According to Homer and Hesiod, Hermes is the son of Zeus and the nymph Maia (Homeric Hymn to Hermes, 1 & Theogony 938).  It makes sense that the Olympian associated with trickster characteristics is the one whose mother is a nymph, since nymphs are also associated with deception and other characteristics of trickery. 


Hermes begins his deceptive career at an early age.  According to the Homeric Hymn to Hermes, when he is only a day old, he steals the cattle of Apollo, the Far-Shooter, and thus Far-Seeing.  He is able to fool Apollo because of his ability to alter the appearance of things.  Hermes has the cattle walk backwards and also places tree branches on the soles of his feet to disguise his footprints.  The deception works and Apollo only learns the truth when a farmer tells him what he saw.  It is interesting that Apollo, the soothsayer, must have a mortal interpret the clues for him.  This scene shows that although Apollo is an intelligent god, it is not the type of intelligence that can outwit Hermes’ cunning.  Apollo is associated with oracular abilities, yet this power is limited to clear-cut facts, while  Hermes is able to outsmart Apollo due to his cunning mind.  Hermes takes the cattle to the river Alpheios, where he sacrifices two of the cows to the Olympians and divided the meat into twelve equal portions, including himself in their number.

Homer notes that, “Hermes was the first to give us fire from fire-sticks” (111).  It is possible that Homer refers to the ability of Hermes to create fire by rubbing two sticks together.  This is an interesting passage because Prometheus is generally attributed with giving fire to man first.  According to Hesiod, Prometheus stole the fire of the gods and hid it ‘in the hollow of a fennel stalk’ to give to man (Works and Days 52). 


Prometheus merely gave the flame without the knowledge of how to rekindle it.  Thus Hermes’ ingenuity of rubbing two sticks together would allow man to create fire indefinitely.  This argument would show Hermes as the cleverer of the two for Prometheus stole fire while Hermes created it. 

After the sacrifice, Hermes returns to his mother’s home in Kyllene.  There he disguises himself as mist and slips through the keyhole so he can state later that he had not stepped over the threshold that day.  When Apollo confronts him, Hermes lies to protect himself, giving cunning arguments for why he would be unable to have stolen cattle.  Hermes states, “Surely I neither stole the cows-whatever cows are- nor saw another man do it” (Homeric Hymn to Hermes 310-311).  When Apollo takes Hermes to Zeus to judge the conflict, Hermes does not stop his deceitfulness.  Hermes states, “Father Zeus, I, indeed, shall speak the truth to you, for I am all for the truth and know not how to lie”  (368-369).  Hermes gives proof of his innocence by stating, “I was born but yesterday” (376).  Apollo is angry but Hermes is able to charm him because of his arguments and cunning.  Apollo is further impressed with Hermes when he hears the instrument Hermes has created from a tortoise shell, the lyre.  Hermes gives Apollo the lyre in exchange for a share of his prophetic abilities.  The “three sisters” Apollo refers to are bees and thus Hermes is given the ability to interpret their thoughts (552).  It is interesting that Hermes is connected to bees in such a way.  The Greek word, aiolos refers to “all creatures whose wriggling and moving mass is never still” and is thus used in describing wasps and bees (Detienne 18).  With the help of Apollo, Hermes is now able to interpret bees and his quickness and sharpness is demonstrated in the ability of understanding an insect that ‘is never still’. 

        As the messenger of the gods, Hermes is an expert on liminality.  During the Heroic Age, he is associated with the underworld as the guide of souls and the connection between gods and men.  This messenger status allows him to frequently cross boundaries.  In the Iliad, it is Hermes who escorts King Priam between enemy camps to retrieve his son Hector’s body.  Hermes’ presence allows Priam to enter the enemy camp and retrieve his son safely. 


This role of boundary-crosser, allowed Hermes to become associated with crossroads because of their distinction as a meeting place between different towns and cultures.  Often markets would develop at these crossroads and Hermes quickly added commerce to his list of duties.  Hermes became the patron of merchants, overseeing the exchange between opposing forces, consumer and vendor.