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Hermes was a messenger god. And Iris, with her rainbows, was also a messenger goddess.

Why would the Greeks have two different messenger gods?

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It's helpful to not consider Greek mythology as a unified, logically consistent whole. That they have two gods for one task is because humans are creating stories about the gods. Moreover, neither of the two are truly "messenger gods" per se, but rather they both manifest characteristics which allow storytellers to use them as messengers.

For Iris, the rainbow which appears to go from heaven to the ground can be conceived of as some sort of pathway from the divine to the mortal spheres. This easily lends itself to the interpretation of rainbows as pathways for gods to communicate with mortals. The Iliad, the earliest Greek work we have, Iris is the messenger of the gods.

For Hermes, since he's the "patron" (of sorts) of travelers, that function lends itself to his being cast as a messenger, as one who travels from the gods to mortals. He relays messages in the Odyssey, the second oldest Greek work we have, but not the Iliad.

Since the two oldest works of Greek literature use either of these two gods for messages, they both became "messenger" gods. Note though that they have domains far beyond that, especially Hermes, who protected flocks, looked after traders and merchants, guided souls of the dead to Hades, and even protected Horace in battle.

3

Hermes was a lot of things.

Other sources mention further variances.

Hermes is a clever thinker, an aid to the gods, and a guide for mankind. He plays many parts.

Iris, on the other hand, though sometimes replacing Hermes' position (as in the Odyssey), is more purely a messenger.

She is described in more single-minded terms, repeatedly so throughout the Iliad:

and very directly,

Other sources describing her, such as the Argonautica, were probably written later than the Iliad and the Odyssey, so their adherence to this structure can probably be largely disregarded.

The reasons for the difference between Hermes and Iris, and the need for both of them, so to speak, could be debated; I'm not expert enough to offer any real opinion on the matter. Certainly Homer (if he was indeed the author we believe him to be) wrote wrote works containing both Hermes and Iris, so the real reason for the parts they play may be buried in author's intent.

There may not really be much of a reason other than that. Deities tend to double up on duties and roles as they serve the needs of their authors. Especially for humanistic deities such as those in classic Greek mythology, it makes sense for writers like Homer and others to use and discard them as needed to make the plot and lessons flow. After all, it is more imperative for them to make a clear point than to uphold a certain standard for one individual deity.

0

One must also remember that the Greeks, like the Romans after them, "never met a god they didn't like." That's why the Greco-Roman religious Panthenon greatly resembled that of the Indian subcontinent, with so many gods one may often require a programme from which to select the more appropriate god to whom one should pray, for one's specific problem.

It is difficult to prove at this remove in time, but it's very possible that, at an earlier point in Greek history, Iris and Hermes had been the messenger-gods of different independent Greek city-states.

Others have pointed out the approximate chronology---Iris being described as more of a "dedicated messenger-god" from the earliest literary references, while Hermes really seemed to have come by "messenger-duty" a bit later. The larger numbers of diverse and disparate "duties" assigned to Hermes suggests he had originally begun "god-life" as a sort of "composite-god," who had united the functions of a number of earlier male deities who had been worshiped by the people of smaller Greek city-states, which had later been vanquished by or incorporated into later and more-powerful city-states.

From the "deceitful" reference to Hermes' behaviour, it's evident one of those earlier "incarnations" had been a "trickster-god;" while the "helper of men" role may have come from an agrarian god whose original function had been to assist men with completion of hard tasks; and the chronology continues.

I believe, (though after 45 years and more I freely admit I may be mistaken) that it was Dr. T. C. Lethbridge who had explored at very great length the habit of Mankind to "recycle" the gods worshiped by earlier peoples (and, those who had later been "assimilated peoples") of a particular area, into either later versions of gods. This also included merging traits of earlier gods into the "aspects" of later manifestations of gods belonging to later and more powerful regional peoples.

(One of his related, comprehensive, projects had been to demonstrate how the monuments and churches dedicated to more modern Christian Saints throughout Greater Britain had been "recycled" from pagan holy places that had originally been dedicated to gods of the so-called "Old Religion.")

Sorry for going on at such length, but I've always been fascinated by the European, Middle Eastern, and Oriental propensities for "Bending Knee At The Drop Of A Hat," so to say! [As shown by the chronicle of "Moses and the Wandering Hebrews," people would cast a "golden calf" to worship, rather than wait about a bit over a mere month, for "something better."]

I'd a "tertiary Minor" (covering about 270 hours) in "comparative religions" as a recreational venue at university: I'd found it supremely interesting and entertaining to examine how humankind had seemingly so missed childhood that they created gods to be "surrogate parents" during their adult lives! Not content merely to have "matergod" and "patergod," however, they created extra "parents" (or perhaps "elder-god-siblings") to assist them with virtually every civic, military, and domestic task imaginable.

This may seem laughable, and it's obviously easy to sneer at forebears who're 3,000 years and more removed, but please remember: The Romans, Greeks, and their far-eastern kinfolk, the Indians, had all been pleased to adopt the gods of both the older cultures from which they had come, and the newer cultures whom they had met in transit, behaving (on the whole) in very unselfish manners, rather than acting like spoiled and pouty little children.

There's nothing more demeaning and depressing than observing two or more cultures gearing for battle, shouting at one another: "My God Can Whup Yer God!" like little boys brandishing "heavenly fathers" at one another. (The addle-pated ninny who'd invented the first "jealous god" should have been sent to bed without supper for the rest of his life!)

  • This answer is incredibly confusing to read. Could you only use quotes if you're quoting from a source, and can you cite the sources you reference? Right now you're use of quotes is incredibly confusing: for example, I'm not sure why you put jealous god in quotes; are you quoting from a source, indicating skepticism of the idea of a jealous god, or what? Another example: why do you put the phrase golden calf in quotes? – user62 Feb 17 '16 at 5:43
  • The idea of people "recycling" the features of previous religions into new ones is a good start for this answer. But I wish you had cited someone other than T.C. Lethbridge: he's a pseudo-scientist. Also, you outline an interesting theory, but you need to support this theory with facts: can you demonstrate that Iris and Hermes originated from competing regions/different time periods? – user62 Feb 17 '16 at 5:46
  • Dear Ham: It was said 45 yrs ago, at Eton, research was proceeding apace. After so long, I'd consider it "proven." Perhaps this didn't cross the Atlantic? Be careful also of using "pseudo-scientist:" A top man in the same Sci. field at Be'er Shiva University has often said such of Carl Sagan. I merely mentioned Dr. TCL because his research closely paralleled the Greco-Roman example--- and because his unvarnished zeal amuses me. It's delightful that "Mary's Chapel" was "Maaev's Chapel" and "St. George's Church." was where "Herne the Hunter" was worshiped! Bon chance, mon ami! – Fred Kerns Feb 17 '16 at 8:49
  • It was said 45 yrs ago, at Eton, research was proceeding apace that's not how research works. If I say that the sky is green thirty years ago, and start conducting research into proving that the sky is green, the fact that it's been 30 years since I started researching doesn't make me right. – user62 Mar 1 '16 at 2:02

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