Did you hear this one about Hermes?
October 8, 2013 Leave a comment
So, in addition to it being my birthday, it’s also Hermes’ birthday, the fourth day of the lunar month, on which I celebrate his monthly festival, or Hermaia. Unlike other people on the interwebs who do some sort of regular monthly practice to some god or other for the masses, I haven’t really done this yet, even though I probably ought. Last month I did free divination readings from sunup until sundown, and that went by pretty well actually (forty divinations in a day without getting tired or a headache is no fluke). So, today, I asked Hermes what he’d like me to do; being the changeable mercurial thing he is, he’d rather decide each Hermaia what he’d like especially done above and beyond the normal incense, wine, barley, and prayer offerings. Today, he asked me to write a new story about him, and gave me this single prompt to start it: “what did I do after I gave the herb moly to Odysseus?”
For those who aren’t aware, the Greek soldier Odysseus left his western Greek island of Ithaca for the Trojan War, but afterward (due to him fucking things up for Poseidon), ended up losing all his Ithacan comrades and got lost for another ten years after that decade-long war. At one point, in book X of the Odyssey, he recounts his story of his travels, including a part where his shipmates are all turned to pigs by the witch Circe due to her charms with magic and herbs. Hermes comes out of the woods on the island, bearing the herb moly, which he gives to Odysseus to keep him safe from her magic. After telling Odysseus how things will go down (lady’ll try to enchant you, it won’t work, she’ll wanna bang you, do it, GTFO), Hermes speeds back off to Olympos. And then…
(Muses help me with silver words and smooth speech, my readers forgive my shitty impromptu story, and Hermes accept this drivel as an offering to him on his Hermaia)
Hermes arrived back at Olympos’ step, flying fast on his golden sandals, his usual mischievous smirk on his face. As he wiped off his mortal disguise he used for Odysseus as he would dust from the road, Hermes regained his godly composure and stepped back into Zeus’ kingdom. His major errand for today was done, sent by Athena with their father’s approval. Athena, always the worry-wart, had had her eye on Odysseus for years now, and tried to offer the man any help she could. And help she did, repeatedly; from strategizing on the campus to feigning insanity, Athena nearly rivaled Hermes in his bag of tricks, though she was more a stickler for “fate” and “righteousness” than he ever could stand. This time, after getting her usual daily update from her own messengers and intel, even the residents on the far side of Olympos could feel her throwing her shield and helmet on her marble floors in frustration. She shrieked for, you guessed it, her half-brother Hermes and told him what to do, but not before complaining to Zeus about one of Apollo’s own children, Circe. No matter; Zeus knew what was going on long before word got to Athena, and gave his thunderous nod along with a shrug and waved Hermes off on towards Aiaia, Circe’s exile island. The task was short: stop Odysseus from making any hasty moves and give him what he needs to keep himself safe. Done, and Hermes guessed that by this time Odysseus was already in Circe’s bed. “Lucky guy,” he thought, “I wouldn’t mind eating off her table anytime.”
The god walked briskly through the avenues and halls of Olympos, and considered to stop by Aphrodite’s dwelling for what Odysseus was enjoying then anyway. Upon hearing Hephaistos’ grunting up the stairs a block away from his and Aphrodite’s door, though, Hermes thought again and decided to find other entertainment. Hermes went to one of Olympos’ watchtowers to see what else was happening in the world below besides the usual war or eight. He didn’t expect to find Apollo doing the same thing at the same place, though, and on seeing his brother, Hermes became more silent than a winter breeze and crept up on Apollo. The bigger god, caught unawares but feeling something approach, turned around, but not before Hermes sprang up onto Apollo’s back, giving him a playful headlock.
“Alright, alright, you pest! You got me, now get off!” The son of Leto tried to shrug off the son of Maia, but even as a babe Hermes’ strength was something to behold. With a laugh, Hermes sprang off and gave a gentle punch to Apollo on the arm. “As you will, o glorious god, you. What’re you doing here? What’s for the sulking this time?” Hermes inquired of the other.
“I’m not sulking, Hermes, and you know well enough that I’ve no cause to mope.”
“…yes, this time. So?”
“Well, what’re you doing up here? It must be an easy day if you’re not wrestling with your sun-chariot horses.”
“In a way. I’m trying to scope out a new city, if you have to know.”
“I’m thrilled to know! Why the scoping? With you riding so high so often, you generally have a good view of things as it is. What, is my big bro trying to use that pretty head of his for once?”
Hermes grinned and dodged Apollo swiping at him in one motion, but not before Apollo was smiling himself at Hermes’ stupid jokes. They walked off as gods from the watchtower together to head off into the west, soaring across the seas. Along the way, Apollo related the story of what he was looking for: Apollo wanted a new city to look after for himself, as hard to get to as one might endure to get to Delphi, but across sea and not up mountains. However, Zeus had forbidden any more cities to the god until he had another taken from him. Understandably, Apollo was at pains to figure out any of his already prized peoples to give up, but still wanted to scope out a new place anyway. Eventually, the two gods came to a peninsula with a bay out in the middle of the sea, as yet untouched by man or horse, with pristine rivers leading to the sea. Hermes, enjoying the look of the place, noticed that Apollo approved similarly; the speedy god came up with a quick plan to help both himself and his divine brother out, but kept it a secret. Instead, Hermes suggested that they wander around the seaside forests until they found a band of nymphs or spirits of the place to learn about it.
Eventually, around dusk, the two gods came across a band of nymphs and fauns playing about in a lake, with some of them singing beautifully, and the gods were invited to join in and celebrate with them. After asking about the cause for the party, the leader of the nymphs told Apollo and Hermes about the death of the old siren Parthenope, who died after her own song was surpassed by a human singer. Since then, each year, the spirits hold a contest to see who could further surpass or expand on the song that caused Parthenope’s demise, both for their own protection and satisfaction of the late siren. Apollo and Hermes, both musicians in their own rights, joined in, and it wasn’t long before their talents amazed the other spirits. Knowing that they had all been surpassed by these two newcomers, they decided to up the ante between them: whoever could sing the most beautiful song would have the right to build on the land any type of city they want. Apollo, knowing that this opportunity couldn’t be passed up, immediately agreed to the terms; Hermes, guessing that that was the case with Apollo, did the same. The two gods went back and forth, Apollo on his lyre and Hermes on his shepherd’s pipes, each trying to outdo the other. The combined influences of music had awe-inspiring effects on their audience: some were in tears, some in laughter, some in rage, some in grief. The songs of Apollo and Hermes were beautiful as none had ever heard before, and their skill eventually outdid their instruments, with Hermes cracking his pipes and Apollo breaking his lyrestrings.
Seeing the contest obviously come to a close, the leaders of the nymphs and the fauns decided to hold a conference to decide which of the two gods was winner. They bid Apollo and Hermes goodnight, and told them to come back at sunrise to find the winner. The two gods went back to Olympos and shared some wine, with Apollo being the heavier drinker and passing out in his golden bed of down. Hermes, however, skillfully tricked Apollo into overdrinking, while having not a drop for himself, waiting to enact his plan. Hermes snuck back to the peninsula in the middle of the sea, and spied on the fauns and nymphs. The spirits there agreed that, although the two gods were matched in skill and beauty in their song, Hermes had “quit” first since his pipes had cracked before Apollo’s lyrestrings broke, and so accorded the victory to Apollo. They inscribed this on a golden tablet and set it out on the bay shore to await the dawn, then they themselves went to rest, having spent their time and energy in such an amazing party. Hermes, seeing that this was his chance, wiped off the name of Apollo from the golden tablet and inscribed his own in its place, as if the spirits there had never even considered his brother for the winner. To add hilarious insult to injury, Hermes made sure his plan was flawless by wandering over the spirits with his wand, giving them deep and luscious sleep, except for the leaders of the nymphs and the fauns, whom he made have a bit more rowdy fun throughout the night.
Hermes returned to Olympos, slick as silk, and on seeing Dawn’s rosy fingertips touching the sky, he awoke his brother Apollo and reminded him (groggy as the bright god was) about their contest from the previous night. Hermes led Apollo back to that distant shore, and they saw that, although no spirit was awake or present to greet them (though Apollo did think he heard some interesting grunts from within the forest), a resplendent gold tablet stood on the store of the bay. Still wiping his eyes from last night’s wine, Apollo walked up to it and, half-expecting to find his own name, stared at it waiting for his eyes to focus. When they did, and after a brief moment’s confusion at seeing the result, he spotted a wide-winged bird above spinning around, and he knew what had happened. The son of Leto spun around fully awake and fully enraged at Hermes, rightly suspecting that this was some trickery of his. Hermes just stood there, mischievously grinning as always, and began his damage control. “Chill, Apollo. Looks like I won this round, but don’t worry, you’ll get the next.”
“What on earth are you saying? Little runt, you little thief of cities and dominion! This was your fault!”
“Yup. For a god of prophecy, you sure catch on late.”
Of course, that final jest made the sun god leap for Hermes’ own throat, fast enough that even Hermes couldn’t dodge out of the way fast enough. After tumbling about and wrestling so furiously that the very sand they had stood upon become firm stone and all the nearby trees were felled from the fallout, Hermes rolled Apollo off him and told him what he had planned.
“Bro, relax. Like I said, looks like this new city is mine, but it won’t be forever. Remember what Zeus said, about you not having a new city until one was taken from you?”
Huffing, Apollo caught his breath and caught the gleam in Hermes’ eye. “I do, as a matter of fact. What of it…?”
“Well, who just took a city from you?”
“…smooth. And what city do I get in return? Do I have to go back to Olympos and do some more scouting? I do have a job to do, you know.”
“Don’t worry about it. This new city I’ve got now? Let me have it for now and make it a place for me. Once I’m done with building it up, I’ll return it to you. A place of my trade in glorious trade for a place of your glory. Just between you and me, eh?”
Apollo heard the words of Hermes, now clear-headed enough to get a handle on Hermes’ occluded speech, and understood the god. Grinning, Apollo nodded and took Hermes’ arm in agreement: Hermes would take the city for now to build it up as a place of commerce and trade, and would eventually give it to Apollo as a place for glory and art. On the groggy awakenings of the local nymphs and fauns (or their coming-to after a long night of even more debauchery than they had anticipated), the spirits learned what had happened to transpire between the gods, and left the creation of the city and its introduction of men to them. For them, this “new city” was no longer in their business, while the men who settled there only ever called it the “new city”, known to the Greeks as Neapolis and to us as Naples, a wealthy port city for trade, summering vacation spot for kings and emperors, tombs of poets, and center of art across the Mediterranean.
Hail to you, Hermes, thief and deceiver, planner and leader in the night! Through underhandedness, you make great works, confusing even those who know the very will of Zeus and the immortal gods! ΙΩ ΕΡΜΗΣ!