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Hermes, the Infant Trickster: Divine Presence in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes

Feb 24, 2023 | 0 comments

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Feb 24, 2023 | Essays | 0 comments

Tung-An Wei

The Homeric Hymn to Hermes has been considered one of the important texts to understand the divine nature of Hermes and his relationship with other gods because it recounts the deeds of infant Hermes who is only one day old[1]. In this Hymn, on the day his was born, Hermes spontaneously invents the lyre which later becomes the icon of his elder brother Apollo and goes on to steal Apollo’s cattle in the evening simply because he desires flesh (Hymn 20, 69). The crime scene is set in the evening when all is shadowy, silent and peaceful, a perfect timing for stealthy deeds.

ἠέλιος μὲν ἔδυνε κατὰ χθονὸς ὠκεανόν δὲ
αὐτοῖσίν θ᾽ ἵπποισι καὶ ἅρμασιν: αὐτὰρ ἄρ᾽ Ἑρμῆς
Πιερίης ἀφίκανε θέων ὄρεα σκιόεντα,
ἔνθα θεῶν μακάρων βόες ἄμβροτοι αὖλιν ἔχεσκον
βοσκόμεναι λειμῶνας ἀκηρασίους, ἐρατεινούς.
τῶν τότε Μαιάδος υἱός, ἐύσκοπος Ἀργειφόντης,
πεντήκοντ᾽ ἀγέλης ἀπετάμνετο βοῦς ἐριμύκους.
πλανοδίας δ᾽ ἤλαυνε διὰ ψαμαθώδεα χῶρον
ἴχνη᾽ ἀποστρέψας: δολίης δ᾽ οὐ λήθετο τέχνης
ἀντία ποιήσας ὁπλάς, τὰς πρώτας ὄπισθεν,
τὰς δ᾽ ὄπιθεν πρώτας: κατὰ δ᾽ ἔμπαλιν αὐτὸς ἔβαινε.
σάνδαλα δ᾽ αὐτίκα ῥιψὶν ἐπὶ ψαμάθοις ἁλίηισιν,
ἄφραστ᾽ ἠδ᾽ ἀνόητα διέπλεκε, θαυματὰ ἔργα,
συμμίσγων μυρίκας καὶ μυρσινοεδέας ὄζους.
τῶν τότε συνδήσας νεοθηλέος ἀγκαλὸν ὕλης
ἀβλαβέως ὑπὸ ποσσὶν ἐδήσατο σάνδαλα κοῦφα
αὐτοῖσιν πετάλοισι, τὰ κύδιμος Ἀργειφόντης
ἔσπασε Πιερίηθεν ὁδοιπορίην ἀλεεινων,
οἷά τ᾽ ἐπειγόμενος δολιχὴν ὁδόν, αὐτοτροπήσας.

The Sun was going down beneath the earth towards the ocean

with his horses and chariot. However, when Hermes,

running, arrived at the shadowy mountains of Pieria,

where the divine cattle of the blessed gods

had their resting-place, and grazed the unmown lovely meadows.

Of these the Son of Maia, the sharp-eyed Argus-slayer,

cut off fifty loud-bellowing oxen from the herd.

He drove them wandering across the sandy place,

turning their footprints back. And he did not forget the crafty technique

making hooves opposite, the front [ones] in the back,

and the back in the front. And he himself walked the opposite way[2].

And at once he wove wicker-work sandals on the sands of the sea,

unutterable, unthought of, wonderful works,

mixing together tamarisks and myrtle twigs.

Binding an armful of the young wood,

he securely tied the light sandals under the feet,

with the leaves themselves, the things glorious Argus-slayer

plucked from Pieria, shunning the journey,

and as one hastening for a long road, being unique. (68-86)

What intrigues me here is the way Hermes tries to compromise the evidence of the theft. Different interpretations are brought up for the baffling scene here, but I argue that Hermes faces the cattle while the cattle moves backward, and that he does not reverse the hooves[3]. Hermes tries to confound other people, primarily Apollo, by reversing the footprints of the cattle. He further disguises his own footprints by walking on a pair of sandals that he invented simply for the occasion. On his way to driving the cattle into the mountain of Pieria, Hermes encounters an anonymous old man, the only human in this hymn, who might have spoiled Hermes’ endeavor to steal Apollo’s cattle, but Hermes warns him not to give him away. In return, Hermes promises that the old man will have much wine when the vines bear fruits. Unfortunately, the old man still reveals what he sees to Apollo at his inquiry, and his testimony helps us understand how Hermes appears to human.

In this Hymn, there are three versions recounting the crime scene: the one by the omniscient narrator, which I will basically rely on to analyze Hermes’ divine presence, the one by the old man at Onchestus, who is the only witness of the crime and the only human character, and the version by Apollo, who finds out the criminal of the theft based on the old man’s account and the omens from the birds. In the account of the narrator, we, the readers, are fortunately enough to have an objective, detailed account of the crime to compare with the versions by the old man and Apollo, who both have limited amount of evidence. By looking at those three accounts together, Hermes emerges as a baby, a thief, an inventor and a magician. In this episode we could see the features that come to be understood as the essential characteristics of Hermes, for example, his role as an inventor, a thief, a magician, an oath-maker, a good communicator, and a negotiator.

Past scholarship on Hermes’ presence in the cattle theft in the text mostly focuses on his role as a thief and an inventor[4]. Ann Bergren, among others, argues for the importance of the cattle theft in this Hymn in which Hermes reverses the apparent direction of exchange and the roles between the owner and the thief. Jenny Clay recognizes Hermes’ art of disguise and evidence manipulation, a technique that makes Hermes more than an inventor, but a trickster. While other scholars solely focuses on the text itself to illustrate Hermes’ roles as as a thief and an inventor, Norman Brown points out that Hermes owes his role as an inventor and a trickster to his tribal origins, in which there is an idea of viewing trickery as magic spell (Brown 79). From Brown’s analysis, Hermes’ magical aspect is brought up primarily considering his deeds and his divine identity, but there seems to be a lack of attention to how his his infancy and the footprints contribute to his unique presence, as they are recurrent elements in the text that are no less magical than the theft itself.

Divine physical appearance, especially anthropomorphism, that helps ancient and modern people understand Greek gods has been a major topic in mythology and religion studies. According to Albert Henrichs, anthropomorphism is one of the three corner stones of law for the benefit of the society. The play’s setting is an ancient Greek conception of divinity, along with immortality and power. Anthropomorphism and divine metamorphoses tell us about the nature of divine powers, the essential forms of divinities, and our role as interpreter of those phenomena (Buxton 82). Divine anthropomorphism works in two ways in which it helps human conceptualize and recognize gods. For one thing, humans conceptualize gods according to the anthropomorphic elements in their representations in literature. For another thing, humans are able to recognize a certain god precisely because they notice the attributes that are firmly associate with the god. Normally, there is a stable link between a god’s identity and his physical characteristics. However, without such a link, as Verity Platt points out, it is difficult for a mortal to associate the miraculous signs and sights that he saw with a certain god.

In this paper, I argue that Hermes’ divine presence in the cattle theft is in fact more of a trickster as a mere thief or inventor precisely because he baffles other people constantly by playing with their perceptions of his presence, both his infancy and his footprints. First of all, Hermes’ infancy is often emphasized or exaggerated to show his helplessness. For example, in being charged with theft or simply reproach, Hermes repeatedly claims that he was born yesterday (Hymn 273) and stresses his infancy with vocabulary that focuses on the infant’s physical limitations and needs such as eating, sleeping and comfort (Hymn 267-8)[5]. Moreover, as if Hermes’ infancy is a mask or a costume that could be cast off or altered as he wishes, he would sometimes behave in no way like a baby. The changing appearances and behavior are certainly confusing for other characters in the Hymn. Such confusion links to my second argument—Hermes’ manipulation of various appearances challenges the conventional patterns of epiphany, in which gods are associated with a set of appearances and characteristics. While the mortals may be fooled easily, the clairvoyant gods will not be held in the dark for long because they know how to seek help from other divine signs. Nevertheless, Apollo’s repeated amazement to the reverse footprints and his initial reaction of perplexity are not that different from the possible reactions of a mortal in face of epiphany and incomprehensible sight. In this way, Apollo’s reaction is significant in helping us understand why Hermes is hailed as the god of thieves and tricksters. Also, the reverse footprints and the disguise of Hermes’ footprints epitomize the corrupted link between appearance and identity that leads to obscurity. In short, Hermes’ evasive presence is demonstrated by his manipulation of infancy and the footprints, both of which challenge the epistemology of divine presence.

Hermes’ infancy is the foundation for understanding his evasive presence in this Hymn. Hermes the infant is characterized by his swaddling clothes, which provide warmth and a sense of security, his cozy cradle and his repeated emphasis on sleep and physical comfort.

ἐσσυμένως δ᾽ ἄρα λίκνον ἐπώιχετο κύδιμος Ἑρμῆς:
σπάργανον ἀμφ᾽ ὤμοις εἰλυμένος, ἠύτε τέκνον
νήπιον, ἐν παλάμηισι περ᾽ ἰγνύσι λαῖφος ἀθύρων
κεῖτο, χέλυν ἐρατὴν ἐπ᾽ ἀριστερὰ χειρὸς ἐέργων.

And glorious Hermes went eagerly to his cradle,

having wrapped his swaddling clothes around his shoulders, as if he were a child,

an infant, he was laying, playing the garments around the ham in the hands,

keeping close his lovely tortoise at his left hand side. (150-3)

After the theft, Hermes rushes back to his cradle and resumes his infant identity so that he would not be scolded by his mother Maia. Mighty as Maia is, she knows every wicked deed her child has done while he is away. When Hermes faces threats or reproach, he will take on an even more fragile and innocent appearance. For example, when Apollo furiously comes to Hermes’ place asking the whereabouts of the cattle, Hermes exerts every effort to be a really innocent infant:

Τὸν δ᾽ ὡς οὖν ἐνόησε Διὸς καὶ Μαιάδος υἱὸς
χωόμενον περὶ βουσὶν ἑκηβόλον Ἀπόλλωνα,
σπάργαν᾽ ἔσω κατέδυνε θυήεντ᾽: ἠύτε πολλὴν
πρέμνων ἀνθρακιὴν ὕλης σποδὸς ἀμφικαλύπτει,
ὣς Ἑρμῆς Ἑκάεργον ἰδὼν ἀνέειλεν ἒ αὐτόν.

ἐν δ᾽ ὀλίγωι συνέλασσε κάρη χεῖράς τε πόδας τε,
φή ῥα νεόλλουτος, προκαλεύμενος ἥδυμον ὕπνον,
ἐγρήσσων ἐτεόν γε: χέλυν δ᾽ ὑπὸ μασχάληι εἶχε.

Then, as the Son of Zeus and Maia noticed

Apollo the Far-shooter, being angry with his cattle,

he sank down in his fragrant swaddling-clothes. And as many charcoals

enfold the embers of the stumps of the tree,

thus Hermes rolled himself up, seeing the Far-working Apollo.

He brought his head, hands and feet together in a small space,

like a child just bathed, calling forth sweet sleep,

in truth being awake: and he kept his lyre under his armpit. (235-242)

Hermes behaves incredibly like a baby as he cuddles together and holds on tight to his clothes and his newly-created lyre, just like any other baby or child that would keep his toy or any object that he considers precious close to himself. More importantly, in such an appearance Hermes elicits our impressions of a tender baby, which lie in anything that is small and in need of gentle care and a sense of security. Those are the anthropomorphic elements in Hermes’ divine presence that help us picture Hermes in our mind. By picturing Hermes as an infant, we not only associate him with every infant behavior and psychology, though not all of them works for Hermes, as we shall see, but also impose our mortal feelings for an infant on him. In short, through establishing a similarity between Hermes and human infant, we are able to project our expectations of an infant unto Hermes, even though we all well know that he is a god.

However, there are also other elements in Hermes’ presence that could not be called infant-like, such as Hermes’ self-awareness and deliberation in playing with his infant identity. In fact, it would be deadly wrong to take Hermes as an innocent baby, as Hermes the infant is essentially an actor. Indeed his infancy is a disguise of innocence. Whenever Apollo or Maia finds out that Hermes has been doing something wicked, he would stress that he was just “born yesterday” (χθὲς γενόμην, Hymn 273) by grasping the clothes even closer to himself to emphasize how small he is, implying how fragile and innocent he is. Also, Hermes would squeeze himself into a small space to pretend that he is sleeping, though he is in fact awake. Interestingly, Hermes repeatedly resorts to his infancy that is conventionally related to notions such as fragility and helplessness, but the narrator keeps pointing out the parallel behind such appearances with words such as ἠύτε (“like”, “as”) and φή (“like”, “such as”). Therefore, we are aware that there is a deliberately highlighted parallel, in fact intended by Hermes, between a real infant’s behavior and Hermes’. It could not be ignored that Hermes must be pretending to be a fragile infant in order to fool his mother and his elder brother Apollo. Still, it does not matter even if such an effort turns out to be unsuccessful, as it always is. Hermes is not a bad actor, but the gods is too smart to be fooled. Moreover, such “acting” stresses the discrepancy between appearance and reality, a recurrent theme in the cattle theft, in a lighthearted and entertaining way that is concluded with the reconciliation between the two characters. By building and simultaneously shattering our expectations for a cute and innocent baby Hermes, the text constantly warns us against taking Hermes’ appearance at face value.

Hermes’ infancy is anthropomorphic and ultra-anthropomorphic, which I use to refer to any divine characteristics that are based on anthropomorphism but are considered “superhuman” and impossible for human counterpart. For example, human babies are not able to monitor their intention, nor would they be able to control their own behavior. Neither will they be able to argue or defend for themselves verbally, as Hermes often does. However, Hermes is no ordinary infant. From the previous analysis, we know that Hermes plays with his infancy in an attempt to influence other gods’ behavior and impressions towards him. Moreover, his sparkling and witty glances are one of the things that give his infant identity away.

Ὣς ἄρ’ ἔφη καὶ πυκνὸν ἀπὸ βλεφάρων ἀμαρύσσων

ὀφρύσι ῥιπτάζεσκεν ὁρώμενος ἔνθα καὶ ἔνθα,

μάκρ’ ἀποσυρίζων, ἅλιον τὸν μῦθον ἀκούων.

Thus spoke Hermes, sparkling constantly from his eyelids,

and he kept tossing his brows and looking this way and that,

whistling for a long time, listening to Apollo’s idle story. (278-280)

τότε δὴ κρατὺς Ἀργειφόντης

χῶρον ὑποβλήδην ἐσκέψατο πῦρ ἀμαρύσσων

ἐγκρύψαι μεμαώς·

Then the strong Argus-slayer

looked askance on the ground, sparkling fire,

desiring to hide. (413-5)

Those darting glances sparkling with flashing fire, reminiscent of the Greek notion of glances as a representation of will, are often directed to the ground or elsewhere, never focus on the right target, for example, the communicator Apollo. Those glances embody Hermes’ wicked thoughts and the desire to hide, if we again use our intuition of human psychology, which enables us to picture a scenario where people elude from any effort to be charged for an unwelcome question or even crime. There is also a sense of failing performance in those glances that are comic and paradoxical. Were Hermes really a competent actor, he would not shoot forth such glances that completely contradict with his present role as an infant. Nevertheless, I do not think that Hermes is unable to pull together a wholly convincing infant impression, but that he deliberately acts like this, just to acknowledge his quick wits and divinity.

By oscillating between anthropomorphic and ultra-anthropomorphic appearances and behavior, Hermes continues to surprise us and challenge our impression of him because we cannot equate him with any human baby. In fact, we cannot even equate him with any other Greek god, which makes it even harder to expect what we will see or associate what we see with him. In this Hymn, he looks and behaves extremely like a baby, sometimes even to the point of disbelief and absurdity, while at other times the text seems to refrain from describing him as an infant at all. Moreover, anthropomorphism and ultra-anthropomorphism is a continuum. That is to say, Hermes can simultaneously behave and appear like a baby in various degrees of credibility as he wishes and needs. However, if we anticipate Hermes to be consistent in his behavior and appearance, we would fail to grasp the essence of his divine presence in this Hymn, that is, unpredictability. In addition, despite the fact that the omniscient narrator keeps pointing out the parallel between his infant imitation and the other representations in his evil excursions, which I will explore in the following paper, it is still difficult to predict how he will manipulate his infancy and in turn adjust our expectation of him for better understanding of his presence. We therefore cannot do anything about him but to subject to his fluidity of representations. Even for the gods, beholding Hermes’ presence is like a hide-and-seek game. Whenever a certain god wants to get hold of Hermes, he only let Hermes escape, physically or verbally.

Hermes is evasive and unpredictable, not only because he manipulates his infancy as a disguise, but also because he is a great inventor that recalls a Prometheus figure, only that Hermes is more like a magician, and less tragic and more comic than Prometheus. After Hermes invents the lyre which later becomes iconic of Apollo, he creates tricks to reverse the tracks of the stolen cattle and invents a pair of wicker-work sandals to disguise his own footprints. At the inquiry of Apollo, the old man at Onchestus recalls what he saw

παῖδα δ᾽ ἔδοξα φέριστε, σαφὲς δ᾽ οὐκ οἶδα, νοῆσαι,
ὅς τις ὁ παῖς ἅμα βουσὶν ἐυκραίρηισιν ὀπήδει
νήπιος, εἶχε δὲ ῥάβδον: ἐπιστροφάδην δ᾽ ἐβάδιζεν.
ἐξοπίσω δ᾽ ἀνέεργε, κάρη δ᾽ ἔχεν ἀντίον αὐτῶι.

I seemed, but I do not know clearly, to notice a sweet child,

whoever the child might be, who was following long-horned cattle,

an infant was holding a rod. He walked from side to side.

He was driving them backwards, he kept their heads towards him[6].” (209-211)

In the cattle theft, Hermes takes on another role in addition to being an infant—an inventor, or more prominently, a magician. A magician is primarily a person who uses tricks to create sight that seems baffling and irrational to the audience. Hermes’ rod might be simply used for driving the cattle, but it recalls a wand or staff. According to LSJ, Hermes’ ῥάβδον is indeed a magic wand. Therefore, Hermes could be considered a magician performing a trick. In addition, similar to the magic tricks in real life, Hermes’ tricks here are wonderful, but not supernatural. Hermes never forcefully reverses the hooves of the cattle to create footprints that seem to be reversed. He simply pushes the cattle to walk backwards. Moreover, the reverse of tracks is perhaps no magic to the readers, but it is certainly something unexpected and unheard-of for the characters in the story that it fools them. It is precisely this unexpectedness that makes Hermes magical. By breaking the usual connection between tracks and forward movement, he is be able to fool other people, who expect the tracks to indicate forward movement, as usually no one walks backwards.

Hermes is a great inventor and a magician because his tricks are wonderful to the mortals and the immortals alike. It is significant that even Apollo cannot help uttering words of amazement such as μέγα θαῦμα (“great wonder”) and αἰνός (“terrible”, “strange”) at Hermes’ tricks.

ὦ πόποι ἦ μέγα θαῦμα τόδ᾽ ὀφθαλμοῖσιν ὁρῶμαι:
ἴχνια μὲν τάδε γ᾽ ἐστὶ βοῶν ὀρθοκραιράων,
ἀλλὰ πάλιν τέτραπται ἐς ἀσφοδελὸν λειμῶνα:
βήματα δ᾽ οὔτ᾽ ἀνδρὸς τάδε γίγνεται οὔτε γυναικὸς
οὔτε λύκων πολιῶν οὔτ᾽ ἄρκτων οὔτε λεόντων:
οὔτε τι κενταύρου λασιαύχενος ἔλπομαι εἶναι,
ὅς τις τοῖα πέλωρα βιβᾶι ποσὶ καρπαλίμοισιν:
αἰνὰ μὲν ἔνθεν ὁδοῖο, τὰ δ᾽ αἰνότερ᾽ ἔνθεν ὁδοῖο.

Alas, truly I see such a great wonder with my eyes!

These are indeed the tracks of the straight-horned oxen,

but they have been turned backwards towards the flowery meadow.

But these others are not the steps of man or woman

or gray wolves, bears, or lions.

Nor do I think they are the tracks of a rough-maned Centaur,

whoever it might be, that with swift feet strides with such monstrous footprints.

strange [are the tracks] on this side of the road, but stranger on the other[7]. (219-226)

Apollo further points out the key of puzzlement in those footprints: he cannot associate the tracks next to the cattle’s footprints with any creature he knows. As a reader we know Apollo could not figure out the answer by himself because Hermes walks on his newest invention, the wicker-work sandals. The sandals thus function as a perfect example of the failing link between appearance and reality. Interestingly, for the old man, he only sees the miraculous scene of a baby driving cattle backwards, but for Apollo, Hermes’ footprints are the more wonderful thing of the two. Here, Hermes the inventor again emerges as Apollo stresses the enigmatic tracks. Though both tracks are unexpected, unimaginable and revolutionary, they are fundamentally different in the sense that the sandals demonstrate Hermes’ creative faculty, one of the powers he holds that contributes to his evasive presence in this Hymn. Hermes’ sandals demonstrate his evasive and unpredictable character as they have never existed before and are unimagined of. Moreover, the pair of sandals is an invention that comes from the materials that Hermes happens to get. They are no creation of thoughtful deliberation, but they are as spontaneous as Hermes is. Indeed, spontaneity is one of Hermes’ trademarks. He is an inventor, but not the type that spends much time on perfecting his invention for aesthetic reasons. Hermes successfully fools Apollo not so much because the sandals are perfect artifacts that show supreme techniques, but because Apollo never thought of the possibility of anyone disguising his footprints. Interestingly, as mighty as Apollo is, he could never solve the puzzle because he thinks that footprints must represent the feet or hooves of a certain type of creature. He fails because he is not able to think outside the box, which is one of the powers of Hermes.

There is yet another issue from Apollo’s ultimate appreciation for Hermes’ spontaneous creative power with his use of words such as wonder (θαῦμα) or amazement (θάμβος). According to Athanassios Vergados, a mortal may likely be overwhelmed by the divine presence and describe the epiphany as a wonder (θαῦμα) or amazement (θάμβος). It is therefore of huge significance that Apollo says “what I see with my eyes is a great wonder indeed” (Hymn 219). Even Apollo is amazed by the sight that he sees like a mortal beholding an epiphany. Although epiphany is divine presence to the mortals, according to Platt, due to the radical similarity between Apollo’s overwhelmed reaction and human’s awestruck reaction, it could be said that Apollo beholds an epiphany of Hermes despite that Apollo is a god. In turn, Apollo’s reactions complicates the task of making sense of Hermes’ presence because now it seems that there is no longer a clear-defined boundary between human and gods where they differ drastically in power and intellect in facing extraordinary sights. Normally, while the mortals may fail to recognize a god by the lack of conventional divine signs, gods would not be fooled easily. However, if Apollo never sought the omens in birds, he would be no different from the mortals who most likely would fail to associate the extraordinary tracks with Hermes and continue to be puzzled. Apollo’s mistake could be attributed to the fact that Hermes is born for just one day, and that there is yet enough known characteristics of this god that may help Apollo find out the criminal of the theft. Still, Hermes could always invent new things and defy conventions and expectations. If so, Apollo will always be awestruck by the deeds of this ever-changing god. In turn, Apollo’s ultimate appreciation and continuous amazement for Hermes’ deeds indeed emphasize Hermes’ evasive presence that is demonstrated by his ingenious inventions.

Further, in the cattle theft itself, Hermes’s presence is closely connected to his tracks to the point of identification. It could be argued that he is not so much present in his infant form as in his creations and deeds because the old man, the only witness to Hermes’ theft, focuses more on Hermes’ actions of driving the cattle and walking sideways in his testimony. As for Apollo, since he never witnesses the crime, his knowledge of Hermes’s deeds and appearances are all acquired indirectly from the old man’s words, the omens in the birds and, most importantly, the tracks that he sees. Moreover, Hermes indeed appears to the old man, but is not identified with a particular god by the old man precisely because the old man does not know any god that would appear in an infant form and do such strange things. Instead, it is the tracks that receive much more attention. Hermes is therefore primarily identified with the tracks that he creates because his changing presence in human form ultimately eludes other characters. In this sense Hermes’ divine presence in the Hymn is unique because he manifests himself to the old man and Apollo through his tracks and the theft, both of which he does not exist independent of. Nevertheless, Hermes does not manifest himself to others completely, and it is always through his deeds that others grasp his presence partially. There are always parts of Hermes that remain to be explored, but which can only be apprehended through the means of indirect contact and secondary accounts.

Hermes’ presence is paradoxical—it is at once an epiphany and not—due to a lack of recognition, an epistemological link between appearance and identity, which is necessary for epiphany. The old man at Onchestus witnesses the crime but he could not identify such strange sights with any god that he knows of. In fact, recognition is essential for an epiphany. A lack of recognition would lead to an absence of epiphany, although Hermes indeed appears. In other words, Hermes appears without being recognized as Hermes—he is merely a strange baby with a rod. Also, Hermes’ lack of divine presence could not be overlooked in the fact that, when he is out on a journey, he is always accompanied by the dark night. He appears but he is not perceived to have appeared. It is significant that Hermes is characterized by this lack of divine presence in this Hymn. The reverse footprints and the cattle theft could be viewed as perfect examples of Hermes’ evasive character because they represent at once divine presence and not. It is divine presence because it clearly could not be accomplished by human, but it is not quite an epiphany because it fails to be associated with Hermes or any other god. This paradoxical state is the most intriguing and essential characteristics of Hermes’ presence in this Hymn.

This paper first explores Hermes’ presence in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes based on Hermes’ infant appearance and his various degrees of infant likeness. I argue that Hermes navigates between anthropomorphism and ultra-anthropomorphism in his appearances and behavior whenever he needs and wishes. His manipulative physical appearance and behavior contribute to his evasive presence. In addition, in the cattle theft, his creative, spontaneous and unpredictable presence is most vivid in the reverse footprints and the disguised footprints in wicker-work sandals, both of which, rather than his infant appearance, receive much attention from the old man of Onchestus and Apollo. Both tracks challenge the conventional connection between appearance and identity, resulting in the failure of identifying Hermes with the crime immediately. Apollo further shows his appreciation and amazement for Hermes’ ingenuity by repeatedly using words related to human’s reactions in face of epiphany even though a god might not be so puzzled by another god’s presence. Apollo’s reaction is significant in helping us understand how puzzling Hermes’ presence is. In turn, Hermes’ paradoxical presence is at once an epiphany and not, anthropomorphic and ultra-anthropomorphic. In the cattle theft, his presence is as spontaneous and unpredictable as he is, and could only be grasped partially through his inventions and deeds.


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Tzifopoulos, Yannis. “Hermes and Apollo at Onchestos in the ‘Homeric Hymn to Hermes’: The Poetics and Performance of Proverbial Communication.” Mnemosyne 53.2 (2000): 148-163.

Vergados, Athanassios. “The Homeric Hymn to Hermes: Humour and Epiphany.” The Homeric Hymns. Ed. Andrew Faulkner. New York: Oxford UP, 2011.

  1. Jenny Clay argues that, Hermes, a latecomer in the Greek pantheon, is eager to claim his own share of honor (τιμή) after all the gods have gotten theirs. Also, in her book Weaving Truth, Ann Bergren suggests that there is a clear sense of contest between Apollo and Hermes in which Hermes wants to establish his importance among the Greek gods by recognizing the imitation and inversion between this Hymn and the Hymn to Apollo.
  2. All translations in this paper are mine. Also, in the following paper, where the translation or the text is problematic, I will consult Richardson’s commentary because it is the latest commentary we have which also include the insights and discussions from previous commentaries. I agree with Richardson in translating these enigmatic descriptions as “he did not forget his crafty skill, reversing their hooves, the front ones behind, and the back ones in front, and he himself walked the opposite way [i.e. facing them]” since it is the only way the text could make sense.
  3. For the discussion, see Richardson’s commentary.
  4. In addition, a few scholars such as S. Johnston, R. Johnston and Mulroy propose that the possible performance contexts of the Hymn is the Hermaia where Hermes is hailed as the leader of the cattle raids and the patron god of ephebes, a group of young adolescent males who awaits the rite of passage. In establishing the link between the hymnal past and the present performance, they also suggest that the rituals in Hermaia imitates the episode of cattle theft in the Hymn. In turn, as Vergados shows, there is a double epiphany in the performance of the Hymn in which Hermes manifests to the audience through the description and the enactment of the performance.
  5. For the analysis on how Hermes manipulates his speech for different aims, see Clay, Kudson and Tzifopoulos.
  6. I agreed with Richardson in translating this confusing sentence as such because it makes more sense to have this sentence elaborating the situation described in the previous sentence.
  7. For the phrase “ἔνθεν ὁδοῖο,” I again consult Richardson’s commentary to translate it as “on this side, on the other side.”


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