HERMES MYTHS 1
HERMES was the Olympian god of herds, trade, heralds, athletes and thieves.
This page contains stories of the god's birth and childhood, including his invention of the lyre and the theft of the cattle of the god Apollon.
The other myth pages cover stories about the adult god, his role as the agent of Zeus, his loves, wrath and favour. (See the Hermes pages index for details.)
CLASSICAL LITERATURE QUOTES
BIRTH OF HERMES
I. SON OF ZEUS & MAIA
Hesiod, Theogony 938 ff (trans. Evelyn-White) (Greek epic C8th or 7th B.C.) :
"And Maia, the daughter of Atlas, bare to Zeus glorious (kydimos) Hermes, the herald of the deathless gods (keryx athanaton), for she went up into his holy bed."
Hesiod, Astronomy Frag 1 (from Scholiast on Pindar's Nemean Ode 2. 16) :
"In the mountains of Kyllene she (Maia) bare Hermes, the herald of the gods."
Homeric Hymn 4 to Hermes 1 ff (trans. Evelyn-White) (Greek epic C7th to 4th B.C.) :
"[Hermes] whom Maia bare, the rich-tressed Nymphe, when she was joined in love with Zeus,--a shy goddess, for she avoided the company of the blessed gods, and lived within a deep, shady cave. There Kronion [Zeus] used to lie with the rich-tressed Nymphe, unseen by deathless gods and mortal men, at dead of night while sweet sleep should hold white-armed Hera fast. And when the purpose of great Zeus was fixed in heaven, she was delivered and a notable thing was come to pass. For then she bare a son, of many shifts, blandly cunning, a robber, a cattle driver, a bringer of dreams, a watcher by night, a thief at the gates, one who was soon to show forth wonderful deeds among the deathless gods. Born with the dawning, at mid-day he played on the lyre, and in the evening he stole the cattle of far-shooting Apollon on the fourth day of the month; for on that day queenly Maia bare him."
Homeric Hymn 18 to Hermes 3 ff :
"Hermes was born of Maia, the daughter of Atlas, when she had made with Zeus, - a shy goddess she. Ever she avoided the throng of the blessed gods and lived in a shadowy cave, and there Kronion [Zeus] used to lie with the rich-tressed Nymphe at dead of night, while white-armed Hera lay bound in sweet sleep: and neither deathless god nor mortal man knew it."
Aeschylus, Fragment 212 (from Scholiast on Pindar, Pythian 2. 18) (trans. Weir Smyth) (Greek tragedy C5th B.C.) :
"O Hermes, lord of games, son of Maia and Zeus!"
Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 3. 112 (trans. Aldrich) (Greek mythographer C2nd A.D.) :
"The oldest daughter [of Atlas] Maia, after her intercourse with Zeus, bore Hermes in a cave on Kyllene. Though he was laid out in swaddling-clothes with her winnowing-basket for a cradle, he escaped and made his way to Pieria, where he stole some cattle that Apollon was tending."
Pausanias, Description of Greece 8. 16. 1 (trans. Jones) (Greek travelogue C2nd A.D.) :
"As you travel through the land of Pheneos, are mountains of the Pheneatians called Trikrena (Three Springs), and here are three springs. In them, says the legend, Hermes was washed after birth by the Nymphai of the mountain."
Pausanias, Description of Greece 8. 36. 10 :
"At the foot of this hill [the Akakesion Hill in Arkadia] . . . is a stone image of Hermes Akakesios, the story of the Arkadians about it being that here the child Hermes was reared, and that Akakos the son of Lykaon [king of Arkadia] became his foster-father. The Theban legend is different, and the people of Tanagra, again, have a legend at variance with the Theban."
Pausanias, Description of Greece 8. 30. 6 :
"Near [the marketplace of Megalopolis] it I found a temple of Hermes Akakesios in ruins, with nothing remaining except a tortoise of stone." [Cf. Pausanias 8.36.10.]
Pausanias, Description of Greece 9. 20. 3 :
"There is near Tanagra [in Boiotia] . . . Mount Kerykion (of the Herald), the reputed birthplace of Hermes, and also a place called Polos (the Pole). Here they say that Atlas [i.e. the grandfather of Hermes] sat and meditated deeply upon hell and heaven."
Pausanias, Description of Greece 9. 22. 2 :
"In the sanctuary of [Hermes] Promakhos (the Champion) [in Tanagra, Boiotia] is kept all that is left of the wild strawberry-tree (andrakhnos) under which they believe that Hermes was nourished."
Philostratus the Elder, Imagines 1. 26 (trans. Fairbanks) (Greek rhetorician C3rd A.D.) :
"[Ostensibly a description of an ancient Greek painting at Neapolis (Naples) :] Birth of Hermes . . . He is born on the crest of Olympos, at the very top, the abode of the gods. There, as Homer says, one feels no rain and hears no wind, nor is it ever beaten by snow, it is so high; but it is absolutely divine and free from the ills that pertain to the mountains which belong to men. There the Horai (Seasons) care for Hermes at his birth. The painter has depicted these also, each according to her time, and they wrap him in swaddling clothes, sprinkling over him the most beautiful flowers, that he may have swaddling clothes not without distinction. While they turn to [Maia] the mother of Hermes lying on her couch of travail, he slips out of his swaddling clothes and begins to walk at once and descends from Olympos. The mountain rejoices in him--for its smile is like that of a man--and you are to assume that Olympos rejoices because Hermes was born there."
Philostratus, Life of Apollonius of Tyana 5. 15 (trans. Conybeare) (Greek biography C1st to 2nd A.D.) :
"He [Hermes] remembered the Horai, by whom he himself had been nurtured on the peaks of Olympos, and bethought how once, when he was still in swaddling clothes, they had told him a story about the cow, which had a conversation with the man about herself and about the earth, and so set him aflame after the cows of Apollon . . . [and] he [later] bestowed upon Aesop the art of fable called mythology."
Orphic Hymn 28 to Hermes (trans. Taylor) (Greek hymns C3rd B.C. to 2nd A.D.) :
"Hermes . . . messenger of Zeus, and Maia's son divine."
Pseudo-Hyginus, Fabulae 225 (trans. Grant) (Roman mythographer C2nd A.D.) :
"Those who first built temples to the gods . . . Lycaon [an early mythical king of Arkadia], son of Pelasgus, built a temple [the first] to Mercurius [Hermes] of Cyllene in Arcadia." [N.B. Lykaon was the king of Arkadia when Hermes was born.]
Ovid, Metamorphoses 1. 583 ff (trans. Melville) (Roman epic C1st B.C. to C1st A.D.) :
"Heaven's master [Zeus] . . . summoned his son [Hermes], whom the bright shining Pleias [Maia] bore."
Virgil, Aeneid 8. 134 ff (trans. Day-Lewis) (Roman epic C1st B.C.) :
"Mercurius [Hermes] whom fair Maia conceived and bore upon the snowy peak of Cyllene. But Maia, if we believe at all the tales we have heard, was begotten by Atlas, the Atlas who props the starry sky."
II. SON OF DIONYSOS & APHRODITE
The Orphic god Hermes Khthonios (of the Underworld) or Hermes Bakkheios (Bacchic) was the son of Dionysos and Aphrodite. He was probably identified with the Eleusinian god Iakkhos.
Orphic Hymn 57 to Chthonian Hermes (trans. Taylor) (Greek hymns C3rd B.C. to 2nd A.D.) :
"Hermes Khthonios (of the earth) . . . O Bakkheios Hermes, progeny divine of Dionysos, parent of the vine, and of celestial Aphrodite, Paphian queen, dark-eyelashed Goddess, of a lovely mien."
HERMES INVENTOR OF THE LYRE
For the oldest version of the MYTH of Hermes and the lyre see The Homeric Hymn to Hermes (below)
Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 3. 113 (trans. Aldrich) (Greek mythographer C2nd A.D.) :
"Outside the cave [of his mother Maia] he [the infant god Hermes] found a tortoise feeding. He cleaned it out, and stretched across the shell strings made from the cattle he had sacrificed, and when he had thus devised a lyre he also invented a plectrum ... When Apollon heard the lyre, he exchanged the cattle for that. And as Hermes was tending the cattle, this time he fashioned a shepherd's pipe which he proceeded to play. Covetous also of this, Apollon offered him the golden staff which he held when he herded cattle. But Hermes wanted both the staff and proficiency in the art of prophecy in return for the pipe. So he was taught how to prophesy by means of pebbles, and gave Apollon the pipe."
Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 3. 43 :
"Amphion [of Thebes, son of Zeus] pursued a career in singing, after Hermes presented him with a lyre."
Pausanias, Description of Greece 2. 19. 7 (trans. Jones) (Greek travelogue C2nd A.D.) :
"Within the temple [of Apollon Lykios in Argos] is a statue of . . . Hermes with a tortoise which he has caught to make a lyre."
Pausanias, Description of Greece 5. 14. 8 :
"[There is an] altar of Apollon and Hermes in common [at Olympia], because the Greeks have a story about them that Hermes invented the lyre and Apollon the lute."
Pausanias, Description of Greece 8. 17. 5 :
"Adjoining [Mount] Kyllene [in Arkadia] is another mountain, Khelydorea (Rich in Tortoises), where Hermes is said to have found a tortoise, taken the shell from the beast, and to have made therefrom a harp."
Pausanias, Description of Greece 9. 5. 8 :
"The writer of the poem on Europa says that Amphion was the first harpist, and that Hermes was his teacher."
Pausanias, Description of Greece 9. 30. 1 :
"There is also [dedicated in the shrine] on Helikon [in Boiotia] a bronze Apollon fighting with Hermes for the lyre."
Philostratus the Elder, Imagines 1. 10 (trans. Fairbanks) (Greek rhetorician C3rd A.D.) :
"[From a description of an ancient Greek painting :] The clever device of the lyre, it is said, was invented by Hermes, who constructed it of two horns and a crossbar and a tortoise-shell; and he presented it first to Apollon and the Mousai (Muses), then to Amphion of Thebes . . . Look carefully at the lyre first, to see if it is painted faithfully. The horn is the horn 'of a leaping goat,' as the poets say, and it is used by the musician for his lyre and by the bowman for his bow. The horns, you observe, are black and jagged and formidable for attack. All the wood required for the lyre is of boxwood, firm and free from knots--there is no ivory anywhere about the lyre, for men did not yet know wither the elephant or the use they were to make of its tusks. The tortoise-shell is black, but its portrayal is accurate and true to nature in that the surface is covered with irregular circles which touch each other and have yellow eyes; and the lower ends of the strings below the bridge lie close to the shell and are attached to knobs, while between the bridge and the crossbar the strings seem to be without support, this arrangement of the strings being apparently best adapted for keeping them stretched taut on the lyre."
Pseudo-Hyginus, Astronomica 2. 7 (trans. Grant) (Roman mythographer C2nd A.D.) :
"[Constellation Lyre.] The Lyre was put among the constellations for the following reason, as Eratosthenes [Greek writer C3rd B.C.] says. Made at first by Mercurius [Hermes] from a tortoise shell, it was given to Orpheus, son of Calliope and Oeagrus."
Pseudo-Hyginus, Astronomica 2. 7 :
"[Constellation Lyre.] Others say that when Mercurius [Hermes] first made the lyre on Mount Cyllene in Arcadia, he made it with seven strings to correspond to the number of Atlantides, since Maia, his mother, was of their company. Later, when he had driven away the cattle of Apollo and had been caught in the act, to win pardon more easily, at Apollo's request he gave him permission to claim the invention of the lyre, and received from him a certain staff as reward . . . Apollo took the lyre, and is said to have taught Orpheus on it, and after he himself had invented the cithara, he gave the lyre to Orpheus."
Statius, Silvae 2. 7. 6 (trans. Mozley) (Roman poetry C1st A.D.) :
"Ye who have the privilege of song in your keeping, Arkadian discoverer of the vocal lyre [Hermes], and thou, Euhan [Dionysos], whirler of thy Bassarides, and Paean [Apollon] and the Hyantian Sisters [the Mousai]."
Nonnus, Dionysiaca 41. 339 ff (trans. Rouse) (Greek epic C5th A.D.) :
"Shepherd Pan will invent the syrinx, Helikonian Hermes the harp."
The mythographer Apollodorus gives a short summary of the Homeric Hymn to Hermes, which described the birth of Hermes and his theft of the god Apollon's cattle. The numbered sections correspond to those in the Homeric Hymn quoted below.
Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 3. 112 - 115 (trans. Aldrich) (Greek mythographer C2nd A.D.) :
"[I. THE BIRTH OF HERMES.]
Maia, after her intercourse with Zeus, bore Hermes in a cave on Kyllene.
[II. HERMES STEALS APOLLO'S CATTLE.]
Though he was laid out in swaddling-clothes with her winnowing-basket for a cradle, he escaped and made his way to Pieria, where he stole some cattle that Apollon was tending. To keep from being discovered by the tracks, he put boots on their feet and led them to Pylos. He hid them in a grotto, except for two which he sacrificed, pinning up their hides on rocks, boiling some of the meat for his meal and burning the rest.
[III. HERMES INVENTS THE LYRE.]
Outside the cave he found a tortoise feeding. He cleaned it out, and stretched across the shell strings made from the cattle he had sacrificed, and when he had thus devised a lyre he also invented a plectrum.
[IV. HERMES TRADES THE LYRE FOR THE HERDS.]
Meanwhile Apollon reached Pylos in his search for the cattle, and asked the locals about them. They told him that they had indeed seen a boy driving some cattle, but they could not say where they had been driven because there were no tracks to be found. So Apollon learned who the thief was by divine science, and made his way to Maia on Kyllene to charge Hermes. Maia, however, showed Apollon the baby in his swaddling-clothes, whereupon Apollon took him to Zeus and demanded his cattle. When Zeus told Hermes to return them, he denied everything, but since his father would not believe him, he led Apollon to Pylos and gave him back his cattle. Then, when Apollon heard the lyre, he exchanged the cattle for that.
[V. HERMES TRADES THE PIPE FOR HERALDRY & RUSTIC DIVINITATION.]
And as Hermes was tending the cattle, this time he fashioned a shepherd's pipe which he proceeded to play. Covetous also of this, Apollon offered him the golden staff which he held when he herded cattle. But Hermes wanted both the staff and proficiency in the art of prophecy in return for the pipe. So he was taught how to prophesy by means of pebbles, and gave Apollon the pipe.
[VI. ZEUS CONFIRMS THE DIVINE PRIVILEGES OF HERMES.]
And Zeus made Hermes his personal herald and messenger of the gods beneath the earth."
HERMES' THEFT OF APOLLO'S CATTLE (HOMERIC HYMN)
Homeric Hymn 4 to Hermes (trans. Evelyn-White) (Greek epic C7th to 4th B.C.) :
"[I. BIRTH OF HERMES.]
[Hermes] whom Maia bare, the rich-tressed Nymphe, when she was joined in love with Zeus,--a shy goddess, for she avoided the company of the blessed gods, and lived within a deep, shady cave. There Kronion [Zeus] used to lie with the rich-tressed Nymphe, unseen by deathless gods and mortal men, at dead of night while sweet sleep should hold white-armed Hera fast. And when the purpose of great Zeus was fixed in heaven, she was delivered and a notable thing was come to pass. For then she bare a son, of many shifts, blandly cunning, a robber, a cattle driver, a bringer of dreams, a watcher by night, a thief at the gates, one who was soon to show forth wonderful deeds among the deathless gods. Born with the dawning, at mid-day he played on the lyre, and in the evening he stole the cattle of far-shooting Apollon on the fourth day of the month; for on that day queenly Maia bare him.
II. HERMES INVENTS THE LYRE.]
"Born with the dawning, at mid-day he [Hermes] played on the lyre, and in the evening he stole the cattle of far-shooting Apollon on the fourth day of the month; for on that day queenly Maia bare him.
So soon as he had leaped from his mother's heavenly womb, he lay not long waiting in his holy cradle, but he sprang up and sought the oxen of Apollon. But as he stepped over the threshold of the high-roofed cave [of Maia on Mount Kyllene], he found a tortoise there and gained endless delight. For it was Hermes who first made the tortoise a singer. The creature fell in his way at the courtyard gate, where it was feeding on the rich grass before the dwelling, waddling along. When be saw it, the luck-bringing son of Zeus laughed and said : ‘An omen of great luck for me so soon! I do not slight it. Hail, comrade of the feast, lovely in shape, sounding at the dance! With joy I meet you! Where got you that rich gaud for covering, that spangled shell--a tortoise living in the mountains? But I will take and carry you within: you shall help me and I will do you no disgrace, though first of all you must profit me. It is better to be at home: harm may come out of doors. Living, you shall be a spell against mischievous witchcraft; but if you die, then you shall make sweetest song.’
Thus speaking, he took up the tortoise in both hands and went back into the house carrying his charming toy. Then he cut off its limbs and scooped out the marrow of the mountain-tortoise with a scoop of grey iron. As a swift thought darts through the heart of a man when thronging cares haunt him, or as bright glances flash from the eye, so glorious (kydimos) Hermes planned both thought and deed at once. He cut stalks of reed to measure and fixed them, fastening their ends across the back and through the shell of the tortoise, and then stretched ox hide all over it by his skill. Also he put in the horns and fitted a cross-piece upon the two of them, and stretched seven strings of sheep-gut. But when he had made it he proved each string in turn with the key, as he held the lovely thing. At the touch of his hand it sounded marvellously; and, as he tried it, the god sang sweet random snatches, even as youths bandy taunts at festivals. He sang of Zeus Kronion and neat-shod Maia, the converse which they had before in the comradeship of love, telling all the glorious tale of his own begetting. He celebrated, too, the handmaids of the Nymphe, and her bright home, and the tripods all about the house, and the abundant cauldrons.
But while he was singing of all these, his heart was bent on other matters. And he took the hollow lyre and laid it in his sacred cradle, and sprang from the sweet-smelling hall to a watch-place.
[III. HERMES STEALS APOLLO'S CATTLE, INVENTS FIRE-STICKS.]
"[Hermes] sprang from the sweet-smelling hall to a watch-place, pondering sheer trickery in his heart--deeds such as knavish folk pursue in the dark night-time; for he longed to taste flesh.
The Sun was going down beneath the earth towards Okeanos with his horses and chariot when Hermes came hurrying to the shadowy mountains of Pieria, where the divine cattle of the blessed gods had their steads and grazed the pleasant, unmown meadows. Of these [Hermes] the Son of Maia, the sharp-eyed slayer of Argos (euskopos Argeiphontes) then cut off from the herd fifty loud-lowing kine, and drove them straggling-wise across a sandy place, turning their hoof-prints aside. Also, he bethought him of a crafty ruse and reversed the marks of their hoofs, making the front behind and the hind before, while he himself walked the other way.
Then he wove sandals with wicker-work by the sand of the sea, wonderful things, unthought of, unimagined; for he mixed together tamarisk and myrtle-twigs, fastening together an armful of their fresh, young wood, and tied them, leaves and all securely under his feet as light sandals. The brushwood the glorious Slayer of Argos (kydimos Argeiphontes) plucked in Pieria as he was preparing for his journey, making shift as one making haste for a long journey.
But an old man [who was named Battos in other accounts] tilling his flowering vineyard saw him as he was hurrying down the plain through grassy Onkhestos. So the Son of Maia began and said to him : ‘Old man, digging about your vines with bowed shoulders, surely you shall have much wine when all these bear fruit, if you obey me and strictly remember not to have seen what you have seen, and not to have heard what you have heard, and to keep silent when nothing of your own is harmed.’
When he had said this much, he hurried the strong cattle on together : through many shadowy mountains and echoing gorges and flowery plains glorious Hermes drove them. And now the divine night, his dark ally, was mostly passed, and dawn that sets folk to work was quickly coming on, while bright Selene (the Moon), daughter of the lord Pallas, Megamedes' son, had just climbed her watch-post, when the strong Son of Zeus drove the wide-browed cattle of Phoibos Apollon to the river Alpheios. And they came unwearied to the high-roofed byres and the drinking-troughs that were before the noble meadow. Then, after he had well-fed the loud-bellowing cattle with fodder and driven them into the byre, close-packed and chewing lotus and began to seek the art of fire. He chose a stout laurel branch and trimmed it with the knife held firmly in his hand: and the hot smoke rose up. For it was Hermes who first invented fire-sticks and fire. Next he took many dried sticks and piled them thick and plenty in a sunken trench: and flame began to glow, spreading afar the blast of fierce-burning fire.
And while the strength of glorious Hephaistos was beginning to kindle the fire, he dragged out two lowing, horned cows close to the fire; for great strength was with him. He threw them both panting upon their backs on the ground, and rolled them on their sides, bending their necks over, and pierced their vital chord. Then he went on from task to task: first he cut up the rich, fatted meat, and pierced it with wooden spits, and roasted flesh and the honourable chine and the paunch full of dark blood all together. He laid them there upon the ground, and spread out the hides on a rugged rock: and so they are still there many ages afterwards, a long, long time after all this, and are continually. Next glad-hearted (kharmophron) Hermes dragged the rich meats he had prepared and put them on a smooth, flat stone, and divided them into twelve portions distributed by lot, making each portion wholly honourable. Then glorious Hermes longed for the sacrificial meat, for the sweet savour wearied him, god though he was; nevertheless his proud heart was not prevailed upon to devour the flesh, although he greatly desired [i.e. as a god he must abstain from the food of mortals]. But he put away the fat and all the flesh in the high-roofed byre, placing them high up to be a token of his youthful theft. And after that he gathered dry sticks and utterly destroyed with fire all the hoofs and all the heads.
And when the god had duly finished all, he threw his sandals into deep-eddying Alpheios, and quenched the embers, covering the black ashes with sand, and so spent the night while Selene the Moon's soft light shone down. Then the god went straight back again at dawn to the bright crests of Kyllene, and no one met him on the long journey either of the blessed gods or mortal men, nor did any dog bark. And luck-bringing (eriounes) Hermes, the son of Zeus, passed edgeways through the key-hole of the hall like the autumn breeze, even as mist: straight through the cave he went and came to the rich inner chamber, walking softly, and making no noise as one might upon the floor. Then glorious Hermes went hurriedly to his cradle, wrapping his swaddling clothes about his shoulders as though he were a feeble babe, and lay playing with the covering about his knees; but at his left hand he kept close his sweet lyre.
But the god did not pass unseen by the goddess his mother; but she said to him : ‘How now, you rogue! Whence come you back so at night-time, you that wear shamelessness as a garment? And now I surely believe Letoides [Apollon] will soon have you forth out of doors with unbreakable cords about your ribs, or you will live a rogue's life in the glens robbing by whiles. Go to, then; your father got you to be a great worry to mortal men and deathless gods.’
Then Hermes answered her with crafty words : ‘Mother, why do you seek to frighten me like a feeble child whose heart knows few words of blame, a fearful babe that fears its mother's scolding? Nay, but I will try whatever plan is best, and so feed myself and you continually. We will not be content to remain here, as you bid, alone of all the gods unfee'd with offerings and prayers. Better to live in fellowship with the deathless gods continually, rich, wealthy, and enjoying stories of grain, than to sit always in a gloomy cave : and, as regards honour, I too will enter upon the privilege that Apollon has [i.e. as the god of cattle-herders]. If my father will not give it to me, I will seek--and I am able--to be a prince of robbers. And if Leto's most glorious son [Apollon] shall seek me out, I think another and a greater loss will befall him. For I will go to Pytho to break into his great house, and will plunder therefrom splendid tripods, and cauldrons, and gold, and plenty of bright iron, and much apparel; and you shall see it if you will.’
With such words they spoke together, the son of Zeus who holds the aegis, and the lady Maia. Now Eos Erigeneia (the Dawn) was rising from deep-flowing Okeanos, bringing light to men, when Apollon, as he went, came to Onkhestos, the lovely grove and sacred place of the loud-roaring Holder of the Earth [Poseidon]. There he found an old man grazing his beast along the pathway from his court-yard fence, and all-glorious Son of Leto began and said to him. ‘Old man, weeder of grassy Onkhestos, I am come here from Pieria seeking cattle, cows all of them, all with curving horns, from my herd. The black bull was grazing alone away from the rest, but fierce-eyed hounds followed the cows, four of them, all of one mind, like men. These were left behind, the dogs and the bull--which is great marvel; but the cows strayed out of the soft meadow, away from the pasture when the sun was just going down. Now tell me this, old man born long ago: have you seen one passing along behind those cows?’
Then the old man answered him and said : ‘My son, it is hard to tell all that one's eyes see; for many wayfarers pass to and fro this way, some bent on much evil, and some on good: it is difficult to know each one. However, I was digging about my plot of vineyard all day long until the sun went down, and I thought, good sir, but I do not know for certain, that I marked a child, whoever the child was, that followed long-horned cattle--an infant who had a staff and kept walking from side to side: he was driving them backwards way, with their heads toward him.’
So said the old man. And when Apollon heard this report, he went yet more quickly on his way, and presently, seeing a long-winged bird, he knew at once by that omen that thief was the child of Zeus Kronion. So the lord Apollo, son of Zeus, hurried on to goodly Pylos seeking his shambling oxen, and he had his broad shoulders covered with a dark cloud. But when the Far-Shooter perceived the tracks, he cried : ‘Oh, oh! Truly this is a great marvel that my eyes behold! These are indeed the tracks of straight-horned oxen, but they are turned backwards towards the flowery meadow. But these others are not the footprints of man or woman or grey wolves or bears or lions, nor do I think they are the tracks of a rough-maned Kentauros (Centaur)--whoever it be that with swift feet makes such monstrous footprints; wonderful are the tracks on this side of the way, but yet more wonderfully are those on that.’
When he had so said, the lord Apollon, the Son of Zeus hastened on and came to the forest-clad mountain of Kyllene and the deep-shadowed cave in the rock where the divine Nymphe brought forth the child of Zeus Kronion. A sweet odour spread over the lovely hill, and many thin-shanked sheep were grazing on the grass. Then far-shooting Apollon himself stepped down in haste over the stone threshold into the dusky cave.
Now when the Son of Zeus and Maia saw Apollon in a rage about his cattle, he snuggled down in his fragrant swaddling-clothes; and as wood-ash covers over the deep embers of tree-stumps, so Hermes cuddled himself up when he saw the Far-Shooter. He squeezed head and hands and feet together in a small space, like a new born child seeking sweet sleep, though in truth he was wide awake, and he kept his lyre under his armpit. But the Son of Leto was aware and failed not to perceive the beautiful Nymphe Oreias (mountain-nymph) and her dear son, albeit a little child and swathed so craftily. He peered in ever corner of the great dwelling and, taking a bright key, he opened three closets full of nectar and lovely ambrosia. And much gold and silver was stored in them, and many garments of the Nymphe, some purple and some silvery white, such as are kept in the sacred houses of the blessed gods. Then, after Letoides [Apollon] had searched out the recesses of the great house, he spake to glorious Hermes : ‘Child, lying in the cradle, make haste and tell me of my cattle, or we two will soon fall out angrily. For I will take and cast you into dusty Tartaros and awful hopeless darkness, and neither your mother nor your father shall free you or bring you up again to the light, but you will wander under the earth and be the leader amongst little folk.’
Then Hermes answered him with crafty words : ‘Letoides, what harsh words are these you have spoken? And is it cattle of the field you are come here to seek? I have not seen them: I have not heard of them: no one has told me of them. I cannot give news of them, nor win the reward for news. Am I like a cattle-liter, a stalwart person? This is no task for me: rather I care for other things: I care for sleep, and milk of my mother's breast, and wrappings round my shoulders, and warm baths. Let no one hear the cause of this dispute; for this would be a great marvel indeed among the deathless gods, that a child newly born should pass in through the forepart of the house with cattle of the field: herein you speak extravagantly. I was born yesterday, and my feet are soft and the ground beneath is rough; nevertheless, if you will have it so, I will swear a great oath by my father's head and vow that neither am I guilty myself, neither have I seen any other who stole your cows--whatever cows may be; for I know them only by hearsay.’
So, then, said Hermes, shooting quick glances from his eyes: and he kept raising his brows and looking this way and that, whistling long and listening to Apollo's story as to an idle tale. But far-working Apollon laughed softly and said to him : ‘O rogue, deceiver, crafty in heart, you talk so innocently that I most surely believe that you have broken into many a well-built house and stripped more than one poor wretch bare this night, gathering his goods together all over the house without noise. You will plague many a lonely herdsman in mountain glades, when you come on herds and thick-fleeced sheep, and have a hankering after flesh. But come now, if you would not sleep your last and latest sleep, get out of your cradle, you comrade of dark night. Surely hereafter this shall be your title amongst the deathless gods, to be called the prince of robbers (arkhos pheleteon) continually.’
So said Phoibos Apollon, and took the child and began to carry him. But at that moment strong Argeiphontes [Hermes] had his plan, and, while Apollon held him in his hands, sent forth an omen, a hard-worked belly-serf, a rude messenger, and sneezed directly after. And when Apollon heard it, he dropped glorious Hermes out of his hands on the ground: then sitting down before him, though he was eager to go on his way, he spoke mockingly to Hermes : ‘Fear not, little swaddling baby, son of Zeus and Maia. I shall find the strong cattle presently by these omens, and you shall lead the way.’
When Apollon had so said, Hermes of Mt Kyllene (Kyllenios) sprang up quickly, starting in haste. With both hands he pushed up to his ears the covering that he had wrapped about his shoulders, and said : ‘Where are you carrying me, Far-Worker, hastiest of all the gods? Is it because of your cattle that you are so angry and harass me? O dear, would that all the sort of oxen might perish; for it is not I who stole your cows, nor did I see another steal them--whatever cows may be, and of that I have only heard report. Nay, give right and take it before Zeus Kronion.’
So Hermes the shepherd (oiopolos) and Leto's glorious son kept stubbornly disputing each article of their quarrel : Apollon, speaking truly not fairly sought to seize glorious Hermes because of the cows; but he, Kyllenios [Hermes], tried to deceive the lord of the silver bow (argyrotoxos) [Apollon] with tricks and cunning words. But when, though he had many wiles, he found the other had as many shifts, he began to walk across the sand, himself in front, while the Son of Zeus and Leto came behind. Soon they came, these lovely children of Zeus, to the top of fragrant Olympus, to their father, Kronion [Zeus]; for there were the scales of judgement set for them both. There was an assembly on snowy Olympos, and the immortals who perish not were gathering after the hour of gold-throned Eos (Dawn).
Then Hermes and Apollo of the Silver Bow stood at the knees of Zeus: and Zeus who thunders on high spoke to his glorious son and asked him : ‘Phoibos, whence come you driving this great spoil, a child new born that has the look of a herald? This is a weighty matter that is come before the council of the gods.’
Then the lord, far-working Apollon, answered him : ‘O my father, you shall soon hear no triffling tale though you reproach me that I alone am fond of spoil. Here is a child, a burgling robber, whom I found after a long journey in the hills of Kyllene: for my part I have never seen one so pert either among the gods or all men that catch folk unawares throughout the world. He stole away my cows from their meadow and drove them off in the evening along the shore of the loud-roaring sea, making straight for Pylos. There were double tracks, and wonderful they were, such as one might marvel at, the doing of a clever sprite; for as for the cows, the dark dust kept and showed their footprints leading towards the flowery meadow; but he himself--bewildering creature--crossed the sandy ground outside the path, not on his feet nor yet on his hands; but, furnished with some other means he trudged his way--wonder of wonders!--as though one walked on slender oak-trees. Now while he followed the cattle across sandy ground, all the tracks showed quite clearly in the dust; but when he had finished the long way across the sand, presently the cows' track and his own could not be traced over the hard ground. But a mortal man noticed him as he drove the wide-browed kine straight towards Pylos. And as soon as he had shut them up quietly, and had gone home by crafty turns and twists, he lay down in his cradle in the gloom of a dim cave, as still as dark night, so that not even an eagle keenly gazing would have spied him. Much he rubbed his eyes with his hands as he prepared falsehood, and himself straightway said roundly : "I have not seen them: I have not heard of them: no man has told me of them. I could not tell you of them, nor win the reward of telling."’
When he had so spoken, Phoibos Apollon sat down. But Hermes on his part answered and said, pointing at Kronion, the lord of all the gods : ‘Zeus, my father, indeed I will speak truth to you; for I am truthful and I cannot tell a lie. He came to our house to-day looking for his shambling cows, as the sun was newly rising. He brought no witnesses with him nor any of the blessed gods who had seen the theft, but with great violence ordered me to confess, threatening much to throw me into wide Tartaros. For he has the rich bloom of glorious youth, while I was born but yesterday--as he too knows--nor am I like a cattle-lifter, a sturdy fellow. Believe my tale (for you claim to be my own father), that I did not drive his cows to my house--so may I prosper--nor crossed the threshold : this I say truly. I reverence Helios greatly and the other gods, and you I love and him I dread. You yourself know that I am not guilty : and I will swear a great oath upon it :--No! by these rich-decked porticoes of the gods. And some day I will punish him, strong as he is, for this pitiless inquisition; but now do you help the younger.’
So spake Kyllenios Argeiphontes [i.e. Hermes] while he kept shooting sidelong glances and kept his swaddling-clothes upon his arm, and did not cast them away. But Zeus laughed out loud to see his evil-plotting child well and cunningly denying guilt about the cattle. And he bade them both to be of one mind and search for the cattle, and guiding Hermes to lead the way and, without mischievousness of heart, to show the place where now he had hidden the strong cattle. Then Kronides [Zeus] bowed his head: and goodly (aglaos) Hermes obeyed him; for the will of Zeus who holds the aegis easily prevailed with him.
Then the two all-glorious children of Zeus hastened both to sandy Pylos, and reached the ford of Alpheios, and came to the fields and the high-roofed byre where the beasts were cherished at night-time. Now while Hermes went to the cave in the rock and began to drive out the strong cattle, Letoides [Apollon]looking aside, saw the cowhides on the sheer rock. And he asked glorious Hermes at once : ‘How were you able, you crafty rogue, to flay two cows, new-born and babyish as you are? For my part, I dread the strength that will be yours: there is no need you should keep growing long, Kyllenios, son of Maia!’
So saying, Apollon twisted strong withes with his hands meaning to bind Hermes with firm bands; but the bands would not hold him, and the withes of osier fell far from him and began to grow at once from the ground beneath their feet in that very place. And intertwining with one another, they quickly grew and covered all the wild-roving cattle by the will of deceiving (klepsiphron) Hermes, so that Apollon was astonished as he gazed.
[IV. HERMES TRADES THE LYRE FOR THE HERDS.]
"Then strong Argeiphontes [Hermes] looked furtively upon the ground with eyes flashing fire desiring to hide. Very easily he softened the son of all-glorious Leto as he would, stern though the Far-shooter was. He took the lyre upon his left arm and tried each string in turn with the key, so that it sounded awesomely at his touch. And Phoibos Apollon laughed for joy; for the sweet throb of the marvellous music went to his heart, and a soft longing took hold on his soul as he listened. Then the son of Maia, harping sweetly upon his lyre, took courage and stood at the left hand of Phoibos Apollon; and soon, while he played shrilly on his lyre, he lifted up his voice and sang, and lovely was the sound of his voice that followed. He sang the story of the deathless gods and of the dark earth, how at the first they came to be, and how each one received his portion.
First among the gods he honoured Mnemosyne, mother of the Mousai, in his song; for the son of Maia was of her following. And next the goodly son of Zeus hymned the rest of the immortals according to their order in age, and told how each was born, mentioning all in order as he struck the lyre upon his arm. But Apollon was seized with a longing not to be allayed, and he opened his mouth and spoke winged words to Hermes : ‘Slayer of oxen (bouphonos), trickster (mekhaniotes), busy one (ponyomenos), comrade of the feast (dais hetairos), this song of yours is worth fifty cows, and I believe that presently we shall settle our quarrel peacefully. But come now, tell me this wily (polytropos) son of Maia: has this marvellous thing been with you from your birth, or did some god or mortal man give it you--a noble gift--and teach you heavenly song? For wonderful is this new-uttered sound I hear, the like of which I vow that no man nor god dwelling on Olympus ever yet has known but you, O thievish (pheletes) son of Maia. What skill is this? What song for desperate cares? What way of song? For verily here are three things to hand all at once from which to choose,--mirth, and love, and sweet sleep. And though I am a follower of the Mousai Olympioi (Olympian Muses) who love dances and the bright path of song--the full-toned chant and ravishing thrill of flutes--yet I never cared for any of those feats of skill at young men's revels, as I do now for this : I am filled with wonder, O son of Zeus, at your sweet playing. But now, since you, though little, have such glorious skill, sit down, dear boy, and respect the words of your elders. For now you shall have renown among the deathless gods, you and your mother also. This I will declare to you exactly: by this shaft of cornel wood I will surely make you a leader renowned among the deathless gods, and fortunate, and will give you glorious gifts and will not deceive you from first to last.’
Then Hermes answered him with artful words : ‘You question me carefully, O Far-worker; yet I am not jealous that you should enter upon my art : this day you shall know it. For I seek to be friendly with you both in thought and word. Now you well know all things in your heart, since you sit foremost among the deathless gods, O son of Zeus, and are goodly and strong. And wise Zeus loves you as all right is, and has given you splendid gifts. And they say that from the utterance of Zeus you have learned both the honours due to the gods, O Far-worker, and oracles from Zeus, even all his ordinances. Of all these I myself have already learned that you have great wealth. Now, you are free to learn whatever you please; but since, as it seems, your heart is so strongly set on playing the lyre, chant, and play upon it, and give yourself to merriment, taking this as a gift from me, and do you, my friend, bestow glory on me. Sing well with this clear-voiced companion in your hands; for you are skilled in good, well-ordered utterance. From now on bring it confidently to the rich feast and lovely dance and glorious revel, a joy by night and by day. Whoso with wit and wisdom enquires of it cunningly, him it teaches through its sound all manner of things that delight the mind, being easily played with gentle familiarities, for it abhors toilsome drudgery; but whoso in ignorance enquires of it violently, to him it chatters mere vanity and foolishness. But you are able to learn whatever you please. So then, I will give you this lyre, glorious son of Zeus, while I for my part will graze down with wild-roving cattle the pastures on hill and horse-feeding plain: so shall the cows covered by the bulls calve abundantly both males and females. And now there is no need for you, bargainer though you are, to be furiously angry.’
When Hermes had said this, he held out the lyre: and Phoibos Apollon took it, and readily put his shining whip in Hermes' hand, and ordained him keeper of herds. The son of Maia received it joyfully, while the glorious son of Leto, the lord far-working Apollon, took the lyre upon his left arm and tried each string with the key. Awesomely it sounded at the touch of the god, while he sang sweetly to its note.
Afterwards they two, the all-glorious sons of Zeus turned the cows back towards the sacred meadow, but themselves hastened back to snowy Olympos, delighting in the lyre. Then wise Zeus was glad and made them both friends. And Hermes loved the son of Leto continually, even as he does now, when he had given the lyre as token to the Far-shooter, who played it skilfully, holding it upon his arm.
[V. HERMES TRADES THE PIPE FOR HERALDRY & RUSTIC DIVINATION.]
"But for himself Hermes found out another cunning art and made himself the pipes whose sound is heard afar. Then Letoides said to Hermes : ‘Son of Maia, guide (diaktoros) cunning one (poikilometes), I fear you may steal form me the lyre and my curved bow together; for you have an office from Zeus, to establish deeds of barter amongst men throughout the fruitful earth. Now if you would only swear me the great oath of the gods, either by nodding your head, or by the potent water of Styx, you would do all that can please and ease my heart.’
Then Maia's son nodded his head and promised that he would never steal anything of all the Far-shooter possessed, and would never go near his strong house; but Apollon Letoides swore to be fellow and friend to Hermes, vowing that he would love no other among the immortals, neither god nor man sprung from Zeus, better than Hermes : and the Father [Zeus] sent forth an eagle in confirmation. And Apollon sware also : ‘Verily I will make you only to be an omen for the immortals and all alike, trusted and honoured by my heart. Moreover, I will give you a splendid staff of riches and wealth : it is of gold, with three branches, and will keep you scatheless, accomplishing every task, whether of words or deeds that are good, which I claim to know through the utterance of Zeus. But as for sooth-saying, noble, heaven-born child, of which you ask, it is not lawful for you to learn it, nor for any other of the deathless gods: only the mind of Zeus knows that. I am pledged and have vowed and sworn a strong oath that no other of the eternal gods save I should know the wise-hearted counsel of Zeus. And do not you, my brother, bearer of the golden wand (khrysorrapis), bid me tell those decrees which all-seeing Zeus intends. As for men, I will harm one and profit another, sorely perplexing the tribes of unenviable men. Whosoever shall come guided by the call and flight of birds of sure omen, that man shall have advantage through my voice, and I will not deceive him. But whoso shall trust to idly-chattering birds and shall seek to invoke my prophetic art contrary to my will, and to understand more than the eternal gods, I declare that he shall come on an idle journey; yet his gifts I would take.
‘But I will tell you another thing, all-glorious (erikydes) Son of Maia and Zeus who holds the aigis, luck-bringing genius of the gods (daimon eriounes theon). There are certain holy ones, sisters born - three virgins gifted with wings: their heads are besprinkled with white meal, and they dwell under a ridge of Parnassos. These are teachers of divination apart from me, the art which I practised while yet a boy following herds, though my father paid no heed to it. From their home they fly now here, now there, feeding on honey-comb and bringing all things to pass. And when they are inspired through eating yellow honey, they are willing to speak truth; but if they be deprived of the gods' sweet food, then they speak falsely, as they swarm in and out together. These, then, I give you; enquire of them strictly and delight your heart: and if you should teach any mortal so to do, often will he hear your response--if he have good fortune. Take these, Son of Maia, and tend the wild roving, horned oxen and horses and patient mules.’ So he spake.
"And from heaven father Zeus himself gave confirmation to his words, and commanded that glorious Hermes should be lord over all birds of omen and grim-eyed lions, and boars with gleaming tusks, and over dogs and all flocks that the wide earth nourishes, and over all sheep; also that he only should be the appointed messenger to Haides, who, though he takes no gift, shall give him no mean prize.
Thus the lord Apollon showed his kindness for the Son of Maia by all manner of friendship: and Kronion [Zeus] gave him grace besides. He consorts with all mortals and immortals: a little he profits, but continually throughout the dark night he cozens the tribes of mortal men. And so, farewell, Son of Zeus and Maia; but I will remember you and another song also."
HERMES' THEFT OF APOLLO'S CATTLE (OTHER SOURCES)
The story is also found in Sophocles' Tracking Satyrs and a papyrus fragment, neither of which are currently quoted here.
Hesiod, Great Eoiae Fragment 16 (from Antoninus Liberalis, Metamorphoses 23) (trans. Evelyn-White) (Greek epic C8th or 7th B.C.) :
"Hesiod tells the story in the Great Eoiai . . . Magnes . . . lived in the region of Thessalia, in the land which men called after him Magnesia. He had a son of remarkable beauty, Hymenaios. And when Apollon saw the boy, he was seized with love for him, and would not leave the house of Magnes. Then Hermes made designs on Apollon's herd of cattle which were grazing in the same place as the cattle of Admetos. First he cast upon the dogs which were guarding them a stupor and strangles, so that the dogs forgot the cows and lost the power of barking. Then he drove away twelve heifers and a hundred cows never yoked, and the bull who mounted the cows, fastening to the tail of each one brushwood to wipe out the footmarks of the cows. He drove them through the country of the Pelasgoi, and Akhaia in the land of Phthia, and through Lokris, and Boiotia and Megaris, and thence into Peloponnesos by way of Korinthos and Larissa, until he brought them to Tegea. From there he went on by the Lykaion mountains, and past Mainalos and what are called the watch-posts of Battos. Now this Battos used to live on the top of the rock and when he heard the voice of the heifers as they were being driven past, he came out from his own place, and knew that the cattle were stolen." [For the rest of this story see Hermes Wrath: Battus.]
Pausanias, Description of Greece 7. 20. 4 (trans. Jones) (Greek travelogue C2nd A.D.) :
"That Apollon takes great pleasure in oxen is shown by Alkaios in his hymn to Hermes, who writes how Hermes stole cows of Apollon."
Philostratus the Elder, Imagines 1. 26 (trans. Fairbanks) (Greek rhetorician C3rd A.D.) :
"[Ostensibly a description of an ancient Greek painting at Neapolis (Naples) :] Birth of Hermes. The mere babe still in swaddling clothes, the one who is driving the cattle into the cleft of the earth, who furthermore is stealing Apollon's weapons--this is Hermes. Very delightful are the thefts of the god; for the story is that Hermes, when Maia bore him, loved thievery and was skilled in it, though it was by no means through poverty that the god did such things, but out of pure delight and in a spirit of fun. If you wish to follow his course step by step, see how the painting depicts it. He is born on the crest of Olympos, at the very top, the abode of the gods. There, as Homer says, one feels no rain and hears no wind, nor is it ever beaten by snow, it is so high; but it is absolutely divine and free from the ills that pertain to the mountains which belong to men. There the Horai (Seasons) care for Hermes at his birth. The painter has depicted these also, each according to her time, and they wrap him in swaddling clothes, sprinkling over him the most beautiful flowers, that he may have swaddling clothes not without distinction. While they turn to [Maia] the mother of Hermes lying on her couch of travail, he slips out of his swaddling clothes and begins to walk at once and descends from Olympos. The mountain rejoices in him--for its smile is like that of a man--and you are to assume that Olympos rejoices because Hermes was born there.
Now what of the theft? Cattle grazing on the foothills of Olympos, yonder cattle with golden horns and whiter than snow--for they are sacred to Apollon--he leads over a winding course into a cleft of the earth, not that they may perish, but that they may disappear for one day, until their loss vexes Apollon; and then he, as though he had had no part in the affair, slips back into his swaddling clothes. Apollon comes to Maia to demand back the cattle, but she does not believe him and thinks the god is talking nonsense. Would you learn what he is saying? For, from his expression he seems to me to be giving utterance, not merely to sounds, but to words; he looks as though he were about to say to Maia, ‘Your son whom you bore yesterday wrongs me; for the cattle in which I delight he has thrust into the earth, nor do I know where in the earth. Verily he shall perish and shall be thrust down deeper than the cattle.’
But she merely marvels, and does not believe what he says. While they are still disputing with one another Hermes takes his stand behind Apollon, and leaping lightly on his back, he quietly unfastens Apollon's bow and pilfers it unnoticed, but after he has pilfered it, he doest not escape detection. Therein lies the cleverness of the painter; for the melts the wrath of Apollon and represents him as delighted. But his laughter is restrained, hovering as it were over his face, as amusement conquers wrath."
Pseudo-Hyginus, Astronomica 2. 7 (trans. Grant) (Roman mythographer C2nd A.D.) :
"Mercurius [Hermes] first made the lyre on Mount Cyllene in Arcadia . . . Later, when he had driven away the cattle of Apollo and had been caught in the act, to win pardon more easily, at Apollo's request he gave him permission to claim the invention of the lyre, and received from him a certain staff [the caduceus] as reward."
Ovid, Metamorphoses 2. 679 ff (trans. Melville) (Roman epic C1st B.C. to C1st A.D.) :
"He [Apollon] was dallying in Elis and Messene's meadowlands. That was the time when he wore shepherd's garb, his left hand held a sturdy woodland staff, his right a pipe of seven graded reeds; and, while love filled his thoughts and his pipe played soft soothing tunes, the flock he failed to watch wandered away, it's said, to Pylos' fields. The son of Maia Atlantis [Hermes] saw them there and drove them off in his sly way and hid them in the woods. No one had seen the theft save one old man, a character of that green countryside, Battus." [For the rest of Ovid's story see Hermes Wrath: Battus.]
- Hesiod, Theogony - Greek Epic C8th - 7th B.C.
- Hesiod, Great Eoiae Fragments - Greek Epic C8th - 7th B.C.
- Hesiod, Astronomy Fragments - Greek Epic C8th - 7th B.C.
- The Homeric Hymns - Greek Epic C8th - 4th B.C.
- Aeschylus, Fragments - Greek Tragedy C5th B.C.
- Apollodorus, The Library - Greek Mythography C2nd A.D.
- Pausanias, Description of Greece - Greek Travelogue C2nd A.D.
- The Orphic Hymns - Greek Hymns C3rd B.C. - C2nd A.D.
- Philostratus the Elder, Imagines - Greek Rhetoric C3rd A.D.
- Philostratus, Life of Apollonius of Tyana - Greek Biography C2nd A.D.
- Nonnus, Dionysiaca - Greek Epic C5th A.D.
- Hyginus, Fabulae - Latin Mythography C2nd A.D.
- Hyginus, Astronomica - Latin Mythography C2nd A.D.
- Ovid, Metamorphoses - Latin Epic C1st B.C. - C1st A.D.
- Virgil, Aeneid - Latin Epic C1st B.C.
- Statius, Silvae - Latin Poetry C1st A.D.