1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Hermes

HERMES, a Greek god, identified by the Romans with Mercury. The derivation of his name and his primitive character are very uncertain. The earliest centres of his cult were Arcadia, where Mt. Cyllene was reputed to be his birthplace, the islands of Lemnos, Imbros and Samothrace, in which he was associated with the Cabeiri and Attica. In Arcadia he was specially worshipped as the god of fertility, and his images were ithyphallic, as also were the “Hermae” at Athens. Herodotus (ii. 51) states that the Athenians borrowed this type from the Pelasgians, thus testifying to the great antiquity of the phallic Hermes. At Cyllene in Elis a mere phallus served as his emblem, and was highly venerated in the time of Pausanias (vi. 26. 3). Both in literature and cult Hermes was constantly associated with the protection of cattle and sheep; at Tanagra and elsewhere his title was κριοφόρος, the ram-bearer. As a pastoral god he was often closely connected with deities of vegetation, especially Pan and the nymphs. His pastoral character is recognized in the Iliad (xiv. 490) and the later epic hymn to Hermes; and his Homeric titles ἀκάκητα, ἐριούνιος, δώτωρ ἐάων, probably refer to him as the giver of fertility. In the Odyssey, however, he appears mainly as the messenger of the gods, and the conductor of the dead to Hades. Hence in later times he is often represented in art and mythology as a herald. The conductor of souls was naturally a chthonian god; at Athens there was a festival in honour of Hermes and the souls of the dead, and Aeschylus (Persae, 628) invokes Hermes, with Earth and Hades, in summoning a spirit from the underworld. The function of a messenger-god may have originated the conception of Hermes as a dream-god; he is called the “conductor of dreams” (ἡγήτορ ὀνείρων), and the Greeks offered to him the last libation before sleep. As a messenger he may also have become the god of roads and doorways; he was the protector of travellers and his images were used for boundary-marks (see Hermae). It was a custom to make a cairn of stones near the wayside statues of Hermes, each passer-by adding a stone; the significance of the practice, which is found in many countries, is discussed by Frazer (Golden Bough, 2nd ed., iii. 10 f.) and Hartland (Legend of Perseus, ii. 228). Treasure found in the road (ἕρμαιον) was the gift of Hermes, and any stroke of good luck was attributed to him; but it may be doubted whether his patronage of luck in general was developed from his function as a god of roads. As the giver of luck he became a deity of gain and commerce (κερδῷος, ἀγοραῖος), an aspect which caused his identification with Mercury, the Roman god of trade. From this conception his thievish character may have been evolved. The trickery and cunning of Hermes is a prominent theme in literature from Homer downwards, although it is very rarely recognized in official cult.[1] In the hymn to Hermes the god figures as a precocious child (a type familiar in folk-lore), who when a new-born babe steals the cows of Apollo. In addition to these characteristics various other functions were assigned to Hermes, who developed, perhaps, into the most complete type of the versatile Greek. In many respects he was a counterpart of Apollo, less dignified and powerful, but more human than his greater brother. Hermes was a patron of music, like Apollo, and invented the cithara; he presided over the games, with Apollo and Heracles, and his statues were common in the stadia and gymnasia. He became, in fact, the ideal Greek youth, equally proficient in the “musical” and “gymnastic” branches of Greek education. On the “musical” side he was the special patron of eloquence (λόγιος); in gymnastic, he was the giver of grace rather than of strength, which was the province of Heracles. Though athletic, he was one of the least militant of the gods; a title πρόμαχος, the Defender, is found only in connexion with a victory of young men (“ephebes”) in a battle at Tanagra. A further point of contact between Hermes and Apollo may here be noted: both had prophetic powers, although Hermes held a place far inferior to that of the Pythian god, and possessed no famous oracle. Certain forms of popular divination were, however, under his patronage, notably the world-wide process of divination by pebbles (θριαί). The “Homeric” Hymn to Hermes explains these minor gifts of prophecy as delegated by Apollo, who alone knew the mind of Zeus. Only a single oracle is recorded for Hermes, in the market-place of Pharae in Achaea, and here the procedure was akin to popular divination. An altar, furnished with lamps, was placed before the statue; the inquirer, after lighting the lamps and offering incense, placed a coin in the right hand of the god; he then whispered his question into the ear of the statue, and, stopping his own ears, left the market place. The first sound which he heard outside was an omen.

From the foregoing account it will be seen that it is difficult to derive the many-sided character of Hermes from a single elemental conception. The various theories which identified him with the sun, the moon or the dawn, may be dismissed, as they do not rest on evidence to which value would now be attached. The Arcadian or “Pelasgic” Hermes may have been an earth-deity, as his connexion with fertility suggests; but his symbol at Cyllene rather points to a mere personification of reproductive powers. According to Plutarch the ancients “set Hermes by the side of Aphrodite,” i.e. the male and female principles of generation; and the two deities were worshipped together in Argos and elsewhere. But this phallic character does not explain other aspects of Hermes, as the messenger-god, the master-thief or the ideal Greek ephebe. It is impossible to adopt the view that the Homeric poets turned the rude shepherd-god of Arcadia into a messenger, in order to provide him with a place in the Olympian circle. To their Achaean audience Hermes must have been more than a phallic god. It is more probable that the Olympian Hermes represents the fusion of several distinct deities. Some scholars hold that the various functions of Hermes may have originated from the idea of good luck which is so closely bound up with his character. As a pastoral god he would give luck to the flocks and herds; when worshipped by townspeople, he would give luck to the merchant, the orator, the traveller and the athlete. But though the notion of luck plays an important part in early thought, it seems improbable that the primitive Greeks would have personified a mere abstraction. Another theory, which has much to commend it, has been advanced by Roscher, who sees in Hermes a wind-god. His strongest arguments are that the wind would easily develop into the messenger of the gods (Διὸς οὖρος), and that it was often thought to promote fertility in crops and cattle. Thus the two aspects of Hermes which seem most discordant are referred to a single origin. The Homeric epithet Ἀργειφόντης, which the Greeks interpreted as “the slayer of Argus,” inventing a myth to account for Argus, is explained as originally an epithet of the wind (ἀργεστής), which clears away the mists (ἀργός, φαίνω). The uncertainty of the wind might well suggest the trickery of a thief, and its whistling might contain the germ from which a god of music should be developed. But many of Roscher’s arguments are forced, and his method of interpretation is not altogether sound. For example, the last argument would equally apply to Apollo, and would lead to the improbable conclusion that Apollo was a wind-god. It must, in fact, be remembered that men make their gods after their own likeness; and, whatever his origin, Hermes in particular was endowed with many of the qualities and habits of the Greek race. If he was evolved from the wind, his character had become so anthropomorphic that the Greeks had practically lost the knowledge of his primitive significance; nor did Greek cult ever associate him with the wind.

The oldest form under which Hermes was represented was that of the Hermae mentioned above. Alcamenes, the rival or pupil of Pheidias, was the sculptor of a herm at Athens, a copy of which, dating from Roman times, was discovered at Pergamum in 1903. But side by side with the Hermae there grew up a more anthropomorphic conception of the god. In archaic art he was portrayed as a full-grown and bearded man, clothed in a long chiton, and often wearing a cap (κυνῆ) or a broad-brimmed hat (πέτασος), and winged boots. Sometimes he was represented in his pastoral character, as when he bears a sheep on his shoulders; at other times he appears as the messenger or herald of the gods with the κηρυκεῖον, or herald’s staff, which is his most frequent attribute. From the latter part of the 5th century his art-type was changed in conformity with the general development of Greek sculpture. He now became a nude and beardless youth, the type of the young athlete. In the 4th century this type was probably fixed by Praxiteles in his statue of Hermes at Olympia.

Authorities.—F. G. Welcker, Griech. Götterl. i. 342 f. (Göttingen, 1857–1863); L. Preller, ed. C. Robert, Griech. Mythologie, ii. 385 seq. (Berlin, 1894); W. H. Roscher, Lex. der griech. u. röm. Mythologie, s.v. (Leipzig, 1884–1886); A. Lang, Myth, Ritual and Religion, ii. 225 seq. (London, 1887); C. Daremberg and E. Saglio, Dict. des ant. grecques et rom.; Farnell, Cults v. (1909); O. Gruppe, Griech. Mythologie u. Religionsgesch. p. 1318 seq. (Munich, 1906). In the article Greek Art, figs. 43 and 82 (Plate VI.) represent the Hermes of Praxiteles; fig. 57 (Plate II.), a professed copy of the Hermes of Alcamenes.

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  1. We only hear of a Hermes δόλιος at Pellene (Paus. vii. 27. 1) and of the custom of allowing promiscuous thieving during the festival of Hermes at Samos (Plut. Quaest. Graec. 55).