Divine Deceiver: Hermes in the Homeric Hymns

Hermes with lyre

I read with great interest and enjoyment the recent posts by Jacqui Donlon “Divine Doppelgänger: Hermes and Odysseus” and by Bill Moulton: “The Divine Doublet: Odysseus and Hermes“, and became intrigued to learn more about Hermes as deceiver, as portrayed in the Homeric Hymns.

Although the longer hymn is number 4, there is another, much shorter, hymn dedicated to Hermes, number 18. So I’ll start with that one:

…He [= Hermes] was born of Maia, the daughter of Atlas, when she had mated with Zeus— [5] modest/respected [aidoios]. Ever she avoided the throng of the blessed gods and lived in a shadowy cave, and there the Son of Kronos used to lie with the rich-tressed nymph at dead of night, while white-armed Hera lay bound in sweet sleep: and it escaped the notice of deathless gods and mortal men.

Homeric Hymn (18) to Hermes 3–9, adapted from translation by Hugh Evelyn-White[1]

Hymn 18 encapsulates the key features of Hermes’ birth. There is deceit involved even in his conception: Maia lives in a shaded cave, out of notice, and Zeus lies with her secretly. (To be fair, that is true of most of his liaisons: he wants to avoid Hera’s jealousy!)

The more extended version of Hermes’ story is told in the Homeric Hymn (4) to Hermes. Like number 18, it starts with an account of how Zeus lay secretly with Maia in her cave. But there is a more extended introduction which describes Hermes as

…a son, of many shifts [polutropos], blandly cunning [haimulomētēs], a robber [lēstēr], a cattle driver, a bringer of dreams, [15] 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 [kleptein] the cattle of far-shooting Apollo..

Homeric Hymn (4) to Hermes 13–18, adapted from translation by Hugh Evelyn-White[2]

These words are effectively a micro-narrative describing what is to come in the remaining verses, and immediately portray his deceitful nature.

tortoishell lyreThe first episode is an encounter with a tortoise. Hermes strikes a bargain with him (and indeed, keeps his word—which will be important at the end of the Hymn):

“you shall help me [35] and I will not dishonor [apotimeîn] you, though first of all you must profit me.”
34–35, adapted from translation by Hugh Evelyn-White

He kills the tortoise, and from its shell crafts a lyre, which he tries out, singing of Zeus and Maia, and of his mother’s household.

But then his trickster characteristics come to the fore, when he:

sprang from the sweet-smelling hall to a watch-place, pondering sheer trickery [dolos] in his heart [phrenes] —deeds such as knavish folk pursue in the time [hōrā] of dark night

HH4 65–66, adapted from translation by Hugh G. Evelyn-White

It seems significant that the episode is nocturnal. I am reminded of the analysis of Iliad 10 by Casey Dué and Mary Ebbott on the poetics of night raids.[3] In addition he employs tactics to disguise his actions:

…[Hermes] drove them straggling-wise across a sandy place, turning aside [apo-strephein] their hoof-prints. Also, he bethought him of a crafty [dolia] ruse [tekhnē] 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, [80] 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.

HH4 75–83, adapted from translation by Hugh G. Evelyn-White

Theft of Apollo's cattle

As fitting for a night raid, he carries out his exploit alone and, initially, unseen. However, an old man working his vineyard spots him, and Hermes tells him to “remember not” to have noticed (87–93). The man will, however, tell the truth to Apollo about what he has seen. (201–211).

Hermes’ inventive nature is again highlighted when he creates the first fire and, sacrificing two of the cows, cuts them up, places them on spits and cooks them. Despite his longing to eat the flesh he contents himself with the smell, and instead:

…put away in the high-roofed byre [135] the fat and all the flesh, placing them high up to be a token [sēma] of his youthful theft.

HH4 134–136, adapted from translation by Hugh G. Evelyn-White

Vase painting Hermes kriophorosThe hides he had spread out on a rock provide another continuing sign (“and so they are still there many ages afterwards, a long, long time after all this” 125–126). He seems to be planting evidence to disprove the lies he will tell later—a double deception.

However, he destroys other proofs of his theft, burning the heads and hoofs and covering the embers, and throwing his sandals into the river Alpheus. He then sneaks back home:

…[he] 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. [150] Then glorious Hermes went hurriedly to his cradle, wrapping his swaddling clothes about his shoulders as though he were a feeble [nēpios] babe, and lay playing with the covering about his knees

HH4 146–153, adapted from translation by Hugh G. Evelyn-White

But his mother notices his return. She despairs of his shamelessness, and fears he will either be punished by Apollo or “live a rogue’s life [phēlēteusein] in the glens robbing [pherein] by whiles.” (159) He answers with “crafty [kerdos] words [mūthoi]” (162) as he says she should not treat him as a child, and he claims he could give her a better life, whether among the gods receiving due honors, or as a robber [phēlētēs], singling out Apollo as his main target (176–181).

However, when Apollo tracks him down in the cave, Hermes makes himself appear like a small baby and pretends to be asleep (237–245): more deception.

Even when Apollo challenges him and threatens to throw him into Tartarus, Hermes claims to know nothing of the cattle, again using “crafty [kerdos] words [mūthoi]” (260):

“I have not seen them: I have not heard of them: I have not heard a word [mūthos] of them from another. I cannot give news of them, nor win the reward for news. [265] Am I like a cattle-lifter, 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 [neikos]; [270] for this would be a great marvel [thauma] 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 [kthōn] beneath is rough; nevertheless, if you will have it so, I will swear a great oath by my father’s head and vow that [275] neither am I guilty [aitios] myself, neither have I seen any other thief [klopos] of your cows —whatever cows may be; for I know them only by hearsay [kleos].”

HH4  263–277, adapted from translation by Hugh G. Evelyn-White

Mercury (Hermes) as a child

This is more than just “crafty [kerdos]” (260): it is a complete lie. But his expression seems to give him away:

…shooting quick glances from his eyes: and he kept raising his brows and looking this way and that, [280] whistling long and listening to Apollo’s story [mūthos] as to an idle tale.

HH4 278–280, translation by Hugh G. Evelyn-White

Apollo is not fooled:

“O rogue, deceiver [ēperopeutēs], crafty in heart [dolophradēs]… 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. …Surely hereafter this shall be your title amongst the deathless gods, to be called the prince of robbers [phēlētēs, pl] continually.”

HH4 282, 286–287, 291–292, translation by Hugh G. Evelyn-White

Hermes provides another non-verbal clue when he “sent forth an omen, a hard-worked belly-serf, a rude messenger” (296….)—in other words, he breaks wind[4]. This could indicate that he had eaten meat[5] which could have come from the very cattle he denies stealing (although, as we know, he didn’t actually eat any: again a double deception).

Hermes continues to deny all the charges, and eventually they take the dispute to Zeus himself. Even then Hermes lies, although he claims “I will speak truth [alētheia] to you; for I am truthful and I cannot tell a lie [pseudesthai].” (369–369) He even goes so far as to say “You yourself know that I am not guilty [aitios]: and I will swear a great oath upon it” (382–383) although he swears “by these rich-decked porticoes of the gods” (384) rather than by the Styx which is the most binding of the gods’ oaths.[6]

He continues to give non-verbal clues about his deceit, though: “he kept shooting sidelong glances” (337). Thomas W. Allen and E.E. Sikes note of ἐπιλλίζω [epillizō] in this line:

the verb= “make sidelong glances at a person” (cf. “ἰλλός” “squinting”), with a further idea of “hinting.” So here also Hermes probably “winks” or “leers” at Zeus to enlist his support.[7]

Zeus sees through it all: “Zeus laughed out loud to see his evil-plotting [kakomēdēs] child well and cunningly denying guilt about the cattle.” (389–390) and has Hermes show them where Apollo’s cattle are hidden.

The hides are still on the rock outside the cave where he left them, and Apollo is impressed at what strength Hermes had to flay them even as a baby, and tries to bind him[8] —unsuccessfully.

But instead of a direct confrontation, Hermes mollifies Apollo with the lyre—which he has kept hidden under his swaddling clothes all this time—and performs a song about the gods. Apollo says,

“this song of yours is worth fifty cows, and I believe that presently we shall settle [dia-krinein] our quarrel peacefully [hēsukhos, adverb].”

HH4 437–438, adapted from  translation by Hugh G. Evelyn-White

Hermes with lyre

He goes on to promise:

“This I will declare to you exactly: [460] by this shaft of cornel wood I will surely make you a leader renowned among the deathless gods, and fortunate [olbios], and will give you glorious gifts and will not deceive [apatãn] you from first to last [telos].”

HH4 459–462, adapted from  translation by Hugh G. Evelyn-White

It is perhaps significant that Apollo sets himself apart from Hermes by emphasizing that he will not be deceptive.

Hermes offers him the lyre, and describes it this way:

“Whoso with wit [tekhnē] and wisdom [sophiā] enquires of it cunningly, him it teaches [485] through its sound all manner of things that are delightful [kharis, adj] to the mind [noos], 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.”

HH4 482–488, adapted from  translation by Hugh G. Evelyn-White

—words that could just as much describe Hermes himself, as portrayed in the Hymn!

Mercury (Hermes)For his part, Apollo “readily put his shining whip in Hermes’ hand, and ordained him keeper of herds.” But there is still an element of doubt and mistrust:

Then the son of Leto said to Hermes: “Son of Maia, guide and cunning one [poikilomētēs], I fear [515] you may steal [kleptein] from me the lyre [kitharis] and my curved bow together; for you have an office [tīmē] from Zeus, to establish deeds of barter amongst men throughout the fruitful earth [khthōn]. 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, [520] you would do all that can be gratifying [kharizasthai] and pleasing [phila] to my heart [thūmos].”

Then Maia’s son nodded his head and promised that he would never steal [apokleptein] anything of all the Far-shooter possessed, and would never go near his strong house”

HH4 513–523, adapted from  translation by Hugh G. Evelyn-White

In the end, having made friends with Apollo, and received kharis from Zeus, the Hymn’s conclusion tells us that Hermes’ deceitful nature has never left him:

[he] consorts with all mortals and immortals: a little he profits, but continually throughout the dark night he cheats [ēperopeuein] the tribes of mortal men.

HH4 576–578, adapted from  translation by Hugh G. Evelyn-White

I am still curious about a number of questions:

Why, in this Hymn, does Hermes particularly target Apollo, first by stealing his cattle, and by threatening to “go to Pytho to break into his great house, and will plunder therefrom splendid tripods, and cauldrons, [180] and gold, and plenty of bright iron, and much apparel”?

After all the ways he disguises his tracks and the direction of the cattle’s hoofprints, why does he leave clues about his theft, and why does he give non-verbal signals to indicate that he is lying?

Hermes promises he would “never steal anything of all the Far-shooter possessed, and would never go near his strong house” but doesn’t make that promise in respect of anyone else’s property. Did he ever break his word and steal from Apollo again? And are there examples of theft and deception from other sources?

Why, given Hermes’ demonstrable ability to lie, does Zeus make him a messenger who, presumably, has to convey accurately what he has been charged to say? The passages in which he is seen carrying out this duty, in Homeric epic at least, show him delivering such messages accurately as far as I can see. Does he lie only about himself? Or does he ever misrepresent a message?

Hermes chooses to nod rather than swear by the Styx. But, with Zeus at least, nodding the head indicates the god’s will, so is this equally binding, or did Apollo give him a “soft option”? And if so, is it because Apollo already knows it will be impossible to bind Hermes if he does break the oath?

Please join me in the forum to discuss these questions, and Hermes as a “divine deceiver”.


[1] Adapted from translation by Hugh G. Evelyn-White. The Homeric Hymns and Homerica with an English Translation by Hugh G. Evelyn-White. Homeric Hymns. Cambridge, MA.,Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1914.
English text online at Perseus
Greek text online at Perseus

[2] Homeric Hymn (4) to Hermes (hereafter abbreviated to HH4).
The Homeric Hymns and Homerica with an English Translation by Hugh G. Evelyn-White. Homeric Hymns. Cambridge, MA.,Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1914.
English text online at Perseus
Greek text online at Perseus

[3] Dué, Casey, and Mary Ebbott. 2010. Iliad 10 and the Poetics of Ambush: A Multitext Edition with Essays and Commentary. Hellenic Studies Series 39. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

[4] I am grateful to Leonard Muellner for helping me understand this phrase. He explained that the expression is a kenning, employed because this would not form part of the language of epic. (Kosmos Society: Greek Office Hours, May 8, 2019.)

[5] In “Mentalities of sacrifice in Indic and Greek traditions,” in Classics@12, Gregory Nagy says about sacrificial feasts: “In the Mediterranean world, where people lived day in and day out on a diet consisting mostly of grains and olives and cheese and, here and there, an occasional fish, such a yearly extravaganza involving the consumption of vast quantities of beef proved to be quite a shock to the ordinary digestive system. And, in Athenian Old Comedy, we can find the expected jokes about the resulting gastrointestinal crises.”

[6] As recently discussed in the Forum, Hera refers to it this way: “May the heavens above and earth below be my witnesses, with the waters of the river Styx—and this is the most solemn oath that a blessed god can take…” Iliad 15.35–38

[7] The Homeric Hymns, edited, with preface, apparatus criticus, notes, and appendices. Thomas W. Allen. E. E. Sikes. London. Macmillan. 1904.
Notes online on Perseus

[8] This is reminiscent of the story about the gods trying to bind Zeus, Iliad 1.399–406. I am grateful to Leonard Muellner for his insights on that passage, when he explained that when the gods try to bind Zeus they threaten to usurp his power through immobilization. (Kosmos Society: Greek Office Hours, May 8, 2019.)

Image credits

Hermes holding a lyre, Fragment of a cameo, 1st–2nd century CE.
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license © The Trustees of the British Museum

Lyre restored from remains said to have been found in Athens, probably 5th or 4th century BCE. British Museum.
Photo: Kosmos Society

The theft of Apollo’s cattle, Published by: Matheus van Uyttenbroeck, Print made by: Moyses van Wtenbrouck 1610–1647
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license © The Trustees of the British Museum

Painter of Louvre: Hermes kriophoros (“ram carrier”). Attic black-figure olpe, 515–510 BCE. Louvre.
Marie-Lan Nguyen (User:Jastrow), public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Bronze figure of Mercury as a child, Roman, 1st century CE
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license © The Trustees of the British Museum

Hermes running with lyre, interior of kylix, 495-490BCE
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license © The Trustees of the British Museum

Mercury [Hermes] Engraving
Creative Commons CC BY 4.0, Wellcome Collection

Note: Images have been selected from pictures that are freely available with open source or Creative Commons licenses or from photographs sent in by community members for the purpose. The images in this post are intended to suggest the subject, rather than illustrate exactly—as such, they may be from other periods, subjects, or cultures. Attributions are based where possible by those shown by museums, or on Wikimedia Commons or Flickr, at the time of publication on this website.

Images and online texts accessed May 2019.

Sarah Scott has a degree in Language from the University of York where she specialized in philology, and has worked as an editor, technical author, and documentation manager. She is the Executive Producer for the HeroesX project, and one of the Executive Editors of the HeroesX Sourcebook. She is an active participant and member of the editorial team in Kosmos Society, with a particular interest in content development, document management, word studies, language learning, comparative linguistics, and digital humanities.