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Hermes: Thief, Traveler, Messenger

Updated on May 3, 2014
Greek God Hermes
Greek God Hermes | Source
Hermes Returns Persephone to Demeter
Hermes Returns Persephone to Demeter | Source
Hermes at the Judgment of Paris
Hermes at the Judgment of Paris | Source
Hermes Kills Argus to Retrieve Io (the cow)
Hermes Kills Argus to Retrieve Io (the cow) | Source
Hermes Oversees Commerce
Hermes Oversees Commerce | Source
Hermes Delivers Dionysus to Ino
Hermes Delivers Dionysus to Ino | Source

Jack of All Trades-Including God of Trades

Hermes appears in more stories than any of the other gods largely because he was the messenger of Zeus in addition to being the god who communicated with the mortals.

As the herald and messenger, Hermes returned the kidnapped Persephone to her mother, Demeter. He notified the world that Aphrodite had a bounty on Psyche's head. He escorted King Priam to Achilles to retrieve the body of his son Hector. He delivered the order to Calypso to release his great grandson Odysseus from her island and transported Hera, Aphrodite and Athena, along with the Apple of Discord, to Paris for a beauty contest.

As the thug enforcer for his father, Zeus, he killed Argos, the hundred-eyed giant watchman of Hera, to free his father's lover Io. He also chained Prometheus to a mountain where he faced the eternal punishment of having his liver eaten by an eagle every day for eternity.

As a thief, Hermes stole his father's lover, Io, from Hera, and he stole his kidnapped brother Ares from the Aloadae giants who were keeping him in a bronze jar. He also helped Perseus steal Medusa's head. Those were in addition to his famous theft of his brother's cattle, but more on that to follow.

As the god of merchants, he sold his half-brother Heracles into slavery. He also had many appearances in Aesop's fables.

As a protector of young children, it was Hermes who saved the twin sons of Callisto after Hera turned her into a bear for mating with Zeus and Artemis then killed her for losing her virginity. He was the one that took his baby brother, Dionysus, to the baby's Aunt Ino for protection from their stepmother Hera. He was also the one who rescued his brother Apollo's son, Asclepius, from his mother's womb upon her funeral pyre after Artemis killed her for cheating on Apollo.

As a psychopomp, escort of the dead to the Underworld, he assisted Heracles in his attempt to retrieve Cerberus as one of the twelve labors. When Protesilaus was the first Greek casualty of the Trojan War, it was Hermes that brought him back from the Underworld to spend three hours with his wife who loved him so much she returned with him to Hades after their time was up. It was also Hermes who found Sisyphus after he kept sneaking out of the Underworld and brought him back to eternally push that boulder up the hill.

As the god of athletes, Hermes invented the sports of foot racing and wrestling. In this role, he used a gymnastics contest to select suitors for the daughters of Danaus, all of whom (49 out of 50 anyway), killed their first husbands on their wedding night. Despite his creation of the sport and his winged helmet and sandals, Hermes lost a foot race to his brother Apollo in the first Olympic Games, held to celebrate the Olympians victory over the Titans. He also lost to Aphrodite during the Pythian Games his brother Apollo organized after he killed the serpent at Delphi.

The most famous stories, however, involve his activities on the day he was born and his escapades with women.

Cave of Cyllene in Arcadia where Hermes was Born
Cave of Cyllene in Arcadia where Hermes was Born | Source

The Birth of Hermes

From the moment he was born, little Hermes was a handful. His mother Maia having given birth alone in a cave on Mount Cyllene in Arcadia, was very tired after childbirth, so she wrapped her small bundle of joy in a warm blanket and placed him in a basket to sleep. Though she was a third generation Titan, daughter of Atlas, she was worn out after giving birth to the son of Zeus. As she slept, her son climbed from his bedding and set out to explore the world.

Right outside the entrance to the cave he now shared with his mother, he found a tortoise. He delighted in watching the creature craw along and decided that he would put this great treasure to use. He carried it back inside the cave and cut the limbs of the animal from each opening. He then cleaned out the insides and inserted some sheep horns he found in the cave in the holes. Next he stretched a reed across the top of the horns and strung strings made of sheep gut from shell to reed. He took time to tighten each string to make a certain tune then began to play the instrument and sang of his father and mother and his own birth. He remained interested in his creation for just a short time, however. After placing his new lyre in his own crib for safekeeping, he set out for another adventure.

As the boy set out again, he knew the cattle of his big brother Apollo, were close by and decided to go take some of them. When he reached Pieria, it was fairly easy for him to pick out fifty head of cattle for himself, but not wanting to get caught, the trickster sat down and attached twigs, leaves and all, to the bottom of his own feet so that his footsteps would not be recognizable. When he came upon an area near the sea where sand was abundant, he worried that it would be easy to track the hoof prints of the cattle. He instructed the cattle to walk backwards through the area. This would make the prints appear to be moving in one direction while in fact the cattle were traveling in the other.

As he continued on, however, he came upon an old man named Battos working in his vineyard. Hermes, concerned of leaving a witness to his crime, told Battos that if he told no one of what he had seen, that his vines would bear much fruit. The old man agreed and Hermes continued on his way, but he was not going to leave his fate to the word of the man without testing him. Hermes took on a disguise and return to where Battos was tending his vines. When he inquired upon what the old man might have seen, Battos forgot what he had promised the young god and told of the baby leading the cattle backwards through the area. Hermes then turned the old man into stone for breaking his word.

Hermes Creator of Fire
Hermes Creator of Fire | Source

Upon returning to the cattle, he gave them food and water then took several sticks from a laurel tree and set out to create fire. Mind you I said create fire, not create a fire. It did not take him long to get a nice fire burning then he dragged two animals from the herd and quickly killed them all by himself. He cut the meat into chunks and cooked them over the fire using sticks to hold the meat over the flames. When they were done cooking, he divided the meat into twelve nice pieces and placed them upon flat stones to make offerings to the Olympian gods. In this process, not only did Hermes invent fire but also the act of sacrifice.

He cleaned up his mess and put out the fire then went back to his mother's cave without being seen by anyone else, or so he thought. He wrapped himself back in the blanket, as his mother had before, but kept hold of his play toy, the lyre he created.

As soon as the infant had lain down to rest, his mother, Maia, went to him. As any mother would, she scolded him for being out all night. She warned him of being a thief, as surely he had gotten that from his father, and she worried that Apollo would soon be there to seek revenge. Hermes then spoke sweetly to his mother asking how she could scare him like that since he was just a tiny baby. He insisted that he had done nothing wrong, but he would not stay cooped up in a cave with his mother and go hungry when the other gods had so many riches. As a son of Zeus, he would provide for his mother and give her the life of a queen.

In the meantime, Apollo had discovered that his cattle had been stolen and was determined to find and punish the thief. Once he learned that another son of his father, Zeus, had been born, he was certain he knew who was behind it. He went straight to the cave of Maia to look for his property. He charged into the cave ignoring the Titaness and her infant to look through every hiding place but did not find any sign his cattle. Coming up empty handed, he finally went to the basket crib. In his anger, he ordered the baby tell him where his cattle were or he would throw the son of Zeus into the pit of Tartarus, hell.

Hermes, playing the innocent card, asked why his dear brother would talk to him in such a way. He was only born the day before after all and didn't even know what cattle were. Apollo continued to accuse him of the theft while baby Hermes continued to deny having anything to do with whatever it was his big brother was talking about. Finally having enough of it, Apollo snatched up his little brother and took him to Olympus to their father.

As Zeus listened, Apollo told of his theory that Hermes had taken his cattle and that he was crafty and a liar, and he was entitled to have his cattle returned. When it was Hermes turn to defend himself, he stood before his father, baby blanket in hand, and told him that he would not lie to his dad. He had not stolen the cattle and brought them back to his mother's cave, which he had not. He also told their father that it was not nice that Apollo should pick on him and scare him by threatening to thrown him into Tartarus, as he was just a tiny baby and not capable of the things he was being accused of doing

Zeus then laughed loudly at how crafty his newborn son truly was. He told Hermes that he knew all that had happened and ordered his boys to search together for the return of the cattle. Hermes knew better than to defy his father Zeus, king of the gods, and set out with Apollo to find the cattle.

Since Hermes knew exactly where they were, it did not take long to find them. Though he had his cattle back, Apollo was still extremely angry with his little brother. When found that two of his cattle had been killed and sacrificed, he was stunned that the infant had managed to take down such large animals all by himself. He warned that he was scared of how strong Hermes might become if he could do all this at his birth. He then asked Hermes why the meat had been sacrificed in twelve portions when there were only eleven Olympians; Zeus, Poseidon, Hera, Demeter, Hestia, Aphrodite, Athena, Ares, Hephaestus, his twin sister Artemis and himself. He inquired as to who Hermes thought the twelfth Olympian was. Hermes, of course, replied that he was the twelfth, which he was.

Apollo could not believe how forward this new son of Zeus was, but Hermes simply ignored his rage and sat down playing his lyre. Upon hearing the sound coming from the strange object, Apollo was immediately struck by its beauty. Hermes then began to sing as he played telling the entire story of the gods. Apollo was now growing even angrier for he feared his baby brother was going to take music from him as well. Hermes was not fazed. He told his brother that he wanted to be friends not enemies. He then went on to explain all of the gifts Apollo had been given; music, poetry, prophecy, shepherds, and he Hermes had nothing. He offered the lyre as a gift to his brother if he would allow him to become the god of shepherds and stop being angry over his stealing the cattle. Apollo desperately wanting the instrument that created that glorious sound agreed.


Hermes Inventing the Caduceus
Hermes Inventing the Caduceus | Source
Hermes with Caduceus and Coin Purse  Signs of Commerce
Hermes with Caduceus and Coin Purse Signs of Commerce | Source

The brothers then returned to Zeus, on Olympus, and told him that they had made up with one another and wished to be best friends. Zeus, being glad to hear it, approved his infant son Hermes becoming the god of shepherds as well as commerce, since Hermes had struck such a bargain with his older brother. Hermes then sat down and fastened together reeds he had collected along his journeys. When he began blowing through them, again the sound fascinated his brother Apollo. Apollo now complained that Hermes would end up with everything he owned, as he would continue to create musical instruments and was also a cunning trader. Hermes, however, promised he would never again steal from his big brother and swore the oath on the River Styx, its waters so harmful to the gods if drank that all binding oaths were sworn against being forced to drink from it. In return, Apollo swore that he would love no other god or mortal more than his brother Hermes. Hermes then offered to give Apollo the reed pipe he had just created if Apollo would teach him prophecy. Apollo knew that the gift was not something he could give away as his own grandmother, Phoebe, had given it to him. Instead he offered his little brother his golden staff. Hermes considered the offer then exchanged items with his brother. (Hermes would soon stop two snakes from fighting with his new staff and it would become his caduceus.) Apollo did tell his brother how he learned to tell the future before fully learning to work with his oracle. These include using auguries, birds and the entrails of other animals, as well as pebbles.

Pan - God of the Wild  Son of Hermes
Pan - God of the Wild Son of Hermes | Source

Hermes Becomes a Father

Once his appearance as an infant would no longer serve him, Hermes took his youthful appearance and set out to do as other male gods had done, have children.

He returned to Mount Cyllene to tend the herds, as he was now god of shepherds, but quickly fell in love with a young nymph named Dryope, the daughter of Dryops the king of Oeta. Once married, the nymph gave birth to a son, but when she saw him, he had the horns and legs of a goat. She was terrified at the sight of her own child and fled leaving him exposed. When Hermes heard this, he quickly went to the child and was delighted at his appearance. His young son, which he named Pan, delighted him so much that he took him to Olympus and presented him to the other Olympians. Like Hermes, the other gods were delighted at the sight of the young god and Zeus named his grandson Pan god of the wild. He quickly became a life-long playmate of Hermes younger brother Dionysus and a master of his own father's pan flute instrument.

Jason-Great Grandson of Hermes
Jason-Great Grandson of Hermes | Source
Hermes Orders Calypso to Release His Great Grandson Odysseus
Hermes Orders Calypso to Release His Great Grandson Odysseus | Source

Hermes's brother Apollo would also have a child with Dryope, but this was not the only girl the brothers would share. Both brothers were taken with the beauty of a young mortal girl name Chione. On the same day, the brothers saw the girl of fourteen and fell in love with her. Apollo decided to wait until dark to return, but Hermes, not one to wait around, touched her lips with his staff and put her into a trance. He then had his way with her, as she was helpless to stop him. As night fell, Apollo appeared as an old woman and comforted her over her ordeal with his brother. He then took her for himself. As the girl had relations with both gods on the same day, she became pregnant with twins. When the time came, she gave birth to a son, Autolycus, whose father was Hermes and another, Philammon, whose father was Apollo.

Autolycus took after his father in that he was a very clever thief. Hermes, however, knowing that even he got caught stealing from time to time, wanted to protect his boy. He gave him a gift that allowed him to change the appearance of anything he stole so that when the owner came looking for his property, he would not recognize it.

In case you are wondering what should become of a girl so blessed to have the sons of not one but two gods, she bragged about being prettier than Apollo's twin sister Artemis. Artemis, not known for taking insults easily, put an arrow right through Chione's tongue eventually killing her.

The story of Autolycus doesn't stop there, however. According to Homer, Autoclycus married a girl named Amphithea and to her became the father of two daughters, Anticlea and Polymede. Polymede became the mother of Jason, of Argonauts fame. Anticlea became the mother of Odysseus, of Trojan War fame. While there is no mention of Hermes helping Jason on his quest for the Golden Fleece, Hermes helped Odysseus a couple of times during his ten year return home from the Trojan War. He appeared on Calypso's island and informed her it was time to let Odysseus return to his wife, Penelope. He appeared to Odysseus before he confronted Circe to retrieve his men she had transformed into pigs. At that time, he gave him advice and an herb called moly that would make him immune to her magic. He also took all of the dead suitors for Penelope's hand to the Underworld after his great grandson killed them upon his return

The Gods Watching Aphrodite and Ares Captured by Hephaestus
The Gods Watching Aphrodite and Ares Captured by Hephaestus | Source
Hermaphrotidus and Salmacis
Hermaphrotidus and Salmacis | Source
Hermaphroditus at the Louvre
Hermaphroditus at the Louvre | Source

Like every other god or mortal man, Hermes was struck by the beauty of Aphrodite and wanted desperately to be with her. When her husband Hephaestus caught his wife and brother Ares in bed, trapping them under a golden net, Apollo and Hermes laughed together at the sight. Apollo asked his brother if he would accept being embarrassed like that just to be with Aphrodite. Hermes basically replied, you bet. She on the other hand, wanted nothing at all to do with him. Hermes went to his father and cried because the goddess of love and beauty would have nothing to do with him even though she slept with everyone else. Zeus offered to help his son out and sent his eagle to steal the sandal of the goddess as she bathed in the Achelous River. All I can say is those must have been some shoes, for Aphrodite looked all over to find her missing footwear. Of course, Hermes was in possession of it and held it ransom for sex, which she gave in and submitted to in order to retrieve her sandal.

When their child was born, they gave him both of their names, Hermaphroditus. By every account, Hermaphroditus, or Aphroditus as he is often called, was a beautiful young boy. He was so beautiful in fact, that he caught the eye of a nymph named Salmacis. The two met when Aphroditus was walking on a hot day and came upon her spring of cool waters. Salmacis threw herself at the young boy, but he told her he was too young to have relations. She eventually gave up and went back into the water leaving him alone. Aphroditus waited around and when she never came back, he finally decided that she must be gone. He really wanted to take a dip in the water to cool himself, but as soon as he went in, Salmacis attacked him trying to force herself on him. He struggled to fend her off, but she cried out to the gods to let the two of them be together forever. Now why his parents, two of those gods, did not help their son we will never know, but the gods answered her prayers and merged the two of them into one. Hermaphroditus became a creature with both male and female organs. This upset the boy so greatly that he prayed to his mother and father to curse the waters of the spring and make anyone who bathed there just like him. This time Hermes and Aphrodite came through for their son.

Evander Son of Hermes
Evander Son of Hermes | Source

Evander was another noted son of Hermes. He took more to his father's way with words, since Hermes was the god of language. Sixty years before the Trojan War, Evander, along with several followers, sailed west from Greece and landed in Italy. He took with him the religion of the Olympian gods, the laws of Greece and the Greek alphabet. Once there he founded a city called Pallantium located close to the area where Aeneas would eventually settle after the war between the Greeks and the Trojans. This city would eventually join with Rome generations later after it was founded by Romulus, a descendent of Aeneas and son of Mars.

Myrtilus and King Oenomaus
Myrtilus and King Oenomaus | Source

Hermes's son Myrtilus was a hero who served King Oenomaus of Pisa as his charioteer. When Pelops, the son of Tantalus came to town and sought the hand of the king's daughter Hippodamia, by winning a chariot race against the king, Myrtilus agreed to help Pelops win. He was promised a share of the kingdom and the first night in bed with Hippodamia for his troubles, but he was double-crossed. After doing his part in not only defeating the king but killing him, Pelops threw Myrtilus off of a cliff and into the sea. With his dying breath, Myrtilus prayed his father would curse Pelops and his family. Hermes did his son proud. See, http://anitajsmith.hubpages.com/hub/From-the-Greek-Thatll-Learn-Ya-File-King-Tantalus-Watch-What-You-Serve-Your-Family for more information.

Conclusion

So baby Hermes, who complained that he was not the god of anything, eventually became the god of almost everything; trade and merchants, roads and hospitality, rustic divination, birds of omen, dreams of omen, astronomy, feasts and banquets, tricks and theft, language and cunning, shepherds and athletes. He was his father's messenger, enforcer, herald and psychopomp. He also filled what little free time he had with his inventions and women. It is no wonder Hermes appears in more myths than any other god.

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    • CarolynEmerick profile image

      Carolyn Emerick 3 years ago

      Great hub! Upvoted and shared :-)

    • anitajsmith profile image
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      Anita Smith 3 years ago from Tampa, Florida

      Thank you Carolyn

    • WiccanSage profile image

      Mackenzie Sage Wright 3 years ago

      Wonderful, you put so much work into this hub and it's absolutely beautiful. Hermes is one of our 'household Gods' you could say, my daughter (who's an adult now) has always had a real connection to him. I'm going to pass this on to her as well, great work here. Voted up & shared.

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