Of the twelve Olympian gods, Hermes is the messenger, and is often seen in the myths bearing messages for his father Zeus. He is also the god of thieves. The following poem is one of the hymns to the gods traditionally ascribed to Homer. The Hymn to Hermes was probably written some time in the 6th century B.C. It is a humorous narrative of the god’s first days after birth.
I post the hymn here, with a bit of student homework in the middle. I handed out the text in sections, forcing students to speculate as to what would happen next. At one crucial point, where Hermes must defend his actions before a council of the gods, I asked students to write what the baby god probably would say. Sabrina Fanchiang did the best job of it.
Working from the translation of most of the hymn in Barry Powell’s Classical Myth, I simplified it for my adolescent students. E.M.
Sing, Muse, a song to Hermes, son of Maia and Zeus, the helper, messenger of the gods. Maia was a fair-braided and bashful nymph and bore Hermes to Zeus, ruler of all the gods. She didn’t like the noisy company of the immortals, so hid away in a shadowy cave. But Zeus found her out and embraced her in the darkness of night, when sweet sleep held the eyes of Hera tight.
Ten months later the child sprang into light; he would bring about many wonderful things!
Maia’s child was clever--a cheater, robber, liar, cattle thief, fast talker, burglar and breaker of safes. He quickly used his tricks against the wisest immortals.
Born at the break of day, Hermes wasted no time in the cradle his mother put him in. No, as soon as he found a chance he stumbled out.
Leaving the dim light of the cave, he found a turtle crawling along. It was destined to make him famous--for Hermes would soon create the first lyre from it.
The turtle was peacefully nibbling on some grass.
“Good morning to you!” Hermes said. “How cute you are, what a good dancer you’d be, I think you’d be great fun at a party! Where did you get that great costume? Why don’t you come inside with me awhile? It’s safer indoors. Besides, I have connections in high places. Really. I can make you famous.”
Hermes grabbed up the turtle in his baby fingers and carried him into the cave. Then, without pausing more than a second to think, he had his plan. He took a sharp knife and cut out the turtle’s insides.
“Sorry about that,” he said.
He drilled holes in the empty shell. Taking some strings and other things lying round the cave, he set to work measuring and fitting things together. Finally finding a pair of goat’s horns, he attached them and pulled the seven strings neatly over his beautiful invention.
He plucked it and sweet music came out.
Now five hours old, Hermes began to sing as he played the lyre, singing of the love of his mother and father.
He sang the story of Zeus, son of Cronus, and his fair-sandaled mother Maia, their smiles and whispering to at the edge of the cave, their sweet words of secret love.
He sang in praise of his mother’s beautiful home, the fine bronze pots and pans she had, the many cooking things that hung from the wall. But even as he sang, he was thinking of other things. He put the lyre down in his cradle, for a whim had entered his mind.
“A nice juicy steak really wouldn’t be bad just now,” he thought.
So he ran from the cave to see what he could find outside, plotting like a thief with each step he took.
The Sun, with its chariot and horses, had set when Hermes came to the shadows of Pieria, hill of the Muses, where the cattle of the gods were shut in for the night. The clever son of Maia, Hermes, led fifty of these out of the cowpens. They mooed as they went along.
He led them by backroads and twisted lanes, trying to find out where the way was most dusty. There he led them backward, while he walked forward, having reversed his sandals. Off again he led them from their dusty lying hoofprints, down some twisted way where their passing left no trace.
An old man working in a vinyard saw him pass the meadows of Onchestus, heading down to the plain. Before he could ask the baby any questions, the son of Maia spoke to him like this: “Old man, bending your back as you dig away in the vinyard, surely you’ll have good grapes when it’s time to harvest. But listen now to my warning. If anyone asks you any questions, tell him you haven’t seen a thing, okay? Start talking nonsense, forget the truth. Or pretend to be deaf as a rock, even though now you can hear me fine. Just keep your mouth shut, if you know what’s good for you.”
The old man was astonished and didn’t know what to say or think. Hermes continued on.
Already the darkness of night, his accomplice, had been chased away by Selene’s watery light as Hermes arrived with the cattle at the river Alpheus. He drove them across and took them to a secret enclosure at the edge of a beautiful meadow.
While the cattle drank from troughs and ate their fill of grass, Hermes gathered some dry wood. Over a piece of dry laurel he spun a drill with a small bow he had made, blowing on the smoldering tinder. And so the son of Zeus invented the kindling of fire by friction.
To the fire pit he carried more wood and laid it on. The fire began to blaze, its beams scattering out into the darkness.
Then Hermes went and dragged two of the stolen cattle toward the fire. Displaying his power, the baby wrestled the panting beasts down, then twisted and rolled them over, so they lay belly-up on the ground.
Hermes cut their throats with a knife and set to butchering them. Some of the rich, fatty meat he cut and put on skewers he’d whittled from wood; the rest he stuffed in the emptied guts, thus creating the world’s first sausage.
Putting all the meat he’d prepared onto a flat stone, he divided it into twelve portions, one for each of the twelve immortals.
God though he was, Hermes drooled at the wonderful scent of the cooked meat. Still he held back from eating it, deciding instead to store it up in a cave in the hillside where no one could find it, thus proving his skill as a cattle thief.
After hiding the meat, Hermes gathered more wood to add to the fire. In the blaze he burned the heads and feet of the butchered cattle, then went and threw his trick sandals into the Alpheus.
Returning under the silvery moonlight, he carefully covered over the fire with dirt, hiding all sign of it.
Dawn was beginning to appear as he quickly made his way home. The son of Zeus met no one on the road, neither mortal nor immortal. And no dog dared bark at him, son of Zeus and bringer of luck.
Hermes squirmed his way through the keyhole, entering his mother’s cave like a mist, then tiptoed over the floor, making not a sound. Reaching his cradle, he hopped up into it and quickly covered himself over with his blanket, looking just like any innocent baby, the lyre he had made lying there next to him.
Immortal though he was, his mother gave him a sharp scolding:
“You naughty boy! Where have you been, coming home at such an hour? Apollo will certainly get you for what you’ve done! He’ll drag you away, tied up so tightly you’ll have no way to escape. Whatever you’ve stolen, take it back. Your father only created trouble begetting you on the world. You’ll be trouble for gods and men alike!”
With a crafty answer, Hermes replied to Maia his mother: “Madam, why do you scold me as if I were only a baby? Do you think I’ll whimper and cry just because my mother is angry? No, I’ll pick whatever career seems most promising. And I can tell you now--whatever I pick I’ll be thinking for the both of us. Think about it: Why should we be satisfied, we who are both divine, sitting here in this dirty cave? We are gods, mother--we should be receiving prayers and sacrifices, but we’ll get none of that here. No, I know a better future for both of us: we should be having fun with the other immortals, rich as wealthy landowners; we should be living a life of abundance and luxury. You really want to waste your time in this cave? I just don’t accept it: I want the same honors and position as Apollo. And if my father Zeus won’t give it to me, I’ll find a way to get it myself. Think of all the riches that will come to the patron god of thieves! If Apollo tries to come after me, he might regret it. I’ll go to Delphi and tunnel into the temple; I know he’s got plenty of gold and fine things in there. How will the son of Leto feel when he sees it’s all been emptied out? You’ll see, mother! You’ll see!”
Mother and son continued chatting and arguing until dawn appeared, rising from ocean’s depth.
Apollo came to Onchestus, the lovely grove sacred to the Earth-shaker. By the road he found the old peasant. The son of Leto spoke to him:
“Old vinyard worker, I come here from Pieria, hunting for my cattle. This morning I found, to my amazement, that only my black bull was left, alone with my four fierce dogs: all the rest were gone. But all the cattle returned from the meadow last night, and were closed in after a day of grazing. So tell me, ancient man, have you seen a cattle rustler passing on this road, anyone driving cows before him?”
The old man answered the questions carefully:
“Friend, it’s not easy reporting everything you’ve noticed. Besides, many people travel this road, some with evil schemes, others on lawful business. How can I tell which is which? I was digging in my vinyard, all through the day, up to the hour of sunset. But, sir, I may have seen--I really can’t tell you for sure--what looked like the little moppet tending his cows. He carried a long stick and skipped from one side to the other as he drove them along, but to be honest--and I thought it was kind of strange--he seemed to have his sandals on backwards.”
Apollo listened until the old man finished, then hurried on. Consulting a bird, he learned that the thief was none other than the newborn child fathered by mighty Zeus, son of Cronus. Lord Apollo, himself Zeus’ son, wrapped a mist about his soulders for concealment, then sped quickly to Pylos, by the sandy shore, to hunt for his cattle. There he saw the tracks in the dust:
“What is this! These are definitely cattle tracks, but why are they turned the wrong way, as if headed toward the meadows? And these, what are these tracks? They look like some kind of tiny sandals, but the steps are wrong, as if the person didn’t know how to walk right. It’s all very suspicious.”
Apollo continued his journey, arriving at Cyllene, the mountain covered with forest. He came to a shadowy cave in the rock, where the nymph Maia lived, who had given birth to the child of Zeus. Apollo wasted no time, but entered the cave in all his radiance, dispelling the darkness. Maia and her child knew at once who he was, and knew why he was there: the god was enraged at the loss of his cattle. At the sight of him, Hermes bundled further into his blanket, making himself as small as possible. He lay there looking like a baby just born and washed; he held his turtle shell tightly against him.
The son of Zeus and Leto wasn’t fooled for a moment. He searched around the cave until he found a shiny key, then used it to open all the locked cabinets and storage cupboards. In fact there was plenty of gold and silver in the cave, and lots of fine dresses, all belonging to Maia. Apollo found no evidence against the baby Hermes: there was nothing one wouldn’t expect to find in the home of an immortal. Finally giving up the hunt, Apollo addressed the baby himself:
“Alright, kid, you look pretty innocent lying there in your cradle, but I know what is what. Tell me where the cows are. If you don’t talk, there will be trouble. I’ll grab you and fling you straight down to the windy darkness of hell--a terrible end, and one you’ll never be able to escape. No, neither your Mama nor your Dada will bring you back to the light. You’ll wander under the earth forever!”
Hermes replied to this with words that were carefully chosen:
“Tell me, great son of Leto, why are you talking so tough? And why have you come into a house looking for beasts that live outdoors? I never saw them, never heard of them, nobody told me about them. I couldn’t tell you who stole them, even if you paid me to. Do I look like a cattle thief? Do I look like the brawny type who runs about at night? No, that isn’t my style. I’m too busy with other important things, like sleeping, and drinking milk from my mother’s breasts, and having blankets round my shoulders, and splashing in nice warm baths. I hope nobody asks you how this argument started, because even the gods would wonder, if you told them a newborn baby walked into his house through the front door with a herd of stolen cattle. You claim things that don’t make sense! I was just born yesterday, my feet are so soft and the ground is so rough. Alright, if you insist I will take an oath, by the head of my father, and swear I am not guilty, nor have I seen anyone else stealing your cattle away--whatever ‘cattle’ are, because I don’t really know, having only heard about them from my mother.”
So Hermes spoke, but kept glancing from under his half-closed eyelids, watching how his words were affecting his audience. Apollo laughed gently and answered as follows:
“Rascal, liar, and knave--how good you are at persuasion! But I know how you have spent the last night: you’ve been stealing! I see you’re going to be the god of robbers. You’ll bring terrible suffering to many--those poor shepherds living out in the mountains, those who lose their cattle or wooly sheep to thieves that come in the night! But now, unless you really want to take the longest and deepest possible sleep, you’ll get out of that cradle quick, you creature of the inky night!”
And Apollo grabbed the baby Hermes and lifted him up out of the cradle, ready to carry him off. But Hermes had his way of fighting back, for the moment he felt he was lifted up, he let out a terrible portent, a hard-pressed slave of the belly, an impolite messenger.
Apollo heard with disgust, and dropped the newborn immortal to the ground. Then the son of Leto squatted down by the child, and said the following to him:
“Listen, my diaper-wearing friend, son of Zeus and Maia, don’t think your bad manners will scare me away. No, you will lead me to my stolen cattle one way or another, and you will do it today. You will take me to them or you will regret the day you were born!”
At this the baby Hermes indignantly threw his blanket from his shoulders and sat up to ask:
“Where will you take me, you hottest-tempered of the gods? Just because your cattle were stolen, you feel you have to take it out on me, a newborn? I tell you honestly, I don’t care anything about cattle, I wish the whole species of cattle would just disappear--anyhow, I’m not even very sure what they look like because I’ve never even seen one and have only heard about them. So why are you attacking me, you bully? If you want to cause trouble, let’s just take this matter to court. Let’s take it to Zeus, son of Cronus.”
On the way to Olympus, the baby Hermes and the glorious son of Leto argued about their case. Apollo, speaking the truth, did his best to trap Hermes in his lies, but Hermes employed all the tricks of rhetoric to escape Apollo’s traps.
The two finally reached the fragrant peak of Olympus, the home of their father, Cronus’ son. The balance of justice was set before the pair, and the deathless gods assembled just after golden-throned dawn.
Hermes and Apollo came forward and stood at the knees of Zeus.
Zeus who thunders on high addressed his glorious son:
“Phoebus, from where have you come, bringing such a prodigious booty, this newly born child, who looks more like a wise ambassador than a child? It seems there is some important case being brought before the council of the gods.”
Lord Phoebus replied:
“Father, it is true that soon you will hear an important matter. Do not reproach me for being the only one greedy for booty. This little child, who in truth is really a cunning bandit, I found him at the end of a tedious trip in the hills of Cyllene. He’s a cheat more crafty than any I’ve ever seen walking the face of the earth, divine or human. He stole my cattle at evening from the meadow, then drove them over backroads and dusty ways, making them walk backwards to confuse me and he himself leaving lying tracks. The little bandit had tied his sandals on in reverse! As long as he took the cattle along dirt-covered roads, I could follow his path, but once he got to harder ground, rocky ways as hard as iron, the path was lost. Only one poor farmer saw him hurrying along, straight down the road to Pylos, driving my precious herd. Finally he hid them somewhere, then hurried home and jumped in his cradle. When I arrived he was there rubbing his eyes with two chubby fists, trying to look like an innocent baby just woken up. When I accused him, he looked me straight in the eye and lied like an experienced thief: ‘I never saw them, never heard of them, nobody has told me about them. Cattle--what is that?’”
Having finished his speech, Phoebus Apollo sat down. Then Hermes stood up and spoke these words in reply:
>>>>[At this point I asked my Creative Mythology students at ZEI to write what they thought Hermes’ reply would be. Sabrina Fanchiang, one of my wittiest students in recent years (certainly a promising young smart alec in the Hermetic tradition) did a great job of it. She described the scene as follows:
Hermes grabbed the lyre and hit the road to Olympus. Then Zeus, son of Cronus, sat on his throne and saw these two boys glaring at each other. He knew all the things that had happened.
Zeus liked Hermes so much because Hermes was as cunning as he. But he was also scared--what if Hermes would steal one of Zeus’ girlfriends next time instead of cattle? Or even more his throne? Zeus quivered.
So he decided to force Hermes to return the cattle. But Hermes knew what Zeus was thinking. He disguised himself sheepishly and drooped his head. He said to Apollo:
“My smart handsome brother. . . Hmm. . . I am terribly sorry to make you upset. But what are you going to do with those cattle? You don’t even eat them--they are smelly and silly. Can the cattle respect you and love you? Can the cattle listen to you and dance for you? I want to give you my lyre for apology. It’s handy and unplugged: you can bring it with you any time.”
Lonely Apollo took his word. And he really like this lyre. So he forgot about the cattle, took the lyre, and flew off into the sky.
Apollo became a splendid rock superstar with many crazy girl fans. As for Hermes, he kept the cattle very carefully, so he could make fine leather from them and open up a luxury handbag boutique for Zeus’ girlfriends and rich ladies. The boutique was named with his name.
Excellent take, Sabrina! I especially like how you showed Hermes’ persuasive power in action, and your explanation of the real origin of the handbag line.
Following is how the ancient poet presented Hermes’ reply and the rest of the story of his conflict with Apollo:]
Having finished his speech, Phoebus Apollo sat down. Then Hermes stood up and spoke these words in reply:
“O Zeus, my father, I promise to tell the truth, plain and simple. I am an innocent child, with no training in lies and deceit. Early this morning, just as the sun was rising, this guy came to our house to hunt for his cattle. He had no witnesses, not one of the other gods came with him, and he tried to make me admit what he wanted by threatening to hurl me to the lowest depths of Hades. Though he himself is obviously in the flower of handsome and glorious youth, he should be able to see that I--well, I’m sure he knows I was born yesterday morning. Do I look like a cattle rustler, the kind of brawny type that goes around and night? So please believe my story, if your claim to be my father is true. I didn’t drive off his cattle--and if I’m lying, may I never be wealthy! I never even left my mother’s cave--that's the truth! I have the greatest respect for Helius and all the immortals, and you, indeed, I love. But Apollo here terrifies me. You yourself can see how harmless I am, and I’m ready to take a great oath to prove it! I swear it by all these terribly expensive surroundings you have here. I swear I’m not guilty! Mark you, some day he will pay for harassing me like this. But for now, be clement to me in your judgment, me a poor infant.”
So the slayer of Argus spoke, glancing to left and right to measure the effect of his words, all the while holding his blanket around his shoulders. Zeus laughed aloud at the lies of his child, at how well he had defended himself against Apollo. Like a good father, he then told them to stop arguing and to behave like brothers. They were to go find the missing cattle together, Hermes leading the way. Hermes was told to stop with his trickery and show Apollo the secret place in which, not long before, he had hidden the stolen cows. So the son of Cronus ordered, and Hermes obeyed him, for though he was just newly born, he knew the will of Zeus could not be refused.
The pair then hurried away, these handsome sons of Zeus, and came to sandy Pylos, by the ford of the river Alpheus. At last they reached the pastures and high-roofed barn where Hermes had hidden the cattle for the night. Hermes went into the cave to start driving the cows out into the light, when Apollo noticed two cowhides on the face of a rock. He demanded of Hermes:
“How were you able, just an infant, to butcher these two cows? Didn’t you tell me before how you weren’t the brawny type? You won’t need to grow very big, you little thief, if you’re already so strong!”
At that Apollo grabbed some willow branches and began to braid a strong cord with them. He planned to tie up Hermes as a punishment for his crime. But the willow cord wouldn’t stay wrapped around the young god. Instead it fell off and snaked away from him, instantly rooting itself in the ground near the herd of cows and becoming a whole new stand of trees. The trees formed themselves into a shelter round the stolen cattle, so one couldn’t see the beasts through the leaves.
Apollo watched this trick with amazement. Where one minute earlier he could see his herd of cattle, now all he could see was a thick growth of willow branches. The mighty son of Leto pretended to stare down at the ground in annoyance, but his eyes were twinkling with fire, . . . trying to hide [the Greek manuscript is missing some words here] . . . .
Hermes easily softened the heart of Leto’s glorious son, strong though he was. With the lyre on his left elbow, he plucked each string with a pick so that it resounded clearly. At the sound of the pure music delight stirred in Apollo’s heart and he laughed. The great son of Maia, plucking away on the lyre, took courage and stood to the left of his older brother. He lifted up his voice sweetly, melodiously, and began a song of the creation of all things, of Earth and the immortal gods, how first they came into being and how each was given his share. First his song honored Mnemosyne, mother of the Muses, who had inspired him to sing. Then he sang of each of the immortals in the order of their generation, honoring each with words fit perfectly to music. As he listened, a passionate longing began to attack the heart of Apollo. Finally opening his mouth, he addressed his brother like this:
“Cow-killer, trickster, operator, a joy at a banquet, this song of yours is worth far more than fifty fat cattle! What’s more, I’m sure our silly quarrel can be settled one way or another. But tell me, son of Maia, you of so many talents, have you been able to play like this from birth? Or is this the gift of some god, or even of some mortal man? Either way, it’s amazing. I’ve never heard such beautiful music. Nothing like it has ever been played either on earth or Olympus. It is a perfect charm for incurable sorrow--to hear it one feels one only has three paths from which to choose: joy, sleep, or the sweetness of love. I too am a faithful servant of the Muses, whose greatest delight is the dance and the shining pathways opened by song, the complex joy of rhythm, the passionate thunder of pipes. But nothing I’ve ever heard has ever shaken my heart like this. It’s amazing really! You are just a moppet after all, where could you get such skill? But listen to me, just listen. I’m willing to be a wise older brother for you. From now on, you will be praised as famous among the immortals, you and your mother both. I will make you a glorious leader among the gods; you’ll have fortune too. Listen to me, son of Maia, and I shall bring you many glorious gifts! I promise not to deceive you.”
Hermes responded to this with his usual cunning:
“How tactfully, son of Zeus, you make your suggestion to me! I have no objection giving you a share in my music, and I’ll prove this very day that I want us to be friends. As you sit with the gods, you can collect all kinds of information. You are powerful, and our father is right to shower favors on you. They tell me that you learn right from his mouth the proper ritual owed each god, you hear all the secret pronouncements of Zeus. With inside information like this, I imagine you collect enormous amounts of blackmail. But now, since your heart is eager to master the lyre’s sweet music, take it from me as a gift. Go right ahead: play and sing as much as you like; I promise you’ll get great enjoyment from it. You’ll warble a wonderful song to this party girl in your arms, because you already know all the answers, you always say the right thing. Take her along to a dance or a dinner gathering, or even a wild party, where nighttime is turned to day. If anyone asks the right questions, in a way both clever and wise, she will teach him curious things, a joy for his heart. Be sure, though, that you handle her gently, because she hates dull serious force. If any common fool comes to bother her with stubborn or stupid questions, she’ll give him stupid answers in return: her reply will be chatter and nonsense. But you’re not like that at all: you immediately learn whatever you want to, so this lyre is just the gift for you, O glorious son of Zeus. The two of us, brother, on mountain or wide meadow, will graze our wandering cattle on whatever pasture we choose. The lusty bulls will cover the cows, and abundance of calves will be born. You see, there’s no reason to fly into a temper. You are far too wise a bargainer for that.”
Then side by side the pair drove the cattle back home, to the holy meadow, then hurried to snowy Olympus, these handsome sons of Zeus.
Zeus, the giver of counsel, rejoiced to see them made comrades. Still today Apollo, son of Leto, and Hermes are friends, which can be seen by the gift of the lyre that Hermes gave the Archer God, the wondrous instrument Apollo strums so skillfully, embracing it in his arms. And Hermes had another clever invention, the Pan-pipes, whose reedy notes echo far.