The Greek God Hermes: Facts, Myths & Symbols

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  • 0:05 Who Was Hermes?
  • 1:07 Myths of Hermes
  • 3:09 Symbols
  • 4:05 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Patricia Chappine

Patricia has a master's degree in Holocaust and genocide studies and 27 graduate credits in American history. She will start coursework on her doctoral degree in history this fall. She has taught heritage of the western world I and II and U.S. history I and II at a community college in southern New Jersey for the past two years.

The Greek god Hermes was known as a trickster, a messenger, and even a thief. In this lesson, learn about the myths surrounding Hermes and become familiar with common symbols associated with this unique figure.

Who Was Hermes?

Hermes (called Mercury in Roman mythology) was considered the messenger of the Olympic gods. According to legend, he was the son of Zeus, king of Mount Olympus, and Maia, a nymph. As time went on, he was also associated with luck, shepherds, athletes, thieves, and merchants.

Often depicted as swift and youthful, Hermes was believed to be responsible for guiding departed souls to the underworld. The name 'Hermes' literally means 'boundary marker.' In fact, in ancient Athens, many boundary markers (usually just stone piles) were decorated by a bust of Hermes.

Hermes

Since he was identified with gymnastics, his image was usually located at the entrance to gymnasiums. This god was also the patron of invention, art, literature, trade, and travel. In many myths, he was a cunning trickster, who used his intellect to outsmart the other gods. Some myths state that he was the father of the half-goat, half-human Pan.

Myths of Hermes

One of the most enduring myths about Hermes as a trickster involved the theft of his older brother Apollo's cattle. According to legend, shortly after birth, Hermes secretly left his home and hid the cattle of Apollo (god of the sun). In order to ensure the cattle would not leave tracks, he made each one a set of four boots. Hermes then went back into his home without alerting his mother.

Of course, when questioned by Apollo, Hermes acted innocently. However, Apollo didn't believe the youth and proceeded to take him to Zeus. Instead of punishing Hermes, Zeus laughed at the whole affair. Recognizing what cunning and speed was needed to accomplish the cattle theft, he made Hermes the messenger of the gods.

According to the ancient historian Thucydides, stealing the cattle of a neighbor was a common practice among shepherds in communities that relied on livestock herding. Originally, stealing cattle was considered a means of survival and not a dishonorable venture. This also explains why Hermes was known as the patron god of shepherds and thieves.

Often, Hermes was presented as providing help to humans and demigods (half-human, half-god). In another myth, he assisted Perseus in his quest to slay the monster Medusa. Hermes gave Perseus his winged sandals, which helped him free Princess Andromeda.

Hermes often helped his father, Zeus, as well. In one famous incident, Zeus, known for his marital indiscretions, fell in love with a mortal woman named Io. When Zeus's wife, Hera, learned of their affair, she turned Io into a cow and ordered a giant named Argus to stand watch over her. Argus was described as having hundreds of eyes covering his body. This presented a problem because the giant could leave some eyes open while he slept. Zeus enlisted the help of Hermes who used his magic staff to put all of Argus' eyes to sleep. Hermes then killed the giant.

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