What Was Hermes the God Of?
Hermes was known for the winged shoes that let him fly around the world at top speed. But there was much more to the herald of Zeus than just his ability to deliver messages quickly.
The role of Hermes as a messenger had its origins in the more abstract idea of crossing boundaries. As one who moved freely across borders, he became a god of travellers and his image was used to mark roads and property.
The borders between estates and kingdoms were not the only boundaries Hermes crossed, however. As one of the few gods who could travel freely to and from the land of the dead, Hermes was associated with crossing the line between life and what came after.
While the role of spokesman for the king of the gods and messenger to the underworld was a serious one, Hermes had a much less noble heritage.
The Greek god of heralds fit into an ancient and wide-spread archetype of trickster gods. Patrons of thieves and lies, these gods crossed the boundaries of acceptable behavior in their quest for amusement.
Hermes was the messenger god and the herald of the Olympians.
In this role, he served as the official voice of his father, Zeus. When Hermes delivered a message from the king of the gods he did so with the authority to speak on Zeus’s behalf, and thus that of all the gods of Mount Olympus.
The story of how Hermes received this position was well-known in ancient Greece.
Hermes was born to the nymph Maia in a secluded mountain cave. The night of his birth he was already able to walk, unknown to his mother, and snuck out of their cave as Maia slept.
The newborn god spent his night engaging in mischief. He killed a tortoise, using its shell to craft the first lute, and stole the herd of prized cattle that belonged to his half-brother, Apollo.
Apollo eventually tracked down the clever thief, who had disguised his tracks, and found an apparently innocent baby whose mother was unaware of his abilities. Still, Apollo insisted on taking the child to Olympus to be judged by Zeus.
Instead of punishing Hermes, however, Zeus was delighted by his new son’s cleverness and quick wit. Hermes was given the role of herald and messenger to take advantage of his speed and cunning, and to keep him occupied so that he couldn’t cause more trouble.
Hermes wore a pair of winged sandals so he could deliver his messages even more quickly. He also traded his lute for Apollo’s herd, making him the god of herdsmen and the unlikely protector of livestock.
Hermes was revered as the patron god of diplomats, merchants, sailors, and all others who travelled. He was also, because of his childhood exploits, the god of thieves.
The evolution of the character of Hermes can be traced through Greek art and writing, giving significant insight for how the messenger god was thought of over time.
The earliest records of Greece seemed to view Hermes as a chthonic deity, one associated with death and the underworld. While he was never viewed as the primary god of the dead, Hermes was often featured in myths of the underworld and pictured on gravestones in the ancient world.
As the messenger of the gods, he was one of the few who could freely travel between the world of the living and the realm of the dead. Hermes often acted as a psychopomp, or a guide to the dead, escorting the souls of the deceased to the underworld.
Like many chthonic gods, Hermes also served a role as a fertility god. While creation and death are often seen as opposites, underworld gods were associated with the boundaries of life and the creation of new life from the earth.
Hermes’s role as a god who crossed boundaries was further reinforced by the herma, or way markers, that stood on boundaries between properties and states. Originally simple stone cairns, they later bore his image as the god of travel across borders before further evolving into phallic shapes that reinforced the connection between boundaries and fertility.
While the herma continued to be associated with Hermes, his role as a fertility god became more indirect. His origin in the wild mountains and patronage over herds connected him with the more obviously sexual god Pan, who was often said to be his son.
Like many deities associated with male fertility, Hermes also fit into the archetype of the trickster god.
The trickster archetype occurred in mythologies around the world. The Norse god Loki, the West African Anansi, and Native American Coyote all fit this type.
While Hermes was given a job among the Olympians to temper his mischievous ways, the story of his birth clearly paints him in the tradition of the trickster. Such gods were the masters of theft and lies, but like Hermes often got into trouble for their own amusement rather than out of malice.
Trickster gods crossed boundaries, both physically and in crossing into socially unacceptable behavior. The evolution of Hermes as a messenger and god of travel was a continuation of this archetype, leading to his role as a herald of the gods and a guide to those crossing the boundary of life and death.
Hermes was the messenger of the gods and the herald of his father, Zeus. The words he delivered were spoken with the full authority of the king of the gods.
His winged sandals and natural energy allowed him to move swiftly from place to place to deliver his messages. He could even cross into the realm of the dead.
As the messenger of the gods, Hermes was a natural patron of people who traveled around the Greek world. Diplomats, sailors, and merchants all prayed to him to safe passage on their journeys.
While merchants prayed to Hermes, so too did the people who took advantage of them. In his youth Hermes was a mischievous prankster who stole Apollo’s cattle on a whim, making him the patron of both thieves and herdsmen.
The theft of Apollo’s cattle painted Hermes as a trickster god, an archetype that existed throughout the world. Like most tricksters he was a thief and cunning liar, but acted without malice.
Trickster gods were known to cross boundaries, as Hermes did in his role as messenger. This made them representatives of the underworld as well, and Hermes served a role as a conduit between the living and the dead.
Chthonic gods were often associated with fertility, too. The phallic herma and his connection to Pan hinted at Hermes’s origins as a god of male fertility.
Hermes was a god of boundaries. He crossed between lands and worlds as his father’s messenger, but also skirted the boundaries of acceptable behavior.