A son of Zeus and Maia, the daughter of Atlas, was born in a cave of Mount Cyllene in Arcadia whence he is called Atlantiades or Cyllenius ; but Philostratus places his birth in Olympus. In the first hours after his birth, he escaped from his cradle, went to Pieiria, and carried off some of the oxen of Apollo.
In the Iliad and Odyssey this tradition is not mentioned, though Hermes is characterised as a cunning thief. Other accounts, again, refer the theft of the oxen to a more advanced period of the life of the god.
In order not to be discovered by the traces of his footsteps, Hermes put on sandals, and drove the oxen to Pylos, where he killed two, and concealed the rest in a cave. The skins of the slaughtered animals were nailed to a rock, and part of their flesh was prepared and consumed, and the rest burnt; at the same time he offered scrifices to the twelve gods, whence he is probably called the inventor of divine worship and sacrifices.
Hereupon he returned to Cyllene, where he found a tortoise at the entrance of his native cave. He took the animal's shell, drew strings across it, and thus invented the lyre and plectrum. The number of strings of his new invention is said by some to have been three and by others seven, and they were made of the guts either of oxen or of sheep. Apollo, by his prophetic power, had in the meantime discovered the thief, and went to Cyllene to charge him with it before his mother Maia. She showed to the god the child in its cradle but Apollo took the boy before Zeus, and demanded back his oxen. Zeus commanded him to comply with the demand of Apollo, but Hermes denied that he had stolen the cattle.
As, however, he saw that his assertions were not believed, he conducted Apollo to Pylos, and restored to him his oxen; but when Apollo heard the sounds of the lyre, he was so charmed that he allowed Hermes to keep the animals. Hermes now invented the syrinx, and after having disclosed his inventions to Apollo, the two gods concluded an intimate friendship with each other. Apollo presented his young friend with his own golden shepherd's staff, taught him the art of prophesying by means of dice, and Zeus made him his own herald, and also of the gods of the lower world. According to the Homeric hymn, Apollo refused to teach Hermes the art of prophecy, and referred him for it to the three sisters dwelling on Parnassus; but he conferred upon him the office of protecting flocks and pastures
The principal feature in the traditions about Hermes consists in his being the herald of the gods, and in this capacity he appears even in the Homeric poems; his original character of an ancient Pe-lasgian, or Arcadian divinity of nature, gradually disappeared in the legends. As the herald of the gods, he is the god of skill in the use of speech and of eloquence in general, for the heralds are the public speakers in the assemblies and on other occasions.
As an adroit speaker, he was especially employed as messenger, when eloquence was required to attain the desired object. Hence the tongues of sacrificial animals were offered to him. As heralds and messengers are usually men of prudence and circumspection, Hermes was also the god of prudence and skill in all the relations of social intercourse.
These qualities were combined with similar ones, such as cunning, both in words and actions, and even fraud, perjury, and the inclination to steal ; but acts of this kind were committed by Hermes always with a certain skill, dexterity, and even gracefulness. Examples occur in the Homeric hymn on Hermes.
Being endowed with this shrewdness and sagacity, he was regarded as the author of a variety of inventions, and, besides the lyre and syrinx, he is said to have invented the alphabet, numbers, astronomy, music, the art of fighting, gymnastics, the cultivation of the olive tree, measures, weights, and many other things. The powers which he possessed himself he conferred upon those mortals and heroes who enjoyed his favour, and all who had them were under his especial protection, or are called his sons.
He was employed by the gods and more especially by Zeus on a variety of occasions which are recorded in ancient story. Thus he conducted Priam to Achilles to fetch the body of Hector, tied Ixion to the wheel, conducted Hera, Aphrodite, and Athena to Paris, fastened Prometheus to Mount Caucasus, rescued Dionysus after his birth from the flames, or received him from the hands of Zeus to carry him to Athamas, sold Heracles to Omphale, and was ordered by Zeus to carry off lo, who was metamorphosed into a cow, and guarded by Argus ; but being betrayed by Hierax, he slew Argus.
In the Trojan war Hermes was on the side of the Greeks. His ministry to Zeus is not confined to the offices of herald and messenger, but he is also the charioteer and cupbearer. As dreams are sent by Zeus, Hermes conducts them to man, and hence he is also described as the god who had it in his power to send refreshing sleep or to take it away. Another important function of Hermes was to conduct the shades of the dead from the upper into the lower world.
Numerous statues of the god were erected on roads, at doors and gates, from which circumstance he derived a variety of surnames and epithets. As the god of commerce, and as commerce is the source of wealth, Hermes is also the god of gain and riches, especially of sudden and unexpected riches, such as are acquired by commerce. As the giver of wealth and good luck, he also presided over the game of dice, and those who played it threw an olive leaf upon the dice, and first drew this leaf.
We have already observed that Hermes was considered as the inventor of sacrifices, and hence he not only acts the part of a herald at sacrifices, but is also the protector of sacrificial animals, and was believed in particular to increase the fertility of sheep. For this reason he was especially worshipped by shepherds, and is mentioned in connection with Pan and the Nymphs. This feature in the character of Hermes is a remnant of the ancient Arcadian religion, in which he was the fertilising god of the earth, who conferred his blessings on man; and some other traces of this character occur in the Homeric poems.
Another important function of Hermes was his being the patron of all the gymnastic games of the Greeks. This idea seems to be of late origin, for in the Homeric poems no trace of it is found ; and the appearance of the god, such as it is there described, is very different from that which we might expect in the god of the gymnastic art. But as his images were erected in so many places, and among them, at the entrance of the gymnasia, the natural result was, that he, like Heracles and the Dioscuri, was regarded as the protector of youths and gymnastic exercises and contests, and that at a later time the Greek artists derived their ideal of the god from the gymnasium, and represented him as a youth whose limbs were beautifully and harmoniously developed by gymnastic exercises. Athens seems to have been the first place in which he was worshipped in this capacity.
The numerous descendants of Hermes are treated of in separate articles. It should be observed that the various functions of the god led some of the ancients to assume a plurality of gods of this name. Cicero distinguishes five, and Servius four; but these numbers also include foreign divinities, which were identified by the Greeks with their own Hermes.
The most ancient seat of his worship is Arcadia, the land of his birth, where Lycaon, the son of Pelasgus, is said to have built to him the first temple. From thence his worship was carried to Athens, and ultimately spread through all Greece. The festivals celebrated in his honour were called "Epicure".
His temples and statues were extremely numerous in Greece. The Romans identified him with Mercury. [mercurius.] Among the things sacred to him we may mention the palm tree, the tortoise, the number four, and several kinds of fish; and the sacrifices offered to him consisted of incense, honey, cakes, pigs, and especially lambs and young goats.
The principal attributes of Hermes are:
1. A travelling hat, with a broad brim, which in later times was adorned with two little wings ; the latter, however,-are sometimes seen arising from his locks, his head not being covered with the hat.
2. The staff: it is frequently mentioned in the Homeric poems as the magic staff by means of which he closes and opens the eyes of mortals, but no mention is made of the person or god from whom he received it, nor of the entwining serpents which appear in late works of art. According to the Homeric hymn and Apollodorus, he received it from Apollo ; and it appears that we must distinguish two staves, which were afterwards united into one : first, the ordinary herald's staff, and secondly, a magic staff, such as other divinities also possessed.
The white ribbons with which the herald's staff was originally surrounded were changed by later artists into two serpents, though the ancients themselves accounted for them either by tracing them to some feat of the god, or by regarding them as symbolical representations of prudence, life, health, and the like. The staff, in later times, is further adorned with a pair of wings, expressing the rapidity with which the messenger of the gods moved from place to place.
3. The sandals. They were beautiful and golden, and carried the god across land and sea with the rapidity of wind; but Homer no where says or suggests that they were provided with wings. The plastic art, on the other hand, required some out ward sign to express this quality of the god's sandals, and therefore formed wings at his ankles, whence he is called alipes.
In addition to these attributes, Hermes sometimes holds a purse in his hands. Several representations of the god at different periods of "his life, as well as in the discharge of his different functions, have come down to us.
HERMES and HERMES TRISMEGISTUS ('Ep/i7js and *Ep/,tf)S Tpur(j.eyicrTos)9 the reputed author of a variety of works, some of which are still extant. In order to understand their origin and nature, it is necessary to cast a glance at the philosophy of the New Platonists and its objects. The religious ideas of the Greeks were viewed as in some way connected with those of the Egyptians at a comparatively early period. Thus the Greek Hermes was identified with the Egyptian Thot, or Theut, as early as the time of Plato.
But the intermixture of the religious ideas of the two countries became more prominent at the time when Christianity began to raise its head, and when pagan nhilosophy, in the form of New Platonism made its last and desperate effort against the Christian religion. Attempts were then made, to represent the wisdom of the ancient Egyptians in a higher and more spiritual light, to amalgamate it with the ideas of the Greeks, and thereby to give to the latter a deep religious meaning, which made them appear as a very ancient divine revelation, and as a suitable counterpoise to the Christian religion.
The Egyptian Thot or Hermes was considered as the real author of every thing produced and discovered by the human mind, as the father of all knowledge, inventions, legislation, religion, etc. Hence every thing that man had discovered and committed to writing was regarded as the property of Hermes. As he was thus the source of all knowledge and thought embodied, he was termed rpls neytaros, Hermes Trismegistus, or simply Trismegistus.
It was fabled that Pythagoras and Plato had derived all their knowledge from the Egyptian Hermes, who had recorded his thoughts and inventions in inscriptions upon pillars. Clemens of Alexandria speaks of forty-two books of Hermes, containing the sum total of human and divine knowledge and wisdom, and treating on cosmography, astronomy, geography, religion, with all its forms and rites, and more especially on medicine.
There is no reason for doubting the existence of such a work or works, under the name of Hermes, at the time of Clemens. In the time of the New Platonists, the idea of the authorship of Hermes was carried still further, and applied to the whole range of literature. Lamblichus designates the sum total of all the arts and sciences among the Egyptians by the name Hermes, and he adds that, of old, all authors used to call their own productions the works of Hermes.
This notion at once explains the otherwise strange statement in lamblichus, that Hermes was the author of 20,000 works ; Manetho even speaks of 36,525 works, a number which exactly corresponds with that of the years which he assigns to his several dynasties of kings. Lamblichus mentions the works of Hermes in several passages, and speaks of them as translated from the Egyptian into Greek. Plutarch, also speaks of works attributed to Hermes, and so does Galen and Cyrillus.
The existence of works under the name of Hermes, as early as the second century after Christ, is thus proved beyond a doubt. Their contents were chiefly of a philosophico-religious nature, on the nature and attributes of the deity, on the world and nature ; and from the work of Lactantius, who wrote his Institutes chiefly to refute the educated and learned among the pagans, we cannot help perceiving that Christianity, the religion which it was intended to crush by those works, exercised a considerable influence upon their authors.
The question as to the real authorship of what are called the works of Hermes, or Hermes Trismegistus, has been the subject of much controversyj but the most probable opinion is, that they were productions of New Platonists. Some of them appear to have been written in a pure and sober spirit, and were intended to spread the doctrines of the New Platonists, and make them popular, in opposition to the rising power of Christianity, but others were full of the most fantastic and visionary theories, consisting for the most part of astrological and magic speculations, the most favourite topics of New Platonism.
Several works of this class have- come down to our times, some in the Greek language sad. others only'in Latin translations ; but all those which are now extant are of an inferior kind, and were, in ail probability, composed during the later period of New Platonism, when a variety of Christian notions had become embodied in that system. It may be taken for granted, on the whole, that none of the works bearing the name of Hermes, in the form in which they are now before us, belongs to an earlier date than the fourth, or perhaps the third, century of our era, though it cannot be denied that they contain ideas which may be as ancient as New Platonism itself. We here notice only the principal works which have been published, for many are extant only in MS., and buried in various libraries.
1. Atryos reaetos, perhaps the most ancient among the works attributed to Hermes. The Greek original is quoted by Lactantius, but we now possess only a Latin translation, which was formerly attributed to Appuleius of Madaura. It bears the title Asdepius, or Hermetis Trismegisti Asclepius sive de Natura Deorum Dialogus, and seems to have been written shortly before the time of Lactantius. Its object is to refute Christian doctrines, but the author has at the same time made use of them for his own purposes. It seems to have been composed in Egypt, perhaps at Alexandria, and has the form of a dialogue, in which Hermes converses with a disciple (Asclepius) upon God, the universe, nature, etc., and quite in the spirit of the New Platonic philosophy. It is printed in some editions of Appuleius, and also in those of the Poemander, by Ficinus and Patricius. The latter editions, as well as the Poemander, by Hadr.
2. Poemander is a work of larger extent, and in so far the most important production of the kind we possess. The title Poemander (from a shepherd, pastor) seems to have been chosen in imitation of the iroijurfy, or Pastor of Hernias [hermas], who has sometimes even been considered as the author of the Poemander. The whole work was divided by Ficinus into fourteen, but by Patricius into twenty books, each with a separate heading. It is written in the form of a dialogue, and can scarcely have been composed previous to the fourth century of our era. It treats of nature, the creation of the world, the deity, his nature and attributes, the human soul, knowledge, and the like; and all these subjects are discussed in the spirit of New Platonism, but sometimes Christian, oriental, and Jewish notions are mixed up with it in a remarkable manner, showing the syncretism so peculiar to the philosophy of the period to which we hare assigned this work. It was first published in a Latin translation by Ficinus, under the title Mercurii Trismegisti Liber de Potestate et Sapientia Dei, Tarvisii, 1471, fol., which was afterwards often reprinted, as at Venice in 1481, 1483, 1493, 1497, etc.
The Greek original, with the translation of Ficinus, was first edited by Hadr. Turnebus, Paris, 1554, 4to., and was afterwards published again in Fr. Flussatis, Candallae Industria, Bordeaux, 1574; in Patricius' Nova de universis Phi-losopMa Libris quatuor cotnprehensa, Ferrara, 1593, fol., and again in 1611, fol., and at Cologne in 1630, fol., with a commentary by Hannibal Rosellus.
The idea of his being the herald and messenger of the gods, of his travelling from place to place and concluding treaties, necessarily implied the notion that he was the promoter of social intercourse and of commerce among men, and that he was friendly towards man.
In this capacity he was regarded as the maintainer of peace, and as the god of roads, who protected travellers, and punished those who refused to assist travellers who had mistaken their way. Hence the Athenian generals, on setting out on an expedition, offered sacrifices to Hermes, surnamed Hegemonius, or Agetor.