If you are a real fan of mythology, you already know that some of the most interesting and entertaining myths involve the trickster gods. Today, as we continue our article series on Greek gods and their symbols, one of those trickster gods is our guest on Symbols and Meanings, Hermes, the messenger of gods in Greek mythology.
Let us get right into it then. Here is everything you need to know about Hermes, his symbols, sacred animals and plants, and Greek myths telling us of his deeds and the tricks he pulled, that are literally ‘legendary’.
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Who is Hermes in Greek Mythology?
Being one of the most unique gods in Greek mythology, Hermes was involved in several domains. Primarily the messenger of the gods, he also presided over commerce, trade, contracts, roads, borders, travel, thievery, cattle, shepherds, and sports.
As a psychopomp, as a conductor of souls, Hermes guided the dead to the kingdom of Hades in the underworld.
He would put them into a deep slumber, and then guide them through the dark path. When they woke up, they would be in the underworld.
Because he looked over several domains, his temples and statues can be found all over Greece. People would worship him and ask for various things.
Farmers prayed to him to protect their cattle and increase their harvest, while merchants called upon him to make them successful in business.
Fertility being one of his domains, many households kept a herm at the entrances to their houses, as it was believed to increase male potency, and also grant protection. A herm is a statue with Hermes’ head, and a rectangular torso.
Hermes’ counterpart in Roman mythology is Mercury.
Hermes, The Trickster God
Hermes was one of the many children Zeus had who inhabited Mount Olympus. His mother, a nymph called Maia, was pregnant for less than a day before giving birth to him, in a cave on Mount Cyllene.
This does not come as a surprise, considering Hermes was associated with possessing incredible speed.
According to the myth, hours after his birth, Hermes began to display his cunning side and trickery. The moment his mother fell asleep, he snuck out to explore the world. He went to the pastures of Thessaly, where his half-brother, and god of the Sun, Apollo, grazed his cows.
Hermes stole fifty of the best ones, and took them back home. On his way back, he caught and killed a tortoise, and crafted a lyre out of its shell.
When Apollo found out that his cattle had been stolen, he was livid. He went to Mount Cyllene, and asked Hermes to return his cattle. Hermes denied he had stolen the cattle.
His mother also said that it was impossible for an infant Hermes to do such a thing. His father, Zeus, had however, been watching his son’s clever antics. Although amused, he demanded him to return the cattle.
Hermes obeyed and returned the cows to Apollo. However, two of the cows were missing because Hermes had already sacrificed them. Apollo became angry again but Hermes calmed him down when he started to play his lyre.
Apollo was so fascinated that he made an offer to young Hermes. In exchange for the cows, he wanted the lyre. When Hermes agreed, Apollo forgave him for everything, and made a promise to be his best friend.
As a token of friendship, he gave his baby brother his caduceus. This was a staff with two serpents entwined around it, and would go on to become one of the main Hermes symbols.
When all this was happening, Zeus became very impressed with how cunning his son was at the mere age of one day. He endowed him with a plethora of responsibilities and duties, making him his right-hand man.
There are several instances of Hermes’ mischievousness in Greek mythology. On several different occasions, he is known to have stolen Aphrodite’s girdle, Artemis’ arrows and the trident of Poseidon, a deity no one dared to mess with. Constantly in search of amusement, it is no surprise that Hermes was known as “the divine trickster”.
Greek Myths Involving Hermes
Hermes appears in several myths in Greek mythology. Perhaps, the most famous one of them is him killing the giant Argos.
Io the nymph was among Zeus’ numerous consorts. When Hera found out about her, she wanted to punish her. In order to protect Io from his wife’s wrath, Zeus turned her into a heifer. Hera figured out Zeus’ plan, and ordered the hundred eyed giant Argos to watch over Io.
Zeus asked Hermes for help and the divine trickster was able to lull the giant into a deep slumber by playing some music. He then slew him with his sword and freed Io.
In another instance, Hermes lent Perseus his winged sandals to fly when he needed assistance in killing the gorgon, Medusa.
Hermes also helped his great-grandson Odysseus, on multiple occasions. On his long way back to Ithaca, Hermes warned him about the treacherous enchantress Circe, and gave him an antidote to resist her spells.
Later, when the beautiful nymph Calypso wanted Odysseus to remain her lover for seven years, it was Hermes who talked her out of it, and had her release him.
Hermes was among the few gods who could leave the underworld without facing any consequences. He could travel seamlessly between the worlds of the mortals, the divine and the dead.
When the dead Eurydice wanted to spend one day with her husband, Orpheus, it was Hermes who escorted her to him, and then back to Hades. He also brought Persephone from the underworld to her mother, Demeter.
Hermaea, The Olympic Games of Ancient Greece
Hermes was also considered a patron of gym and athletics. This is why his statues were commonly placed in gyms. At Olympia, his statue was placed in the Sanctuary/Altar of the Twelve Gods, and he was worshipped there. This is where the Greeks had the Olympic Games.
To honor him as a patron of sports and gymnastics, the ancient Greeks held the Hermaea annually. Started in the 6th century BC, these festivals included various kinds of athletics. Only teenage boys were allowed to attend them to celebrate their transition into manhood.
While dealing with all his duties as a god, Hermes still found ways to create trouble to entertain himself. In spite of being one of the most colorful gods, Hermes was very responsible whenever he needed to be. He was always ready to help his family and fellow gods in whatever hardship they might be in, and fought numerous battles for them.
The Hermes Symbol List
Also known as the herald’s wand, caduceus (the wand with two snakes on it), Talaria, his winged sandals, petasos his winged helmet, the lyre, tortoises and roosters are the symbols of Hermes.
Sacred Animals and Plants of Hermes, the Messenger of Gods
Hawks, rams, tortoises and hares are the sacred animals of Hermes. His sacred plants are crocuses and strawberry trees.
This ends our post on Hermes symbols, sacred plants and animals and the legends involving the messenger of gods in Greek mythology. If you liked it, you should definitely check out our posts on Poseidon symbols here and Artemis symbols here. Thank you for reading on Symbols and Meanings!