Hermes, the God of Thieves in Ancient Greece

Hermes in Delos greek mythology
Hermes is portrayed as being on the Greek island of Delos on this krater. The god of messengers — and thieves — is an important figure in Greek mythology. Credit: Egisto Sani/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

In Ancient Greek mythology, Hermes is known as the herald of the gods; he is in charge of protecting travelers — as well as thieves and liars — and he also guides souls to the underworld or Hades. For his great cunning and insight, he is also considered the god of thieves.

At first Hermes was a god associated with the underworld. In ancient Greece he was worshiped as “the god of the way between the lower and upper world;” this position gradually expanded to include roads in general, and from there borders, travelers, sailors and commerce as well.

A mischievous god since his childhood

Hermes was born to Zeus and Maya, daughter of the titan Atlas and one of the Pleiades. The legend goes that he was born on Mount Cilene in Arcadia in a cave. However, some traditions say that his birth was on Mount Olympus itself.

Grecian Delight supports Greece

In the very first hours of his life, he somehow escaped from his cradle, making his way across the countryside and stealing some of Apollo’s oxen. In Homer’s works The Iliad and The Odyssey, although this tradition is not mentioned, Hermes is characterized as a cunning thief.

Other versions place the theft of oxen at a time much later in the life of the god. His cunning was such that in order not to leave footprints and be discovered, Hermes donned sandals and led the oxen to Pylos, where he killed two and locked the rest in a cave.

The god Apollo, thanks to his ability to prophesy, discovered that the culprit of the robbery of his cattle was Hermes; he then went to Cilene to accuse him in front of Maya. She showed the child in her cradle to the god, but Apollo brought the child to Zeus and demanded the return of his cattle. Hermes refused, but Zeus ordered him to comply with Apollo’s demands.

However, Hermes, seeing that his statements were not believed, took Apollo to the place where he had hid the oxen and then returned. When Apollo then heard the sweet sounds of Hermes’ lyre, he was so delighted that he stayed with the animals and later, the two gods became close friends.

Apollo gave Hermes his shepherd’s golden rod, teaching him the art of prophesying by means of dice, and Zeus made him the herald of the gods of the netherworld.

Hermes and his role as a Greek god

The main characteristic of Hermes in Greek mythology is the role of herald, or messenger, of the gods. He was a messenger when eloquence was required, due to his great ability as a speaker in achieving the desired goal; hence the tongues of sacrificed animals were typical offerings for him.

Hermes was also the god of prudence and skill in all relationships of social exchange. He is the god of deception, of the uncertain, of what happens from one place to another — that is why he also was responsible for taking the souls of the dead into the afterlife. Hermes was renowned for doing everything he accomplished, whatever it was, with a certain skill, dexterity, and even grace.

His symbols were the rooster and the tortoise, and he is recognized by his bag, his winged sandals, his petals, a wide-brimmed hat and his herald’s staff.

In the Roman adaptation of the Greek religion, Hermes was identified with the Roman god Mercury, who, although inherited from the Etruscans, developed many similar characteristics, such as that of his being the patron of commerce. In the Greek interpretation of the Egyptian gods, he is compared to Thoth.

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