One of the youngest of the Olympian gods, Hermes is the son of Zeus and the Pleide
Maia (who herself was a daughter of the Titan Atlas). Hermes is a playful, free spirited god and very much a trickster; he represents the ability to put aside instant gratification for long-term gain. Hermes was born within a cave in a mountain near Kyllene and as his mother slept after labour, before he was even a day old Hermes snuck from his crib and performed his first theft. He came across the cattle of Apollon and took a number of the herd and putting boards on their hooves, drove them backwards to his home so that none would be able to follow their tracks. Helios spied the infant god and reported to Apollon who tracked down the child pretending to sleep and mimicking innocence in his cradle. Apollon demanded the cattle back but twelve were missing, Hermes had sacrificed one for each of the Olympians (at this time there were only eleven Olympians, Hermes was counting himself as the twelfth). He had also created the lyre from the shell of a turtle and gut from one of the slaughtered cattle and the music it produced soothed Apollon into forgiveness.
The lyre that Hermes created he traded to Apollon and in return received the Kadekus, the winged heralds staff. The kadekus may be the remnants of the pre-Indo-European world tree, fitting then, that it would be carried by one of the few gods with free passage between all three worlds. Hermes also was taught a divination technique by Apollon that involved pebbles and was granted patronage over shepherds and flocks. As well as shepherds Hermes rules over others who sit in the margin of society, he is a god of strangers and a protector of the homeless; he is the patron of thieves and liars and those who rely on stealth and guile for their livelihood. Hermes is the god of trade, commerce and merchants – over all people who seek to make a profit in goods or coin. Hermes is a god of chance and luck, of gambling and games; in Greek a lucky find is still called a hermaion. Hermes is also a god of athletes and sports and of translators and messengers, in fact he himself is the messenger of the gods and with his winged hat – Petasus and sandals –Talaria he flew over the earth carrying the words of the gods to mortal ears.
Hermes often delivered his messages to humans who were dreaming. Dreaming is halfway between life and death and this teetering on a boundary, this liminility, is another aspect of Hermes character. Hermeneutics, the interpretation of hidden meanings and hermeneus, one who bridges the boundaries between strangers are derived from this liminal nature. As a part of this, Hermes is a psykhopomp – a guide of souls, he who leads the spirits of the dead into the land of the dead; he is often described as one of the few deities who can pass into and out of the underworld unharmed.
Hermes’ liminal nature is also represented at the crossroads and boundaries in the form of herms. Herms are square or rectangular pillars with a (often bearded) head of Hermes adorning the top and an oversized erect phallus on the shaft, before the evolution into anthropomorphic statuary, it was common for these boundary markers to be cairns, piles of small pebbles, not unlike the kind Hermes used for divination. These herms were not only used as boundaries but also as talismans to ward off evil spirits and ill-luck. Through these, Hermes also acquired patronage overall travellers and forms of travel.
Hermes, like the majority of the younger generation of Olympians does not have a mate, he does however have many lovers and children – both mortal and divine. One of his sons, Daphnis, was a Sicilian shepherd and the inventor of pastoral poetry, Angelia is the winged goddess of messengers; Peitho the goddess of seduction and persuasion was born to Aphrodite as was Hermaphroditus. Hermaphroditus was loved by the nymph Salmacis who wished for the two to never be separated, the gods granted her wish literally and merged the two into a being with male and female sex organs (echoing Hermes’ liminal nature). Many of the Satyroi attendants of Dionusos were also sons of Hermes including Lykos and Pherespondos (both sons of Iphthime). Satyrs were the half goat nature spirits that haunted the wild fields and wood. The ass-eared, horse-tailed Silenus, drunken tutor of Dionusos and goatish Pan are also children of Hermes. Pan’s mother was sometimes said to be th enymph Dryope, but more often was Penelope, the Arkadian princess and wife of the hero Odysseus. Odysseus himself was the great-grandson of Hermes, Autolykus was his grandfather and Hermes’ son. Autolykus was the Prince of Thieves who could turn invisible at will and who could steal whatever took his fancy, no lock or alarm could stand in his way.
Hermes has many near-cousins, gods of related pantheons that share much of his character and duties. E-ma and Araoia (Ram-Hermes) appear in the Mykenean Linear B tablets and attest to the age of this god. Hermes Trismegistis – thrice great – is a syncretic (blended) god that combines the aspects of Hermes and the Egyptian god who shares many of his qualities, Thoth. Both deities ruled over writing and magic (again, liminal topics, writing in a barely literate society is magical and magic blends and transcends the worlds of the known and unknown). Another syncretic Greco-egyptian deity is Hermanubis who combines Hermes with the god of death and mummification and was a patron of the Egyptian priesthood (yet again, a liminal group pf people). Mercury is the name by which the Romans knew Hermes and Turms was his Etruscan equivalent and the guide of the dead into the underworld. Hermes also shares many qualities with the Norse god Odin, both travelers, both gods of magic and of those who stand at the fires’ edge of society.
Today, I give respect to Hermes by honouring all those things and people who stand outside of and at the edge of society. The honourable thief – the ‘Robin Hood’, those who stand up against the faceless corporations; the eco-warriors: they may not act in ways I always approve of, but the messages that they preach, the reason for their actions are ones we should be paying attention too. I honour Hermes by giving money to the homeless and donating to charities for them in his name; and when I travel I throw a coin for Hermes to the side of the road, to ask for protection and when home, to offer thanks.