Hermes: Messenger of The Greek Gods

Hermes, son of Zeus, wearer of winged sandals, was one of the most important and referred to of the Olympian gods. He was the protector of the baby Dionysus, ran messages from the underworld, and was the trickster god who gave Pandora her famous box.

Among the ancient Greeks, Hermes was revered. Some of their earliest temples were devoted to him, and he played an important role in most of ancient history. Some sects of Christians as late as the 10th Century AD believed that Hermes was one of the earliest prophets.

Today, Hermes is still one of the most popular gods and is the primary influence of one of the most recognizable superheroes we have – The Flash.

Who Was Hermes Among the Olympic Gods?

Hermes was the child of Zeus and Maia, and his childhood showed indications of the tricky but kind Greek god he was to become. When he was born in a cave on Mt Cyllene, he was then washed in the nearby springs. His mother, Maia, was the oldest of the seven Pleiades, the daughters of Atlas. As such, she was as powerful as Zeus’ wife Hera, and Hermes was known as a protected child.

As soon as he was born, Hermes crafted the first lyre using the shell of a tortoise and the guts of nearby sheep. When Hermes played, it was said to be the most beautiful sound in the world; the young god would use it many times to calm those angry at his trickery.

READ MORE: 11 Trickster Gods From Around The World

Artemis taught Hermes how to hunt, and Pan taught him how to play the pipes. He went on to become Zeus’ messenger and the protector of his many brothers. Hermes also had a soft spot for mortal men and would protect them on their adventures.

Of the 12 Olympian Gods, Hermes was perhaps the most loved. Hermes found his place as a personal messenger, guide, and kind-hearted trickster.

READ MORE: Hermes Family Tree: A Complete Family Tree of the Greek God of Herds in Greek Mythology

How Did Ancient Greek Art Portray Hermes?

In both mythology and ancient Greek art, Hermes is traditionally portrayed as a mature man, bearded, and in the clothes of a shepherd or farmer. In later times, he would be portrayed as younger, and without a beard.

Hermes is perhaps most recognizable due to his unusual staff and winged boots. These items not only appeared in art but also became central elements in many of the stories from Greek mythology.

Hermes’ staff was known as “The Caduceus.” Sometimes known as “the golden wand,” or “the herald’s wand,” the staff was wrapped by two snakes and often topped with wings and a globe. The Caduceus is said to have the power of creating peace or putting people to sleep. It should not be confused with the Rod of Asclepius, the symbol of medicine.

Hermes also wore magical sandals, called “pedila.” They provided Hermes with great speed, and would sometimes be shown artistically as having tiny wings.

Hermes also often wore a “petasos.” This winged hat was sometimes mistaken as a helmet but was actually a wide-brimmed farmer’s hat made of felt. He also owned a golden sword, which he famously lent to Perseus that the hero used to kill Medusa.

What Were the Other Names of Hermes?

Hermes, who later became the Roman god Mercury, has been associated with many other pagan gods from ancient history. Herodotus, the popular classical historian, associated the Greek god with the Egyptian god Toth. This connection is a popular one, supported by Plutarch, and later Christian writers.

READ MORE: Roman Gods and Goddesses: The Names and Stories of 29 Ancient Roman Gods

In the plays and poems of Homer, Hermes is sometimes referred to as Argeiphontes. In less-known myths, he was known as Atlantiades, Cyllenian, and Kriophoros.

What Was Hermes the God Of?

While Hermes is best known today for his role as herald and messenger, he was first worshiped as a god of fertility and boundaries.

Known as a “Chthonic god,” he was associated closely with the underworld, and large phallic pillars dedicated to the Greek god could be found at the borders between towns. These pillars were as much markers to guide travelers as they were indicators of ownership and control, and it may be that it was from these artifacts that the ancient deity became associated with guidance.

READ MORE: 10 Gods of Death and the Underworld From Around the World

Hermes is also known as the god of shepherds, and many early depictions of the god show him carrying a lamb over his shoulders. Some academics suggest that Roman-era art showing Christ as “the good shepherd” may have been modeled on earlier works depicting Hermes.

One ancient myth pertains to the shepherd god protecting a town from a plague by walking around the city’s borders with a ram on his shoulders.

Why Was Hermes Known as the Divine Herald?

Of all the roles Hermes played, he was best recognized as the swift and honest messenger of Zeus. He could appear anywhere in the world to order or warn people, or to simply pass on the words of his father.

Hermes could also hear the call of others and would relay their messages back to the greater god, Zeus. Most importantly, the Greek god was one of the few who could travel easily between our world and the underworld. While there had been many gods and goddesses of the underworld, only Hermes was said to come and go as he pleased.

What Role Does Hermes Play in the Odyssey?

Hermes appears many times in the famous Homeric Poem “The Odyssey.” It is Hermes that convinces the nymph Calypso, “a goddess of strange power and beauty” to release the hypnotized Odysseus (Homer, Odyssey 5.28).

Further, in the Homeric poem, Hermes provided aid to the hero Heracles in his labor to kill the Gorgon Medusa, one of the nemeses of Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea, by not only leading him to the underworld but also giving him the golden sword which would be used to slay the monster (Homer, Odyssey 11. 626). This is not the only time that Hermes plays the role of guide and helper.

Which Adventurers Were Guided by Hermes?

While The Odyssey records Hermes guiding Heracles into the underworld, he was not the only important person led by the Greek god. Hermes plays an integral role in one of the most well-known events of “The Iliad” – the Trojan War.

During the war, the near-immortal Achilles engages in a one-on-one battle with the Trojan prince, Hector. When Hector is eventually killed by Achilles, King Priam of Troy is distraught that he cannot safely retrieve the body from the field. It is the kind messenger Hermes that protects the king as he left his castle to retrieve his son and perform the important death rites.

Hermes also plays the role of guide and protector for many young gods. As well as being the protector of the baby Dionysus, the play “Ion” by the famous Greek playwright Euripides, tells the story of Hermes protecting the son of Apollo and taking him to Delphi so that he may grow up as an attendant at the temple.

READ MORE: The Oracle of Delphi: The Ancient Greek Fortuneteller

Where Does Hermes Appear in Aesop’s Fables?

Aesop’s famous fables often include Hermes as the divine messenger of Zeus to men, as well as between Zeus and other gods. Among his many roles, Hermes is put in charge of recording the sins of men, convincing Ge (the earth) to let humans work the soil and begging Zeus for mercy on behalf of a kingdom of frogs.

READ MORE: Zeus Family Tree: The Family Tree of the King of the Gods

Was Hermes a Trickster God in Greek Mythology?

While best known as the messenger of the gods, Hermes was also famous for his skilled or deceptive acts of mischief. Most of the time these tricks were used to help people, rather than get into mischief, although he also played a role in perhaps one of the most famous tricks of all time – Pandora’s Box.

What Did Hermes Do Wrong to Make Apollo Angry?

One of the cheekiest stories found in the Hermes myths is about when the very young Greek god decided to steal sacred animals from his half-brother, Apollo, the patron god of the city of Delphi.

READ MORE: City Gods from Around the World

According to a Homeric hymn devoted to Hermes, the divine trickster escaped from his cradle even before he should have been able to walk. He traveled across Greece to find his brother’s cows and set about stealing them. According to one telling of the early Greek myth, the boy proceeded to put shoes on all the cattle to make them quiet as he herded them away.

Hermes hid the cows in a nearby grotto but took two aside and killed them as sacrificial animals to his father, who he loved very much.

When Apollo went to check on the cattle, he was furious. Using “divine science,” he was able to find the young god back in his cradle! Angry, he took the boy to his father. Zeus made Hermes give the remaining cattle back to his brother, as well as the Lyre he had made. Zeus also charged his new child with the role of a pastoral god.

READ MORE: Apollo Family Tree: The Lineage of the Greek God of Light

Hermes, the god of Shepherds, went on to do many wonderful deeds, enjoying the role he obtained by being naughty.

How Did Hermes Help in Opening Pandora’s Box?

Pandora, the first woman, was created by Hephaestus at the orders of Zeus. According to “Hesiod, Works and Days,” she was “a sweet, lovely maiden-shape, like to the immortal goddesses in the face.” 

Zeus commanded Athena to teach the woman needlework but, most importantly, he also commanded Hermes to make Pandora inquisitive and able to lie. Without these things, the young woman would never have released her box (or jar) and all its calamities upon the world.

After this, Zeus commanded Hermes to take Pandora to Epimetheus as a gift. Despite being warned by Prometheus to never accept the “gifts” of Zeus, the man was beguiled by Pandora’s beauty and happily accepted her.

How Did Hermes Save Io From Hera?

One of the most famous myths of Hermes shows both his skills as a musician and as a trickster, as he works to save the woman Io from the fate of the jealous Hera. Io was one of the many lovers of Zeus. Hera, the wife of Zeus, threw herself into a rage when she heard about their love and searched for the woman to kill her.

In order to protect Io, Zeus turned her into a beautiful white cow. Unfortunately, Hera found the cow and kidnapped it, placing the monstrous Argos Panoptes as her keeper. Argos Panoptes was a giant with a hundred eyes, who was impossible to sneak past. In his palace on Mount Olympus, Zeus turned to his son, Hermes, for help.

According to Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” what happened next was very strange and amazing:

Zeus could no more endure Io’s distress and summoned his son, Hermes, whom the bright shining Pleias bore, and charged him to accomplish Argus’ death. Promptly he fastened on his ankle-wings, grasped in his fist the wand that charms to sleep, put on his magic cap, and thus arrayed sprang from his father’s citadel down to earth. There he removed his cap, laid by his wings; only his wand he kept.

Disguised as a herdsman now, he drove a flock of goats through the green byways, gathered as he went, and played his pipes of reed. The strange sweet skill charmed Hera’s guardian.

‘My friend,’ the giant called, ‘whoever you are, well might you sit with me here on this rock, and see how cool the shade extends congenial for a shepherd’s seat.’

So Hermes joined him, and with many a tale, he stayed the passing hours, and on his reeds played soft refrains to lull the watching eyes. But Argus fought to keep at bay the charms of slumber and, though many of his eyes were closed in sleep, still many kept their guard. He asked too by what means this new design (for new it was), the pipe of reeds, was found. Then the god told the story of Pan and his pursuit of the Nymphe Syrinx.

The tale remained untold; for Hermes saw all Argus’ eyelids closed and every eye vanquished in sleep. He stopped and with his wand, his magic wand, soothed the tired resting eyes and sealed their slumber; quick then with his sword he struck off the nodding head and from the rock threw it all bloody, spattering the cliff with gore. Argus lay dead; so many eyes, so bright quenched, and all hundred shrouded in one night.

In this way, Hermes saved Io from her fate and she was free from the punishment of Hera.

Did Hermes Invent the Greek Alphabet?

From The Fabulae, a text by Hyginus, superintendent of the Palatine Library in ancient Greece, we learn that Hermes played an important role in inventing the Greek alphabet, and all written words since.

According to Hyginus, the Fates created seven letters of the alphabet, which were then added to by Palamedes, a great prince in Greek mythology. Hermes, taking what had been created, formed these sounds into shaped characters that could be written. This “Pelasgian Alphabet” he then sent to Egypt, where it was first used. Eventually, further letters were added to it, forming the alphabet we have today.

Did Hermes Invent Music?

While the Greek god did not invent music, Hermes did invent the lyre, an ancient version of the harp, almost immediately after being born.

The story comes in many forms throughout Greek mythology, perhaps the most well-known comes from the Bibliotheca of Pseudo-Apollodorus:

Outside the cave [of his mother Maia] he [the infant god Hermes] found a tortoise feeding. He cleaned it out and stretched across the shell strings made from the cattle he had sacrificed, and when he had thus devised a lyre he also invented a plectrum … When Apollon heard the lyre, he exchanged the cattle for that. And as Hermes was tending the cattle, this time he fashioned a shepherd’s pipe which he proceeded to play. Covetous also of this, Apollon offered him the golden staff which he held when he herded cattle. But Hermes wanted both the staff and proficiency in the art of prophecy in return for the pipe. So he was taught how to prophesy by means of pebbles, and gave Apollon the pipe.

Who Were the Children of Hermes?

According to Nonnus, Hermes was married to Peitho. However, no other sources contain this information. Instead, Greek mythology points to many lovers who bore many children. The most famous child of Hermes is Pan, the god of wild animals and father of Fauna.

Hermes sired over a dozen other children, many to mortal women. Because of his power and his connection to mortal men, several of his children would go on to be kings, priests, and prophets.

How Was Hermes Worshiped in Ancient Greece?

In the ancient world, few Greek gods were worshiped as much as Hermes. The remains of temples and artworks bearing his images have been found all around Europe, some places being entirely devoted to the pastoral god.

READ MORE: The Greek God Family Tree: A Complete Family Tree of All Greek Deities

Some of the temple ruins which have been discovered include Mount Cyllene, the Philippeium, and part of the Circus Maximus in Rome. Besides temples, many springs and mountains were dedicated to Hermes and told to be part of the story of his life. According to Greek and Roman biography, dozens of temples existed that can no longer be found.

What Rituals Were Associated with Hermes?

Ancient Greek Religion involved a number of rituals, including the use of sacrificial animals, sacred plants, dancing, and orphic hymns. From ancient sources, we know of only a few specific aspects of worship specific to Hermes. From Homer’s writings we know that sometimes, at the end of a feast, revelers would pour out the remainder of their cups in honor of Hermes. We also know that many gymnastic competitions were dedicated to Hermes.

What Were the Festivals of Hermes?

Festivals dedicated to Hermes have been discovered to have occurred all over ancient Greece. Called “Hermaea,” these festivals were celebrated by both free men and slaves and often involved gymnastic sports, games, and sacrifices. According to some sources, early festivals were held only by young boys, with adult males being banned from participating.

What Plays and Poems Involved Hermes?

Hermes appears in many poems throughout ancient Greek culture, as one might expect from such an important Greek god. It has already been mentioned that some of the most famous stories in “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” involve Hermes acting as a supporter or protective guide. He also appears in Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” as well as his very own Homeric Hymns.

Hermes also appears in several plays by the tragedians of ancient Greece. He appears at the beginning of Euripedes’ “Ion,” as well as “Prometheus Bound” by Aeschylus. This latter play includes a telling of how Hermes saved Io. In one of Aexchylus’ other plays, “The Eumenides,” Hermes protects Orestes, the son of Agamemnon, as he is hunted by the Furies. This play forms the third part in a larger series called “The Oresteia.”

How is Hermes Connected to Christianity and Islam?

As an Ancient Greek god, Hermes plays a major role in many sects of both Christianity and Islam. Not only do his stories and art closely resemble many elements of the early church, some followers believe the original Hermes may have been a prophet called “Hermes Trismegistus.”

How Did Hermes Influence Christian Art?

As the Greek god of shepherds, Hermes was often referred to as “The Good Shepherd,” a name early Christians gave Jesus of Nazareth. In fact, many early statues and images of Christ as a shepherd were clearly influenced by late Roman works that depicted Hermes.

READ MORE: How Did Christianity Spread: Origins, Expansion, and Impact 

Are Hermes Trismegistus and Hermes the Greek God the Same?

In some Islamic belief systems, as well as in the Baháʼí faith, “Hermes the Thrice-Greatest,” or “Hermes Trismegistus” was a person later known as both the Greek god and the Egyptian god Toth.

They do so for good reason. Many Roman texts mention Hermes being revered in Egypt, with the Roman writer Cicero writing that “fourth Mercury (Hermes) was the son of the Nile, whose name may not be spoken by the Egyptians.” 

Some academics today argue that early Christian leaders such as St Augustine were influenced by the Greek god, and Hermes’ association with Toth convinced Renaissance philosophers to believe that all religions may be connected in some deeper way.

At the center of these beliefs are “The Hermetic Writings,” or “Hermetica.” These included Greek and Arabic texts relating to subjects as wide as Astrology, Chemistry, and even Magic.

Considered to contain secret knowledge, the hermetica were popular gnostic texts during the Renaissance period, and are still studied by many today.

While these texts may sound quite wild to modern readers, parts of the texts have been found in ruins beside the most important texts from our past. This suggests they played an important role in ancient Greek culture and should not be dismissed simply for containing content that now appears strange.

How is Hermes Portrayed in Modern Culture?

There has never really been a time that Hermes has not been talked about. He was first worshiped thousands of years before Christ and even today his influence is found in the philosophy we read, the symbols we use, and even the movies we watch.

What Artworks Depict the Greek God Hermes?

Hermes appears in many works of art across history, but more often than not they are representations of the same stories from Greek mythology. Whether it is Hermes and the Baby Dionysus, or Hermes and Zeus meeting Baucis and Philemon, some of the greatest artists in history have had their hand at interpreting the Greek god, his winged sandals, and winged cap.

READ MORE: Dionysus Family Tree: The Lineage of the Greek God of Wine

What Was the Story of Baucis and Philemon?

In “Metamorphoses,” Ovid tells the tale of an old married couple who were the only people to welcome the disguised Zeus and Hermes into their home. Quite similar to the story of Lot in Sodom and Gomorrah, the rest of the town was destroyed as punishment, but the couple was saved.

In artworks retelling the story, we get to see many versions of the Greek gods. While Rubens’ depiction shows the young messenger god without his famous winged cap, Van Oost not only includes it but updates it to become a top hat. Van Oost also makes sure to include Hermes’ winged sandals and the famous herald’s wand.

What Does the Caduceus Symbol Mean Today?

Hermes’ famous staff, the Caduceus, is seen today all over the world. How? As a symbol of transport, the caduceus symbol is used by customs agencies all over the world, including in China, Russia, and Belarus. In Ukraine, the Kyiv National University of Trade and Economics uses the Caduceus in its coat of arms.

Despite NOT being the Rod of Asclepius, a well-known snake god, the Caduceus is also a common modern logo for Medicine.

While its origin may have been by mistaking the two, the symbol has been used since the 3rd century. Today, the United States Army Medical Corp uses the symbol, despite its erroneous history. Academics hypothesize that the confusion came not because of the similarities in design, but because of Hermes’ connection to chemistry and alchemy.

What Did Carl Jung Say about Hermes?

Swedish psychiatrist Carl Jung was one of the most famous therapists of the 20th Century and one of the founding fathers of psychology. Among his many other interests, Jung believed that Hermes represented an important archetype, and possibly a visualization of what he called a “psychopomp,” or a “go-between” that bridged our unconsciousness and our ego. Jung would explore many of the better-known mythological gods in search of meaning and gave many talks exploring the matter. He did not believe Hermes and Hermes Trismegistus were the same.

Is DC’s “The Flash” Based on Hermes?

For many younger readers, images, and descriptions of Hermes, with his winged feet and unusual hat, may think about a very different character. Equally fast, and far more popular today, he is “The Flash.”

When Harry Lampert was commissioned to illustrate the first two issues of a new comic book, he took inspiration from Greek mythology and drew the “fastest man alive” with wings on his boots and a wide-brimmed hat (that in later versions turned into a helmet). Despite being paid only $150 for his design, and being quickly replaced, Lampert’s design remained and has been used as an influence for further iterations of the character.

One year after “The Flash” was introduced, DC Comics introduced the “real” Hermes in the very first issues of “Wonder Woman.” In this first issue, it is Hermes who helps mold Princess Diana from clay, imbuing her with the power of the Gods. In a famous mini-series of comics called “Injustice,” Hermes even proves his might by catching up to “The Flash” and punching him out! 

Not to be undone, Marvel Comics also introduced Hermes in its “Thor” comics. The Greek god would appear many times when Thor interacted with Greek mythology, but also to collect Hercules when he was beaten up by The Hulk! In Marvel’s version of the Greek god, he has the winged cap and books but also carries the Caduceus wherever he goes.

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