The Messenger God
Hermes, the Messenger God
Roman Name: Mercury
God of: Hermes had several roles – he was the messenger god, and responsible for taking souls to the underworld, but he was also the trickster god. He was also god of trade, thieves, travellers and sport.
Parents: Zeus and Maia, who was a ‘pleiade’, a nymph and one of seven sisters.
Children: Like many male gods, Hermes had several children with several different women, including the nature gods Pan and Silenus. With Aphrodite, their names were joined too in their child called Hermaphroditus, who was both boy and girl.
Symbols: His famous winged sandals and other tools of a messenger – his bag and broad brimmed hat (often shown with wings of their own). But also rams, hares, sheep, goats, tortoises, strawberries, crocus flowers and the ‘caduceus’, a staff wrapped by a snake.
Location of Story: Panathenaic Stadium
Delphi stared straight into Hermes’ eyes. She was stood in the middle of the Panathenaic Stadium. It was early morning, and she was trying to ignore the small number of athletes running along the track around her. She was being very careful not to notice one important thing, which was like all Greeks when exercising, they were naked.
She stood in front of the herm, a statue of Hermes’ head on a stone pillar and looked closer. Part of the reason she was looking straight into Hermes’ eyes was that she didn’t want to look down and see the other bit of Hermes’ body the sculptor had added.
“Hello? Is that Hermes?” she whispered.
“Hellooooo…” The voice sounded a bit ghostly and faint. Delphi moved a bit closer.
“Is that you?”
Someone pushed her on the back.
Delphi screamed. She stepped forward, tripped, and fell straight onto the statue which crashed down into the dirt, except for one, rather rude shard of stone which bounced into the air and smashed onto a passing athlete’s foot. Then, he screamed.
But there was someone else behind her.
“Yes, it is! Me. Hello!” said Hermes, brightly. “Why were you talking to that statue?”
The man, thankfully more clothed than the athletes, was grinning at her beneath a broad brimmed cap. He shone with a faint silver light. Delphi picked herself up from the floor, wincing in pain. She looked across the athlete who was now hopping around, trying to hold his foot and, for some reason, a small sack of something heavy at the same time. He wasn’t giving Delphi so much as a glance. She looked back at Hermes.
“You scared me!” Delphi snapped at him. “That was a stupid joke. That man got hurt!”
“Don’t worry. Can’t see you. Or me. God thing! Sorry,” added Hermes brightly, not looking sorry in the least. He spoke like the conversation was a race. “Some people are just easy to fool. So, what’ll it be? Need a bit of luck? Going on a journey? Doing some business? Money? Need some money? It’s money, isn’t it?”
Delphi opened her mouth to reply but was too slow.
“No, I’ve got it! You want me to teach you how to read. Well, I don’t know. You might be a natural with words, I don’t know, but then maybe it takes you all day and I haven’t got all day, so what’ll it be, then, hmm?”
“Err…” Delphi had lost her train of thought completely.
“Well surely you don’t want a trip to the underworld, do you? It’s not your turn. Yet.” He raised an eyebrow at her, still smiling.
The god finally paused. Delphi took a deep breath. And only then noticed he wasn’t actually standing on the ground. His golden winged sandals flapped gently as he hovered a few inches above the dirt.
“Yes, that’s me…” Hermes said, then noticed what Delphi was looking at. “Oh the shoes! Yes. Yes! Amazing! Helps me go fast. Always got to go fast!”
Delphi suddenly heard a cry, and two soldiers ran into the yard, saw the naked athlete with his broken foot and ran towards him, shouting.
“Oops, it seems our man was a thief! The sack! That’s why he was running with one. No pockets, you see? Oh well. Bad day for him.” Hermes let out a micro-sigh. “Well, best be off!”
“Wait, wait, wait!” Delphi cried, waving her arms in front of him. “Did you… push me on purpose? To stop that man from running away?”
“All’s well that ends well! That’s it. That’s what I always say. Well, not always. Sometimes. True though. Bye!”
With that, Hermes suddenly shot up into the air, paused for a split second to give Delphi a wave, and then was out of sight in a blink. The thief was being led away by the two soldiers. No-one had noticed Delphi.
“I guess so?”
Hermes was born in a cave, far away from Hera’s anger that Zeus had fathered yet another child without her. However, he grew fast. Very fast. Within an hour or two, he could walk, talk and had even created the first fire by striking stones together. He went exploring and discovered a field of beautiful white cattle in a field. Little did he know – or care – that these were sacred cows, belonging to Apollo. He promptly lashed them together with a rope and led them off – backwards.
Hermes and Apollo
When Apollo had heard someone stole his cattle, he was furious. But when he got to the field, his fury turned to bafflement – the tracks in the ground led the wrong way and he could only find one footprint, of an infant no less! Eventually he found his way to Maia’s cave, where baby Hermes was resting after his adventures. When Apollo demanded his cattle back, Hermes presented him with a little something he had made out of a tortoise shell and animal gut – the first harp. Apollo was so entranced by the instrument, and he played it so well, that he agreed to exchange the cattle for it. Apollo would make his own version, his golden lyre, and the two half-brothers would be firm friends from then on. Apollo even gave Hermes the ‘caduceus’ staff, a powerful snake wrapped staff, in exchange for another musical instrument – the panpipes, which were named after Hermes’ son Pan.
Traveller, Merchant and Thief
Hermes was worshipped by many different types of people. He was said to have invented many things - including written language itself, making him the god of reading, writing and speaking persuasively. He was the god worshipped by merchants and traders – but also by thieves and tricksters, as Hermes was the good of wealth and money. He was revered in the home too, and by athletes, and was the shepherd god, who looked after animals. He even invented dice, and so was loved by gamblers – but like Loki in Norse mythology, Hermes was a trickster and could never be trusted to bring good luck. But perhaps his most important job was that of psychopomp – a rather brilliant word which means he transported the souls of the living to the land of the dead. Everybody, sooner or later, would take a journey with Hermes. He was the god of regular travellers too, and the herm statues were used as marking points along roads – and yes, they really were a stone post with just Hermes’ head and genitals for some reason!
A very busy god
Hermes appears in many different stories, but usually only briefly, before he rushes on somewhere else. He is often found delivering messages or gifts to heroes in need. When Ares was trapped in a pot by two giant brothers, it was Hermes who came to his rescue. He also helped Odysseus rescue his men when the witch Circe had turned them all into pigs and gave Perseus a magic sword when he was on his quest to slay the gorgon Medusa.
Slayer of Argos
Hermes even came to Zeus’ aid in one huge argument with his wife Hera. Zeus, as ever, had fallen for a young priestess called Io. Ever keen to stop his advances on other women, Hera (possibly by forcing her husband to do it) had turned the girl into a white cow. Think that would stop Zeus? Well… it didn’t! Hera placed a guard to watch out for Zeus approaching – a hundred eyed giant, no less, called Argos (who is now remembered as a shop where you buy things from a catalogue!). Hermes was sent to distract this monster, which he did, with tall tales and songs, putting it to sleep, before poking out its eyes and killing the beast. Zeus escaped with Io – but Hera sent a gadfly after her, to continually sting and irritate her until she finally escaped to Egypt and Zeus turned her back into a human again.
Hermes in language
There are many words we still used today which come from Hermes – and not just in the form of delivery companies trying to steal his fast reputation! As Hermes was the god of literature, the study of texts is still called ‘hermeneutics’. His non-binary child with Aphrodite, named Hermaphroditus, is where we get our word ‘hermaphrodite’ from – meaning someone who has both male and female body parts (we might also say ‘trans’ or ‘intersex’ these days too). His Roman name was Mercury, whose name was given to both ‘quicksilver’, a metal which is liquid at room temperature and so flows quickly (and gets used in thermometers), and of course, to the fastest planet which orbits closest to the Sun. Also, the ‘caduceus’ symbol of a snake wrapped round a staff is used to mean a pharmacy or medicine shop across the world even today.