Skip to content

How Did Hermes Get the Caduceus?

March 17, 2014

It is difficult to imagine Hermes, the messenger of the gods, without his usual accoutrements: wings on his feet, a stylish chapeau, and carrying a winged staff encircled by snakes. The Homeric Hymns, poems written in the Homeric style that date to around 700bce, are often filled with the origin myths of the gods and goddesses. The tales regale their audience with depictions of the immortals, listing the things they rule over and the things sacred to them. And yes, Hermes is among those memorialized in the hymns.

The “Homeric Hymn to Hermes,” which dates from around the sixth century bce, follows in this tradition and recounts the early life of the god, from his birth in a cave to the nymph Maia (herself a consort of Zeus), to his installation among the gods of Mt. Olympus. Along the way, the poem relates how Hermes acquired his famous staff and what it is used for. I thought it would be fun to share this version of the story from the Homeric Hymns and see how the mythology of Hermes is wrapped up with this important symbol.

According to the poem, Hermes is quite the prodigy. He is born in the morning, by noon he is playing the lyre, and at evening he is out-and-about stealing Apollo’s cows. Very ambitious, but it gets better. In order to cover-up his theft, the young Hermes marches the cows backwards, so that their tracks lead in the opposite direction. Thus, anyone who followed the tracks to find the cows (i.e. Apollo) would think they led one way, when they really went the other. Even sneakier, Hermes ties branches to his feet, which obscure the tracks further, making it seem as if a giant was driving the cattle. Tsk-tsk.

This is all good, except someone sees Hermes. An old man working in his vineyard catches him driving Apollo’s cows across the plains of Onchestus. Busted, Hermes orders the old man to keep quiet and hurries on his way.

Upon discovering his cows missing, Apollo sets off to find them. Lo and behold, he encounters the old man tending his vineyard. Despite the earlier warning to not disclose Hermes’ theft, the old man spills the beans and provides this description of the youth he saw with Apollo’s cows:

ὦ φίλος, ἀργαλέον μέν, ὅσ᾽ ὀφθαλμοῖσιν ἴδοιτο,
πάντα λέγειν: πολλοὶ γὰρ ὁδὸν πρήσσουσιν ὁδῖται,
τῶν οἳ μὲν κακὰ πολλὰ μεμαότες, οἳ δὲ μάλ᾽ ἐσθλὰ
φοιτῶσιν: χαλεπὸν δὲ δαήμεναί ἐστιν ἕκαστον:
αὐτὰρ ἐγὼ πρόπαν ἦμαρ ἐς ἠέλιον καταδύντα
ἔσκαπτον περὶ γουνὸν ἀλωῆς οἰνοπέδοιο:
παῖδα δ᾽ ἔδοξα, φέριστε, σαφὲς δ᾽ οὐκ οἶδα, νοῆσαι,
ὅς τις ὁ παῖς, ἅμα βουσὶν ἐυκραίρῃσιν ὀπήδει
νήπιος, εἶχε δὲ ῥάβδον: ἐπιστροφάδην δ᾽ ἐβάδιζεν.

Dear friend, it vexes me. As much as may be seen with the eyes is all there is to tell. For many travelers pass over this road, of whom some strive for many bad things, while others wander to and fro and strive for very good things, and it is difficult to know which is which. However, I was digging the entire day until the sun was sinking around my fruitful vineyard, which abounds in wine. And I thought that a child, most brave one, but I do not know clearly…I saw him, whoever this child is—an infant following with fine-horned cattle, and he held a rod, and he went, turning this way and that.

Homeric Hymn to Hermes, 202-210 (translation mine)

We know a couple of things from this passage. One, this old man sure has a nice vineyard that gives him oodles of wine. Sweet. The other is that Hermes guided the cattle with a rod or stick. This suggests that the divine messenger’s top accessory is not just for show, but has a rather practical purpose: it’s intended to aid in the tending of cattle. More about this later, because it’s totally relevant.

I’m going to flash-forward through the story a bit. Obviously, Apollo apprehends the little thief. After all, he’s the god of divination, and it would be pretty difficult to put one past him. So Apollo nabs Hermes and the two gods go to Mt. Olympus, to have the issue settled by Zeus. After much scheming, Hermes wriggles his way out of trouble by playing the lyre, which Apollo just falls in love with. Thus, Apollo gets the lyre, and Hermes is given status among the gods. But there’s a trade:

ὣς εἰπὼν ὤρεξ᾽: ὃ δ᾽ ἐδέξατο Φοῖβος Ἀπόλλων,
Ἐρμῇ δ᾽ ἐγγυάλιξεν ἑκὼν μάστιγα φαεινήν,
βουκολίας τ᾽ ἐπέτελλεν: ἔδεκτο δὲ Μαιάδος υἱὸς
γηθήσας: κίθαριν δὲ λαβὼν ἐπ᾽ ἀριστερὰ χειρὸς
Λητοῦς ἀγλαὸς υἱός, ἄναξ ἑκάεργος Ἀπόλλων,
πλήκτρῳ ἐπειρήτιζε κατὰ μέλος: ἣ δ᾽ ὑπὸ νέρθε
ἱμερόεν κονάβησε: θεὸς δ᾽ ὑπὸ καλὸν ἄεισεν.

Thus having spoken, Hermes held out his hand. And the bright Apollo received the lyre from Hermes, and in return, he put into his hand the shining whip which he held. And Hermes, the son of Maia, rejoicing, received this and commanded the herd of cattle. And the bright son of Leto, the far-working Lord Apollo, taking the kithara in his left hand, proved himself by song with the Plektron. And it resounded sweetly from him, and the god sang with beauty.

Homeric Hymn to Hermes 496 – 502 (translation mine)

He we see that, in exchange for the lyre (and presumably Apollo’s forgiveness) Hermes is given a whip with which to command cattle. Some translations suggest that at this point in the story Hermes is actually given dominion over tending cattle (Crudden 61). Later we see that Zeus has designated Hermes as the god of commerce (516). It is interesting to note that valuable commodities, money, and livestock are referred to by the same term in ancient Greek, τὰ χρήματα, which suggests an association among these items in the minds of the ancient Greeks.

Nevertheless, we’ve talked a bit about Hermes using a rod to drive cattle, and here he upgrades to Apollo’s whip and gains rulership over the τὰ χρήματα, or valuable things. Finally, towards the end of the story, Hermes receives his famous staff:

ὄλβου καὶ πλούτου δώσω περικαλλέα ῥάβδον,
χρυσείην, τριπέτηλον, ἀκήριον ἥ σε φυλάξει
πάντας ἐπικραίνουσ᾽ ἄθλους ἐπέων τε καὶ ἔργων
τῶν ἀγαθῶν, ὅσα φημὶ δαήμεναι ἐκ Διὸς ὀμφῆς.

I [Apollo] shall give you, for happiness and wealth, a very beautiful rod. It is adorned with gold and thrice-branched and pure. And it shall guard you as you accomplish all the ordinances which are uttered and of the good works, as much as I say to be learned from the voice of Zeus.

Homeric Hymn to Hermes 529-532, (translation mine)

And here Hermes gets a golden rod with three-branches. This rod is to be used by Hermes in conveying the will of Zeus to humans, but under the guidance of Apollo. Hermes has gone from a driver of cows, to a driver of humans. Now, the shape of the wand has been disputed, as τριπέτηλον literally means “thrice-leaved.” Is this a branch with three leaves? Three branches? What’s its deal? According to Nicholas Richardson, this word usually refers to something which “forks at the top in a V-shape” (216). Nevertheless, at this point in the story that Hermes gains the tool which comes to be closely identified with the god from here on out.

This is a bit different than what we’re used to, eh? The rod as we know it today, the caduceus with two snakes, didn’t come into being until the fifth century bce. So until then, Hermes will have to make do with this wand. At least it’s made of gold, so there’s a bit of consolation for the new god.

In the “Homeric Hymn to Hermes” we get a bit of the back-story on Hermes, the messenger of the gods. Of seemingly humble origins, he finagles his way into the ranks of the gods of Olympus through trickery and cunning. At the end of his ordeal, he is given a golden rod with which to conduct his business and is granted rulership of commerce. However, we see the connection between the Hermes, trade, and the symbol of the rod alluded to throughout the story, as the rod is depicted as the key tool with which Hermes tends cattle, animals which were considered to be a valuable good to the Ancient Greeks. The sacred staff that Hermes carries, like the god himself in the story, is transformed from a mundane object with mundane authority to an object of reverence and divine authority. It symbolizes both the things he governs on earth, but is also a token of his status among the gods of Mt. Olympus.


“Homeric Hymn to Hermes” in Three Homeric Hymns: To Apollo, Hermes, and Aphrodite. Edited by Nicholas Richardson. Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics, Cambridge University Press. 2010.

The Homeric Hymns: A New Translation by Michael Crudden. Oxford World’s Classics, Oxford University Press. 2001.

Photo by Andrea Crisante.

Promoting Classical Languages at York University

March 10, 2014

Last December I received an email from the Classical Studies department chair, Anne-Marie Lewis, asking if I’d be interested in doing a video to promote the department’s language program. York University, like many other schools, has been very proactive in getting its members out on the internet, and the Classical Studies program was totally stacking the web with its students.

Of course, I said yes.

And then spent the next few weeks panicking.

What would I say? I love languages, but they really are a solitary sport. How do I convey the pure excitement…of memorizing pages of vocabulary? The thrill of victory that comes from…pinpointing an exceptional use of the distributive preposition κατα? You see what I’m saying. The other students talked about going to the Mediterranean, where they dug about in the sands of history. I spend an undue amount of time holed up in my office twittering about off-colour Smyth entries.

Luckily, the folks at York’s communications department were on my side. Together we were able to make studying Greek and Latin seem almost exciting while dispelling the myth that learning a dead language is an irrelevant skill in today’s society. This video has something in it for everyone: There’s a nod to the Dead Sea Scrolls, a cameo from Pope Benedict (!), and of course, my smooth baritone voice which drives all the fellas wild.


Association for the Study of Esotericism Conference Schedule

March 4, 2014

The Association for the Study of Esotericism has posted the schedule for its conference taking place June 19th-22nd at Colgate University. The line-up suggests the conference will be filled with interesting lectures, not the least of which will be the plenary address by classical scholar Sarah Iles Johnston.

Sarah Iles Johnston has done extensive research on religion, divination, and the afterlife in the ancient world. Not content to stop there though, some of her recent work looks at Neopagan movements which worship the old gods and how these traditions are reconstructed from scholarly sources. In my opinion—and of course I am biased!—Johnston is a great score by the conference organizers. Her work appeals both to those interested in esoteric phenomenon in antiquity as well as those who examine the reception of ideas by modern religious movements.

Other notables include a second plenary by Jean-Pierre Brach, who has done a ton of work on the esoteric theory of numbers; Richard Kaczynski, who will speak about how esoteric groups construct their histories; and Wouter Hanegraaff, who needs no introduction for readers of this blog.

And I will be speaking on Sunday morning, so prepare yourselves accordingly.

The preliminary conference schedule can be found at the ASE website, as well as other details about the conference.

Photo by Colgate University.


February 26, 2014

The number of ESSWE networks appears to be growing steadily. The latest addition to the organization’s constellation is CEENASWE, the Central and Eastern European Network for the Academic Study of Western Esotericism.

This network will be launching itself formally in July with a colloquium in Budapest. For those of you who want more information, here’s what the organizers have to say:

The East-Central European members of ESSWE (The European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism) have decided to establish a branch organization, CEENASWE – Central and Eastern European Network for the Academic Study of Western Esotericism

To mark this development, the official launching of CEENASWE will include a scholarly colloquium, hosted by the CENTER FOR RELIGIOUS STUDIES OF THE CENTRAL EUROPEAN UNIVERSITY in Budapest, on 4-5 July (Friday-Saturday), 2014, highlighting the theme


20 minutes’ paper proposals should be sent to Karolina M. Kotkowska and (with author’s affiliation and a short abstract) by April 15, 2014.

Apparently the group has a Facebook page, but since I am not on Facebook you will have to investigate this avenue on your own!

Of course, I feel this is an appropriate time to remind you that NSEA—the Network for the Study of Esotericism in Antiquity—is still going strong. You can visit us at or on the Twitter.

Photo by George M. Groutas.

On the Arbitrary Appellation of Magic in Antiquity

February 10, 2014

adjective \ˈär-bə-ˌtrer-ē, -ˌtre-rē\
1: depending on individual discretion (as of a judge) and not fixed by law
2 a: not restrained or limited in the exercise of power; ruling by absolute authority b: marked by or resulting from the unrestrained and often tyrannical exercise of power

~ Merriam-Webster

The nature of magic in antiquity is a much varied thing. Not only do different practices get called magic, but the varying terminology for these activities makes it even harder to put such practices in a box. Furthermore, many practices get labelled such, not by those who practice them, but by other—often more powerful—observers who use such terms pejoratively.

This is a point elaborated by Kimberly B. Stratton in an essay titled Magic Discourse in the Ancient World, which is included in the book Defining Magic: A Reader. (You can read the paper here at Stratton disagrees with the view that there is a single magic in antiquity, especially when one takes into consideration the power-structures that define what constitutes magic. By trying to pin magic down to a single phenomenon, she argues, we ignore the social landscape that produced the so-called magical act in the first place.

Here’s what Stratton has to say:

I propose that magic is best understood as a discursive formation—a socially constructed body of knowledge that is enmeshed in and supports systems of power. What gets labelled magic is arbitrary and depends upon the society in question. Once the label is affixed, however, it enables certain practices to become magic by virtue of being regarded as such by members of the society. (Stratton 246-247)

While we tend to think of arbitrary as meaning something like “capricious,” what it really means is noted above. There is an implicit power-dynamic within the word, which suggests a particular value judgement that lacks universality because it is created within a specific context. Hence, defining magic in antiquity becomes an arbitrary exercise, where what is magic, and to whom it appears to be magic, are constantly changing variables.

Now, if one didn’t study magic in the ancient world, one might be tempted to say that, because it can be labelled, there must be some concrete concept of magic that is being discussed. But this misses the point. While a good definition suggests that magical practices are rites and rituals that exist on the margins of cultural norms (Dickie, 38), the point is that, when we look at the evidence, what is labelled magic is a moving target. The label stays the same, but the content changes depending on the situation at hand. The label is not so much about the practices themselves, but rather about the status of those practices.

In fact, when one looks at what was considered “magic” in antiquity, one quickly sees that a wide variety of practices fall under this banner. For example, I put together the following list of practices which were considered magic in the ancient world:

As should be obvious by now, there is no single “magic” to speak of. What is even more interesting is that several of these practices were actually components of mainstream Greco-Roman culture (sacrifices, purification, prophecy, and others). Therefore, the practices are not a threat in and of themselves—they require something else to tip them over into the category of “magic.” And now we can begin to see how these practices become enmeshed in power structures which define them as “magic.” Either they threaten to edge-in on existing practices, or they derive from sources which were marginalized in antiquity, such as women, lower classes, or foreign peoples (Dickie 65, 88, 134).

While Stratton’s article mainly relies on representations of women and magic in antiquity to show how these constructions are created, I would like to add two more examples to show how the appellation of magic can be applied arbitrarily:

  1. The Necromancing Pythagorean
  2. Jewish and Christian Holy Men

These two examples of “magic” illustrate how different phenomena fall into this nebulous category. They suggest that magic is not a codified set of practices, nor are those doing the defining of magic or practice of magic similarly fixed. These examples are both located within relationships of power, but their power structures and “magical” practices are different.

Read more…

Mysteria Misc. Maxima: February 7th, 2014

February 7, 2014

Dear Readers,

This will be the last MMM for the foreseeable future. My desire at the moment is to focus my time and energy on my academic work. I will, however, continue to write on topics related to my research—I truly find these articles a lot of fun and plan on posting more of them in the upcoming weeks and months. So please join me in bidding a fond adieu to the MMM and enjoy this final link round-up…

Photo by Phil_Shirley.

Mysteria Misc. Maxima: January 31st, 2014

January 31, 2014

Mysteria Misc. Maxima is a weekly feature which brings together links on religion and esotericism from around the internet.

Photo by Sébastien Gagnon.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 187 other followers

%d bloggers like this: