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Hermes Was Neither Originally Winged Nor A Messenger

The fleet-footed messenger with wings on his heels and cap symbolizes fast delivery. However, Hermes was neither originally winged nor a messenger – that role was reserved for the rainbow goddess Iris (Medusa’s cousin and the daughter of Thaumys and Elektra). Hermes was, instead, clever, tricky, a thief, and, with his awakening or sleep conferring wand (rhabdos), the original sandman whose descendants include a major Greek hero and a noisy, fun-loving god. Before Zeus married Hera, Maia (a daughter of the second generation Titan Atlas, who was a son of the Titan Iapetos and Okeanos’ daughter Klymene) bore him a son, Hermes.

Like Heracels, Hermes showed amazing skill in early years. He escaped his cradle, wandered outside, and walked from Mt. Cyllene to Pieria where he found Apollo’s cattle. His natural character was to steal them. He even had a smart plan. First, he padded their feet to soften the sound, and then he drove fifty of them backwards in order to confuse search. He stopped at the Alpheios River to make the first sacrifice to the gods. To do so, he had to invent fire, or at least how to fire up it. Then he selected two of Apollo’s herd, and after killing them, divided each into six parts to keep in touch with the twelve Olympians.

There were, at the time, only eleven. The remaining part was for him. After completing his new ceremony, Hermes went back home. On his way, he found a tortoise that he took inside his house. Using leather strips from Apollo’s herd as string, he created the first lyre. He was playing the new musical instrument when Apollo found him. Noticing the material of the string, Apollo was angry with Hermes for stealing his cattle and smart enough not to believe Hermes when he protested his innocence. Bringing together seemed impossible until the father of both gods stepped in. To make amends, Hermes gave his half-brother the tortoise shell lyre.

Later, Hermes and Apollo made another exchange. Apollo gave his half-brother the Caduceus in exchange for a flute Hermes invented. Zeus realized he had to keep his smart, cattle-rustling son out of mischief, so he put him to work as god of trade and business. He gave him power over birds of sign, dogs, boars, flocks of sheep, and lions. He provided him with golden sandals, and made him messenger (angelos) to Hades. In this part, Hermes was sent to try to get back Persephone from her husband. At the beginning of the Odyssey, Hermes is an effective liaison between the Olympians and the earth-bound gods.

It is him whom Zeus sends to Calypso to remind her that she must give up Odysseus. In the end of the Odyssey, Hermes as psychopompos (lit. soul leader: Hermes leads souls from dead bodies to the banks of the River Styx) has the task of leading the suitors to the Underworld. Hermes is a difficult old god. Friendly, helpful, sneaky, and cunning. It should come as no surprise that the thief Autolycus and the cunning hero of the Odyssey are his children. Autolycus was his son. Autolycus’ daughter Anticlea married Laertes and bore Odysseus.

Hermes’ most famous offspring is the god Pan through his mating with an unnamed Dryops. (In the tradition of messy genealogies, other accounts make Pan’s mother Penelope and Theocritus’ Syrinx poem makes Odysseus Pan’s father. ) Two of the epithets (eriounios and phoronis) by which Hermes is known may mean helpful or kindly. He taught his descendant Autolycus the art of stealing and enhanced Eumaios’ wood-chopping skills. He also helped heroes in their tasks: Heracles in his descent to the Underworld and Perseus in the beheading of the Gorgon Medusa. However, Hermes is not all aid to mortals and kind mischief.

He provided a golden lamb to start an argument between Atreus and Thyestes in revenge for their father Pelops’ killing Hermes’ son Myrtilos, charioteer to Oinomaus. Whichever of the two brothers had control of the lamb was the rightful king. Atreus promised Artemis the most beautiful lamb in his flock, but then reneged when he discovered he had control of the golden one. His brother seduced his wife to get at the lamb. Thyestes purchased the throne, but then Atreus took revenge by serving up to Thyestes his own sons for dinner. In another event with bloody impact, Hermes escorted the three goddesses to Paris, so suddenly the Trojan War.

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