Hermes was the swift-footed messenger, and trusted ambassador of all the gods, and conductor of shades to Hades. He presided over the rearing and education of the young, and encouraged gymnastic exercises and athletic pursuits, for which reason, all gymnasiums and wrestling schools throughout Greece were adorned with his statues. 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 Hermæ (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.
Hermes was the son of Zeus and Maia, the eldest and most beautiful of the seven Pleiades (daughters of Atlas), and was born in a cave of Mount Cyllene in Arcadia. As a mere babe, he exhibited an extraordinary faculty for cunning and dissimulation; in fact, he was a thief from his cradle, for, not many hours after his birth, we find him creeping stealthily out of the cave in which he was born, in order to steal some oxen belonging to his brother Apollo, who was at this time feeding the flocks of Admetus. But he had not proceeded very far on his expedition before he found a tortoise, which he killed, and, stretching seven strings across the empty shell, invented a lyre, upon which he at once began to play with exquisite skill. When he had sufficiently amused himself with the instrument, he placed it in his cradle, and then resumed his journey to Pieria, where the cattle of Admetus were grazing. Arriving at sunset at his destination, he succeeded in separating fifty oxen from his brother's herd, which he now drove before him, taking the precaution to cover his feet with sandals made of twigs of myrtle, in order to escape detection. But the little rogue was not unobserved, for the theft had been witnessed by an old shepherd named Battus, who was tending the flocks of Neleus, king of Pylos (father of Nestor). Hermes, frightened at being discovered, bribed him with the finest cow in the herd not to betray him, and Battus promised to keep the secret. But Hermes, astute as he was dishonest, determined to test the shepherd's integrity. Feigning to go away, he assumed the form of Admetus, and then returning to the spot offered the old man two of his best oxen if he would disclose the author of the theft. The ruse succeeded, for the avaricious shepherd, unable to resist the tempting bait, gave the desired information, upon which Hermes, exerting his divine power, changed him into a lump of touchstone, as a punishment for his treachery and avarice. Hermes now killed two of the oxen, which he sacrificed to himself and the other gods, concealing the remainder in the cave. He then carefully extinguished the fire, and, after throwing his twig shoes into the river Alpheus, returned to Cyllene.
Apollo, by means of his all-seeing power, soon discovered who it was that had robbed him, and hastening to Cyllene, demanded restitution of his property. On his complaining to Maia of her son's conduct, she pointed to the innocent babe then lying, apparently fast asleep, in his cradle, whereupon, Apollo angrily aroused the pretended sleeper, and charged him with the theft; but the child stoutly denied all knowledge of it, and so cleverly did he play his part, that he even inquired in the most naive manner what sort of animals cows were. Apollo threatened to throw him into Tartarus if he would not confess the truth, but all to no purpose. At last, he seized the babe in his arms, and brought him into the presence of his august father, who was seated in the council chamber of the gods. Zeus listened to the charge made by Apollo, and then sternly desired Hermes to say where he had hidden the cattle. The child, who was still in swaddling-clothes, looked up bravely into his father's face and said, "Now, do I look capable of driving away a herd of cattle; I, who was only born yesterday, and whose feet are much too soft and tender to tread in rough places? Until this moment, I lay in sweet sleep on my mother's bosom, and have never even crossed the threshold of our dwelling. You know well that I am not guilty; but, if you wish, I will affirm it by the most solemn oaths." As the child stood before him, looking the picture of innocence, Zeus could not refrain from smiling at his cleverness and cunning, but, being perfectly aware of his guilt, he commanded him to conduct Apollo to the cave where he had concealed the herd, and Hermes, seeing that further subterfuge was useless, unhesitatingly obeyed. But when the divine shepherd was about to drive his cattle back into Pieria, Hermes, as though by chance, touched the chords of his lyre. Hitherto Apollo had heard nothing but the music of his own three-stringed lyre and the syrinx, or Pan's pipe, and, as he listened entranced to the delightful strains of this new instrument, his longing to possess it became so great, that he gladly offered the oxen in exchange, promising at the same time, to give Hermes full dominion over flocks and herds, as well as over horses, and all the wild animals of the woods and forests. The offer was accepted, and, a reconciliation being thus effected between the brothers, Hermes became henceforth god of herdsmen, whilst Apollo devoted himself enthusiastically to the art of music.
They now proceeded together to Olympus, where Apollo introduced Hermes as his chosen friend and companion, and, having made him swear by the Styx, that he would never steal his lyre or bow, nor invade his sanctuary at Delphi, he presented him with the Caduceus, or golden wand. This wand was surmounted by wings, and on presenting it to Hermes, Apollo informed him that it possessed the faculty of uniting in love, all beings divided by hate. Wishing to prove the truth of this assertion, Hermes threw it down between two snakes which were fighting, whereupon the angry combatants clasped each other in a loving embrace, and curling round the staff, remained ever after permanently attached to it. The wand itself typified power; the serpents, wisdom; and the wings, despatch - all qualities characteristic of a trustworthy ambassador.
The young god was now presented by his father with a winged silver cap (Petasus), and also with silver wings for his feet (Talaria), and was forthwith appointed herald of the gods, and conductor of shades to Hades, which office had hitherto been filled by Aïdes.
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, &c. &c.
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 Hephæstus; 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-Athene. 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 lips.
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.