Gateway to the Classics: Greek Gods, Heroes, and Men by Caroline H. and Samuel B. Harding
Greek Gods, Heroes, and Men by  Caroline H. and Samuel B. Harding

Hermes, the Messenger of the Gods

T HE Greeks did not always think of their gods as grown-up persons. Sometimes they told stories of their youth and even of their babyhood. According to these stories the god Hermes, who was the son of Zeus, must have been a very wonderful child. They said that when he was but a day old his nurses left him asleep, as they supposed, in his cradle. But the moment that their backs were turned, he climbed out and ran away.



For quite a while he wandered about over the fields and hills, until, by and by, he came upon a herd of cattle that belonged to his elder brother Apollo. These he drove off, and hid in a cave in the mountains. Then, as he thought that by this time his nurses would be expecting him to wake up, he started for home. On the way he came upon a tortoise-shell in the road, and from this he made a harp or lyre by stretching strings tightly across it. He amused himself by playing upon this until he reached home, where he crept back into his cradle again.

Apollo soon discovered the loss of his fine cattle, and was told by an old man that the baby Hermes had driven them away. He went to the mother of Hermes in great anger, and told her that her baby had stolen his cattle. She was astonished, of course, that any one should say such a thing of a baby only a day old, and showed Apollo the child lying in his cradle, fast asleep as it seemed. But Apollo was not deceived by the child's innocent look. He insisted upon taking him to Mount Olympus; and there before his father Zeus, and the other gods, he accused Hermes of having stolen the herd of oxen.

At first Hermes denied that he had done anything of the kind; and he talked so fast and so well, in defending himself, that all the gods were amused and delighted. Zeus, however, was the most pleased of all; for he was proud of a son who could do such wonderful things while he was so young. But for all his cleverness, Hermes at last had to confess that he had driven the cattle off, and had to go with Apollo, and show him where he had hidden them.

All this time Hermes had with him the lyre which he had made from the tortoise-shell, and as they went along he began to play upon this for Apollo. As you know, Apollo was very fond of music, so he was greatly delighted with this new instrument which Hermes had invented. When Hermes saw how pleased Apollo was he gave him the lyre Apollo was so charmed with the gift, that he quite forgave Hermes for the trick he played him, and, indeed, gave him the whole herd of cattle for his own, in return for the little lyre.

As soon as he was grown, Hermes was made the messenger, or herald, of the gods. He was chosen for this position because he had shown so early that he was a good talkers, and so would be able to deliver the messages well. In order that he might be able to do his errands quickly, he wore a pair of winged sandals on his feet, which carried him through the air as swiftly as a flash of lightning.

He was especially the herald of Zeus. The Greeks though that their dreams came from Zeus himself, and that is was Hermes who brought them, flying swiftly downward through the darkness of the night. But besides this, Hermes served as messenger for all the gods, even for Hades in the under-world. When people died, the Greeks thought that it was Hermes who guided their shades to their dark home underneath the ground

Because he traveled so much himself, Hermes was supposed to take care of all men who traveled upon the earth. In those days it was a far more dangerous thing to make a journey than it is now. Then men had to walk nearly always when they wished to go from one place to another. The roads were bad, and often were only narrow paths that one could scarcely follow. In some places, too, there were robbers who would lie in wait for travelers coming along that way. So, before starting, travelers would offer sacrifices to Hermes, and pray to him to protect them, and grant them a safe journey. All along the roads, were posts of wood, upon which the head of Hermes was carved. These usually stood at the meeting of two roads, and were guideposts, to tell the travelers which way to take.

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