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Maia, the eldest, as the fruit of her intercourse with Zeus, gave birth to Hermes in a cave of Cyllene.1 He was laid in swaddling-bands on the winnowing fan,2 but he slipped out and made his way to Pieria and stole the kine which Apollo was herding.3 And lest he should be detected by the tracks, he put shoes on their feet and brought them to Pylus, and hid the rest in a cave; but two he sacrificed and nailed the skins to rocks, while of the flesh he boiled and ate some,4 and some he burned. And quickly he departed to Cyllene. And before the cave he found a tortoise browsing. He cleaned it out, strung the shell with chords made from the kine he had sacrificed, and having thus produced a lyre he invented also a plectrum.5 But Apollo came to Pylus6 in search of the kine, and he questioned the inhabitants. They said that they had seen a boy driving cattle, but could not say whither they had been driven, because they could find no track. Having discovered the thief by divination,7 Apollo came to Maia at Cyllene and accused Hermes. But she showed him the child in his swaddling-bands. So Apollo brought him to Zeus, and claimed the kine; and when Zeus bade him restore them, Hermes denied that he had them, but not being believed he led Apollo to Pylus and restored the kine. Howbeit, when Apollo heard the lyre, he gave the kine in exchange for it. And while Hermes pastured them, he again made himself a shepherd's pipe and piped on it.8 And wishing to get the pipe also, Apollo offered to give him the golden wand which he owned while he herded cattle.9 But Hermes wished both to get the wand for the pipe and to acquire the art of divination. So he gave the pipe and learned the art of divining by pebbles.10 And Zeus appointed him herald to himself and to the infernal gods.

1 The following account of the birth and youthful exploits of Hermes is based, whether directly or indirectly, on the beautiful Homeric Hymn to Hermes, though it differs from the hymn on a few minor points, as to which Apollodorus may have used other sources. Compare The Homeric Hymns, ed. T. W. Allen and E. E. Sikes, pp. 130ff. Among the other literary sources to which Apollodorus may have had recourse was perhaps Sophocles's satyric play Ichneutae, or The Trackers. See below.

2 Compare the HH Herm. 21; HH Herm. 63; HH Herm. 150ff.; HH Herm. 254; HH Herm. 290; HH Herm. 358; Sophocles, Ichneutae 269 (The Fragments of Sophocles, ed. A. C. Pearson, ii.258). So Dionysus at birth is said to have been laid on a winnowing-fan (Serv. Verg. G. 1.166): hence he got the surname of “He of the Winnowing-fan” (Λικνίτης, Plut. Isis et Osiris 35). These traditions as to the gods merely reflected an ancient Greek custom of placing newborn children in winnowing-fans “as an omen of wealth and fruitfulness” (πλοῦτον καὶ καρποὺς οἰωνιζόμενοι). See the Scholiast on Callimachus, Hymn 1.48 (Callimachea, ed. O. Schneider, i.109). As to the symbolism of the custom, see W. Mannhardt, “Kind und Korn,” Mythologische Forschungen, pp. 351-374; Miss J. E. Harrison, “Mystica Vannus Iacchi,” JHS xxiii. (1903), pp. 292-324. The custom was not confined to ancient Greece, but has been widely practised in India and other parts of the east down to modern times. The motives assigned or implied for it are various. Sometimes it seems to have been intended to ensure the wealth and prosperity of the infant, sometimes to guard it against the evil eye and other dangerous influences. See Spirits of the Corn and of the Wild, i.5-11. To quote a single example, among the Brahuis of Baluchistan, “most good parents keep their babe for the first six days in a chaj, or winnowing-basket, that God may vouchsafe them full as many children as the basket can hold grain . . . But some folk will have nothing to do with a winnowing-basket; it harbours epilepsy, they say, though how or why I am at a loss to think. So they lay the child in a sieve, that good luck may pour upon him as abundantly as grain pours through a sieve” (Denys Bray, The Life-History of a BrāhūīLondon, 1913, p. 13). The substitution of a corn-sieve for a winnowing-fan seems to be common elsewhere.

3 Compare HH Herm. 22ff.; Ant. Lib. 23; Ov. Met. 2.680ff. The theft of cattle by the infant Hermes was the subject of Sophocles's satyric drama Ichneutae, or The Trackers, of which some considerable fragments have been discovered in recent years. The scene of the play is laid on Mount Cyllene. Apollo appears and complains of the loss of the cattle, describes how he has come from Thessaly and through Boeotia in search of them, and offers a reward to anyone who will help him to find the missing beasts. The proclamation reaches the ears of Silenus, who hurries to the scene of action and warmly proffers the services of himself and his Satyrs in the search, only stipulating that the reward shall take the solid shape of cash down. His offer being accepted, the Satyrs at once open on the scent like sleuth-hounds and soon discover confused tracks of cattle pointing in different directions. But in the very heat of this discovery they are startled by a strange sound, the like of which they had never heard before. It is, in fact, the muffled sound of the lyre played by the youthful Hermes in the cave. At this point the nymph Cyllene issues from the cavern and upbraids the wild creatures with the hubbub they are raising in the stillness of the green wooded hills. The Satyrs tender a humble apology for their intrusion, but request to know the meaning of the strange sounds that proceed from the bowels of the earth. In compliance with their request the nymph explains how Zeus had secretly begotten Hermes on Maia in the cave, how she herself was acting temporarily as nurse to the child, how the infant grew at an astonishing and even alarming rate, and how, being detained in the cave by his father's orders, he devoted his leisure hours to constructing out of a dead beast a curious toy which emitted musical notes. Being pressed for a fuller explanation she describes how Hermes made the lyre out of a tortoise shell, how the instrument was “his only balm of grief, his comforter,” and how the child was transported with delight at the ravishing sweetness of the tones which spoke to him from the dead beast. Unmoved by this touching description, the Satyrs at once charge the precocious infant with having stolen the cattle. His nurse indignantly repels the charge, stoutly declaring that the poor child had inherited no propensity to thieving either from its father or from its mother, and recommending his accusers to go and look for the thief elsewhere, since at their age, with their long beards and bald heads, they ought to know better than to trump up such ridiculous accusations, for which they may yet have to smart. The nurse's passionate defence of her little charge makes no more impression on the Satyrs than her previous encomium on his musical talent: indeed their suspicions are quickened by her reference to the hides which the infant prodigy had used in the construction of the lyre, and they unhesitatingly identify the skins in question with those of the missing cattle. Strong in this conviction, they refuse to budge till the culprit has been made over to them. At this point the Greek text begins to fail; we can just catch a few disjointed fragments of a heated dialogue between the nurse and the satyrs; the words “cows,” “thief,” “rascal,” and so forth, occur with painful iteration, then all is silence. See The Fragments of Sophocles, ed. A. C. Pearson, vol. i. pp. 224-270. From this seemingly simple piece of mild buffoonery Miss J. E. Harrison would extract a ritual of serious and indeed solemn significance, of which, however, she admits that the author of the play was himself probably quite unconscious. See her learned essay in Essays and Studies presented to William Ridgeway, ed. E. C. Quiggin (Cambridge, 1913), pp. 136ff.

4 In the HH Herm. 115ff. we are told that Hermes roasted the flesh of two oxen and divided it into twelve portions (for the twelve gods), but that in spite of hunger he ate none of it himself.

5 Compare Sophocles, Ichneutae 278ff. (The Fragments of Sophocles, ed. A. C. Pearson, ii.259). In the HH Herm. 22ff., the invention of the lyre by Hermes precedes his theft of the cattle.

6 In the HH Herm. 185ff. it is to Onchestus in Boeotia, not to Pylus, that Apollo goes at first to inquire after the missing cattle.

7 Compare the HH Herm. 213ff., where it is said that Apollo discovered Hermes to be the thief through observing a certain long-winged bird.

8 Compare the HH Herm. 511ff., where, however, nothing is said about an attempt of Apollo to get the pipes from Hermes, or about an exchange of the pipes for the golden wand. However, there is a lacuna in the hymn after verse 526, and the missing passage may have contained the exchange in question and the request of Hermes for the gift of divination, both of which are mentioned by Apollodorus but omitted in the hymn as it stands at present. See Allen and Sikes on the HH Herm. 526ff., in their edition of the Homeric Hymns, p. 190.

9 For the gift of the golden wand, see HH Herm. 527ff.

10 Compare the HH Herm. 552ff. The reference is to the divining pebbles called θρίαε, which were personified as three winged sisters who dwelt on Parnassus, and are said to have been the nurses of Apollo. See Zenobius, Cent. v.75; Callimachus, Hymn to Apollo 45, with the Scholiast; Etymologicum Magnum, s.v. Θρία, p. 455.45; Hesychius, s.v. θριαί; Anecdota Graeca, ed. Bekker, i.265.11, s.vΘριάσιον πεδίον.. According to one account, the divining pebbles were an invention of Athena, which so disgusted Apollo that Zeus caused that mode of divination to fall into discredit, though it had been in high repute before; and Apollo vented his spite at the practitioners of a rival art by saying that “There be many that cast pebbles, but few prophets.” See Zenobius, Cent. v.75; Stephanus Byzantius, s.v. Θρία. This tradition may perhaps be accepted as evidence that in time the simple mode of divination by pebbles went out of fashion, being cast into the shade by the far more stately and imposing ritual of the frenzied prophetesses at Delphi, whose wild words were accepted as the very utterances of the deity. However, we are informed that in the temple at Delphi there were divining pebbles in a bowl on a tripod, and that when an inquirer applied to the oracle, the pebbles danced about in the bowl, while the inspired priestess prophesied. See Nonnus, in Westermann's Mythographi Graeci, Appendix Narrationum 67, p. 384; Suidas, s.v. Πυθώ. As to Greek divination by pebbles, see A. Bouche-Leclercq, Histoire de la Divination dans l'Antiquité, i.192,ff.; and Frazer, note on Paus. 7.25.10 (vol. iv. pp. 172ff.)

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  • Commentary references to this page (1):
    • Thomas W. Allen, E. E. Sikes, Commentary on the Homeric Hymns, HYMN TO HERMES
  • Cross-references to this page (2):
    • A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities (1890), INCUNA´BULA
    • Smith's Bio, Maia
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