It is difficult to imagine Hermes, the messenger of the gods, without his usual accoutrements: wings on his feet, a stylish chapeau, and carrying a winged staff encircled by snakes. The Homeric Hymns, poems written in the Homeric style that date to around 700bce, are often filled with the origin myths of the gods and goddesses. The tales regale their audience with depictions of the immortals, listing the things they rule over and the things sacred to them. And yes, Hermes is among those memorialized in the hymns.
The “Homeric Hymn to Hermes,” which dates from around the sixth century bce, follows in this tradition and recounts the early life of the god, from his birth in a cave to the nymph Maia (herself a consort of Zeus), to his installation among the gods of Mt. Olympus. Along the way, the poem relates how Hermes acquired his famous staff and what it is used for. I thought it would be fun to share this version of the story from the Homeric Hymns and see how the mythology of Hermes is wrapped up with this important symbol.
According to the poem, Hermes is quite the prodigy. He is born in the morning, by noon he is playing the lyre, and at evening he is out-and-about stealing Apollo’s cows. Very ambitious, but it gets better. In order to cover-up his theft, the young Hermes marches the cows backwards, so that their tracks lead in the opposite direction. Thus, anyone who followed the tracks to find the cows (i.e. Apollo) would think they led one way, when they really went the other. Even sneakier, Hermes ties branches to his feet, which obscure the tracks further, making it seem as if a giant was driving the cattle. Tsk-tsk.
This is all good, except someone sees Hermes. An old man working in his vineyard catches him driving Apollo’s cows across the plains of Onchestus. Busted, Hermes orders the old man to keep quiet and hurries on his way.
Upon discovering his cows missing, Apollo sets off to find them. Lo and behold, he encounters the old man tending his vineyard. Despite the earlier warning to not disclose Hermes’ theft, the old man spills the beans and provides this description of the youth he saw with Apollo’s cows:
ὦ φίλος, ἀργαλέον μέν, ὅσ᾽ ὀφθαλμοῖσιν ἴδοιτο,
πάντα λέγειν: πολλοὶ γὰρ ὁδὸν πρήσσουσιν ὁδῖται,
τῶν οἳ μὲν κακὰ πολλὰ μεμαότες, οἳ δὲ μάλ᾽ ἐσθλὰ
φοιτῶσιν: χαλεπὸν δὲ δαήμεναί ἐστιν ἕκαστον:
αὐτὰρ ἐγὼ πρόπαν ἦμαρ ἐς ἠέλιον καταδύντα
ἔσκαπτον περὶ γουνὸν ἀλωῆς οἰνοπέδοιο:
παῖδα δ᾽ ἔδοξα, φέριστε, σαφὲς δ᾽ οὐκ οἶδα, νοῆσαι,
ὅς τις ὁ παῖς, ἅμα βουσὶν ἐυκραίρῃσιν ὀπήδει
νήπιος, εἶχε δὲ ῥάβδον: ἐπιστροφάδην δ᾽ ἐβάδιζεν.
Dear friend, it vexes me. As much as may be seen with the eyes is all there is to tell. For many travelers pass over this road, of whom some strive for many bad things, while others wander to and fro and strive for very good things, and it is difficult to know which is which. However, I was digging the entire day until the sun was sinking around my fruitful vineyard, which abounds in wine. And I thought that a child, most brave one, but I do not know clearly…I saw him, whoever this child is—an infant following with fine-horned cattle, and he held a rod, and he went, turning this way and that.
Homeric Hymn to Hermes, 202-210 (translation mine)
We know a couple of things from this passage. One, this old man sure has a nice vineyard that gives him oodles of wine. Sweet. The other is that Hermes guided the cattle with a rod or stick. This suggests that the divine messenger’s top accessory is not just for show, but has a rather practical purpose: it’s intended to aid in the tending of cattle. More about this later, because it’s totally relevant.
I’m going to flash-forward through the story a bit. Obviously, Apollo apprehends the little thief. After all, he’s the god of divination, and it would be pretty difficult to put one past him. So Apollo nabs Hermes and the two gods go to Mt. Olympus, to have the issue settled by Zeus. After much scheming, Hermes wriggles his way out of trouble by playing the lyre, which Apollo just falls in love with. Thus, Apollo gets the lyre, and Hermes is given status among the gods. But there’s a trade:
ὣς εἰπὼν ὤρεξ᾽: ὃ δ᾽ ἐδέξατο Φοῖβος Ἀπόλλων,
Ἐρμῇ δ᾽ ἐγγυάλιξεν ἑκὼν μάστιγα φαεινήν,
βουκολίας τ᾽ ἐπέτελλεν: ἔδεκτο δὲ Μαιάδος υἱὸς
γηθήσας: κίθαριν δὲ λαβὼν ἐπ᾽ ἀριστερὰ χειρὸς
Λητοῦς ἀγλαὸς υἱός, ἄναξ ἑκάεργος Ἀπόλλων,
πλήκτρῳ ἐπειρήτιζε κατὰ μέλος: ἣ δ᾽ ὑπὸ νέρθε
ἱμερόεν κονάβησε: θεὸς δ᾽ ὑπὸ καλὸν ἄεισεν.
Thus having spoken, Hermes held out his hand. And the bright Apollo received the lyre from Hermes, and in return, he put into his hand the shining whip which he held. And Hermes, the son of Maia, rejoicing, received this and commanded the herd of cattle. And the bright son of Leto, the far-working Lord Apollo, taking the kithara in his left hand, proved himself by song with the Plektron. And it resounded sweetly from him, and the god sang with beauty.
Homeric Hymn to Hermes 496 – 502 (translation mine)
He we see that, in exchange for the lyre (and presumably Apollo’s forgiveness) Hermes is given a whip with which to command cattle. Some translations suggest that at this point in the story Hermes is actually given dominion over tending cattle (Crudden 61). Later we see that Zeus has designated Hermes as the god of commerce (516). It is interesting to note that valuable commodities, money, and livestock are referred to by the same term in ancient Greek, τὰ χρήματα, which suggests an association among these items in the minds of the ancient Greeks.
Nevertheless, we’ve talked a bit about Hermes using a rod to drive cattle, and here he upgrades to Apollo’s whip and gains rulership over the τὰ χρήματα, or valuable things. Finally, towards the end of the story, Hermes receives his famous staff:
ὄλβου καὶ πλούτου δώσω περικαλλέα ῥάβδον,
χρυσείην, τριπέτηλον, ἀκήριον ἥ σε φυλάξει
πάντας ἐπικραίνουσ᾽ ἄθλους ἐπέων τε καὶ ἔργων
τῶν ἀγαθῶν, ὅσα φημὶ δαήμεναι ἐκ Διὸς ὀμφῆς.
I [Apollo] shall give you, for happiness and wealth, a very beautiful rod. It is adorned with gold and thrice-branched and pure. And it shall guard you as you accomplish all the ordinances which are uttered and of the good works, as much as I say to be learned from the voice of Zeus.
Homeric Hymn to Hermes 529-532, (translation mine)
And here Hermes gets a golden rod with three-branches. This rod is to be used by Hermes in conveying the will of Zeus to humans, but under the guidance of Apollo. Hermes has gone from a driver of cows, to a driver of humans. Now, the shape of the wand has been disputed, as τριπέτηλον literally means “thrice-leaved.” Is this a branch with three leaves? Three branches? What’s its deal? According to Nicholas Richardson, this word usually refers to something which “forks at the top in a V-shape” (216). Nevertheless, at this point in the story that Hermes gains the tool which comes to be closely identified with the god from here on out.
This is a bit different than what we’re used to, eh? The rod as we know it today, the caduceus with two snakes, didn’t come into being until the fifth century bce. So until then, Hermes will have to make do with this wand. At least it’s made of gold, so there’s a bit of consolation for the new god.
In the “Homeric Hymn to Hermes” we get a bit of the back-story on Hermes, the messenger of the gods. Of seemingly humble origins, he finagles his way into the ranks of the gods of Olympus through trickery and cunning. At the end of his ordeal, he is given a golden rod with which to conduct his business and is granted rulership of commerce. However, we see the connection between the Hermes, trade, and the symbol of the rod alluded to throughout the story, as the rod is depicted as the key tool with which Hermes tends cattle, animals which were considered to be a valuable good to the Ancient Greeks. The sacred staff that Hermes carries, like the god himself in the story, is transformed from a mundane object with mundane authority to an object of reverence and divine authority. It symbolizes both the things he governs on earth, but is also a token of his status among the gods of Mt. Olympus.
“Homeric Hymn to Hermes” in Three Homeric Hymns: To Apollo, Hermes, and Aphrodite. Edited by Nicholas Richardson. Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics, Cambridge University Press. 2010.
The Homeric Hymns: A New Translation by Michael Crudden. Oxford World’s Classics, Oxford University Press. 2001.
Photo by Andrea Crisante.