Hermes is one of the most popular gods in Greek mythology. He was always considered to be particularly fond of humans – and so the humans were particularly fond of him!
The herald god is a crosser of boundaries and moves between the mortal world and the immortal realm – both Mt Olympus and the underworld – more than any other god. He is a trickster since birth, a messenger, a traveller, and a trader. He’s also an amoral character, and does whatever he wants to. It just so happens that sometimes he wants to help!
We’ve put together information on Hermes’ worship in ancient Greece, his patronage and epithets, and the surviving stories about this mischievous god.
Hermes’ cult is one of the oldest known in Greek history. He is mentioned as a fertility god in 15th to 13th century BC Linear B tablets of the Mycenaeans!
The Homeric Hymn to Hermes describes him as ‘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’. It’s quite a description. Worshipped across ancient Greece for many millennia, his cult mainly consisted of young men. We’ll go into more detail on that below!
Hermes’ epithets and other names
Mercury – his later Roman name
Prince of thieves – Hermes steals Apollo’s oxen the day after he’s born, and is ever-after known by this name
Argeïphontes or Slayer of Argus – Hermes slew the 100-eyed giant Argus Panoptes – it’s one of the myths below!
Giant-slayer – this is another name for the same deed as above
Psychopompos – one who escorts the deceased to the afterlife
Atlantiades – because of his family ties with the god Atlas, his mother’s father
Cyllenian – Hermes was, in some myths, born at Mount Cyllene, and the gods carry the name of their birthplace
Hodios – the patron of travellers and wayfarers
Oneiropompus – conductor of dreams
Poimandres – shepherd of men
Heralds, thieves, travellers, language, trade, luck and commerce; he is the messenger god, the go-between for the divine deities, the world of mortal men, and even the underworld.
Hermes sitting on a ram. ca. 2/3rd century
Attributes (what does Hermes look like?)
1, Winged cap and boots
2. Traveller’s cloak and pointed hat
3. Youthful, usually beardless figure
4. Caduceus (a staff with wings and two snakes wound around it – not to be mistaken with the staff of Asclepius, which has one snake and is now an international symbol of medicine)
An annual festival held in honour of Hermes, the Hermaea was an athletic festival. It was restricted to ephebes (male adolescents), who would participate in various rowdy gymnastic and sports events.
The festival was held in many parts of Greece, including Athens, Pheneos, and Delos. The nature of the event was a little different in the different places, and apparently, in Cydonia, social order was inverted for the festival, and older masters waited on their young slaves! Unfortunately, not much else is known about this festival.
Who is this messenger of the gods?
Hermes agoraios and the Charites, relief of the Passage of Theori, from the agora of Thasos, ca. 480 BC
To give a little more information on our trickster god, I’ve broken this up into common questions and their answers. Hermes is known for his uniquely winged shoes and travellers attire, but he’s much more than a messenger god. He’s his father’s frequent attendant, guide to dead souls, precocious trickster, and a happy favourite of the gods. Hermes never marries (though he has a number of lovers), and after the Archaic period, he is usually depicted as a youthful, beardless man.
Note: Another messenger of the gods is Iris (Ίρις). This goddess aided the Olympians as their messenger during the Titanomachy, while her twin sister Arke aided the Titans. She is also the goddess of the rainbow!
Who is Hermes’ father?
Hermes’ father is Zeus, the iconic god of thunder. His mother is Maia, a nymph and the daughter of Atlas.
How was Hermes born?
According to the myth, Zeus lay with Maia in the quietest hour of the night, when all the other gods were fast asleep. And at dawn of the same day, Hermes was born! He was born in the same deep cave where he was conceived (there was little time to move).
Hermes was born as a baby (this needs to be specified when it comes to the Greek gods) but grew up in a single day. By midday he had created and played the lyre, and by evening he was sneaking around, stealing Apollo’s cattle. Of course, there are various myths, and in one, Hermes first stole the cattle and then created the lyre from a tortoise he killed. In both accounts, though, Hermes strikes a deal in the end with Apollo, trading cattle for lyre.
Where does Hermes live?
Hermes is one of the twelve Olympian Gods, so he lives on Mount Olympus. His mother lives in a dark cave, but from the very beginning, Hermes is much more interested in joining the rest of the gods on sunny Olympus. As we know, he does a lot of travelling. But he is the quickest of all the gods, so he can be pretty much everywhere.
What is Hermes’ symbol?
Hermes’ main symbol is the caduceus, the herald staff. This is a short staff entwined by two serpents and sometimes topped with wings. He could use this staff to put people to sleep (as he did with the giant Argus) or wake people up from sleep. It could even do the same with death. The wand was, and still is, associated with some of Hermes’ patron interests, mainly trade. It’s also sometimes mistakenly used to represent medicine, but it is actually the single-snake staff of Asklepios, god of medicine, that should represent this particular trade.
Hermes’ other symbols include herma, roosters, tortoises (from which he made the lyre), rams, snakes, and palm trees, as well as the later popularised talaria, or winged sandals.
What does it mean for Hermes to be a chthonic god?
Chthonic means to be associated with the earth and/or the underworld. In Hermes’ case, he is a psychopomp. A guide for deceased souls, to accompany them to the afterlife. Because of this, his image is commonly found on ancient gravestones, as family members called on Hermes to guide their loved ones safely to the underworld.
But chthonic also relates to the earth, and this too is Hermes’ realm. In addition to his role in guiding travellers and messengers, he has also, from his earliest worship, been associated with male fertility.
It is because of this that the phallus is one of his main symbols, and why the herma which lined roads to guide people usually included Hermes’ head and an erect phallus. In other parts of Greek, these herma were simply large, carved phalluses, excluding any busts or additional details.
Hermes mythology – Ancient stories about the Greek god of speed
Hermes with his mother Maia. Detail of the side B of an Attic red-figure belly-amphora, ca. 500 BC
Like many of the Greek gods, Hermes is an amoral figure. In other words, he is unconcerned with the rightness and wrongness of something – he just does what he feels like. My favourite expression of this is in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes, when as a small child, he says:
‘Better to live in fellowship with the deathless gods continually, rich, wealthy, and enjoying stores of grain, than to sit always in a gloomy cave: and, as regards honor, I too will enter upon the rite that Apollo has. If my father will not give it me, I will seek —and I am able —to be a prince of robbers’ (Homeric Hymn).
The theft of Apollo’s cattle
This is the most famous of Hermes’ tales. It begins with his birth in the dark cave of his nymph mother, Maia. In the tale, she gave birth to him at dawn, wrapped him and put him in his cot, and then fell asleep.
As soon as she did, the god-baby sprung up, ready for mischief. He wanted to steal his brother’s sacred cattle, right off the bat. As he was heading out the door, Hermes came across a tortoise, and so admired its beautiful shell. So he killed it (telling the small creature that he would be forever honoured in death), scooped out its inside, and made it into a lyre, inventing the instrument.
Hermes put the lovely instrument in his cot, and then set off for the cattle fields. He arrived there at sunset and stole fifty of the finest of Apollo’s cattle. Then, the tricky child led the herd back towards his home facing backwards, while he himself criss-crossed the path to really throw off any reading of the prints.
A man saw the strange scene though. Later, when Hermes was tucked back in his crib, and Apollo was searching the strange scene for his oxen, the god of truth called to the old man, and he told him what he’d seen.
Apollo was enraged, knowing just who the little child was. When he confronted Hermes in his crib, the child-god used crafty words and lies, but it was no use, and the two eventually brought their quarrel to Zeus.
Zeus smiled at his young child’s sneaky tricks, rather proud really. But he insisted Hermes return Apollo’s oxen.
When the two returned to the cave, Hermes tried one more option. He took up his lyre from the crib and played sweet music, so enchanting Apollo that the far-seeker’s anger quickly abated. After a beautiful song, Apollo exclaimed ‘Slayer of oxen, trickster, busy one, comrade of the feast, this song of yours is worth fifty cows, and I believe that presently we shall settle our quarrel peacefully’ (Homeric Hymn to Hermes).
And so, after some mutual compliments and discussion, the two came to an agreement. Hermes would keep the cattle, and Apollo would have the lyre. And the two became close friends, and often spent time together making music and chatting on mighty Mt Olympus.
Hermes and the giant Argus
Mercury and Argus, 1635 – 1638 AD by Peter Paul Rubens
This is one of the more popular myths of Hermes aiding his father, Zeus, in his many conquests.
In the tale, Zeus was sleeping with the princess-nymph, Io. When his poor jealous wife interrupted their tryst, Zeus quickly turned his lover into a white heifer – a cow. But Hera was not convinced, she’d seen it all before. So she demanded the cow as a gift, and appointed Argus Panoptes as its guard.
This giant’s name ‘Panoptes’ means ‘All-seeing’, and eventually he came to be seen as possessing a hundred eyes, so that he could truly see all. He was the perfect guard, with unwearying strength and no need to sleep, always keeping some of his eyes open.
But Zeus called on his son Hermes to rescue his lover. So Hermes snuck over disguised as a shepherd and used his caduceus and whispered words to lull the giant into a magical slumber. Then he slew him with a stone – in many stories, this is the first bloodshed among the Olympians after they defeated the Titans. Io was freed, and finally returned to her natural form (never returning to Zeus’ bed – it must have been a bit of an ordeal, spending time as a captured cow). And Hera rewarded the primordial giant in his death by putting his eyes in the peacock’s tail.
Hermes featuring in everyone else’s myths
There are surprisingly few myths about the herald god. But he features in a lot of stories about other gods, popping in to pass on a message, aiding an adventure, or throwing in a joke or two.
He is a favourite among the gods, and according to the myths, is taught to hunt by Artemis and to pay the flute by Pan. He guides Persephone back to her mother from Hades. And in his messenger role, he features in Pandora, Perseus, and Achilles’ tales. He is also Zeus’ closest wingman, and aids him in a number of his adulterous affairs.
Last thoughts on the Greek god Hermes
So, now you know all about Hermes, one of our favourite Greek gods! If you enjoyed reading about him, check out this post on Aphrodite, one of his escorts and the mother to his child Hermaphrodites.
And of course, if I’ve missed anything, please let me know! I always appreciate learning more and filling in any missing information.