Hermes: Messenger of the Gods and Patron of Traders, Travelers, and Thieves
Hermes was an important god in the Greek pantheon and one of the Twelve Olympians. He is best known for being the herald or messenger of the gods and is portrayed in many myths as such. In addition, in artistic depictions, Hermes is given attributes that allow him to play this role well. His other domains of interest included trade, diplomacy, travel, and thievery. The Roman counterpart of Hermes is the god Mercury.
According to Greek mythology, Hermes was the son of Zeus and Maia, a daughter of Atlas and one of the Pleiades. Hermes is generally believed to have been born in a cave in Mount Cyllene in Arcadia. Due to his relation to Atlas, Hermes is known also as Atlantiades, while his birthplace earned him the epithet Cyllenius.
Hermes – messenger of the gods. Source: Archivist / Adobe
Myths About Hermes
In one myth, Hermes is portrayed as a precocious child. Not long after his birth, the god crawled out of his cradle and made his way to Pieria in Thessaly. There, he demonstrated his wit and cunning as a thief by stealing some of Apollo’s oxen.
In order to avoid detection from the tracks left behind by the animals, Hermes put boots on the feet of the stolen oxen and led them to Pylos in the Peloponnese. He had two oxen sacrificed and had their skins nailed to a rock. Some of the flesh was prepared for his own meal, while whatever remained was burnt. The rest of the oxen were hidden in a cave.
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Hermes stealing Apollo’s oxen. (Sailko / CC BY-SA 3.0)
Hermes is also credited with the invention of the lyre at this time. The god came across a tortoise (or its shell) either while he was having his meal in Pylos or when he returned home after that. In either case, the god drew strings (made from the guts of the oxen) over the tortoise shell, thus inventing the lyre. At the same time, he invented the plectrum (a flat-tool used to strum an instrument, often called a ‘pick’).
Hermes and Apollo – Thievery Leads to Friendship
Apollo, being the god of prophecy, was able to find out that his oxen had been stolen by Hermes and went to Cyllene to confront the thief. Maia refused to believe Apollo and showed the god her son, who was fast asleep in his cradle.
Frustrated, Apollo brought Hermes before Zeus, who decreed that Hermes should return the stolen oxen to Apollo. Although Hermes continued to maintain his innocence, he realized that he was not able to deceive the two gods and led Apollo to Pylos, where he returned his oxen. When Apollo heard the sounds of the lyre, however, he was so charmed by it that he decided to strike a deal with Hermes. Apollo decided to let Hermes keep his oxen, in exchange for this musical instrument, and his offer was accepted.
The relationship between Apollo and Hermes did not end there. After some time, Hermes invented the syrinx, another musical instrument. Once again, Hermes’ invention caught the attention of Apollo, who offered to trade his golden staff for it. Hermes made a counter offer and expressed his willingness to trade the syrinx if Apollo were to teach him the art of prophecy, in addition to the staff. Apollo promptly agreed and the two were friends from then on.
The friendship of Apollo and Hermes. (Shuishouyue / Public Domain)
Hermes in Art – Depictions of the Messenger of the Gods
Zeus, impressed by Hermes’ skill in persuasion and bartering, decided to make him the messenger of the gods. It is due to these skills that Hermes is also regarded to be the patron of merchants and diplomats. Additionally, as a messenger, Hermes was required to travel, hence making him the protector of travelers as well. This role even extends to the souls of the dead, as Hermes is believed to be a psychopomp, one who was responsible for conducting the souls of the deceased into the Underworld.
Hermes’ role as a messenger and traveler is clearly visible in his attributes. In Classical Greek art, Hermes is normally depicted with a caduceus or herald’s staff. Needless to say, this staff had magical powers. For instance, Hermes’ staff was able to put mortals to sleep so messages from the gods could then be delivered to them in the form of dreams.
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The god is also shown wearing a broad brim hat, symbolizing his role as a traveler. Lastly, Hermes is commonly portrayed wearing sandals with wings on them, which allowed him to travel swiftly from one place to another. These winged sandals were lent to the hero Perseus during his quest to slay Medusa.
Hermes – messenger of the gods – his staff was able to put people to sleep so he could deliver messages. (4th Life Photography / Adobe)
Top image: Hermes, messenger of the gods (Atelier Sommerland / Adobe Stock)
By Wu Mingren
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