Views of Hermes

By J. N.C.

Hermes has many different identities. Ningishzidah, a prime deity in ancient Sumerian and Akkadian religions, is said to be symbolized by the serpent in the garden of Eden (J. Campbell, 1971). He appears as Mercury, primarily the god of commerce in ancient Roman religions. In Greek culture he was one of the most popular gods and held so many identities that they can at times be seen as opposites.

In Greek literature Hermes was probably of Minoan or Mycenean origin. Early cults on the islands of Samothrace, Imbros and Lemnos called him Kadmilos or Kasmilos. The cults believed he provided bountiful flocks and herds. Among herdsmen he was called Nomios or Epimelios, explains Murray (1970).

Hermes' caduceus
In older works of art he was portrayed as a middle-aged, well clothed, bearded figure. Toward the end of the classical period he took on the form of a young, scantily-clad athlete. He carried with him a caduceus or kerykeion, a winged scepter with two serpents entwined. This scepter was later attributed to Asclepius, the god of medicine. Hermes often wore a winged cap called a petasos and often had golden winged sandals strapped to his feet explains Thomas Bulfinch (1898).

Joseph Campbell (1971) explains that throughout the Old Testament the main conflict was between Yahweh, the tribal god, and the nature deities of the rest of the religious world. Throughout ancient cultures, there were different religious figures, but the natural realm in which they ruled was basically the same. For instance; Jupiter (Roman), Zeus (Greek), Amun-re (Egyptian), Ahura Mazda (Persian) and Indra (Hindu) were different gods, but were essentially the chief deities among the societies in which they are worshipped. The serpent in the Garden of Eden is far older than Yahweh. The cup of Guedea of Lagash which has two serpents interlocking seven times (similar to Hermes' caduceus) dates back to 2000 BCE, hundreds of years before the Hebrews set foot in Canaan, long before the first written Biblical text of Yahweh, which was about 750-800 BCE. In ancient Sumerian religion Ningishzida was a guard at the door of heaven, as opposed to Yahweh, a tribal god from the desert in which ancient Canaanite tribes roamed, so it would seem intrusive for this god from the desert to come to this garden in which ningishzida dwelled. As a result , the conflict was sparked between the monotheistic tribal god and the polytheistic religions of the world. In order to get Adam and Eve out of his garden, Ningishzida had to use sly trickery, i.e. using persuasive speech to convince Eve to eat the fruit of the tree of good and evil. Ningishzida's parallel in Greek Mythology would be Hermes, the god of trickery and persuasive speech. The making of Eve from Adam could be seen as a personification of a snake shedding its skin, or rebirth, so to speak. Therefore the two snakes on the caduceus of Hermes could be seen as symbolizing opposites, as in male and female or Adam and Eve.

Hermes winged cap
In Greek mythology Hermes was the son of Zeus and Maia, daughter of the Titan Atlas. He was born in a cave on Mount Kyllene, therefore he was also known as Kyllenios, after the place he was born. Before he was a day old he established his reputation as a thief.

The babe was born at the break of day
and ere the night fell he had stolen away
Apollo's herds.
(Hesoid qtd. in Hamilton, 1969, p.36)

Hermes tied pieces of bark to the cattle's feet with blades of grass so that Apollo would not hear him steal his herds. Proddow (1971) says he also walked them backwards to his cave so it would look like they came from the cave. He only killed two but with those two he made the first flesh sacrifice. With strings of cow gut and a tortoise shell, he invented the lyre, which is possibly why he was also god of inventions. Hermes gave Apollo the lyre in exchange for his 50 cattle, so Apollo forgave him and presented his whip to Hermes so that he may preside over all of the animal kingdom.

Zeus was intrigued by Hermes though he wanted him to stop thieving and lying. Hermes agreed to do so under the condition that he would be Zeus's herald. However, Hermes warned him that although he agreed to stop lying, he might not always tell the whole truth. Zeus' scepter , Apollo's bow and arrow, Hephaestos' tongs, Aphrodite's girdle, Poseidon's trident and Ares's sword were eventually found missing, though Hermes always seemed to manage to make up with his fellow immortals.

In Greek mythology, clouds are said to be Apollo's cattle, and as described above, Hermes stole Apollo's cattle. Therefore stealing cattle by night could represent the fertilizing showers of clouds by night. Hence, Hermes could be seen as the god of fertility of nature. Since thievery is a risky profession, ( as in stealing Apollo's cattle ) that could explain why Hermes is the god of games of chance.

While Hermes originally looked after the increase of flocks and herds, as described by Bray (1935), a shepherd's main income was from their livestock, and trade was a source of more rapid income. Therefore, Hermes became the guardian of commerce. The fact that traders looked after their own shrewd and prudent interests brought on the belief that Hermes was the deity of shrewdness and cunning. For traders, talking purchasers into buying took very persuasive words, or oratory, hence the name Logios, god of eloquence and persuasive speech. Since Hermes presided over shrewdness and cunning he could also be seen as being the deity of almost everything that has to do with skill and talent. For this, he was known to the youth as a role model, Enagonios "who presides over contests." He was also a talented boxer, an ephebe, or young gymnast, a musician and inventor of the lyre and shepherd's pipe, not to mention being an eloquent speaker.

From shrewdness and cunning also comes roguery and trickery to symbolize him as the protector of thieves, hence the idea of the two entwined snakes on his caduceus to symbolize opposites, as in being the protector of both peaceful trade and cunning thievery. Since Hermes was the deity of trade, and merchants used roads in order to trade, it can be said that he was named after herms which were stone markers on road sides. The markers featured the head of a certain deity and an erect phallus to represent fertility. Hermes was also the god of fertility of nature.

Almost anyone on Greek roads besides merchants would be messengers. He was also seen as Diactoros, a messenger, explains Hamlyn (1963). Perhaps what he was most widely known for was his role as messenger of the gods. Since he was messenger and herald of Zeus he would have access to the underworld, and under the name of Psychopompos he guided the souls of the departed to their last home, Hades. The fact that the underworld would be associated with sleep, dreams, and imagination gave Hermes the title Oneiropompos, guide of dreams.

An especially noble title was given to Hermes when he aided Zeus. Hera thought Zeus was having an affair with Io, a sea nymph. She sent Argus, the hundred-eyed Titan to guard Io and make sure Zeus did not come near. Zeus sent Hermes to solve this predicament. Hermes lulled him to sleep by playing soft music on his shepherd's pipe so that one by one every eye closed. Then he slew the Titan. Hera took the hundred eyes and put them on the tail of her peacock. For this, Hermes is given the name Argephontes, one of his most noble titles. The name is said to have originated from Argeiphates, which means "he who makes the sky clear." This may be a reference to the lightening of Zeus's burdens.

Other noble deeds included saving Ares from the clutches of the Titans Otus and Ephialtes, extracting Persephone from Hades and returning her to her mother Demeter at Eleusis. He also brought the infant Herakles (Hercules) to Hera while she slept, says D.A. Leeming (1996). Zeus sent Hermes to disclose a secret from Prometheus as he was bound to a rock. He was also sent to Ogygia to tell Kalypso to set Odysseus free and gave the herb "moly" to Odysseus so that Circe's mutating drink would have no affect on him. When the first mortal woman, Pandora, set foot on this earth, Hermes was sent to confront her:
But into her heart Hermes, the guide,
the slayer of Argus,
put lies, and wheedling words
of falsehood, and a trecherous nature...
to be a sorrow to men who ate bread.

(R. Lattimore qtd. in Grant, 1962, p.109)

The winged sandal of Hermes
was an icon of fleet-footed messengers.

In addition to being a god of noble deeds, Hermes was also a father. He had many children, Pan being the most popular. Pan was part goat, part human and god of nymphs and shepherds. He was also known to chase the hearts of many woodland nymphs, however unsuccessfully due to his ugly looks. Silenus is also said to be a son of Hermes, though some think Pan might be his father. He was fat, and rode an ass everywhere he went because he was constantly too drunk to walk. R. Graves (1955) claims that other children include Echion, the argonaught's herald; Autolycus, the thief and Daphnus, the0 inventor of bucolic poetry. Other children of Hermes include Hermaphroditus, half man and half woman, and Cephalus.

Though it is not clear how all of Hermes' children got their names, his name in Roman religion comes from the Latin word mercurius. In the Roman world, Mercury was known as the god of merchants and commerce. Whenever Jupiter (Zeus in Greek) became bored of his usual day-to-day routine of ruling the sky, he set out for adventure. Mercury was his companion on his excursions amongst the mortals for the simple fact that Jupiter thought that he was the most entertaining, shrewd, and resourceful of his fellow gods and goddesses. On one trip to Earth, the two immortals ended up flooding every mortal's house except for that of Philemon and Baucis, who were the only ones to welcome the disguised gods into their home. This is a parallel story to the story of Noah's Ark in the Bible. Mungo Campbell (1994) explains that Mercury also escorted Psyche to the immortal palace to become immortal and marry Cupid. Whether Mercury or Zeus gave Psyche the cup of nectar to turn immortal is still unclear. Mercury ran another errand for Jupiter to telll Aeneas to leave Carthage for his destined kingdom in the Aenead. Additional information about Mercury from the Encyclopedia Britannica (1994) explains that there was a temple dedicated to him and his mother, Maia, on Aventine Hill in Rome in 495 B.C.E.

Many views of Hermes have been presented. Throughout literature he appears as a middle-adged man, a serpent, an ingenius infant, a cunning theif, a peaceful shepherd, a guardian of commerce, a talented athlete, a musician, a father, and a messenger. He was known by names such as Mercury, Ningishzidah, Kasmilos, Nomios, Kyllenios, Logios, Enagonios, Argephontes, Psychopompos and Oneiropompos. For thousands of years readers of Greek mythology have been discovering the several different identities of Hermes and his many different roles in classical literature.


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This webpage was written by J.N.C., 3/22/98, for History and Thought of Western Man, Rich East High School.

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