In Greek mythology, the messenger of the gods; son of Zeus and Maia, one of the Pleiades. Homer's Odyssey presented the god as the conductor of the dead (shades) to Hades, in which capacity he became associated with the underworld and dreams. Identified with the Roman Mercury and ancient Egyptian Thoth, he protected thieves, travellers, and merchants. As a god of good fortune, he presided over some forms of popular divination, public competitions, and games of dice.
Appearance In archaic art he was represented as a bearded man wearing a long chiton (loose tunic), and often a cap or broad-brimmed hat, and winged sandals, but he sometimes appeared in his early pastoral character, bearing a sheep on his shoulders, or as a messenger with a herald's staff (decorated with ribbons) or caduceus (staff entwined with serpents – a development from the ribbons). From the late 5th century BC, Hermes was depicted as a beardless youth, typifying the perfect athlete; the Athenian sculptor Praxiteles portrayed him in this form a century later at Olympia in southern Greece.
Worship His earliest known cult centre was Arcadia in southern Greece, Mount Cyllene being his reputed birthplace. Here he was worshipped as a god of fertility with phallic images. In Homer's Iliad, he was recognized as a protector of sheep and cattle. The hermeia (wayside shrines) were erected to him in his capacity as god of roads and doorways, and patron of travellers; the monuments developed from simple mounds of stones to blocks decorated with a phallus and topped with a bust of the god. Travellers originally added a stone to the mound, but later offered a libation of oil.
Character From Homer onwards, many of the stories in which Hermes appeared endowed the god with cleverness, cunning, and dishonesty. Within a few hours of his birth, Hermes had stolen some oxen belonging to Apollo, god of wisdom, and invented the lyre using a tortoise shell and cow-gut; the tortoise became sacred to him. Later stories demonstrating Hermes intelligence frequently associate him with Apollo. He also reputedly invented the alphabet with the Fates.
Myth Hermes appeared in many legends. He frequently guided the heroes Perseus and Odysseus, and in the Trojan wars he protected Priam of Troy in the Greek camp while the king pleaded for Hector's body. Hermes also managed to kill the 100-eyed Argus, guardian of Zeus' lover Io, by first lulling it to sleep with his lyre.
His sons included Hermaphroditus by Aphrodite; the thief Autolycus by Chione; and the poet Daphnis by a nymph.
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