantments of Circe.
- He gave Callisto Zeus’ formal order to let Odysseus leave her island where she was holding him;
- He entrusted the young Dionysus to Athamas and Ino and persuaded them to raise him as a girl to save him from Hera’s wrath.
- He organized the beauty contest between Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite under the patronage of Paris.
- He was sent by the Olympians to dissuade Aegisthus from his plans to assassinate and seize power.
- He accompanied Zeus on his travels. They will visit Lycaon, Philemon, and Baucis.
- He helped his father seduce Io and killed Argus with a hundred eyes who was in charge of guarding her on Hera’s order.
- He assisted Perseus in his expedition against the Gorgons.
- He escorted Prometheus, who was to be chained to the Caucasus mountain by Hephaestus.
- He brought to the children Phrixus and Helle, the ram with the golden fleece that will allow them to escape Ino’s blows.
- He gave Pandora the art of seducing with honeyed words and offered her as his wife to Epimetheus.
- He guided Heracles to the underworld on his quest to chain Cerberus.
- He led Orpheus to the underworld where he came to get his Eurydice.
- He led the souls of suitors killed by Odysseus on his return to Ithaca.
- He transmitted Zeus’ request about Persephone’s return to earth.
- He brought Alcestis back from the underworld, who had generously taken her husband’s place.
- He brought protesilaus back to earth so that he could have a final three-hour interview with his wife, laodamia.
Love of Hermes
Mercury in love with Herse turns Aglaure into stone
par JBM PIERRE © Louvre Museum 1763
He had many love affairs with both goddesses and mortals but he never officially married:
- Like Ares, Apollo, and Hephaestus, he courted the charming Persephone before his marriage to Hades but his mother, Demeter, dismissed all these suitors and gave them back their gifts.
- Aphrodite refused to accept him; but thanks to the intervention of Zeus’ eagle, who stole a sandal from her while she was swimming in the Achelous river, he was able to achieve his goals. They had a son named Hermaphrodite.
- He seduced Chione the same night as Apollo and he had Autolycus who, as a worthy son of his father, became a very clever thief.
- Herse, daughter of Cecrops, he had Cephale, in passing he petrified his sister Aglaurus who wanted to forbid him access to the room.
- From Penelope union with Hermes was born Pan.
- As he could not catch up with Apemosyne, daughter of Catreus, in the race, he made her slide on animal skins; but when his brother Althaemenes discovered that she was pregnant he kicked her.
- Iphthime, Dorus’ daughter, was made the mother of the Satyrs Lycus, Pherespondus and Pronomus who joined the procession of Dionysus.
- “Hermes, a benevolent god, ascended to the highest apartments, united himself to Polymel (daughter of Phyllis) in secret, and gave him a son of great beauty, Eudorus, light on the run and brave in the fighting.” (Iliad: XVI, 181 sqq)
- In Sicily, he was said to be the father of Daphne or her lover.
Filiation of Hermes
According to legend, he is the son of Zeus and Maia, who, daughter of the giant Atlas, is an immortal but not a goddess. He was born one morning in a cave on Mount Cyllene in Arcadia “to be the torment of mortal men and immortal gods”. According to the first Homeric Hymn dedicated to him, he jumped out of his cradle just moments after his birth and set out in search of Apollo’s flock.
He often appears as a young man “at his first beard, in the charm of this age. He enjoys the company of Charities and Hours. In front of the show of Ares and Aphrodite taken prisoner by Hephaestus, he exclaims that he too would like to sleep in the arms of the goddess, even at the cost of three times more chains.
With Aphrodite precisely, Hermes engenders Hermaphroditus, a bisexual deity, but also Eros in later traditions. It is, according to the authors, the father of rustic gods with unbridled sexuality such as Pan, his son by “the daughter of Dryops” (Homeric Hymn to Pan) or by the nymph Thymbris or Hybris, or by the nymph Penelope, or even by Penelope, wife of Odysseus (various post-Homeric accounts); like Pan or like the phallic god Priape, sometimes also given for his son, he is often represented as a trained sex (he loves human beauty), and his loves are both female (nymphs) and male. The Hesiodic tradition lends him love with the nymph-goddess Calypso, met by Oin the Odyssey, who makes him the father of the Cephalonian people. He is also willingly ranked among Persephone’s contenders and various Dionysian songs recognize him as Peitho’s wife, the goddess of Persuasion. Finally, somes attribute him the paternity of a daughter, the messenger goddess, without however indicating the name of the latter’s mother.
Hermes is also the father of famous mythological lovers, such as Abderus (Heracles’ lover) or Daphnis (Pan’s or Apollo’s).
Apemosyne was raped by Hermes.
Other children include:
- Autolycus with Chione;
- Echion and Ethalides, two Argonauts;
- The satyrs, with the nymph Aremosyne.
Cult of Hermes
Hermes and Athena by SPRANGER
The oldest form of his cult was his so-called hermai representations in Arcadia or Attica, in the form of quadrangular stone columns surmounted by a bearded head, possibly provided with a phallus and often accompanied by an inscription. These Herms were found along roads, on borders, at crossroads, at the gates of cities and houses, but also in squares, gymnasiums, libraries, shrines. They are the basis of his worship.
It was customary to place piles of stones in his honor at intersections: each traveler added a stone to the building. These piles of stones were gradually supplanted by phallic stone pillars placed along the roads, leading to the square and quadrangular shape of the herms, surmounted by the head of the god and bearing, in their centre and in relief, its virile attributes.
These hermai received wreaths, anointings, various donations such as coins, fruits, ears of corn, cakes, animal victims. Some of these hermai are Janiforms, with a female and a male head. Others combine two male heads, one beardless and the other bearded. Some are three-headed, others are four heads.
Any meeting, any event, any unexpected accident on a road is called “Hermes’ gift” (in Greek ἕρμαιον / hermaion which also refers to our stroke of luck).
Apart from these herms, the god has no other sanctuaries: “not a single great temple, not a city where the god reigns as the undisputed master in a central residence”.
Thus, although he is a very popular god, his public worship is not very developed. Several regions of Greece, primarily Argolida, have included a month dedicated to it in their calendars, Ἕρμαιος / Hermaios (mid-October to mid-November). It seems to have been associated with a feast of the dead. In a similar symbolism, a sacrifice is offered to him, still in Argos, on the thirtieth day following a funeral. In Athens, on the third day of the Anthesteria, an offering of seed oatmeal is dedicated to Chthonian Herms. This relationship to death is linked to the sleep cycle over which it has an influence, particularly on dreams. While for the most part death is sleep, Hermes awakens his own people for conscious survival. This awakening opens to the initiates the “way” hodós of the gods. This role will probably be the origin of the link between Hermes and the so-called “hermetic” esoteric literature.
He is celebrated under the name of Kadmilos at the Shrine of the Great Gods of Samothrace as the companion of Axieros-Demeter, the Great Mother.
Hermes, the messenger of the gods, was the protective patron saint of the Ceryces, official heralds who carried the caduceus like him. Hermes is, with Heracles, the patron saint of gymnasiums and palaces, where his bust is always present. He, therefore, protects athletes and is the founder of wrestling competitions. He is, therefore, the god of commerce, travelers and thieves, pastoralists and their flocks, as well as speakers or prostitutes.
His favorite victim is the ram and he is often represented wearing one, the criophore Hermes, a typical figure of his pastoral origins. As an offering, he greatly appreciates pastry, a common affinity he shares with Vesta. As the god of speakers, his favorite offerings are milk mixed with honey and the tongues of animals.
Hermes in arts
Mercury killing Argos by RUBENS
Hermes is represented by a large number of monuments.
First, it was shaped like a bollard or a post, topped with a bearded figure. But at the same time, an archaic type was formed, who gave Hermes the appearance of a bearded man, with manly shapes, hair girded with a strip, dressed in a chiton, topped with a flat hat with short edges, with a caduceus in hand and wings on his feet.
Such was the god in the groups of the Hermes Criophore, executed by Onatas and Kalamis, as we see him on archaic vases and bas-reliefs of Thasos (Louvre).
Towards the end of the 5th century, a new type appeared, definitively fixed by the famous Hermes of Praxiteles, which had been found in Olympia: the god becomes a young man with slender forms.
Among the main ancient statues, we can also mention: in the Vatican, Hermes with a lyre at his feet; in the Museum of Florence, a statue of Hermes in front of a flute.
In the Vatican, the statue known as the Antinous of the Belvedere is, in fact, one of the most beautiful statues of Hermes.
The Naples Museum has a bronze statue of Hermes at rest with wings on his feet.
Mercury and Argus
by Abraham HONDIUS
Mercury and Paris (1745)
by Donato CRETI
Mercury and Aglauros
(c. 1645) Carel FABRITIUS
Boston B-A Museum