In a Homeric hymn, Hermes is described as "A blandly cunning robber, a cattle driver, a bringer of dreams, a watcher by night, a thief at the gates, and one who was soon to show forth wonderful deeds among the deathless Gods."
The most popular version about Hermes' lineage states that he was the offspring of Zeus and Maia. Zeus was the King of the Gods and the ruler of Mount Olympus, while Maia was the daughter of the world-supporting Titan called Atlas. He was born in a cave on Mount Cyllene, where his mother resided. With the help of his superpowers, Hermes accomplished many feats during infancy.
A short while after he was born, he left his cradle while his mother slept, and walked from Mt. Cyllene to Pieria, where he found his half-brother Apollo's cattle. Exhibiting his penchant for thievery at this early age, he stole the cattle. He cleverly padded their feet to muffle the sound, and also drove 50 of them backwards, so as to muddle their tracks and make it hard to follow. Never forgetting to appease the Gods, he stopped at the Alpheios river to make his first sacrifice, killing and offering two cows from the herd.
His adventures didn't stop there, on his way home, he found a tortoise and carried it with him. He killed the tortoise and emptied its shell. Using leather strips from the sacrificed cows and the hollow shell, he created the first lyre. Later, when Apollo discovered his cattle was stolen, he was enraged at Hermes. Proof of this baby God's crimes was in the form of the lyre.
Zeus had to step in to resolve the dispute, and Hermes had to give Apollo his lyre in reconciliation. This was not to be Hermes' only musical creation. At a later point, he fashioned the pan pipe, which was also destined to be given to Apollo. In gratitude, Apollo gave him his famous golden staff, which he later utilized during many of his adventures. This golden staff or caduceus is one of Hermes' attributes, along with a winged traveler's cap, two intertwined serpents, and the winged sandals.
During his youth, his father made him God of Trade and Commerce, and provided him with golden sandals. He gave him the power over birds of omen, dogs, boars, flocks of sheep, and lions. However, in the Odyssey, he appears mainly as the messenger of the Gods, and the conductor of the dead to Hades.
Hermes accomplished many important tasks in his life. Some of them include:
- He was the one who took Eurydice back to Hades, after Orpheus took her out. At the end of the Odyssey, he took the souls of the dead suitors to the underworld.
- He killed Argus, the hundred-eyed giant, by first making him fall asleep to the melodic tunes that he played. He rescued Zeus' lover Io, who had been transformed into a cow.
- The job of leading the three Goddesses - Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite to Mount Ida was entrusted to him, where the shepherd Paris was to decide which one was the most beautiful.
- Hermes was the one who rescued baby Dionysus, God of Wine, from the flames following his birth. He then took the baby to King Athamas, who was to bring him up.
- He led the Trojan King Priam to the tent of Achilles, to fetch the body of his dead son, Hector.
- He gave Hades' helmet of invisibility to the hero Perseus. in order to help him slay Medusa.
- He brought back Zeus' sinews, which the monster Typhon had stolen that had rendered Zeus helpless.
- He also persuaded Calypso to leave Ulysses alone, during his trip back home.
- He gave the ram with the golden fleece to Nephele, to help her save her children.
Hermes was a versatile God. One association that appeared constantly and repeatedly is with the protection of cattle and sheep. Though he is best known as the Messenger Greek God, he also may have become the God of Roads and Doorways (boundaries), and he was the protector of travelers. If anyone found treasure casually, it was considered a gift from him, and also any stroke of good luck was attributed to him. As Hermes invented both the lyre and the pan pipe, he is also often referred to as a patron of music.
In art, literature, and cult, he had many different representations through the ages. In archaic art, he was portrayed as a full-grown and bearded man, clothed in a long tunic, and often wearing a cap and winged boots. At other times, as the protector of cattle, he is represented as bearing a sheep on his shoulders. During the latter part of the 5th century BC, he was portrayed as a nude, agile, and beardless youth. Most often though, he appears with the caduceus as the Messenger of the Gods.