(Ἑρμῆς; Dor. Ἑρμᾶς). The son of Zeus and of the Naiad Maia, daughter of Atlas. Immediately after his birth upon the Arcadian mountain of Cyllen, he gave proof of his chief characteristicsinventiveness and versatility, united with fascination, trickery, and cunning. Born in the morning, by mid-day he had invented the lyre; in the evening he stole fifty head of cattle from his brother Apollo, which he hid so skilfully in a cave that they could not be found. After these exploits he lay down quietly in his cradle. Apollo, by means of his prophetic power, discovered the thief and took the offender to Zeus, who ordered the cattle to be given up. Hermes, however, so delighted his brother by his playing on the lyre that, in exchange for it, he allowed him to keep the cattle, resigned to him the golden staff of fortune and of riches, with the gift of prophecy in its humbler forms, and from that time forth became his best friend. Zeus made his son herald to the gods and the guide of the dead in Hades. In this myth are contained allusions to several attributes of the god.
In many districts of Greece, and especially in Arcadia, the old seat of his worship, Hermes was regarded as a god who bestowed the blessing of fertility on the pastures and herds, and who was happiest when spending his time among shepherds and dallying with Nymphs, by whom he had numberless children, including Pan and Daphnis. In many places he was considered the god of crops, and also as the god of mining and of digging for buried treasure. His kindliness to man is also shown in his being the god of roads. At cross-roads in particular, there were raised in his honour, and called by his name, not only heaps of stones, to which every passer-by added a stone, but also the quadrangular pillars known as Hermae (q.v.). At Athens these last were set up in the streets and open spaces, and also before the doors. Every unexpected find on the road was called a gift of Hermes (ἕρμαιον). Together with Athen, he escorted and protected heroes in perilous enterprises, and gave them prudent counsels. He took special delight in men's dealings with one another, in exchange and barter, in buying and selling; and in all that is won by craft or by theft. Thus he was the patron of tradespeople and thieves, and was himself the father of Autolycus (q.v.), the greatest of all thieves. He, too, it was who endowed Pandora, the first woman, with the faculty of lying, and with flattering discourse and a crafty spirit. On account of his nimbleness and activity he was the messenger of Zeus, and knew how to carry out his father's commands with adroitness and cunning, [p. 800] as in the slaying of Argos (the guard of Io), from which he derived his epithet of Argos-slayer (Ἀργειφόντης). Again, as Hermes was the sacrificial herald of the gods, it was an important part of the duty of heralds to assist at sacrifices. It was on this account that the priestly race of the Κήρυκες claimed him as the head of their family. (See Eleusinia.) Strength of voice and excel[figure in text: Statue of Hermes. (Capitoline Museum, Rome.)] lence of memory were supposed to be derived from him in his capacity of herald. Owing to his vigour, dexterity, and personal charm, he was deemed the god of gymnastic skill, which makes men strong and handsome, and the especial patron of boxing, running, and throwing the discus; in this capacity the palaestrae and gymnasia were sacred to him, and particular feasts called Hermaea were dedicated to him. He was the discoverer of music (for besides the lyre he invented the shepherd's pipe), and he was also the god of wise and clever discourse. A later age made him even the inventor of letters, figures, mathematics, and astronomy. He was, besides, the god of sleep and of dreams; with one touch of his staff he could close or open the eyes of mortals; hence the custom, before going to sleep, of offering him the last libation. As he was the guide of the living on their way, so he was also the conductor of the souls of the dead in the nether-world (ψυχοπομπός), and was as much loved by the gods of those regions as by those above. For this reason sacrifices were offered to him in the event of deaths, Hermae were placed on the graves, and, at oracles and incantations of the dead, he was honoured as belonging to the lower world; in general, he was accounted the intermediary between the upper and lower worlds. His worship early spread throughout the whole of Greece. As he was born in the fourth month, the number four was sacred to him. In Argos the fourth month was named after him, and in Athens he was honoured with sacrifices on the fourth of every month. His altars and images (mostly simple Hermae) were in all the streets, thoroughfares, and open spaces, and also at the entrance of the palaestra.
In art he is represented in the widely varying characters which he assumed, as a shepherd with a single animal from his flock, as a mischievous little thief, as the god of gain with a purse in his hand (see illustration), with a strigil as patron of the gymnasia, at other times with a lyre, but oftenest of all as the messenger of the gods. He was portrayed by the greatest sculptors, such as Phidias, Polyclitus, Scopas, and Praxiteles, whose Hermes with the infant Dionysus was discovered in 1877, in the temple of Her, at Olympia. It is mentioned by Pausanias (vi. 19, 1), and is described by Treu in his Hermes mit dem Dionysosknaben (Berlin, 1878). In the older works of art he appears as a bearded man (see illustration, p. 240); in the later ones, he is found in a graceful and charming attitude, as a slim youth with tranquil features, indicative of intellect and good-will. His usual attributes are wings on his golden sandals (πέδιλα), and a flat, broad-brimmed hat (see Petasus), which in later times was ornamented with wings, as was also his staff. This last (ῥάβδος, κηρύκειον, caduceus) was originally an enchanter's wand, a symbol of power that produces wealth and prosperity, and also an emblem of influence over the living and the dead (see Caduceus), yet even in early times it was regarded as a herald's staff and an emblem of peaceful intercourse. It consisted of three shoots, one of which formed the handle, the other two being intertwined at the top in a knot. The place of the latter was afterwards taken by serpents; and thus arose our ordinary type of herald's staff. By the Romans, Hermes was identified with Mercurius (q.v.). For examples of the myths of Hermes in English literature, see Shelley's Homeric Hymn to Mercury, and Keats's Ode to Maia, with some fine passages in the Prometheus Bound of the former poet.