From New World Encyclopedia
The Greek god Hermes was renamed Mercury by the Romans. Here Mercury is depictied by Hendrick Goltzius, 1611

In Greek mythology, Hermes (IPA: [ˈhɚmiz], Greek Ἑρμῆς IPA: [hermɛːs]) was an extraordinarily multi-faceted deity, with numerous roles and responsibilities throughout the divine and human worlds. He was simultaneously the messenger of the gods, inventor of fire,[1] creator of human recreation, musical instruments (the syrinx and the lyre), sporting events (many types of racing and the sport of boxing), a patron of thieves (as he was credited with stealing Apollo's cattle on the day of his birth), and a psychopomp (an escort for the souls of the dead) who helped the dead find their way to the afterlife (the Underworld in the Greek myths). In the latter capacity, many Greek myths depict Hermes as the only god besides Hades and Persephone who could enter and leave the Underworld without hindrance.

Hermes was also known as the Olympian god of boundaries and of the travelers who crossed them, of shepherds and cowherds, of orators and wit, of literature and poets, of athletes, of weights and measures, of invention, of commerce in general, and of the cunning of thieves and liars.[2] The Homeric hymn to Hermes invokes him as the one of "many shifts (polutropos), 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."[3]

In the Roman adaptation of the Greek religion (see interpretatio romana), Hermes was identified with the Roman god Mercury, who, though inherited from the Etruscans, developed many similar characteristics, such as being the patron of commerce.[4] Additionally, modern mythographers and comparativists have also connected Hermes with the trickster gods of other cultures.


The name Hermes has been thought,[5] to be derived from the Greek word herma (ἕρμα), which denotes a square or rectangular pillar with the head of Hermes (usually with a beard) adorning the top of the pillar and ithyphallic male genitals below. However, due to the god's attestation in the Mycenaean pantheon, as Hermes Araoia ("Ram Hermes") in Linear B inscriptions at Pylos and Mycenaean Knossos (Ventris and Chadwick), the connection is more likely to have moved the opposite way, from deity to pillar representations. From the subsequent association of these cairns—which were used in Athens to ward off evil and to designate road and boundary markers all over Greece—Hermes acquired patronage over land travel.[6]

Given his role in sharing information between domains (most typically as a messenger between the divine and mortal realms), the figure of Hermes became a metaphor for translation. As such, the classical Greek term for an interpreter, whose main function is to bridge the boundaries between strangers, is a hermeneus. Through this intermediate step, Hermes also gives us the modern philosophical term "hermeneutics," which gains additional meaning when one recalls the tendency of Hermes, the consummate trickster, to purposefully confuse or occlude his messages.[7]

Epithets of Hermes

Hermes was given many epithets in ancient Greece denoting his multifarious roles. The most important of these epithets are identified below:

  • Acacesius, "the god who cannot be hurt, or who does not hurt"[8]
  • Agoraios, of the agora[9]
  • Argeiphontes, Argus-slayer, which recalls the ultimate conclusion of his encounter with the many-eyed giant Argus Panoptes[10]
  • Charidotes, giver of charm
  • Cyllenius, born on Mount Cyllene
  • Diaktoros, the messenger
  • Dolios, the schemer
  • Enagonios, of the (Olympic) games
  • Epimelius, keeper of the flocks
  • Eriounios, bringer of luck
  • Logios refers to Hermes' skill as an orator, the god of eloquence. Together with Athena, he was the standard divine representation of eloquence in classical Greece[11]
  • Polygius, meaning "unknown"
  • Psychopompos, conveyor of souls[12]

Mythic Accounts

While Hermes was certainly an important deity for the early Greek people (as attested to by the prominence of his cult), his presence in surviving mythic accounts is somewhat minimal. Aside from the involved and humourous account of his birth described in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes, his presence in other mythic tales is either tangential or functional (i.e. where he fulfills the role of the messenger for the other Olympians).


As with many of the second-generation Olympians, Hermes was the product of one of Zeus's many extra-marital trysts. In this particular case, the Sky God became enamored with Maia, a "shy goddess" who "avoided the company of the blessed gods, and lived within a deep, shady cave."[13] Into this mountain fastness the lusty god would creep, after waiting for his jealous wife to fall asleep. So, it eventually came to pass that Maia became pregnant and, nine months later, she gave birth to the precocious Hermes.

The young god, who was already preternaturally clever, soon leapt from his cradle, where he delightedly encountered a tortoise. It is said that he killed the creature, hollowed its body cavity and constructed the world's first lyre from its remains. After strumming a brief tune, the ingenious youth then realized that what he really wanted was to taste meat, which prompted him to venture out of his mother's cave in search of cattle to rustle:

Glancing across the nearby fields, Hermes's eye fell upon the prized herd of his step-brother, Apollo. Without a second thought, the impetuous (and somewhat amoral) god snuck into his sibling's pasture and quickly absconded with fifty head of cattle (making sure to lead them backwards, in order to confuse persuers). Once his thieving yield was successfully stowed away, glorious Hermes went hurriedly to his cradle, wrapping his swaddling clothes about his shoulders as though he were a feeble babe and lay playing with the covering about his knees; but at his left hand he kept close his sweet lyre. But Hermes did not pass unseen by his mother and goddess and so she said to him: “How now, you rogue! Whence you come back so at night-time, you that wear shamelessness as a garment? And now I surely believe the son of Leto will soon have you forth out of doors with unbreakable cords about your ribs, or you will live a rogue's life in the glens robbing by whiles. Go then to your father, you are a great worry to mortal men and deathless gods.”[14]

Hermes responded by telling her that he did not require her sharp words and noted that she should be grateful that his thieving would be able to provide for them. Finally (and most intriguingly), the young deity also stated that he believed himself due the same respect and accord that was granted his older step-sibling, Apollo, and that if he did not achieve it through typical means, he would be willing to steal it:

Then Hermes answered her with crafty words, “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? Nay, but I will try whatever plan is best, and so feed myself and you continually. We will not be content to remain here, as you bid, alone of all the gods unfee'd with offerings and prayers. [170] Better to live in fellowship with the deathless gods continually, rich, wealthy, and enjoying stores of grain, than to sit always in a gloomy cave. And, as regards honor, I too will enter upon the rite that Apollo has. If my father will not give it me, I will seek—and I am able—to be a prince of robbers. And if Leto's most glorious son shall seek me out, I think another and a greater loss will befall him. I will go to Pytho to break into his great house and will plunder there from splendid tripods, and cauldrons, and gold, and plenty of bright iron, and much apparel; and you shall see it if you will.”[15]

In the morning, an enraged Apollo appeared at the entrance to the cave, demanding to speak to whoever had stolen his cattle. Unconvinced by Hermes' pretense of being an innocent, guileless baby, the elder god snatched the youth from his cradle and escorted him back to Olympus to receive judgment from Zeus. The Sky God, more amused than anything by the act of his young son, simply ordered him to return the cattle to Apollo:

But Zeus laughed out loud to see his evil-plotting child [390] well and cunningly denying guilt about the cattle. And he bade them both to be of one mind and search for the cattle, and guiding Hermes to lead the way and, without mischievousness of heart, to show the place where now he had hidden the strong cattle. [395] Then the Son of Cronos bowed his head and the goodly Hermes obeyed him; for the will of Zeus who holds the aegis easily prevailed with him.[16]

To settle his differences with Apollo, he offered the elder god the lyre. Given the Apollo’s connection with music, it was no wonder that this gift was a suitable peace offering. In fact, Apollo was so pleased that he swore an oath of peace and brotherhood to the younger deity. Satisfied that his two children had truly made peace, Zeus "commanded that glorious Hermes should be lord over all birds of omen and grim-eyed lions, and boars with gleaming tusks, [570] 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."[17]

Other Mythic Accounts

Other mythic accounts surrounding Hermes place him in either a tangential or functional role. Some examples include embarking on various stealthy missions such as tricking King Priam to a meeting with Achilles during the Illiad,[18] petitioning to Calypso for the release of Odysseus and leading the titular character to Hades in the Odyssey,[19] using magic or trickery to slay the giant Argus (on behalf of Zeus, who wished to romance the nymph it was guarding),[20] and visiting the bound Prometheus, also on behalf of Zeus.[21]

Sexual Unions and Offspring

Despite his limited place in the surviving mythic corpus, Hermes was credited with fathering numerous children, through both divine and human relationships. Some of these offspring include:

  • Hermaphroditus, an immortal son of Hermes through Aphrodite who was changed into a hermaphrodite when the gods literally granted the nymph Salmacis' wish that they never separate.
  • Priapus, another son of the union between Hermes and Aphrodite,[22] was a phallic fertility god.
  • Tyche, the goddess of luck, was sometimes said to be the daughter of Hermes and Aphrodite.
  • Abderus, a human youth, was a son of Hermes who was devoured by the Mares of Diomedes.
  • Autolycus, the Prince of Thieves, was a son of Hermes and grandfather of Odysseus.
  • Pan, the satyr-god of "pastures and fertility."[23]


Herm pillar of Hermes. The attributes that signify Hermes include the winged cap and his youthful face.

Hermes, though never a central deity, was a fixture in the Cultic religion of the classical Greeks. The majority of Greek temples maintained at least one altar where devotees could make sacrifices to him.[24] However, no statewide cult to the deity ever emerged (at least in the context of a network of temples and prescribed cultic observances), likely because the bulk of his primary worshipers were rural pastoralists, who were not strongly connected to centralized religion-political processes. As Mikalson notes, "we hear little of [Hermes and Pan] in highly agricultural and [urbane]... Athens, but they are prominent in the more mountainous areas of Greece such as Arcadia, [their] homeland in the Peloponnesus. The rural and nomadic nature of herding and herdsmen may partially explain why the Athenians established no centralized, state cult to acknowledge this function of those deities."[25] Though altars dedicated to Hermes existed throughout Greece, a major center of his cult was at Pheneos in Arcadia, where festivals in his honor were called Hermoea. Further, scattered references suggest that these celebrations were, in fact, "fairly common in Greece," though we possess very little information about the activities that actually constituted them.[26] Finally, many graffito dedications to Hermes have been found in the Athenian Agora, in keeping with his epithet of Agoraios and his role as patron of commerce.[9][27] Thus, despite the lack of an organized temple cult in major centers, Hermes, due to both his accessibility and to his multifarious areas of patronage, was still a notable part of the religious imagination of the Hellenic people.

However, the most prominent role of Hermes (in the cultic sense) was as the god of borders, boundaries and travelers. As a result, roadways in both cities and country sides were liberally populated with stone artifacts called herms, which depicted Hermes and his erect phallus. The herms were thought to provide protection and ward of dangerous or foreign travelers (as discussed below).


In very ancient Greece, Hermes was a phallic god of boundaries. His name, in the form herma, was applied to a wayside marker-pile of stones; to which each passing traveler added a stone (in order to ensure good fortune in transit). In the sixth century B.C.E., 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 with a beard. An erect phallus rose from the base. In the more archaic Mount Kyllini or Cyllenian herms, the standing stone or wooden pillar was simply a carved phallus. In Athens, herms were placed outside houses for good luck. As described by Farnell, the cult objects feature "the bearded head of Hermes above a four-square shaft, in the centre of which a phallus is carved, as the mark of his fertilizing power initially, but later also as an 'apotropaion' intended to ward off the evil eye."[28] These herms were understood to fulfill two related functions. Inside homes and other buildings, they were thought to repel the malevolent influence of ghosts and spirits (likely due to the god's role as psychopomp), when placed outside, the symbolic presence of the deity "sanctifies the rights of public as of private ownership, establishing a [taboo] that secures the place from violation."[29]

The deadly seriousness that attended these cult objects is evidenced by literary and archaeological evidence from the period. In one particularly notable instance, an anarchist sect made a coordinated effort to desecrate all of the herms in Athens on the evening before the Athenian fleet was to set sail for Syracuse, during the Peloponnesian War (415 B.C.E.). When the city awoke, the population was both shocked and appalled to see this highly impious devastation, as it was seen to cast a dark cloud upon the fortunes of the proposed expedition and, in the larger context, upon the fate of the city itself. As Price notes, "the logic of this anxiety, which has worried some scholars, is perfectly clear. The connection of religion and politics was so close that to attack one was automatically to undermine the other."[30]

Hermes' iconography

Originally, Hermes was depicted as an older, bearded, phallic god, but in the sixth century B.C.E., the traditional Hermes was re-imagined as an athletic youth. Statues of the new type of Hermes stood at stadiums and gymnasiums throughout Greece. The messenger god was usually portrayed wearing a broad-brimmed traveler's hat or a winged cap (petasus), wearing winged sandals (talaria), and carrying his Near Eastern herald's staff—either a caduceus (which is entwined by copulating serpents), or a kerykeion (which is topped with a symbol similar to the astrological symbol of Taurus the bull). Hermes wore the garments of a traveler, worker, or shepherd. He was represented by purses or bags, roosters, and tortoises. When depicted as Hermes Logios, he was the divine symbol of eloquence, generally shown speaking with one arm raised for emphasis.


  1. In the Homeric hymn, "after he had fed the loud-bellowing cattle... he gathered much wood and sought the craft of fire. He took a splendid laurel branch, gripped it in his palm, and twirled it in pomegranate wood" (lines 105, 108-10).
  2. W. Burkert, "Hermes," Greek Religion. Encyclopedia Mythica. Located in Section III.2.8 from Encyclopedia Mythica Online. 1985. Retrieved October 04, 2006.
  3. Hymn to Hermes 13. The Hugh G. Evelyn-Waugh translation is accessible online at The Perseus Digital Library (Accessed May 17, 2007). The word polutropos ("of many shifts, turning many ways, of many devices, ingenious, or much wandering") is also used to describe Odysseus in the first line of the Odyssey.
  4. Rose, 149.
  5. K.O. Müller, Handbuch der Archäologie 1848.
  6. See Ron Leadbetter, "Hermes," in Encyclopedia Mythica (Accessed May 17, 2007).
  7. Richard E. Palmer, "The Liminality of Hermes and the Meaning of Hermeneutics," Proceedings of the Heraclitean Society: A Quarterly Report on Philosophy and Criticism of the Arts and Sciences, Vol. 5, 4-11. 1980. Also accessible online at: Richard E. Palmer's personal website (Accessed May 17, 2007).
  8. However, this source also notes that this term could be tied to the Acadian king Acacus's patronage of the young god.
  9. 9.0 9.1 Mabel Lang. Graffiti in the Athenian Agora, rev. ed., Excavations of the Athenian Agora, American School of Classical Studies at Athens, Page 7. 1988. 
  10. See, for example, Powell, 196.
  11. The Homeric Hymn to Hermes (probably sixth century B.C.E.) describes Hermes making a successful speech from the cradle to defend himself from the (true) charge of cattle theft.
  12. For detailed coverage of the many epithets of Hermes, see Apostolos Athanassakis, "From the Phallic Cairn to Shepherd God and Divine Herald," Eranos: Acta Philologica Suecana, (Vol. 87) 33-49. 1989; Elizabeth S. Greene, "Revising Illegitimacy: The Use of Epithets in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes," Classical Quarterly, (Vol. 55) Issue 2, 343-349. 2005. Also see for a comprehensive list of the deity's epithets (including translations and poetic origins) (Accessed May 17, 2007).
  13. The Homeric Hymn to Hermes (4.1). Accessed online at The Perseus Project (Accessed May 17, 2007).
  14. The Homeric Hymn to Hermes (4.145-162). Accessed online at The Perseus Project (Accessed May 17, 2007).
  15. The Homeric Hymn to Hermes (4.165-182). Accessed online at The Perseus Project (Accessed May 17, 2007).
  16. The Homeric Hymn to Hermes (4.387-395). Accessed online at The Perseus Project (Accessed May 17, 2007).
  17. The Homeric Hymn to Hermes (4.568-574). Accessed online at The Perseus Project (Accessed May 17, 2007). See also Powell, 195-207; Gantz, 106.
  18. Gantz, 106-107.
  19. Gantz, 108-109.
  20. Powell, 373.
  21. As described in the Aeschylus play Prometheus Bound.
  22. However, some source suggest that Dionysus was this god's father. Powell, 153.
  23. Powell, 208.
  24. Pausanias 5.14.4-10, abbreviated and paraphrased by Mikalson, 118-119.
  25. Mikalson, 163.
  26. Farnell (Vol. 5), 31.
  27. As noted at, "this was a natural extension of his role as the god of animal-husbandry, as cattle, sheep, goats and their by-products were brought to market to sell.
  28. Farnell (Vol. 5), 32.
  29. Farnell (Vol. 5), 18-20).
  30. Price, 83.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Apollodorus. Gods & Heroes of the Greeks. Translated and with an Introduction and Notes by Michael Simpson. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1977. ISBN 0-87023-205-3.
  • Burkert, Walter. Greek Religion: Archaic and Classical. Translated by John Raffan. Oxford: Blackwell, 1985. ISBN 0631112413.
  • Gantz, Timothy. Early Greek Myth: A Guide to Literary and Artistic Sources. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993. ISBN 080184410X.
  • "The Homeric Hymn to Hermes" in The Homeric Hymns and Homerica. Translated by Hugh G. Evelyn-White. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1914. ISBN 0674990633.
  • Kerényi, Karl. Hermes, Guide of Souls. Translated from German by Murray Stein. Woodstock, CN: Spring Publications, 1996. ISBN 0882142240.
  • Mikalson, Jon D. Ancient Greek Religion. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2005. ISBN 0631232230.
  • Nilsson, Martin P. Greek Popular Religion. New York: Columbia University Press, 1940. Also accessible online at
  • Powell, Barry B. Classical Myth (Second Edition). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1998. ISBN 0-13-716714-8.
  • Price, Simon. Religions of the Ancient Greeks. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. ISBN 0-521-38867-8.
  • Rose, H. J. A Handbook of Greek Mythology. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1959. ISBN 0-525-47041-7.
  • Ruck, Carl A.P. and Daniel Staples. The World of Classical Myth. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 1994. ISBN 0-89089-575-9.
  • Ventris, Michael and John Chadwick. Documents in Mycenaean Greek. (Second edition) Cambridge, UP. 1974. ISBN 0-521-08558-6.

External Links

All links retrieved July 16, 2024.


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