Classical Mythology: The Little Rascal: Hermes

The Little Rascal: Hermes

The herald and messenger of the gods, Hermes was like a breath of fresh air on Mount Olympus. For Hermes, a friendly, likable young god, became the patron not only of travelers and merchants, but of thieves and rogues as well.

The son of Zeus and Maia (a daughter of the Titan Atlas), Hermes was born in a cave on Mount Cyllene in Arcadia in southern Greece. Nursed by the nymph Cyllene, the precocious young boy grew incredibly fast. Within hours of birth, he had wandered out of his cave, killed a tortoise, and stretched seven strings of sheep gut across it to build the first lyre. He then quickly taught himself how to play.

That same day, the baby Hermes slipped out of his mother's sight and went searching for adventure. When he found himself in the pastures of the gods, Hermes impulsively stole 50 cows from Apollo, then still the herdsman of the gods. Though he had been in the world less than a day, Hermes already had a cunning mind. He disguised his tracks by cobbling together “shoes” made of bark from a fallen oak tree. To make it even harder to track him, he confused the herd's trail by driving the cows backward and traversing sandy places that left no prints.

While driving the cattle, he came across an old man named Battus. Hermes bought the old man's silence, but the young god doubted whether he could trust the stranger. So he disguised himself and returned, offering a reward for any news of the stolen cattle. Battus quickly sold him out, telling him what he knew, so Hermes punished the old man by turning him to stone.

At the river Alpheus, Hermes stopped to sacrifice two of the cows. Once again he demonstrated his wiliness, burning the hooves and heads to leave no trace of his actions. After hiding the cows, Hermes returned home, slipped through the keyhole, again put on his swaddling clothes, and lay down to sleep. Despite his attempted deception, Hermes did not fool Maia. His mother warned him that the gods would be angry at his pranks.

Meanwhile, Apollo searched throughout the world, but could not find his cows. An omen led him to the cave where he found Hermes. The boy god feigned innocence, swearing by his father's head that he had not stolen the cows. He may have protested too much, however, when he claimed he didn't even know what a cow was.

Apollo, disbelieving the scamp, carried Hermes before Zeus and charged him with theft. Though he found his son's devilishness amusing, Zeus prompted Hermes to confess and lead Apollo to the herd. When Apollo spotted the two slaughtered cows, Hermes explained that he had divided the meat into 12 equal portions for the gods. Raising an eyebrow, Apollo asked who the twelfth god was. “Me, of course,” acknowledged the not-so-humble but lovable Hermes. Reportedly, this was the very first sacrifice of flesh to the gods.

While Apollo gathered his herd together, Hermes began playing on his new lyre. Enchanted by the music—and by the song that flattered Apollo for his cleverness, nobility, and generosity—the older god offered to exchange the entire herd of cattle for the younger god's lyre.

Hermes agreed, and immediately began building another musical instrument for his amusement: a reed-pipe. Equally charmed by this instrument, Apollo asked Hermes to name his terms for it. Hermes agreed to trade it for Apollo's golden staff—and with it, the honor of being the god of herdsmen and shepherds—as well as instruction from Apollo's old nurses in how to use pebbles to divine the future.

When Zeus called Hermes to Olympus to chide him for stealing and lying, Hermes promised he would never again lie if Zeus named him as his messenger and herald. Zeus quickly accepted this offer, and told his son that his duties would also include protecting travelers, promoting trade, and negotiating treaties.

What a Life!

Hermes was also credited with helping the Fates to invent the Greek alphabet. On his own, he reportedly invented the musical scale, astronomy, and the sports of boxing and gymnastics.

To ensure rapid delivery of his messages, Zeus presented Hermes with golden winged sandals as swift as the wind. He also gave the young god a round hat to protect him from rain and a herald's staff. Zeus's brother Hades soon asked Hermes to serve as his herald as well. As the herald of death, Hermes thereafter gently collected and guided the dead to the Underworld.

Hermes did not remain a boy forever. The god fathered several children. Among them were several who displayed at least one of his most defining characteristics:

As the herald of Zeus, Hermes kept his promise not to lie. (On the other hand, he didn't always tell the whole truth.) In gratitude, Zeus made Hermes his most constant companion. Whenever Zeus visited Earth, Hermes went with him.

Though usually in disguise, Hermes often visited Earth on his own, too. Despite his roguishness, Hermes truly enjoyed helping travelers. His acts of kindness did not go unnoticed by the mortals of Earth. Soon every traveler who became lost or suffered from some hardship called upon Hermes for help. And more often than not, the god swiftly arrived to deliver them.

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Classical Mythology © 2004 by Kevin Osborn and Dana L. Burgess, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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