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Chapter 12

Hermes


THE HOMERIC HYMN TO HERMES

The charming, amusing, much admired, and lengthy Hymn to Hermes (4) tells the story of the god’s birth and childhood.

Zeus and Maia. Zeus joined in love with the beautiful nymph MAIA [meye'a] (MAEA) in a luxurious cave, and she bore the god HERMES [her'meez] (MERCURY). This precocious baby was born at dawn. By midday he was playing the lyre, and in the evening he stole the cattle of Apollo.

Hermes Invents the Lyre. As soon as Hermes left the cave where he was born, he encountered a tortoise and quickly devised a plan. He seized and cut up the tortoise and used the hollow shell, along with reeds, an ox’s hide, and strings of sheep gut, to make the first seven-stringed lyre. In no time at all, he tuned the lyre and was singing beautiful songs in honor of his father and his mother.

Hermes Steals Apollo’s Cattle. Very soon Hermes became intent on other pursuits; he craved meat and devised a scheme for stealing the cattle of Apollo. In the night, he cut off from the herd fifty head and cleverly made them walk backwards, their heads facing him, while he himself walked straight ahead, wearing sandals of wicker that he had woven to disguise his tracks. When an old man working in a luxuriant vineyard noticed Hermes driving the cattle, the infant god told him not to tell, promising him a good harvest of grapes and much wine.

Hermes Makes Sacrifice. At daybreak Hermes fed the cows well and found a shelter for them. Then he gathered some wood and was the very first to use dry sticks and by friction kindle a fire. He skinned and butchered two of the cattle (baby though he was) and divided rich parts of the meat into twelve portions, which he roasted as offerings to the gods. Following the ritual of sacrifice, he, as one of the gods, could not eat any of the meat but only savor the aroma. After destroying all evidence of what he had done, he returned home to his mother.

Hermes Reassures Maia. Hermes got into his cradle and acted like a helpless baby; but his mother Maia was not fooled by his display of helplessness and berated him, for she knew that he had been up to no good. Hermes answered her with clever words, assuring her that he was to be the prince of thieves and that he would win honor and riches for them both among the Olympian gods.

Apollo Tracks Down Hermes. Apollo, anxious about the loss of his cattle (which he explains were all cows), made inquires of the old man tending the vineyard, and the old man told him that he had seen a child driving a herd backwards. The sign of an eagle with extended wings told Apollo that the thief was a son of Zeus, and when he saw the tracks of the cattle turned backwards and the tracks of the robber cleverly obscured, the ingenuity of the theft led him to the cave of Maia and Hermes.

Apollo Confronts Hermes. In a rage, Apollo faced Hermes, who sank down into his blankets with a look of baby-innocence that failed to deceive Apollo. After a search of the surroundings, he urgently questioned the child about his stolen cattle. Hermes claimed that he did not know a thing; since he was born only yesterday, it was impossible that he could have committed such a crime. Apollo, however, was not fooled but knew Hermes for the sly-hearted cheat that he was. Their argument ended only when Apollo brought Hermes to the top of Mt. Olympus, where he sought justice from Zeus himself.

Zeus Decides the Case. Apollo spoke first and truthfully stated the facts about the theft of his cattle. Hermes’ reply was full of lies, and he even swore a mighty oath that he was absolutely innocent. Zeus gave a great laugh when he heard the protests and denials of the devious child and ordered Hermes, in his role of guide, to lead Apollo to the place where he had hidden the cattle.

The Reconciliation between Hermes and Apollo. Hermes did as Zeus commanded, and when Apollo found his cattle, the two reconciled. Hermes took up the lyre that he had invented and played and sang so beautifully that Apollo was enthralled and exclaimed that this enchanting skill was worth fifty cows! He promised that Hermes would become the messenger of the gods and that he and his mother would have renown among the immortals (and thus Hermes’ promise to his mother was fulfilled). At this, Hermes gave the lyre to Apollo ordaining that he should become a master of the musical art, and Apollo in turn gave Hermes a shining whip and put him in charge of cattle herds. And so the two returned to Olympus, where Zeus united them in friendship.
Furthermore, Hermes swore to Apollo that he would never again steal any of his possessions. For this Apollo gave to Hermes a golden staff, protective of wealth and prosperity, and as well another gift. Apollo alone had the prerogative of knowing the mind of Zeus and uttering prophecies in accord with his divine wisdom. This prerogative he could not share with his new friend Hermes. Yet he could and did tell Hermes about the Thriae, the three virgin sisters who were masters of the art of divination, whom Hermes could consult as a source of prophetic knowledge that he could pass on to mortals, who would be fortunate if they listened.

HERMAPHRODITUS AND SALMACIS

As a result of an affair between Hermes and Aphrodite, a son was born, named HERMAPHRODITUS [her-ma-froh-dee'tus], or HERMAPHRODITOS, whose name and beauty came from his parents. The most famous version of his story comes from Ovid, which not only gives an etiology for the hermaphrodite but also explains why the spring SALMACIS [sal'ma-sis], or SALMAKIS, was believed to enervate those who bathed in it.
Hermaphroditus was brought up in a mountain cave by nymphs, and when he was fifteen he left home to wander unknown lands. When he came to Halicarnassus, on the coast of Asia Minor, he discovered a lovely clear pool of water surrounded by fresh green grass. A nymph, Salmacis, inhabited the pool. She refused to hunt in the woods and follow the pursuits of Artemis, but instead remained at her pool, often languishing seductively on its verdant banks.
Once when she was picking flowers nearby, she caught sight of the divinely beautiful Hermaphroditus and was smitten with an irresistible desire to have him. She carefully made herself as attractive as possible before she addressed him with a fervent declaration of love that she insisted must be consummated.
The boy blushed because he did not know what love was, and when she touched his lovely neck and demanded at least the kisses of a sister, he threatened to leave. Salmacis, afraid to lose him, said that she would give him free access to the place and pretended to leave him all alone. Instead she hid behind a nearby grove of bushes to watch.
Hermaphroditus, captivated by the pool, threw off his clothes, and Salamacis was overwhelmed by the sight of his naked body. He dove into the water, and Salmacis, inflamed by passion, quickly dove in after him. She grabbed hold of him and held him, enveloping him with kisses as he struggled to be free. Salmacis clung to Hermaphroditus with her whole body, and it was as though they were one. The gods granted her prayer that they never be separated. Their two bodies were joined together, and they no longer were boy or girl but partook of both sexes.
The parents of Hermaphroditus, now a hermaphrodite, granted his prayer that any man who bathed in this pool would emerge with limbs weakened and softened and but half a man.

THE NATURE, ATTRIBUTES, AND WORSHIP OF HERMES

Here is a litany of the attributes of Hermes:

  • Lord of herds and lord of Mt. Cyllene and Arcadia, rich in flocks.
  • Devious, winning in his ingenuity, and a clever talker.
  • A spy in the night, a robber, and a prince of thieves.
  • Slayer of Argus (Argeiphontes, see MLS, Chapter 4).
  • Guide of dreams and guide of souls (psychopompos).
  • Messenger of the gods.

Very important among these attributes is Hermes as the archetypal trickster and master of persuasion. Also important is his role as divine messenger (particularly of Zeus) and as the god who guides our souls to Hades; his epithet Psychopompos means guide of the soul. Since he is a messenger and guide, he has the accoutrements of a traveler and a herald:

  • The PETASUS [pet'a-sus], or PETASOS, a broad-brimmed hat, sometimes winged.
  • Sandals (talaria), often winged.
  • The CADUCEUS  [ka-dou'see-us], or KERYKEION, a herald’s staff, sometimes entwined with two snakes (see Glossary of Words and Terms in English on this website).

The friends Hermes and Apollo have a great deal in common. They are both gods of shepherds, flocks, and music. Hermes is a teenage Apollo, and his statues, herms, were to be found in gymnasia.

Herms (sing: herm). A herm was a rectangular or square pillar equipped with male genitals and with the head or bust of Hermes on top. (Herms also is the designation, in the ancient world, of such pillars with the head or bust of any person or god, not necessarily Hermes). These statues were believed to bring fertility and good luck.

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