Hermes was the messenger of the gods and the god of travelers and merchants. He also was the guide who led souls to the underworld*. Hermes was not a major god, but because he was a divinity associated with fertility and prosperity, he was one of the most popular and familiar Greek gods. In Rome, Hermes was known as Mercury.

Hermes was the messenger god who carried out the orders of Zeus. Known for his swiftness, both the Greeks and Romans portrayed him as a handsome youth with winged shoes and hat. In his hand, he carried a winged staff entwined with snakes (called a kerykeion in Greek and caduceus in Latin) that protected him as he traveled. He also served as the mediator between gods and mortals and between the living and the dead. When Hades, the god of the underworld, kidnapped Zeus’s daughter Persephone, Zeus sent Hermes to negotiate with Hades for her return.

As the protector of travelers, Hermes was believed to keep roads free of stones and to mark out routes for travelers to follow. In his honor, people erected monuments called herms along roads. The earliest herms were little more than piles of stones around a pillar, but later they became more elaborate and were placed in city streets and courtyards as well as along country roads.

Most of the myths about Hermes have to do with his birth and childhood. According to the Homeric Hymn to Hermes, an early Greek poem, he was the son of the god Zeus and the nymph* Maia. Maia gave birth to Hermes in her cave on a mountain in the Greek region of Arcadia. Although he was born at dawn, by noon Hermes was already big enough to leave his cradle and walk out of the cave. Once outside the cave, he encountered a turtle, which he killed and made into the world’s first lyre*. That night, Hermes traveled to Macedonia, where he stole 50 cows belonging to the herd of the god Apollo. Hermes dragged the cows by their tails to Pylos in the Peloponnese*, sacrificed two of them to the gods and goddesses, and hid the rest. He then returned to Maia’s cave and innocently crept back into his cradle. Because of his mischievous and sometimes deceitful ways, Hermes was also considered the protector of tricksters and thieves. (See also Divinities; Religion, Greek.)

* underworld kingdom of the dead; also called Hades

* nymph in classical mythology, one of the lesser goddesses of nature

* lyre stringed instrument similar to a small harp

* Peloponnese peninsula forming the southern part of the mainland of Greece

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