Was Hermes originally mortal?

  • In Greek mythology the story of the birth of the god Hermes makes it sound as if he was originally mortal and that he somehow managed to bribe his way into becoming the twelfth [i.e. the last] of the Twelve Olympians, after appeasing his half-brother Apollon [Apollo] with a musical instrument, and sacrificing some of the cattle he had stolen from the same Apollon to the other eleven Olympians and to himself(!).

    Hermes’ mother Maia was a daughter of the Titan Atlas. By some of this Titan's other daughters Zeus and Poseidon also had other sons, who all seem to have been born mortal. So there must have been something special about Maia herself or Hermes was at birth a mortal just like his half-brothers and cousins, and his father granted him immortality after he performed his amazing feats of theft on the day of his birth.

    In the Homeric Hymn to Hermes, Apollon threatens to cast the baby Hermes into Tartaros "to rule over the little folk there," a threat which no other god but Zeus ever seems to make to any other person in Greek myth. Is this an indication of Hermes' mortality at this point?

    Some Elaboration Notes for Your Consideration

    By his wife Pleïone, Atlas had several other daughters apart from the seven Pleïades, but focusing on these seven for an elaboration of what I mean about the inconsistency of their children’s mortality states1, here is an illustration of their families.

    7 Pleïades + Offspring

    Starting off with Maia as Number 1, if my estimation is correct, the birth order of the other 6 sisters is indicated by the importance of the gods with whom they consorted, so that Zeus had the 3 eldest, and Poseidon the next 2, while mortal kings married the 2 youngest.

    I reckon that Sterope is older than (or, in some other sense, senior to) Merope because of the alternate tradition, mentioned by Plutarch and Hyginus, in which Sterope consorts with the god Ares (as opposed to marrying Ares’ mortal son Oinomaos; instead she becomes the mother of Oinomaos). I have therefore arranged them in this descending order in the illustration.

    The proposed pattern would indicate that the younger the Pleïad is, the higher the chances that her offspring will be mortal, whether the father is immortal or not. (A similar phenomenon might be observable with Pleïone and her sisters, the other Okeanides [Oceanids].) This is one of a few ways I can think of in which the logic is supposed to work.

    The son of [the eldest] Maia is immortal {born in this condition?}.

    The sons of [the 2nd-born] Elektra seem to become [minor] deities eventually (perhaps all of them, after their death, like Iasion; or, alternatively, are Iasion’s 2 full-brothers born immortal, unlike him?).

    The son of [the 4th-born] Kelaino perhaps is made into an immortal by his father. (In Apollodorus’ Bibliotheka, Poseidon takes Lykos to live on the Blessed Islands.)

    All the children of the remaining sisters are mortal.

    Assuming that Hermes was born immortal—in the illustration here the god has four [half-]brothers (who are also his maternal cousins)—why is none of these brothers (as far as I can tell) born immortal? Or are Iasion, Emathion, Dardanos and Lakedaimon (perhaps less-renowned?) immortals?2

    Beyond that, he has 6 cousins (the children of Poseidon by either Kelaino or Alkyone) with virtually the same configuration of parentage (if we assume that Poseidon is just as immortal as Zeus and that Kelaino and Alkyone are just as immortal as Maia).

    The simpler solution to all this is per the main Question: Hermes was not immortal at birth but performed some fancy footwork in order to attain his status as one of the highest gods of the universe [of Greek mythology]. This way there is no incongruity between his mortality condition and that of his closest brothers and cousins. I do acknowledge that such incongruity is in no way uncommon to Greek myths, and is part of what gives them nuance appeal, but I am quite interested in whether there is any logic internal to the narrative world of these myths to explain this apparent incongruity in particular.

    I am not so much asking whether Hermes was a god or not when he was born. As with Hermes’ half-brother Zagreus3 (which is a perhaps much less “mainstream” instance [from rather more “fringe” Greek mythology]), there are in fact cases of mortal divinities in this mythology.

    My question has more to do with whether Hermes could die when he was born. And if not, what is it that sets him apart from the other children of Pleïades who also had divine fathers (Great Zeus included) but who were themselves clearly mortal?

    {This is an expanded version of a question that I have asked on Yahoo! Answers and on MythForum.}

    1. The other daughters of Atlas and Pleïone (apart from the Pleïades, i.e.) are irrelevant to the topic since only one of them, namely Dione, has any children. Dione’s husband Tantalos and their children Pelops (who marries Hippodameia, the daughter of the Pleïad Sterope [see illustration]), Niobe and Broteas are all mortal. In Hyginus’ Fabulae, Dione’s brother Hyas is killed by some wild animal, so he obviously is mortal. In the same passage of the Fabulae, all the children of Atlas and Pleïone in general are described as mortal too. In that instance Hermes’ immortality is thus even more anomalous.

    2. The daimon part of Lakedaimon’s name, for instance, might indicate something about [his] divinity. (Also I realise that Emathion and Iasion might not be brothers but rather merely 2 different names for the same character.)

    3. Zagreus was in fact a god, born of two immortal parents; nonetheless he was slain by the Titans.

    It is interesting in that we do see subsequent deification two other children of Zeus, Dionysus and Heracles, who both had moral mothers. I don't get this same sense with Hermes, who probably existed in older forms prior to becoming an Olympian, but it's a very interesting question!

    That's so trippy that U bring up Dionysus & Heracles: those're the exact sons of Zeus who someone referenced on MythForum when I asked the question there. About becoming an Olympian, I know that neither of the 2 younger sons U mention were ever among the Great 12 Ones [except perhaps for 1 dubious{?} claim ref. Dionysus replacing Hestia], but - thinkst thou not? - they are quite rather prime examples of deities who endured in older forms before becoming (according to the word of Diodorus Siculus, anyway) "Olympians."

    Those 2 characters are perhaps the most notorious for needing explanation of how they are such important gods, having been born mortal, that there are elaborate sets of myths (admittedly from late sources, however) about their previous/alternate versions, e.g. Dionysus' previous incarnation as Zagreus son of Zeus and Kore, & the various other Herakloi [what's the plural of "Herakles"?] mentioned by Cicero, among whom are other sons of Zeus, 1 of whom is the prominent Phoenician god Ba'al Melqart (although perhaps w/ that last example we're getting into a spot of _interpretatio semitica_).

    I use the term Olympian for Heracles to draw a distinction between the post-mortem heavenly status of figures like Asclepius and the Dioskouroi.

    Possibly the lack of need to validate Hermes heavenly status has to do with his astounding skills in infancy. Stories of child Hermes most remind me of Krishna.

    Huh, interesting linkage there: I've never once thought to connect Hermes to Krishna like this. I like it, esp. because Krishna's immortality is even more so an ambiguous subject, at least during his mortal years. But are U saying U see a special dissimilarity between Herakles' apotheosis on the 1 hand & that of Asklepios & the Dioskouroi on the other? Because all 4 characters in view here died 1st (well, maybe w/ the wobbly exception of 1 of the Dioskouroi) before becoming a divinity on Mt Olympus.

    @C.M.Weimer - You've inadvertently given me an angle which had never occurred to me before: Hermes is - if I've got my chronology right - the only 1 of the Great 12 Olympians who was born after the end of the Titanomachy, which maybe affects the manner in which he becomes an Olympian.

    (Poseidon, by the way, is for sure 1 of the Great 12, even though he has a domain which is geographically disconnected from Mt Olympus. 1 might even argue that the 1st Olympian gods ever were Zeus, Poseidon & Hades, the last of these 3 preferring his gloomy [but extremely vast] realm to enumeration among his officially entitled relatives in the upper world.)

    @Adinkra You are right about Poseidon, slight lapse in memory. But Hades definitely not. And assuredly there are many other gods that are not Olympians, like the Chthonic Gods. My point was that even thought they're not Olympians--residents of Mt. Olympus, worshiped as the "12", that doesn't mean that they're humans. They're still immortals.

    I think some wires got crossed here, perhaps on account of the preceding comments ref. other deities like Dionysus, Heracles & Krishna, all of whom _were_ in fact born "human," or at least mortal, & how that might tie in to the question of Hermes' mortality state at _his_ birth. So I'm certainly not saying that any deity who is not 1 of the Big 12 of Olympus somehow was or might have been human/mortal at any point(s). I'm just asking about Hermes, which then has led to some interesting points brought up by both you & DukeZhou.

    With regard to the birth order of the seven sisters... you talk about it being "indicated by the importance of the gods with whom they consorted". I don't think there's actually anything in the mythology to support that claim. In fact, as far as I can tell the only thing we know about their relative ages is that Maia is the oldest (Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 3.112 - but no other sources.) There are unsourced claims dotted about the Net that Merope was the youngest - but, like I say, they're unsourced. Do you have a citation for this?

    Right you are: that only the detail about Maia being the eldest is derived from actual explicit mythography. My postulation ref. the birth order is my own estimation, as I say in that same sentence [well, actually more of a _guess_-timation]. & that whole section of my Question is merely notes attempting to explain the arrangement of the family tree I illustrated therein, which in turn is a breakdown of the closest I could come to of an idea of how mortality & immortality might work among these descendants of Atlas. Basically trying to explain away the apparent arbitrariness thereof.

    Ref. Merope: outside of my own theorising here (based on the premise that the importance of the consort indicates relative age of each Pleiad) your mention of it(s Internet origins) is my 1st encounter of the idea that she is the youngest. No, I don't know of any ancient source that actually says this. Nor am I saying that any ancient author asserts the aforementioned idea about the ages of the Pleiades relative to their consorts. That notion is my own, from trying to present the extent of my thoughts on the Question (extrapolating the genealogical information which we do have).

  • Probably not.

    According to Apollodorus,


    And Zeus made Hermes his personal herald and messenger of the gods beneath the earth."

    It says that Zeus had to make him into his personal herald, and messenger, but there's no way that

    [II. HERMES STEALS APOLLO'S CATTLE.] Though he was laid out in swaddling-clothes with her winnowing-basket for a cradle, he escaped and made his way to Pieria, where he stole some cattle that Apollon was tending. To keep from being discovered by the tracks, he put boots on their feet and led them to Pylos. He hid them in a grotto, except for two which he sacrificed, pinning up their hides on rocks, boiling some of the meat for his meal and burning the rest.

    Hermes, as a mortal baby, is able to think so in depth, and walk all the way to Pieria, Pylos, and back. Somehow.


    According to the Homeric Hymns,

    [H]e lay not long waiting in his holy cradle

    A holy cradle? Hmm. Either I'll have to add that to holy cow, and gosh darn, or this is a clear sign that Hermes is born as a god.

    And for Philostratus,

    Very delightful are the thefts of the god; for the story is that Hermes, when Maia bore him, loved thievery and was skilled in it[.]

    He sure seems like a god now! This is now wide and clear.

    So, in conclusion, Probably not.

    Thank you so much for answering. I really appreciate what you point out about the sheer distance this baby covers on his first day of life and what that must say about his nature. Indeed, it is comparable to the feats of Apollon when _that_ god is also just a day old, or, at most, just a few days old. On the other hand, though, one could argue that Herakles possesses prodigious strength when he kills two huge snakes as a baby, and he is undoubtedly _mortal_ at this point of his own story.

    There is also another occasion when, still certainly a mortal baby, Herakles creates the Milky Way itself simply by spitting out milk that he’s suckled from Hera into the heavens. So Herakles has super-strength as a baby mortal. After he grows up, dies and then becomes immortal, he is made into the god of strength. Could a similar thing not have occurred with Hermes? He is born mortal, with super-intelligence and a great deal of craftiness which he uses to pull off a cattle-rustling heist. He becomes the god of thieves, having skipped that pesky step of having to die.

    I’ll admit that this might not be a very convincing outlook on this. You make a compelling counter to this already. Herakles (as far as I’m aware) was an otherwise normal baby who wasn’t born walking and probably had no idea what he was doing when he killed Hera’s snakes or created the Millky Way. Yup, Hermes’ long walk (herding a bunch of cattle while at it) is a really strong statement of this!

    Ref. the word “holy,” it doesn’t necessarily refer to godhood or immortality, although often used in this context. Its most basic meaning is “sacred,” “special[ised],” “reserved/ set apart [for some specific purpose].” In a lot of the world’s calendars Saturday and Sunday are the most frequently occurring “holy-days” (holidays) because they are reserved for a different use in contrast to the rest of the week, during which regular work and routines typically transpire. Other Homeric Hymns refer to certain other things, like a song, a bunch of hills, and a building, as holy.

    Having said all of that: yes, it is a likely indication that there is something different/ _special[ised]_ about Hermes’ cradle, though that does not necessarily have to mean immortality. See the points I note in the update to the Question above ref. the fact that, even though the Homeric Hymn to Hermes says that Maia’s “womb” is “heavenly,” Hyginus says that she's mortal; & that there’s also a shape-shifting baby god named Zagreus, who was mortal. I admit, though, that Hyginus is a late (and non-Greek) writer while Zagreus is a very strange, obscure (and again, possibly, non-Greek) deity.

    Great answer. I would just add on the "throw into Tartaros" bit: the Underworld was not only "home" to deceased mortals, the Titans were held captive there as well. So Apollo's threat can be read in several ways.

  • I'm not finding any ancient sources that explicitly mention the issue, but there is a mediaeval text called the Third Vatican Mythographer, written in Latin, and using the Roman names of the gods, which does chime in, perhaps based on a genuinely ancient tradition.

    According to Ch. 9, §2 of the aforementioned work, Mercury (the Roman equivalent of Hermes),

    whose father was Jove [Zeus] and whose mother was Maia, was half mortal. But then Juno [Hera] put him to her own breasts and thus filled him with divine milk so that he might become immortal.

    In addition to this, the First Vatican Mythographer (117) repeats the story saying also that the reason Juno did this was because of how much she loved Mercury, whom she also "introduced... to the art of healing."

    Even more so than other Latin sources, however, the Vatican Mythographers have a tendency towards being chock-full of problems which render much of the information contained in them to be fairly suspect.

    The idea of Hermes-Mercury having gained his immortality via Hera-Juno's breast-milk appears nowhere else that I have seen, and seems to be either a confusion or an imitation of the same story being told about how two other illegitimate sons of Zeus, namely Dionysos [Dionysus] and Herakles [Hercules], both born of mortal women, managed to shed their own mortality.

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Content dated before 7/24/2021 11:53 AM