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Hermes (Mercury)

The following is excerpted from: Cults, Myths and Legends of Ancient Sicily (Author: Ignazio Caloggero - ISBN: 9788894321913) 

Origins of the Myth

Hermes, identified by the Romans with Mercury, was considered the son of Zeus and Maia. He was often seen as the interpreter of volHermes - Mercurydivine integrity, but above all he was the protector of commerce and theft. He himself, as soon as he was born, had been the author of a clever theft against his brother Apollo. Born in a cave, on Mount Chileans, south of Arcadia, he managed to free himself from the bandages that bound him and went to Thessaly, where his brother Apollo who was a cowherd was. Taking advantage of his brother's momentary absence, he stole part of the animals from him and took them all over Greece to Pilo, where he sacrificed two oxen. Hiding the rest of the animals, he returned to the cave where he was born. At the entrance to the cave he found a turtle, took it, emptied it and, with the intestines of sacrificed oxen, built the lyre. His dexterity had been witnessed by an old man named Batto who told everything to Apollo who went to Mount Chileans to complain to Maia about the robberies of his son. Maia then showed Apollo her baby brother and asked him how she could accuse such a small child of such feats. Apollo asked, at this point, the intervention of Zeus, who, knowing the truth, ordered the child to return the animals. Apollo, meanwhile, had been able to see the lyre and hear the sounds that Hermes had managed to make it emit. Falling in love with the instrument, he asked and obtained from Hermes to exchange it with his oxen.

the hermsHermes, rectangular pillars whose part were dedicated to Ermes along the streets and on the crossroads the herms 2upper was modeled with a bust that represented him, often endowed with very conspicuous virile organs. It is probable, in fact, that the column was in principle a phallic symbol, but its purpose was to indicate the right way to travelers; and in fact, among the various tasks attributed to Hermes, there was also that of being the protector of travelers on the roads.

Hermes was often represented with a large hat, with winged shoes that made him faster than the wind and with the caduceus [1], symbol of his functions as divine herald.

According to Diodorus Siculus (lib. I.16), thanks to Hermes the alphabet was invented; moreover, he was the first to establish the discipline of the fight and taught the Greeks the faculty of expressing their thoughts (hermenia) and for this reason he was given the name of Hermes. Again according to Diodorus, it was Hermes, and not Athena, who discovered the olive tree.

In addition to the lyre, Hermes is also credited with inventing the syringe or pan flute.

"Mercury". Painting by Hendrick Goltzius

"Mercury". Painting by Hendrick Goltzius


"Mercury". Painting by Hendrick Goltzius

Mercury ", in a fresco in Pompeii,


The myth in Sicily

In Sicily he is seen above all as the father of Daphni and his cult is related to that of Demeter and Persephone [2].

The news regarding the cult of Hermes are few: it is spoken of in the centers of AkrayAgrigento, Palermo, Enna, Menai [3] and Alunzio [4].

 A Morgantina the cult of Hermes was probably connected to those of Gaea and Pluto. The three deities, in fact, were venerated in the same sanctuary whose remains are still visible to the east of the ancient theater. The attribution of the three divinities to the sanctuary is justified by the discovery of some lead sheets on which their names are reported.

The cult of Hermes was also present in SIRACUSA, where in his honor, the Hermèe, festivals during which competitions and wrestling contests were held between children. Hermes, in fact, was considered the guardian and protector of youth and such festivals took place in many Greek cities.

The existence of the cult a Tindari [5] would be testified by Cicero who narrates that the governor Verre stole a statue of Mercury from the city. After the conquest of Carthage, Scipio Publio donated a statue of Mercury to the town of Tindari but Verre asked that it be removed and delivered to him: the senate of the city, however, opposed it. After several attempts, Verre summoned Sopatro, the president of the local senate, to Syracuse, and upon yet another refusal to hand over the statue, he reacted by making him strip naked and having him tied to a statue in the public square. Only when the senate of Tindari conceded to remove the statue of Mercury, Verre freed poor Sopatro, who had almost died of frostbite.

Religious syncretism

With the Christian religion, the cult of S. Giuliano protector of travelers and pilgrims, it seems to have taken the place of that of Hermes, the pagan god protector of travelers. An ancient Sicilian proverb says:

 yes you junciri sanu

Nun ti scurdari lu Patrinnostru in S. Giulianu.

 (If you want to arrive healthy, don't forget the Paternostro di S. Giuliano).

 The paternostro consists of a prayer addressed to St. Julian by those who are about to face a journey that may present dangers [6].

[1] The caduceus was a club or club used by heralds and ambassadors in times of war. In mythology it was the rod surmounted by two small wings, with two snake figures entwined to form an arch with the highest part of the body. The caduceus later became the emblem of pharmacists.

[2] Ciaceri Emanuele: Cults and Myths of Ancient Sicily. p.181.

[3] Also known as Menaion, probably corresponding to the current Mineo.

[4] Alunzio, also known by the name of Haluntium, was probably of Sican origin; it must not have been very far from Capo D'orlando, near the present town of San Marco di Alunzio.

[5] The city of Tindari stood on the north-western coast of the island about 60 km from Messina, on a promontory 230 meters high.

[6] Giuseppe Pitrè: Sicilian folk shows and festivals. p.310.


Card insertion: Ignazio Caloggero

Photo: web, Ignazio Caloggero

Information contributions: Ignazio Caloggero, Region of Sicily

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