Hermes (Greek: Ερμής: 'pile of marker stones'), in Greek mythology, is the god of boundaries and of the travelers who cross them, of shepherds and cowherds, of orators, literature and poets, of athletics, of weights and measures and invention and commerce in general, of the cunning of thieves, and the messenger from the gods to humans. A lucky find was a hermaion. An interpreter who bridges the boundaries with strangers is a hermeneus. Hermes gives us our word "hermeneutics" for the art of interpreting hidden meaning.
Among the Hellenes, as the related word Herma ‘a boundary stone, crossing point’ would suggest, Hermes is the Spirit of Crossing-Over. As such he was seen to be manifest in any kind of interchange, transfer, transgressions, transcendence, transition, transit or traversal, all of which activities involve some form of crossing in some sense. This explains his connection with transitions in one’s fortunes, with the interchanges of goods, words and information involved in trade, interpreting, oratory, writing, with the way in which the wind may transfer objects from one place to another, and with the transition to the afterlife.
In Greek mythology Hermes and Dionysus are the youngest of the Olympian pantheon. Son of Zeus and a primordial nymph named Maia, Hermes was born in a cave on Mt. Cyllene in Peloponnesus, between Achaea and Arcadia. His origin on Mt. Cyllene explains the origin of an epithet for Hermes: Hermes Cylleneius. He was also referred to as Enagonios.
The Romans found that Hermes was equivalent to their characteristic god Mercury, who may have been the descendent of the Etruscan Turms.
The modern post office in Greece uses Hermes as its symbol and the first Greek stamps ever issued portrayed his head.
As a crosser of boundaries, Hermēs Psychopompos' ("conductor of the soul") was a psychopomp, meaning he brought newly-dead souls to the underworld, Hades. In the Homeric Hymn to Demeter Hermes conducts the Kore safely back to Demeter. He also brought dreams to living mortals.
Hermes as an inventor of fire is a parallel of the titan Prometheus. In addition to the syrinx and the lyre, Hermes invented many types of racing and the sport of boxing. In the 6th century the traditional bearded phallic Hermes was reimagined as an athletic youth, statues of the new type of Hermes stood at stadia and gymnasiums throughout Greece.
In very ancient Greece, Hermes was a phallic god of boundaries. His name in the form herma referred to a wayside marker pile of stones; each traveller added a stone to the pile. In the 6th century, Hipparchos, the son of Pisistratus replaced the cairns that marked the midway point between each village deme at the central agora of Athens with a square or rectangular pillar of stone or bronze topped by a bust of Hermes usually with a beard; an erect phallus rose from the base. In the more primitive "Cyllenian" herms, the standing stone or wooden pillar was frankly simply a phallus. The hermai were used to mark roads and boundaries. In Athens, they were placed outside houses for good luck.
In 415 BC, when the Athenian fleet was about to set sail for Syracuse during the Peloponnesian War, all of the Athenian hermai were vandalized. The Athenians at the time believed it was the work of saboteurs, either from Syracuse or the anti-war faction within Athens itself. Socrates' pupil Alcibiades was suspected to have been involved, and Socrates indirectly paid for the impiety with his life.
Hermes was usually portrayed wearing a broad-brimmed traveller's hat or a winged cap (petasos or more commonly petasus), wearing winged sandals (talaria) and carrying his Near Eastern herald's staff, entwined by copulating serpents, called the kerykeion, more familiar in its Latinized form, the caduceus. He wore the garments of a traveler, worker or shepherd. He was represented by purses, roosters and tortoises.
Hermes was born on Mount Cyllene in Arcadia to Maia. As the story is told in the Homeric Hymn, the Hymn to Hermes, Maia was a nymph, but Greeks generally applied the name to a midwife or a wise and gentle old woman, so the nymph appears to have been an ancient one, one of the Pleiades taking refuge in a cave of Arcadia.
The god was precocious: on the day of his birth, by midday he had invented the lyre, using the shell of a tortoise, and by nightfall he had rustled the immortal cattle of Apollo. For the first Olympian sacrifice, the taboos surrounding the sacred kine of Apollo had to be transgressed, and the trickster god of boundaries was the one to do it.
His epithet Argeiphontes, or Argus-slayer, recalls his slaying of the many-eyed giant Argos who was watching over the heifer-nymph Io in the sanctuary of Lady Hera herself in Argos. Putting Argos to sleep, Hermes dispatched him with a cast stone, like a hero faced by a giant in the land of Canaan.
When Hermēs loved Herse, a jealous Aglaulus stood between them and refused to move. Hermēs changed her to stone. Cephalus was the son of Hermes and Herse. Hermēs also had a son, Ceryx, with Herse's other sister, Pandrosus. With Aglaulus, Hermēs was the father of Eumolpus.
Zeus loved the Argive princess Io and changed her into a cow to protect her from Hera. Hera suspected his deception and asked for the cow as a present. Zeus was unable to refuse and she placed the watchman Argus to guard the cow. Hermēs, at the request of Zeus, lulled Argus to sleep and rescued Io but Hera sent a gadfly to sting her as she wandered the earth in cow form. Zeus eventually changed her back to human form, and she became—through Epaphus, her son with Zeus—the ancestress of Heracles.
Hermes saved Odysseus from both Calypso and Circe, by convincing the first to let Odysseus go and then protecting him from the latter by bestowing upon him an herb that would protect him from Circe's spell. In addition, Hermes brought Eurydice back to Hades after Orpheus looked back towards his wife for a second time. He also changed the Minyades into bats. He taught the Thriae the arts of fortune-telling and divination.
King Atreus of Mycenae retook the throne from his brother, Thyestes using advice he received from the wise trickster Hermes. Thyestes agreed to give the kingdom back when the sun moved backwards in the sky, a feat that Zeus accomplished. Atreus retook the throne and banished Thyestes.
- Unknown mother
- Unknown Sicilian nymph
- Walter Burkert, 1985. Greek Religion,
- Antoine Faivre, 1995.The Eternal Hermes : From Greek God to Alchemical Magus translated by Josceleyn Godwin (Phanes) ISBN 0-933999-52-6.