Hermes - A Thief, Inventor, and Messenger God

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Hermes - Not Always a Messenger God

Lekythos of Hermes
Lekythos of Hermes. c. 480-470 BC. Red figure. Attributed to the Tithonos Painter. CC Flickr one_dead_president

Hermes (Mercury to the Romans), the fleet-footed messenger with wings on his heels and cap symbolizes fast floral delivery. However, Hermes was originally neither winged nor a messenger -- that role was reserved for the rainbow goddess Iris*. He was, instead, clever, tricky, a thief, and, with his awakening or sleep-conferring wand (rhabdos), the original sandman whose descendants include a major Greek hero and a noisy, fun-loving god.

  • *In the Iliad, Iris is the messenger god and in the Odyssey, it's Hermes, but even in the Iliad (Book 2), there is a passage where according to Timothy Ganz, Hermes serves as a courier:​
    "Then King Agamemnon rose, holding his sceptre. This was the work of Vulcan, who gave it to Jove the son of Saturn. Jove gave it to Mercury, slayer of Argus, guide and guardian. King Mercury gave it to Pelops, the mighty charioteer, and Pelops to Atreus, shepherd of his people. Atreus, when he died, left it to Thyestes, rich in flocks, and Thyestes in his turn left it to be borne by Agamemnon, that he might be lord of all Argos and of the isles."

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The Family Tree of Hermes

Table of the Genealogy of Hermes
Table of the Genealogy of Hermes. NS Gill

Before the king of the gods, Zeus married Hera, the very jealous queen of the Greek pantheon, Maia (a daughter of the world-supporting Titan Atlas) bore him a son, Hermes. Unlike many of the offspring of Zeus, Hermes was not a demi-god, but a full-blooded Greek god.

As you can see from the table, which is one version of the genealogy, Kalypso (Calypso), the goddess who kept Odysseus as a lover on her island, Ogygia, for 7 years, is Hermes' aunt.

From Homeric Hymn to Hermes:

Muse, sing of Hermes, the son of Zeus and Maia, lord of Cyllene and Arcadia rich in flocks, the luck-bringing messenger of the immortals whom Maia bare, the rich-tressed nymph, when she was joined in love with Zeus, -- a shy goddess, for she avoided the company of the blessed gods, and lived within a deep, shady cave. There the son of Cronos used to lie with the rich-tressed nymph, unseen by deathless gods and mortal men, at dead of night while sweet sleep should hold white-armed Hera fast. And when the purpose of great Zeus was fixed in heaven, she was delivered and a notable thing was come to pass. For then she bare a son, of many shifts, 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.

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Hermes - The Infant Thief and the First Sacrifice to the Gods


Like Hercules, Hermes showed remarkable prowess in infancy. He escaped his cradle, wandered outside, and walked from Mt. Cyllene to Pieria where he found Apollo's cattle. His natural instinct was to steal them. He even had a clever plan. First Hermes padded their feet to muffle the sound, and then he drove fifty of them backward, in order to confuse pursuit. He stopped at the Alpheios River to make the first sacrifice to the gods. To do so, Hermes had to invent fire, or at least how to kindle it.

"For it was Hermes who first invented fire-sticks and fire. Next he took many dried sticks and piled them thick and plenty in a sunken trench: and flame began to glow, spreading afar the blast of fierce-burning fire."
Homeric Hymn to Hermes IV.114.

Then he selected two of Apollo's herd, and after killing them, divided each into six parts to correspond with the 12 Olympians. There were, at the time, only 11. The remaining portion was for himself.

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Hermes and Apollo


Hermes Makes the First Lyre

After completing his new ritual -- sacrificial offering to the gods, the infant Hermes went back home. On his way, he found a tortoise, which he took inside his house. Using leather strips from Apollo's herd animals for the strings, Hermes created the first lyre with the shell of the poor reptile. He was playing the new musical instrument when big (half-)brother Apollo found him.

Hermes Trades With Apollo

Recognizing the material of the lyre's strings, Apollo fumed, protesting Hermes' cattle theft. He was smart enough not to believe his baby brother when he protested his innocence.

"Now when the Son of Zeus and Maia saw Apollo in a rage about his cattle, he snuggled down in his fragrant swaddling-clothes; and as wood-ash covers over the deep embers of tree-stumps, so Hermes cuddled himself up when he saw the Far-Shooter. He squeezed head and hands and feet together in a small space, like a new born child seeking sweet sleep, though in truth he was wide awake, and he kept his lyre under his armpit."
Homeric Hymn to Hermes IV.235f

Reconciliation seemed impossible until the father of both gods, Zeus, stepped in. To make amends, Hermes gave his half-brother the lyre. At a later date, Hermes and Apollo made another exchange. Apollo gave his half-brother the Caduceus in exchange for a flute Hermes invented.

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Zeus Puts His Idle Son Hermes to Work


"And from heaven father Zeus himself gave confirmation to his words, and commanded that glorious Hermes should be lord over all birds of omen and grim-eyed lions, and boars with gleaming tusks, and over dogs and all flocks that the wide earth nourishes, and over all sheep; also that he only should be the appointed messenger to Hades, who, though he takes no gift, shall give him no mean prize."
Homeric Hymn to Hermes IV.549f

Zeus realized he had to keep his clever, cattle-rustling son out of mischief, so he put Hermes to work as god of trade and commerce. He gave him power over birds of omen, dogs, boars, flocks of sheep, and lions. He provided him with golden sandals, and made him messenger (angelos) to Hades. In this role, Hermes was sent to try to retrieve Persephone from her husband. [See Persephone and Demeter Reunited.]

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Hermes - Messenger in the Odyssey

Hermes and Charon
Hermes and Charon.

At the beginning of the Odyssey, Hermes is an effective liaison between the Olympians and the earth-bound deities. It is he whom Zeus sends to Kalypso. Remember from the genealogy that Kalypso (Calypso) is Hermes's aunt. She may possibly also be Odysseus' great-grandmother. At any rate, Hermes reminds her that she must give up Odysseus. [See Odyssey Book V notes.] In the end of the Odyssey, as psychopompos or psychagogos (lit. soul leader: Hermes leads souls from dead bodies to the banks of the River Styx) Hermes leads the suitors to the Underworld.

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The Associates and Offspring of Hermes Are Cunning, Too

Odysseus und Kalypso, by Arnold Böcklin. 1883.
Odysseus und Kalypso, by Arnold Böcklin. 1883. Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Hermes is a complex old god:

  • friendly,
  • helpful,
  • sneaky, and
  • cunning.

It should come as no surprise that the thief Autolycus and the cunning hero of the Odyssey are Hermes' descendants. Autolycus was Hermes' son. Autolycus' daughter Anticlea married Laertes and bore Odysseus. [See Names in the Odyssey.]

Perhaps Hermes' most famous offspring is the god Pan through his mating with an unnamed Dryops. (In the tradition of messy genealogies, other accounts make Pan's mother Penelope and Theocritus' Syrinx poem makes Odysseus Pan's father.)

Hermes also had two unusual offspring with Aphrodite, Priapus, and Hermaphroditus.

Other offspring include Oenomaus' charioteer, Myrtilus, who cursed Pelops and his family. [See House of Atreus.]

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Hermes the Helpful . . .

Praxiteles' Statue of Hermes holding the infant Dionysus
Praxiteles' Statue of Hermes holding the infant Dionysus. CC gierszewski at

According to Timothy Gantz, the late author of the encyclopedic Early Greek Myth, two of the epithets (eriounios and phoronis) by which Hermes is known may mean 'helpful' or 'kindly'. Hermes taught his descendant Autolycus the art of thievery and enhanced Eumaios' wood-chopping skills. He also helped heroes in their tasks: Hercules in his descent to the Underworld, Odysseus by warning him about Circe's treachery, and Perseus in the beheading of the Gorgon Medusa.

Hermes Argeiphontes helped Zeus and Io by killing Argus, the hundred-eyed giant creature Hera installed to guard the heifer-Io.

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. . . And Not So Kind

Hermes, Orpheus and Eurydice
Hermes, Orpheus and Eurydice.

Hermes the Mischievous or Vengeful

But Hermes isn't all aid to mortals and benign mischief. Sometimes his job is an unpleasant duty:

  1. It is Hermes who took Eurydice back to the Underworld when Orpheus failed to save her.
  2. More deliberately, Hermes provided a golden lamb to start a quarrel between Atreus and Thyestes in revenge for their father Pelops' killing Hermes' son Myrtilos, charioteer to Oinomaus. Whichever of the two brothers had possession of the lamb was the rightful king. Atreus promised Artemis the most beautiful lamb in his flock, but then reneged when he discovered he had possession of the golden one. His brother seduced his wife to get at the lamb. Thyestes acquired the throne, but then Atreus took revenge by serving up to Thyestes his own sons for dinner. [See Cannibalism in Greek Myth.]
  3. In another event with bloody repercussions, Hermes escorted the three goddesses to Paris, thereby precipitating the Trojan War.