Among the Pantheon of the twelve Greek gods known as the Olympians, one of the most interesting is Hermes, who was the god of trade, animal husbandry, sleep, thieves, and travel, among other things. He is also known as the messenger of the gods. Hermes has winged feet and a winged helmet, that is indicative of his speed, but he does not run to travel; instead, he flies.
Son of the all-powerful Zeus, and father to Pan, Hermes played an important role in ancient Greek mythology as a messenger and herald. Hermes was known to be mischievous and cunning, with somewhat of a carefree attitude. Hermes was also responsible for important inventions, such as fire, musical instruments, and the alphabet. Hermes was a character in Homer’s classic epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey, in addition to many important Greek myths. One of his more essential functions in Greek mythology was leading departed souls to the underworld river Styx, where Charon the boatman then escorts them to Hades.
After being born in a cave on Mount Cyllene in Arcadia, Hermes wasted no time starting trouble. He immediately ran off to Thessaly, where his brother, Apollo the sun god, kept his cattle.
Hermes then, in a bold display of his mischievous ways, stole some of Apollo’s cattle and brought them back to Greece. Zeus, his all-powerful father, had been watching these antics and demanded that Hermes return the animals to Apollo. Throughout this time, though, Hermes had also been busy inventing the lyre, which is a musical instrument. When Apollo heard the music of the lyre, he thought that it was so beautiful that he told Hermes he could keep the cattle in exchange for the lyre. This exchange worked out so well for both that Apollo became the grand master of the lyre and Hermes, while tending to his herd of cattle, invented another instrument from some reeds called the pan pipes.
This myth is not the only example of Hermes’ thievery. At different times, he also stole Apollo’s bow and arrow, Zeus’ scepter, Aphrodite’s girdle, and Hephaestus’ tongs. He was, after all, the god of thievery and these kinds of annoying tricks were a part of his character.
Perhaps the most important function of Hermes in Greek mythology is in his role of a herald, and one of the biggest parts of that job was escorting people who had recently died to the river Styx, where their souls would then begin their journey to the underworld. The ancient Greeks initially believed that everyone ended up in the same place after they passed away, regardless of what they had done in their lifetimes. This belief changed over time, though, to a system of three different afterlife places, that divided people’s souls based on how well they had lived their lives. The important thing to understand here is that after people’s souls rose from their dead bodies, they had no idea how to get to the underworld and Hermes had to show them where it was because the souls could not have found the way themselves. Were it not for Hermes, there would be countless souls wandering the world aimlessly, so this was an important function.
One of the more famous myths in which Hermes played a part involves a horrible creature called Argus that had multiple eyes, that were never all closed at the same time, and with these many eyes, he could see pretty much everything around him at the same time. With this kind of spectacular eyesight, Argus was an outstanding guard in Greek mythology.
Now, in what amounts to a kind of mythological soap opera, Zeus had been having an affair with a priestess named Io, which naturally upset his wife Hera, who was the queen of the Olympian gods and goddesses. Zeus, who had changed himself into a cloud at this point to avoid Hera, was concerned that Hera might come after Io, so he turned her into a heifer, which is a young female cow. Hera, not to be outdone, had Io, now a heifer, tied up and sent in Argus, with his many eyes, to guard her.
Now is the point in the myth where Hermes enters the action. Zeus, who was not happy about this situation, sent his son, Hermes, to kill Argos so that Zeus could have her back again. To kill Argus, Hermes first must get the creature to close all those eyes, which he accomplishes by singing for a while and then telling so many boring stories that all the eyes of the creature shut. Hermes does what he is sent to do, and Io goes running back to Zeus. There is more to the myth, but the important thing is that Hermes used his masterful ability as a trickster to accomplish a feat that was thought impossible. Hermes has skills like this that none of the other gods do, and he plays a unique part in other myths as well.
Hermes appears multiple times in Homer’s epic poem, the Iliad, set towards the end of the Trojan war. In one instance, Zeus orders Hermes to accompany Priam, the king of Troy, to retrieve the body of Priam’s dead son, Hector. Hector’s body is in the possession or the warrior Achilles in the Achaean camp. Hermes, with his usual trickery, disguises himself for the journey and leads Priam to the Achaean camp, where Hermes casts a spell on the sentries so that Priam can get into the area without a problem.
Hermes appears three times in Homer’s, the Odyssey, twice in his capacity as a messenger, delivering messages to Odysseus. The third time he emerges in his role as a herald, to escort the spirits of suitors from the home of Odysseus to the underworld.
Without question, Hermes was a central character in Greek mythology. The ancient Greeks used the myths about their many Gods to explain the nature of the world that they lived in, and Hermes, with his various functions and characteristics, was a crucial part of these explanations. The ancient Greeks, for example, did not need to wonder about what happened when they died because they knew that Hermes would be there to guide them. The ancient Greeks could identify with his sly and mischievous nature because they undoubtedly knew people in their living word that had similar personalities. While not as important as some of the other Olympians, such as Zeus or Poseidon, there is no question that Greek mythology would be incomplete without Hermes.