Hermes: Messenger of the Gods
Hermes was the messenger of the gods and the official herald of Zeus.
The story of how he earned that position, though, isn’t the tale of heroism and strength you might expect from one of the most important gods in ancient Greece.
And while a messenger might seem a minor position compared to the gods of things like war or love, Hermes was one of the most widely-revered and often mentioned gods in Greek mythology.
Also known by his Roman name, Mercury, Hermes was far more than just a messenger. Read on to find out how a god of trickery and mischief became one of the most important deities in all of Greek mythology!
Maia was the oldest of the seven Pleiades. These daughters of the Titan Atlas and the sea nymph Pleione are best remembered for the constellation of seven stars named in their honor.
The shyest of the seven sisters, Maia avoided the great court at Mount Olympus. Instead, she lived alone in a secluded mountain cave.
Even shying away from the society of the rest of the gods, Maia drew Zeus’s attention. The nymph became one of his many lovers and she secretly gave birth to their son, Hermes.
From the beginning, it was clear that the newborn god had a knack for trouble. He grew quickly, even by the standards of a god, and on the first night of his life was already causing mischief.
While his mother slept, the baby Hermes crawled out of her cave. The first creature he found was a tortoise, and his clever mind instantly devised a plan for how to put the animal to use.
He dug the meat out of its shell and fitted it with reeds and gutstring. He used seven strings in honor of his mother and her sisters.
At less than a day old Hermes had invented the lyre, an instrument that would be forever associated with Greek culture. Some myths say that the first song the clever young god composed was a hymn in celebration of his own birth.
Hermes hadn’t had enough mischief for one night, though. He was getting hungry and decided that he wanted to try meat.
Hermes made his way to Thessaly, where Apollo kept a herd of cattle. He stole fifty of his half-brother’s finest animals but was careful to, quite literally, cover his tracks.
He made the cows walk backward to confuse anyone looking for them. For himself, he made wicker sandals to disguise his footprints.
Along the way, he passed by an old man working at the edge of a vineyard. Hermes promised the farmer a plentiful crop and a good vintage in exchange for not telling anyone he had seen the cattle.
At dawn, Hermes stopped to rest. He butchered two of Apollo’s cattle on the spot and hid the rest.
He cooked the meat of the cows he had killed, but as a god was unable to eat it. He burned the meat so that the other gods could enjoy the pleasant aroma, thus becoming the inventor of sacrifices.
Hermes returned to the cave before Maia awoke. After a night of mischief, he climbed back into his crib.
When Apollo discovered his missing cattle, he immediately went searching for them. He came across the farmer, Battos, who admitted that he had seen the animals walking backward, being driven by a very small child.
Knowing that the cows were walking backward allowed Apollo to follow their tracks, which led him to Maia’s cave.
Along the way, Apollo saw another clue that told him who had stolen his herd.
According to the great poet Homer, Apollo saw an eagle with long wings soaring overhead. This was a symbol of Zeus, which told Apollo that the culprit was another of the king’s children.
When Apollo arrived at the cave, he found Maia and the baby in his crib. Knowing the thief to be one of Zeus’s children, he didn’t believe the innocent baby was as helpless as he appeared.
Maia tried to protest her child’s innocence, but even she had a feeling that Hermes had been up to no good.
Apollo took the child to stand before Zeus at Mount Olympus and be judged for his theft.
Standing before the god of rule and law, Apollo told the story of how he had tracked down the thief. When Hermes spoke up, he was less truthful.
With the voice and eloquence of a grown god, Hermes argued that he couldn’t have possibly stolen the cattle. After all, he had just been born the day before.
He wove elaborate lies and swore outlandish oaths in his defense.
Zeus saw through the baby god’s lies. Rather than being angry though, he was amused at the child’s quick wit.
Despite his well-known temper, Zeus was also a god who delighted in amusements. He had immediate love for his mischievous child.
Zeus laughed and offered his young son a place among the great gods of Olympus, provided he return Apollo’s stolen cattle first.
Hermes led his older brother to the hidden cattle, but only forty-eight cows remained. Hermes could not fulfill Zeus’s command to return all the stolen animals.
Instead, he offered a trade.
He showed Apollo the lyre he had created the day before and played a song he had written in honor of his parents. Apollo was so amazed by the instrument that he declared it was worth more than all the stolen cows combined.
Apollo took the lyre, becoming the god of music and poetry, and Hermes claimed his place on Mount Olympus.
Before entering Zeus’s court, however, he had one more bit of mischief to pull. He went back to Battos, the farmer who had betrayed him to Apollo, and turned the old man into a pile of stone.
The stones marking boundary lines in Greece were known as herma, although it’s unclear whether they were named after the god or if he took his name from them.
Hermes instantly became a favorite of the other Olympians.
Zeus was captivated by his son’s sharp mind. He would frequently make use of his son’s cleverness in his own exploits and the myths often feature the two of them working closely together.
Hermes and Apollo made peace with the exchange of the lute, and Apollo continued to give his younger brother gifts. One of these was a golden staff known as a caduceus, which became one of Hermes’s lasting symbols.
This wand was said to have the power to induce sleep, an ability that Hermes used many times in his adventures.
One gift Apollo would refused to grant Hermes was the ability to foretell the future.
In addition to the lute, Hermes had also invented shepherd’s pipes. As the new god of music Apollo longed for them, but in exchange Hermes demanded to know the full course of fate.
While there were many sources in the ancient world for rustic forms of divination, only Apollo had the true gift of prophecy. His oracles were the most trusted in the world, and their visions of the future played an important role in many of the myths.
Apollo could not give this gift to Hermes, although he gave many others. When Homer described the request, he made sure to mention Apollo’s vow to always tell the truth through his oracles.
No matter how much love Apollo had for Hermes, no one could deny that the young trickster had a history of telling falsehoods. In his hands, prophecy would become unreliable.
Instead, Apollo told Hermes where to find three sisters who could teach him a more rudimentary form of soothsaying.
While Hermes would never have the divine prophetic power of Apollo, he would learn a simpler way of telling the future. Because these omens and hints came from an infamous liar, though, they would never be as reliable as Apollo’s oracles.
However much the gods enjoyed his company, it was clear that Hermes needed to be kept busy. He had proven on the first night of his life that, unless he was kept occupied, his clever mind would turn to mischief.
He had begun to turn his trickery toward the gods themselves. As a sly thief, he amused himself by stealing such treasured items as Posiedon’s trident and Artemis’ arrows.
Zeus gave Hermes the job of herald and messenger of the gods. He would be able to use his talents for eloquence and cunning but would be kept busy enough to stay out of trouble.
Hermes was given golden sandals to wear on his travels. Artwork often depicts these shoes had wings on them to allow the messenger to move more swiftly when carrying out his duties.
Sometimes the god’s wide-brimmed hat was also adorned with wings. The sandals and hat became instantly identifiable emblems of Hermes.
Hermes also had a magical cloak that gave him the ability to become invisible. This was valuable for slipping past guards and enemies to deliver messages, but also gave him an advantage in his many thefts and tricks.
As the winged messenger of the gods, Hermes was authorized to speak on Zeus’s behalf. He carried his messages to gods and mortals alike, even being given free passage to and from the underworld to speak to the spirits there.
His staff became the symbol of messengers and diplomats throughout Greece, and Greeks saw one of his fellow travellers they prayed for good news of peace and prosperity.
As the official messenger of the gods, Hermes plays a role in many myths. He appears often to relay the will of the gods, even serving as a guide for those summoned by Zeus.
Often, Zeus sent Hermes on personal errands as well as with messages.
When Zeus fell in love with the nymph Io, he turned her into a white cow to hide her from his jealous wife. Hera still recognized Io and placed the cow under the watch of the hundred-eyed giant Argus.
Zeus sent Hermes, disguised as a shepherd, to rescue Io. Unable to charm the giant into closing all of his many eyes, Hermes killed Argus with a stone.
More than once, Hermes was dispatched to save the children born to Zeus’s mistresses. When Semele died, Hermes was entrusted with taking the newborn Dionysus to be fostered.
When the gods waged war against the giants, Hermes used a golden sword to kill the giant Hyppolytos in battle. When Zeus was nearly defeated by Typhoeus, Hermes and Aigipan were able to restore his strength.
When the god of war, Ares, was captured by giants for a year, Hermes was the one to learn of his plight and rescue him.
When Zeus punished mankind by sending Pandora, the first woman, to unleash evils upon humanity, it was Hermes who escorted her to the earth.
Some claim that the trickster himself was responsible for putting horrors like disease and old age into Pandora’s box. Others say that Hermes put his own deceitfulness and guile into the woman.
Hermes was known to help some of the legendary heroes of Greek mythology. When he loaned Perseus his famous winged sandals, they enabled the hero to escape Medusa’s cave after she was beheaded.
Sometimes Zeus accompanied Hermes on his errands.
In one story, Zeus and Hermes disguised themselves as poor travellers to test the hospitality of mankind. When the prosperous residents of a village turned them away but they were treated well by an impoverished elderly couple, they rewarded the couple and destroyed the village in a flood.
Hermes also took part in many of the greatest games of legend, although it appears he never won. Despite his winged shoes and famous speed, Apollo still best him in running at the first Olympic Games.
When Apollo organized the Pythian Games to celebrate his defeat of the great Python, Hermes also participated. A writer in the 1st century claimed that at these games Hermes was defeated by Aphrodite.
Some stories of Hermes are more lighthearted than the typical myth. One tells how he used his famous love of mischief in games with young nymphs:
When any of the maidens [the Oceanids] doth disobedience to her mother [Tethis], the mother calls the Cyclopes to her child–Arges or Steropes; and from within the house comes Hermes stained with burnt ashes [playfully pretending to be one of the frightful Cyclopes]. And straightway he plays bogey to the child and she runs into her mother’s lap, with her hands upon her eyes.
-Callimachus, Hymn 3 to Artemis 46 ff (trans. Mair)
Hermes was also a favorite subject in Aesop’s fables. He later was credited for personally giving Aesop the wit and humor to write his tales.
Hermes often appeared to mortals in Aesop’s stories. Whether he bestowed gifts on them or played a trick was usually dependent on the person’s behavior.
Later Roman writers included Hermes in the love story of Orpheus and Eurydice. When the musician descended to Hades to bring his love back from death, Hermes guided him as the only god who could freely travel in and out of the underworld.
While Hermes is best remembered as a messenger, in the earliest Greek cultures he was a fertility god. This tradition faded away, but the god was still known for his love affairs.
As expected, the god known for his eloquence was often successful in seducing goddesses, nymphs, and mortals of both sexes.
While various legends name dozens of Hermes’s lovers, some famous names stand out.
Hermes was once successful in wooing Aphrodite herself. Zeus actually aided his son by stealing one of Aphrodite’s sandals and sending her to Hermes to retrieve it.
Pietho, the goddess of seduction and persuasion, was among the lovers of Hermes.
Ares and Hermes competed for the love of Tanagra. When Hermes bested the god of war, he carried the nymph off to a northern city that still bears her name.
Some legends claim that Hecate, the goddess of witchcraft, was another of Hermes’s lovers.
Homer wrote that the Oreads, a group of mountain nymphs, all bore children fathered by Hermes.
Penelopeia, an African nymph, is sometimes confused with Odysseus’s wife Penelope.
Like many of the gods, Hermes was said to have fathered many heroes, kings, and demigods. While many of these children did not achieve great fame, some more memorable names include:
- Hermaphroditus – His son with Aphrodite, who merged his body with that of his lover to have both male and female characteristics.
- Pan – The goat-legged god of shepherds and the countryside. Despite his appearance, Pan’s reputation as a god who loved music and mischief was very similar to Hermes.
- The Satyrs – Like pan, the three satyrs are best remembered for having animal traits. They became the heralds and companions of Dionysus.
- Abderus – One of Hermes’s mortal sons, he was known as a favorite companion of Heracles.
- Saon – The first ruler of the island of Samothrace.
- Eudorus – One of the commanders under Achilles in the Trojan War.
- Norax – The founder of Sardinia.
- Autolycus – An infamous thief who had the ability to change the appearance of both himself and the objects he stole. He was also the grandfather of the hero Odysseus.
- Evander – In Roman traditions, Evander brought Greek religion, writing, and law to Italy.
Some legends also mention the male lovers associated with Hermes. Probably the most famous was Perseus, the greatest hero of his age.
Another legend claimed that when Crocus was accidentally killed during a game of discus, Hermes was so distraught that he turned the young man into a flower.
During the Age of Heroes, the gods played a major role in the Trojan War. As their messenger, it is unsurprising that Hermes features prominently in myths about the conflict.
Zeus was unwilling to choose between his wife, his daughter, and his half-sister so he sent Hermes to find a mortal man willing to make the decision. Hermes escorted the three goddesses to be judged by Prince Paris of Troy.
Each goddess promised Paris gifts in exchange for naming her as fairest. Aphrodite offered the love of the most beautiful woman on earth, Helen of Sparta.
Her husband Menelaus and his brother Agamemnon called in oaths sworn to them, bringing virtually all of Greece into the conflict. The gods, as well, had allegiances.
Aphrodite, however, had her own reasons for causing Helen to fall in love with Paris. When he married the beautiful woman, Menelaus had sworn to make a sacrifice in Aphrodite’s honor. He had failed to do so, earning the goddess’s hatred.
Nearly all the gods chose sides in the great war and used their divine powers to sway the course of the conflict. Hermes sided with the Greeks.
At one point in the war the gods began to fight with one another. As they were paired off, Hermes was set to fight Leto.
Hermes in The Iliad was a more kind and sympathetic character than he was usually portrayed, and he refused to to fight Leto. Instead, he told the goddess to leave unharmed and brag to her peers that she had beaten him.
His sympathy was also shown in his reaction to the death of Hector. As Achilles dishonored the fallen Trojan prince by dragging his body behind a chariot, the gods begged Hermes to use his skills as a thief to retrieve the body.
Zeus intervened and declared that King Priam must come forward himself to claim his son’s body. Hermes, however, was to act as an escort to keep the king safe.
Hermes did not immediately reveal his identity to the king, but he did tell the old man that he reminded Hermes of his own father.
Hermes used his wand to put the guards around the Greek camp to sleep and safely guided Priam to Achilles’ tent. He finally told the king his identity and advised him on how to appeal to Achilles for the return of his son’s body.
Even though Hermes had sided with the Greeks, he showed sympathy and compassion toward the king of the Trojans.
While his role in The Iliad was small, Hermes played a much larger role in The Odyssey. This may have been in part because Odysseus was his great-grandson.
In The Odyssey Hermes used his cleverness more than once to save Odysseus and help him return home.
The first time Hermes appeared to Odysseus was on the island of Aeaea, where the witch Circe had detained the hero and turned the crew of his ship into pigs. Hermes gave Odysseus an herb that made him immune to Circe’s magic and advised him on how to restore his men.
When Odysseus found himself captured again, this time by Calysto, Hermes dispensed with trickery. He brought a message directly from Zeus ordering the nymph to release the Greeks immediately.
Hermes appeared in the story one more time. When Odysseus finally returned home and killed his wife’s would-be suitors, Hermes escorted the dead men’s souls to the underworld.
Having taken part in so many adventures and travelled so often, Hermes became the patron of many things. While some gods only held domain over a few aspects of Greek life, Hermes was important in many respects.
As the gods’ messenger, he was the official patron of that profession. His staff became a symbol for all messengers.
Merchants and traders also prayed to Hermes. As a fellow traveller, he would protect anyone whose job required them to travel the often dangerous roads of the ancient world.
He was so important to trade that his Roman name, Mercury, came from the word for traded items. Commerce, merchant, and merchandise are all words related to Mercury.
He became the god of all types of travel and roads. Together, he and Zeus saw to the rules and traditions concerning hospitality.
Hermes was especially important to diplomats. Not only did they have to travel between unfriendly factions, like Hermes did in the Trojan War, but they also called on the god’s clever wit and skill with words.
For his eloquence and wordplay, Hermes became one of the patrons of language, writing, and speech. Later myths would claim that he had personally invented all these things.
When Hermes traded his lute for Apollo’s cattle, he became a god of herdsmen and animal husbandry.
The incident with Apollo also made him the god of cattle thieves. In fact, Hermes was the god of all types of theft and deception.
Because Hermes saw to both thieves and hospitality, he became a protector of the home. Devout Greeks believed that a statue of Hermes at the entrance to their house would protect them from thieves and con men.
Watching over both herds and homes, Hermes became associated with guards and guard dogs as well.
Because Hermes had invented sacrifices when he cooked Apollo’s cows, he became the god that oversaw all offerings to the gods.
When Hermes learned primitive forms of divination, after Apollo refused to teach him true prophecy, he became one of the patron gods omens. Anyone who tried to see the future through dreams, birds, or pebbles prayed to Hermes for guidance.
The playwright Aeschylus claimed that Hermes could be called upon by searchers to help find that which was lost or hidden.
Because his wand could induce sleep, that became another of his domains. It was said that he delivered his messages to people in their dreams.
In his job as messenger, Hermes was one of the only beings able to travel freely to and from the underworld. Many traditions made him the guide who led the souls of the dead to the realm of Hades.
The boundary between life and death was just one of the borders Hermes was able to cross. He became the god of all boundaries and the piles of stones he shared his name with, the herma, were used to mark property lines, borders, and pathways.
Hermes was one of the patron gods of games and athletics. Along with figures like Heracles and Theseus, wrestlers and other athletes prayed for Hermes to grant them his speed.
Finally, as the god of both trickery and games Hermes was the patron of gambling and games of chance. Another invention he was credited with were dice, so it was natural for players to say a prayer to Hermes before rolling them.
Hermes is best remembered as the messenger of the gods.
His image has been used by shipping companies and mail order services worldwide for his association with speedy delivery.
His Latin name was given to the fastest-moving planet in the solar system. The metal Mercury was also named for how quickly it moves in liquid form.
But in the Greek world, Hermes was far more than just a fast messenger.
He was a complicated figure that enjoyed tricks and used his wits to his advantage, but could show great compassion and kindness.
He won a position as one of the twelve chief gods of Olympus by causing mischief. His fellow Olympians loved him despite his tricks and deceit.
Hermes was important in nearly every aspect of Greek life, and played a key role in many of the religion’s most popular myths. From guarding roads to inspiring athletes, people throughout the Greek world sought his favor.