Hermes: God of Contrasts
Hermes: Greek; Latin: Mercurius [Mercury]
An overachiever from the day of his birth, Zeus’ son Hermes is far more than the Gods’ messenger. He is the original sandman, a crafty inventor, guide to the dead, shrewd businessman, a swift athlete, and a cunning thief. He passed on genes for the last to some of his descendants (the prince of thieves, Autolycus, and Odysseus, the Greek who devised the Trojan War-winning wooden horse). A trickster, like the Norse Loki, he is a god of contrasts, who combines attributes of youth with age, as at home among the dead as the living.
|Parents: Zeus (king of the gods) and Maia (nymph)
Symbols: Pteroeis Pedila/Talaria (winged sandals), Kerykeion/Caduceus, Petasos (winged hat) Lyre
Animals: Tortoise, Hawk, Ram, Hare
Powers (Spheres of Influence): Heraldry, Agriculture, Omens and Dreams, Eloquence, Luck, Theft, Trade and Commerce, Travel, Athletics, Psychopomp (guide of the dead)
Shrines: Most important one at Mt Cyllene. Statues of his head and phallus (Herms) were used as milestones/boundary markers. In Rome, his temple was in the Circus Maximus.
In Modern Culture: One of the planets in our solar system is named for the Roman god of trade. Quicksilver is another name for mercury, the substance in thermometers. Likewise the word mercurial refers to something rapidly changing. Hermes’ caduceus is a symbol of the medical profession. In Rick Riordan’s Lightning Thief, the original thief is one of Hermes’ many unloved sons. In Romance languages, Wednesday is named for Mercury.
Hermes’ mother is the Cyllenian Maia, a daughter of the titan Atlas. She shunned company and so reared her son in a deep cave… or tried to. On his very first day, Hermes set forth to prank his half-brother, Apollo.
A born cattle-rustler, when Hermes saw Apollo’s cattle grazing at Pieria — after having traversed more than 150 miles, he had to steal them. To delay discovery, he padded their hooves and led them backwards. Their route home took them past the Alpheios River where Hermes killed two animals and divided each into six parts. Then he invented fire so he could burn the portions, one for each of the gods. This was a grandiose gesture for a baby, since there were only 11 adult gods at the time. The twelfth was for himself. This, the first sacrifice ever, was such an honor, it assured the gods’ goodwill towards the little thief. Along the way, Hermes picked up a tortoise. Gutting the poor reptile, Hermes turned its carapace into the first lyre.
Zeus had to intervene in the ensuing conflict between his two sons and then had to find constructive activities for the hyperactive infant, so Hermes became the god of trade and commerce, and Zeus’ messenger, diplomat, and assassin. Lucky Hermes gave the lyre as a peace offering to his musically talented and appreciative big brother.
The gods call on Hermes for shady undertakings, like going to the Underworld, the land of the shades. He returned the unfortunate Eurydice, guided Herakles to Cerberos, and delivered Sisyphos to his eternal torment. Most gods in Greek mythology are linked to either the world of mankind or the Underworld. Unusually, Hermes is a god of both realms, making him a sky and chthonic deity.
A god of athletes, Hermes is credited with inventing boxing and foot-racing, so his statues adorned Greek gymnasia and the stadium at Olympia. Enhancing his innate speed with a pair of pteroeis pedila (winged sandals), while clad in a broad or winged hat, Hermes speeds, like the Flash, all over the world, both above and below, usually following one of his father’s orders.
Zeus sent Hermes to Ogygia to tell his Aunt Calypso to end her dalliance with homesick Odysseus. Hermes helped the hero Perseus decapitate Uncle Poseidon’s paramour, Medusa. On occasion, Zeus asks Hermes for help in his love life.
Hermes needed ruthlessness and cunning to get rid of the giant watchman Hera had assigned to a heifer she was sure Zeus wished to bed. The hundred eyes of Argus Panoptes (all-seeing) took turns resting so he could always keep an eye on his charge. Using his sandman’s staff as a magic wand, Hermes put the guard’s hundred eyes to sleep and cut off his head.
Like his father, Hermes bedded many females, mortal and divine, who produced a variety of colorful offspring, from the previously mentioned prince of thieves and the goat-footed woodland god of PANic, to the two-gendered god (Hermaphroditus) he and Aphrodite produced. In the later Roman tradition, he sired the Lares, twin gods of the crossroads, showing how enduring were Hermes’ two sides.