Most Greek gods were only described in vague terms by writers of the time. Because Greek writers put little emphasis on physical descriptions, most of our knowledge of what the gods looked like comes from the interpretations of artists.
These images are usually standardized depictions of the physical ideals that the Greeks held to be beautiful. While some details indicated age and status, the gods are usually distinguished more by their attributes than their physical appearance.
Hermes, however, does have a few sources that clarify details of how he looked. These few descriptions not only give us a clearer picture of what the god was believed to have looked like, but also his role in both the pantheon and the beliefs of Greek and Roman people.
Greek literature was sparse in its physical descriptions. The writers of the ancient world tended to prioritize narrative and symbolism over exact description, including details of physical features only when they were essential to the story.
In written records, therefore, there are few precise descriptions of how the gods and heroes looked. This was considered an unimportant detail as it was not essential to the story or its meaning.
The gods were largely considered to be idealized figures, all possessing exceptional beauty. It was not necessary to describe details like hair and eye color in most cases because the gods could be assumed to be physically perfect and no other descriptors were important to their characterization.
There are some exceptions, though, in which the gods were described in greater detail. There are some written sources in Greece that give more precise descriptions of the messenger god than were the norm.
Homer, for example, emphasized the god’s youth. In the Odyssey, he described the god as “in the lovely spring of life,” even detailing the “first down upon his lip.”
Latin writers often took more liberties with their flowery and poetic descriptions of both people and places. Here again, Hermes was described as being both young and beautiful in more specific terms.
Apuleius, for example, emphasized the god as “radiant,” with golden blond hair that hung in locks, highlighted by golden wings affixed to his temples.
Ovid took the depiction even further, describing Hermes as a somewhat vain god.
In Metamorphoses, the poet declared that the god had “such trust in his good looks!” but conceded that he had every right to be confident in his beauty. Still, Ovid said the youthful god took great pains to emphasize his appearance.
Ovid’s Mercury, the Roman name for Hermes, took the time to smooth and style his hair. His clothing, appropriately regal for a god, was meticulously clean.
By the Roman era, the image of Hermes as the youngest of the gods had become the standard. But the youthful beauty of Hermes was not always the only way he was depicted.
In the archaic period, Hermes was shown as an older god with a full beard and serious face. Rather than typifying the beauty of a young man, he showed the strength and wisdom of an older one.
The god shared his name with the herma, boundary markers that evolved from simple piles of stones in early Greek culture. He was the god of roads and boundaries, so the herma bore his image when they were carved.
This image was that of the older Hermes, with a full beard and often phallic imagery. The wise Hermes on these way stones remained an older figure even as the more youthful Hermes became predominant in both art and literature.
The changing image of Hermes was a reflection of his changing role in the religion.
Like most Greek gods, Hermes was a character whose function and mythology evolved over time. The earliest versions of the god appear to be much more of a chthonic deity than he was in later eras.
Throughout the Greek and Roman periods, Hermes was regarded as a psychopomp, or guide to the dead. In his role as the god of boundaries, he could cross the boundary between life and death to escort the souls of the deceased to the Underworld.
While aspects of this were maintained over time, the early Hermes appears to have been more closely associated with death and the afterlife.
The god’s association with the serious nature of death became less prominent as the mythology that surrounded him developed. The stories of Hermes began to focus more on his characterization as a trickster and thief than as a guide to the dead.
Central among these stories was the tale of the theft of Apollo’s cattle, which occurred when Hermes was just one day old. With the introduction of this mythology, the wise and bearded Hermes was no longer appropriate.
In the time of Homer, the herma were still a common sight. The poet may have taken pains to depict Hermes as youthful, even highlighting the fact that he was just beginning to grow facial hair, to distinguish the god’s function in the story.
When the Odyssey was written, Hermes was depicted as both young and old depending on the context. A more precise physical description of the god was necessary to the story because it clarified whether he was functioning in his older role as the god who crossed boundaries, or in his developing role of the youngest Olympian who enjoyed tricks and mischief.
By the Roman era, Hermes held little of his original function as a chthonic escort. While Mercury still took on the role in certain stories, the duties were spread among other deities like Diana.
Instead, there was even more focus on his role as a trickster and quick messenger. In an Empire in which borders were distant and constantly expanding, the messenger was less important as a god who delineated and crossed them.
Mercury/Hermes was, therefore, renowned for his speed. It was not important that he could cross boundaries, but that he could cover the vast expanses of the Empire quickly.
The wings that had occasionally been used in Greek art to denote speed became standard in Rome. And the god’s youthful beauty, a byproduct of his place in the pantheon and propensity for mischief, became another way to show him as athletic and spry.
In early Greek culture, Hermes was usually depicted as an older figure with the full beard that denoted maturity and wisdom. This was especially true on the herma, or boundary markers, that often bore his image.
This depiction changed over time, however. While the herma retained the older characterization, Hermes was more often depicted as young and physically attractive.
This process had begun by the time of Homer, who emphasized the god’s youthful looks in the Odyssey. Such a description was rare in Homeric writings, making it possible that it was an intentional choice to make it clear what role the god played in the story.
Although he was a chthonic god, Hermes became more associated with trickery and mischief than his role as a guide to the dead. His youth was not only emphasized in his appearance, but also in stories like the theft of Apollo’s cattle in which he was shown as a child.
By the Roman era, Hermes’s place as the youngest of the gods had been established in both mythology and art. His speed and carefree nature became more important than his more serious role as a god of boundaries and borders.