He is said to have invented
the alphabet, and to have taught the art of
interpreting foreign languages, and his
versatility, sagacity, and cunning were so
extraordinary, that Zeus invariably chose him as
his attendant, when, disguised as a mortal, he
journeyed on earth.
Hermes was worshipped as god of eloquence, most
probably from the fact that, in his office as
ambassador, this faculty was indispensable to
the successful issue of the negotiations with
which he was intrusted. He was regarded as the
god who granted increase and prosperity to
flocks and herds, and, on this account, was
worshipped with special veneration by herdsmen.
In ancient times, trade was conducted chiefly by
means of the exchange of cattle. Hermes,
therefore, as god of herdsmen, came to be
regarded as the protector of merchants, and, as
ready wit and adroitness are valuable qualities
both in buying and selling, he was also looked
upon as the patron of artifice and cunning.
Indeed, so deeply was this notion rooted in the
minds of the Greek people, that he was popularly
believed to be also god of thieves, and of all
persons who live by their wits.
As the patron of commerce, Hermes was naturally
supposed to be the promoter of intercourse among
nations; hence, he is essentially the god of
travellers, over whose safety he presided, and
he severely punished those who refused
assistance to the lost or weary wayfarer. He was
also guardian of streets and roads, and his
statues, called Hermae (which were pillars of
stone surmounted by a head of Hermes), were
placed at cross-roads, and frequently in streets
and public squares.
Being the god of all undertakings in which gain
was a feature, he was worshipped as the giver of
wealth and good luck, and any unexpected stroke
of fortune was attributed to his influence. He
also presided over the game of dice, in which he
is said to have been instructed by Apollo.
As messenger of the gods, we find him employed
on all occasions requiring special skill, tact,
or despatch. Thus he conducts
Hera, Athene, and
Aphrodite to Paris, leads Priam to Achilles to
demand the body of Hector, binds Prometheus to
Mount Caucasus, secures Ixion to the eternally
revolving wheel, destroys Argus, the
hundred-eyed guardian of Io, etc. etc.
As conductor of shades, Hermes was always
invoked by the dying to grant them a safe and
speedy passage across the Styx. He also
possessed the power of bringing back departed
spirits to the upper world, and was, therefore,
the mediator between the living and the dead.
The poets relate many amusing stories of the
youthful tricks played by this mischief-loving
god upon the other immortals. For instance, he
had the audacity to extract the Medusa's head
from the shield of Athene, which he playfully
attached to the back of Hephaestus; he also
stole the girdle of Aphrodite; deprived Artemis
of her arrows, and Ares of his spear, but these
acts were always performed with such graceful
dexterity, combined with such perfect good
humour, that even the gods and goddesses he thus
provoked, were fain to pardon him, and he became
a universal favourite with them all.
It is said that Hermes was one day flying over
Athens, when, looking down into the city, he
beheld a number of maidens returning in solemn
procession from the temple of Pallas Athena.
Foremost among them was Herse, the beautiful
daughter of king Cecrops, and Hermes was so
struck with her exceeding loveliness that he
determined to seek an interview with her. He
accordingly presented himself at the royal
palace, and begged her sister Agraulos to favour
his suit; but, being of an avaricious turn of
mind, she refused to do so without the payment
of an enormous sum of money. It did not take the
messenger of the gods long to obtain the means
of fulfilling this condition, and he soon
returned with a well-filled purse. But meanwhile
Athene, to punish the cupidity of Agraulos, had
caused the demon of envy to take possession of
her, and the consequence was, that, being unable
to contemplate the happiness of her sister, she
sat down before the door, and resolutely refused
to allow Hermes to enter. He tried every
persuasion and blandishment in his power, but
she still remained obstinate. At last, his
patience being exhausted, he changed her into a
mass of black stone, and, the obstacle to his
wishes being removed, he succeeded in persuading
Herse to become his wife.
In his statues, Hermes is represented as a
beardless youth, with broad chest and graceful
but muscular limbs; the face is handsome and
intelligent, and a genial smile of kindly
benevolence plays round the delicately chiselled
As messenger of the gods he wears the Petasus
and Talaria, and bears in his hand the Caduceus
or herald's staff.
As god of eloquence, he is often represented
with chains of gold hanging from his lips,
whilst, as the patron of merchants, he bears a
purse in his hand.
The wonderful excavations in Olympia, to which
allusion has already been made, have brought to
light an exquisite marble group of Hermes and
the infant Bacchus, by Praxiteles. In this great
work of art, Hermes is represented as a young
and handsome man, who is looking down kindly and
affectionately at the child resting on his arm,
but unfortunately nothing remains of the infant
save the right hand, which is laid lovingly on
the shoulder of his protector.
The sacrifices to Hermes consisted of incense,
honey, cakes, pigs, and especially lambs and
young goats. As god of eloquence, the tongues of
animals were sacrificed to him.
The Myth & History of Hermes
The Myth of Hermes
The story of Hermes is featured in the book
entitled "A Hand-Book of Greek and Roman Mythology. The Myths
and Legends of Ancient Greece and Rome" by
E.M. Berens, published in 1894 by Maynard,
Merrill, & Co., New York.