In Greek mythology, Zeus is the father of the clever messenger god, Hermes. He welcomed his son, despite the fact that he was a mischievous thief, to Mount Olympus and appointed him as his herald to keep him occupied and take advantage of his speed.
Hermes thus left behind his propensity for telling lies and instead carried the words of his father across the world. As the messenger of the gods, he was permitted to travel anywhere, including the Underworld.
Hermes was therefore more closely linked to his father than many of Zeus’s other children were in their own legends. While some rarely interacted with the king of Olympus, Hermes spoke with his father’s full authority and carried out his will.
How Zeus and his swift-footed son came to be so closely linked is due to the unique role Hermes played. The idea of the trickster god also being the king’s herald was unique to the Greek world.
Both the trickster archetype and the role of messenger were, however, linked to the thunder king. Because Hermes took on both of these roles, he was connected to Zeus in many ways.
According to legend, Hermes was one of the many sons of Zeus.
His mother was a reclusive nymph named Maia. He was born in the hidden cave she lived in, unbeknownst to any of the other gods.
On his first night of life, the infant god snuck out of his mother’s home and began to immediately cause mischief. He killed a turtle, used its shell to craft the first lyre, and stole the prized cattle of his half-brother Apollo.
Apollo followed the signs to capture the thief and recognized, due to the omen of an eagle, that it was another of Zeus’s children who had stolen the herd. Finding only Maia and her newborn in the cave, he ignored the nymph’s protests and knew that the infant god was the thief he sought.
Although Maia insisted that the newborn could not yet walk or talk, let alone travel many miles and drive away a herd of cattle, Apollo took the baby to Mount Olympus to be judged by Zeus. To everyone’s shock, newborn Hermes stood before his father and eloquently echoed his mother’s words that he was too young to do any of the things he had been accused of.
Apollo was dedicated to the truth and, although he and Hermes would later become friends, was furious at the blatant lie. Zeus, however, was delighted.
The king of the gods, who was more often known to be stern and strict, was delighted by his mischievous new son. He offered Hermes a place of honor at Olympus, which the thrill-seeking young god greatly preferred over his mother’s quiet rural cave.
Zeus quickly realized, however, that the young god would need to be kept occupied to avoid any more mischief. He made Hermes his messenger and herald to keep him constantly busy.
This gave Hermes the authority to travel anywhere Zeus sent him, crossing the borders between both earthly lands and cosmic realms. In particular, Hermes was one of the few gods allowed to travel freely into and out of the Underworld.
As Zeus’s herald, he also had the power to speak Zeus’s commands and carry out his will. Rather than appear himself, Zeus often sent Hermes to issue orders or warnings, and to carry out other errands.
For example, when Zeus found himself unable to impartially judge which goddess should receive the golden apple that Eris had sent to Olympus, he and Hermes decided together that Prince Paris of Troy should choose. Hermes traveled to give the command to the mortal prince and escorted the goddesses to him to be judged.
Hermes could even issue commands to other gods in his father’s name. In one account of the contest between Poseidon and Athena for the city of Athens, it is Hermes who prevents the sea god from flooding the city in anger after his loss.
In the Odyssey, Hermes works both of his own accord and on his father’s commands to assist Odysseus. He tells the hero how to survive his first encounter with Circe alone, but later appears to Calypso to command her to release the Ithacan king on Zeus’s orders.
As the herald of Zeus, Hermes was much more closely tied to his father than many of his siblings. More often Zeus is named as the father of a god or hero but plays little tangible role in their life, but Hermes remained in close contact with Zeus throughout most of his myths.
The connection between Hermes and Zeus was probably the result of the two roles he played in early mythology.
One of the earliest known roles of Hermes was as a god of borders and travel. He was a psycho pomp, one who could guide the souls of the dead into the Underworld because could freely cross the barrier between the realms of the living and the dead.
The messenger god has few parallels in other Indo-European myths, so it is likely that this was a uniquely Greek creation. The Norse Hermod is similar, but his mythology is much less well-defined or prominent.
The ability to travel between realms made Hermes an obvious choice for the herald and messenger of the gods because he could travel where even other deities could not. As Zeus was the chief god of the pantheon, Hermes the messenger would carry his words across the world and into other realms.
The second role of Hermes was as the archetype of the divine trickster.
Trickster gods are common around the world, and Hermes is an example of the Indo-European type of this deity. Born a thief and a liar, he uses his wits to both help and aggravate the other gods of the pantheon.
The Norse Loki, for example, was not one of the Aesir gods but was counted as their friend until his trickery became too damaging. The Slavic god Veles was even more similar to Hermes, a trickster connected to the Underworld who stole the cattle of the thunder god, Perun.
While these tricksters eventually earned the enmity of the ruling sky gods, however, Hermes won the love of Zeus because of his dual role as both trickster and messenger.
It is probably that these two roles of Hermes, Underworld messenger and trickster, developed independently. The rustic god Pan, for example, is known to have been a trickster-type god who fell out of favor in Greece and was later reintroduced as the sun of Hermes.
Just as Pan was made the son of a god who was, by then, more important, so too was Hermes given a familial connection among the other gods.
If Hermes as a trickster is connected to the Slavic Veles, as seems likely given the similarities between them, a connection to the god of the sky already existed. Perun, the Slavic thunder god who owned the cattle in that myth, has obvious similarities to Zeus.
Greek mythology, however, emphasized the relationships between the gods more strongly. Newer gods were often given origin myths that made them the children of more established deities.
Because there is a traditional link between the trickster archetype and the thunder king type, Zeus was a logical god to make this connection with. In his other role as messenger, Hermes would have been further linked to the king of the gods.
Thus, Zeus is the most obvious and sensible choice for the father of the clever messenger god. The dual roles Hermes played in Greek mythology both linked him to the lawful, stern ruled of Mount Olympus.
Greek writers all agreed that Hermes was the son of Zeus. Following the theft of Apollo’s cattle, Zeus welcomed the clever god to Mount Olympus and gave him the role of messenger and herald.
The theft and role of messenger show two different archetypes that combined, uniquely, in Hermes. Both the trickster thief and the realm-crossing psychopomp are familiar gods in many religions.
Both of these roles also traditionally have links to the god of the sky, who in many Indo-European religions is the king or chief of the gods.
The trickster is often both a friend and antagonist to the gods, as Hermes is to Apollo at his birth. In a similar tale from Slavic mythology, it is the thunder god himself, not one of his sons, who is the victim of this theft.
When Hermes as a psycho pomp evolved into the gods’ messenger, he also made the herald of their king. This put him in even closer contact with Zeus and made him an assistant rather than an antagonist.
The tradition of casted newer gods as the children of more established deities was common in Greek mythology, and the ties suggested by Hermes’s dual roles made Zeus the most obvious choice of parent. While mythology claims that the king of the Olympians was won over by the trickster’s quick-thinking, it is more likely that the roles played by Hermes predated the story of Zeus as his father.