Tricksters and Rebels

16 Hermes

Hermes running. He is a bearded man wearing a chlamys cloak, petasos hat, and winged boots. He holds a scepter over one shoulder.
Hermes, red-figure kylix, ca. 510 BCE (Staatliche Antikensammlungen, Munich)


Sections & Primary Sources


Bearded Hermes standing beside his mother Maia. Hermes holds a strange scroll or bundle of sticks in his hand.
Hermes and Maia, red-figure amphora, ca. 500 BCE (Staatliche Antikensammlungen, Munich)

Zeus and Maia

Hermes was another son of Zeus and one of the twelve Olympians. He was born of the sexual union between Zeus and the nymph Maia, who lived in a cave on Mount Cyllene, in the northern Peloponnese. He was the messenger of the Olympians, a god of crossroads, and a trickster. He wore a special, large brimmed hat and winged sandals. He is also given the epithet Argeiphontes, meaning “Slayer of Argus,” since he killed the one-hundred-eyed-giant, Argus. In Roman myth, Hermes is called Mercury.

Homeric Hymn 18, “To Hermes” (trans. H. G. Evelyn-White, adapted by P. Rogak)

Greek hymn, 7th century BCE

This 7th century BCE Homeric Hymn to Hermes gives a brief version of the god’s origin.


[1] I sing of Cyllenian Hermes, the Slayer of Argus, lord of Cyllene and Arcadia rich in flocks, luck-bringing messenger of the undying gods. He was born of Maia, a shy goddess and the daughter of Atlas, when she slept with Zeus. She [ Maia ] always avoided the crowds of the blessed gods, and lived in a shadowy cave. And there the Son of Cronus [Zeus] used to sleep with the rich-tressed nymph at dead of night, while white-armed Hera lay in sweet sleep: and no undying god, nor any mortal, knew about it. And so hail to you, Son of Zeus and Maia; with you I have begun: now I will turn to another song! Hail, Hermes, giver of grace, guide, and giver of good things!


Taken from:

Hermes in Action

Hermes and the Invention of the Lyre

Homeric Hymn 4, “To Hermes” (trans. H. G. Evelyn-White, adapted by L. Zhang and P. Rogak)

Greek hymn, 7th century BCE

This longer Homeric Hymn to Hermes is about the first trick that Hermes plays on his brother Apollo shortly after his birth, while he is still a young infant. This trick establishes Hermes reputation as a trickster god and also cements the friendship between Hermes and Apollo. Further, it functions as an etiological myth for the lyre, the popular stringed instrument of ancient Greece and important accouterment of Apollo.


[1] Muse, sing of Hermes, the son of Zeus and Maia, lord of Cyllene and of Arcadia rich in flocks, the luck-bringing messenger of the immortals whom Maia bore, the rich-haired nymph, when she was joined in love with Zeus, — a shy goddess, for she avoided the company of the blessed gods, and lived within a deep, shady cave. There the son of Cronus used to lie with the rich-haired nymph, unseen by deathless gods and mortal men, at dead of night while sweet sleep held white-armed Hera tight. And when the purpose of great Zeus was fixed in heaven, she was delivered and a notable thing came to pass. For then she [ Maia ] gave birth to a son, of many shifts, consistently 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. Born at dawn, at midday he played on the lyre, and in the evening he stole the cattle of far-shooting Apollo on the fourth day of the month; for on that day queenly Maia gave birth to him. As soon as he had leaped from his mother’s heavenly womb, he did not lie and wait long in his holy cradle, but he sprang up and sought the oxen of Apollo. But as he stepped over the threshold of the high-roofed cave, he found a tortoise there and gained endless delight. For it was Hermes who first made the tortoise a singer.[1] The creature crossed his path at the courtyard gate, where it was feeding on the rich grass in front of the dwelling, waddling along.

[28] When he saw it, the luck-bringing son of Zeus laughed and said, “An omen of great luck for me so soon! I do not reject it. Hail, comrade of the feast, lovely in shape, sounding at the dance! With joy I meet you! Where did you get that rich ornament, that spangled shell — a tortoise living in the mountains? But I will take you and carry you in: you will help me and I will do you no disgrace, though first of all you must do something of profit to me. It is better to be at home: harm may come out of doors. Living, you shall be a spell against mischievous witchcraft;[2] but if you die, then you shall make sweetest song.”

[39] Thus speaking, he took up the tortoise in both hands and went back into the house carrying his charming toy. Then he cut off its limbs and scooped out the marrow of the mountain-tortoise with a scoop of grey iron. Like a swift thought that darts through the heart of a man when many worries haunt him, or like bright glances that flash from the eye, so glorious Hermes planned both thought and deed at once. He cut stalks of reed to measure and fixed them, fastening their ends across the back and through the shell of the tortoise, and then stretched ox hide all over it by his skill. Also he put in the horns and fitted a cross-piece upon the two of them, and stretched seven strings of sheep-gut. But when he had made it, he tested each string in turn with the key, as he held the lovely thing. At the touch of his hand it sounded marvelously; and, as he tried it, the god sang sweet random snatches [of songs], like how youths exchange taunts at festivals. He sang of Zeus the son of Cronus, and of neat-footed Maia, and the conversation which they had before when they were together in love, telling all the glorious tale of his own conceiving. He celebrated, too, the handmaids of the nymph, and her bright home, and the tripods all about the house, and the abundant cauldrons.

[62] But while he was singing of all these things, his heart was bent on other matters. And he took the hollow lyre and laid it in his sacred cradle, and sprang from the sweet-smelling hall to a watch-place, pondering sheer trickery in his heart — deeds like those that dishonourable people pursue in the dark night-time; for he longed to taste meat.

[68] The Sun was going down beneath the earth towards Ocean with his horses and chariot when Hermes came hurrying to the shadowy mountains of Pieria, where the divine cattle of the blessed gods had their steads and grazed the pleasant, unmown meadows. Of these the Son of Maia, the sharp-eyed Slayer of Argus then cut off from the herd fifty loud-lowing cattle, and drove them straggling-wise across a sandy place, turning their hoof-prints aside. Also, he thought of a crafty ruse and reversed the marks of their hoofs, making the front behind and the hind before, while he himself walked the other way. Then he wove sandals with wicker-work by the sand of the sea, wonderful things, unthought of, unimagined; for he mixed together tamarisk and myrtle-twigs, fastening together an armful of their fresh, young wood, and tied them, leaves and all securely under his feet as light sandals. The glorious Slayer of Argus plucked the brushwood in Pieria, as he was preparing for his journey, making his clever device like one making haste for a long journey.

[87] But an old man tilling his flowering vineyard saw him as he was hurrying down the plain through grassy Onchestus. So the Son of Maia began and said to him, “Old man, digging about your vines with bowed shoulders, surely you shall have much wine when all these bear fruit, if you obey me and strictly remember not to have seen what you have seen, and not to have heard what you have heard, and to keep silent when nothing of your own is harmed.”

[94] When he had said this much, he hurried the strong cattle on together: through many shadowy mountains and echoing gorges and flowery plains glorious Hermes drove them. And now the divine night, his dark ally, was mostly passed, and dawn that sets folk to work was quickly coming on, while bright Selene, daughter of the lord Pallas, Megamedes’ son, had just climbed her watch-post, when the strong Son of Zeus drove the wide-browed cattle of Phoebus Apollo to the river Alpheus. And they came unwearied to the high-roofed sheds and the drinking-troughs that were by the noble meadow. Then, after he had well-fed the loud-bellowing cattle with fodder and driven them into the cowshed, close-packed and chewing lotus, he began to seek the art of fire. He chose a stout laurel branch and trimmed it with the knife ((lacuna))[3] . . .held firmly in his hand: and the hot smoke rose up. For it was Hermes who first invented fire-sticks and fire. Next he took many dried sticks and piled them thick and plenty in a sunken trench: and flame began to glow, spreading afar the blast of fierce-burning fire.

[115] And while the strength of glorious Hephaestus was beginning to kindle the fire, he dragged out two lowing, horned cows close to the fire; for great strength was with him. He threw them both panting upon their backs on the ground, and rolled them on their sides, bending their necks over, and pierced their vital chord. Then he went on from task to task: first he cut up the rich, fatty meat, and pierced it with wooden spits, and roasted flesh and the honourable backbone and the abdomen full of dark blood all together. He laid them there upon the ground, and spread out the hides on a rugged rock: and so they are still there many ages afterwards, a long, long time after all this, and are continually. Next, glad-hearted Hermes dragged the rich meats he had prepared and put them on a smooth, flat stone, and divided them into twelve portions distributed by lot, making each portion wholly honourable. Then glorious Hermes longed for the sacrificial meat, for the sweet flavour wearied him, god though he was; nevertheless his proud heart did not give in to devouring the flesh, although he greatly desired to. But he put away the fat and all the flesh in the high-roofed cowshed, placing them high up to be a token of his youthful theft. And after that he gathered dry sticks and utterly destroyed with fire all the hoofs and all the heads.

[138] And when the god had duly finished all, he threw his sandals into deep-eddying Alpheus, and quenched the embers, covering the black ashes with sand, and so spent the night while Selene‘s soft light shone down. Then the god went straight back again at dawn to the bright crests of Cyllene, and no one met him on the long journey either of the blessed gods or mortal men, nor did any dog bark. And luck-bringing Hermes, the son of Zeus, passed edgeways through the key-hole of the hall like the autumn breeze, even as mist: straight through the cave he went and came to the rich inner chamber, walking softly, and making no noise as one might upon the floor. Then glorious Hermes went hurriedly to his cradle, wrapping his swaddling clothes about his shoulders as though he were a weak baby, and lay playing with the covering about his knees; but at his left hand he kept close his sweet lyre.

[155] But the god did not pass unseen by the goddess his mother; but she said to him, “How now, you rogue! Where did you come from back so at night-time, you who wears shamelessness as a garment? And now I surely believe the son of Leto will soon have you thrown out of doors with unbreakable cords about your ribs, or you will live a rogue’s life in the narrow valleys robbing with your wits alone. Go to, then; your father got you to be a great worry to mortal men and deathless gods.”

[162] 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 baby 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, the only ones of all the gods not fed with offerings and prayers. Better to live in fellowship with the deathless gods continually, rich, wealthy, and enjoying stories of grain, than to sit always in a gloomy cave: and, as regards honour, I too will enter upon the rite that Apollo has. If my father will not give it to 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. For I will go to Pytho to break into his great house, and will plunder therefrom splendid tripods, and cauldrons, and gold, and plenty of bright iron, and much apparel; and you will see it if you want.”

[182] With such words they spoke together, the son of Zeus who holds the aegis, and the lady Maia. Now Eos the early-born was rising from deep-flowing Ocean, bringing light to men, when Apollo, as he went, came to Onchestus, the lovely grove and sacred place of the loud-roaring Holder of the Earth [ Poseidon ]. There he found an old man grazing his beast along the pathway from his court-yard fence, and the all-glorious Son of Leto began and said to him, “Old man, weeder of grassy Onchestus, I am come here from Pieria seeking cattle, cows all of them, all with curving horns, from my herd. The black bull was grazing alone away from the rest, but fierce-eyed hounds followed the cows, four of them, all of one mind, like men. These were left behind, the dogs and the bull — which is great wonder; but the cows strayed out of the soft meadow, away from the pasture when the sun was just going down. Now tell me this, old man born long ago: have you seen anyone going by behind those cows?”

[201] Then the old man answered him and said, “My son, it is hard to tell all that one’s eyes see; for many wayfarers pass back and forth this way, some bent on much evil, and some on good: it is difficult to know each one. However, I was digging about my plot of vineyard all day long until the sun went down, and I thought, good sir, but I do not know for certain, that I marked a child, whoever the child was, that followed long-horned cattle — an infant who had a staff and kept walking from side to side: he was driving them backwards way, with their heads toward him.”

[212] So said the old man. And when Apollo heard this report, he went yet more quickly on his way, and presently, seeing a long-winged bird, he knew at once by that omen that thief was the child of Zeus the son of Cronus. So the lord Apollo, son of Zeus, hurried on to goodly Pylos seeking his shambling oxen, and he had his broad shoulders covered with a dark cloud. But when the Far-Shooter saw the tracks, he cried, “Oh, oh! Truly this is a great wonder that my eyes behold! These are indeed the tracks of straight-horned oxen, but they are turned backwards towards the flowery meadow. But these others are not the footprints of man or woman or grey wolves or bears or lions, nor do I think they are the tracks of a rough-maned Centaur — whoever it is that with swift feet makes such monstrous footprints; wonderful are the tracks on this side of the way, but yet more wonderfully are those on that.”

[227] When he had so said, the lord Apollo, the Son of Zeus hurried on and came to the forest-clad mountain of Cyllene and the deep-shadowed cave in the rock where the divine nymph brought forth the child of Zeus who is the son of Cronus. A sweet odour spread over the lovely hill, and many thin-shanked sheep were grazing on the grass. Then far-shooting Apollo himself stepped down in haste over the stone threshold into the dusky cave.

[235] Now when the Son of Zeus and Maia saw Apollo in a rage about his cattle, he snuggled down in his fragrant swaddling-clothes; and as wood-ash covers over the deep embers of tree-stumps, so Hermes cuddled himself up when he saw the Far-Shooter. He squeezed head and hands and feet together in a small space, like a new born child seeking sweet sleep, though in truth he was wide awake, and he kept his lyre under his armpit. But the Son of Leto was aware and did not fail to perceive the beautiful mountain-nymph and her dear son, albeit a little child and swathed so craftily. He looked in every corner of the great dwelling and, taking a bright key, he opened three closets full of nectar and lovely ambrosia. And much gold and silver was stored in them, and many garments of the nymph, some purple and some silvery white, such as are kept in the sacred houses of the blessed gods.

[252] Then, after the Son of Leto had searched out the recesses of the great house, he spoke to glorious Hermes, “Child, lying in the cradle, make haste and tell me of my cattle, or we two will soon fall out angrily. For I will take and cast you into dusty Tartarus and awful hopeless darkness, and neither your mother nor your father shall free you or bring you up again to the light, but you will wander under the earth and be the leader amongst little folk.”

[260] Then Hermes answered him with crafty words, “Son of Leto, what harsh words are these you have spoken? And is it cattle of the field you have come here to seek? I have not seen them. I have not heard of them. No one has told me of them. I cannot give news of them, nor win the reward for news. Am I like a cattle-lifter, a strong person? This is no task for me: rather I care for other things: I care for sleep, and milk of my mother’s breast, and wrappings round my shoulders, and warm baths. Let no one hear the cause of this dispute; for this would be a great wonder indeed among the deathless gods, that a child newly born should pass in through the forepart of the house with cattle of the field: by saying so you speak extravagantly. I was born yesterday, and my feet are soft and the ground beneath is rough; nevertheless, if you will have it so, I will swear a great oath by my father’s head and vow that neither am I guilty myself, neither have I seen any other who stole your cows — whatever cows may be; for I know them only by hearsay.”

[278] So, then, said Hermes, shooting quick glances from his eyes: and he kept raising his brows and looking this way and that, whistling long and listening to Apollo‘s story as to an idle tale. But far-working Apollo laughed softly and said to him, “O rogue, deceiver, crafty in heart, you talk so innocently that I most surely believe that you have broken into many a well- built house and stripped more than one poor wretch bare this night, gathering his goods together all over the house without noise. You will plague many lonely herdsmen in mountain glades, when you come upon herds and thick-fleeced sheep, and have a hankering after flesh. But come now, if you would not sleep your last and latest sleep, get out of your cradle, you comrade of dark night. Surely hereafter this shall be your title amongst the deathless gods, to be called the prince of robbers continually.”

[293] So said Phoebus Apollo, and took the child and began to carry him. But at that moment the strong Slayer of Argus executed his plan: while Apollo held him in his hands, he sent forth an omen, a hard-working serf, a common messenger [this is referring to a fart], and then sneezed immediately after. And when Apollo heard it, he dropped glorious Hermes out of his hands on the ground. Then, sitting down before him, though he was eager to go on his way, he spoke mockingly to Hermes, “Fear not, little swaddling baby, son of Zeus and Maia. I shall find the strong cattle presently by these omens, and you shall lead the way.”

[304] When Apollo had said this, Cyllenian Hermes sprang up quickly, jumping hastily. With both hands he pushed the covering that he had wrapped around his shoulders up to his ears and said, “Where are you carrying me, Far-Worker, hastiest of all the gods? Is it because of your cattle that you are so angry and harass me? O dear, I wish that all the oxen in the world would die; for it is not I who stole your cows, nor did I see another person steal them — whatever cows are, since I have only ever heard stories about them. No, go on and take it up with Zeus, the Son of Cronus.”

[313] So Hermes the shepherd and Leto‘s glorious son kept stubbornly disputing each part of their argument: Apollo, speaking truly ((lacuna)) . . . unfairly sought to seize glorious Hermes because of the cows; but he, the Cyllenian, tried to deceive the God of the Silver Bow [Apollo] with tricks and cunning words. Even though he [Hermes] had many tricks, he found that the other [ Apollo ] had as many cunning devices, and he began to walk across the sand, himself in front, while the Son of Zeus and Leto came behind. Soon these lovely children of Zeus came to the top of fragrant Olympus, to their father, the Son of Cronus; for the scales of judgement were set up there for both of them. There was an assembly on snowy Olympus, and the immortals who do not die were gathering in the hour after the rising of gold-throned Dawn.

[327] Then Hermes and Apollo of the Silver Bow stood at the knees of Zeus: and Zeus who thunders on high spoke to his glorious son and asked him, “Phoebus, where do you come from, driving this great spoil, a newborn child that has the look of a herald? This is a heavy matter that has come before the council of the gods.”

[333] Then the lord, far-working Apollo, answered him, “O my father, you shall soon hear no innocent tale, though you reproach me that I alone am fond of robbery. Here is a child, a burgling robber, whom I found after a long journey in the hills of Cyllene: for my part I have never seen one so cheeky either among the gods or all men that catch folk unawares throughout the world. He stole away my cows from their meadow and drove them off in the evening along the shore of the loud-roaring sea, making straight for Pylos. There were double tracks, and wonderful they were, such as one might marvel at, the doing of a clever sprite; for as for the cows, the dark dust kept and showed their footprints leading towards the flowery meadow; but he himself — bewildering creature — crossed the sandy ground outside the path, not on his feet nor yet on his hands; but, furnished with some other means he trudged his way — wonder of wonders! — as though one walked on slender oak-trees. Now while he followed the cattle across sandy ground, all the tracks showed quite clearly in the dust; but when he had finished the long way across the sand, presently the cows’ track and his own could not be traced over the hard ground. But a mortal man noticed him as he drove the wide-browed cattle straight towards Pylos. And as soon as he had shut them up quietly, and had gone home by crafty turns and twists, he lay down in his cradle in the gloom of a dim cave, as still as dark night, so that not even an eagle keenly gazing would have spied him. Much he rubbed his eyes with his hands as he prepared his lie, and he immediately said emphatically: “I have not seen them: I have not heard of them: no man has told me of them. I could not tell you of them, nor win the reward of telling.'”

[365] When he had so spoken, Phoebus Apollo sat down. But Hermes on his part answered and said, pointing at the Son of Cronus, the lord of all the gods, “Zeus, my father, indeed I will speak truth to you; for I am truthful and I cannot tell a lie. He came to our house today looking for his shambling cows, as the sun was newly rising. He brought no witnesses with him nor any of the blessed gods who had seen the theft, but with great violence ordered me to confess, threatening much to throw me into wide Tartarus. For he has the rich bloom of glorious youth, while I was born but yesterday — as he too knows — nor am I like a cattle-lifter, a sturdy fellow. Believe my tale (for you claim to be my own father), that I did not drive his cows to my house — so may I prosper — nor crossed the threshold: this I say truly. I reverence Helios greatly and the other gods, and you I love and him I dread. You yourself know that I am not guilty: and I will swear a great oath upon it: — No! by these rich-decked porticoes of the gods. And some day I will punish him, strong as he is, for this pitiless inquisition; but now do you help the younger.”

[387] So spoke the Cyllenian, the Slayer of Argus, while he kept shooting sidelong glances and kept his swaddling-clothes upon his arm, and did not cast them away. But Zeus laughed out loud to see his evil-plotting child well and cunningly denying guilt about the cattle. And he asked them both to be of one mind and search for the cattle, and asked guiding Hermes to lead the way and, without mischievousness of heart, to show the place where now he had hidden the strong cattle. Then the Son of Cronus bowed his head: and goodly Hermes obeyed him; for the will of Zeus who holds the aegis easily prevailed with him.

[397] Then the two all-glorious children of Zeus hastened both to sandy Pylos, and reached the ford of Alpheus, and came to the fields and the high-roofed cowshed where the beasts were protected at night-time. Now while Hermes went to the cave in the rock and began to drive out the strong cattle, the son of Leto, looking aside, saw the cowhides on the sheer rock. And he asked glorious Hermes at once, “How were you able, you crafty rogue, to flay two cows, new-born and babyish as you are? For my part, I dread the strength that will be yours: there is no need you should keep growing long, Cyllenian, son of Maia!”

[409] So saying, Apollo twisted strong osier branches with his hands meaning to bind Hermes with firm bands; but the bands would not hold him, and the branches of osier fell far from him and began to grow at once from the ground beneath their feet in that very place. And intertwining with one another, they quickly grew and covered all the wild-roving cattle by the will of thievish Hermes, so that Apollo was astonished as he watched.

[414] Then the strong slayer of Argus looked furtively upon the ground with eyes flashing fire ((lacuna)) . . . desiring to hide ((lacuna)) . . . Very easily he softened the son of all-glorious Leto as he wanted, stern though the Far-shooter was. He took the lyre upon his left arm and tried each string in turn with the key, so that it sounded awesomely at his touch. And Phoebus Apollo laughed for joy; for the sweet throb of the marvelous music went to his heart, and a soft longing took hold on his soul as he listened. Then the son of Maia, harping sweetly upon his lyre, took courage and stood at the left hand of Phoebus Apollo; and soon, while he played shrilly on his lyre, he lifted up his voice and sang, and lovely was the sound of his voice that followed. He sang the story of the deathless gods and of the dark earth, how at the first they came to be, and how each one received his portion. First among the gods he honoured Mnemosyne, mother of the Muses, in his song; for the son of Maia was of her following. And next the goodly son of Zeus hymned the rest of the immortals according to their order in age, and told how each was born, mentioning all in order as he struck the lyre upon his arm.

[433] But Apollo was seized with a longing not to be appeased, and he opened his mouth and spoke winged words to Hermes, “Slayer of oxen, trickster, busy one, comrade of the feast, this song of yours is worth fifty cows, and I believe that soon we shall settle our quarrel peacefully. But come now, tell me this, resourceful son of Maia: has this marvelous thing been with you from your birth, or did some god or mortal man give it to you — a noble gift — and teach you heavenly song? For wonderful is this new-uttered sound I hear, the like of which I vow that no man nor god dwelling on Olympus ever yet has known but you, O thievish son of Maia. What skill is this? What song for desperate cares? What way of song? For truly here are three things to hand all at once from which to choose, — mirth, and love, and sweet sleep. And though I am a follower of the Olympian Muses who love dances and the bright path of song — the full-toned chant and ravishing thrill of flutes — yet I never cared for any of those feats of skill at young men’s revels, as I do now for this: I am filled with wonder, O son of Zeus, at your sweet playing. But now, since you, though little, have such glorious skill, sit down, dear boy, and respect the words of your elders. For now you shall have renown among the deathless gods, you and your mother also. This I will declare to you exactly: by this shaft of cornel wood [the caduceus] I will surely make you a leader renowned among the deathless gods, and fortunate, and will give you glorious gifts and will not deceive you from first to last.”

[463] Then Hermes answered him with artful words, “You question me carefully, O Far-worker; yet I am not jealous that you should enter upon my art: this day you shall know it. For I seek to be friendly with you both in thought and word. Now you well know all things in your heart, since you sit foremost among the deathless gods, O son of Zeus, and are goodly and strong. And wise Zeus loves you as all right is, and has given you splendid gifts. And they say that from the teachings of Zeus you have learned both the honours due to the gods, O Far-worker, and oracles from Zeus, even all his ordinances. Of all these I myself have already learned that you have great wealth. Now, you are free to learn whatever you please; but since, as it seems, your heart is so strongly set on playing the lyre, chant, and play upon it, and give yourself to merriment, taking this as a gift from me, and do you, my friend, bestow glory on me. Sing well with this clear-voiced companion in your hands; for you are skilled in good, well-ordered words. From now on bring it confidently to rich feasts and lovely dances and glorious revels, a joy by night and by day. Whoever with wit and wisdom asks of it cunningly, [the lyre] it teaches through its sound all manner of things that delight the mind, being easily played with gentle familiarities, for it hates laborious drudgery; but whoever in ignorance asks of it violently, to him it chatters only vanity and foolishness. But you are able to learn whatever you please. So then, I will give you this lyre, glorious son of Zeus, while I for my part will graze down with wild-roving cattle the pastures on hill and horse-feeding plain: so the cows covered by the bulls will produce many calves, both males and females. And now there is no need for you, bargainer though you are, to be furiously angry.”

[496] When Hermes had said this, he held out the lyre: and Phoebus Apollo took it, and readily put his shining whip in Hermes’ hand, and ordained him keeper of herds. The son of Maia received it joyfully, while the glorious son of Leto, the lord far-working Apollo, took the lyre upon his left arm and tried each string with the key. Awesomely it sounded at the touch of the god, while he sang sweetly to its note.

[503] Afterwards they two, the all-glorious sons of Zeus turned the cows back towards the sacred meadow, but themselves rushed back to snowy Olympus, delighting in the lyre. Then wise Zeus was glad and made them both friends. And Hermes loved the son of Leto continually, even as he does now, when he had given the lyre as token to the Far-shooter, who played it skilfully, holding it upon his arm. But for himself Hermes found out another cunning art and made himself the pipes whose sound is heard afar.

[513] Then the son of Leto said to Hermes, “Son of Maia, guide and cunning one, I fear you may steal from me the lyre and my curved bow together; for you have an office from Zeus, to establish deeds of barter amongst men throughout the fruitful earth. Now if you would only swear me the great oath of the gods, either by nodding your head, or by the potent water of Styx, you would do all that can please and ease my heart.”

[521] Then Maia‘s son nodded his head and promised that he would never steal anything of all the Far-shooter possessed, and would never go near his strong house; but Apollo, son of Leto, swore to be fellow and friend to Hermes, vowing that he would love no other among the immortals, neither god nor man sprung from Zeus, better than Hermes: and the Father sent forth an eagle in confirmation. And Apollo swore also, “Truly I will make you only to be an omen for the immortals and all alike, trusted and honoured by my heart. Furthermore, I will give you a splendid staff of riches and wealth: it is of gold, with three branches, and will keep you scatheless, accomplishing every task, whether of words or deeds that are good, which I claim to know through the teachings of Zeus. But as for sooth-saying, noble, heaven-born child, of which you ask, it is not lawful for you to learn it, nor for any other of the deathless gods: only the mind of Zeus knows that. I am pledged and have vowed and sworn a strong oath that no other of the eternal gods save I should know the wise-hearted counsel of Zeus. And do not, my brother, bearer of the golden wand, ask me to tell you those decrees which all-seeing Zeus intends. As for men, I will harm one and profit another, sorely perplexing the tribes of unenviable men. Whoever comes guided by the call and flight of birds of sure omen, that man shall have advantage through my voice, and I will not deceive him. But whoever trusts idly-chattering birds and seeks to invoke my prophetic art against my will, and to understand more than the eternal gods, I declare that he shall come on a futile journey; yet his gifts I would take.

[550] “But I will tell you another thing, Son of all-glorious Maia and Zeus who holds the aegis, luck-bringing genius of the gods. There are certain holy ones, sisters born — three virgins gifted with wings: their heads are besprinkled with white meal, and they dwell under a ridge of Parnassus. These are teachers of divination apart from me, the art which I practiced while still a boy following herds, though my father paid no attention to it. From their home they fly now here, now there, feeding on honey-comb and bringing all things to pass. And when they are inspired through eating yellow honey, they are willing to speak truth; but if they are deprived of the gods’ sweet food, then they speak falsely, as they swarm in and out together. These, then, I give you; enquire of them strictly and delight your heart: and if you should teach any mortal to do so, often will he hear your response — if he has good fortune. Take these, Son of Maia, and tend the wild roving, horned oxen and horses and patient mules.”

[568] So he spoke. And from heaven father Zeus himself gave confirmation to his words, and commanded that glorious Hermes should be lord over all birds of omen and grim-eyed lions, and boars with gleaming tusks, 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 gifts, will give him no small prize.

[574] Thus the lord Apollo showed his kindness for the Son of Maia by all manner of friendship: and the Son of Cronus gave him grace besides. He consorts with all mortals and immortals: a little he profits, but continually throughout the dark night he tricks the tribes of mortal men.

[579] And so, farewell, Son of Zeus and Maia; but I will remember you and another song also.


Taken from:



Hermes Argeiphontes

[content warning for the following section: sexual violence]

Zeus often employed Hermes not only in sending messages but in performing tasks that Zeus was not able to do himself. One such instance was with Io, a mortal woman and priestess of Hera, whom Zeus lusted after. Zeus sent Io dreams commanding her to join him in the fields where her father kept his herds and flocks. She resisted these dreams, but eventually was compelled to come to the meadow. When she realized what Zeus wanted from her, she ran away. Zeus pursued and raped her. Hera, eager to catch her husband in the act of cheating, and came down from Olympus to confront him. Zeus quickly changed Io into a cow to hide his promiscuity from his wife. Hera, who knew that the cow was really Io, asked him to give her the beautiful cow as a present. He had to acquiesce in order to not give away his deception. Hera placed Io in a grove, guarded by Argus Panoptes (Argus “all-eyes”), a hundred-eyed monster.

Zeus sent the Hermes to get Io, but not even the trickster could steal her away, since Argus was able to make his eyes sleep in shifts and constantly be on guard. Hermes decided to disguise himself as a goatherd. He sat down by Argus and gently played his panpipes until all of Argus’ eyes had closed in sleep. Then, Hermes took up his sword and cut off the head of the monster, earning his name Argeiphontes, “Slayer of Argus.”

For more on the myth of Hera, Io, and Zeus, see chapter 6.


Hermes had many children by many different goddesses and mortal women. One of his offspring was Hermaphroditus, born from his sexual union with Aphrodite.


Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book 4 (trans. A. S. Kline, adapted by P. Rogak)

Latin narrative poem, 1st century CE

[content warning for the following source: sexual assault (346-388), femme- and intersex-phobic language]
The story of Hermaphroditus, here told by Ovid as part of his Metamorphoses, is the etiological myth for the origin of intersex people.

[274-316] “Now you will hear where the pool of Salmacis got its bad reputation from, how its strength-draining waters weaken people, and soften the limbs they touch. The reason for it is hidden, but the fountain’s effect is widely known. The Naiads nursed a child born of Hermes, and a goddess, Cytherean Aphrodite, in Mount Ida’s caves. His features were such that, in them, both mother and father could be seen: and from them he took his name, Hermaphroditus.

When Hermes was fifteen years old, he left his native mountains and Ida, his nursery. He delighted in wandering in unknown lands, and gazing at unknown rivers, his enthusiasm making it easy to travel. He even reached the Lycian cities, and the Carians by Lycia. Here he saw a pool of water, clear to its very depths. There were no marsh reeds around it, no sterile sedge, no spikes of rushes: it is crystal liquid. The edges of the pool are bordered by fresh turf, and the grass is always green. A nymph lives there, but she is not skilled at the chase, or used to flexing the bow, or the effort of running, the only Naiad not known by swift-footed Diana.

“Often, it’s said, her sisters would tell her ‘Salmacis, take up the hunting-spear or the painted quiver and vary your idleness with some hard work, hunting!’ But she takes up neither the hunting spear nor the painted quiver, and will not vary her idleness with the hardship of hunting. She only bathes her shapely limbs in the pool, often combs out her hair, with a comb that is made of boxwood from Cytorus, and looks in the water to see what suits it best. Then draped in a translucent robe, she lies down on the soft leaves, or in the soft grass. Often she gathers flowers. And she was also busy gathering them, then, when she saw the boy, and what she saw she longed to have.

[317-345] “She did not go near him yet, though she was quick to go to him, waiting until she had calmed herself, checked her appearance, composed her expression, and merited being seen as beautiful. Then she began to say ‘Youth, O most worthy to be thought a god, if you are a god, you must be Cupid, or, if you are mortal, whoever engendered you is blessed, and any brother of yours is happy, any sister fortunate, if you have sisters, and even the nurse who suckled you at her breast. But far beyond them, and far more blessed is she, if there is a she, promised to you, whom you think worthy of marriage. If there is someone, let mine be a stolen pleasure, if not, I will be the one, and let us enter into marriage together.’

“After this the naiad was silent. A red flush branded the boy’s face. He did not know what love was, though the blush was very becoming. Apples are tinged with this colour, hanging in a sunlit tree, or ivory painted with red, or the moon, eclipsed, blushing in her brightness, while the bronze shields clash, in vain, to rescue her. The nymph begged endlessly for at least a sisterly kiss, and, about to throw her arms round his ivory-white neck, he said ‘Stop this, or shall I go, and leave this place, and you?’ Salmacis, afraid, turning away, pretended to go, saying, ‘I freely surrender this place to you, be my guest.’ But she still looked back, and hid herself among bushes in the secluded woods, on her bended knees. But he, obviously at leisure, as if unobserved, walks here and there on the grass and playfully, at the end of his walk, dips his feet and ankles in the pool. Then, quickly captured by the coolness of the enticing water, he stripped the soft clothes from his slender body.

[346-388] “Then she [ Salmacis ] was truly pleased. And Salmacis was inflamed with desire for his naked form. The nymph’s eyes blazed with passion, as when Phoebus’s likeness is reflected from a mirror that faces his brightest unclouded orb [the sun]. She can scarcely wait, scarcely contain her delight, now longing to hold him, now unable to keep her love to herself. He, clapping his open palms to his side, dives into the pool, and leading with one arm and then the other, he gleams through the pure water, as if one sheathed an ivory statue or bright lilies behind clear glass. ‘I have won, he is mine’, the naiad cries, and flinging aside all her garments, she throws herself into the midst of the water.

“She held him to her, struggling, snatching kisses from the fight, putting her hands beneath him, touching his unwilling breast, overwhelming the youth from this side and that. At last, she entwines herself face to face with his beauty, like a snake, lifted by the king of birds and caught up into the air, as Hermaphroditus tries to slip away. Hanging there she winds around his head and feet and entangles his spreading wings in her coils. Or as ivy often interlaces tall tree trunks. Or as the cuttlefish holds the prey that it has surprised, underwater, wrapping its tentacles everywhere.

“[ Hermaphroditus ] the descendant of Atlas holds out, denying the nymph’s wished-for pleasure: she hugs him, and clings, as though she is joined to his whole body. ‘It is right to struggle, stubborn one,’ she says, ‘but you will still not escape. Grant this, you gods, that no day comes to part me from him, or him from me.’ Her prayer reached the gods. Now the entwined bodies of the two were joined together, and one form covered both. Just as when someone grafts a twig into the bark, they see both grow joined together, and develop as one, so when they were mated together in a close embrace, they were not two, but a two-fold form, so that they could not be called male or female, and seemed neither or either.

“When he saw now that the clear waters which he had penetrated as a man, had made him a creature of both sexes, and his limbs had been softened there, Hermaphroditus, stretching out his hands, said, but not in a man’s voice, ‘Father and mother, grant this gift to your son, who bears both your names: whoever comes to these fountains as a man, let him leave them half a man, and weaken suddenly at the touch of these waters!’ Both his parents moved by this, granted the prayer of their twin-formed son, and contaminated the pool with a damaging drug.”


Taken from:

Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2000 All Rights Reserved.


Art and Symbolism

Zeus, with a scepter and thunderbolt, dispatches his messengers. To Zeus' left is Hermes, a bearded man in a cloak, while to the right is Iris, a winged woman.
Hermes, Zeus, and Iris, tracing from red-figure stamnos from ca. 480 BCE.

In Greek art, Hermes could be represented either as a bearded man or a beardless youth. His most recognizable attributes were the large-brim hat (petasos), the herald sceptre (kerykeion), and the winged sandals (talaria).


Side 1: The head of Hemes wearing a winged petasos. Side 2: a winged boot and scepter.
Hermes and a winged boot, Apulian coin, 2nd century BCE (Classical Numismatic Group)
Profile of a man wearing a rounded, wide-brimmed petasos hat.
Man in a petasos, Macedonian coin, ca. 400 BCE (Classical Numismatic Group)

The god could also be portrayed wearing a short cloak usually donned by travelers, or more conventional clothes.


Hermes, a bearded man, grabs the arm of a young woman.
Hermes pursuing a woman, red-figure lekythos, ca. 470 BCE (National Archaeology Museum, Madrid)
Hermes running, wearing a winged helm and a chlamys, and carrying a lyre. A satyr runs beside him. At their feet is a spotted deer.
Hermes with a satyr, red-figure amphora, ca. 490 BCE (Altes Museum, Berlin)















One of the god’s epithets, psychopompos (‘conductor of souls’) was also part of his artistic representations, as Hermes was often shown on funerary stelae and vessels while escorting the deceased to the Underworld. Similarly, as another one of his epithets was kriophoros (‘bearer of rams’), he could also be portrayed carrying a ram on his shoulders.


Hermes, young and nude, wearing a chlamys and winged shoes, leads a young woman by the hand. To the left stand two older male relatives.
Hermes Psychopomp leading a woman to Hades, relief funerary lekythos, ca. 420 BCE (National Archaeological Museum, Athens)
Hermes running, carrying a ram over his shoulders.
Hermes Kriophoros, black-figure olpe, ca. 510 BCE (Louvre Museum, Paris)
















Fragmentary image of bearded Hermes with a scepter and chlamys.
Hermes Psychopomp, white-ground lekythos, ca. 450 BCE (Staatliche Antikensammlungen, Munich)

Hermes usually appeared in depictions of the myth of Io and Argus, as he was the one who put the monstrous guardian to sleep — and then slayed him.


Argus, naked but with eyes all over his body, is fallen to one knee. Hermes stands above him, grabbing him by the beard in one hand and lunging with a sword in the other. Zeus sits by and watches, and the cow Io stands behind the scene.
Hermes kills Argus, with Zeus and the cow Io, tracing from red-figure vase from the 5th century BCE.
The cow Io stands by a tree. Hermes sneaks towards her. A dog stands between them, looking up at Hermes.
Hermes and the cow Io, black-figure amphora, ca. 540 BCE (Staatliche Antikensammlungen, Munich)

He could also be represented while escorting Athena, Aphrodite, and Hera in the scene of the judgement of Paris.


Hermes stands between Athena, Hera, and Aphrodite.
Hermes at the judgment of Paris with Athena, Hera, and Aphrodite, black-figure hydria, ca. 520 BCE (Louvre Museum, Paris)
Hermes stands before Paris. Hermes leans against a tree with one arm, and with the other points his scepter at Paris, who is seated holding a spear.
Hermes at the judgment of Paris, red-figure krater, ca. 380 BCE (Cabinet des Médailles, Paris)

Hermai or herms, quadrangular pillars set up at crossroads, were sacred to the god as protector of travels and boundaries, and were most often surmounted by a head of the bearded variety. An erect phallus, thought to ward off bad luck and favour fertility, was also added to the front of these pillars.


An altar before a herm. to the left of the altar, a man makes offerings of a cup and basket. To the right stands another man with a staff.
Two men making offerings on an altar before a herm, red-figure krater, ca. 480 BCE (J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles)
A Herm: a rectangular block of marble with the head of Hermes atop it. On the centre of the block is an erect penis.
Herm of Hermes, Sifnos, ca. 520 BCE (National Archaeological Museum, Athens)
A tall rectangular prism with the bearded head of Hermes atop it.
Herm of Hermes, 1st century CE Roman copy of Greek original (Getty Villa, Los Angeles)























Head and torso of Mercury. He wears a winged hat and carries a sceptre with two snakes on the end of it.
Mercury, Sabratha fresco (Sabratha Museum)

In Roman art, Mercury was represented as the youthful version of his Greek counterpart Hermes. The most common iconography remained that of a young, beardless man wearing the hat and winged sandals (and at times a winged hat) and carrying the sceptre.


Hera sits on a throne, with Iris standing beside her. In front of Hera is Hermes, a naked young man with a scepter. Hermes has one hand on a large wheel (partly out of frame), to which is strapped Ixion. Hephaestus stands behind Hemes. A young woman with her head veiled sits at Hermes' feet.
Hermes at the punishment of Ixion, Pompeii fresco, 1st century CE
Hermes as a young man. He is naked except for a chlamys cloak draped over his left shoulder, and a petasos hat. He holds a winged sceptre in his left hand.
Hermes Ingenui, marble statue, 2nd century copy of 5th century Greek statue (Vatican Museums, Vatican City)

An interesting artistic variation was that of Hermanubis, a fusion between Mercury/Hermes and the jackal-headed Egyptian god Anubis, who was also a god of the Underworld. This syncretic god maintained the youthful body and attributes of Mercury, but was represented with the head of a jackal.


Hermanubis, a person with the head of a jackal. He wears a tunic and chlamys, and carries a winged scepter twined with snakes.
Hermanubis, marble statue (Vatican Museums, Vatican City)
Hermanubis, a person with the head of a jackal, wearing a chlamys. The arms of the statue are missing.
Hermanubis, marble statue, 1st century CE (Museo Archeologico dei Campi Flegrei nel Castello di Baia, Naples)


Media Attributions and Footnotes

Media Attributions

  1. Lyres were typically made of tortoise shells, or of wood stylized to mimic a tortoise shell.
  2. Some writers considered tortoises to be protective talismans.
  3. Indicates a gap or missing segment in the text


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