The Birth & Babyhood of Hermes

The Homeric Hymn to Hermes tells how, like so many other gods and heroes, Hermes was the result of one of Zeus’ extramarital liaisons. Smitten by dark-eyed Maia, a nymph with magnificent hair, who lived in a cave on Mount Cyllene on the borders of Arcadia, Zeus ‘joined with her in the dark of night, while pale-armed Hera slept’. The Hymn catalogues some of Hermes’ many attributes: shifty, wily, thieving, a cattle driver, a dream-bringer, a watcher in the night, a thief beside the doors, he would soon show his famous deeds to the undying gods. Born at the dawn, by noon he was master of the lyre, and in the evening he stole the cattle of Apollo, who shoots from afar.

Within hours of being born Hermes had already leapt from his cradle, discovered a tortoise munching outside by the cave mouth, killed it (the description in the Hymn is gruesome) and used its shell as the basis of an instrument of his own invention – the lyre – to the accompaniment of which he sang of his own conception and birth. However, such entertainment was insufficient for the hours-old trickster god. His exertions had brought on an appetite. To assuage it Hermes turned cattle-rustler.

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Pylos & the Cattle of Apollo

He headed to Pieria, where the gods pastured their cattle. Picking fifty of the finest beasts, he drove them swiftly south, making them walk backwards so that their tracks led not from but towards Pieria. But before he did so he contrived a plan to baffle any searchers even more: to mask his footprints, he made the first pair of sandals by plaiting together sprigs of tamarisk and myrtle.

‘Across dark mountains, through valleys loud with gusting winds and over flowering meadows’ Hermes drove the cattle until near dawn he reached Pylos. But the location of this Pylos was the subject of debate. The Hymn places it by the River Alpheus near Olympia – where there was once a coastal settlement called Pylos. But the same Hymn tells how, having slaughtered and cooked two of the cattle (with the help of his newly invented fire-stick), Hermes: ‘spread their hides across the adamantine rock, where they still remain so many ages later’. Many saw this as a reference to the hide-like stalactites in the cave at Voidhokilia, and in later tradition this Pylos won out.

Replete, Hermes returned to his cradle on Cyllene, ‘slipping sideways through the closed door like late-summer mist’. But it was not long before the clear-seeing Apollo discovered his cattle hidden in the cave and tracked down Hermes. Despite the infant’s protestations, Apollo commanded Hermes and Maia to accompany him to Mount Olympus, where both parties put their case before the gods. Naturally, Zeus could not be deceived and he ordered Hermes to return the cattle to Apollo.

Together the two adversaries returned to Pylos, where Apollo first liberated his cattle then tried to tether Hermes with withies. Hermes had other ideas. He caused the withies to take root, sprout and encircle the cattle; then, strumming his lyre, he sang a long bewitching song about the birth of the gods and the creation of the earth. Apollo was enchanted and proposed a settlement: if Hermes gave him the lyre and taught him to play it, Apollo would overlook the theft and champion the newborn god, making him master over flocks, herds and pasturelands. He would also give Hermes the kerykeion (or herald’s staff, also known by its Latin name, caduceus). The Hymn describes it as a ‘three-branched’ magic golden wand, but it is usually depicted as a rod around which two snakes intertwine, and occasionally tipped with outstretched wings. Hermes could not refuse. So at Pylos the two gods were reconciled and forged a tight-bound friendship.

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