“Homeric” Hymn #4: The Story of Hermes

The Homeric hymn to Hermes is very much a narrative, and as such is among the most famous of all versions of a classical Greek myth. A delicious incongruity opens the piece, just several lines in:

But when to its end was approaching the plan of mighty Zeus. . .
It was then that she bore a child who was shifty and cunning in mind,
A seeker of plunder, a rustler of cattle, a leader of dreams,
A spy who keeps watch in the night, who lies in ambush at gates,
And would soon show glorious works amongst the immortal gods.

Hermes is, of course, the god of thieves and tricksters of all sorts; he is also the god of travelers (see below on sandals).

The characterization of Hermes as a precocious divine infant is humourous throughout. For example, when confronted about his stealing the cattle of Apollo, his much older half-brother, he says:

“…but that’s an implausible claim you make: I was born
Just yesterday, soft are my feet, and rough underfoot is the ground . . . .
I neither declare myself to be guilty, nor have I seen
Anyone else who stole your cattle, whatever it is
These ‘cattle’ may be.”

The hair-splitting is funny enough, but it’s even more humourous when we bear in mind the English phrase “I wasn’t born yesterday”–Hermes protests that he indeed was born yesterday, and therefore seeks to pull the proverbial wool over Apollo’s eyes. Only an omen rats him out, but the comic tale ends with Hermes entering amongst the twelve major gods of Olympos with the full good-will of his older half-brother.

Incidentally, Hermes is credited with creating the practice of evenly dividing the sacrifical offerings for the major gods, and with inventing the lyre (adopted by Apollo), sandals, and fire. (Prometheus, of course, is known for stealing fire and giving it to mere humans.)

This hymn, in fact, contains the most humorous and successful story of the Homeric hymns, and I very much enjoyed it.