Divine Doppelgänger: Hermes and Odysseus

Hermes and Kalypso

When she [= Kalypsō] had thus spoken she led the way rapidly before him, and Odysseus followed in her steps; so the pair, goddess and man, went on and on till they came to Kalypsō’s cave, [195] where Odysseus took the seat that Hermes had just left. [καί ῥ᾽ὁ μὲν ἔνθα καθέζετ᾽ ἐπὶ θρόνου ἔνθεν ἀνέστη Ἑρμείας] Kalypsō set meat and drink before him all kinds of food to eat and drink, of the kind that mortals consume. But she herself sat opposite divine Odysseus, and before her the handmaids set ambrosia and nectar.
Odyssey 5.192–199, adapted from Sourcebook[1]

Each time I close read the Odyssey, new questions and thoughts arise, such as this one from the above quote: “where Odysseus took the seat that Hermes had just left.” What is the significance of this line? After all, to sit in Hermes’ seat implies, to me, that Odysseus is taking Hermes’ place within the story narrative, at least metaphorically. Does this sentence portend Odysseus’ immortality as a cult hero? It does not seem to be a hero/antagonist situation. In the Odyssey it is Poseidon who is the antagonist to the hero, “nevertheless all the gods had now begun to pity him [20] except Poseidon, who still persecuted godlike Odysseus without ceasing and would not let him get home. (Odyssey 1.19–21, adapted from Sourcebook)

The above bolded phrase at 5.195: ὁ μὲν ἔνθα καθέζετ᾽ ἐπὶ θρόνου[2], is used only two times in all of the Iliad and Odyssey: in Odyssey 5, above, and in Iliad 1.536[3]—when Zeus sits [back] down there on his throne/chair—it occurs just after Zeus and Thetis conferred about the tῑmē of Achilles. The overlapping phrase, ἐπὶ θρόνου ἔνθεν ἀνέστη, meaning basically sat down on the seat from which he had risen, occurs only four times—all in the Odyssey, all involving mortals: #1, Odyssey 18.155, when suitor Amphinomus’ fate is sealed; #2, Odyssey 21.139, when Telemachus chooses not to draw the bow a fourth time;  #3 Odyssey 21.167 when suitor Leiodes fails at the bow; and #4 —we will get to that later, but it seems that all of these instances are pivotal moments and thereby Odysseus taking Hermes’ seat would be one also.

Although Odysseus’ seat-taking doesn’t occur until Scroll 5, Scroll 5 is the beginning of Odysseus’ narrative in real time, thus I find it significant as to which Olympian god is present at the beginning of his narrative—Hermes. Is it because they are so alike and is that why there is such an implicit presence of Hermes throughout this epic? Alkinoos, the Phaeacian ruler, in his own polite way alludes to this.

“Odysseus,” replied Alkinoos, “not one of us who sees you has any idea that you are a charlatan or a swindler. I know there are many people [365] going about who tell such plausible stories that it is very hard to see through them, but there is a style about your language which assures me of your good disposition. Moreover you have told the story of your own misfortunes, and those of the Argives, as though you were a practiced bard…”
Odyssey 11.362–369, Sourcebook

Hermes, besides being a trickster, the inventor of the lyre and the flute (Homeric Hymn (4) to Hermes. 39–55, 511[4]), was also a skillful bard, and song, of course, was the ultimate reciprocal medium.


Born in a cave, the son of Zeus and the nymph Maia, Hermes was a son, of many shifts, blandly cunning, a robber, 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 (Homeric Hymn (4) to Hermes, Evelyn-White translation.)

In the Homeric Hymn (4) to Hermes whenluck-bringing (verse 29) Hermes is accepted as an immortal god by Zeus, Apollo then bestows unto Hermes these attributes: for you have an office from Zeus, to establish deeds of barter amongst men throughout the fruitful earth”(verse .516). Zeus in turn gives confirmation of Apollo’s words and also commands that Hermes should be lord over all birds of omen and grim-eyed lions, and boars with gleaming tusks, [570] 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 Hades… (568b–572).

A lot of attributes! Leonard Muellner in one of his Greek Office Hours sessions mentioned Hermes as a divinity who communicates between opposite poles, a messenger between gods and mortals, one who wakes and puts to sleep, the god of thieves and merchants, a communicator, and the god of reciprocity, physical back and forth, and exchange. And all are attributes very much in keeping with Odysseus and the Odyssey.

A Persistent Presence

After thinking about all this information, most of which came up during the Kosmos Society close reading sessions of Scrolls 5 and 11 (“Pylians” Odyssey study group), a lingering question I had about the Odyssey now seem clearer. It always puzzled me that right at the beginning of Scroll 1, Zeus is focused on the death of Aegisthus. I figured it had something to do with mēnis, and also the violation of xenia which is Zeus’ sphere of influence. Well, yes—and that also involves Hermes, because Hermes is the god of exchange (a subsequent characteristic of guest/host relationships)—which makes him the perfect god choice to warn this mortal of the intended folly. Zeus says:

…[35] Look at Aegisthus; he must needs make love to Agamemnon’s wife unrighteously and then kill Agamemnon, though he knew it would be the death of him; for I sent Hermes, the mighty watcher, to warn him not to do either of these things, [40] inasmuch as Orestes would be sure to take his revenge when he grew up and wanted to return home. Hermes told him this in all good will but he would not listen, and now he has paid for everything in full.
Odyssey 1.35–43, Sourcebook

So the infrastructure of the Odyssey is now in place and it has very much to do with Hermes. Odysseus, like Orestes, is an agent of dikē, “revered king(s)…by way of straight judgments [dikai] (Hesiod, Theogony 80[5]), and so Odysseus must make his way back to Ithaca via a long journey of lies, thievery, and timely aid from the gods—all matters for Hermes—in order to punish the suitors who are in flagrant violation of xenia and the reciprocal exchange between those who had a guest/host relationship.

Hermes is known as the “luck-bringing [ἐριούνης] god(Homeric Hymn (4) to Hermes 551), but the word ἐριούνης has two meanings according to Autenrieth[6]: “luck bringer, and “the ready helper.  Now this is all connecting for me, because Hermes, from Odyssey Scroll 5 on, is subtly present to watch over, and aid Odysseus with his nostos—which is the journey of return, not solely the endpoint.

Here are some examples: in Odyssey Scroll 7. 85–135, Odysseus, before entering the house of Alkinoos sees inside: young men holding flaring torches (Hermes, according to Homeric Hymn (4) to Hermes 111, invented fire and fire-sticks) so as to shed light on the feasters within (Hermes, as helper), and dogs (Hermes) made of gold and silver on either side of the threshold pillars to keep watch (Hermes again). And as soon as he crosses the bronze threshold, Odysseus sees the most prominent Phaeacians making drink offerings to Hermes, which is done each night before “going away for the night”.

More examples: in Odyssey 10.275–305, Hermes in the disguise of a young man, helps [in his role as ἐριούνης] Odysseus to counter Circe’s potions by giving him the plant moly and advice about how to free his comrades. And of course there is Scroll 11, Odysseus’ trip to Hādēs, where he meets his shipmate Elpenor.  Hermes is not mentioned in the text, but since he is the conductor of psūkhai to Hādēs, he would escort Elpenor there, thus his presence is implied. The ancient Greek images and vessels attesting to this understanding may show all three together such as the one below. Image: Lykaon Painter: Jar with Odysseus and Elpenor in the underworld. Hermes is shown standing on the right.

Odysseus with Elpenor and Hermes

There are more examples in subsequent scrolls, such in Scroll 13: When they [= the Phaeacian seafarers] began rowing out to sea, 79 he [= Odysseus] felt a sweet sleep falling upon his eyelids. [80] It was a deep sleep, the sweetest, and most similar to death.” (Odyssey 13.78–80, Sourcebook). However, I will forgo any additional examples as we need to continue on with this blog journey.

Between Opposite Poles

Hermes is a divinity who transitions between opposite poles; between living and the dead, between wake and sleep, between vast distances—to and from the gods in Olympus and the mortal world. The song of Odysseus is filled with these polar opposites, geographic, emotional, physical, and metaphysical. Odysseus goes from being the wealthy king of Ithaca to a man afloat upon the wine-dark sea astride only one timber:

Poseidon Earthshaker aroused a great swell upon him,
deinos and difficult, overarching, and it struck him.
And just as the strong-blowing wind shakes a heap of husks [ēia]
(that are) dry: and disperses them this way and that:
just so the long timbers dispersed.

the great swelling wave dashed-with-a-roaring-sound on dry land
bellowing awfully [deinos], and had enveloped everything with foam [akhnē] of the salt-sea

Odyssey 5. 366–370, 402–403 [this translation is from our Pylians study group].

Even within that quote, there are opposites—in the midst of surging waves note the references to dry husks or chaff [ēia], and akhnē can mean foam or chaff (Autenrieth): —a portent to Odysseus’ future as foretold by Teiresias in Scroll 11.

OdysseusOdysseus also transitions from “revered king” to a thief and outlaw, then when he journeys to the primordial land of Polyphemus, he becomes a man with no identity at allmy name is Noman [ou tis]” (Odyssey 9.366). He makes the sacralized journey from Ogygia, the farthest point from home, the point of no-return, that lonely sea-girt island, far away,…in the very middle of the sea (Odyssey 1.50), where he is in the lowest depths of despair, to Scheria the land of the Phaeacians with their ideal society, whom Zeus describes aswho are near of kin to the gods [ankhitheos], (Odyssey 5.30–37). This is where nameless Odysseus will ensure his nostos by singing his own songs, gaining an escort back to Ithaca. He also reveals his name and full lineage for the first time in the narrative, “I am Odysseus son of Laertes, renowned among humankind 
[20] for all manner of subtlety, so that my kleos ascends to the sky.” (Odyssey 9.19–20). It is interesting that line 20 echoes and contrasts with that of Hermes in line 16 of his Homeric Hymn (4): “one who was soon to show forth wonderful deeds among the deathless gods”.

While descending towards Hādēs, Odysseus meets a mortal polar opposite, the psūkhē of Elpenor,We had with us a certain youth named Elpenor, not very remarkable for sense or courage” (Odyssey 10.554). Brilliant Odysseus, the seasoned warrior and accomplished sailor, shows compassion for this unseasoned, none too bright, clumsy inept youth. He promises to bury Elpenor’s body and place an oar on his tomb. Odysseus’ compassion may stem from the brotherhood of being shipmates, but more likely it is because Elpenor’s tomb will be the model for Odysseus own sēma, soon to be described to him by Teiresias.

Now Odysseus is at the very boundary between the living and the dead. Odysseus cannot go into Hādēs, rather, he goes to the lowest level of the undead where the dead in Hādēs are just below. “And the psūkhē came up of (my) mother, (she) having died”, (Odyssey 11.85). Odysseus is at Erebeis the place of eternal darkness, the transitional area between states of being: alive, dead, and those who died but were not buried properly (Elpenor). Because Odysseus is alive, he cannot go any farther, and eventually he has to go back—but not before, in this place closest to the dead, he learns of his future from Teiresias the Seer:

|119 But after you kill the suitors in your own house, |120 killing them either by trickery or openly, by way of sharp bronze, |121 you must go on a journey then, taking with you a well-made oar, |122 until you come to a place where men do not know what the sea is |123 and do not even eat any food that is mixed with sea salt, |124 nor do they know anything about ships, which are painted purple on each side, |125 and well-made oars that are like wings for ships. |126 And I will tell you a sign [sēma], a very clear one, which will not get lost in your thinking. |127 Whenever someone on the road encounters you |128 and says that it must be a winnowing shovel that you have on your radiant shoulder, |129 at that point you must stick into the ground the well-made oar |130 and sacrifice beautiful sacrifices to lord Poseidon: |131 a ram, a bull, and a boar that mounts sows. |132 And then go home and offer sacred hecatombs |133 to the immortal gods who possess the vast expanses of the skies. |134 Sacrifice to them in proper order, one after the other. As for yourself, death shall come to you from the sea, |135 a gentle death, that is how it will come, and this death will kill you |136 as you lose your strength in a prosperous old age. And the people all around [your corpse] |137 will be blessed [olbioi]. All the things I say are unmistakably true.”

Odyssey 11.118–137, Sourcebook

So in the deepest darkest place, Odysseus learns that he will travel to the high mountains carrying an oar. When he first meets up with someone who does not recognize an oar as an oar, he knows he has gone as far from the sea as he possibly can—this then is another boundary.

Upon reaching this boundary, Odysseus is to sacrifice first to Poseidon, then to all the other gods. But why Poseidon first? This spot is the very edge of his sea domain and Poseidon, as was stated in Odyssey 1, was antagonistic towards Odysseus. All the gods pitied him except for Poseidon.”. Does this mean Odysseus finally resolves their conflict? Or does this sacrifice balance the fact that he is as far from the concept of sea that he can get—delineating the ultimate expanse of Poseidon’s sea domain, and thereby establishing “Starting from any single point,” Odyssey 1.10, another point of departure.

According to Teiresias, Odysseus is now to return homeward. His journeys are ongoing just as day follows night. Always circles within circles, which leads me back to the chair!…the fourth example of “upon the seat whence he had arisen”.  It occurs at Odyssey 23:

The upper servant, Eurynome, washed and anointed great-hearted Odysseus in his own house [155] and gave him a khiton and cloak, while Athena made him look taller and stronger than before; she also made the hair grow thick on the top of his head, and flow down in curls like hyacinth blossoms; she shed kharis about his head and shoulders…163 He emerged from the bathtub [asaminthos], looking like [homoios] the immortals in size, and sat down [165] opposite his wife on the seat he had left.

Odyssey 23.154–158, 162–165, Sourcebook

So Odysseus comes to the opposing state of fortune from whence he sat in Hermes’ chair across from Kalypsō in Scroll 5. He now, looking like a god, sits on his own throne/chair, across from his wife Penelope. He has his kingdom, his wife and his son back. So this circle is completed, but soon there will be many more and he will depart again per Teiresias’ prophecy.

Odysseus and Penelope

I do not really understand at which point Odysseus’ mortal body dies, but I guess that is the true essence of the Odyssey. Teiresias says Odysseus is to return home [οἴκαδε,  homeward, home] and his death, at old age, will come from the sea. But according to Gregory Nagy in his Classical Inquires “A Sampling of Comments on Odyssey Rhapsody 11”[7], Odysseus’ tomb, housing his body, is at this coincidence of opposites. It is a point where the sea and the negation of the sea coincide—the point where the oar, metamorphosed into the winnowing shovel, is planted and where Odysseus honors Poseidon.

But the end of Odysseus’ mortality echoes his beginning. When Odysseus is born, it is his maternal grandfather, Autolykos, the son of Hermes, who names Odysseus (Odyssey 19.405).  The name Odysseus relates to the Greek verb odussomai, which can mean “to be angry at,” or “to be grieved.” The implied reciprocity of this verb makes Odysseus,the giver and receiver of pain. It is this reciprocity that is a major attribute of Hermes, the god of transitions, communication, to and from, and exchange. Odysseus’ kleos will be immortal, but at the end of his mortal life, it will be his divine Doppelgänger, Hermes, who will be there to escort him to Hādēs.

I shared some examples of places where Hermes appears or is referred to in the Odyssey. Have you found others? Join the conversation in the forum, here.


[1] Sourcebook: The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours Sourcebook of Original Greek Texts Translated into English, Gregory Nagy, General Editor. 2018.12.12. Available online at the Center for Hellenic Studies.
English text: Sourcebook Homeric Odyssey Translated by Samuel Butler. Revised by Soo-Young Kim, Kelly McCray, Gregory Nagy, and Timothy Power

[2] Odyssey Greek text: Homer. The Odyssey with an English Translation by A.T. Murray, PH.D. in two volumes. Cambridge, MA., Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann, Ltd. 1919.
Online at Perseus

[3] Iliad Greek text Homer. Homeri Opera in five volumes. Oxford, Oxford University Press. 1920. Online at Perseus.
English text:
Sourcebook Homeric Iliad Translated by Samuel Butler. Revised by Soo-Young Kim, Kelly McCray, Gregory Nagy, and Timothy Power

[4] Homeric Hymn (4) to Hermes
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.
Greek text online at Perseus.
English text online at Peresus.

[5] Sourcebook Hesiodic Theogony, translated by Gregory Nagy.

[6] Autenrieth: Georg Autenrieth. A Homeric Dictionary for Schools and Colleges. New York. Harper and Brothers. 1891. Online at Perseus.

[7] Classical Inquiries, Online at CHS:

Image credits

Flaxman, John: Mercury’s message to Calypso, 1805.
Photo © Tate.  Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported)

Lykaon Painter: Jar (pelike) with Odysseus and Elpenor in the Underworld. c 440 BCE.
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. public domain.

Head of Odysseus, from a marble group, probably 1st century CE. Photo by Jastrow, from the Iliade exhibition at the Colosseum, September 2006–February 2007. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Resting Hermes,  From the Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum. Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen (2011),
Creative Commons CC BY 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

Flaxman, John: The Meeting of Ulysses and Penelope, 1805.
Photo © Tate.  Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported)


Jacqui Rossi Donlon is a member of the Kosmos Society, in which she has been involved in community development, and is now an active member of the “Pylians” Odyssey translation/discussion group. A retired design director, she loves reading and thinking about early Greek poetry.