Apollo is in art the ideal type of young manhood; a similar figure in appearance, but younger and less muscular, is his half-brother Hermes. There the resemblance stops, for Apollo has perhaps a higher moral development than any other Greek god save Zeus himself, whereas Hermes remains largely non-moral. Yet their beginnings were not very dissimilar. Hermes seems to be native to Arkadia, where his birth took place and where he always was much worshipped; his connexion with fertility and with all manner of beasts, and the fact that he is god of luck and can give wealth, honest or dishonest in its origin (he is god of traders and also of thieves), all suggest that he is, like Apollo Nomios, a deity whose influence extended over the traditional ancient form of wealth, flocks and herds and their increase. He likewise is connected with human fertility, and one of his oldest cult-monuments is simply the phallos, which remained a prominent feature of his cult. Occasionally he governs the fertility of the earth also. While not a fire-god, he is credited with having invented fire-making; and as he is the servant and messenger of the greater gods, he even appears as a cook. But his principal character is that of the divine herald (keryx), in which capacity he is regularly represented as wearing the broad hat (petasos) with which Greek wayfarers kept the sun out of their eyes, and carrying a herald’s staff (kerykeion, caduceus).

All this is explicable enough if we suppose that he was and long continued to be the deity of a rather simple and backward folk, as we know the Arkadians were, but developed to the extent of having many functions, including the protection of travellers in wild and ill-policed country. He certainly was god of roads, and a very plausible etymology of his name Hermeias or Hermes is that which connects it with herma, (rock, stone, ballast); for in ancient Greece, as in many other countries, piles of stone were common objects on a roadside, not to supply road-metal, but to mark holy spots, where a kindly or dangerous spirit dwelt. Hermes then was perhaps ultimately just the Spirit of the Stone-heap; but we must not forget the possibility that the Arkadians found him in Arkadia when they arrived there, and that his name is not Greek at all. Certain it is that he was very often worshipped under the form of a mere stone, and that his most characteristic monuments, the hermai or herms which bear his name, are not statues but square pillars, tapering a little towards the bottom, crowned with a human head, and having a phallos part-way up the front. If then he remained a some- what backward god, we can understand why he holds no very high place among the Olympians, but is the younger son of the divine family, running errands for the rest and especially for his father Zeus.

But, perhaps for that very reason, he is no less dear to man than many of the greater deities. A friendly and rather an amorous god, he delights in the assemblies of men for all manner of purposes, and not least in their deliberations, for he is among his other functions god of eloquence, whether in prose or in verse. He also is a musician and patron of music. Also, he is the especial god of young men, and every gymnasium contained a herm. In those statues which show him in fully human shape, his body is that of a slim and graceful but nowise effeminate Greek ephebos, a youth of about seventeen or eighteen. It is thus that he appears in the marvellous statue by Praxiteles which forms the chief glory of the museum at Olympia.

Nor does his connexion with mankind cease at their death, for he is also Guide of Souls (Psychopompos). It need hardly be repeated that a god of fertility is apt to form connexions with the underworld; in Hermes’ case, the fact that he is a messenger perhaps had something to do with the idea; he is the go-between who carries tidings from one of the divine brethren to another. It is apparently on account of his chthonian functions that he is identified with Kasmilos or Kadmilos, one of the Kabeiroi. Even so, he never is a grim or formidable god, but rather courteous, popular and kindly, as befits a herald, whose person is everywhere sacred.

Head of Hermes wearing a
petasos in profile on an ancient Greek coin


The legend of his birth is preserved in one of the ‘Homeric’ Hymns, which handles the subject with just that good-natured humour which befits it; for few Greek gods mind a harmless joke or so, and certainly Hermes does not. ‘At dawn he was born,’ says this merry author, ‘by noon he was playing on the lyre, and that evening he stole the cattle of Apollo Far-darter, on the fourth day from the beginning of the month, when lady Maia bare him.’ he details are here and there a little obscure, but the outlines are clear. Hermes, soon after he was born, left his cradle and walked out of the cave where his mother lived. [Born thus to a nymphal mother who lived alone with him in a remote mainland place, Hermes was conditioned by birth, as it were, to appreciate beautiful nymphs who lived alone in caves; so, said some, having met Kalypso at her remote and lonely cave-dwelling in Ogygia on the occasion of his mission to secure the departure of Odysseus in the Odyssey, Hermes himself became her husband after her erstwhile, mortal lover had gone.]

At the entrance to his mother Maia’s cave he met a tortoise, which he promptly seized and took inside the cave, where he killed it and converted its shell into the sounding-board of the first lyre that ever was made. After an extempore song, he turned to a new amusement. Making his way to Pieria—a very tolerable walk for a baby—he stole fifty cows from a herd belonging to Apollo, and drove them off, making them walk backwards and following them, also walking backwards, with a sort of improvised snowshoes of plaited twigs on his feet, to confuse the tracks still more. In passing, he gave a broad hint to an old vine-dresser not to inform against him, and so made his way to the Triphylian Pylos, where he slaughtered two of the cattle. Having cut them up in proper ritual fashion for a sacrifice, he finally returned to Kyllene, just before dawn, and tucked himself up in his cradle, the picture of baby innocence. Maia, with a proper regard for her maternal duties, did her best to scold him, but was assured that he was quite capable of taking care of himself. Next day Apollo, who had been put on the track by the old man, arrived in a great rage. Distrusting Hermes’ bland assurance that he was too young even to know what the word ‘cow’ meant, he haled him off to appear before Zeus. The latter listened to a speech of consummate impudence made by Hermes in his own defence, and ordered him to restore the cattle. Hermes, who at some point in the proceedings had stolen Apollo’s bow and quiver, thought it best to comply, and soon mollified his elder brother by producing the lyre. Apollo in return gave Hermes, or got for him from Zeus, the various powers which have already been mentioned, save eloquence and ingenuity in theft, which he had already, and also taught him a little elementary divinatiton, a gift of which he made some use, for he here and there gives oracles in a small way, not trespassing an the Apolline monopoly. He likewise gave him his marvellous staff, which tends in literature (art distinguishes it better) to be, not simply a herald’s badge of office, but a magician’s wand.

Other poets add a few details to the story, mostly concerning the old man who saw Hermes go by and afterwards gave information to Apollo, and the reason for Apollo’s leaving his cattle untended. Magnes, after whom Magnesia was named, the son of Argos (son of Phrixos) and Perimele daughter of Admetos, had a very handsome son, Hymenaios, whom Apollo so admired that he was never long away from Magnes’ house. Hermes profited by the elder god’s abstraction, and drugged the dogs who watched the herds. As he drove them away—the story here differs from that of the Hymn in some few unimportant details—he met near home with an old man known as Battos (Chatterbox), who agreed, in consideration of the gift of a cow, to hold his tongue. Mistrusting him, Hermes disguised himself and visited Battos again, with the offer of a reward for information. On this being accepted, he punished the old man’s perfidy by turning him into a rock.

An obscure tale represents Hermes as befooling Hera into becoming his foster-mother, and therefore obliged to treat him as her own son. This he accomplished by disguising himself as her own infant, Ares.

Hermes’ love affairs mostly concern mortal women; but one which is rather famous is with Aphrodite herself. The two deities are not seldom associated in cult; according to a story preserved to us in Ovid, they are the parents of a bi-sexual godling, a Greek adaptation probably of Oriental gods, who frequently combine the two sexes. Hermaphroditos, as he was called after his parents, was exceedingly handsome, and a fountain-nymph, Salmakis, fell violently in love with him. He would have none of her, but gave her an opportunity at last by bathing in her spring. She prayed that she might always be united with him, and her prayer was answered by the combination of lover and loved into a single person, a hermaphrodite, as we and the ancients call such monstrosities. But from the fourth century B.C. onwards, when the taste of Greek sculptors was beginning to degenerate, this ambiguous figure was in high favour, and numerous representations, many having a morbid beauty, survive. The spring Salmakis, which was at Halikarnassos, was supposed to enervate any man who bathed in it.

According to some genealogies, Priapos also was a child of Hermes and Aphrodite.

Another tale represents him as uniting with Artemis, Hekate, or Brimo, the last being an obscure goddess worshipped, or at least mentioned, at the Eleusinian Mysteries. As the authors from whom we hear this story are all liable to identify deities of related function with one another (syncretism, to use the technical term) it is hard to say whether this is a very old tale in which Artemis is not yet a virgin, an obscure local legend (Thessalian? the scene of the amour is Lake Boibeis) of some community worshipping Brimo, or one of the many tales of the union of two powers of fertility, which in this case has become attached to Hekate.

The Italians identified Hermes with Mercurius, whose functions, since he was god of traders and their wares, merces, did really correspond to those of Hermes to some extent, if indeed he is not simply a Latin offshoot of the Greek god.

The ‘Homeric’ Hymn to Hermes

Muse, sing of Hermes, the son of Zeus and Maia, lord of Cyllene and Arcadia rich in flocks, the luck-bringing messenger of the immortals whom Maia bare, the rich-tressed nymph, when she was joined in love with Zeus—a shy goddess, for she avoided the company of the blessed gods, and lived within a deep, shady cave. There the son of Cronos used to lie with the rich-tressed nymph, unseen by deathless gods and mortal men, at dead of night while sweet sleep should hold white-armed Hera fast. And when the purpose of great Zeus was fulfilled, and the tenth moon with her was fixed in heaven, she was delivered and a notable thing was come to pass. For then she bare a son, of many shifts, blandly cunning, a robber, a cattle driver, a bringer of dreams, a watcher by night, a thief at the gates, one who was soon to show forth wonderful deeds among the deathless gods. Born with the dawning, at mid-day he played on the lyre, and in the evening he stole the cattle of far-shooting Apollo on the fourth day of the month; for on that day queenly Maia bare him.

So soon as he had leaped from his mother’s heavenly womb, he lay not long waiting in his holy cradle, but he sprang up and sought the oxen of Apollo. But as he stepped over the threshold of the high-roofed cave, he found a tortoise there and gained endless delight. For it was Hermes who first made the tortoise a singer. The creature fell in his way at the courtyard gate, where it was feeding on the rich grass before the dwelling, waddling along. When he saw it, the luck-bringing son of Zeus laughed and said:

“An omen of great luck for me so soon! I do not slight it. Hail, comrade of the feast, lovely in shape, sounding at the dance! With joy I meet you! Where got you that rich gaud for covering, that spangled shell—a tortoise living in the mountains? But l will take and carry you within: you shall help me and I will do you no disgrace, though first of all you must profit me. It is better to be at home: harm may come out of doors. Living, you shall be a spell against mischievous witchcraft [Pliny noticed the belief that the flesh of a tortoise was propylactic against witchcraft]; but if you die, then you shall make sweetest song.”

Thus speaking, he took up the tortoise in both hands and went back into the house carrying his charming toy. Then he cut off its limbs and scooped out the marrow of the mountain-tortoise with a scoop of grey iron. As a swift thought darts through the heart of a man when thronging cares haunt him, or as bright glances flash from the eye, so glorious Hermes planned both thought and deed at once. He cut stalks of reed to measure and fixed them, fastening their ends across the back and through the shell of the tortoise, and then stretched ox hide all over it by his skill. Also he put in the horns and fitted a cross-piece upon the two of them, and stretched seven strings of sheep-gut. But when be had made it he proved each string in turn with the key, as he held the lovely thing. At the touch of his hand it sounded marvellously; and, as he tried it, the god sang sweet random snatches, even as youths bandy taunts at festivals. He sang of Zeus the son of Cronos and neat-shod Maia, the converse which they had before in the comradeship of love, telling all the glorious tale of his own begetting. He celebrated, too, the handmaids of the nymph, and her bright home, and the tripods all about the house, and the abundant cauldrons.

But while he was singing of all these, his heart was bent on other matters. And he took the hollow lyre and laid it in his sacred cradle, and sprang from the sweet-smelling hall to a watch-place, pondering sheer trickery in his heart—deeds such as knavish folk pursue in the dark night-time; for he longed to taste flesh.

late 6th-century red figure cup

The Sun was going down beneath the earth towards Ocean with his horses and chariot when Hermes came hurrying to the shadowy mountains of Pieria, where the divine cattle of the blessed gods had their steads and grazed the pleasant, unmown meadows. Of these the Son of Maia, the sharp-eyed slayer of Argus then cut off from the herd fifty loud-lowing kine, and drove them straggling-wise across a sandy place, turning their hoof-prints aside. Also, he bethought him of a crafty ruse and reversed the marks of their hoofs, making the front behind and the hind before, while he himself walked the other way [Hermes makes the cattle walk backwards, so that their spoor seems to go towards the meadow instead of leaving it; he himself walks in the normal manner, relying on his sandals, which are turned toe heelward, to disguise his movement]. Then he wove sandals with wicker-work by the sand of the sea, wonderful things, unthought of, unimagined; for he mixed together tamarisk and myrtle-twigs, fastening together an armful of their fresh, young wood, and tied them leaves and all securely under his feet as light sandals. That brushwood the glorious Slayer of Argus plucked in Pieria as he was preparing for his journey, making shift as one making haste for a long journey.

But an old man tilling his flowering vineyard saw him as he was hurrying down the plain through grassy Onchestus. So the Son of Maia began and said to him:

“Old man, digging about your vines with bowed shoulders, surely you shall have much wine when all these bear fruit, if you obey me and strictly remember not to have seen what you have seen, and not to have heard what you have heard, and to keep silent when nothing of your own is harmed.”

When he had said this much, he hurried the strong cattle on together; through many shadowy mountains and echoing gorges and flowery plains glorious Hermes drove them. And now the divine night, his dark ally, was mostly passed, and dawn that sets folk to work was quickly coming on, while bright Selene, daughter of the lord Pallas, Megamedes’ son, had just climbed her watch-post, when the strong Son of Zeus drove the wide-browed cattle of Phoebus Apollo to the river Alpheus. And they came unwearied to the high-roofed byres and the drinking-troughs that were before the noble meadow. Then, after he had well-fed the loud-bellowing cattle with fodder and driven them into the byre, closepacked and chewing lotus and dewy galingal, he gathered a pile of wood and began to seek the art of fire. He chose a stout laurel branch and trimmed it with the knife held firmly in his hand; and the hot smoke rose up. For it was Hermes who first invented fire-sticks and fire. Next he took many dried sticks and piled them thick and plenty in a sunken trench: and flame began to glow, spreading afar the blast of fierce-burning fire.

And while the strength of glorious Hephaestus was beginning to kindle the fire, he dragged out two lowing, horned cows close to the fire; for great strength was with him. He threw them both panting upon their backs on the ground, and rolled them on their sides, bending their necks over, and pierced their vital chord. Then he went on from task to task: first he cut up the rich, fatted meat, and pierced it with wooden spits, and roasted flesh and the honourahle chine and the paunch full of dark blood all together. He laid them there upon the ground, and spread out the hides on a rugged rock: and so they are still there many ages afterwards, a long, long time after all this, and are continually. Next glad-hearted Hermes dragged the rich meats he had prepared and put them on a smooth, flat stone, and divided them into twelve portions distributed by lot, making each portion wholly honourable. Then glorious Hermes longed for the sacrificial meat, for the sweet savour wearied him, god though he was; nevertheless his proud heart was not prevailed upon to devour the flesh, although he greatly desired. But he put away the fat and all the flesh in the high-roofed byre, placing them high up to be a token of his youthful theft. And after that he gathered dry sticks and utterly destroyed with fire all the hoofs and all the heads.

And when the god had duly finished all, he threw his sandals into deep-eddying Alpheus, and quenched the embers, covering the black ashes with sand, and so spent the night while Selene’s soft light shone down. Then the god went straight back again at dawn to the bright crests of Cyllene, and no one met him on the long journey either of the blessed gods or mortal men, nor did any dog bark. And luck-bringing Hermes, the son of Zeus, passed edgeways through the key-hole of the hall like the autumn breeze, even as mist; straight through the cave he went and came to the rich inner chamber, walking softly, and making no noise as one might upon the floor. Then glorious Hermes went hurriedly to his cradle, wrapping his swaddling clothes about his shoulders as though he were a feeble babe, and lay playing with the covering about his knees; but at his left hand he kept close his sweet lyre.

But the god did not pass unseen by the goddess his mother; but she said to him: “How now, you rogue! Whence come you back so at night-time, you that wear shamelessness as a garment? And now I surely believe the son of Leto will soon have you forth out of doors with unbreakable cords about your ribs, or you will live a rogue’s life in the glens robbing by whiles. Go to, then; your father got you to be a great worry to mortal men and deathless gods.”

Then Hermes answered her with crafty words: “Mother, why do you seek to frighten me like a feeble child whose heart knows few words of blame, a fearful babe that fears its mother’s scolding? No, I will try whatever plan is best, and so feed myself and you continually. We will not be content to remain here, as you bid, alone of all the gods unfee’d with offerings and prayers. Better to live in fellowship with the deathless gods continually, rich, wealthy, and enjoying stores of grain, than to sit always in a gloomy cave: and, as regards honour, I too will enter upon the rite that Apollo has. If my father will not give it me, I will seek—and I am able—to be a prince of robbers. And if Leto’s most glorious son shall seek me out, I think another and a greater loss will befall him. For I will go to Pytho to break into his great house, and will plunder therefrom splendid tripods, and cauldrons, and gold, ana plenty of bright iron, and much apparel; and you shall see it if you will.”

With such words they spoke together, the son of Zeus who holds the aegis, and the lady Maia. Now Eros the early born was rising from deep-flowing Ocean, bringing light to men, when Apollo, as he went, came to Onchestus, the lovely grove and sacred place of the loud-roaring Holder of the Earth. There he found an old man grazing his beast along the pathway from his court-yard fence, and the all-glorious Son of Leto began and said to him:

“Old man, thorn-plucker of grassy Onchestus, I am come here from Pieria seeking cattle—all of them cows, all with curving horns—from my herd. The black bull was grazing alone away from the rest, but fierce-eyed hounds followed the cows, four of them, all of one mind, like men. These were left behind, the dogs and the bull—which is a great marvel; but the cows strayed out of the soft meadow, away from the pasture when the sun was just going down. Now tell me this, old man born long ago: have you seen one passing along behind those cows?”

Then the old man answered him and said: “My son, it is hard to tell all that one’s eyes see; for many wayfarers pass to and fro this way, some bent on much evil, and some on good; it is difficult to know each one. However, I was digging about my plot of vineyard all day long until the sun went down, and I thought, good sir, but I do not know for certain, that I marked a child, whoever the child was, that followed long-horned cattle—an infant who had a staff and kept walking from side to side: he was driving them backwards, with their heads towards him.”

So said the old man. And when Apollo heard this report, he went yet more quickly on his way, and presently, seeing a long-winged bird, he knew at once by that omen that the thief was the child of Zeus the son of Cronos. So the lord Apollo, son of Zeus, hurried on to goodly Pylos seeking his shambling oxen, and he had his broad shoulders covered with a dark cloud. But when the Far-Shooter perceived the tracks, he cried:

“Oh, oh! Truly this is a great marvel that my eyes behold! These are indeed the tracks of straight-horned oxen, but they are turned backwards towards the flowery meadow. But these others are not the footprints of man or woman or grey wolves or bears or lions, nor do I think they are the tracks of a rough-maned Centaur-whoever it may be that with swift feet makes such monstrous footprints; the tracks on this side of the way are wonderful, but those on the other side are even more marvelous.”

When he had so said, the lord Apollo Son of Zeus hastened on and came to the forest-clad mountain of Cyllene and the deep-shadowed cave in the rock where the divine nymph brought forth the child of Zeus who is the son of Cronos. A sweet odour spread over the lovely hill, and many thin-shanked sheep were grazing on the grass. Then far-shooting Apollo himself stepped down in haste over the stone threshold into the dusky cave.

Now when the Son of Zeus and Maia saw Apollo in a rage about his cattle, he snuggled down in his fragrant swaddling-clothes; and as wood-ash covers over the deep embers of tree-stumps, so Hermes cuddled himself up when he saw the Far-Shooter. He squeezed head and hands and feet together in a small space, like a new-born child seeking sweet sleep, though in truth he was wide awake, and he kept his lyre under his armpit. But the Son of Leto was aware and failed not to perceive the beautiful mountain-nymph and her dear son, albeit a little child and swathed so craftily. He peered in every corner of the great dwelling and, taking a bright key, he opened three closets full of nectar and lovely ambrosia. And much gold and silver was stored in them, and many garments of the nymph, some purple and some silvery white, such as are kept in the sacred houses of the blessed gods. Then, after the Son of Leto had searched out the recesses of the great house, he spoke to glorious Hermes:

“Child lying in the cradle, make haste and tell me of my cattle, or we two will soon fall out angrily. For I will take and cast you into dusky Tartarus and awful hopeless darkness, and neither your mother nor your father shall free you or bring you up again to the light, but you will wander under the earth and be the leader amongst little folk.” [If he is cast into the house of Hades, Hermes will have to be content with being god amonst mere babies like himself, since the shades of those who have died retain the state of growth—whether childhood or adulthood—in which they are at the moment of death.]

Then Hermes answered him with crafty words: “Son of Leto, what harsh words are these you have spoken? And is it cattle of the field you are come here to seek? I have not seen them; I have not heard of them; no one has told me of them. I cannot give news of them, nor win the reward for news. Am I like a cattle-lifter, a stalwart person ? This is no task for me: rather I care for other things: I care for sleep, and milk of my mother’s breast, and wrappings round my shoulders, and warm baths. Let no one hear the cause of this dispute; for this would be a great marvel indeed among the deathless gods that a child newly born should pass in through the forepart of the house with cattle of the field: herein you speak extravagantly. I was born only yesterday, and my feet are soft and the ground beneath is rough; nevertheless, if you will have it so, I will swear a great oath by my father’s head and vow that neither am I guilty myself, neither have I seen any other who stole your cows—whatever cows may be; for I know them only by hearsay.”

So said Hermes, shooting quick glances from his eyes; and he kept raising his brows and looking this way and that, whistling long and listening to Apollo’s story as to an idle tale.

But far-working Apollo laughed softly and said to him: “O rogue, deceiver, crafty in heart, you talk so innocently that I most surely believe that you have broken into many a well-built house and stripped more than one poor wretch bare this night [literally “you have made him sit on the floor,” i.e., “you have stolen everything down to his last chair”], gathering his goods together all over the house without noise. You will plague many a lonely herdsman in mountain glades, when you come on herds and thick-fleeced sheep and have a hankering after flesh. But come now, if you would not sleep your last and latest sleep, get out of your cradle, you comrade of dark night. Surely hereafter this shall be your title amongst the deathless gods, to be continually called the prince of robbers.”

So said Phoebus Apollo, and took the child and began to carry him. But at that moment the strong Slayer of Argus had his plan, and, while Apollo held him in his hands, sent forth an omen, a hard-worked belly-serf, a rude messenger, and sneezed directly after. And when Apollo heard it, he dropped glorious Hermes out of his hands onto the ground; then, sitting down before him, though he was eager to go on his way, he spoke mockingly to Hermes:

“Fear not, little swaddling baby, son of Zeus and Maia. I shall find the strong cattle presently by these omens, and you shall lead the way.”

When Apollo had so said, Cyllenian Hermes sprang up quickly, starting in haste. With both hands he pushed up to his ears the covering that he had wrapped about his shoulders, and said:

“Where are you carrying me, Far-Worker, hastiest of all the gods? Is it because of your cattle that you are so angry and harass me? O dear, would that all the race of oxen might perish; for it is not I who stole your cows, nor did I see another steal them—whatever cows may be, for I have only heard others tell of them. Nay, give me my due and take the matter before Zeus the Son of Cronos.”

So Hermes the shepherd and Leto’s glorious son kept stubbornly disputing each article of their quarrel: Apollo, speaking truly... [lacuna] ...not unfairly sought to seize glorious Hermes because of the cows; but he, the Cyllenian, tried to deceive the God of the Silver Bow with tricks and cunning words. But when, though he had many wiles, he found the other had as many shifts as he did, he began to walk across the sand, himself in front, while the Son of Zeus and Leto came behind. Soon they came, these lovely children of Zeus, to the top of fragrant Olympus, to their father, the Son of Cronos; for that is where the scales of judgement were set for them both. There was an assembly on snowy Olympus, and the immortals who perish not were gathering after the hour of gold-throned Dawn.

Then Hermes and Apollo of the Silver Bow stood at the knees of Zeus, and Zeus who thunders on high spoke to his glorious son and asked him:

“Phoebus, whence come you driving this great spoil, a child new born that has the look of a herald? This is a weighty matter that is come before the council of the gods.”

Then the lord, far-working Apollo, answered him: “O my father, you shall soon hear no trifling tale, though you reproach me that I alone am fond of spoil. Here is a child, a burgling plunderer, whom I found after a long journey in the hills of Cyllene; for my part I have never seen one so pert either among the gods or all men that catch folk unawares throughout the world. He stole away my cows from their meadow and drove them off in the evening along the shore of the loud-roaring sea, making straight for Pylos. There were double tracks, and wonderful they were, such as one might marvel at, the doing of a clever sprite; for as for the cows, the dark dust kept and showed their footprints leading towards the flowery meadow; but he himself—bewildering creature—crossed the sandy ground outside the path, not on his feet nor yet on his hands; but furnished with some other means he trudged his way—wonder of wonders!—as though one were to walk on slender oak-trees.

Now while he followed the cattle across sandy ground, all the tracks showed quite clearly in the dust; but when he had finished the long way across the sand, presently the cows’ track and his own could not be traced over the hard ground. But a mortal man noticed him as he drove the wide-browed kine straight towards Pylos. And as soon as he had shut them up quietly, and had gone home by crafty turns and twists, he lay down in his cradle in the gloom of a dim cave, as still as dark night, so that not even an eagle keenly gazing would have spied him. Much he rubbed his eyes with his hands as he prepared falsehood, and himself straightway said roundly: ‘I have not seen them; I have not heard of them: no man has told me of them. I could not tell you of them, nor win the reward of telling.’”

When he had so spoken, Phoebus Apollo sat down. But Hermes on his part answered and said, pointing at the Son of Cronos, the lord of all the gods:

“Zeus, my father, indeed I will speak truth to you; for I am truthful and I cannot tell a lie. He came to our house to-day looking for his shambling cows, as the sun was newly rising. He brought no witnesses with him nor any of the blessed gods who had seen the theft, but with great violence ordered me to confess, threatening much to throw me into wide Tartarus. For he has the rich bloom of glorious youth, while I was born but yesterday—as he too knows—nor am I like a cattle-lifter, a sturdy fellow. Believe my tale (for you claim to be my own father), that I did not drive his cows to my house—so may I prosper—nor crossed the threshold: this I say truly. I revere Helios greatly and the otber gods, and you I love and him I dread. You yourself know that I am not guilty, and I will swear a great oath upon it: No! by these rich-decked porticoes of the gods. And some day I will punish him, strong as he is, for this pitiless inquisition; but now do you help the younger!”

So spake the Cyllenian, the Slayer of Argus, while he kept shooting sidelong glances and kept his swaddling-clothes upon his arm, and did not cast them away. But Zeus laughed out loud to see his evil-plotting child well and cunningly denying guilt about the cattle. And he bade them both to be of one mind and search for the cattle, and guiding Hermes to lead the way and, without mischievousness of heart to show the place where now he had hidden the strong cattle. Then the Son of Cronos nodded his head: and goodly Hermes obeyed him; for the will of Zeus who holds the aegis easily prevailed with him.

Then the two all-glorious children of Zeus both hastened to sandy Pylos, and reached the ford of Alpheus, and came to the fields and the high-roofed byre where the beasts were nurtured at night-time. Now while Hermes went to the cave in the rock and began to drive out the strong cattle, the son of Leto, looking aside, saw the cowhides on the sheer rock. And he asked glorious Hermes at once:

“How were you able, you crafty rogue, to flay two cows, new-born and babyish as you are? For my part, I dread the strength that will be yours: there is no need you should keep growing long, Cyllenian, son of Maia!”

So saying, Apollo twisted strong withes with his hands meaning to bind Hermes with firm bands; but the bands would not hold him, and the withes of osier fell far from him and began to grow at once from the ground beneath their feet in that very place. And intertwining with one another, they quickly grew and covered all the wild-roving cattle by the will of thievish Hermes, so that Apollo was astonished as he gazed.

Then the strong slayer of Argus looked furtively upon the ground with eyes flashing fire... [lacuna] ...desiring to hide... Very easily he softened the son of all-glorious Leto as he would, stern though the Far-shooter was. He took the lyre upon his left arm and tried each string in turn with the key, so that it sounded awesomely at his touch. And Phoebus Apollo laughed for joy; for the sweet throb of the marvellous music went to his heart, and a soft longing took hold on his soul as he listened.

Then the son of Maia, harping sweetly upon his lyre, took courage and stood at the left hand of Phoebus Apollo, and soon, while he played shrilly on his lyre, he lifted up his voice and sang, and lovely was the sound of his voice that followed. He sang the story of the deathless gods and of the dark earth, how at the first they came to be, and how each one received his portion. First among the gods he honoured Mnemosyne, mother of the Muses, in his song; for the son of Maia was of her following. And next the goodly son of Zeus hymned the rest of the immortals according to their order in age, and told how each was born, mentioning all in order as he struck the lyre upon his arm. But Apollo was seized with a longing not to be allayed, and he opened his mouth and spoke winged words to Hermes:

“Slayer of oxen, trickster, busy one, comrade of the feast, this song of yours is worth fifty cows, and I believe that presently we shall settle our quarrel peacefully. But come now, tell me this, resourceful son of Maia. Has this marvellous thing been with you from your birth, or did some god or mortal man give it you—a noble gift—and teach you heavenly song? For wonderful is this new-uttered sound I hear, the like of which I vow that no man nor god dwelling on Olympus ever yet has known but you, O thievish son of Maia! What skill is this? What song for desperate cares? What manner of song? For verily here are three things to hand all at once from which to choose—mirth, and love, and sweet sleep. And though I am a follower of the Olympian Muses who love dances and the bright path of song—the full-toned chant and ravishing thrill of flutes—yet I never cared for any of those feats of skill at young men’s revels as I do now for this: I am filled with wonder, O son of Zeus, at your sweet playing.

“But now, since you, though little, have such glorious skill, sit down, dear boy, and respect the words of your elders. For now you shall have renown among the deathless gods, you and your mother also. This I will declare to you exactly: by this verge of cornel wood I will surely make you a leader renowned among the deathless gods, and fortunate, and will give you glorious gifts and will not deceive you from first to last.”

Then Hermes answered him with artful words: “You question me carefully, O Far-worker; yet I am not jealous that you should enter upon my art; this day you shall know it. For I seek to be friendly with you both in thought and word. Now you well know all things in your heart, since you sit foremost among the deathless gods, O son of Zeus, and are goodly and strong. And wise Zeus loves you as is altogether right, and has given you splendid gifts. And they say that from the utterance of Zeus you have learned both the honours due to the gods, O Far-worker, and oracles from Zeus, even all his ordinances. I myself have already learned that you possess all these things in great abundance.

“Now, you are free to learn whatever you please; but since, as it seems, your heart is so strongly set on playing the lyre, chant and play upon it and give yourself to merriment, taking this as a gift from me; and do you, my friend, bestow glory on me. Sing well with this clear-voiced companion in your hands; for you are skilled in good, well-ordered utterance. From now on bring it confidently to the rich feast and lovely dance and glorious revel, a joy by night and by day. Whoso with wit and wisdom enquires of it cunningly, him it teaches through its sound all manner of things that delight the mind, being easily played with gentle familiarities, for it abhors toilsome drudgery; but whoso in ignorance enquires of it violently, to him it chatters mere vanity and foolishness.

“But you are able to learn whatever you please. So then, I will give you this lyre, glorious son of Zeus, while I for my part will attend wild-roving cattle as they graze down the pastures on hill and horse-nourishing plain; so shall the cows covered by the bulls calve abundantly both males and females. And now there is no need for you, bargainer though you are, to be furiously angry.”

When Hermes had said this, he held out the lyre; and Phoebus Apollo took it, and readily put his shining whip in Hermes’ hand, and ordained him Keeper of Herds. The son of Maia received it joyfully, while the glorious son of Leto, the lord far-working Apollo, took the lyre upon his left arm and tried each string with the key. Awesomely it sounded at the touch of the god, while he sang sweetly to its note.

Afterwards they two, the all-glorious sons of Zeus, turned the cows back towards the sacred meadow, but themselves hastened back to snowy Olympus, delighting in the lyre. Then wise Zeus was glad and made them both friends. And Hermes loved the son of Leto continually, even as he does now, when he had given the lyre as token to the Far-shooter, who played it skilfully, holding it upon his arm. But for himself Hermes found out another cunning art and made himself the pipes whose sound is heard afar.

Hermes bearded, booted, caped, with traveller’s hat,
short tunic, and kerykeion running on the bottom of
an Athenian red-figure cup attributed to
the ancient painter Oltos.

Then the son of Leto said to Hermes: “Son of Maia, guide and cunning one, I fear you may steal from me the lyre and my curved bow together; for you have an office from Zeus, to establish deeds of barter amongst men throughout the fruitful earth. Now if you would only swear me the great oath of the gods, either by nodding your head, or hy the potent water of Styx, you would do all that can please and ease my heart.”

Then Maia’s son nodded his head and promised that he would never steal anything of all the Far-shooter possessed, and would never go near his strong house; but Apollo, son of Leto, swore to be fellow and friend to Hermes, vowing that he would love no other among the immortals, neither god nor man sprung from Zeus, better than Hermes: and the Father sent forth an eagle in confirmation. And Apollo sware also: “Verily I will make you to be an omen for the immortals and all others besides, trusted and honoured by my heart. Moreover, I will give you a splendid verge of riches and wealth: it is of gold, with three branches, and will keep you scatheless, accomplishing every task, whether of words or deeds that are good, which I claim to know through the utterance of Zeus.

“But as for prophecy, noble, heaven-born child, of which you ask, it is not lawful for you to learn it, nor for any other of the deathless gods; only the mind of Zeus knows that. I am pledged and have vowed and sworn a strong oath that no other of the eternal gods save I should know the wise-hearted counsel of Zeus. And do not you, my brother, bearer of the golden wand, bid me tell those decrees which all-seeing Zeus intends. As for men, I will harm one and profit another, sorely perplexing the tribes of unenviable men. Whosoever shall come guided by the call and flight of birds of sure omen, that man shall have advantage through my voice, and I will not deceive him. But whoso shall trust to idly chattering birds and shall seek to invoke my prophetic art contrary to my will, and to understand more than the eternal gods, I declare that he shall come on an idle journey; yet his gifts I would take.

“But I will tell you another thing, Son of all glorious Maia and Zeus who holds the aegis, luck-bringing genius of the gods. There are certain holy ones, sisters born—three virgins [the Thriae] who delight in their swift wings; their heads are besprinkled with white flour, and they dwell under a ridge of Parnassus apart from me. They are teachers of divination, the same art which I practiced while yet a boy tending herds, and my father did not mind. They fly from their home now here, now there, feeding on honey-comb and bringing all things to pass. And when they are inspired through eating yellow honey, they are willing to speak truth; but if they be deprived of the gods’ sweet food, then they speak falsely as they swarm in and out together. These, then, I give you; enquire of them closely and delight your heart: and if you should teach any mortal so to do, often will he hear your response—if he have good fortune. Take these, Son of Maia, and tend the wild-roving, horned oxen and horses and patient mules.”

So he spoke. And from heaven father Zeus himself gave confirmation to his words, and commanded that glorious Hermes should be lord over all birds of omen and grim-eyed lions, and boars with gleaming tusks, and over dogs and all flocks that the wide earth nourishes, and over all sheep; also that he only should be the appointed messenger to Hades, who, though he takes no gift, shall give him no mean prize.

Thus the lord Apollo showed his kindness for the Son of Maia by all manner of friendship; and the Son of Cronos gave him grace besides. He consorts with all mortals and immortals. He benefits them a little, but endlessly throughout the dark night he beguiles the tribes of mortal men.

And so farewell, Son of Zeus and Maia; but I will remember you and another song also.


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