Ancient history


In Greek mythology, Hermes (Ἑρμῆς / Hermễs, Greek name, Ἑρμᾶς / Hermãs in Dorian) is one of the deities of Olympus. He is the god of commerce, the guardian of roads and crossroads, travelers, thieves, the conductor of souls to the Underworld and the messenger of the gods.

It corresponds to the Mercury of the Romans



Son of Zeus and Maïa, and therefore grandson of Atlas, he was born one morning in a cave on Mount Cyllene in Arcadia. According to the Homeric Hymn dedicated to him, at noon he had already invented:

* the art of making fire using πυρεῖα / pureĩa (pieces of wood rubbed against each other);
* snowshoes, to erase one's tracks;
* the lyre, made from a turtle shell;
* the syrinx.

In the evening, in Pieria, he steals the herds of his half-brother Apollo. When Apollo discovers his thief, Hermes charms him by playing the lyre; Apollo gives him in exchange for the instrument his herd, a golden rod (the ῥάϐδος / rhábdos, future caduceus) and the gift of minor prophecy thanks to the ψῆφοι / psễphoi (pebbles used for divination); he also makes him master of the oracle of the Thries (bee-women).

According to Pausanias, he was raised by Acacus, son of Lycaon, who was also the founder of Acacesion in Arcadia, hence his epiclesis of "Acacesian".

Loves and descendants

He often appears as a young man “with his first beard, in the charm of this age” (the Odyssey, X, 278, trans. Jaccottet). He enjoys the company of the Charites and the Hours. Before the spectacle of Ares and Aphrodite taken prisoner by Hephaestus, he exclaims that he too would like to sleep in the arms of the goddess, even at the cost of three times as many chains.

Precisely with Aphrodite, Hermes engenders Hermaphrodite, a bisexual divinity, but also Eros in later traditions. He is, according to the authors, the father of rustic gods with unbridled sexuality such as Pan, his son by "the daughter of Dryops" (Homeric Hymn to Pan) or by the nymph Thymbris or Hybris (pseudo-Apollodorus), or by the nymph Penelope (the Dionysiacs), even by Penelope, wife of Ulysses (various post-Homeric accounts); like Pan or like the phallic god Priapus, sometimes also given for his son (Hygin, Fables), he is moreover often represented erect sex (he loves human beauty), and his loves are both feminine (nymphs) and masculine (Pollux, twin brother of Castor and archetype of the brave warrior, or the handsome Anthéos of Assessos for example). He is also willingly ranked among the suitors of Persephone and various songs of the Dionysiacs (notably VI) recognize him as wife Peithô, the goddess of Persuasion.

Hermes is also the father of famous mythological lovers, such as Abdera (lover of Heracles) or Daphnis (of Pan or Apollo).

Other children include:

* Autolych;
* Ceryx.


During the Trojan War, he sided with the Achaeans but hardly participated in the battle. He is content to be the messenger and interpreter (his name is related to the word ἑρμηνεύς / hermêneús, “interpreter”) of Zeus. Thus, he guides to Mount Ida Aphrodite, Athena and Hera who are competing for the golden apple, in order to submit them to the judgment of Paris. He escorts Priam, who has come to fetch the body of Hector, from the Greek camp; he (unsuccessfully) warns Aegisthus not to kill Agamemnon; he transmits to Calypso the order to free Odysseus. After the war, it was he who brought Helen to Egypt.

Similarly, it is he who, according to the pseudo-Apollodorus, having to remove Io at the request of Zeus, kills Argos with a hundred eyes, placed under surveillance by Hera, hence his epiclesis of "Argiphonte" (Ἀργειφόντης / Argeiphóntês, “killer of Argos”) - the interpretation of this epithet is however questionable:the legend of Argos is probably posterior to Homer, who already employs this epiclesis; another interpretation translates as "in white light, dazzling". Guide of heroes just like Athena, he leads Perseus in his quest for Medusa and guides Heracles in the Underworld.

He is the conductor of souls to Hades, hence his epithet of Πομπαῖος / Pompaĩos, then later "Psychopomp" (in Greek Ψυχοπομπός / Psukhopompós). At the end of the Odyssey, we see him leading the souls of the suitors in the Asphodel meadow.

Hermes Agoraios and the Charites, relief from the Agora of Thasos, c. 480 BC.
Hermes Agoraios and the Charites, relief from the Agora of Thasos, c. 480 BC. AD

It is above all the personification of ingenuity, of mixed race, or cunning intelligence and luck. It is therefore the god of trade, travelers and thieves, shepherds and their flocks, as well as orators or prostitutes. He is, among the Greek gods, the closest to men and the most benevolent towards them:he gives them writing, dancing, weights and measures, the flute and the lyre, the means of producing a spark when the fire went out. It was customary to place piles of stones in his honor at crossroads:each traveler added a stone to the building. Also called Hermai were stone markers, placed along the roads, which were surmounted by the head of the god and bore, in their center and in relief, his virile attributes (see the scandal of the mutilation of Hermes, Hermocopides, where was mingled Alcibiades). Any unforeseen encounter or accident on a road is called "gift of Hermes" (in Greek ἕρμαιον / hermaion which also means our stroke of luck).

He is also, with Heracles, the patron of the gymnasiums and palaestras where his bust is always present. He therefore protected sportsmen and was the founder of wrestling contests.
Hermes leading a goat to sacrifice, red-figure krater, c. 360-350 BC. AD, Louvre
Hermes Leading a Goat to Sacrifice, Red-Figure Krater, c. 360-350 BC. AD, Louvre Museum

The favorite offerings of Hermes, as god of speakers, are milk mixed with honey and animal tongues.

Although he is a very popular god, his public worship is little developed. Several regions of Greece, primarily Argolis, include in their calendar a month dedicated to it, Ἕρμαιος / Hermaios (mid-October to mid-November). It seems to have been associated with a feast of the dead. In a similar symbolism, a sacrifice is offered to him, still in Argos, on the thirtieth day following the funeral. In Athens, on the third day of the Anthesteria, an offering of seed gruel is dedicated to Hermes Chthonia.

He is celebrated under the name Kadmilos at the Sanctuary of the Great Gods of Samothrace as the companion of Axieros-Demeter, the Great Mother.

In later times and in Hellenized Egypt, he was to be confused with Thoth (Greek name - the Egyptian name was Djehuty), the god of hidden knowledge, and thus became the mythical author, under the name of Hermes three times the most grand, or trismegistos, or Hermes Trismegistus, of a veritable esoteric library which notably nourished the studies of the alchemists of the Middle Ages.

* His attributes:the petasus (round hat), the caduceus, the winged sandals (πέδιλα / pedila), the strigil (instrument used by gymnasts to scrape their bodies), the silver purse;
* His favorite animals:the ram;
* Epicleses:
o Acacesian (Ἀκακήσιος / Akakếsios),
o Argiphonte (Ἀργειφόντης / Argeiphóntês),
o Chthonian (Χθόνιος / Chthónios),
o Psychopomp (Ψυχοπομπός / Psukhopompós);
o “with the golden crook” (Χρυσόρραπις / Khrusórrapis);
* Sanctuaries:especially in Crete and Mount Cyllene; in Arcadia and Pharai.

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