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Hermes, another son of Zeus, whose mother was Maia, the youngest of the Pleiades, was born in a cave on Mount Cyllene in Arcadia. His inventiveness was apparent from the moment of birth. His mother, according to custom, wrapped the newborn infant in swaddling clothes and placed him in a winnowing basket, which served as a cradle, while she went away. But the child did not stay, he wiggle out of the clothes and set off for Thessaly where his brother Apollo was watching over the herds of Admetus. At that time Apollo was in love with a local youth and had neglected the herds, so Hermes stole twelve cows and a hundred heifers. The he fastened a leafy branch to each animal's tail and made his way back to Cyllene and the cave in which he was born. There he discovered a tortoise from which he detached the shell, and stretched over it cords made from the intestines of the sacrificial animals, which produced the first lyre.

In the meantime Apollo had returned to the herds to discover the missing animals. Through his divinatory powers he soon knew what had happened and complained to Maia on Mount Cyllene, who simply pointed to young Hermes asleep in the swaddling clothes. Apollo went to Zeus who settled the matter by commanding Hermes to return the animals, but by then Apollo had seen the lyre and heard the strains that Hermes drew from it and he exchanged his herd for the instrument.

A short time later Hermes invented the pipes of Pan, which Apollo bought from him; in exchange Apollo gave him the golden rod that he his used when tending his cattle. This was the origin of the caduceus, Hermes' particular emblem. Zeus greatly admired the young god's exploits that he made him his herald. That is the reason that Hermes is the messenger of the gods; and his special task was conducting the souls of to the underworld. Hermes protected travelers, merchants, and thieves. It is thought that he was first believed to be a spirit of rocks placed along roadsides or as monuments, but then his personality developed as it incorporated other deities, notably a shepherd-god from the Arcadian mountains, also a god who protected markets and village squares, thus making Hermes the patron of both merchants and orators, later town criers. An interesting but curious fact is Hermes also was the god of the palaestra (wrestling school), perhaps because be was the bringer of good luck.

In Greek mythology Hermes is said to appear more often than any other deity. He is the messenger-god, swift and cunning. He is depicted with winged feet, wearing a winged helmet, and carrying the caduceus, a serpent-entwined, magic wand that symbolizes spiritual illumination. Thus he also is the patron of magic using the caduceus to cast spells. Being the god of travelers, his images often were erected at crossroads. The dog is associated to Hermes for its intelligence and devotion.

The Greeks identified Hermes with the Egyptian god of knowledge and magic, Thoth. Hermes quickly learned the mysteries of the universe, which he strived to teach others. He is associated with Witchcraft in that it is thought, by some, that the name Hermes was derived from herm, a form of chiram, the personification of the Universal Life Principle, represented by fire.

As with other gods Hermes is said to have had several amorous adventures. His son Autolycus, born on Chione, showed a particular gift, he could steal whatever he wanted without being discovered. He also participated in the Argonaut's expedition. Autolycus tricked his own daughter Anticleia into a union with Sisyphus at the same time as he gave her in marriage to Laertes. This resulted in the confusion concerning Odysseus, who was the official son of Laertes and Anticleia, but sometimes regarded as the son of Sisyphus, also known for dishonest tricks.

At Athens it was claimed Hermes loved Herse, one of the daughters of Cecrops, who bore him the hero Cephalus; Aglauros, another daughter of Cecrops, bore him the son Ceryx, the herald and first high priest of Eleusis. At Eleusis, it seems according to legend, Hermes had an affair with Deianeira (a name that seems to be a ritual epithet for Persephone), which resulted in the birth of the eponymous hero, Eleusis himself. By an unclear tradition Hermes is said to have fathered the god Pan by Penelope either when she was unfaithful to Odysseus, or before she married the latter.

Hermes' Roman counterpart was Mercury. A.G.H.


Guiley, Rosemary Ellen, The Encyclopedia of Witches and Witchcraft, New York: Facts On File, 1989, pp. 156-157
Grimal, Pierre, Larousse World Mythology, Secaucus, New Jersey, Chartwell Books, 1965, pp. 127-129

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