Maia: The Mother of Hermes
Maia’s legend began as just one of the thousands of nymphs that lived in the Greek countryside. With her sisters, she lived away from most of the gods and goddesses of Olympus.
In fact, Maia was a reclusive nymph. While her sisters hunted with Artemis and took lovers, Maia preferred to stay hidden on her own in a secluded cave.
Her discovery by Zeus, however, led to Maia becoming one of the most prominent nymphs in Greek mythology. As the mother of his son, Hermes, she was elevated to the status of the revered mother of one of the great gods of Mount Olympus.
There is far more to the story of Maia than just her famous son’s birth. Before and after Hermes was born, Maia was making a name for herself.
From her beginnings in a mountainside cavern to her place among the stars, Maia became a more major figure in Greek mythology than most nymphs. In Rome, she even became a revered aspect of Mother Earth.
Maia was one of the seven Pleiades, sister nymphs of the mountains. They were named for their mother, the Oceanid Pleione.
Some scholars believe that the legends of the Pleiades actually arose before their mother’s. The character of Pleione was invented to explain the existing name of the sisterhood of nymphs.
Their father was Atlas, the Titan who was condemned to hold the dome of the heavens aloft on his shoulders. Because of him the sisters were occasionally called the Atlantides.
Like most nymphs, the Pleiades were said to be exceptionally beautiful. Maia, the eldest, was the most beautiful of them all.
In their youth the sisters were companions of Artemis. They were also sometimes credited as the nymphs who had cared for the infant Dionysus after the death of his mother.
Their beauty attracted attention, however, and like most nymphs they were often pursued by men and gods alike.
In one story, the sisters were abducted by lascivious pirates under orders from Busirus, the king of Egypt. Heracles saved them and returned them to their father, earning his assistance in one of the hero’s labors.
In another tale, the giant Orion pursued the sisters. To save them Zeus transformed them into doves.
One by one, though, the sisters became the lovers of various gods.
Electra and Taygete both had sons by Zeus. Sterope was a lover of Ares.
Alcyone and Calaeno were both lovers of Poseidon, with Calaeno also having two sons by Prometheus.
The youngest, Merope, stayed with Orion. In other versions of her myth she became mortal and faded away after marrying the mortal king Sisyphus.
None of the sisters, however, would have sons who were as renowned and famous as Maia’s. While her nephews became kings, Maia would give birth to a god.
Maia was the most beautiful of the sisters, with deep black eyes and shining hair. However, she was also the most timid and reclusive.
While her sisters enjoyed the company of Artemis and the gods, Maia kept more to herself. She lived in an isolated cave on Mount Cyllene in Attica.
Her isolation, however, did not keep her hidden entirely. Like many nymphs, including two of her sisters, her beauty attracted the attention of the king of the gods.
Maia’s hidden cave provided the perfect hiding place for him. While his wife Hera slept on Olympus, Zeus went to the nymph’s home in the dead of night.
Zeus was able to keep their affair hidden not only from his jealous wife, but from the rest of the gods as well. No one suspected that Maia, the most beautiful of all the Pleiades, had become the god’s lover.
Maia became pregnant following her affair with Zeus. Without anyone’s knowledge, she gave birth to a son she called Hermes.
Exhausted from her labor, Maia swaddled her newborn son and laid down to sleep. What she did not know, however, was that she had given birth to the greatest trickster in the world.
Maia had no way of knowing that her baby, just a few hours old, could sneak out of his cradle. Without waking his mother, the infant Hermes left their cavern home looking for trouble.
The first creature Hermes ever saw was a tortoise. He killed it and hollowed out its shell, using gutstring to fashion it into the first lyre.
He was pleased with his invention, but soon grew bored. Although gods did not eat the food of mortals, he decided he wanted to try meat.
Hermes made his way to Thessaly, where his half-brother Apollo kept a herd of prized cattle. He stole fifty of the finest cows but was careful to, literally, cover his tracks.
He made the cows walk backward to confuse anyone looking for them. He made wicker sandals for himself to disguise his footprints as he drove them away.
Hermes slaughtered one of the cows but as a god was unable to eat it. He burned the meat so that the other gods could enjoy the pleasant smell of cooked meat, and in doing so became the inventor of sacrifices.
The newborn god did all of this before sunrise. He hid the remaining cattle in a cave and crept back into his mother’s home before she woke.
Many versions of the myth say that Maia had a suspicion there was more to her son than met the eye. Others said she was completely unaware of her son’s predilection for mischief and theft.
She would soon learn, however, when Apollo tracked the missing cattle to her doorstep. Through his own intelligence and his ability to read divine signs, he had followed the trail and surmised that his prized cows had been stolen by another son of Zeus.
When he reached the cave, he found only Maia and the infant, back in his crib and feigning helplessness. Although he didn’t know how, he knew that the baby in front of him was the one who had stolen his cattle.
Apollon comes to Maia to demand back the cattle, but she does not believe him and thinks the god is talking nonsense … ‘Your son whom you bore yesterday wrongs me; for the cattle in which I delight he has thrust into the earth, nor do I know where in the earth. Verily he shall perish and shall be thrust down deeper than the cattle.’
But she merely marvels, and does not believe what he says. While they are still disputing with one another Hermes takes his stand behind Apollon, and leaping lightly on his back, he quietly unfastens Apollon’s bow and pilfers it unnoticed.
-Philostratus the Elder, Imagines 1. 26 (trans. Fairbanks)
Maia argued that her son was only one day old and incapable of walking, let alone stealing an entire herd of cattle from miles away. But Apollo insisted on taking the baby to be judged by Zeus.
Some stories of Hermes’s birth said that he continued to feign helplessness even as Apollo took him to Olympus. Other retellings claimed that Hermes made his intelligence known by arguing with his mother and half-brother.
Either way, Hermes was taken before Zeus for judgement. Although he was guilty of the theft, his mischief and quick wit charmed his father.
Hermes was offered a place on Olympus, provided he return the cows he had stolen. He did so and made up for the one that was butchered by giving Apollo the lyre he had invented.
The mischievous god became his father’s messenger and herald, as well as the patron of thieves and troublemakers.
According to one of the Homeric hymns, Hermes was happy to leave Maia’s secluded home. Living in the company of the gods on Olympus ensured a more plentiful and joyous lifestyle than Maia’s self-imposed isolation.
Maia was more widely revered than most other nymphs because of her role as the mother of one of the major gods of Olympus. She was not only one of the Pleiades, she was an honored mother and nurturer.
As such, she was remembered in many symbolic ways in the ancient world. Among the memorials to Maia were:
- The Pleiades – The constellation of stars, also known simply as the Seven Sisters, was named for Maia and her sisters. According to legend, Zeus placed them in the heavens to keep them safe and honor their contributions to the world.
- May – The Romans worshipped Hermes as Mercury, and revered his mother even more than the Greeks had. A popular etymology claimed that the month of May was named in Maia’s honor by her son.
- The Lyre – When Hermes invented the lyre, he fashioned it with seven strings in honor of his mother and aunts. The instrument became a hallmark of Greek culture.
Maia and her sisters are best remembered for the group that commemorated them. The Pleiades in the sky were an important part of Greek astronomy.
They marked the end of winter when they disappeared below the horizon. Additionally, their importance in navigation probably gave the star cluster its name – the Greek word plein meant “to sail”
While she gave birth to Hermes, Maia also cared for other children of Zeus. She and her sisters are often credited for fostering Dionysus, but she alone was entrusted with the care of Arcas.
Callisto was another nymph who was loved by Zeus. She had been a companion of Artemis as well, and enjoyed hunting.
Unfortunately for her, their affair was not as secretive as the one he had with Maia.
Hera discovered Callisto soon after her son, Arcas, was born. In her anger, the goddess turned the nymph into a bear.
Zeus knew his angry wife would come for the newborn child as well, having seen her rage play out too many times against other lovers and children. He hid Arcas in the best place he could think of.
Maia still lived in seclusion and avoided the company of the other gods. With her, the baby could remain safely out of sight.
Maia was able to keep Arcas safe for many years, teaching him to hunt and live in the wilderness. Eventually, however, his ancestry caught up with him.
It was not Hera who found him, but his wicked human grandfather Lycaon. The evil king captured his grandson and placed him on a sacrificial altar during a courtly feast.
Lycaon taunted Zeus to make his burned son whole. The god was furious.
Lycaon had violated too many of the gods’ laws to go unpunished. He had sacrificed a human, his own grandson no less, and questioned Zeus’s power besides.
Zeus did more than make Arcas alive and whole again. He punished Lycaon harshly for his wickedness.
Lycaon was transformed into the first werewolf, doomed to live a painful and solitary existence as an inhuman monster. His name lived on in the word “lycanthrope.”
Arcas’s name was remembered for a much more honorable reason. Taking his grandfather’s throne, he became king of the region that would forever bear his name – Arcadia.
He was not only a legendary king, but a renowned hunter as well. Maia had taught him well and Artemis had blessed the nymph’s foster son with exceptional skill.
One day while hunting, he came across an enormous bear. The animal rushed to him and Arcas readied his bow to shoot it.
What the king did not know was that the bear was Callisto. She rushed toward her lost son to embrace him.
Zeus saw what was happening and intervened in time to prevent Arcas from killing his own mother. He turned the king into a bear as well, then put mother and son into the sky together.
Callisto and Arcas were finally reunited as Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, the Great Bear and Little Bear among the stars. Hera, however, had one last revenge by moving them so that they would never go below the horizon and be able to reach water.
In Roman culture, Maia was honored beyond her role as the mother of Mercury. She was seen as a personification of growth and came to be worshiped in her own right.
One reason for this was because of a coincidence of etymology. The Greek name Maia resembled the Latin adjective maius, or “larger.”
While the two were not connected, Roman worshippers related the Latin word to the Greek mother figure. They were supported in details from Maia’s story, such as the way in which Hermes grew physically and mentally at an extraordinary rate.
As the personification of growth, Maia became an agricultural deity linked to divinities like Faunus (Pan), Juno (Hera), and Terra (Gaia). This link to agricultural growth was, in turn, tied to the stars named after Maia and her sisters.
The Pleiades constellation was visible during the winter months, so Roman writers used it to judge the proper time to begin planting their fields. The star Maia was an important point of reference for farmers to ensure the growth of their crops.
Maia came to be worshipped under the epithet of Magna Mater, the great mother goddess. This title was given to both her and other deities, including Terra, bringing them all under the umbrella of the archetypal female goddess of fertility, motherhood, and the earth.
Because of a linguistic coincidence and the seasonal movements of the stars, Maia became one of the mother goddesses of Roman religion.
Maia was more than just one of the many nymphs of Greek mythology who were seduced by a powerful god.
She and her sisters, the Pleiades, played an important role in several myths. They were pursued by Orion, rescued from Egyptian pirates by Heracles, and helped to raise the god Dionysus after the death of his own mother.
While Maia was characterized as reclusive and shy, she became the most famous of the seven sisters. This was in large part because of her relationship with Zeus.
She famously gave birth to Zeus’s son Hermes in her isolated cave. The newborn baby proved himself to be a trickster and thief, inventing the lyre and stealing the cattle of Apollo before he was even one day old.
Zeus was enchanted by his new son’s quick wit, however, and elevated Hermes to an important status on Mount Olympus.
Maia was not completely forgotten, though. Her isolation also made her the perfect foster mother for another of Zeus’s sons, Arcas, who was threatened by Hera’s jealousy.
As one of the Pleiades and the mother of an Olympian god, Maia was widely revered throughout the ancient world. Based on her myths and a linguistic coincidence, the Romans eventually recognized her as an important mother goddess within their own pantheon.