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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! – DukeZhou Jan 23 '17 at 23:16
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    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." – Adinkra Jan 24 '17 at 18:38
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    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). – Adinkra Jan 24 '17 at 18:45
  • I use the term Olympian for Heracles to draw a distinction between the post-mortem heavenly status of figures like Asclepius and the Dioskouroi. – DukeZhou Jan 24 '17 at 20:18
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    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. – DukeZhou Jan 24 '17 at 20:23
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Probably not.

According to Apollodorus,

[VI. ZEUS CONFIRMS THE DIVINE PRIVILEGES OF HERMES.]

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.

Map

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. – Adinkra Aug 11 '17 at 20:53
  • 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. – Adinkra Aug 11 '17 at 20:57
  • 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! – Adinkra Aug 11 '17 at 20:58
  • 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. – Adinkra Aug 11 '17 at 21:00
  • 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. – Adinkra Aug 11 '17 at 21:04

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