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Image:Hermes by Praxiteles.jpg
Hermes bearing the infant Dionysus, by Praxiteles

Hermes (Greek ʽἙρμῆς IPA: [herˈmeːs]), in Greek mythology, is the Olympian god of boundaries and of the travelers who cross them, of shepherds and cowherds, of orators and wit, of literature and poets, of athletics, of weights and measures and invention and commerce in general, and of the cunning of thieves and liars.<ref>"Hermes." Encyclopedia Mythica from Encyclopedia Mythica Online. Retrieved October 04, 2006.</ref> The Homeric hymn to Hermes invokes him as the one

"of many shifts, blandly cunning, a robber, a cattle driver, a bringer of dreams, a watcher by night, a thief at the gates, one who was soon to show forth wonderful deeds among the deathless gods."

As a translator, Hermes is the messenger from the gods to humans, a duty which he shares with Iris. An interpreter who bridges the boundaries with strangers is a hermeneus. Hermes gives us our word "hermeneutics" for the art of interpreting hidden meaning. In Greek a lucky find was a hermaion.

Hermes, as an inventor of fire<ref>In the Homeric hymn, on his first day of existence "after he had well-fed the loud-bellowing cattle with fodder and driven them into the byre, close-packed and chewing lotus and began to seek the art of fire. He chose a stout laurel branch and trimmed it with the knife..."</ref>, is a parallel of the Titan, Prometheus. In addition to the syrinx and the lyre, Hermes was believed to have invented many types of racing and the sport of boxing, and therefore was a patron of athletes. Modern mythographers have connected Hermes with the trickster gods of other cultures.


Hermes also served as a psychopomp, or an escort for the dead to help them find their way to the afterlife (the Underworld in the Greek myths). In many Greek myths, Hermes was depicted as the only god besides Hades and Persephone who could enter and leave the Underworld without hindrance.

In the fully-developed Olympian pantheon, Hermes was the son of Zeus and the Pleiade Maia, a daughter of the Titan Atlas. Hermes' symbols were the rooster and the tortoise, and he can be recognized by his purse or pouch, winged sandals, winged cap, and the herald's staff, the kerykeion. Hermes was the god of thieves because he was very cunning and shrewd and was a thief himself from the night he was born, when he slipped away from Maia and ran away to steal his elder brother Apollo's cattle.

Hermes was loyal to his father Zeus. When the nymph Io, one of Zeus' consorts, was trapped by Hera and guarded over by the many-eyed giant Argus Panoptes, Hermes saved her by lulling the giant to sleep with stories and then decapitating him with a crescent-shaped sword.

In the Roman adaptation of the Greek religion (see interpretatio romana), Hermes was identified with the Roman god Mercury, who, though inherited from the Etruscans, developed many similar characteristics, such as being the patron of commerce.

[edit] Etymology

The name Hermes has been thought to be derived from the Greek word herma (ἕρμα), which denotes a square or rectangular pillar with the head of Hermes (usually with a beard) adorning the top of the pillar, and male genitals below; however, due to the god's attestation in the Mycenaean pantheon, as Hermes Araoia ("Ram Hermes") in Linear B inscriptions at Pylos and Mycenaean Knossos (Ventris and Chadwick), the connection is more likely to have moved the opposite way, from deity to pillar representations. From the subsequent association of these cairns — which were used in Athens to ward off evil and also as road and boundary markers all over Greece — Hermes acquired patronage over land travel. Hermes was a messenger for Zeus. The reason for this was not only was he the fastest god but he was also loyal to his father, Zeus.

[edit] Epithets of Hermes

Hermes' epithet Argeiphontes, or Argus-slayer, recalls his slaying of the many-eyed giant Argus Panoptes, who was watching over the heifer-nymph Io in the sanctuary of Queen Hera herself in Argos. Putting Argus to sleep, Hermes used a spell to permanently close all of Argus's eyes and then slew the giant. Argus's eyes were then put into the tail of the peacock, symbol of the goddess Hera.

His epithet of Logios is the representation of the god in the act of speaking, as orator, or as the god of eloquence. Indeed, together with Athena, he was the standard divine representation of eloquence in classical Greece. The Homeric Hymn to Hermes (probably 6th century BC) describes Hermes making a successful speech from the cradle to defend himself from the (true) charge of cattle theft. Somewhat later, Proclus' commentary on Plato's Republic describes Hermes as the god of persuasion. Yet later, Neoplatonists viewed Hermes Logios more mystically as origin of a "Hermaic chain" of light and radiance emanating from the divine intellect (nous).

Other epithets included:

  • Acacesius, of Acacus
  • Argeiphontes, Argus-slayer, or giant slayer
  • Charidotes, giver of charm
  • Criophorus, ram-bearer
  • Cyllenius, born on Mount Cyllene
  • Diaktoros, the messenger
  • Dolios, the schemer
  • Enagonios, of the (Olympic) games
  • Enodios, on the road
  • Epimelius, keeper of flocks
  • Eriounios, luck bringer
  • Polygius
  • Psychopompos, conveyor of souls

[edit] Cult

Greek deities
Primordial deities
Aquatic deities
Chthonic deities
Personified concepts
Other deities
Zeus and Hera,
Poseidon, Hades,
Hestia, Demeter,
Aphrodite, Athena,
Apollo, Artemis,
Ares, Hephaestus,
Hermes, Dionysus
General article: Cult (religion).

Though temples to Hermes existed throughout Greece, a major center of his cult was at Pheneos in Arcadia, where festivals in his honor were called Hermoea.

As a crosser of boundaries, Hermes Psychopompos' ("conductor of the soul") was a psychopomp, meaning he brought newly-dead souls to the Underworld and Hades. In the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, Hermes conducted Persephone the Kore (young girl or virgin), safely back to Demeter. He also brought dreams to living mortals.

Among the Hellenes, as the related word herma ("a boundary stone, crossing point") would suggest, Hermes embodied the spirit of crossing-over: He was seen to be manifest in any kind of interchange, transfer, transgressions, transcendence, transition, transit or traversal, all of which involve some form of crossing in some sense. This explains his connection with transitions in one’s fortune -- with the interchanges of goods, words and information involved in trade, interpretion, oration, writing -- with the way in which the wind may transfer objects from one place to another, and with the transition to the afterlife.

Mercury by Hendrick Goltzius, 1611 (Frans Halsmuseum, Haarlem)

Originally, Hermes was depicted as an older, bearded, phallic god, but in the 6th century BCE, the traditional Hermes was reimagined as an athletic youth (illustration, top right). Statues of the new type of Hermes stood at stadiums and gymnasiums throughout Greece.

[edit] Hermai/Herms

Main article: Herma.

In very ancient Greece, Hermes was a phallic god of boundaries. His name, in the form herma, was applied to a wayside marker pile of stones; each traveller added a stone to the pile. In the 6th century BCE, Hipparchos, the son of Pisistratus, replaced the cairns that marked the midway point between each village deme at the central agora of Athens with a square or rectangular pillar of stone or bronze topped by a bust of Hermes with a beard. An erect phallus rose from the base. In the more primitive Mount Kyllini or Cyllenian herms, the standing stone or wooden pillar was simply a carved phallus. In Athens, herms were placed outside houses for good luck. "That a monument of this kind could be transformed into an Olympian god is astounding," Walter Burkert remarked (Burkert 1985).

In 415 BCE, when the Athenian fleet was about to set sail for Syracuse during the Peloponnesian War, all of the Athenian hermai were vandalized. The Athenians at the time believed it was the work of saboteurs, either from Syracuse or from the anti-war faction within Athens itself. Socrates' pupil Alcibiades was suspected to have been involved, and Socrates indirectly paid for the impiety with his life.

From these origins, hermai moved into the repertory of Classical architecture.

[edit] Hermes' iconography

Hermes was usually portrayed wearing a broad-brimmed traveler's hat or a winged cap (petasus), wearing winged sandals (talaria), and carrying his Near Eastern herald's staff -- either a caduceus entwined by copulating serpents, or a kerykeion topped with a symbol similar to the astrological symbol of Taurus the bull. Hermes wore the garments of a traveler, worker, or shepherd. He was represented by purses or bags, roosters (illustration, left), and tortoises. When depicted as Hermes Logios, he was the divine symbol of eloquence, generally shown speaking with one arm raised for emphasis.

[edit] Birth

Hermes was born on Mount Cyllene in Arcadia to Maia. As the story is told in the Homeric Hymn, the Hymn to Hermes, Maia was a nymph, but Greeks generally applied the name to a midwife or a wise and gentle old woman; so the nymph appears to have been an ancient one, or more probably a goddess. At any rate, she was one of the Pleiades, daughters of Atlas, taking refuge in a cave of Mount Cyllene in Arcadia.

The infant Hermes was precocious. On the day of his birth, by midday, he had invented the lyre, using the shell of a tortoise. By nightfall, he had rustled the immortal cattle of Apollo. For the first Olympian sacrifice, the taboos surrounding the sacred kine of Apollo had to be transgressed, and the trickster god of boundaries was the one to do it.

Hermes drove the cattle back to Greece and hid them, and covered their tracks. When Apollo accused Hermes, Maia said that it could not be him because he was with her the whole night. However, Zeus entered the argument and said that Hermes did steal the cattle and they should be returned. While arguing with Apollo, Hermes began to play his lyre. The instrument enchanted Apollo and he agreed to let Hermes keep the cattle in exchange for the lyre.

[edit] Hermes' offspring

[edit] Pan

The satyr-like Greek god of nature, shepherds and flocks, Pan was often said to be the son of Hermes through the nymph Dryope. In the Homeric Hymn to Pan, Pan's mother ran away from the newborn god in fright over his goatlike appearance.

[edit] Hermaphroditus

Hermaphroditus was an immortal son of Hermes through Aphrodite. He was changed into a hermaphrodite when the gods literally granted the nymph Salmacis's wish that they never separate.

[edit] Priapus

The god Priapus was a son of Hermes and Aphrodite. In Priapus, Hermes' phallic origins survived.

[edit] Eros

According to some sources, the mischievous winged god of love Eros, son of Aphrodite, was sired by Hermes, though the gods Ares and Hephaestus were also among those said to be the sire, whereas in the Theogeny, Hesiod claims that Eros was born of nothing before the Gods. Eros' Roman name was Cupid.

[edit] Tyche

The goddess of luck, Tyche (Greek Τύχη), or Fortuna, was sometimes said to be the daughter of Hermes and Aphrodite.

[edit] Abderus

Abderus was a son of Hermes who was devoured by the Mares of Diomedes. He had gone to the Mares with his friend Heracles.

[edit] Autolycus

Autolycus, the Prince of Thieves, was a son of Hermes and grandfather of Odysseus.

[edit] List of Hermes' consorts and children

  1. Aglaurus Athenian priestess
    1. Eumolpus warlord
  2. Antianeira Malian princess
    1. Echion Argonaut
  3. Apemosyne Cretan princess
  4. Aphrodite
    1. Eros (in one tradition)
    2. Eunomia
    3. Hermaphroditus
    4. Peitho
    5. Priapus (in some traditions)
    6. Rhodos
    7. Tyche
  5. Carmentis Arcadian nymph
    1. Evander founder of Latium
  6. Chione Phocian princess
    1. Autolycus thief
  7. Dryope Arcadian nymph
    1. Pan rustic god
  8. Eupolomia Phthian princess
    1. Aethalides Argonaut herald
  9. Herse Athenian priestess
    1. Cephalus hunter
    2. (Also Ceryx)
  10. Crocus who died and became the crocus flower
  11. Pandrosus Athenian priestess
    1. Ceryx Eleusinian herald
  12. Peitho ("Persuasion" his wife according to Nonnos)
  13. Penelope Arcadian nymph (or wife of Odysseus)
    1. Pan (according to one tradition)
  14. Sicilian nymph
    1. Daphnis rustic poet
  15. Theobula Eleian princess
    1. Myrtilus charioteer
  16. Born of the urine of Hermes, Poseidon and Zeus
    1. Orion giant hunter
  17. Unknown mothers
    1. Abderus squire of Heracles

[edit] Hermes in the myths

[edit] The Iliad

In Homer's Iliad, Hermes helps King Priam of Troy (Ilium) sneak into the Achaean (Greek) encampment to confront Achilles and convince him to return Hector's body.

[edit] The Odyssey

In Odyssey book 5, Hermes is sent to demand from Calypso Odysseus' release; in book 10 he protects Odysseus from Circe by bestowing upon him an herb, moly, which would protect him from her spell.

[edit] Argus Panoptes/Io

Hermes, at the request of Zeus, lulled the giant Argus to sleep and rescued Io, but Hera sent a gadfly to sting Io as she wandered the earth in cow form. Zeus eventually changed Io back to human form, and she became—through Epaphus; her son with Zeus—the ancestress of Heracles.

[edit] Perseus

Hermes aided Perseus in killing the gorgon Medusa by giving Perseus his winged sandals and Zeus' sickle. He also gave Perseus Hades' helmet of invisibility and told him to use it so that Medusa's immortal sisters could not see him. Athena helped Perseus as well by lending him her polished shield.

[edit] Prometheus

In the ancient play Prometheus Bound, attributed to Aeschylus, Zeus sends Hermes to confront the enchained Titan Prometheus about a prophecy of the Titan's that Zeus would be overthrown. Hermes scolds Prometheus for being unreasonable and willing to endure torture, but Prometheus refuses to give him details about the prophecy.

[edit] Herse/Aglaurus/Pandrosus

When Hermes loved Herse, one of three sisters who served Athena as priestesses or parthenos, her jealous older sister Aglaurus stood between them. Hermes changed Aglaurus to stone. Hermes then impregnated Aglaurus while she was stone. Cephalus was the son of Hermes and Herse. Hermes had another son, Ceryx, who was said to be the offspring of either Herse or Herse's other sister, Pandrosus. With Aglaurus, Hermes was the father of Eumolpus.

[edit] Other stories

In the story of the musician Orpheus, Hermes brought Eurydice back to Hades after Orpheus failed to bring her back to life when he looked back toward her after Hades told him not to.

Hermes helped to protect the infant god Dionysus from Hera, after Hera destroyed Dionysus' mortal mother Semele through her jealousy that Semele had conceived an immortal son of Zeus.

Hermes changed the Minyades into bats.

Hermes learned from the Thriae the arts of fortune-telling and divination.

When the gods created Pandora, it was Hermes who brought her to mortals and bestowed upon her a strong sense of curiosity.

King Atreus of Mycenae retook the throne from his brother Thyestes using advice he received from the trickster Hermes. Thyestes agreed to give the kingdom back when the sun moved backwards in the sky, a feat that Zeus accomplished. Atreus retook the throne and banished Thyestes.

Diogenes, speaking in jest, related the myth of Hermes taking pity on his son Pan, who was pining for Echo but unable to get a hold of her, and teaching him the trick of masturbation to relieve his suffering. Pan later taught the habit to the young shepherds.<ref>Dio Crysostom, Discourses, iv.20</ref>

[edit] Hermes Trismegistus

Main article: Hermes Trismegistus.

In the Hellenistic and then Greco-Roman culture of Alexandria, syncretic conflation of Hermes with the Egyptian god of wisdom Thoth produced the figure of Hermes Trismegistus, to whom a body of arcane lore was attributed. The writings attributed to Hermes Trismegistus were edited and published in the Italian Renaissance. This figure should not be confused with Greek Hermes.

[edit] Hermes Trismegistus in Islamic tradition

Main article: Hermes Trismegistus

Antoine Faivre, in The Eternal Hermes (1995) has pointed out that Hermes Trismegistus has a place in the Islamic tradition, though the name Hermes does not appear in the Qur'an. Hagiographers and chroniclers of the first centuries of the Islamic Hegira quickly identified Hermes Trismegistus with Idris, the nabi of surahs 19.57; 21.85, whom the Arabs also identify with Enoch (cf. Genesis 5.18-24). Indris/Hermes is called "Thrice Wise"—Hermes Trismegistus—because he was threefold: the first of the name, comparable to Thoth, was a "civilizing hero," an initiator into the mysteries of the divine science and wisdom that animate the world; he carved the principles of this sacred science in hieroglyphs. The second Hermes, in Babylon, was the initiator of Pythagoras. The third Hermes was the first teacher of Alchemy. "A faceless prophet," writes the Islamicist Pierre Lory, "Hermes possesses no concrete or salient characteristics, differing in this regard from most of the major figures of the Bible and the Quran." (Faivre 1995 pp.19-20)

[edit] Hermes in popular culture

  • In his 1931 novel, The Night Life of the Gods, American fantasy author and humorist Thorne Smith prominently depicted Hermes (under the Roman name Mercury) as a statue brought to life, in addition to a few other figures from Classical mythology. In the 1935 film adaptation, Hermes/Mercury was played by American actor Paul Kaye.
  • The 2006 fantasy Herald (Novel), by N.F. Houck, is a depiction of Hermes telling his own story and history. In the novel, Hermes also retells many Greek and Roman myths from his point of view.
  • Many bus services in the Netherlands are called Hermes, following his duty as a messenger.
  • Goodyear uses a logo of a winged sandal, a symbol of Hermes.

[edit] Notes


[edit] External links

[edit] References

  • Walter Burkert, 1985. Greek Religion,
  • Antoine Faivre, 1995.The Eternal Hermes : From Greek God to Alchemical Magus translated by Josceleyn Godwin (Phanes) ISBN 0-933999-52-6.
  • Lewis Hyde, Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art (1998)

[edit] Hermes Logios

  • Maxime Collignon, Manual of Mythology: In Relation to Greek Art, 1890, trans. Jane Ellen Harrison, Kessinger Publishing (2003), page 116. ISBN 0766148904.
  • Helen F. North, "Emblems of Eloquence", Proceedings, American Philosophical Society (vol. 137, No. 3, 1993), page 413. ISBN 1422370186.
  • Algis Uzdavinys, The Golden Chain: An Anthology of Platonic and Pythagorean Philosophy, World Wisdom, Inc., 2004, page 299. ISBN 0941532615.
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