The Birth of Hermes

Published May 14, 2015 by Iphis of Scyros

I know I should get to the rest of the Theban cycle, but I haven’t had time to research it yet.  (Outside of the contents of Sophocles’ Antigone, my knowledge of the rest of the story is somewhat sketchy.)  So here’s a quickie I didn’t have to research.

Though you wouldn’t think it to look at her dainty little figure, Maia was a daughter of the colossal Titan Atlas.  Everyone said she was the very prettiest of her sisters.

Even Zeus agreed with them…

…and that’s how Maia found herself pregnant.

Zeus had brought her to a cave in the middle of nowhere, and warned her against leaving it:  “If Hera finds out what we’ve been up to, she’ll be angry at me.  And she’ll take it out on you.  So keep hidden in here for a few years until she stops being suspicious.”

Then he left again.

With no other options, Maia had stayed in the cave until she gave birth to a healthy boy she decided to call Hermes.

When the baby was a few days old, Maia decided it was finally safe to take a nap, and fell into a deep slumber.  Noticing that his mother was no longer watching him, Hermes crawled off the bed and out of the cave.  Looking around, he saw a tortoise nearby.

He grinned, and hurried over to the tortoise.  Even though he was crawling, too, he was much faster than the tortoise, and soon he had caught it and killed it, and was hollowing out its shell.  He used its guts and bones to turn it into the very first lyre.

Maia awoke to a very unfamiliar sound from just outside the cave.  She went outside, and was shocked to see that it came from her infant son, who was playing with the corpse of a tortoise.  Hastily, Maia brought the boy and his toy inside, hoping that Hera hadn’t spotted them.

“You have to be more careful, Hermes!” Maia rebuked him.  “Your father is Zeus, the greatest of the eleven Olympian gods.  But his wife Hera is very jealous, and she’ll hurt you if she finds you!”

The baby nodded solemnly, as if he understood her words.  Then he broke out into a precious grin that made his mother hug him tenderly and coo words of adoration for his beautiful baby boy.

The next day, while Maia was napping, Hermes again crawled out of the bed and left the cave.  This time, he tried standing up on his feet, and discovered that he could move much faster this way indeed!

Hermes started wandering away from the cave, exploring the area all around, and soon he came across a herd of cattle grazing in a field nearby.  He overheard the dryads in the trees talking about how the cows belonged to the radiant Apollo, most beautiful son of Zeus.

Surely his brother wouldn’t mind sparing him a few cows, Hermes decided, and set about making the cows his own.  He tied each cow’s tail to the horns of the next cow, then began to pull on the tail of the very last cow, forcing them all to march along backwards behind him.

It was getting late by the time he got the cows back to the cave, but Maia was still sleeping, so Hermes hid the cattle in the back of the cave–it was a very large cave indeed!–all except for one, which he led to a nearby stream.  There he built a fire, and killed the cow, burning some of its meat in sacrifice to the twelve Olympian gods.  Then he hurried back to the cave and clambored back onto the bed and fell asleep beside his mother.

Meanwhile, Apollo went to check on his cattle, and was dismayed to find them all gone!  The only tracks in the dirt nearby were two sets of tracks leading into the field, and none leading away.  But Apollo knew which way he’d brought his cattle in, so he followed the tracks that seemed to be leading in from a different direction.

Following the backwards tracks, Apollo eventually found his way to the cave where Maia had just risen from her nap.

“What do you want?” Maia asked, as she saw Apollo approaching.

“I want my cattle back,” Apollo told her.  “I know they’re here.”

“There’s nothing in this cave but my sleeping baby, and he’s only a few days old.  See for yourself if you like.”

Apollo strode into the cave and looked around.  He was sure his cows were here somewhere, but they were too well hidden for him to spot them.  All he could see was Hermes, who was lying on his back and smiling innocently, like a normal baby might.

Apollo stared down at the baby suspiciously.

“Goo goo,” said Hermes.

Apollo just kept staring.

“Ga ga,” Hermes added.

Apollo was less than convinced.

He was not, after all, a stupid god.  But he couldn’t very well just accuse an infant of stealing his cattle, no matter how obvious it was that he’d done it.  Even for a god, that would be a bad idea.

With nothing else to do, Apollo went back outside and started confronting Maia, asking her where the cattle were hidden.  But the longer she spent protesting her ignorance, the angrier Apollo got.  And the angrier he got, the more he shouted at her.  And the more he shouted, the more Hermes worried that Apollo might hurt his mother.

So Hermes got out his lyre from where he had hidden it, and started playing it.

The music wending out of the cave soon distracted Apollo, who had a taste for beautiful music.  He went back into the cave, where he found his baby brother playing the lyre.

“What do you call that?” Apollo asked, indicating the lyre.

“Ga?” Hermes replied, with an impish grin.

“Oh, drop the act!”

Hermes laughed, and told Apollo it was called a lyre.  “Would you like to try playing it?” he added, offering the lyre to his brother.

Apollo couldn’t resist the idea of making such beautiful music himself, and accepted the lyre without a moment’s hesitation.  As his fingers began to brush the strings and produce eloquent chords and sweet notes, his eyes slipped shut to better appreciate the music.

While Apollo was distracted, Hermes sneaked around behind him and grabbed his bow and quiver, hiding them beneath the covers of the bed.

Once the song was over, Apollo returned the lyre to his infant brother.  “It’s a fine instrument,” he commented, shaking his head.  “But I really want my cattle back.”

While Hermes was contemplating if it was the right time to admit where they were, one of the cows lowed in the back of the cave, and Apollo hurried off to regain his property.  Sighing, Hermes started strumming his lyre idly, though he wasn’t capable of making it sound as pretty as his brother had.

As Apollo was driving his cattle back out of the cave, he suddenly noticed that he’d been deprived of his weapon as well as his herd.  “Give it back!” he shouted, standing before his brother again.

“Give what back?  The lyre is mine,” Hermes pointed out.

“My bow!  What kind of archer god am I without it?!  My sister will laugh at me if I don’t have it and she still has hers!”

Hermes preempted her laughter by laughing himself.

Enraged, Apollo grabbed the baby by his arm, and lifted him into the air.  “Maybe I should tell my father what you’ve done!”

“There’s no need to annoy our father with this,” Hermes assured him.  “I’ll give it back!  Just put me down again.”

Apollo set the baby god down more carefully than he had picked him up.  He hadn’t realized his father had taken yet another mistress.  That made this all much more complicated…

Hermes took the bow and quiver out from under the covers and gave them back to Apollo.  “You can have this, too, if you’ll forgive me for my little pranks,” he added, holding out the lyre again.

Apollo fought within himself for a moment.  He shouldn’t forgive the theft of his cattle and his bow so readily.  Especially since one of the cows was still unaccounted for!  But he really wanted that lyre for his own.  He didn’t like the idea of anyone else being able to make prettier music than he could.  And the boy was his brother…

His desire for pretty things quickly won out over his anger for the thefts, and he accepted the lyre and his brother’s apologies.  Then he drove his cattle back to their pasture, and sat down in the shade of a nearby tree to master his new instrument, much to the delight of the nearby dryads.

Once Apollo felt he had become thoroughly proficient with the lyre, he headed back to his father’s palace on Mt. Olympos, and started playing it there.  He was soon surrounded by all the goddesses–except Hera, who still resented him and his sister for existing–who were admiring his music with so much excitement that his father had to come over and see what the commotion was about.

“Where did you get that instrument?” Zeus asked his son, surprised that anyone could have created something without his knowledge.

“A little rascal down on the surface gave it to me as an apology for making off with my cattle,” Apollo told him.

Though Apollo said nothing more than that, Zeus was sure the ‘little rascal’ in question had to be Maia’s child.  If the child was old enough to create such an instrument, then it was safe to bring him home to Mt. Olympos, surely!  Zeus hurried to Maia’s cave, and finally met his new son, Hermes, a full week after his birth.

After a discussion that took several days, Zeus left again with the baby, taking him up to Mt. Olympos.  It would be risky having another baby around–Hera had had one only a few days earlier as well–but Hera hadn’t actually met the twins until they were grown, and surely that was the cause of her continuing hatred for them, Zeus reckoned.  If she met this one while he was still an adorable little infant, how could she possibly hate him?

Zeus was still naive about the extents of his wife’s limitless hatred for his constant lechery.

Hera started to grow irritable as soon as Zeus entered the palace with Hermes, even though she hadn’t laid eyes on either of them.  She could just sense that her husband had brought the products of his adultery home with him again, and it made her so livid that no one could stand to be around her.  Even her baby started growing fearful of her.

Hearing his wife making a racket in her rage, Zeus stashed Hermes in a small side chamber, and told him not to move or make a sound, then went off to try and soothe Hera’s wrath.  That didn’t work so well.  Or at all.  In fact, Zeus fled from the palace and went down to the surface to seek consolation with some pretty nymphs.

Meanwhile, Hermes grew bored of waiting, and as soon as things had quieted down, he crept out of his hiding place, and found the place where his half-brother Ares was sleeping.  He could hear Hera coming to feed her baby, so he hid Ares under the covers and took his place.  Because the room was very dark, Hera didn’t notice the substitution at first–especially since she was still railing in anger at her husband–and picked up Hermes instead of her own son, lifting him to her breast and feeding him.

But while she was feeding Hermes at her breast, Ares woke up and moved the covers aside.  Seeing another baby in his place, he started wailing.  Only then did Hera look closely at the baby she was holding to see he wasn’t her son.  But Hermes smiled up at her as innocently and cutely as he could, and Hera forgave him despite herself.

When Zeus returned from his dalliance, he was surprised to find that his wife had completely adopted Hermes as a proper member of her family.

So most of that was just a rehash of the Homeric Hymn to Hermes.  Well, the stuff with the cattle and the lyre was.  Though I greatly simplified the theft of the cattle.  And the making up process.  Well, actually, I just plain simplified it all around.  The bit with taking the place of one of Hera’s babies at her breast comes from a different source, I’m pretty sure, but I don’t remember where I read it.  And, for that matter, I’m not 100% positive that Ares is the right baby to take the place of.  But she doesn’t have that many, and no way Hermes could pass for Hephaistos.  (Nor would he be willing to do so, I might add!  But Ares as an infant hasn’t shown any of his defects yet, so Hermes wouldn’t mind briefly impersonating him like that.)  And it didn’t seem right to have Hermes subbing in for a daughter like Hebe.

I know the idea of Hermes feeding at Hera’s breast seems icky–at least, it does to me–especially since he has a fully developed mind, despite being an infant, but in the ancient world for a woman to feed a baby at her own breast was like adopting the baby.  One of the later tales about the apotheosis of Heracles said that she fed him at her breast to make peace with him, despite that he was a fully grown–and probably fairly old–man!  (Eeew, and I’ve seen some Roman (or was it Etruscan?) art of that.  Nasty and creepy.)  Anyway, point is, Hermes knew what he was doing when he did that.

Oh, and I didn’t manage to fit it into the story comfortably, but I wanted to make it that Hermes made his peace with Hera on the tenth day after his birth, because in ancient Greece they didn’t name a baby until ten days after it was born, so I wanted that to have grown out of this somehow, but…uh…yeah, I’ll have to figure out why that would make sense before I can adapt the end of the story to add that in.


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