Hermes

Name: Hermes
Title: Argeiphontes, also "the Wayfinder"
Position: Messenger God
Location: Mount Olympus
City of Residence: formerly a resident of a cave on Mount Cyllene in Arcadia


Hermes, son of Zeus and Maia (like most of the Olympians, he was illegitimate) was the messenger of the gods and the patron of highwaymen, travelers, and all those who live by their wits. Distinguished for his intelligence since his rather abrupt birth (Maia gave birth to him the morning after consorting with Zeus-- talk about having regrets the morning after,) Hermes was very clever and was a useful god to have on your side in a pinch. For instance, shortly after his birth, Hermes stole Apollo’s flock of golden cattle. (They were golden because they were the cattle of the sun. No, they weren't on fire. They were just golden.) Climbing out of his cradle, Hermes left the cave on Mount Cyllene in Arcadia where he had been concealed, walked all the way to the island of Thessaly, and found Apollo's flock unguarded. He managed to lead all the cows out, tying branches to his feet and walking backwards to make it look as though a giant had led something into the pasture but nothing out of it. Also, he tied brooms to the cows's tails so that they would erase their own tracks. (Don't ask me how he had time for all this.) Although it seems illogical to go to the trouble of tying branches to your feet and walking backwards after you've already made sure that your tracks will be erased, perhaps Hermes was still so fresh from the womb that he wasn't thinking straight. Hermes hid the cows in a cave nearby before going back to his (still-sleeping-- she was exhausted, and with reason) mother. Upon returning to his mother in the cave, he killed a cow and prepared a sacrifice to the twelve Olympians (including himself as the twelfth-- at the time of his birth there were only eleven) also removing the cow's intestines and stringing them across a tortoise-shell to make a lyre. (Don't ask me where he found the tortoise-shell. I don't know. Perhaps it was just lying around the cave. Handy thing to have in a fix, especially if your cave is leaky and you need to bail.)* His mother had been somewhat concerned about his stealing the cows, but he charmed her to sleep with his music.

Hermes, however, would not be so lucky when it came to charming Apollo. The angry young god, discovering in the morning that his cows were gone (sorry, Hermes-- you can hide the tracks, you can walk backwards on branches, you can even do both, but you can't disguise the fact that THERE ARE NO LONGER ANY GOLDEN COWS IN THE FIELD. Bit of an oversight?) charged down to Hermes and demanded that they be returned. Hermes being just a small baby, he pretended to be innocent and asleep. Zeus, however, who had been watching from above (nothing like a little sacrifice to get your attention) saw through Hermes's ruse and said so. Of course this would have made Hermes slightly sore, after all, as he had just made a nice sacrifice, only to be told off. Apollo was quite naturally angry and demanded to know where his cattle had gone. Yet as the argument raged, Hermes drew out the lyre and began to play. Apollo was, quite naturally, charmed ("Hey! My walking, talking, cow-stealing baby brother can play a primitive version of the guitar!") and agreed to give Hermes the flock in exchange for the instrument. (Apollo later became master of the lyre, and it became one of his symbols.) This ended the debate, and Apollo and Hermes thenceforth were on quite amiable terms.

When he was old enough, Hermes joined the pantheon of Olympian gods, receiving a golden wand from Zeus to use as herald's staff and being appointed messenger of the gods for his ready tongue and quick feet. (Another story says that Hermes received the wand from Apollo in another instrument exchange-- this time Hermes had invented the flute.) He took on the role of psychopomp-- leading the spirits of the dead to Hades, a role which quite naturally earned him great respect. He was the patron of all those who lived by their wits, and was quite useful to Odysseus on his journey home in the Odyssey, giving him, among other things, the plant moly which enabled him to resist the advances of the sorceress Circe.

Among the symbols of Hermes are the herald's staff (kerykeion in Greek and Caduceus in Latin, which consists, in some versions, of a staff twined with two white ribbons, and in others, of a staff twined with snakes in a figure-eight shape, sometimes with wings), cock, tortoise, and purse or pouch. Often depicted in a broad-brimmed hat or winged cap, he is generally sculpted as a comely young man in the nude (aren't they all?) or in shepherd's, workman's, or traveler's clothing.

In fact, Hermes was originally a phallic god, having so much to do with fertility and all, and of course good fortune, boundaries, and roads. (Somehow, the terms "phallic" "good fortune" "boundaries" and "roads" don't usually seem to come up in the same sentence. But that's Hermes for you.) A Herma, (plural hermaiherm) was a roadside pillar or column, rectangular or square, with the head of Hermes (surprisingly, he usually had a beard on these, although most sculptures depict him without one) and, yup, you guessed it: male genitalia at the bottom. (No, you probably didn't guess that. But if you did...you need professional help.) They were used as road and boundary markers, and stood outside Athenian houses to bring good fortune. (Can you imagine garden tours in those days: "Hey, Helena, my lawn ornament is better-endowed than your lawn-ornament!" "Oh, yeah? Well, that's only because your little Demetrius knocked the vital parts off mine!") Shortly before the Athenian fleet sailed off to Syracuse in the Peloponnesian war, people went about *defacing* (I think you know what I mean) the herms. (Perverse sort of good luck ornament, perhaps?) In fact, this was attributed to those seeking to bring bad fortune on the expedition as a protest against the war, (although we may see it as little Demetrius getting revenge, once and for all, on the neighbors with better-endowed lawn ornaments.) But back to Hermes, who was also associated with bringing dreams to mortals (perhaps this explains "A Midsummer Night's Dream, set, after all, outside Athens.)

Another symbol of Hermes is a roadside mound of stones, whose origin lies in the myth of Io. Hermes managed to free this famous mistress of Zeus from the many watchful eyes of Argus, Hera's servant. A rather jealous wife (and not without cause) Hera was not below hiring one-hundred eyed watchmen like Argus, who had eyes all over his body so that he could sleep with half and still stay on guard, to keep women (or cows, in Io's case, because Zeus had transformed her into one to put Hera off the scent. Sadly the ruse hadn't worked, and Hera had instead taken the cow into custody, with Argus to watch over her.) away from Zeus. But Hermes was on the side of his father (he himself enjoyed a little philandering from time to time) and so set about trying to dispose of Argus. Being the god of those who live by their wits, he naturally found an ingenious solution. (Some say he played his pipes until Argus nodded off, but I don't go for that.) Hermes sat down and engaged Argus in conversation. Thankful for this entertainment-- watching a cow all the time could get a bit on the boring side-- Argus quite pleasantly accepted Hermes's offer to tell him a story. Yet, as it turned out, it would certainly have been less boring to watch the cow. The story that Hermes told went on and on and on, until Argus was literally bored to death, every single one of his hundred eyes shutting. (This reminds me of my childhood. At least Argus didn't have to listen to war stories.) Hermes was then able to spirit Io away to a happy Zeus.

Hera of course was sad that her faithful servant was dead. Not only did she commemorate him by putting his hundred eyes on the tail of her sacred bird, the peacock, but she brought Hermes before the court of the gods, seeking vengeance. She argued that Hermes had killed Argus and ought to be punished. She shouldn't have challenged the god of quick speech-- he made a splendid argument that it was no crime to bore someone to death (fortunately for most elderly people today) and won the support of all the gods. The means of voting was that each god or goddess was given a pebble. Those who supported Hermes were to cast their pebbles at his feet; those who supported Hera, at hers. You can guess the result. Hera was hit once or twice in the big toe, and Hermes was gently showered in a great pile of pebbles until his head was all that could be seen. Henceforth, travellers pilled stone mounds by the roadsides to show that HERMES WAS WATCHING! (BE AFRAID. BE VERY AFRAID.)

There are numerous stories about Hermes, who also was not one to shirk love affairs. He and Aphrodite once consorted, and, Aphrodite being the truly dumb blonde that she was, the child was named Hermaphrodite. Now, Aphrodite being married to Hephaestos and all, this seems just the perfect way to make sure your husband doesn't find out who the real father is, doesn't it? (Pardon my sarcasm, but WHAT WAS APHRODITE THINKING? Oh, yes-- she doesn't think. I forgot. My apologies.) Poor Hermaphrodite had quite a tale of his own (involving a sex change-- more on him/her later) but this is where Hermes's part in the affair ends. He also fathered Pan, with a nymph (Dryope, daughter of King Dryops) who found their son so hideous that she ran away upon giving birth to it, leaving him to raise the poor scarred child. (Talk about "You were so ugly, when you were born the doctor didn't know which end to slap!" Poor Pan must have gotten a lot of that in school.) Hermes also fathered Abderus, a companion of Heracles, who was eaten by the mares of Diomedes. (Nasty bunch of horses, those.) However, that seems to be about it for his offspring.

Hermes was to be found whenever a message needed taking from the gods to the mortals, or a contest needed to be judged (yes, he brought the beauty contestants down to Paris and helped start the Trojan War) and he figures in many tales of Greek heroes, such as that of Perseus, who borrowed his winged sandals to slay the Cetus, a hideous whale, and free Andromeda. He also guided Eurydice back down to the dead after Orpheus failed to free her from the underworld by not looking at her as he ascended, and persuaded Calypso to let Odysseus free of her charms. Quite a well-rounded god, he pops up everywhere in Greek mythology, wearing his winged sandals and wide hat, and is even credited with the invention of boxing and foot-racing. And, unless you're Argus, you'll be bound to like this very entertaining Olympian.

*I take it back. He killed the tortoise along the way and removed its entrails. All right, do ask me.