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Who Is Hermes?

Hermes killed a tortoise to make the first lyre.
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  • Written By: Mary Elizabeth
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 12 March 2014
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In Greek mythology, Hermes is one of the Olympian gods, usually numbered at 12, and like many of the Olympians — Athena, Ares, Apollo, Hephaestus, and Artemis — he is a child of Zeus. Hermes is the messenger god, as well as the god of travelers, roads, livestock, merchants, young men, and thieves. He is the leader of souls, or psychopompus, who conducts the dead to the realm of Hades in the underworld, and he is also known as the god of dreams. His symbol is his wand, the kerykeion or caduceus, and his winged sandals. His counterpart in Roman mythology is Mercury.

Maia, a daughter of Atlas, was Hermes’ mother, but little is known about her other than a brief mention in Hesiod. Hermes began to make a name for himself very shortly after his birth, killing a tortoise in order to use its shell to make the very first lyre. Needing strings for his lyre, he stole his brother Apollo’s cattle, so he could use their intestines to complete his instrument. Knowing full well that this would not please Apollo, he attempted to cover the theft by making the cows walk backwards and following them wearing shoes made of twigs worn backwards.

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All of Hermes’ ploys were wasted, because he was seen in the act by an old man who told Apollo. When Apollo went to confront the thief, he found the infant sleeping innocently in his cradle. Apollo hauled him off to an audience with Zeus, and Hermes finally confessed, offering Apollo the lyre in payment. Apollo was so pleased that he bestowed the rest of the herd on his brother in exchange. Apollo also gave Hermes his herald’s staff or wand, the caduceus, which bore the design of two serpents twining around it. It was also Hermes who liberated Io from Hera after Zeus turned Io into a cow to hide his extramarital doings from Hera and then ended up having to give Hera the heifer as a gift.

Hermes had several sons. Daphnis, his son with a nymph, was the inventor of pastoral music. Pan, another son, does not have a clearly identified mother; he is half man and half goat, and associated with the Roman deity Faunus. Abderus, too, is a son of Hermes who lacks a known mother. He was a companion of Hercules or Heracles in the capture of the mares of Diomedes. The mares were left in Abderus’s care while Hercules was away, and they devoured him, and act for which Hercules sought vengeance. Hermaphroditus was the son of Hermes and the goddess Aphrodite, and Autolycus, the great thief, was his son with Chione, the daughter of Daedalion. Autolycus is also the grandfather of Odysseus.

Mercury is the closest planet to the Sun, and named for the God. Hermes was the name of a French mini-shuttle, designed to carry three astronauts and service a small space station. Although the program was begun in 1987, it was eventually terminated, prior to any of the shuttles being built. Mercury is also an element, named after the god for his renowned speed, and the Mercury program was the US series of flights that put astronaut John Glenn in orbit in 1962.

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