Hermes is the great messenger of the gods in Greek mythology and a guide to the Underworld. Hermes was born on Mount Cyllene in Arcadia. An Olympian god, he is also the patron of boundaries and of the travelers who cross them, of shepherds and cowherds, of the cunning of thieves, of orators and wit, of literature and poets, of athletics and sports, of weights and measures, of invention, and of commerce in general. His symbols include the tortoise, the rooster, the winged sandals, the winged hat, and the caduceus.
The Homeric hymn to Hermes invokes him as the one "of many shifts (polytropos), blandly cunning, a robber, a cattle driver, a bringer of dreams, a watcher by night, a thief at the gates, one who was soon to show forth wonderful deeds among the deathless gods."
He protects and takes care of all the travelers, miscreants, harlots, old crones and thieves that pray to him or cross his path. He is athletic and is always looking out for runners, or any athletes with injuries who need his help.
Hermes is a messenger from the gods to humans, sharing this role with Iris. An interpreter who bridges the boundaries with strangers is a hermeneus. Hermes' name is the root of the word "hermeneutics", the study and theory of interpretation. In Greek a lucky find was a hermaion. Hermes delivered messages from Olympus to the mortal world. He wears shoes with wings on them and uses them to fly freely between the mortal and immortal world. Hermes was the second youngest of the Olympian gods, being born before Dionysus.
Hermes, as an inventor of fire, is a parallel of the Titan, Prometheus. In addition to the lyre, Hermes was believed to have invented many types of racing and the sports of wrestling and boxing, and therefore was a patron of athletes.
According to prominent folklorist Yeleazar Meletinsky, Hermes is a deified trickster. Hermes also served as a psychopomp, or an escort for the dead to help them find their way to the afterlife (the Underworld in the Greek myths). In many Greek myths, Hermes was depicted as the only god besides Hades, Persephone, Hecate, and Thanatos who could enter and leave the Underworld without hindrance.
Hermes often helped travelers have a safe and easy journey. Many Greeks would sacrifice to Hermes before any trip.
In the fully developed Olympian pantheon, Hermes was the son of Zeus and the Pleiade Maia, a daughter of the Titan Atlas. Hermes' symbols were the rooster and the tortoise, and he can be recognized by his purse or pouch, winged sandals, winged cap, and the herald's staff, the kerykeion. The night he was born he slipped away from Maia and stole his elder brother Apollo's cattle.
Among the functions most commonly linked to him in Greek literature are messenger of the gods, and god of language, speech, metaphors, prudence and circumspection, as well as intrigues and covert reasons, fraud and perjury, wit and ambiguity. Thus he was a patron of speakers, heralds, ambassadors and diplomats, messengers and thieves. He was believed to have invented fire, the lira, the syrinx, the alphabet, the numbers, to astronomy, a special form of music, the arts of fighting, the gym and the cultivation of olive trees, the measures, the weights and various other things.
Due to his constant mobility, he was considered the god of commerce and social intercourse, the wealth brought in business, especially sudden or unexpected enrichment, travel, roads and crossroads, borders and boundary conditions or transient, the changes from the threshold, agreements and contracts, friendship, hospitality, sexual intercourse, games, data, the draw, good luck, the sacrifices and the sacrificial animals, flocks and shepherds and the fertility of land and cattle. In addition to serving as messenger to Zeus, Hermes carried the souls of the dead to Hades, and directed the dreams sent by Zeus to mortals.
Early Greek sources
One of the most important myths appears in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes, dating to the seventh or sixth centuries BC and deals with his birth and early exploits. The hymn opens with a salutation to the god, calling him the lord of Mount Cyllene and Arcadia, the flocks of sheep, and messenger of the gods. It also names him as the son of Zeus, the result of his adulterous love with Maia, a nymph daughter of Atlas and Pleione. Living in a cave, hidden from human eyes and particularly the notoriously stormy and jealous Hera, Zeus' wife and sister, Maia gave birth to "this ingenious child, this clever deception planner, tracker and capturer of cattle, a shepherd of dreams, this citizen of the night lurking in doorways." The infant Hermes was precocious. His first day he invented the lyre. By nightfall, he had rustled the immortal cattle of Apollo. For the first sacrifice, the taboos surrounding the sacred kine of Apollo had to be transgressed, and the trickster god of boundaries was the one to do it. Hermes drove the cattle back to Greece and hid them, walking them backwards so that their tracks seemed to be going in the wrong direction. When Apollo accused Hermes, Maia said that it could not be him because he was with her the whole night. However, Zeus entered the argument and said that Hermes did steal the cattle and they should be returned. While arguing with Apollo, Hermes began to play his lyre. The instrument enchanted Apollo and he agreed to let Hermes keep the cattle in exchange for the lyre.
Homer and Hesiod portrayed Hermes as the author of skilled or deceptive acts, and also as a benefactor of mortals. In the Iliad he was called "the bringer of good luck," "guide and guardian" and "excellent in all the tricks." He was a divine ally of the Greeks against the Trojans. However, he did protect Priam when he went to the Greek camp to retrieve the body of his son Hector. When Priam got it, Hermes took them back to Troy. He also rescued Ares from a brazen vessel where he had been imprisoned by Otus and Ephialtes. In the Odyssey he helped the protagonist, Odysseus, informing him about the fate of his companions, who were turned into animals by the power of Circe, and instructed him to protect himself by chewing a magic herb; he also told Calipso Zeus' order for her to free the same hero from her island to continue his journey back home. When Odysseus killed the suitors of his wife, Hermes lead their souls to Hades. In The Works and Days, when Zeus ordered Hephaestus to create Pandora to disgrace humanity by punishing the act of Prometheus giving fire to man, every god gave her a gift, and Hermes’ gift was lies and seductive words, and a dubious character. Then he was instructed to take her as wife to Epimetheus.
There are plenty of other myths featuring Hermes. Aeschylus wrote that Hermes helped Orestes kill Clytemnestra under a false identity and other stratagems, and also said that he was the god of searches, and those who seek things lost or stolen. Sophocles wrote that Odysseus invoked him when he needed to convince Philoctetes to join the Trojan War on the side of the Greeks, and Euripides did appear to help in spy Dolon Greek navy. Aesop, who allegedly had literary received his talents from Hermes, put him in several of its fables, as ruler of the gate of prophetic dreams, as the god of athletes, edible roots, hospitality. He also said that Hermes had assigned each person his share of intelligence. Pindar and Aristophanes also document his recent association with the gym, which did not exist at the time of Homer.
Hellenistic Greek sources
Several writers of the Hellenistic period expanded the list of Hermes’ achievements. Callimachus said he disguised himself as a cyclops to scare the Oceanides and was disobedient to his mother. One of the Orphic Hymns Khthonios is dedicated to Hermes, indicating that he was also a god of the underworld. Aeschylus had called him by this epithet several times. Another is the Orphic Hymn to Hermes, where his association with the athletic games held in tone is mystic. Phlegon of Tralles said he was invoked to ward off ghosts, and Pseudo-Apollodorus reported several events involving Hermes. He participated in the Gigantomachy in defense of Olympus; was given the task of bringing baby Dionysius to be cared for by Ino and Athamas and later by nymphs of Asia, followed Hera, Athena and Aphrodite in a beauty contest; favored the young Hercules by giving him a sword when he finished his education and lent his sandals to Perseus. The Thracian princes identified him with their god Zalmoxis, considering his ancestor.
Epithets of Hermes
Hermes Kriophoros: Hermes, lamb-bearer appears both early and later. His ram connection appears in the earliest Mycenaean Linear B inscription bearing his name. Pausanias reports the lamb-carrying rites still being performed at the Boeotian city of Tanagra in the late 2nd century CE.
Argeiphontes: Hermes' epithet Argeiphontes (Latin Argicida), or Argus-slayer, recalls his slaying of the hundred eyed giant Argus Panoptes, who was watching over the heifer-nymph Io in the sanctuary of Queen Hera herself in Argos. Putting Argus to sleep, Hermes used a spell to close all of Argus' eyes and then slew the giant. Argus' eyes were then put into the tail of the peacock, symbol of the goddess Hera.
Logios: Hermes: His epithet of Logios is the representation of the god in the act of speaking, as orator, or as the god of eloquence. Indeed, together with Athena, he was the standard divine representation of eloquence in classical Greece. The Homeric Hymn to Hermes (probably 6th century BCE) describes Hermes making a successful speech from the cradle to defend himself from the (true) charge of cattle theft. In the 5th century BCE Proclus' commentary on Plato's Republic describes Hermes as the god of persuasion. Other Neoplatonists viewed Hermes Logios more mystically as origin of a "Hermaic chain" of light and radiance emanating from the divine intellect (nous). This epithet also produced a sculptural type.
* Agoraeus, of the agora
* Acacesius, of Acacus
* Argiphontes, slayer or Argus
* Charidotes, giver of charm
* Cyllenius, born on Mount Cyllene
* Diaktoros, the messenger
* Dolios, the schemer
* Enagonios, lord of contests
* Enodios, on the road
* Epimelios, guardian of flocks
* Eriounios, luck bringer
* Hodios patron of travelers and wayfarers
* Oneiropompus, conductor of dreams
* Psychopompos, conveyor of souls
* Trismegistus, later in Hermeticism
From Men, Myths & Minds
Hermes, Greek God of The Road
The Greek God Hermes was favored with many divine responsibilities, chief of which was to serve as a personal assistant and messenger for his father Zeus, ruler of the Olympian deities. Known for his swiftness and athleticism, for Hermes this seemed an ideal assignment.
Soon another great talent of Hermes was to be discovered -- he was an excellent communicator, both articulate and persuasive. A skillful negotiator, the Greek god Hermes was quickly promoted to become Zeus' "roving ambassador".
The Greek god Hermes revealed his true nature at a tender age. The son of Zeus and Maia, a timid star-goddess who lived in a mountain cave, Hermes was a precocious child. During his first day of life, Hermes snuck out of his cradle, found a tortoise just outside the cave, and invented the lyre by fastening strings across the turtle's back.
Of course he spent a few minutes teaching himself to play it sweetly, but, soon bored he took off to explore the world, Whereupon he encountered a herd of cattle belonging to his half brother Apollo. Hermes decided to take a few for himself, culling the finest of the herd to take with him. The little thief was so clever he taught the cattle to walk backwards to foil anyone trying to follow them!
But there was a witness to the crime, an elderly shepherd named Brattus. Hermes bribed him to be silent and sacrificed a couple of the cattle, dedicating a portion to each of the twelve Olympian deities. It is believed that Hermes thus invented the practice of animal sacrifice, and he became known as the protector of sacrificial animals and shepherds.
At any rate it was foolish to think he could deceive Apollo who had the gift of prophecy (foresight). Indeed, Apollo soon realized what had happened and who was responsible. Confronting Hermes in his cradle, the angry Apollo hauled the infant into court. Their father, the great Zeus himself, was to try the case.
Zeus found Hermes guilty and ordered him to return the cattle, but just then Hermes pulled out his lyre and started playing. Apollo, the god of music, was intrigued with the musical instrument that Hermes had invented. As a way of apology for all the trouble he had caused, Hermes gave the lyre to Apollo, and the grateful Apollo in return told Hermes to keep the cattle he had stolen. Soon the two were best of friends.
Zeus, too, was impressed with young Hermes who soon became a handsome young man and an exceptional athlete. It was said that he ran faster than the wind. With his keen eye for talent, Zeus appointed Hermes as his personal messenger, as the god of commerce and the marketplace, and as protector of all gymnastic games.
The skill and trustworthiness of the Greek god Hermes was so highly valued that Zeus appointed him to be the Psychopomp, the guide who escorted the souls of the dead to their new home in the Underworld.
Hades, ruler of the Underworld, gave Hermes the freedom to come and go as he pleased --a privilege granted to very few, for the rule was that once you entered the Underworld you were never allowed to leave.
Always "on the go" carrying messages for Zeus and the other gods and goddesses, Hermes was worshipped as the god of the roads, the god who protected travelers. Citizens of Greece erected posts or pillars of stone on the roads and at gates to honor him -- those were called "herms". The name "Hermes" actually means "pillars".
When Zeus appointed Hermes the Divine Herald, he awarded him a cap with two small wings and a pair of winged sandals that could carry him across water as well as land. Zeus ordered everyone to give Hermes their full respect. (Note: Now his image is recognized as the logo for florists' delivery service...not quite the type of respect that Zeus imagined!)
Zeus also gave him a herald's staff, encircled with two white ribbons. Later these ribbons were replaced by two snakes, entwined around the staff. Legend has it that Hermes encountered two snakes who were engaged in mortal combat with each other. Driving his staff between the two to separate them, he persuaded them to reach a peaceful solution and, in appreciation, they coiled around his staff and remained in perfect harmony, accompanying him on his travels. Today we recognize this image as the caduceus, a symbol adopted by modern medicine. (Note: the earlier symbol of the physician was the staff of Asclepius having only one snake.)
Later, serving as the messenger of Zeus, Hermes quickly became known as the "God of the Roads", offering his protection to travelers. As a traveling man himself, Hermes wasn't inclined to settle down and never married. He did, however, seems to have a girlfriend in every town and fathered numerous children, many of whom became well known, e.g. the god Pan, Priapus, and Hermaphroditus.
In his role as messenger of the gods, Hermes had the opportunity to make quite a name for himself -- and to be featured in countless myths as a supporting actor....making arrangements for many of Zeus's love affairs (and "cleaning up the messes after his jealous wife took her revenge), helping his favorite mortals perform their heroic deeds, and performing a few acts of heroism himself.
Just a few of the fascinating exploits of Hermes: Hermes rescued the unborn Dionysus from certain death, loaned Hades helmet of invisibility to Perseus so he could slay the Medusa, protected Odysseus from enchantment by witchcraft, rescued Zeus' lover Io whom Hera had turned into a cow, freed Ares from captivity in the bronze jar, and ever restored Zeus to good health when his tendons had been frayed in his battle with the fearsome Typhon.
The myths of Hermes reveal his ingenuity, creativity, mental and physical quickness, and his friendly nature. According to Greek mythology, western civilization owes much to Hermes -- the invention of stringed musical instruments, astronomy, our system of weights and measures, the alphabet, boxing and the gymnasium are all attributed to the Greek god Hermes.
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