Readings for reflection: Hermes

Aesop, Fables 521
Hermes filled a cart with lies and dishonesty and all sorts of wicked tricks, and he journeyed in this cart throughout the land, going hither and thither from one tribe to another, dispensing to each nation a small portion of his wares. When he reached the land of the Arabs, so the story goes, his cart suddenly broke down along the way and was stuck there. The Arabs seized the contents of the cart as if it were a merchant’s valuable cargo, stripping the cart bare and preventing Hermes from continuing on his journey, although there were still some people he had not yet visited. As a result, Arabs are liars and charlatans, as I myself have learned from experience. There is not a word of truth that springs from their lips.

Aesop, Fables 564
There was a four-cornered statue of Hermes by the side of the road, with a heap of stones piled at its base.

Aischylos, Psuchahogoi fragment 273
Chorus of Evocators: We, the race that lives around the lake, do honor to Hermes our ancestor … Come now, guest-friend, take up your stance on the grassy sacred enclosure of the fearful lake. Slash the gullet of the neck, and let the blood of this sacrificial victim flow into the murky depths of the reeds as a drink offering for the lifeless. Call upon primeval Earth and chthonic Hermes, escort of the dead, and ask chthonic Zeus to send up the swarm of night-wanderers from the mouth of this melancholy river, unfit for washing hands, sent up by Stygian springs.

Alexander Polyhistor, Successions of Philosophers FGrHist 273 F 93
Hermes is the steward of souls, and for that reason is called Hermes the Escorter, Hermes the Keeper of the Gate, and Hermes of the Underworld, he brings upwards the purified souls, but impure souls were not allowed to approach each other, much less to come close to pure souls, since they were fettered in unbreakable bonds by the Erinyes. And all the air is full of souls and they are called daimones and heroes; and they carry to men dreams, portents, diseases, and purification, averting by expiatory sacrifices, all divination and omens are related to them.

Antoninus Liberalis, Metamorphoses 21
Thrassa was daughter of Ares and of Tereine daughter of Strymon. Hipponous, son of Triballos, married her and they had a daughter called Polyphonte. She scorned the activities of Aphrodite and went to the mountains as a companion and sharer of sports with Artemis. Aphrodite, whose activities Polyphonte failed to honour, made her fall in love with a bear and drove her mad. By daemonic urge she went on heat and coupled with this bear. Artemis seeing her was utterly disgusted with her and turned all beasts against her. Polyphonte, fearing the beasts would make an end of her, fled and reached her father’s house. She brought forth two children, Agrios and Oreios, huge and of immense strength. They honoured neither god nor man but scorned them all. If they met a stranger they would haul him home to eat. Zeus loathed them and sent Hermes to punish them in whatever way he chose. Hermes decided to chop of their hands and feet. But Ares, since the family of Polyphonte descended from him, snatched her sons from this fate. With the help of Hermes he changed them into birds. Polyphonte became a small owl whose voice is heard at night. She does not eat or drink and keeps her head turned down and the tips of her feet turned up. She is a portent of war and sedition for mankind. Oreios became an eagle owl, a bird that presages little good to anyone when it appears. Argios was changed into a vulture, the bird most detested by gods and men. These gods gave him an utter craving for human flesh and blood.
Their female servant was changed into a woodpecker. As she was changing her shape she prayed to the gods not to become a bird evil for mankind. Hermes and Ares heard her prayer because she had by necessity done what her masters had ordered. This a bird of good omen for someone going hunting or to feasts.

Apollodoros, Bibliotheka 3.28-29
At the proper time Zeus loosened the stitches and gave birth to Dionysos, whom he entrusted to Hermes. Hermes took him to Ino and Athamas, and persuaded them to bring him up as a girl. Incensed, Hera inflicted madness on them, so that that Athamas stalked and slew his elder son Learkhos on the conviction that he was a dear, while Ino threw Melikertes into a basin of boiling water, and then, carrying both the basin and the corpse of the boy, she jumped to the bottom of the sea. Now she is called Leukothea, and her son is Palaimon: these names they receive from those who sail, for they help sailors beset by storms. As for Zeus, he escaped Hera’s anger by changing Dionysos into a baby goat. Hermes took him to the Nymphai of Asian Nysa, whom Zeus in later times places among the stars and named the Hyades.

Apollodoros, Bibliotheka 3.115
Hermes was tending the cattle, this time he fashioned a shepherd’s pipe which he proceeded to play. Covetous also of this, Apollon offered him the golden staff which he held when he herded cattle. But Hermes wanted both the staff and proficiency in the art of prophecy in return for the pipe. So he was taught how to prophesy by means of pebbles, and gave Apollon the pipe.

Herodotos, Histories 2.51
The ithyphallic images of Hermes; the production of these came from the Pelasgians, from whom the Athenians were the first Greeks to take it, and then handed it on to others. For the Athenians were then already counted as Greeks when the Pelasgians came to live in the land with them and thereby began to be considered as Greeks. Whoever has been initiated into the rites of the Kabeiroi, which the Samothrakians learned from the Pelasgians and now practice, understands what my meaning is. Samothrake was formerly inhabited by those Pelasgians who came to live among the Athenians, and it is from them that the Samothrakians take their rites. The Athenians, then, were the first Greeks to make ithyphallic images of Hermes, and they did this because the Pelasgians taught them. The Pelasgians told a certain sacred tale about this, which is set forth in the Samothrakian mysteries.

Hyginus, Astronomica 2.16
Mercurius stirred by Venus’s beauty, fell in love with her, and when she permitted no favours, became greatly downcast, as if in disgrace. Jove pitied him, and when Venus was bathing in the river Achelous he sent and eagle to take her sandal to Amythaonia of the Egyptians and give it to Mercurius. Venus, in seeking for it, came to him who loved her, and so he, on attaining his desire, as a reward put the eagle in the sky as the constellation Aquilla.

Kallimachos, Hymn 3 to Artemis 46
When any of the maidens doth disobey her mother, the mother calls the Kyklopes to her child; and from within the house comes Hermes stained with burnt ashes. And straightway he plays bogey to the child and she runs into her mother’s lap, with her hands upon her eyes.

Nonnos, Dionysiaka 9.28 ff
Hermes gave him to the daughters of Lamos, river Nymphai – the son of Zeus, the vineplanter. They received Bakchos into their arms; and each of them dropt the milky juice of her breast without pressing into his mouth … The consort of Zeus beheld the babe, and suffered torments. Through the wrath of resentful Hera, the daughters of Lamos were maddened by the lash of that divine mischiefmaker. In the house they attacked the servants, in threeways they carved up the wayfaring man with alienslaying knife. Indeed they would have chopt up little Bakchos, a baby still, piecemeal in the distracted flood of their vagabond madness, had not Hermes come on wing and stolen Bakchos again with a robber’s untracked footsteps.

Nonnos, Dionysiaka 9.136 ff
And again Hera would have destroyed the son of Zeus but Hermes caught him up, and carried him to the wooded ridge where Kybele dwelt. Moving fast, Hera ran swift-shoe on quick feet from high heaven; but he was before her, and assumed the eternal shape of first-born Phanes. Hera in respect for the most ancient of the gods, gave him place and bowed before the radiance of the deceiving face, not knowing the borrowed shape for a fraud. So Hermes passed over the mountain tract with quicker step than hers, carrying the horned child folded in his arms, and gave it to Rheia, nurse of lions, mother of Father Zeus, and said these few words to the goddess mother of the greatest: ‘Receive, goddess, a new son of your Zeus! He is to fight with the Indians, and when he has done with earth he will come into the starry sky, to the great joy of resentful Hera! Indeed it is not proper that Ino should be nurse to one whom Zeus brought forth. Let the mother of Zeus be nanny to Dionysos – mother of Zeus and nurse of her grandson!’ This said he put off the higher shape of selfborn Phanes and put on his own form again, leaving Bakchos to grow a second time in the Meter’s nurture.

Ovid, Metamorphoses 4. 288
To Mercurius, runs the tale, and Cythereia a boy was born whom in Mount Ida’s caves the Naides nurtured; in his face he showed father and mother and took his name from both. When thrice five years had passed, the youth forsook Ida, his fostering home, his mountain haunts, eager to roam strange lands afar.

Pausanias, Description of Greece 1.38.7
The hero Eleusis, after whom the city is named, some assert to be a son of Hermes and of Daeira, daughter of Okeanos.

Pausanias, Description of Greece 2.3.4
Hermes is the god who is thought most to care for and to increase flocks, as Homer puts it in the Iliad: – ‘Son was he of Phorbas, the dearest of Trojans to Hermes, rich in flocks, for the god vouchsafed him wealth in abundance.’

Pausanias, Description of Greece 4.32.1
Hermes, Herakles and Theseus, who are honored in the gymnasium and wrestling-ground according to a practice universal among Greeks, and now common among barbarians.

Pausanias, Description of Greece 7.22.2
The market-place of Pharai is of wide extent after the ancient fashion, and in the middle of it is an image of Hermes, made of stone and bearded. Standing right on the earth, it is of square shape, and of no great size. On it is an inscription, saying that it was dedicated by Simylos the Messenian. It is called Hermes Agoraios (of the Market), and by it is established an oracle. In front of the image is placed a hearth, which also is of stone, and to the hearth bronze lamps are fastened with lead. Coming at eventide, the inquirer of the god, having burnt incense upon the hearth, filled the lamps with oil and lighted them, puts on the altar on the right of the image a local coin, called a ‘copper,’ and asks in the ear of the god the particular question he wishes to put to him. After that he stops his ears and leaves the marketplace. On coming outside he takes his hands from his ears, and whatever utterance he hears he considers oracular

Pausanias, Description of Greece 8.3.6
Kallisto was loved by Zeus and mated with him. When Hera detected the intrigue she turned Kallisto into a bear, and Artemis to please Hera shot the bear. Zeus sent Hermes with orders to save the child Arkas that Kallisto bore in her womb.

Pausanias, Description of Greece 8.16.1
As you travel through the land of Pheneos, are mountains of the Pheneatians called Trikrena (Three Springs), and here are three springs. In them, says the legend, Hermes was washed after birth by the Nymphai of the mountain, and for this reason they are considered sacred to Hermes

Pausanias, Description of Greece 8. 17.1-2; 5
The highest mountain in Arkadia is Kyllene, on the top of which is a dilapidated temple of Hermes Kyllenios. It is clear that Kyllenos, the son of Elatos, gave the mountain its name and the god his surname. In days of old, men made wooden images, so far as I have been able to discover, from the following trees: ebony, cypress, cedar, oak, yew, lotus. But the image of Hermes Kyllenios is made of none of these, but of juniper wood. Its height, I conjecture, is about eight feet … Adjoining Mount Kyllene is another mountain, Chelydorea (Rich in Tortoises), where Hermes is said to have found a tortoise, taken the shell from the beast, and to have made therefrom a harp.

Pausanias, Description of Greece 9.22.1-2
There are sanctuaries of Hermes Kriophoros (Ram-bearer) and of Hermes called Promachos (Champion) at Tanagra in Boiotia. They account for the former surname by a story that Hermes averted a pestilence from the city by carrying a ram round the walls; to commemorate this they made an image of Hermes carrying a ram upon his shoulders. Whichever of the youths is judged to be the most handsome goes round the walls at the feast of Hermes, carrying a lamb on his shoulders. Hermes Promachos (Champion) is said, on the occasion when an Eretrian fleet put into Tanagra from Euboia, to have led out the youths to the battle; he himself, armed with a scraper like a youth, was chiefly responsible for the rout of the Euboians. In the sanctuary of Promachos (the Champion) is kept all that is left of the wild strawberry-tree under which they believe that Hermes was nourished. Nearby is a theater and by it a portico. I consider that the people of Tanagra have better arrangements for the worship of the gods than any other Greeks. For their houses are in one place, while the sanctuaries are apart beyond the houses in a clear space where no men live

Pausanias, Description of Greece 9.24.5
At Korseia, under which is a grove of trees that are not cultivated, being mostly evergreen oaks. A small image of Hermes stands in the open part of the grove

Plato, Kratylos 408a
This name ‘Hermes’ seems to me to have to do with speech; he is an interpreter (hêrmêneus) and a messenger, is wily and deceptive in speech, and is oratorical. All this activity is concerned with the power of speech. Now, as I said before, eirein denotes the use of speech; moreover, Homer often uses the word emêsato, which means ‘contrive.’ From these two words, then, the lawgiver imposes upon us the name of this god who contrived speech and the use of speech–eirein means ‘speak’–and tells us : ‘Ye human beings, he who contrived speech (eirein emêsato) ought to be called Eiremes by you.’ We, however, have beautified the name, as we imagine, and call him Hermes. Iris also seems to have got her name from eirein, because she is a messenger.

Propertius, Elegies 2. 29c
Brimo, who as legend tells, by the waters of Boebeis laid her virgin body at Mercurius’ side.