published on 24 June 2012
Hermes (Roman name: Mercury) was the ancient Greek god of trade, wealth, luck, fertility, animal husbandry, sleep, language, thieves, and travel. One of the cleverest and most mischievous of the Olympian gods, he was also their herald and messenger.
With origins as an Arcadian fertility god, the ancient Greeks believed he was the son of Zeus and Maia (daughter of the Titan Atlas). In mythology, Hermes was also the father of the pastoral god Pan and Eudoros (with Polymele), one of the leaders of the Myrmidons.
Noted for his impish character and constant search for amusement, Hermes was one of the more colourful gods in Greek mythology. While still a baby he stole his half-brother Apollo’s sacred herd of cattle, cleverly reversing their hooves to make it difficult to follow their tracks. Hermes therefore became associated with thieves and he kept the stolen herd in return for giving Apollo his lyre.
As messenger and herald, Hermes is involved in many mythological episodes. Perhaps most celebrated was his killing of the many-eyed (some accounts say 100-eyed) monster Argos on the orders of Zeus in order to free Io. Hermes also freed Ares from his year-long imprisonment in a cauldron by the twin Giants Otus and Ephialtes. One of his most famous regular roles was as a leader of souls to the river Styx in the underworld, where the boatman Charon would take them to Hades.
Hermes was also known as something of a trickster, stealing at one time or another Poseidon’s trident, Artemis’ arrows, and Aphrodite’s girdle. He was also credited with inventing fire, dice (and so was worshipped by gamblers in his capacity as god of luck and wealth), musical instruments, in particular, the lyre (made from a tortoise shell), and the alphabet. Famous for his diplomatic skills, he was also regarded as the patron of languages and rhetoric. Travellers regarded him as their patron, and stone pillars (hermae) with a phallus symbol were often to be seen set up along road sides. In addition, Hermes was regarded as patron of the home and people often built small marble stelai in front of their doors in his honour.
Hermes figures in the Trojan War as told by Homer in the Iliad. Although in one lengthy passage he acts as counsellor and guide to the Trojan King Priam in his attempt to reclaim the body of his fallen son Hektor, Hermes actually supports the Achaeans in the Trojan War. The god is most often described by Homer as ‘Hermes the guide, slayer of Argos’ and ‘Hermes the kindly’. Hermes gives particular help to Odysseus, especially on his long return voyage to Ithaca (as told in Homer’s Odyssey), for example, giving him an antidote to the spells of Circe.
In ancient Greek Archaic and Classical art, Hermes is depicted holding the kerykeion or staff (signifying his role as a herald, the stick is either cleft or with an open figure of 8 at the top), wearing winged sandals (symbolic of his role as a messenger), a long tunic, sometimes also a winged cap (petasos), and occasionally with a lyre. Perhaps the most celebrated depiction in art of Hermes is the magnificent statue by Praxiteles (c. 330 BCE) which once stood in the temple of Hera at Olympia and now resides in the archaeological museum of the site.
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c. 330 BCEStatue of Hermes sculpted by Praxiteles.