Maia, Greek Nymph and Mother of Hermes

Divine Mama Maia

A gathering of gods, including Hermes and Maia. Bibi Saint-Pol/Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

The Greek nymph Maia was the mother of Hermes (in Roman religion, he was called Mercury) with Zeus and was associated, by the Romans, with the goddess of spring, Maia Maiestas.

Background and Personal Life

A daughter of the Titan Atlas - he of the big muscles and carrying the world on his shoulders - and Pleione, Maia was one of the seven mountain nymphs known as Pleiades (Taygete, Elektra, Alkyone, Asterope, Kelaino, Maia, and Merope).

Her sisters went on to marry some bigwigs in ancient Greece, but Maia snagged the biggest of them all - Zeus himself! 

Her son Hermes was proud of his heritage, saying in EuripidesIon, "Atlas, who wears away heaven, the ancient home of the gods, on his bronze shoulders, was the father of Maia by a goddess; she bore me, Hermes, to great Zeus; and I am the gods' servant."

Although Zeus was already married to Hera, that didn't stop him from loving on nymphs and mortal women alike. He and Maia had a fling. In the, their affair is recounted: "Ever she avoided the throng of the blessed gods and lived in a shadowy cave, and there the Son of Cronos [Zeus] used to lie with the rich-tressed nymph at dead of night, while white-armed Hera lay bound in sweet sleep: and neither deathless god nor mortal man knew it." 

This caused Maia to give birth to their precocious baby boy. She hid out from Hera in a cave on Mount Cyllene.

In the Virgil has Aeneas mention, Mercury:

"Your sire is Mercury, whom long before
On cold Cyllene's top fair Maia bore.
Maia the fair, on fame if we rely,
Was Atlas' daughter, who sustains the sky."

When I Grow Up...

In Sophocles' play Trackers, the eponymous nymph of the mountain recounts how she took care of baby Hermes: "This business is a secret even among the gods, so that no news of it may come to Hera." Cyllene adds, "You see, Zeus came secretly to Atlas's house ...

to the deep-girdled goddess ... and in a cave begot a single son. I am bringing him up myself, for his mother's strength is shaken by sickness as if by a storm."

Hermes grew up really fast. Cyllene marvels, "He grows, day by day, in a very unusual way, and I'm astounded and afraid. It's not even six days since he was born, and he already stands as tall as a young man." Half a day after his birth, he was already making music! The Homeric Hymn (4) to Hermes says, "Born with the dawning, at mid-day he played on the lyre, and in the evening he stole the cattle of far-shooting Apollo on the fourth day of the month; for on that day queenly Maia bare him."

How did Hermes steal Apollo's oxen? The fourth Homeric Hymn recounts how the trickster was really into stealing his older half-brother's herds. He picked up a tortoise, scooped out its meat, and strung sheep gut across it to create the first lyre. Then, he "cut off from the herd fifty loud-lowing kine, and drove them straggling-wise across a sandy place, turning their hoof-prints aside" by sweeping them away. So he took fifty of Apollo's best cows - and covered his tracks so the god couldn't find them!

Hermes killed a cow and cooked up some delicious steak, but when he came home to Mama Maia, she wasn't too thrilled with his knavery.

Hermes replied (no doubt in baby talk), "Mother, why do you seek to frighten me like a feeble child whose heart knows few words of blame, a fearful babe that fears its mother's scolding?" But he wasn't a baby, and Apollo soon discovered his misdeeds. Baby Hermes tried to fake sleep, but Apollo wasn't fooled.

Apollo brought the baby before Zeus - a tribunal of their dad! Zeus forced Hermes to show Apollo where the cows were hidden. In fact, the infant deity was so charming that Apollo decided to give his domain as lords of herdsmen  - and all his cattle - to Hermes. In exchange, Hermes gave Apollo the lyre he'd invented - and thus lordship over music.

-Edited by Carly Silver