While Hera was sleeping, Zeus went to see Maia, the graceful daughter of Atlas, in a shady cave; and to this secret visit Hermes is said to have owed his existence. Being born in the morning, he at noon played on the lute invented by himself, and in the evening he stole Apollo's oxen.
The lute was invented by him in the following manner. Secretly leaving his cradle at noon, on the first day of his life, and stepping over the threshold, he met a tortoise, whose shell appeared to him a fit instrument for giving musical tones when furnished with strings: "Now thou art dumb," said he, "but after thy death, thy song will be heard." Thus addressing the animal, he immediately killed it, and furnished the shell with seven concordant strings, which he touched with a small stick. As soon as he had turned the newly invented instrument with skillful ear, he could not forbear singing to it, and chanted forth the praise of everything that net his eye, even the tripods and vessels in his mother's house; till at last, his song, passing into a higher strain, found a worthier subject, in the love of Zeus and Maia, his divine parents.
When evening came on, and the sun had descended into the ocean, Hermes found himself upon the Pierian mountains, where the herds of the immortal gods were feeding. From these he stole fifty oxen belonging to Apollo, and devising many a crafty trick to avoid detection, as he drove them onward through valleys and over mountains, he would have escaped discovery, but an old man, who, digging in the field, saw the boy with the oxen, and afterwards betrayed him to Apollo. On the shores of the river Alpheus, Hermes killed two of the stolen oxen, making a sacrifice of them to himself. Having done this, he carefully extinguished the fire, hid the ashes in the ground, and threw the remainder of the killed animals into the river, together with the shoes he had made of twigs and put upon the feet of the oxen, in order to conceal their tracks, or render them undiscernable. All this he performed by moonlight. Before the break of day he gently stole back into his mother's dwelling, and lay down again into his cradle, pulling the clothes around him, and holding the lute, his dearest plaything, in his hand.
Apollo, angry at the theft committed on his oxen, appeared to call Hermes to account, and to recover his property. The thief feigned a deep sleep, having the lute lying under his arm. Apollo threatened to precipitate him into Tartaros, if he would not immediately point out the place where the oxen were hidden. Then the cunning boy, twinkling his eyes, answered him, "How cruelly, son of Leto, dost thou address a little boy who was not born until yesterday, and who cares for things very different from driving oxen; who is longing for sweet slumber and his mother's breast, and whose feet are too tender and feeble to tread long and rough paths. Nay, I will swear by Zeus, my father's head, that neither I myself, have stolen the oxen, nor do I know who committed the deed."
Upon this, it was agreed between then, that both should appear before the father of the gods on Olympus, that he might reconcile their difference. Apollo stated his complaint, while Hermes stood by in his swathing-clothes, in order to refute the charges by the appearance of his tender age. "Have I then indeed," said he, "the appearance of a strong man, able to drive away oxen? Certainly, father, thou shalt hear nothing but the truth from me. Whilst the oxen were stolen, I was lying in sweet slumber, and did not pass the threshold of my mother's dwelling. Thou knowest thyself, too, that I am innocent; yet I am ready to protest my innocence with a solemn oath, and I shall one day reward the cruel word of that false one. But, thou, father, be the protector of the younger." Thus spoke Hermes, with twinkling eyes, and Zeus smiled at the boy because he was prudent enough to deny so finely the charge brought against him. But at the same time he commanded him to tell where the oxen were hidden, and Hermes obeyed the injunction, accompanying Apollo to the hiding place, a reconciliation took place between them, of which the invented lute was the pledge.
For when the sweet sound of the instrument had touched the ear of the god of harmony, he was enraptured; and caressing the inventor, "Truly," said he, "this invention is worth fifty oxen." Upon this, Hermes made him a present of the lute, and Apollo became transported with joy, at the thought of possessing some inestimable a treasure. In order, however, to secure it to himself he requested Hermes to swear by the Styx never to steal the sweetly, sounding lute from its present possessor. In return for his lute, Apollo gave him the golden wand, which had the power of settling all differences; and these two now closely united, ascended a hand in hand to Olympus. It was art that wove the band that united them, and Zeus rejoiced in the concord.
Hermes became afterwards the messenger of the immortals. He is the swift, the rapidly moving power among the celestials, who, as if firmly established in their own majesty, send the fleet, inventive idea from heaven to earth, re-admitting it into their divine council as soo as its task is accomplished.
His archetype is speech. Speech the tender breath of air, must, as it were, steal into the effective connection of things, in order to make up by thought and prudence for the deficiency of power and strength. The word of speech is winging, because it is only to be heard when accompanied by the swift breath of the lungs, and flies like a bird let loose, that cannot be recalled. For this reason, the beautiful expression of the ancients, "The word wants its wings."
According to the poetical representation, a golden chain hangs down from his mouth, reaching from Olympus to the listening ears of the dwellers on the earth, who, in this manner, are persuaded by the irresistible charms of the sweet melody that flows from his lips.
Irresistible also is his art to settle difference, to reconcile enemies - in short, to dissolve all dissonant objects in harmonious union. Once, in his boyhood, he found two serpents in his way engaged in furious strife; he struck between them with his golden wand, and behold! the reptiles instantly forget their fury, and twine themselves in gentile coil round the wand, at the top of which their heads meet in eternal concord. There is no emblem to be found more expressive of reconciliation and peace, as well as harmonious connection of what is opposed and contending, then this wand surrounded with coiling serpents which, in the hand of the divine herald, thenceforward constituted a token of his authority.
Nothing is more charming and attractive in the fictions of the ancients, than their description of the rapid development, of divine power in these supernatural beings - power, which, as if having existed long ago, and being only new born in a particular form, does not suffer itself to be long restrained by swathing-clothes and cradle.
In this light, airy representation, the imagination of the ancients embodied the ideas of quick, inventive faculty, and cunning activity, which displayed itself alike in deceptive persuasion, and easily accomplished sportive theft, which even the pilfered himself, hearing the adventurous roguishness, was forced to smile. Jocularity and cunning being here clothed with divinity and immortality, present a new figure in the great picture of the divine assembly; fitter, upon the whole, to charm, our eyes by its variety of composition and splendid colors, than to improve our hearts by its moral exhibitions.
In the human breast, the voice of an invisible, supernatural power speaks intelligibly, bidding man lift up his eyes from earth to a higher world. The ancients, too, heard this voice, but misapprehending it, they formed to themselves a supernatural world, after the pattern which nature and human life presented to them. Therefore, nothing appeared to them mean or unholy, that rose from the general, uncreating influence of nature, and contained, although noxious in itself, the germ of beauty or utility.
Fancy assigns to her divine beings no bounds with regard to actions; on the contrary, she gives to the inward impulse the fullest scope; suffering them to stray even to the extreme limits of mischief, because in her fictions the great contrasts. together with the huge mass of light and shade, which otherwise we perceive merely as scattered and single, are concentrated in a small compass and every one of her beings comprises, as it were, in its own person, the substance of all things considered from some sublime point of view.
In this respect the fiction of Hermes is one of the most beautiful and comprehensive. He is the swift herald of the immortals; the god of speech; the tutelary genius of roads; in him the winged word is renewed when repeated from his lips, in delivering the commands of the gods; with his golden wand he leads the dead to the world of shadows; he is likewise the author of all prudent and cunning designs, plots, and artifices; the patron of thieves, the teacher of men in the art of wrestling, or of conquering strength by agility, and the president over trade and gain.
As a messenger of Zeus, he was intrusted with all his secrets; and as the ambassador and plenipotentiary of the Gods, was concerned in all alliances and treaties. In the wars of the giants, he showed himself brave, spirited, and active. He delivered Ares from his long confinement which he suffered from the superior powers of the Aloeids; he purified the Danaides from the murder of their husbands; he tied Ixion to his wheel in the infernal regions; he destroyed the hundred eyed Argos; he sold Hercules to Omphale, queen of Lydia; he conducted Priamos to the tent of Achilleus to redeem the body of his son Hector; and he carried the infant Dionysus to the nymphs of Nysa. He gave many proofs of his thievish propensity, and increased his fame by robbing Poseidon of his trident, Aphrodite of her girdle, Ares of his sword, Zeus of his sceptre, and Hesphaestos of his mechanical instruments.
Mythologist are pretty well agreed in recognizing a telluric power in the Hermes of the Pelasgian system. The simplest derivation is of his name is from a Greek word, signifying, earth, and by the name of his mother, Maia, is probably meant Mother Earth.
He seems to have been the deity of productiveness in general; but he came gradually to be regarded as presiding more particularly over flocks and herds. From this last view some of his Hellenic attributes may be simply deduced. Thus the guard of shepherds was naturally regarded as the inventor of music; the lyre is ascribed to Hermes, as the pipes are to Pan, music having always been a recreation of shepherds in the warm regions of the south. In like manner, as the shepherd lads amuse themselves with wrestling and other feats of strength and activity, their tutelar god easily became the president of palaestra. So also trade, having consisted chiefly in the exchange of cattle, Hermes, the herdsman's god, was held to be the god of commerce; and the skill and eloquence employed in commercial dealings, made him to be the god of eloquence, artifice, and ingenuity, and even of cheating. As herdsmen are the best guides in the country, it may be thence that Hermes was thought to protect wayfarers, and thence to be a protector in general. For this cause it may have been, that god-sends or treasure-trove were ascribed to him.
The rural deity, when thus become active, sly and eloquent, was well adapted for the office which was assigned him of agent and messenger of the gods, to whom we also find him officiating as cup-bearer. As a being whose operations extended into the interior of the earth, Hermes would seem to have been in some points of view identified with Hades. In Pindar, this latter deity himself performs the office generally assigned to Hermes, that of conducting the departed Erebos. Possibly it may have been on this account that Solon directed the Athenians to swear by Zeus, Poseidon, and Hermes.
The Grecian spirit completely modified the Egyptian Hermes, to produce the Hermes or Mercury of the Grecian mythology; where he is quite a different being. In Egypt he presides over the sciences, writing, medicine, and astronomy, and composed many divine works, containing the elements of these several departments of knowledge; to Greece he is the god of Shepherds and merchandise. The interpreter of the gods in Egypt, he becomes in Greece only their messenger; and it is by virtue of this latter title that he preserves his wings, which were among the Egyptians merely an astronomical symbol.
The god is usually represented with a chlamys, his petasus or winged cap, and his tolaria or winged sandals, and the caduceus or wand presented to him by Apollo, which thad the power of settling all differences, of putting any one to sleep, and waking them again, and also of bringing souls out of Hell. The petasus and talaria were gifts from Zeus.
The ancient statues of Hermes were merely wooden posts with a rude head and pointed beard carved on them. They were what is termed ithyphallic, and were set up on the roads andd foot-paths, also in the fields and gardens. From this representation he became with the Romans the god Terminus; but when they were made acquainted with the twelve great deities of the Athenians, they adopted the Grecian Hermes under the name of Mercurias. In honor of this deity, the Romans celebrated an annual festival in a temple near the Circus Maximus, when sacrifices and prayers were offered to him.
An ancient gem exhibits the following accurate representation of Mercury: As god of the roads,(tollegating) he stands before an altar, over which rises an antique milestone, which he touches with his wand. Upon the altar lies a staff, as an imitation of travelers dedicating their walking staves to Mercury, after having a accomplished a journey. As a sign of safety of thee roads, an olive branch is entwined around the stone. The god bears on his head the winged cap; as he is standing, the winged sandals are not fastened to his feet.